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A Light Against The Darkness

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“Brother! Brother, help me!”

A tiny voice, nearly subsumed in the roar of a dying city. Fires rage out of control, their flames fed by exploding munitions, the embers of ruined builds and the blast of battle. Kasr Drak is dying. The archenemy are pounding away at the city with their guns, intent on bringing the city to dust, while the defenders fight back with everything they have to buy just that one more second, so the civilians can escape to safety.

“Brother! Please!” The young girl cries out as she reaches out with her hand, her violet eyes shining with tears, even as they reflect the wicked flames around her. Her leg is stuck fast by a piece of masonry, likely breaking the limb, while above her, the roof threatens to collapse with each round of artillery fire.

He tries to reach her. He reaches into the building as far as he can. His flak armour protects his torso and back against the snicks and cuts of the broken masonry around him, although his forearm and hand are still bleeding where he has cut himself on glass, rock and metal. Sweat pours down his forehead and into his eyes, mixing with the blood from the cut on his head.

“Hold on, Arie!” He calls out as he tries to dig in deeper. Just a foot. An inch. A centimetre, even. Emperor, just let him get an inch! “I’ve almost got you!”

The rumbling increases in pitch and volume as more shells are lobbed into the city, the teeth-shaking quake of a building toppling sending a rumble through the ground.

He’s closer than he was, but it’s not enough. Him on Earth, blessed Father of Mankind, give him strength!

The rumble is persistent now, dust and flakes falling around the pair like rain. For a moment, he hesitates, thinking that the artillery barrage has stepped up to become drumfire. He looks around in instinctual fear, hoping to see or maybe even hear the round that will kill them.

He sees something worse emerging through the ruins of one of the buildings. Festooned in barbs and spikes, adorned with hooks and rotten cadavers and covered in blasphemous symbols daubed in blood or worked into the very metal, the tank crushes rocrete and cement under its metal tread. A blasphemous work of metalcraft, a fallen effigy to the darkest depths of humanities depravity. A Predator of the Legions of Chaos.

Panic and dread fills his soul as he turns to the girl.

“Arie! I’ve almost got you, just hang on!” He cries out in panic as he frantically, desperately tries to dig away at the rubble and soil blocking his path. “I’ve almost got you.”

The tank moves closer. The driver has either seen them and wishes to crush them, or they are unseen and just in the way. The cracking tread of doom fills the air.

The ruin shakes, jolting the masonry heavily, pushing it further against her leg. The girl screams in pain.

“Brother! Please! It hurts so much.”

Just a bit more! He’s almost there. He moves a stone the size of his head out of the way, letting him force his shoulder through the gap in the ruin, his fingers just inches away from her hands. Blood trickles down to the dusty floor in a slow spill.

“Arie!” He cries out in elation, even as the creaking sound of doom inches closer towards him. “I’ve got you!”

“Brother!” She cries out in response, her face alight in joy.

A shell lands close by. Not close enough to injure him, but close enough to shower him in dust and dirt. Close enough to make the ruined building shake to its very foundations. Close enough to dislodge another piece of masonry above the girl.

He screams as though that would stop the fact. He screams as if it would instantly pull his sister towards him, freeing her from her prison. He screams, as the last sight he sees of her is wide-eyed joy turning to wide-eyed horror at what she sees looming behind him.

“ARIE!” Tychos screams, bolting upright from his bed. His eyes are open in fear and his body is dripping sweat, making the vest and light trousers he has as nightwear stick to his body. The scar on his forehead throbs slightly with pain, making him grimace, moaning as he doubles over to try and quench the pain.

“The dream again?” A lazy voice asks to his side.

Turning, he looks at the bunk next to him. From underneath a pale grey blanket, a woman’s face, angular and tanned, topped with close-cropped black hair looks at him in the zombie-like stare of someone who’s not had enough sleep.

“Yeah.” Tychos replies, nodding his head forlornly. “It… it keeps getting worse. But thank the Emperor I don’t see her die. It’s just that… Terra-damned tank. Always the tank…”

Pushing herself up in her bunk, Specialist Sophia turns to look at Tychos properly. Like him, she too is wearing a simple vest as nightwear, revealing the subtly defined muscles of her arms, along with the tattoos of her various tours of duty and her scars. She looks at Tychos sadly.

“You want to talk about it?” She asks with genuine concern, earning a shake of the head from the man in the bunk next to her.

“No, it’s all right.” Tychos replies, rubbing at his eyes with his hands, wanting to wipe away the tears from view, although the low light of the dormitory wouldn’t reveal much. “I think I’m gonna see the medicae.”

“Oh, no, come on.” The specialist trooper says in quiet annoyance, trying her best to keep her voice low to avoid waking the others around them. “You’ve already had to use sleeping aids twice this trip. Three times is enough. And remember what happened when you managed to get your hands on that amasec?”

“Will you two shut up?” An annoyed groan comes out from beneath Tychos’ bed, making both people turn to look down. Underneath his blanket, Trooper Reinhardt is a beast of a man: tall and muscular, he’s a man who can easily lug a heavy bolter around like Tychos could a lasgun. His boxer’s face, with broke nose and cauliflower ears, is currently contorted in an annoyed grimace as he tries his best to shut out the noise from above him. “Sophia, if the man wants to be able to fall asleep, let him. Then at least he’ll shut the frak up.”

Huffing from her nose, Sophia looks at Reinhardt for a moment before turning to look at Tychos, a resigned look on her face. “Fine. Just watch out for the commissars.”

Nodding his head, Tychos smiled wanly. “Wouldn’t be the first time. Try and get some sleep guys.”

“Easy for you to say.” Reinhardt grumbles out, as he rolls in his bed, trying to wrap himself in his blanket, while Sophia says nothing, simply turning to face away from Tychos.

Moving as quietly as possible, Tychos descends the ladder bolted to the side of bunk bed, one of the many that line the room. He hisses slightly as his bare feet touch the cold plasteel flooring, earning a low rumble of a warning from Reinhardt, before he manages to get his boots onto his feet. Deciding to at least have some semblance of professionalism in his post-dream, sleep-deprived state, the man quickly dons his jacket, a uniform khaki colour, with a pewter double-headed eagle, its wings outstretched on the left breast, over his heart. The device is copied on both his arms on his biceps while above them is another device wrought in pewter: a gate made from three simple blocks with a single skull in the centre. The emblem of the Cadian Gate.

A gate now sundered wide open.

The man is Tychos Litten, trooper of Second Squad, 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 598th Cadian Infantry regiment. He, and the other two-hundred souls of his company that make up the two-thousand-odd strength of the regiment he calls home are sequestered in one of several dormitories on the troop ship, The Sublime Vengeance, en route to the Ilyusian system, on the orders of the Lord Commander of the Imperium, the reborn Primarch, Roboute Gulliman.

But it is far from a quiet journey. As he walks down the aisles of bunks towards the exits, he hears sounds of suffering; muffled sobs, cries of anguish both loud and quiet, apologies to the deceased or lamentations to the Emperor for souls departed, or simple weeping.

They are all, man and women, Cadian Shock Troops. Men and women born on the very edge of the Ocularis Terribus, the Eye of Terror, born in the Cadian Gate. They are all men and women who are known throughout the width and breadth of the Imperium of Man as one of the most steadfast and honoured regiments in the numberless ranks of the Astra Militarum, the Imperial Guard. They are famed for wills of iron and hearts of steel, the bravest of the brave and the most courageous of troopers.

But courage and bravery, like iron and steel, can be corroded and tarnished.

The death of your home world will do that.

Tychos, Sophia, Reinhardt, all the other troopers of the 598th are now orphans. One segment of the three-million souls that were safely evacuated from the doomed planet. Three-million, out of eight hundred and fifty million. Many more Cadian regiments were out of system, waging the Emperor’s wars in systems and on planets far from their home, meaning that the number of survivors had to be higher than three-million… but what did that matter when your home, the birthplace of your people was destroyed?

Slipping as quietly the dormitory bulkhead as possible, Tychos makes a move to go towards the medicae.

“Out of bunk, Trooper Litten?” A cold voice, as cold as ice, from behind Tychos makes him pause.

“Commissar Anton. Good evening, sir.” The man says as professionally and smoothly as he can in the compromising situation of being out of bunk and trespassing outside of the assigned dormitory past regulated hours.

Turning to face him, Tychos supresses a shudder as he comes to face with Commissar Anton Schreiber. An aristocratic face almost carved from stone, with high cheek bones and a sharp nose under a high forehead, the violet eyes of a Cadian shining from underneath the perfectly starched bill of his hat, the pale-skinned man looks an absolutely terror in the black uniform of his office. Until his icy face melts into something sorrowful.

“The dream again, Tychos?” Anton asks, earning a simple nod from the trooper in front of him. “Gulliman’s blood, this is getting worse. Why are you out of quarters?”

“I was heading to the medicae to try and get some sleeping aids and-”

“Again?” The commissar asks in horrified shock, his voice stern even as he tries to keep it from echoing in the spacious hallway. “Tychos, this is the second time I’ve caught you and, against my better judgement, I have let you get your hands on those pills.”

Stepping forward, Anton places a hand on Tychos’ shoulder, giving him a comforting squeeze as he continues speaking.

“Tychos, I consider you as close to a friend as our ranks permit, but I cannot allow you to do this.”

The commissar is right. Despite their ranks, Anton and Tychos are friends, of a sort. Introduced to the other in the ranks of the Whiteshields, the pair formed… something of a friendship. Tychos’ low-birth in the urban sprawl of Kasr Drak earned him a quick wit, which was matched by Anton’s Kasr Karth spire-born education, meaning the pair could easily outwit the less intelligent or slow witted members of the regiment who sought to take advantage of their fellow soldiers.

It wasn’t a friendship in as literal a sense, but it was companionship. Which meant a lot in the cold dark void.

“But…” Tychos began, feeling sadness well up in his throat again. “I can’t… I can’t see it again. I don’t want to see her die. Not again.”

For a moment, Commissar Anton just looks Tychos in the eye, gauging his words and motives before, with a sigh, he relents. Patting the trooper on the shoulder, the political officer reaches into one of his jackets inner pockets and withdraws a simple paper notepad and graphite pencil.

“I don’t like doing this, but I’ll do it. Just this once. No more.” Anton says as he begins scribbling on the sheet. “This chit will let you draw two allotments of sleeping aids. No more than two. Understood?”

Swallowing what was building his throat, Tychos nods his head. “Yes. Thank you.”

The sound of a paper being ripped from the pad fills the immediate space between the two Cadians before Anton hands him the chit, which Tychos takes carefully.

“I don’t know what I can say to try and help you, but… I don’t think taking drugs is what will help you.” Anton says softly, the action completely at odds with his bombastic rank. “Maybe… maybe it’s something you have to leave to time to help you with.”

Tychos nods his head in understanding.

“Maybe it’s something worth praying on.” Anton says, a little more warmly than before. “We have four more rotations until we reach our destination, maybe you’ll be able to get some time in the chapel.”

Again, Tychos nods his head in understanding, although he’s not overly sure that prayer will help him. He’s prayed enough times since the Fall that he’s sure the Emperor is getting sick of hearing him.

“I’ll give it a shot.” The trooper responds, earning a small but warm smile from the commissar. “Again, thank you, Anton. Have a good night.”

Anton nods his head. “You’re welcome, Tychos. Emperor watch over you.”

“And may He watch over you, Anton.” Tychos replies as the commissar turns around and walks back to wherever he was bunked for the journey, tucking the chit into one of his breast pockets.

Prayer. Faith. Out of the myriads of cultures that exist in the numberless systems of the Imperium, faith in Him on Earth, the God-Emperor of Mankind, was the only constant variable. He was a rock in times of trouble, a byword for loyalty and humanity itself.

A rock for a troubled soul.

But, like a rock, He gave no reply. Just… took the prayer given to him, the offerings, and said nothing.

Tychos isn’t a heretic, not by any stretch. Heretics were quickly weeded out of the regiments after they left Cadia and Tychos had taken his part in the pogroms with zeal stoked by his own rage at the loss of his home world. But… praying just didn’t feel like it was giving him the answers he needed, for why this dream was plaguing him.

Walking down the corridor of the ship towards the area that he knows is the medicae, Tychos passes a stain-glass window. Looking up at the multicoloured, glass mosaic, he pauses at the image. Like many on the ship, it’s an image, but not one of the Emperor, which takes the trooper by surprise. It’s of a demi-god, a man like but also unlike the Emperor, resplendent in beautifully crafted, baroque golden armour, a wicked looking but also gorgeous chainsword clasped in his hands. Above him are thunderbolts, eagles in flight alongside angels, while at his feet is a towering and menacing fortress wall.

Letting his eyes trace down the masterwork of glass, Tychos gazes on the name of the being rendered in gold mosaic, written in sheer black onyx: “Rogal Dorn, Praetorian of Terra”.

A glorious name, to be seen by someone like Tychos.

Looking up, the Cadian looks at his reflection in the window, backlit by the low light in the corridor and lit by the active Gellar Field. Compared to romantically noble features of the Primarch, he is as basic as a Cadian can get: dusky skinned, a round chin, flecked with stubble, leading up to a sharp cheeked face and a low forehead. Black hair cut short in the regulation cut did nothing to hide the jagged scar on his forehead, while beneath those, his eyes, the stereotypical violet of the Cadian people sat lustreless and dull.

Tychos lets out a sigh.

“Before the greatest mountain, the single pebble doubts his worth, even though both will wash away with the tide of time.”

The voice, a low grumble almost like a Leman Russ’ engine, makes the Cadian jump and wheel around to see who is behind him.

Turning around brings him face to face with a pillar of a torso enclosed in a jet-black cassock, a pair of pendants level with his eyes: a golden Aquila sitting next to the roaring head of a dracon, exquisitely and simply made from silver.

“My-my Lord!” Tychos calls out in shock as he takes a step backwards and drops into a kneel, bowing his head in respect of the being in front of him.

The act earns a low rumble, which Tychos quickly realizes is a chuckle.

“Rise, Guardsman. I will not admonish a man for reflecting on the image of the blessed Primarch.”

Hesitantly, almost like looking at the speaker will instantly turn him into stone, Tychos raises his head to look at the being in front of him, because the speaker is definitely not a human.

Tree-trunks for arms and legs and a torso as thick around as a Demolisher cannon, combined with muscles that are hidden by the cassock but undoubtedly had to exist to support a being of roughly eight-feet in height, even outside of his power armour, the Astartes is a menacing figure. Even if he has a benevolent smile on his face, the gigantism renders it something… not realistic. Like something a plasterer would try and affix to a broken statue in a hurry. Combined with the deep ebony skin, crossed with a myriad of scars and a nose that has been broken and rebroken countless times, and the piercing green eyes, the Space Marine sends a chill through Tychos’ spine, even though he has seen one before and he knows that this is one the 598th’s saviours.

“Although,” The Astarte continues in contemplation, putting a massive hand to his chin. “I am afraid that I must enquire as to why you are outside of your dormitory during the sleep cycle. Well, Guardsman?”

Tychos stammers. “A-apologies, my lord. I… I-I’ve been having dreams… nightmares, and I’ve been unable to sleep.” Remembering the chit, he fumbles with his breast pocket. “I-I have a chit, from Commissar Anton, of the Cadian 598th, my regiment, to let me go to the medicae for some sleeping aids. Look.”

Clumsily handing the paper to the Astartes, Tychos watches as the giant warrior scrutinizes the note for any sign of it being a forgery. ‘A suspicious mind is a healthy mind’ is one of the mainstay catechisms of the Imperium, and definitely so of the Emperor’s Angels of Death.

“Alright,” The Astartes responds in a tone that shows he is happy at what he has read. “Although, I must say: I fear that using sleep aids to combat these dreams will do little in the long-term to help you. Perhaps I may be of assistance to you.”

Despite himself, Tychos chuckles slightly. “You… you want to hear what’s wrong with me? My lord, I don’t think that-”

“Do not presume to tell one of the Emperor’s Finest what to do, guardsman.” The warrior says in a stern voice that sends a shiver down Tychos’ spine, but his voice softens again to a cordial tone as he continues. “I am an Astartes, a warrior of the Emperor. But I am also a Reclusiarch; a healer of the spirit and faith. So yes, I do want to hear what troubles you. Come, follow me, Guardsman Tychos.”

Motioning in a direction down the corridor, the Astartes turns and begins walking, forcing Tychos to jog to catch up with him.

Again, the Reclusiarch speaks. “Also, I would like you stop calling me ‘my lord’. I do not relish such a title. Too grandiose for one such as myself. You may refer to me as either Reclusiarch or Brother Akios.”

“Understood, my- Brother Akios.” Tychos catches himself, although it seems that his companion has no qualm with the cockup.

Tychos knows who this being is (to call him a person seems so wrong); Reclusiarch Akios, a high-ranking Astartes officer in the Steel Drakes chapter attached to the 598th’s portion of the Indomitus Crusade. Even if the trip so far has been very uneventful, with only a few minor skirmishes against space-borne pirates, the Steel Drakes have kept to themselves. He’s seen their vehicles and their support staff in the hangar of the Sublime Vengeance, even seen them in their armour when they have deigned a situation lethal enough to warrant their aid, but this is the first time he’s seen one of the warriors proper. And it is every bit as unnerving as he imagined.

Although at least they’re a lot less terrible than the Traitor Astartes.

Walking in comparative silence, the only sound being the tramp of Tychos’ steel-shod boots and the surprisingly soft-hush of Brother Akios’ sandals, the man wonders where he is being led, until a new sound reaches his ears as they near their destination. A plaintive, low, singing that, despite the coolness of the night cycle and the steel of the ships interior, warms Tychos in a way he didn’t think possible.

It was a plainsong, low but joyous in its worship of the God Emperor, each note filling the air as Tychos and Brother Akios reach the door to the ship’s chapel. The doors are taller than the Reclusiarch by twice his height and made from burnished brass and gold in a relief of the Emperor Ascendant, his gigantic, eagle-like wings stretched out above him, a flaming sword held high in his hands, pointing to the heavens.

Taking a step to the door, Brother Akios rests a large hand onto the surface and pushes, easily opening the chapel door enough to let both people enter before he turns to look at Tychos.

“In here, Guardsman Tychos. Here, we shall have our talk.”

Confusion and trepidation flare up in the Cadians mind. “How… how do you know my name?”

“It was written on the chit.” The Astartes responds simply, like it is the simplest thing in the universe. Which it undoubtedly was, making Tychos feel incredibly foolish.

Not saying anything else, Tychos steps through the open portal and into the chapel. As large as the dormitory, it has three formations of pews ranging from the back of the room by the door to the altar at the front, which made from a simple pedestal for a book while a giant Imperial Aquila hangs above it from the ceiling. The roof, high enough to easily fit two Leman Russ’ stacked on top of each other, is supported by eight columns, made from white marble, each gilded on the tops by four double-headed eagles to support the roof, from the mouths of which flows the low plainsong.

Silently, Brother Akios motions to a seat nearer the door after closing it, letting Tychos sit first before he himself sits down. The pew protests slightly under his enhanced weight but it holds.

“I’m… I’m not really sure where I can begin, Reclusiarch.” Tychos admits, rubbing his hands against his legs fretfully. “This is just… all so strange to me.”

“Do not fret on this.” Akios says calmly in an experienced tone. “Just… retell your dream to me.”

Closing his eyes, Tychos breathes in before letting out a low breath… and he tells his tale.

He tells of how the 598th had been stationed in Kasr Drak with both Whiteshield companies and other blooded regiments of their home-world, of how they had mustered out in force; infantry squads, heavy weapon teams, tanks, artillery, everything they had, when the first hint of the enemy was hinted at coming to the planet. He tells of how the Archenemy hit Kasr Drak with all their fire and fury; of how the sky burned with the blazing trails of landing craft and drop pods. Of how the ranks of the enemy; hordes of mutants and cultists, twisted machines and brutal monsters, marched into their guns under their horrendous masters, the Traitor Astartes, their heavy weapons hammering away at the Imperial lines.

Oh, but they fought back. Cadians always fought back. Lasguns, heavy bolters, autocannons, missiles, grenades, mortars, earthshakers, they fought back. They punished the heretics and the traitors for every inch, every street. Every corner hid a squad with a flamer or meltagun, every room a man with a bayonet. Leman Russ’ smashed through buildings, their guns blazing as they smashed through columns of enemy infantry, while Basilisks broke the very sky above their heads as their rounds hit with the fury of the God-Emperor himself.

But it mattered so little.

No matter how many times the traitors were blasted apart into dust, they kept coming. And then the Traitor Astartes brought up their own heavy guns; ruinous Predators, Vindicators and Defilers grinding through the smoke of battle and into the Cadian lines. By this point, the focus of the Imperial defence had shifted from ‘keep the enemy out of Kasr Drak’ to ‘get as many civilians out as possible’. So that’s what the Guardsmen did, what they always did: they held the line. Every minute bought in their own blood was a minute extra to get the civilians out. Tychos was sure that for every Cadian killed, they killed ten of the enemy.

But against such numbers, against such overwhelming hatred and rage, their positions were untenable. Creed wasn’t around to help them, nor were any Astartes, so in the end, the line broke. Not in a pell-mell rout but in an ordered, staggered retreat; each company, each platoon pulling back while the others gave cover, tanks trundling backwards as they fired back at the encroaching enemy.

It was during his company’s retreat that Tychos had gotten separated by an attack of mutated Ogryns, forcing him down a side-street, where he found Arie, his younger sister, trapped in the rubble of their home.

“I thought she’d managed to get out.” Tychos says heavily, breathing in strongly through his nose as he tries to steady himself. “I thought… I thought that mother had gotten them both out. But their hab-block been hit by a barrage of missiles and she’d become trapped. Mother was dead, so I tried my hardest to get her out.”

He tells Brother Akios all of what happened: how he tried to dig her out of the ruins of their home, digging with all his might at the rubble and dirt in his way, prayers to the Emperor on his lips as he dug and dug. How the Chaos Predator burst through a nearby building and seemed intent on crushing both of them, about how the artillery barrage smashes home around them, about how…

Tychos can’t bring himself to finish the sentence, sobs of regret and sorrow replacing his words as tears fall from his eyes. Realising what’s he doing, he hastily beings to wipe his eyes with his sleeve before he turns to look at the Reclusiarch sitting next to him, only to see the giant warrior-priest sitting, his arms crossed other his expansive chest while his eyes are closed.

Blinking in confusion, Tychos thinks to himself ‘… I’m probably the only person in the universe to bore an Astartes to sleep.’

A thoughtful sigh filters from Akios’ mouth, making the Cadian jump slightly as the Reclusiarch opens his eyes slowly, a contemplative look in the green pools.

“I can see why that would bother you. Because it is a sorrow I know well, Guardsman Tychos.” Akios says mournfully. “Many times through my career, I have had brothers express the same feelings that you are suffering from.”

The giant slowly turns his head to look at Tychos.

“You are suffering from guilt for your failing to rescue your sister, which is made worse by the loss of your planet.” Akios says simply. “I know this, for I have seen it manifest in various ways among the neophytes and youngblood battle-brothers who have recently suffered a loss. While they do not… have dreams, such as yourself, they all suffer from the same feelings as you do: regret, self-loathing and shame.”

Reaching out, the Reclusiarch places one of his large onto Tychos’ left shoulder, the length of his fingers enough for him to just touch the Guardsman’s other shoulder blade.

“I know that as a human, you are fallible, and as such you will want to drown these sorrows in… in sleeping aids. But you must not submit. Have you had these dreams more recently since we have been in Warp transit or is it a regular occurrence?”

“… since we’ve been in Warp transit, Reclusiarch.” Tychos admits, not sure where the question is leading.

Almost knowingly, Akios nods his head lightly. “Then my suspicion is correct. Guardsman Tychos, the Warp seeks to try and corrupt a person’s mind, making them more susceptible to their influence. Awake, it is easier to repel them, but when you are asleep… well, that goes some way to explain your dreams.”

For a few seconds, Tychos just blinks his eyes in confusion as he takes in the information before it hits him. He has always been told about the vagaries the Warp could instil on the unprepared and unprotected mind, and he, like all other Cadians, know the rites and prayers to protect their minds against the Warp, formerly being so close to the Great Eye. In his grief at the dual loss of his family and his planet, he has just forgotten the catechisms and rites.

“An open mind is like a fortress with its gate unbarred and unguarded.” He intones, earning a nod from Akios.

“Correct.” The Reclusiarch says in agreement. “Forget the sleeping aids, they will do you no good. Are you aware of Saint Theoscarma’s Catechism of Protection Against The Daemon?”

“Umm… no.” Tychos admits shyly, earning a low rumble of annoyance from Akios.

“Shame. I think it would help you better in your situation. That aside, repeat Saint Sebastian Thor’s Benediction of Deliverance three times before you go to sleep, and light some incense before you sleep. I don’t think our hosts would begrudge you for taking one stick for spiritual purposes.”

Tychos can’t help but smile at the idea coming from such a giant warrior-priest.

“Make sure you repeat this every time you go to sleep on this ship, and also when you leave for campaign as well. Remember: focus. Perform every rite of maintenance for your wargear and every benediction to the Emperor. These dreams will pass, as all things do. But only if you focus the mind.”

Taking his hand off Tychos’ shoulder, Akios stands up to his full height from the pew, his gaze looking down on the guardsman next to him.

“I cannot guarantee that the dreams will not persist, but I do think that they will diminish in regularity.”

“Heh. That will be enough, Reclusiarch.” Tychos says with a smile, thankful for the help.

He opens his mouth to speak… before a jolt shakes the entire ship for a couple of seconds, suddenly stopping as soon as it starts, leaving both in a worry as the plainsong cuts out, leaving them both in silence.

Both warriors look around in worry and preparation. A jolt enough to shake the ship could have only come from one of two locations, neither of them good; either the engine deck had suffered a serious malfunction, or the Gellar Field had been compromised. Either way, both meant catastrophe in Warp transit.

“What just happened?” Tychos asks in confusion and worry, spinning around as he expects for daemons to begin pouring out every nook and cranny of the chapel.

Silently, Akios stares up at the eagles adorned to the columns. While they function as speakers for plainsong and canticles of the faithful, in the event of breach in the Gellar Field, the speakers would broadcast warnings to the crew at the same time as they would broadcast special vocal wards to stave off the daemonic presence.

At the moment, they are silent, which sets Akios on edge.

Suddenly, the speakers begin broadcasting the same plainsong as before, picking up where the song left off at the interruption.

“That is… peculiar.” The Reclusiarch grumbles out, a suspicious look on his face. Which quickly vanishes when he turns to look at Tychos. “Forgive me, Guardsman Tychos, but I must go see what the cause of this was. Return to your dormitory and your fellows. And remember what I instructed you to do.”

Without saying another word, Brother Akios quickly strides out of the room, pushing open both doors with his powerful arms as he leaves Tychos alone in the chapel, the plainsong coming from the speakers his only source of comfort.

Deciding on what he should do in a snap, Tychos makes his way into the aisle before he jogs down to the nave. Quickly, he snatches up a stick of incense from the altar before he jogs back to the door. Casting an uneasy glance around, he sees that it’s all clear, so he makes a run to the dormitory.

It’s one thing to be caught in a possible Gellar shield failure. But it’s another to not follow a task given to you by an Adeptus Astartes Reclusiarch.


 

Striding down the corridor of the Sublime Vengeance, Brother Akios, moves with the gait of a man used to giving comfort and words of encouragement in times of trial: easy but purposeful. Passing by various voidsmen and ratings, he gives out words of faith, telling them to remain strong and remain where they are for those that are armed and to see shelter to those who are not.

The pace of an Astartes is one that can easily outpace a man, so it does not take him long to reach the elevator that leads to the bridge. Outside of the transportation, he is met by a squad of five armed men; four armsmen lead by the sergeant-at-arms of the vessel. All are dressed in pressurised suits of carapace armour that render the armsmens faces invisible behind visored helmets, while the sergeant-at-arms has his drawn up to allow him to see eye to eye with the Reclusiarch.

“Status report, sergeant-at-arms.” Akios commands in a low voice as he draws in front of the squad, prompting the five men to bow their heads in respect.

The sergeant-at-arms, a grizzled veteran of void combat, lifts his head as he speaks. “My lord Astartes. Commodore Valask is on the bridge with her senior staff. They await your arrival.”

“Very good.”

Not saying another word, the sergeant-at-arms steps aside, letting Akios past. The Astartes nods his head in acknowledgement as he walks past the armoured mortals and into the elevator. As he turns to press the button for the bridge, he sees the five crewmen looking at him expectantly, even if four of them have their faces covered.

“Look to the Emperor and to your wargear,” he says with practised ease. “For he is your rock in these times of trial. Your faith is a shield for your soul, while your armour is a shield for your body. Do not neglect one for the other, and you shall prevail.”

Buoyed by the Reclusiarch’s words, the Imperial Navy troopers stand just that bit taller as they turn back to guarding the hall, the elevator doors closing behind them as Akios is borne up to the command deck.

The doors open with a ding and the warrior-priest steps out in the maelstrom of activity that was on the bridge. Naval officers in the emerald green and white uniform of the Segmentum Pacificus run back and forth between stations, consulting various charts and graphs, while hardwired servitors slave away at their stations, blind and deaf to the situation around them. In the middle of the storm of disorder is a single person with some semblance of calm.

“Commodore Valask.” Akios states in a firm voice, which in the space of the bridge of the Sublime Vengeance, might as well have been a bolter shot. In an instant, all human eyes turn to look at the Astartes as they quiet down, even some former-human eyes joining to look at the distraction. No one says a word.

“Reclusiarch Akios.” Commodore Valask says in an equally firm voice of her own, her own tinted with joy at the arrival of the warrior-priest, as she stands on the command dais of the bridge. “Thank the Emperor you’re here. Join us, please.”

The staff on the bridge clear a path, letting Akios move towards the raised dais of the commodore’s station, before promptly remembering that they each have a task that needs to be seen to.  Reaching the dais, Akios is greeted by the sight of Commodore Valask looking intently at a holographic display of the Sublime Vengeance, the pic spinning lazily on its axis.

To a human, the commodore is a tall woman, but to a gene-enhanced post-human warrior such as Akios, the top of her head barely reaches the top of his ribcage. Her skin, lined with age but tinged with the subtlest of rejuvenant treatment afforded to her station, is the colour of burnt umber, with a sharp chin and high cheekbones, a small but pointed nose, would make her beautiful if the iron and brass mechanisms of augmetics weren’t replacing her left eye and ear, the scarring from an ork stub round in her early captaincy. Her other eye is untouched, a hazel sphere. Valask’s hair, a silver waterfall, is held high in a high and multi-tied topknot that adds to her height. The left breast of her uniform is covered in ribbons and medals, showing the many victories and tours she has undertaken in her years of service, while gold epaulettes sit on her shoulders accompanied by a deep red cloak lined with white fur.

Currently, she is unarmed, which strikes Akios as odd in the situation.

“Commodore Valask,” Akios greets the woman with a bow as per her rank, as he comes to stand beside the holographic display. “What is the situation?”

For a few seconds, the commodore just stares that the pict of her own ship. Suddenly, she reaches forward and cancels the screen, switching the display off, before she leans forward to rest her knuckles against the glass surface.

“I…,” She begins. “Have no bloody idea.”

The admission, and the use of such informal language in front of him, takes Akios by surprise, his eyebrows raising in shock as he looks at the woman. Sensing his gaze on her, Commodore Valask turns to look at the Astartes before, sighing, she turns back to look at the display.

“The ship is intact. There no hull breaches reported, no loss of structural integrity. The engines are running at full-capacity, our munition stores are fine. There is no fault in the ship.”

“And what of the Gellar Fields?”

“If the Gellar Fields are down in any way, we would definitely know about it, Reclusiarch.” Valask responds with the surety of a woman who knows her vessel well. “You know that as much as I do.”

Akios nods his head in response. He knows full well the dangers the denizens of the Empyrean pose to the mortal realm if the Gellar Field of a ship fails during Warp transit. It is a danger that he has been taught to prepare for, physically and spiritually, and one that he been trained to fight, both physically and spiritually.

“So what has happened?” He asks.

Not answering, Commodore Valask turns away from the holographic display to an area behind the dais. An area thick with the smell of burning incense and decay. An area screened off by a delicate fabric and wood screen displaying varied images of the Emperor and saints, along with numerous wards and words of power and protection, on both sides. A simple but potent protection against the powers of the Warp at the command of the ship’s sole means of guidance through the Empyrean.

“Navigator Le’Vel?” Valask asks with a stern voice. “What can you tell us?”

A bubbling, snorting sound comes from behind the screen, like the sound of a person clearing a throat clogged with thick fluid, before a man’s voice, weak with strength but unnaturally clear responds.

“… We… are so far.”

The answer is to the liking of neither Akios or Valask.

“What do you mean, Navigator?” The Reclusiarch asks testily, a hand reaching behind him to the combat knife he has concealed in the back of his cassock, as he sees a form behind the screen shift position slightly.

“... The light of the Astronomican… is so far from my sight. It is a… pinprick… in the darkness.” The Navigator answers, that same weak but clear voice. “I am sailing blind.”

The answer from the Navigator unnerves Akios. He does not fear the answer. Fear is not something that he is able to feel, but he cannot fathom this answer to any semblance of sense.

“Contact the Ferro Cordis immediately.” The Reclusiarch commands immediately, turning to address one of the bridges technicians as he removes his hand from his knife. “I must see if they have had the same problems we have had.”

“Or even if we can still contact the fleet at all.” Valask adds as she turns away from the Navigator.

It takes a few seconds for the order to be carried out, the peculiarities and wrongness of the Warp making ship-to-ship contact difficult during transit. But soon, the order is completed, and the message is sent.

The holographic display flares into life and an image is displayed. It is the image of a figure cut from the same cloth as Brother Akios. But where he was dressed in the simple fabric cassock, this one, rendered in simple green lines and dots of light, was dressed in the panoply of war of an Astartes captain. Formidable and expansive adamantium plates joining flowing curved ceramite, an ascendant Aquila, wings outstretched, emblazoned on the cuirass, while various tokens and glyphs hang from a pair of chains over the Aquila. The left pauldron is marked with the symbol of their shared home: the snarling head of a dracon, rendered in green light instead of its regular silver. The head of the speaker was the same proportions as Akios’ own, but with a more well cared for nose, coupled with thick eyebrows, and a trio of metallic studs underneath his high and noble brow.

“Brother-Captain Sharas.” Akios states, bowing his head in respect to the captain of the Steel Drakes Fourth Company, the Master of the Fleet, and commander of the Ferro Cordis. Commodore Valask copies the gesture

Sharas bows his own head, the accoutrements following the gesture. “Brother-Reclusiarch. It is fortunate that you contacted us when you did. I was about to make contact myself. I think I can imagine the reason for your message.”

“So this affected the whole fleet then?” The commodore asks in shock, drawing a nod from Sharas.

“It has, Commodore Valask.”

“Have the Librarians been able to ascertain what has happened?” Akios asks, which draws a shake of the head from the Fourth Captain.

“Not yet, Honoured Brother. And that has them… unnerved. The Navigator onboard, and the ones onboard the vessels we have been able to contact have all the described the same phenomenon; the Light of the Astronomican is-”

“A pinprick.” Akios interrupts, knowing full well that direction this conversation is heading. “This is troubling.”

Brother-Captain Sharas nods his head, unperturbed at the interruption. “Indeed, Honoured Brother. I am suggesting that… wait one moment.” The holographic display of the warrior looks off to the side as he confers with an individual unseen and unheard to Akios and Valask. The captain nods his head several times before he turns to face Akios. “The Chapter Master is ordering all vessels to drop out of Warp and into Realspace. He has ordered a meeting to be held onboard the Ferro Cordis of all senior officers and adepts, Astartes, Navy, Militarum and Mechanicus.”

“It will be done, My Lord.” Commodore Valask replies with another bow of her head.

“I shall see to it personally, Brother-Captain.” Akios responds.

“I shall leave you to it then.” Sharas says in response. “The Emperor guide you.”

The pair of officers make the sign of the Aquila on their hearts as the holographic display winks out.

Valask sucks in a lungful of air before she gives the order. “All hands; prepare for translation into Realspace! I want all gunnery crews to be at their station and ready for possible combat situation as soon as we come out of Warp. Navigator; whenever you are ready.”

Le’Vel wheezes something horrible before he speaks. “…It will… be done!”

Despite himself, Akios raises an eyebrow. “Expecting trouble, Commodore?”

“With all due respect, Reclusiarch.” The woman responds, raising her head to try and look the Astartes in the eye. “I didn’t come this far by not being expecting trouble.”

Akios nods his head in respect. “A suspicious mind is a healthy mind.”

Valask nods her head in agreement, a small smile on her face.

Out of all the mortals onboard the Sublime Vengeance, the commodore is one of the few that Akios sees himself forming a healthy respect for as an individual. He respects the Cadians for he both knows the reputation of the Cadian Shock Troops and he has seen it first-hand. He respects the Imperial Navy for theirs is a hard fight and one that must be done.

He respects Commodore Valask for she is a woman of action. She carries out her duty to the letter and executes her orders with the skill and precision of a master of her craft. She bares no grudge against the Reclusiarch and his retinue coming aboard her vessel, but she does not simply treat them as a member of her crew nor as simply another passenger either. Valask defers to Akios on all things spiritual and matters of faith, letting him hold sermons in the ships chapel for the crew and the Militarum, allowing him to broadcast his readings on the Emperor, duty and honour at all times that he feels necessary.

Two equal warriors, divided by branches of service, but joined together in duty.

“Do you have any suggestions? A reading, perhaps, we can play to calm the crew?” Valask asks in a low voice.

For a few seconds, Akios says nothing. This situation is not something he imagined encountering, and thus, for possibly one of the very times in his extended lifespan, he is unsure of what he could say.

“Broadcast the hymnal, Steel my Heart, O Holy Terra, to all quarters of the ship, coupled with the plainsong, Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis, to keep the Guardsman’s spirits up.” Akios says simply before he leans slightly closer to the woman in front of him. “As for yourself, I would suggest the Prayer of the Lost and Endangered and the Prayer for Safe Return.”

Nodding her head, Valask smiles as she watches Akios being to walk away from the command dais.

“And where are you going, if I might ask, Honoured Reclusiarch?”

A small smile flashes across the Reclusiarchs face before he continues marching.

“To prepare for trouble.”


 

Soundlessly, a tear opens in the fabric of space. A part of the black expanse of the void is seemingly ripped inwards, multi-coloured and brutal lightning lashing out from the hole as it expands to the size needed for the ship that made the hole to pass through it. The same lightning lashes out against the ship, rebounding off the Gellar Field that protects the ship, trying its hardest to ensnare the vessel to keep it trapped in the domain of the Empyrean. Plasma engines on full-burn, the Sublime Vengeance slides into reality once again.

A brutal ship-of-the-line, it is an Oberon-class Battleship. Archaic, even by the standards of the Imperium of Man, but it still flies true through the ether as the day it was lain. An eagle-headed prow carves a path for seven kilometres of baroque steel and gothic adamantium construction, battle-scarred and pitted by centuries of travel in the void. Her flanks are dotted with a bristling array of torpedo tubes, missile and plasma batteries, macrocannons and heavy duty laser weapons. She is a killing machine, brutality and majesty all rolled into one.

And she is not alone.

Even as the rip in Realspace closes behind her, another one opens to the starboard of the Sublime Vengeance over a dozen kilometres away as another metallic behemoth pulls itself into reality. Followed by another below that one, and another above, and behind, and below. In the space surrounding the Sublime Vengeance, a score of vessels of the Imperial Navy of nearly all shapes and sizes translate into space. Cruisers, battleships, frigates, escorts. It was enough firepower to lay waste to an entire planet in a single night, enough firepower to cow a system into compliance. It was only a pinprick of an example of the power wielded by the Imperial Navy in the name of Him on Earth.

Amongst these vessels, four more appear, but these ships are as similar as a predator is to a scavenger. First come the battle barges. Blunt-prowed, they seemingly smash their way out of the Warp, trailing Emypric fire and lightning in their wake. Their flanks and spines, eight and a half kilometres in length and made from burnished steel and bare adamantium, are lined with heavy cannons capable of void combat and orbital strikes while oversized shields on the aft and bow project their void shields, wreathing them in protective energy, even as they show the mark of their owners: a roaring dracon’s head rendered in silver on an obsidian black field. In their wake, like a praetorian guard, a pair of strike cruisers follow close behind. Smaller than the battle barges, these steel vessels are smaller than the barges but are no less potent weapons of war. Each one is fitted with a bombardment cannon and their flanks lined with weapon batteries, while they are marked with the same roaring dracon’s head.

Finally, like three breaching whales, come the trio of ships of the Adeptus Mechanicus, their burgundy, black and brass hides showing their loyalty to Mars. Much thicker than the ships of the Imperial Navy and the Adeptus Astartes, these ships are less weapons of war and more vessels of exploration and transportation. Two heavy transports, fat bellied and blunt prowed, swim through the ether next to the formidable presence of a Retribution-class capital ship of the Basilikon Astra, The Omnissiah’s Grace.

It is an armada, a fleet of ships designed and created solely for the purpose of war.

And it is currently lost.

Once all ships are fully out of the Warp and in formation, their giant plasma engines spin down, letting the vast space-borne engines to sit silently and threatening in the void. A floating collection of gigantic knives and blunt hammerheads, poised for destruction.

One by one, small motes of light detach themselves from each ship. Small landing craft supported by void attack craft, like minnows detaching themselves from deep-sea leviathans, propel themselves from their mother-ships and headed towards a single destination: one of the battle barges. Aquila landers and Arvus lighters, flanked by the shark-like forms of Fury Interceptors, glide in slowly into the cavernous hold of the Ferro Cordis.


 

The strategium fills up slowly as the commanders of the menagerie that was the Indomitus Crusade, 46th Fleet, came in to the large, vaulted chamber for the meeting. Fleet officers of the Fleet Pacificus, their emerald green uniforms clashing against the dark grey marble of the multi-tiered room, as they converse among themselves. They are soon joined by officers of the Cadian remnants, their mismatched uniforms; drab khakis and woodland greens, simple tans and browns and even a few reds, clashing wildly with the other, even as they sat in groups together, some chattering away like old friends, which some undoubtedly were. Many of the men and women carried medals on their uniform, some going for simple bars and aiguillettes while others went for full decoration medals, making their chests glimmer in the light.

The priests of the Ecclesiarchy were next, their clothing a combination red or pale cream robes, worn with purple albs, maniples, stoles and mitres of all shapes and sizes, each one seemingly gaining more gold and silver filigree as the rank of the Ecclesiarch increased, eagles and thunderbolts abounding in a glare on the form of High-Deacon Alzecht von Stollish, his old-crone form swaddled in layer upon layer of vestments and cloth, each one more jewelled than the last, his tall, tower-like mitre cap almost the same height as himself, as he was carried into the strategium on a palanquin moved by a quartet of censer swinging servitors, their dead flesh painted in garish colours to look like mannequins.

Lastly, came the adepts of the Mechanicus, their bodies swathed with black and red robes. Icons of the Cult Mechanicus adorned them, while their bodies hummed and wheezed slightly as their augmetic body parts moved. The low sound of Mechanicus plainsong, the binary chant of the blessed Machine God, the Omnissiah, heralds the arrival of the High Adept of the Forge World Norstra’s expeditionary force, High Magos Zar’Garscon. Propelled on thick, six insect-like legs, the adepts back almost swarms with snaking mechadendrites, some headed with snapping claws, others drills while some are fitted with simple plugs. Zar’Garscon’s face, or what likely what remains of his face, is covered by an elaborately fashioned death-mask of a man’s face, their mouth closed and eyes lidded.

Watching the procession of characters is First Captain, Brother-Captain Mardas, high up one of the strategiums rows. Even for an Adeptus Astartes, Mardas is an imposing figure. Standing broader and taller than his own battle-brothers, motionless, the brother-captain resembles a statue from antiquity, let alone with how weather-beaten and broken his bald slab of a face is. Clad in the archaic suit of Cataphractii-pattern Terminator armour, a relic from the Great Crusade, Mardas is a statue of unburnished steel and gold trim. No weapons are present on his form. But for such a master of war as the First Captain, who would need them?

The warrior’s face is twisted in something akin to a contemptable scowl as he watches the procession draw to an end, the various members taking their assigned seats.

“Something on your mind, Brother-Captain?”

Mardas turns slightly to look at the new speaker, seeing the form of Brother-Captain Sharas. His armour is the same unburnished steel as Mardas’ own, even if his is a lighter (relatively speaking) mix of Mark IV and Mark VI patterns, the trim on his giant pauldrons a deep green.

“Just reminding myself what we’ve picked up.” The First Captain growls out, turning his head back to look at the people seated below him. “It’s… humbling. In annoying way.”

Sharas lets out a short, low laugh at the statement.

“Danaus Mardas. Ever the diplomat.” Sharas said, a smile on his face.

The corner of the first-captain’s mouth arcs up in a small smirk.

“Still. It is… comforting, in a way.” The giant warrior says. “Cadia fell, but we rescued so many of them in the end. The Emperor’s divine providence at work.”

Drawing beside him, Sharas nods his head in agreement. “And here we are.”

“And here we are.” Mardas repeats. “In the middle of unknown space, potentially jolted out of the Warp by something or other, with no knowledge of what is out there.”

The sound of servos whining in sympathetic movement reached Mardas’ ears as he hears the fourth-captain shrug his shoulders.

“It is as it is.” Sharas says simply. “Or as I had heard an expression in the Astra Militarum once go: ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’ Poetic but simple.”

Madras says nothing, just a sound like a rumble at the back of his throat.

A Space Marine is removed from humanity, that is a fact that he knows and one that has been drilled into him and his brothers time and again. He cannot understand what the men and women in the camouflage uniforms below him feel, he cannot personally fathom it. As a fleet-borne chapter, there is no home-world to lose to the enemy. No stands to make to cover civilian craft, no charges against enemy guns in a do-or-die attempt to punish the enemy for their actions.

Madras has done this on other worlds for other people’s planets, but it’s something he will never experience for his own planet.

But even then, he knows that the mood among the Cadians is low.

“These men and women have been through much.” Brother-Captain Sharas says solemnly, reading Madras’ mood easily. “Much more than possibly anyone in the universe has been through. By the Emperor’s grace, they have been placed under our charge.”

“And by the Primarch, we will not shirk our duty.” A voice comes from behind the pair of Astartes captains, making them turn.

Dressed in his full wargear, Reclusiarch Akios is a formidable sight, even to an Astartes. His armour, forged in the foundries of Mars in the days of the Great Crusade, is a suit of Mark IV Maximus armour, black as the void of space while gold adornments glitter on his greaves and gorget. Next to the splendour of the filigree, the presence of the dracon skulls on his cuirass and greaves are a savage twist to his blessed rank. His leering skull-faced helmet, currently held in the crook of his arm, stares out at the world with a savage grin.

“Honoured brother.” The two brother-captains intone, placing their fists over their hearts in salute.

“Brother-Captains.” Akios replies, nodding his head in respect. “Brother Madras. You would do well to not look down upon the Cadians. Although, I will grant, with your height, it is somewhat difficult to do.”

The sound that Madras makes for a laugh is a low grumble.

“I cannot help my size, Honoured Brother.” The First Captain replies, the broad smirk still on his face. Which falls again as he turns to look at the people gathered below. “But I… worry, for these Cadians.”

A low huff of amusement sounds from Brother-Captain Sharas’ mouth. “You? Worry?”

“I understand what you mean, Madras.” Reclusiarch Akios says as he moves to stand on the left of the First Captain. “I have spent much of this voyage among the men and women of the 598th Infantry regiment. They all… feel the same. The loss of their home planet has done much to harm them in the mind as much as it did the body.”

“They are not normal guardsmen.” Sharas says suddenly but simply. “They are Cadian Shock Troops, guardians of the Cadian Gate. That was their purpose and their duty. But how can they fulfil either their purpose or their duty when there is nothing to guard?”

The mood around the trio of Astartes becomes sullen, the three post-human warrior-commanders mulling over the question presented to them.

Releasing a growl of annoyance that is akin to a Leman Russ engine idling, First-Captain Madras shakes his head ruefully.

“This is not how I envisioned the Forty-Second Millennium beginning.”

He does not know if it is due to his age, being nearly three and half standard Terran centuries old, or whether it is just a quirk of his own, but Madras finds that, whenever he looks at a chronometer, he wishes that the display is incorrect.

009.M42

Ten years since the Despoiler loosed his hounds onto the Cadia system. Ten years since the Cadian Gate was sundered open and the Cicatrix Maledictum was spawned. Ten years since the thirteenth Primarch, Roboute Gulliman, was returned to the waking world through Mechanicus tech and Aeldari magicks, and launched the Terran Crusade to relieve besieged Holy Terra, where he was made Lord Commander of the Imperium. Ten years since he launched the might Indomitus Crusade.

The Steel Drakes, a fleet borne chapter housed in the northern edge of the Segmentum Pacificus, answered the call as quickly as they were able, hastening their ships with all speed to the closest Imperial rallying point. Though their gene-sire was Rogal Dorn, Defiance, the Praetorian of Terra, they were Adeptus Astartes, bound to the Codex Astartes, and thus answered the call willingly.

They had picked up the remnants of Cadia, marshalled in to Task Force Cadia Thirteen, marshalled at the shipyards of Koraten, along with a detachment of Mechanicus forces from the Forge World, Norstra, before setting forth into the cold void. Indomitus Crusade Fleet Forty-Six.

And yet, here they were. Becalmed in unknown space after a freak void jolt.

It did not bode well.

Madras sighs a heavy breath, pausing in thought as he sees the breathe mist before it wafts up into the air.

“The Council gathers.” He says firmly, knowing what approaches.

“Come.” Reclusiarch Akios says simply, maglocking his helmet to his belt. “We must take our places.”

Not saying a word, the three Astartes move from their position at the top of the strategium’s ringed seats before they make their way down the thick, worn stone stairs. Each one is hewn from the planet the Steel Drakes’ primary stock of neophytes are drawn from, their deep grey colour nearly merging with the flat steel of their power armour.

As they advanced down the steps, the other attendants in the room make to take their places in the seats of the strategium. Even the High-Deacon does so without complaint.

A Fourth-Founding chapter, the Steel Drakes have many customs unique to themselves, shaped by their Imperial Fists originators, their life as a fleet-based chapter and their main planet of recruitment. One custom was an archaic but simple one: only the masters of the chapter; the Chapter Master, the Captains, to the Reclusiarch, the Master of the Forge and Chief Librarian were permitted to form the circle of council that formed in the strategium.

The Council.

It is an archaic and almost primordial ritual, but it serves its purpose well.

The doors to the strategium open wide, the heavy wooden doors pushed open by a pair of battle-brothers in tactical dreadnought armour, Tartaros pattern, their flat steel adamantium plates shining dully in the glow of the lumens, as they allowed entry to the room.

First in are the captains of the second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth companies. As a fleet borne chapter, the Steel Drakes commanding officers are always present, either on the main battle barges or on the strike cruisers. The tread of their feet on the ceramite and stone flooring almost makes the room quake as these warriors take their places in the circle.

Madras lets his eyes scan each being as they take their place. He knows all of them; he’s trained with them, argued with them, fought alongside them, bled with them. Each one is a master of his craft of death and a skilled commander in his own right. Each one a veteran in his own right.

Well… all but one.

“Brother-captain.” Second Captain Jonah, Master of the Watch, bows his head in respect as he slams his right fist to his chest in greeting. His eye is on the same level as the First Captain’s.

Madras is not sure what to fully make of Jonah.

Jonah is a Primaris Space Marine. Wearing the new Mark X power armour, he is just as tall as Madras is and is just as strong. He is from old Terran stock, something that the First Captain has only encountered in meeting the venerated ancients of the Imperial Fists. His face is lean but strong, with a sharp chin and cheeks under a high brow, all completed with a head of short black hair and a pair of brown eyes.

But Madras has never seen Jonah fight. He has never seen him lead his troops into battle.

A Space Marine is famed for one thing in the vast expanse of the Imperium, and that is that he is a warrior; a being without fear, who knows courage and honour and valour above all other virtues, and captains should represent those values to their very core.

Jonah has taken the place of the former captain, Brother Tirello, who fell slaying the Ork Warlord, Ugtukk World-Burner. The decision did not follow the code of the chapter, but when such a thing is mandated by a Primarch, then allowances must be made.

The First Captain reciprocates the greeting, placing his fist over his heart as he bows his head. “Brother-Captain.”

The Primaris Marines are a new… enigma in the Astartes ranks, in all of them, Madras believes. The Primaris in the Steel Drakes, enough bodies to form three companies, were inducted after the 46th Fleet rendezvoused with other Imperial Forces in the Segmentum Solar, on the orders of Roboute Gulliman himself, described as replacements to cover loses in previous engagements before the launch of the crusade.

As Jonah takes his place on Madras’ right hand side, he remembers what it was like when he first saw them. Nearly three-hundred warriors, their armour and weapons freshly minted and clean, the flat steel of their armour and the silver on black scheme of their chapter badge standing proudly.

They were like freshly built automatons off of a Mechanicus assembly line. Impressive to look at, but sorely untested.

They are simply an unknown equation. And Madras is not happy about that.

Although, according to Sharas, he is never happy.

As the last of the captains takes his place in the Circle, Reclusiarch Akios taking his place one place over from the First Captain on the right, the last two and most esoteric members of the council enter the room.

The heavy smell of promethium and blessed oils of the Mechanicus hits Madras’ nose, even before he hears the heavy tread of the Master of the Forge, Techmarine Brother Varkon. Alongside the First Captain, and before the induction of Brother Jonah, Varkon is one of the tallest Astartes in the chapter. It is less through a fact of his biology and more through his faith in the Omnissiah that his legs below the knees are akin to the legs of a Titan, each four-toed foot stamping heavily onto the floor. His red armour glistens like dry blood, even as the silver dracon’s head shimmers in the light. Above his back, his mechadendrites and servo-arms wave and sway with each movement as he trudges into the strategium. As he passes them, the Master of the Forge dips his head and sends a binaric burst of greeting to the members of the Adeptus Mechanicus, who reciprocate.

A chill is sent through the room as a thin, almost invisible layer of hoarfrost covers the ground, heralding the arrival of the Chief Librarian. The Master of Librarium, Brother Nemon, is an unsettling individual among the chapter, even for Astartes. A Delta-level psyker, Nemon is as much a master of his art as any other Astartes captain, but therein lies his unnaturalness. His royal blue armour, adorned with wards of protection and purity seals, which sets him apart from his brothers in their flat steel armour, is the sign of his position in the chapter. But that’s not the unsettling part.

Every Astartes knows the perils of the Warp and unsanctioned psykers. They know what Nemon is capable of, and Madras has seen the Chief Librarian demonstrate his skill and mastery of the arcane arts time and time again when his presence was called for. It as a power that is awe-inspiring as it is destructive.

And for Nemon, it was always in constant use. An action against the dark eldar on the moons off Caeralus had seen him loose his eyes to the horrible toxins of the perfidious xenos pirates, a toxin that rendered the skin unable to take a graft or augmetics. Instead, the apothecarion had to simply cover his eyes with a band made from black dracon leather, the only material that did not aggravate the injury. Robbed of his natural sight, Nemon was forced to use his psychic abilities to allow him to see the real world.

In a moment of intrigue, Madras had once asked the Chief Librarian what it was like to use his powers continually, with no rest.

“Like walking on the thinnest ice imaginable,” Had been the reply. “And all the while knowing that one single misstep would see me fall under.”

An already cold individual, Nemon was a being who knew no pleasure in anything, least of all, combat. Every waking hour was virtually dedicated to prayer, meditation and focus. Moments for him to join the Council with his brothers are rare and few between.

Moving slowly, Nemon takes his place alongside Varkon on the Reclusiarch’s right side. Thirteen spots on the circle of fourteen filled, with only one place remaining empty.

The strategium is quiet as all eyes on the seats turn to look at the entrance way.

If the masters of the chapter were to be seen as ideals of the virtues and skills that make up an Astartes chapter, then the being entering the large room is the very embodiment of those ideals.

He is not as tall as First Captain Madras, but he still commands respect through his presence. His armour is as ornate as Reclusiarch Akios’; a combination of flat steel adamantium plates of Mark III and Mark IV construction, the greaves of his left leg are studded with brutal spikes while the image of a roaring dracon adorns his right kneepad. Gold filigree script in High Gothic proclaiming the glory of the Emperor of Mankind and the Primarch glint on his pauldron edges and cuirass, while under his armpit, he holds his Mark III helmet, modified to bear a crest in the shape of a reclining dracon settled among a nest of spikes, picked out in silver against the flat steel of his helmet.

Bare headed, Chapter Master Remudes has a stern face, scored by scars from a myriad of campaigns in the name of humanity’s protection. The tawny skin of his face is drawn with age which, framed by a wild mane of greying-black hair, gives him the countenance of an ancient Terran mystic. A quartet of golden service studs sit above his left eye, a dark grey orb that glitters with unknowable intelligence, while his right eye is a sharp red lens of glass in a metal augmetic. A price paid to slay a brutal Traitor warlord.

Like the others, his armour too is adorned with a trophy of the mighty Sartesian dracon. All veterans have some form of trophy; some a simple tooth hanging from a chainsword hilt or bolter grip, others possess a cloak or loincloth of dracon-hide, the colour and hue depending on the breed of creature hunted. Madras has the skull of a dracon the size of a battle-cannon shell lashed to his left pauldron, Captain Dormeran of the Fifth Company has a pair of smaller dracon skulls hanging from his belt, to name two.

Remudes’ backpack has a pair of dracon skulls the length of his arms attached over the top of the stabilising jets on his backpack, while beneath that hangs a cloak of sable and red scales and leather that hang down almost to the floor.

Walking around the circle of warrior captains, Remudes says nothing as he passes his junior commanders. He acknowledges no-one, not his own battle-brothers or the other Imperials seated in the room.

Quickly, he takes his place next to Madras’ right hand side, between himself and Reclusiarch Akios.

Then he speaks, in a voice and tone used to shouting orders in pitched battle and delivering war cries to terrify the enemies of Man.

“In the Emperor’s name, and in the sight of the Primarch; I greet you.”

The thirteen other members of the council respond.

“In the light of Humanity, and in the sight of our brothers; we greet you.”

The ritual greeting complete, Remudes turns his attention to the seated notables and officers.

“To you all, I thank you for following our chapter’s customs. It is an honour to have you all here, and a blessing. Especially in such dark times.”

A ripple of positive responses swim around the room, each man and woman nodding their head or making the gesture of the Aquila or, in the case of the Mechanicus delegation, the sign of the Omnissiah.

The stiff whirr of augmetics in action fills the room as High-Deacon von Stollish pushes himself up from his seat, his decrepit form moving to stand upright.

“My Lord Astartes,” The High Deacon says, in a voice that while strong is beginning to become frayed with overuse. “If I may be allowed to say a prayer… for our survival in the Warp?”

Glancing to his side, Madras eyes Remudes slightly. The chapter master’s remaining organic eye twitches slightly, but he displays no emotion before he nods his head.

“As you wish, High Deacon.”

Von Stollish clears his throat, the sound raspy and old, before he speaks loud and clear.

“Oh, Him on Earth, Protector of Mankind; our guiding light and our salvation. We give thanks to you this day for delivering us from the perils of the Warp and of its denizens. In your name, please continue to watch over us, your loyal servants. Amen.”

A chorus of ‘amen’s echoes through the strategium, each Imperial officer giving their own thanks to the Emperor, while the Mechanicus adepts each give a small burst of binaric cant.

Three spaces down from his left, Madras hears Sharas say in a voice low enough to be missed by mortals but clear enough to be heard by Astartes.

“Short, simple and clear. I think that’s a first for an Ecclesiarch.”

The First Captain just rolls his eyes, while the others ignore the joke. Nonplussed, Remudes continues speaking.

“Now, to business: what has driven us here?” The chapter master asks rhetorically, his eyes flicking between nearly every occupant in the large room. “As of this time, I am welcome to hear any information that can be gleaned.”

A rustle of fabric draws everyone’s attention as Commodore Valask, clad in her ceremonial emerald uniform, stands tall from her seat.

“My Lord Astartes,” She begins clearly. “I have cross-referenced and cross-checked each ships data-log from the Imperial Navy. So far, not a single ship has shown any sign of fault by the crew. So I am willing to place my honour on the fact that this cannot be a fault due to the Imperial Navy captains and commanders.”

Remudes nods his head. “If we were to blame your comrades, then we would be needlessly placing the blame on the Imperial Navy. This… occurrence affected every ship equally, so I doubt one party is solely at blame here.”

Satisfied, the commodore sits down, which is quickly followed by the sound of whirring gears and straining pistons as High Magos Zar’Garscon stands tall. His voluminous red robes trail over his legs.

A burst of binaric static, the Cant Mechanicus, fills the air, forcing the unenlightened and non-Astartes to wince in pain and shock.

“In Low Gothic, if you please, High Magos.” Remudes chastises simply.

A small, liquid burble comes from the high magos’ mask.

“Apologies, My Lord Astartes,” The Mechanicus hierarch says in a stilted and decidedly synthetic voice. “It has been a while since I have used my flesh-voice.

“As I was trying to say: I have conferred with each tech-priest of the contingent sent by the Basilica Astra, and after also conferring with the tech-priests aboard the vessels of the Imperial Navy and the holy ships of the Astartes, I have reached a conclusion based on the data that no fault can be laid on the ships or their engines. Their Machine Spirits have been properly mollified, all pertinent rites were performed properly, as pertaining to the rituals of the Holy Mechanicus, and each engine was properly cared for and repaired. This is not a failure of the Machine. Nor of the Flesh, I think.”

There was the unspoken slight. The fear that permeated the entirety of Imperial culture: the fear of the psyker. And who it was directed at was clear for Madras to see.

The servos in his fist clenches in sympathetic motion as he tightens his fingers in anger.

+Peace, brother-captain+ Nemon says telepathically, obviously wishing to avoid an incident. +It is just their way. Bear no anger against them.+

Turning his head, his covered eyes showing no hint of his mood, the chief librarian addresses the room.

“I will assuage your concerns; this incident was caused by the Warp first and foremost.” Nemon states simply and clearly. “After consulting with my fellow brothers of the Librarium, the navigators aboard our own vessels, and then the navigators aboard the others, I believe that I can describe what happened. In loose terms, I am afraid.

“As we all know, the Warp is best akin to a sea, to the mortal perception. It is ever shifting, pitching and rolling; calm one moment, raging the next. I believe, from the information I have gleamed and from what I experienced, that we were caught in a… a freak wave of a storm surge.”

Mutters of concern and confusion echo through the strategium before Remudes’ voice cuts through them clearly.

“Can you elaborate further, Brother Nemon?”

The librarian tilts his head upwards, his brows furrowing in thought as he ruminates on the best way to describe what has happened to them all.

“It is… if I am honest, I am at a loss myself to say what happened. To say we were struck off course is not a lie, but is the manner in how we were struck off course that leaves me lost for words.

“Normally, a wave in the Warp would see our fleet scattered, our Gellar fields destroyed and lost to the predations of the Ether. But not this time. We were less flung and more… pushed slightly off course, I feel. Our fleet is intact and our ships sound.”

The large room falls silent at the revelation, each person taking the information in in whatever way they can.

A Cadian stands up, his uniform a simple khaki colour with a deep blue beret on his head and the number ‘48’ on a blue diamond sewn onto his upper right arm.

“My Lord… I feel I have to ask: do you suspect this to be the work of the Arch-Enemy?”

If the air in the strategium had been chilly before, the mention of the Great Enemy makes the room ice-cold, especially for the Cadians.

The Segmentum Pacificus is no stranger to the scourge that is the Traitor and the Heretic. The site of the ruins of the planet Colchis; home of the traitor Word Bearers, the Nova Terra Interregnum, the Macharian Heresy, the Sabbat Worlds Crusade, and most recently, the Night of a Thousand Rebellions. The Segmentum, almost directly south of the Cadian Gate, was always prone to the predations of Chaos and its perfidious and brutal followers, and with the opening of the Great Rift, more and more incursions were detected and brought to battle.

For the remnants of Cadia however, the idea that this freak wave was the work of the Despoiler’s minions would surely spark a dark fire in their hearts.

Nemon shakes his head. “Slaves of the Dark Powers are known to have some control of the Warp, sometimes much more powerful than any Imperial servant. But this… I feel that this was different in its task. If this had been the work of a sorcerer of the Despoiler, then we would have either been scattered or destroyed wholesale in the Warp.”

“Neither of which happened to us.” Captain Madras finally says out-loud, making all eyes fall on him, which earns a nod from the chief librarian.

“We are intact, and in full working order. Those are facts that bear repeating, because we are still functional and combat capable.”

“This is a sign!” The voice of the high deacon echoes throughout the chamber, making even the Astartes masters, beings who have seen collective centuries of combat, flinch in shock as they all turn to see him standing up out of his chair, his arms outstretched above his head. “A test of our faith by the God-Emperor Himself!”

The other members of the Ecclesiarchy begin to devolve into frantic chanting and praying, the chapter master holds one gauntleted hand up for silence. Which swiftly follows.

“That is an interesting theory, High Deacon,” The Astartes says in a placating tone. “But I think that we should look at all the facts that are known to us before we come to conclusions. Brother-Captain Sharas?”

Coughing slightly, the Master of the Fleet takes a step forward into the circle as he raises his left arm up to his chest level, revealing a small dataslate built into the armour.

“Since we dropped out of Warp, I’ve ordered each Steel Drake vessel to begin scanning and mapping of the local stars and to compare them to any known constellations and formations.”

A beam of bright green light projects down from the ceiling, a single line before they form a three-dimensional holographic image of the 46th Fleet becalmed in the void. As the images form, all twenty-seven vessels are perfectly displayed, right down to the torpedo tubes on the flanks of the smallest Cobra-class destroyer.

Pressing a sequence of buttons on his vambrace, Sharas shrinks the view of the image of the fleet as a score of stars, simply bright balls of green light in the dark room, come into view.

“I combined this information with the mapping data retrieved from the Imperial Navy vessels.”

Another series of buttons are pressed, prompting more holographic stars to appear.

“And then I combined that data with data… given to us by the adepts of the Holy Mechanicus.”

Buttons are pressed, and the number of stars to appear jumps exponentially to several hundred points of light. Each little dot hangs in the expanse of the room at different heights and distances,  but one thing is abundantly clear to all those staring at it; no planets are close-by, nor any other vessels of any make or construction. Only stars, asteroids and emptiness.

One person instantly recognises that significance of what they are seeing.

“These match no known star chart on Imperial records.” Commodore Valask says in shock as she stands up slowly, recognizing, or possibly not recognizing, what she sees. To Madras’ ears, it sounds like something like awe is in her voice too.

“Can you be sure of this, Commodore Valask?” The First Captain asks, the positioning of star charts not his forte.

The question earns a cocky smirk from the umber-skinned woman.

“Please, My Lord Astartes. My job is to know the stars, like yours is to know your bolter.” The commodore says simply but with a faint smirk on her lips. “I know many star charts, even the few maps of the Halo Zone and the Halo Stars that exist. These stars align with no chart I know.”

For a brief moment, Madras is taken back by the comment. It is not often that a mortal, senior officer or otherwise, essentially tells an Astartes, an Astartes captain no less, to not question them. But he does see the vindication of her words. He has no mastery of the ships of the Imperial Navy. The only place he has any control of is the company of his battle-brothers in combat. Valask is one of the many chosen to ferry the troops of the Emperor of Man throughout the stars and she is the master of her vocation.

Softly, Madras bows his head towards the commodore. He fosters no resentment towards the woman for her words or the display in front of the others, for it is not the way of the Steel Drakes. Resentment means that the Astartes is proudful, and that pride can easily become their undoing.

“So where does that leave us then, Commodore?” Madras asks as he raises his head again.

The woman shrugs her shoulders slightly. “In the simplest terms? I believe that we truly are in uncharted space. But, I think that we might simply be… be beyond the boundaries of the Imperium itself.”

The implication is heavily unsettling for everyone. To be outside of the boundaries of the Imperium of Man is to be wholly cut off from any contact with civilization as they know it. Support from the Adeptus Mechanicus will be non-existent and with the loss of the Astronomican, there can be no calls for reinforcements.

The 46th Fleet is marooned and lost.

“The Emperor protects.” Reclusiarch Akios mutters under his breath as he grips his rosarius tightly.

To his side, Remudes nods his head. “The Emperor protects. But we must act.”

Stepping out of his place in the circle, the chapter master moves to stand directly in the centre of the room, allowing all eyes to look at him easily.

“The theoretical situation is this: we are beyond the Emperor’s Light, beyond any and all aid from allies, and we stare into the unknowable and dark abyss. We potentially face xenos more dangerous than any we know, and we could also face the servants of the Dark Powers.”

Those statements give everyone pause, as they were chosen to.

“The practical solution is this: we continue our mission. The mission set forth by our Lord Commander, Roboute Gulliman. The mission set forth by our Primarch, Rogal Dorn, ten thousand years ago. We march forth, all arms of humanity unified into one force, with one fist, for one purpose: to forge the path of humanity’s place in the stars and to ensure that our kin are kept safe for now and forever more!”

Madras smiles at his lord and master’s choice of words and the affect they soon have on the room.

Not even as the last syllable finishes its echo, the room erupts into cheers of acknowledgement and joy. The Cadian and Imperial Navy officers, stand up cheering, stamping their feet or clapping their hands together. The High Deacon bursts into a reading from one of his religious texts, his fellow priests taking up a chant in High Gothic. Even the adepts of the Mechanicus give their own voice to the speech, canting their approval, mechadendrites waving in the air in a cheering motion.

The greatest sound in the room comes from the ranks of the circle. Each of the captains beats their fists against their breastplates, the smack of adamantium on adamantium nearly drowning out the noise of their roars of approval. To his side, Madras sees Captain Jonah’s eyes glisten with pride at the chapter master’s words, his fist beating against his cuirass heavily.

In the middle of the room, Remudes holds up his hand once more for silence. Slowly, the noise dies down, the chanting and canting slowing to a murmur while the hammering of adamantium fades to silence.

“But we must not be blinded to the facts around our situation.” Remudes says firmly, his eyes looking around the room, seeming to lock onto each individual in turn as he speaks. “The situation we are in is fraught with peril. We must not act too brashly, nor must we be too lax in our dealings. We must be vigilant at all times, prepared for any hostile entity we meet. But we must also be prepared for the eventuality that we may meet groups who may prove to be friendly to us. Humanity may have prospered outside of the Imperium, in the right situations. And it would do well to guide them back to the true path.”

Mutters of confirmation and awkward acknowledgement fills the room.

Turning on the spot, Remudes looks directly at Commodore Valask.

“Commodore, I suggest we assign an advanced vanguard of ships. Destroyer-class will suffice.”

Standing up again, Valask nods her head. “I’ll lead the vanguard myself in the Sublime Vengeance. I would also like to request the presence of at least one of your own chapter’s strike cruisers. The bite of their guns and the Astartes presence would be a morale boost, and a boon if we engage hostiles.”

The Astartes chapter master is silent for a second as his thinks over the answer before he nods his head.

“It shall be so. Brother-Captain Sharas?”

“I can spare the Dracon’s Fang,” The captain says, “which will place the Third and Tenth Companies alongside the Cadian regiments already onboard the ships. Formidable.”

Valask bows her head. “I thank you, My Lord Astartes.”

The sound of whirring servos fills the air again as Zar’Garscon rises from his seat again.

“Recommendation: I would like to submit several members of my own entourage and their expertise in augur scans. Adept Carish is well suited for the task.”

At his side, the Magos motions to another Mechanicus adept, who rises from their seat. The being is as androgynous as any other adept who submitted themselves to augmentation, but this one seems to have taken it to heart. Whereas Zar’Garscon has their mask of male human’s face, Carish has had their entire face replaced with augmetics; lidless red eyes peering out at the world while a grilled mask takes the place of where they mouth would be. Their body is covered entirely in the flowing red robes, giving no hint of what lays beneath, only a section of mechadendrites that wave from their back.

Carish bows at it speaks in a monotone and robotic voice.

“I am at your command, Lady Commodore.”

Madras sees that Commodore Valask is not entirely comfortable with the recommendation, but still the officer does not give anything overt away as she stiffly bows her head.

“I thank you, Magos, and the support of the Mechanicus.”

Still stood in his place in the circle, the First Captain smiles slightly at the fact of what has happened. For many thousand years, the Adeptus Mechanicus has been an entity unto itself in the Imperium of Man. Never bowing, never submitting to those who did not share their same beliefs in the Omnissiah, the Deus Mechanicus, and even for those who did, they were fragmented by factious in-fighting and arguments of doctrine.

To have them share, willingly, one of their adepts, by order of a magos himself shows the severity of the situation they all face. And it shows that the vaunted Mechanicus, ones who pride themselves on removing themselves from the ‘constraints of human emotion’ still fear the sting of fear of the unknown.

“My Lord, if I may speak?” Second Captain Jonah speaks up, making the Chapter Master turn to look at him.

Jonah is fair-skinned, unblemished by serious scars such as those that adorn the faces of his fellow captains, except for a small, curling scar that cuts through his right eyebrow and up to the middle of his forehead. His nose is aquiline, his cheeks and chin rounded while his eyes are a piercing shade of green under hair the colour of obsidian.

Remudes nods his head. “As long as you stand in the circle, you may speak freely, brother-captain.”

Standing straighter, such a thing only being possible for an Astartes, Jonah inhales before he speaks.

“First, I agree fully with your tactical decision, I feel I must ask: with nearly limitless possibilities of directions in which to go… where do we go from here?”

While it might sound like impertinence between their ranks, it is a question of the chapter master that needs to be asked, and Remudes knows this.

“It is true that the Codex Astartes does not give full direction on how to deal with this situation, one passage gives us some direction; ‘Know thy duty, and discharge it above all else’.” The chapter master quotes easily and plainly, knowing the entries of the Codex off by heart, as all Codex-compliant Astartes do. “But, I believe that some outside guidance would be helpful. Brother Nemon?”

The chief librarian mulls over the question, his eyebrows furrowing above the leather banding over his eyes.

“I feel… that it would be unwise to remain in our present position.” Nemon says flatly. “Since we do not know whether the force that brought us here was malevolent or simply a random occurrence in the Warp, it would be prudent if we move to a different location.”

“It would stop us getting caught in the surge of Warp energy as well.” Captain Sharas notes. “But the point remains: which direction do we travel in?”

Still standing in the middle of the circle, Remudes looks up at the holographic display of the fleet. Bathed in the green light, Madras can see each detail of each scar in the chapter masters weathered face, the lines of age around his organic eye and mouth, and the scar tissue that has not fully healed correctly around his bionic eye. All the signs of a life dedicated to the protection of mankind.

It is several seconds before Remudes speaks.

“Brother-captain, I believe that there is a passage in the Tactica Imperium that will give us guidance in this matter.”

Even Madras cocks an eyebrow in surprise at their chapter master quoting the myriad texts of war for the Astra Militarum.

“And what would that be, My Lord?” The First Captain asks.

Remudes turns to face him, a cocked smile on his face as the green light of the holographic display casts his face in an eerie light.

“When in doubt, go forward. And that is what we shall do.” The lord of the Steel Drakes says as he points a finger at the holographic display. “We shall simply continue on in the direction that we find ourselves facing.”

The logic is simple, Madras notes. The theoretical is that, without the guiding light of the Astronomican, the fleet is marooned here in the unknown with no way to contact the Imperium for aid.

The practical is that, no matter what direction the fleet heads out in, they know nothing about what they will face. So it matters little that they simple forge a path forward, since the result had the same percentage of being the same as in any direction they travelled in.

“It will be done, My Lord Astartes.” Commodore Valask says, still standing at her seat before she sits.

“To the commanding officers of the Cadian Shock Troops,” Remudes says, addressing the officers of the Militarum. “Tell your soldiers as little about this as you can. Do not tell them about our predicament, for it will spook them needlessly and it will damage morale.”

A commissar, dressed in the black long coat and hat of their office, stands up from their seat. “What should we tell the men, My Lord?”

A moment of thought comes to Remudes’ mind. “Tell them… tell them that because of the difficulty in reading the Astronomican, we have had to change our bearings.”

The assembled officers nod their heads at the logic before Remudes speaks once more to the room.

“Cadians, have your men begin training once more. Focus their body and their minds will follow. Adepts of the Holy Mechanicus; tend to our ships and our vehicles. Keep their Machine Spirits ready and prepared. And to the priests of the Ecclesiarchy… pray for us. Pray for our deliverance, and pray for our success.”

Seeing that there is nothing more to be said, the chapter master raises his hands to his chest before he interlocks his thumbs and spreads his fingers wide.

“The Emperor protects.”

The room echoes with the same prayer as each man, woman and transhuman warrior copies the gesture.


 

Silently, the flotilla moves through the void, plasma engines burning brightly. Escorts in the shape of knife-like Cobra Class destroyers and Sword Class frigates blaze the trail forward as the vanguard, their augur arrays sweeping the empty space for any sign of potentially hidden hostile vessels or space platforms, blaze a trail through space.

The flotilla passes through various asteroid fields, the smaller ships easily navigating the floating obstacles, while the larger capital ships simply blast the most annoying to smithereens as they make their way to their destination.

The voyage takes a week at simple impulse power, giving the soldiers and Astartes aboard time to fine tune their minds and bodies. Combat drills were carried out in the cavernous holds of the battleships and cruisers, the recycled air filling with the cacophonous sound of faux combat; lasguns snap and whine as grenades are lobbed at non-existent targets in prefabricated battlefields. Some squads of guardsmen are sent alongside the voidsmen of the ships into the bowels of the ships on routine sweeps for creatures that lurk in the innards of the ships.

The Cadians take to it willingly, almost happy to be back in the swing of combat training again.

It is a sign that something is changing, and they relish the chance for combat. No-one can say who the potential enemy is for none know. Some say that it will be xenos, and the guardsmen reply ‘good’. Others say that it will be heretic forces… and the guardsmen relish the chance for retribution.

But the personnel of the Imperial Navy, it is strenuous. The ships they control are already ancient and cantankerous, prone to random system failures, not the least that some of them still bear the scars of pirate and xenos attacks. Internal repairs can be made easily, especially with the tender mechanical hand of the adepts of the Machine Cult. External damage cannot be so easily mended, even through the use of void-suited servitors. And that’s not to mention the basic commodities of a ship of the line in the Imperial Navy needs to operate: fresh air filters and supplies, ammunition for their weapons, both personal and ship, and most importantly fuel. The ship-board forges of the Adeptus Mechanicus can take care of many problems, but resupplying wholesale is impossible.

The naval officers know that a protracted firefight in this unknown sector of space will be the end of them. So all augur and sensor arrays are turned up to maximum and men-at-arms and gunnery crews are ordered on alert status at all times.

“A moment of laxity will not damn this fleet to an ignoble demise” are the orders from Commodore Valask.

It is on day eight of the journey that the first of the vanguard ships spots their destination.

The first sign is a moon. A large, grey sphere of space-borne rock, with almost a full half of the natural satellite shattered and floating into space. Large chunks of rock hang suspended in the void, while finer particles cause a white mist to form, appearing like a comet caught in a stasis field when first viewed.  It is an uneasy sight to see, and some superstitious deck-hands take it as a negative sign of their destination.

The sight past the moon, however, fills the hearts of the voidsmen and deck-hands with wonder and when the news reaches the ears of the Cadians quartered in the ships, their only emotion is the joy that only ground-pounders can feel.


 

The command deck almost reverberates with his heavy, armoured footfalls as Reclusiarch Akios strides up to the view-screen. Waiting for him is Commodore Valask, Adept Carish and Colonel Leontij Creed, commanding officer of the Cadian 598th Infantry Regiment, the officer saluting as he stands to attention.

“What do we have?” He asks Adept Carish, turning slightly to look at the red and black robed Mechanicus adept.

Moving quickly, Carish snakes out several of their mechadendrites and plugs them into one of the augur arrays on the command deck. Soon, the view screen increases in magnification, showing what all of the people are looking at.

It is a planet. Almost perfectly round, it is coloured blue with oceans and the varying colours of landmasses; green fields and forests, tan deserts and white icy poles, all spread out under the undulating masses of swirling clouds. Before the quartet, the planet spins slowly, letting the glare of the planet’s sun appear over the horizon, the blazing orb lighting up the planet and nearly blinding the two unaugmented humans in the process before the screen dims slightly.

“It’s… it’s beautiful.” Leontij says with awe as he moves his hand down from his face.

“It is.” Valask says in agreement before her non-bionic eye squints slightly. “I don’t see any artificial satellites. Do we have a clue as to what level of tech this planet is at? Is it even inhabited?”

“The probes sent by The Omnissiah’s Grace have not encountered any serious habitations proper,” Carish intoned, their mechanised voice filtering through their face-mask. “But signals from heat sources have indicated there are at least four principal cities spread across the planet with many minor settlements being noted.”

“So it’s inhabited.” Leontij says with curiosity. “Do we know by whom, though?”

Carish shakes their head. “Unknown at this time.”

“We are possibly beyond the known borders of the Imperium.” Akios ruminates softly, letting his eyes drift over the gently spinning planet. “The inhabitants could well be xenos… or they could be human.”

Turning, the three non-Astartes look at Akios with surprise. Or at least what could pass for surprise on Carish’s mask.

“It’s not outside the realms of believability.” The Reclusiarch says simply. “The Great Crusade only went to so far outside of the Solar System, and would have continued further were it not for the Heresy to halt it. I do believe that it is indeed possible for humans to exist far beyond the Imperium.”

For a moment, the other three members of the group share an uneasy look between themselves. Even Commodore Valask, in her esteemed service in the Imperial Navy, has encountered only a few non-Imperial human civilizations on uncharted world, but all of them either worshipped the Emperor to a degree in some quasi-barbaric sense, or simply worshipped the fell Gods of Chaos.

The idea of such a beautiful world harbouring neither was… unsettling to them.

“So… the question lies; do we treat them as heretics or as possible converts?” Leontij asks, the Cadians lips turning up slightly in a smile. In response, Valask rolls her eyes while Carish just shrugs their shoulders slightly.

“We’ll find the answer to that when we come to it.” Akios says with a warm tone, finding the Cadian’s mirth enjoyable. “But the pressing question for now is: how exactly do we approach this? Are there any signs of extra-planetary communication? Radio waves, perhaps?”

In their housings, Carish’s mechadendrites shiver slightly before they rotate. It’s not shown on the screen, but Akios knows that Carish is receiving any information from the Mechanicus probes sent to the planet’s surface.

“There is… radio waves are present, localised only, and there is also an electronic signal that seems to connect the principle cities together.” Carish says with interest. “Rumination: odd. They are able to communicate via a planet-wide network but do not seem to be capable of creating a satellite network.”

Putting a jet black gauntlet to his chin, Akios gazes at the planet on the screen as it slowly turns from the night cycle to the day cycle. It is a serene scene, and to Akios’ knowledge as an Astartes veteran, he knows that something is amiss.

“So we have no way of contacting this civilization outside of direct contact?” Commodore Valask asks the adept, her eyes fixed on the screen too.

“I agree with that logic, Commodore.” Carish replies, bobbing their hooded head slightly.

“Although who would we send?” Leontij asks, the Cadian forthrightness exposing itself again. “With all due respect, Reclusiarch, but I don’t think sending a strike force of Astartes would be all that endearing to the local population.”

A low sound, Akios lets out a chuckle. “No, I do agree. I do not think that First Captain Madras appearing out of thin air with an honour guard from the First Company would endear us to the local population.”

The two other humans each share a laugh at the mental image, while Carish just looks between the three before shrugging their shoulders again.

“No,” The Reclusiarch continues. “No, I think this requires the human touch more than the Astartes touch.”

Turning his head, Akios looks down at the Cadian colonel, the man still chuckling softly at the idea of First Captain Madras sent as a diplomat. Quickly however, he realizes that the laughter has stopped, and he looks aghast at the giant warrior.

“Surely you can’t be serious, Reclusiarch.” Leontij says in shock, earning an arced eyebrow from the Astartes.

“It is the most logical idea.” Adept Carish says, withdrawing their mechadendrites from the console and concealing them back under the voluminous robes they wore. “Out of all of our myriad forces, you and your Cadians are the most… human.”

“The adept is correct.” Commodore Valask says with a nod of her head. “Your forces are made up of unaugmented men and women, all of whom are not easy to mistake for non-humans.”

“But the 598th are not a diplomatic corps!” Leontij protests loudly and, Akios admits, accurately. “We are fighting force, pure and simple.”

Akios smiles at the Cadians dismissal of the plan. It is true that to send a military force for diplomatic first contact is asking for trouble, if not a simple and outright declaration of war, and Colonel Leontij’s description of his regiment extends to full fleet: they are all a fighting force in its simplest sense and in its simplest application. Even the Honoured Master of the Chapter, a being who is as much as master strategist as a tactician, would have trouble in reaching a diplomatic situation with an unencountered civilization.

But, once again looking at the image of the planet before them, the unsettled feeling comes to Akios’ mind again. Intuition gained from over two centuries of experience in combat against the enemies of Mankind; fighting xenos, daemons, monsters and heretics, has left him with… call it a warrior’s foresight.

“Query: is something troubling you, Reclusiarch Akios?”

Shifting his gaze, Akios sees the three other beings on the command deck looking up at him in confusion, or what passes for confusion.

“I…,” Akios begins, “Colonel Leontij, I do feel that you are correct in saying that you and your forces are ill-suited for carrying out this task.”

The Cadian officer nods his head in silent agreement.

“But… I think there is more to this planet than meets the eye.”

As he says this, Akios watches the planet revolve on its axis, shifting the position slightly, as something catches his eye.

One of the continents, somehow shaped in a position similar to winged dracon in flight, is nearly all black. Not black as in the black of the night sky, but as black as the pits of Tartarus. A proverbial darkness that screams of malice and hatred and death. It slowly slides out of view, but the feeling of unease at seeing it settled among the green and blue colours of the other landmasses remains.

“I will contact my Chapter Master.” The Reclusiarch says simply. “Colonel Leontij, have your regiment prepped for a combat drop and reconnaissance units prepared. Adept Carish will select a destination for you. I want them put down somewhere far enough away from a principal city to not draw too much undue attention, but they need to be able to reach it if the need is called for.”

Adept Carish bows his head. “It shall be done.”

Valask arcs a perfectly groomed eyebrow at the Astarte’s order. “Expecting trouble, Reclusiarch?”

Taking a step closer to the viewscreen, the warrior-priest stares at the view of the planet. His green eyes just fix on the planet as it spins lazily in the void of space, not caring for the potential violence that could be enacted on it at a whim.

“A suspicious mind is a healthy mind, commodore.” Akios replies. “I expect trouble in all things. It means that I will never be put on the backfoot when the firing starts.”

Turning, Akios faces Adept Carish again.

“Set a destination in the largest continent. Again: not too close to the principal city but not too far.” He moves away from the command deck, stepping off of the raised dais. “We have two days before we launch.”


 

Chapter Text

The sounds of the forest at late evening fill the air. The wind rustling gently through the leaves, while all manner of nocturnal animals make their sounds as they come out from their day-time burrows. The setting sun tints the sky shades of pink and orange as the shadows lengthen, darkening the woods of the forest as it sinks lower and lower.

In the middle of the sea of forests that is the northern part of kingdom of Vale, sits a small town called Marysville. Formed like many of the smaller villages and towns on Sanus, and in Remnant as a whole, the town was formed under a strong minded Huntress who simply couldn’t live in the city of Vale or in any of the big cities, so with several families, she struck out into the wilds. It took time, sweat, blood and tears, but soon, a thriving town was built.

Built on the fork of a river, surrounding the northern and the eastern edges of the town, which are further protected by walls five metres in height and two feet in thickness, made of the strongest rock found in Vale, while the gates are ten inches of solid oak from the Emerald Forest. In its heyday, Marysville was one of the prime examples of non-city living. The people were well-fed from the farms that were placed on the western edge of the town, while the actions of the huntress who founded the village and the other able-bodied protectors kept the town save from the predations of bandits and the creatures of Grimm. Even trade was facilitated by the presence of the river fork, with small trading ships moving from inland out to sea and coming in the reverse stopping at the town to sell off some of their surplus goods: wood and ore from inland Vale, metal goods and weapons from Atlas in Solitas to the north, spices and foodstuffs from the kingdom of Mistral in Anima to the east and from Vacuo on the far-western end of Sanus.

But now, times have changed. Commerce out of the mountains of Vale has dried up significantly, with many tradesmen and craftsmen packing up and heading elsewhere to seek their fortunes. Some diehard woodsmen and miners still persist but their trips down river have begun to become less frequent. The farms still provide enough food, supplemented by the hunters who range out into the forests around the city, but the town does not feel the same anymore. The huntress who helped forge the village was laid to rest many years ago because of illness, and no-one has been able to replace her.

And to top it all off, for the last month, strange lights have been spotted in the sky. Sometimes they just sit there in the heavens, blinking and twinkling brighter than any star in the night’s sky, and sometimes they fall to heaven in streaks of light, their brightness disappearing after they enter the atmosphere. The lights, mixed with the sounds of far-off thunder when no rain clouds are present in the sky, at almost seemingly random times of day, tell a very strange and unknowable tale. To the people of Marysville, it’s a trying time.

But to little Carmen Geal-Hart, a small, six year old rabbit Faunus, the town is still as great as ever.

She’s a short girl, with shoulder-length russet coloured hair, a pair of long rabbit-like ears sticking atop her head. Her eyes are pale shade of gold, which stand out against her pale complexion. Dressed in her favourite but simple dress made of deep blue wool, favourite toy clutched in her hand, Carmen skips along the paths of the town to her house.

“Hello, Miss Hazel!” She calls out happily to the local greengrocer as she waves, the older lady waving and smiling warmly in return as Carmen carries on her way.

To the girl, Marysville is a wonderful town. Sure, she’s heard of Vale, Atlas, Mistral and Shade, and she would love to visit each one of them. But, her parents aren’t rich enough, and even with the lien she had saved up from chores and allowance, it would take… a billion years for her to get enough money to go anywhere! Although her mom had said that she’d take Carmen to Vale on one of her dad’s business trips, so the young girl was very excited about that.

The big clock in the town square begins to chime, each toll of the bells ringing out across the buildings and walls. It rang out four, five, six times; time for dinner.

Carmen smiles happily as she imagines what her dad is making for dinner. Probably something sweet, something with meat and veg. Oh, she can taste it now…

“Dinner time, dinner time~” She happily sings as she skips along the path to her house. As she goes along, she sees the numerous stall owners and shopkeepers close up for dinner, although the town inn remains open and quite busy as always.

She passes by one of the shops.

She hears it coming before she sees it, her second set of ears turning slightly in the direction it’s coming from, but she doesn’t react fast enough.

The clump of wet mud hits her square on the stomach, staggering her slightly, making her drop the toy in her hand, even as the dirt splashes against her dress.

“You meanies!” Carmen cries out, tears coming to her eyes as she looks at the pair of older boys that threw the mud pie at her, all of them currently laughing like it was the funniest thing on Remnant.

“Aw, is the poor little bunny gonna cry?” One of them taunts, flicking a mud pie up and down in his hand.

“Th-this is m-my favourite d-dress…” Carmen sniffles, trying her best to suppress the tears in her eyes. She doesn’t want to make the boys laugh more at her, but they do anyway.

“Look at that. Now that’s just sad.” The second boy says loudly, and very mockingly, not caring at all for the damage done to the blue dress.

Again, Carmen sniffles.

“Who cares anyway?” The first boy speaks up again, his face scrunching in an ugly smirk. “She’s just an ugly little piece of Grimm bait. The only reason she’s here is because her dad married that bitch-freak of a hunter, and my dad says that-”

“Your dad says what?”

The female voice that speaks up from behind Carmen is cold enough to make the boys instantly freeze up in fear, the first one dropping the mud pie as colour drains from his face. But even through her tear-filled eyes, Carmen smiles as she looks up.

“M-momma.” She croaks out, her voice becoming sore from the sobs.

Marion Geal-Hart is a hunter. Not a Huntsman or a Huntress, but a regular hunter. She’s tall, with a lean, tough body from jumping and running through the woods after prey and away from predators. Her face is a classic mother’s face; round, inviting and warm, but it’s marked with signs of a hard life. Even though Aryle’s only in her early thirties, her skin is marked with stress lines and scars from her profession, and the fact she’s a female Faunus in a human man’s world. Her shoulder length brunette hair has begun to grey, but her grey eyes still hold the power to freeze a man solid with a glare. Like is doing right now with her daughter’s bullies.

Or it could be the presence of the double-barrelled, over-under lever-action rifle she holds loosely in her right hand by the trigger guard.

Marion speaks in a voice as cold and hard as steel.

“If I ever, ever,  catch you two messing with my Carmen again. There will be hell to pay.”

The two boys quickly nod their heads.

“Now scram. And remember: I know where you two live.”

The pair of boys quickly scatter, almost bumping into and falling over each other in their haste to get away from the Faunus hunter and her daughter.

When the pair of bullies are far enough away, Marion lets out a sigh as she slings her rifle onto shoulder before she crouches down next to her daughter who is now beginning to weep softly. As she goes down, Marion’s leporine ears bob slightly, the one on the left side drooping down heavily from where the cartilage had been fractured while hunting some deer in her younger years.

“What’s wrong, sweet-thing?” She asks in the soft voice of a mother.

Carmen gives a small hiccup as she raises a hand to wipe at her eyes. “They… m-my f-favourite dress..”

Her mother shushes her as she strokes Carmen’s hair. “It’s okay, sweetie. Dirt comes out. Now pick up your toy and let’s go home.”

Picking up  her toy, a stuffed toy in the shape of a rabbit, the young girl reaches out a hand which her mother takes gently. Rough, calloused fingers brush against soft, untarnished skin before the mother and child make their way home.


 

Their home is a small dwelling; single storey with a small attic which doubles as Carmen’s fathers work room, two bedrooms, a kitchen/dining room, and a living room. It’s not a pretty house, nor glamorous, being made from a mix of Valean granite wales with oak timbers and slate on the roof. Outside in the back garden is an outhouse with a toilet and a bath. But it was solid, sturdy, kept heat in during the winter and cool in the summer and it was home.

While Carmen wishes she could have something grand like an Atlesian palace, she loves her house with all her heart, and Marion likes it too.

“Honey, we’re home.” Marion calls out as she opens the door to her home, Carmen stopping to take off her shoes.

“And I’m telling you, Hans Geal-Hart! You! Are a mad-man!” A brusque and rough voice calls out from the attic, making Carmen’s animal ears drop in fright while Marion’s ears turn to point sideways as she grits her teeth in annoyance.

“Markus, I’m not making this up.” The pair hear the man of the house, Carmen’s father and Marion’s husband, speak up in his scholastic tone of voice. “Now, you’ve heard the thunder, and you’ve seen the lights. Godsdamnit, this is not something natural!”

Closing the door behind them, Marion leads Carmen into the kitchen area and towards the stairs that lead to the attic. From above, they can hear Hans arguing with the usual customer.

“Hans, it’s just thunder-”

“With no rain or cloud in the sky?” Hans retorts sternly. “Markus, something is going on to the north-east and none of it makes a lick of sense!”

The sound of moving feet on the floor above reaches the ears of the Faunus below as the person above moves towards the stairs. The door opens.

“I’ll hear no more of this Hans. If you start spreading this stuff around, then all you’ll do is frighten the people.”

Markus Meral is a heavy-set man, a mixture of muscle in the right places and fat in a few of the right places. A balding egg-shaped head sitting above his big bushy beard and moustache, he wears a black leather waistcoat over a pale blue, long sleeved shirt while he wears a pair of well-worn deep blue jeans. The outfit is completed by a pair of rugged leather boots on his feet and a holstered large calibre revolver on his hip. A man like Markus didn’t become mayor of a town like Marysville by sitting around doing nothing.

Markus looks in quiet shock, his grey eyes opened wide beneath a pair of bushy eyebrows, at seeing Marion and Carmen standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up at him.

“Oh. Sorry, Marion.” He says, looking at the pair of female rabbit Faunus’ as he makes his way down the stairs. “I didn’t mean to get in the way of-oh, little Carmen. What happened to you?”

Carmen looks away shyly as she takes a hold of the bottom of her dress, not really pleased with speaking to the large man who scares her.

Marion answers for her. “Those little… crap-heads were bullying my Carmen again.”

Markus opens his mouth to speak.

“And if you say that it’s just ‘boys being boys’, I will hurt you.” Marion says testily.

The mayor holds his hands up in a placating gesture. “I’ll go speak to them when I get the chance. Good evening to you pair.”

Giving a good-bye nod of his head to Marion and a ruffle of her hair to Carmen, being careful of her ears, the mayor leaves the house, letting Hans Geal-Hart step down the stairs into the kitchen room.

Hans is a full head taller than Marion, his wife’s leporine ears reaching up his forehead. His hair is a light shade of blue, contrasting with his tawny skin colour and golden eyes. He’s wearing a loose fitting white shirt and simple tan trousers over a pair of black shoes. He looks dog-tired and it’s left him looking very stressed out.

Although all that stress and worry melts away when he sees his wife and daughter waiting for him.

“Hehe.” He chuckles slightly as he finishes making his way down the stairs. “You… you heard that, I take it.”

“A little hard not to.” Marion says as she shifts her ears to face the front, which is immediately followed by Carmen’s rabbit ears popping straight back up in joy at seeing her father.

Hans notices the dirt on his daughter’s dress. “Oh, what happened to you, sweetie?”

“… bullies.” Carmen replies shyly, earning a rueful smile from her father.

“Well. It’s just dirt, so no serious harm done.” He says as he bends forward a bit, putting his hands onto his knees. “I’ll heat up some water and we’ll get it scrubbed out, and you scrubbed up, before dinner. How’s that sound?”

Not obviously happy about the prospect of a bath, but keen on having her dinner, Carmen nods her head before she makes her way out of the backdoor and towards the outhouse.

When she’s left the house, Hans turns to his wife, a grave expression on his face.

“Who was it?”

“Hawken’s eldest and his little shitheel of a friend.” The rabbit Faunus says brusquely as she moves to set her rifle on its place on the wall. “I scared them off, but I’m not sure it’ll take. You know what assholes like that are like.”

“They’re teenagers, Marion. They’re all assholes.” Hans says simply as he switches on the tap to fill the kettle with water. “It’s the parents that are the problem. Remember when we first came here?”

She remembers it well. The hostile glares and wide berths at first, then there was the attempted displays at outright hostility and violence against Hans and Marion herself. Even when she had begun to bring in game and prey that far outweighed herself, some of the village still tried to shun her out. It had been the year before Carmen had been conceived that the worse incident had occurred: some drunk farmer had tried to take a hammer to their front-door, ranting and raving about a ‘curse’ or something like that.

Hans had tried to carefully and calmly talk the man down. When that didn’t work, Marion shot him in the foot before smacking him upside the head with her rifle. He hadn’t been killed, of course, just knocked unconscious. But it sent a message: don’t mess with the Geal-Harts.

Putting the kettle onto the stove, Hans lights a match, so the water can begin to boil as Marion takes a seat at the table.

“So… mind telling me what all that was about?”

Her husband doesn’t say anything as he lets the water begin to boil.

“You heard it all. I was trying to convince Markus to let me contact the council in Vale, so we can send a group of Huntsmen to investigate.”

Marion cocks an eyebrow as she scoffs lightly. “Over some lights in the sky? It could be flights from Atlas-”

“Marion, we both know about the Atlas military. And we both know that no Atlas military vessels can operate in Remnant’s high orbit. No nation has, otherwise the news would be all over it.”

The rabbit Faunus sits up slightly in her seat as she takes in what her husband hadn’t just said.

“Honey? You’re not really suggesting what I think you’re suggesting…”

Hans turns to look at Marion with a serious expression on his face.

“Aliens?” He shrugs his shoulders. “Could well be.”

Marion’s jaw drops slightly, as do her ears, in disbelief as she takes in what her husband has just said.

“That’s… you cannot be serious!”

“There’s no other way to explain what’s going on.” Hans points to the north-east. “That ‘thunder’ isn’t like any thunder you or I have ever heard. Those lights sure as hell aren’t airships of any kind, or falling stars. This is not right!”

The room falls silent at Hans’ outburst, Marion looking at him in shock. Soon, the sound of a whistling kettle fills the room, prompting Hans to turn away and move the kettle to let it settle.

“I just…” Hans begins as he puts his hands against the kitchen top. “I’m just worried. The kingdoms are in the longest period of peace since the Great War, and… I’m concerned.”

A lot of aspects of Faunus biology are exaggerated (One particular aspect about horse Faunus being on the top list, Marion recollects), but one thing that is not exaggerated about rabbit Faunus is that they know easily when someone is upset, and right now, Hans is positively radiating sadness.

Getting up from her chair, Marion walks forward until she’s standing behind her husband. She wraps her arms around his chest and pulls herself forward until her head is resting against Hans’ back, her ears gently tickling the back of his head.

“You’re a good man, Hans Geal-Hart.” Marion says softly as she nuzzles her face against her husband’s body. “Don’t worry. We’ll sort this out. I promise.”

Hidden to her sight, but not escaping her hearing, Hans lets out a contented sigh at Marion’s words before he turns around and wraps his arms around his wife. Leaning his head down, he nuzzles his face against Marion’s hair.

“Thank you.”

Marion says nothing in reply as she lets herself be held by the man she loves. Time melts away as the pair stand together in their embrace, arms crossed over the other as they express their love intimately.

Looking up at her husband, Marion feels a need overcome her as she looks at his lips, thin but very inviting. She pushes herself up to stand on the balls of her feet, lips ready…

Tap-tap-tap

The sound of a very small finger tapping on the window breaks the moment, making both adults look at the offending party.

It’s Carmen, standing on the other side of the window, still wearing her dress and looking a bit peeved off.

“Is the water ready yet?”

“Oh, Brothers!” Hans exclaims as he lets go of his wife, a small whine coming from the woman’s mouth, before he picks up the kettle. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I’ll be right there.”

As she watches Hans move towards and out of the door, taking a hold of Carmen’s hand as they both head to the outhouse, Marion’s mouth turns into a warm, loving smile.

This is home for her.


 

As the sun finally sinks below the horizon and the trees, the whole of Marysville beings to settle down for the evening. Shops close their doors while the lights inside are lit, the families inside sitting down to meals. The foot traffic at the inn in the centre of town increases in traffic as outside traders and visitors head there for a meal and board; the music increases in volume along with the sounds of chatter, as the smells of cooked foot wafts into the air.

It is a jovial attitude of a bustling town at ease.

But, underneath all that joy and fun, a feeling of unease sets in. Especially when the rumble of far off thunder sets off again. Underneath a clear and starry sky.

“There’s that thunder again.” A farmhand says as he looks up from his pint glass of beer.

“Without a cloud in the sky and not a flash of lightning?” Another farmhand growls out as he puts his fork down heavily against the table. “Grow some brains, you little soft-shit. It’s those Atlesian bastards up to something, I swear on the Brothers.”

“Atlas?” A shopkeeper says incredulously. “Like they’d do anything in Vale.”

And so the men, in the manner of those who have left work, have their bellies filled and so have less of a care in the world, begin to argue back and forth over their own theories of what is causing the thunder to the north-east.

It is not a loud or particularly forceful argument, but it is an argument that is easily heard by many people in the inn. And it is a topic that unnerves many people. The unknown and the unknowable are the simplest things to cause fear in a person. Even the most strong willed individual can fall victim to the most powerful of human emotion, the one emotion that above all else can cripple a person almost entirely: fear.

And on Remnant, fear is as much a danger as a lit match in a gunpowder magazine.

For, like moths to a flame, fear attracts the creatures of Grimm.

Away from the lights of Marysville’s houses and away from the prying but unkeen eyes of its sentries, a band of Beowolves stalk the boundaries of the forest at the western edge of the farmland around the town. Grimm are never far from any human civilization on Remnant, their innate nature; the desire to destroy any vestiges of mankind’s, to render humans and Faunus apart with their teeth, claws and talons, to sow fear and destruction in their path, driving them to seek out and attack settlements in the wild.

The main cities on Remnant are beyond them. Walls too stout, too many guns, too many Huntsmen. A dream for all Grimm, if Grimm could dream. To tear down those abominations in the eyes of darkness and cast them to ruin, that is the ultimate end goal for the Grimm across the world, on every continent. As directed by their dark mistress.

In the tree-line, hidden away from the sight of the humans on the walls, the band of Beowolves pace back and forth aggressively, their innate desire to destroy and despoil brimming at the fore of their instinct. Standing the height of a full grown man, the sixteen beowolfs are only juveniles. Their skulls are rounded, and the only spikes of white armour against their black fur is on their backs, forearms and biceps, which hang almost to the floor in the slouching posture. A grotesque fusion of humanoid and wolf, their juveniles snap and snarl at each other, their tempers growing thin at the lack of movement.

One of them approaches the tree-line, down on all fours, wanting to launch itself out of the woods and against the wall.

A sharp, low growl of warning stops it in its tracks, causing it to slink backwards, chastised.

The one that issued the growl is an Alpha beowolf. It is twice the height of the others, its form more armoured and deadly, while its head more closely resembles that of a predatory canine: long snout, with powerful snapping muscles and brutally sharp rending canines. Its face, white as bleached bone, red lines on the brow and sides leading to baleful yellow eyes, is notched and scarred from the weapons of various Huntsmen and hunters. Each notch is a mark that it has survived each encounter, and each one tells that it has slain many.

As a Grimm ages, its intellect increases. It learns, it adapts. It remembers to avoid certain sounds, which then leads it to avoid certain weapons and how to overcome their weaknesses. It remembers scents; the scent of gun-oil, machine lubricant and dust, all signs of armed humans, which also remembers it to remember the scents of the defenceless ones. Their hide becomes tougher, armour growing more heavy, while their claws and teeth becomes sharper.

As they grow, they become deadlier.

The Alpha looks at the town’s walls. The world it sees through its eyes is monochrome; shades of black, grey and white that change with the time of day and position. When it was younger, it was difficult to make out the shapes of farmhouses, fences and walls. All were just fuzzy forms. But now, in its evolved state, it can see each detail more clearly, each form becoming clearer year after year of hunting. As it raises itself to its full height to see more clearly, it can see the approach from the woods to the walls, past a few small farmhouses. It’s a straight path.

All that is uncertain to it is the human guards.

They appear as shifting red forms in the Alphas sight. Each one a baleful red, each one it sees driving the killing urge in its predatory brain higher and higher. It bares its teeth to the open air, clawed forelimbs flexing as muscles in its hindlegs coil in readiness.

But it waits. The time  is not right.

In its sight, it seems three humans. Even through the distance, probably three-hundred metres or so,  it can easily smell the gun-oil, lubricant and ballistic powder. Three humans. Even armed, they would be no contest for the Alpha.

But it knows. It knows the ways of its prey. It knows that if three humans see it approach, then they would all open fire on it, while the alarm would be sounded, and the attack would be wasted. The Alpha would survive, no doubt about that, but the others would perish, and the town would remain.

So it waits. It bides its time.

Around it, the other Beowolves become more anxious, but they stay in place. The desire to destroy clings to the Alpha, so they are drawn to it. The leader of the pack, they take direction from it. So they wait too.

Two of the figures move away from the third one, walking away to the right.

Without a growl or a snarl, the Alpha lunges forward, its powerful hindlimbs propelling it forward as it gallops straight to the wall. It leaps over a fence, then another, before it hits the open road. Using its speed, it propels itself up onto the wall. Its claws dig in tight to the rock, pain flaring in its mind.

But its killing lust is up, so the pain is ignored as it hauls itself up the wall, using its claws as hooks.

It reaches the top. The human hasn’t seen it, its attention focused on something inside the town.

Silently, the Alpha moves onto the wall itself. A fact that is unnoticed to the human, but clearly seen to the others. They all see the next action as the Alpha smashes a mighty paw against the human, smashing its upper body to rags and sending it over the wall.

The juveniles charge. They bay, they snort, they snarl as they charge towards the wall. Some jump over the fence, some just smash through them. But they head to the wall.

Behind the pack is a group of large Ursa, six creatures strong, the mighty, stout predators lumbering out of the woods on the heels of the Beowolves.

On the wall, the two human guards hear the commotion outside and they panic. They panic as they see the twin packs heading towards their town. They panic when they see the Alpha beowolf charge across the wall-top at them. They ready their weapons, weapons that have not seen much use outside of the practice range at the guardhouse.

One of the guns fires, an automatic burst that rips the night air apart. The other one jams, sending its owner into a full-fledged panic.

The Alpha Beowolf roars as it lunges at the pair, jaws wide open and claws outstretched.

Then the destruction of Marysville begins.


 

She doesn’t know which event wakes her up. And Carmen probably never will. The start of that night was so tumultuous that, in her mind, all the sounds of the start blended together to form one noise. One cacophonous, horrendous noise.

The gun-fire at the walls, the howling and roaring of the Grimm, the screams of the townspeople caught in the attack. Or her own parents barging into her room, wild-eyed and fearful, her mother armed with her rifle and her father with a pistol in his hand.

All of those noises wake her from her sleep. And awake her to the horrible night.

“Carmen!” Her mother cries out as she rushes to her bed, her daughter jerking up violently from her sleep.

“Momma! Wha-what’s going on?” Carmen asks, as she looks around in worry.

“There’s no time, Carmen. We need to go. Now!” Her mother replies sharply as she pulls out some clothes from the drawers and pass them to Carmen. “Get dressed, quickly.”

Carmen opens her mouth to respond, but a staccato burst of gunfire goes off somewhere nearby before it is quickly silenced. The young rabbit Faunus girls ears drop sharply in fright as she hears a loud cry come out close by.

“Momma…” She croaks out in fright, clutching her blanket close to her chest.

A pair of hands take hold of her shoulders and she turns to look at the face of her father, fear evident in his eyes, even as he puts on a brave face.

“It’ll be all right, sweetie.” He says steadily. “Just… just stay with us.”

Carmen nods her head before she gets out of her bed and starts putting on the clothes chosen for her. They aren’t her favourite blue dress, but she’s too scared to ask about it. The noises outside are terrifying and they make her ears flit around as they try to figure out where each noise is coming from. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, and she no matter how hard she tries, she can’t. It’s all so confusing to her mind.

But what’s more confusing is that her mother is walking around the house with her gun. After all the times she has been told never to touch the gun that hangs on the wall, after all the times that Carmen has seen her mom carefully handle the gun inside the house. To see her holding the rifle ready while she looks out of the window.

“What’s… what’s happening, momma?” She asks after she pulls her top over her head.

Carmen’s mother looks at her, a strange smile on her face. “A bad thing, sweet-thing. A bad thing.”


 

As they dash out of the house, Carmen baulks at what she sees around her. The air has become thick with fear, combined with a pall of smoke from numerous flames that have sprung up as houses have become demolished and set alight, the former blotting out the moonlight while the latter sends the town into a horrible play of shadows.

Screams and cries echo from everywhere at once as Carmen is carried out of the house in her father’s arms, her mother close behind. The six-year old looks around, trying to figure out what’s happening, to try and see what’s going. Against the lights of the flames, she sees people dashing to and fro, backlit against the flames. And there are… other forms. Animals, but not quite animals, snapping and snarling in the gloom.

As her parents carry her down the street, Carmen can’t understand what’s going on around her. The normally peaceful town is now filled with pandemonium.

She can’t process what she’s seeing because it breaks every thought and every truth she has been told about her home. The walls that she had thought and been told would keep out all the nasty things and the monsters in the woods, had failed. There’s the sound of the mighty wooden gates being forcibly smashed open, followed by more screams and a louder roar.

“Papa,” She whispers out as her parents duck into the cover of a buildings wall. “I’m scared.”

Being careful not to hit her with his pistol, Hans reaches over and gently brushes her hair as he tries to soothe her.

“It’s okay, sweetie. It’s okay. We’ll be okay.”

The sharp crack of a rifle makes both of them flinch, Carmen screaming out in shock, as her mother steps out from the corner of the building and fires her rifle down the street. She fires two more times, each shot earning a roar of pain from whatever she was shooting at.

“There’s got to be up to twenty of them!” Marion calls out as she comes back to stand behind the wall again. “But I think there could be more.”

“You know what Grimm are like.” Hans responds as he pulls Carmen closer to his body.

Marion opens her mouth to speak, but a loud, echoing screech, a screech that goes right through the bones of the family and into their souls.

“Get down!” Marion cries out as she quickly grabs her loved ones and drags them to the floor.

As she does, a massive gust of window buffets them all. It smacks down the smoke and the flames, almost making a trench in the miasma, revealing for a moment the night sky, stars twinkling and the broken shape of the moon beyond.

All of which are soon obscured by a giant black mass of feathers and wings, topped by a giant white skull of a head.

Carmen’s eyes open in fright as she begins shivering again.

The Nevermore screeches loudly again as it pass overhead, its wingspan enough to cover Carmen’s house easily. Each flap delivers a powerful down thrust that bludgeons the ground, sounding like the beat of doom itself.

Its giant heads swings back and forth as it looks for prey, its quartet of eyes scanning the town. It begins to turn as its eyes lock onto something.

It completes the turn, and begins to fly right towards Carmen and her family.

“No!” Marion shouts out as she stands up, rifle raised as she beings firing up at that large Nevermore. Each round she fires can easily put down a man or a deer in a single shot, and while it would take multiple rounds to do so, she can kill a human sized Grimm with her rifle. But against a Nevermore of this size, it’s like spitting at a raging house fire.

The giant Grimm keeps coming, claws out stretched and beak open, maw wide enough to swallow Marion whole. Even as the woman stands her ground and keeps pumping that lever to expend the spent rounds.

Her gun clicks empty.

“Marion!”

“Momma!”

The Nevermore screeches in triumph as it draws closer. With nothing else to do, Hans raises his arms over his daughter to shield her from the sight of what’s to come next.

The beast never makes it.

With heavy, barking bursts, the Nevermore’s body shakes and shudders as heavy calibre rounds slam into it, shredding the wings and torso. With the ability to fly lost, the beast begins to drop down instead of glide forwards.

Shocked by the turn of events, Marion can only stumble backwards as the giant flying creature slams into the ground pretty much in front of her, making her fall flat onto her behind.

“Wha-what was that?” Hans says out loud, the look of confusion on his daughter’s face asking the same question

The doppler scream overhead is their answer. Looking up, Carmen just catches sight of a shape passing above the village. It’s the same shape as the Nevermore but slightly smaller, with shorter and stiffer wings, and a shorter, stubbier head. What’s puzzling to her is the small pair of bright blue lights that end just above the tail. Same with the green and red lights that blink on the tips of the large wings.

“Th-that’s a jet.” Hans says out loud.

Carmen and her father watch in fascination as the jet flies out further across the town before it turns to the right and continues flying. For a second, she doesn’t quite get how, but Carmen things she sees a figure lit up in green in the centre of the jet before it’s obscured by the smoke and disappears.

“Are you two all right?” Marion asks as she finally picks herself up from the ground and rushes towards her prone family, reloading her rifle as she does. When she’s next to them, she looks in the direction the aircraft went. “What in the Brothers name was that?”

“That wasn’t an Atlesian aircraft.” Hans says simply, looking at his wife pointedly.

Marion doesn’t say anything, turning her attention back to the world around her as she reloads her rifle. The sounds of chaos are still raging around them, but the screams are fading, and the growls are becoming more prevalent.

“We have to move. Now.”

“Should we go to the river?” Hans asks as he picks himself up, Carmen still in his arms, her ears clamped firmly against her head.

Marion shrugs and shakes her head almost simultaneously as she looks around. “I… I don’t know. Maybe. That might be the best way out of here.”

Nodding his head, Hans takes a hold of Carmen and follows Marion as she leads them towards the edge of the town on the river. Most of the screams are coming from there, but with the growls coming from behind them increasing in volume, that seems to be the only direction to move in.

As they move through one of the streets towards the town square, they hear the sounds of the mysterious aircraft overhead again, accompanied again by the sounds of its heavy calibre guns firing. Looking up, they see bursts of gunfire light up in the smoke, along with the screeches of another dying Nevermore.

Silently, Hans offers a prayer to the Brothers and the Maidens to look after the mystery pilot.

As they enter the square, Marion slows the group down, her rifle raised as they move into the space. The sight that greets them is horrific.

Shops and buildings they had all known, places they had visited and shopped at are either in flames or in ruins; windows smashed with glass strewn everywhere, walls caved in or smashed asunder while doors are simply removed or thrown aside. And then there’s the bodies.

People that the Geal-Harts know and recognise, some that they don’t, all lie on the stones of the ground square. None of them look peaceful in death; limbs that are attached to bodies lie at unnatural angles, while some are simply strewn around the place. Some bodies are torn, some are shredded, while some are close to unidentifiable. Some have weapons in hands or close-by, showing that they died defending themselves or others, while many do not.

Hans covers his daughters eyes as he whispers to her. “Don’t look, sweetie.”

She doesn’t, as the sickly smell of death is enough to make her shake in fright.

Marion leads the trio further across the space, leading them in a snaking path to avoid stepping on a body or limb. Pools of blood and worse are strewn across the ground, and even with her job as a hunter, it still makes Marion to see the carnage that the Grimm has wrought on her town.

As they make their way past the town’s well, a loud groan draws their attention, making Marion wave her husband and daughter into cover behind the stone well.

“What’s wrong?” Hans asks quietly as he tries to peer over the well, but his wife pulls him back down.

Saying nothing, the female rabbit Faunus leans carefully out to the side to look across the town square. It takes a while to see what has caused the noise.

It’s the mayor, Markus. He is prone on the ground, pulling himself across the ground with his elbows. His face is streaked with mud, tears and blood. His clothes are covered in soot and dirt and blood… more blood than Marion would expect. Until she sees what has happened to his left leg; torn away right at the ankle, his foot is missing, the lower part of his trouser leg soaked with blood.

The man tries to push himself up on his hands, the same loud groan issuing from his mouth again. Marion doesn’t like the guy, but she can’t stand to see him in the state he’s in.

“Wait here.” The Faunus says to her family, not taking her eyes off the wounded man. “I’m going to…”

The words die in her throat at what she sees emerge from the smoke behind Markus’ prone form. It there is a nightmare given form, the beast prowling towards the injured man is it to a t. Thick, gangly arms of powerful, corded muscles lead down to two large paws that width of a man’s torso, each one tipped with five brutal looking claws, each of which are currently dripping with mixed viscera of mud and blood. Going up, the arms lead to a thick simian-like torso, the size of a man by itself, wrapped in coal black fur and studded front and back with white plates and spines of bone for armour, almost like the skeleton is breaking and pushing through the skin itself.

Then there’s the head. Like someone ripped out the skull of a wolf and supplanted it onto the head of an ape. Bone white, just like its spikes, except with red markings along the forehead and snout, and with a maw of brutal looking teeth which currently drip with saliva and blood. And its eyes. Each one is a baleful, glowing red that seems to shimmer as it moves from side to side, stalking towards Markus as he tried to hobble away.

Marion carefully ducks back into cover, flattening her rabbit ears against her head in an effort to makes herself smaller. An Alpha Beowolf is not something to trifle with even in the best circumstances. And these are not the best circumstances, not by a long shot.

“What is it?” Hans asks in a low voice.

“An Alpha.” His wife replies in a whisper, even as her ears pick up what happens next.

Markus whimpers as he tries to get away, knowing what’s behind him.

She doesn’t need to see the hit, hearing it is enough for her. The impact is heavy and meaty, the Alpha obviously having smacked Markus a good distance in whatever direction the Grimm wants him to go. The loud cry of pain tells her that the man is now seriously hurt.

And then there’s the whimpering.

“Oh, Brother. Brothers, please! Someone, help me!”

Despite herself, Marion looks around the corner of the well, and she immediately wishes she hasn’t.

Markus is on his back, now completely missing his right arm above the elbow. Blood is pouring from the stump and it has soaked his clothes thoroughly, making him slip slightly as he tries to back away from the Alpha now towering over him.

The man’s voice falls to a murmur in fear as he looks up at the Alpha Beowolf. She thinks it’s the trick of the light, but to Marion, it almost looks like the Grimm is smiling as it looms over the man. It raises a giant paw, and Marion quickly ducks back into cover as it swings a claw.

Markus screams. It’s not the dying screams of a man. No, that would too merciful, and the Grimm don’t know mercy. It’s not in their bodies. Each wet burble of a scream is punctuated with the sicking wet crack of a claw scything through flesh again and again and again.

Each blow, each scream makes the hiding Geal-Harts flinch. Carmen is too scared to even utter a word, but her fear of what she is hearing makes her pee herself into her father’s arms. Not that there’s anything that Hans can do, not with an apex predator nearby. So he suffers through it quietly, just waiting for the sounds of animalistic torture to stop.

It seems like it’s gone on for minutes before, with one final sickening crunch, the sounds stop. The trio waits in cover for a few moments as they hear the heavy thump of feral footsteps move away before receding.

Marion leans out from cover slightly, letting her eyes peek out.

“Is it gone?” Hans asks.

A feeling nags at Marion’s brain, especially amongst the continuing sounds of ruin from the town.

“I think it’s gone.”

Not saying anything else, the pair slip out of cover, Carmen nestled tightly into her father’s arms.

“Wait here.” The Faunus huntress says simply as she readies her rifle and moves to investigate the body of the mayor. The now ex-mayor, rather.

She gags. She’s an experienced hunter, with many years of gutting and skinning animals under her belt, but this. Marion is clean, methodical in her skills with the knife on the prey she brings down. But what happened to Markus is nothing of the short. It was pure savagery, unbridled rage and animalistic fury that tore this man apart. His entire torso and stomach is torn asunder, each cut seeming to have been more savage than the last. The ribs are shattered to pieces while his entrails, what remains of them, are thrown around his corpse while his blood still pools around him.

Not wanting to remain any closer to the corpse, Marion heads back to her family.

“We need to get out of here.”

“Marion…” Hans says fearfully as he looks at something past his wife’s back.

She turns.

They’re coming out of the shadows and the flames. They seem to slip directly from the blackness, each step closer they take revealing more of their horrifying details. White claws and fangs drip with blood, black fur is matted with dried offal, while red eyes glow with demonic malice.

There’s six Beowolves heading right for them.

“Momma, I want to go home.” Carmen whines out fearfully, almost on the point of tears.

Marion doesn’t say anything before she reaches into her belt and draws out a small cylinder, the same size as her fist. It cost a pretty penny in lien to get, and she said she’d only use it for emergencies. Right now seems like the right time to use it.

She pulls out a small pin on the top before she chucks it right at the Grimm in front of her and her family. The cylinder flies through the air, somersaulting over itself, before it clacks against the stones of the town square. It bounces once, twice, before…

WHOOSH!

The flame Dust in the grenade ignites catastrophically, engulfing the closest Beowolf in flames and turning it into a man-sized pillar of wailing and thrashing flame. The Dust in the grenade was specially made not just to engulf a target either, as Marion watches the flames spread out in a line going both sides of the initial explosion, creating a wall of flame.

Through the leaping and dancing fire, Marion pauses as she sees the hateful gaze of the Alpha Beowolf directed at her and her family.

Marion moves to stand next to her husband and daughter.

“That barrier won’t last long.”

Hans shakes his head ruefully. “We won’t last long, not with that many Grimm behind us.”

She knows he’s speaking the truth, especially since the roar of the flames is now joined by the roar of more and more Grimm, each one baying for the morsels in front of them, all but denied by the wall of flame.

Marion looks at her daughter, tears now streaming from her face at what’s going on.

Hans shifts his grip on his pistol.

“We can’t let them take her.”

Marion reaches up and strokes Carmen’s hair.

She looks past Carmen’s head at the wall they hid behind. A bucket sits on its side forlorn, a length of rope coiled beside it.

“We won’t let them.”

Taking Carmen in her hands, Marion strides purposefully towards the well.

“Momma?”

“Carmen, sweet-thing.” She says as Marion picks up the bucket and places her daughter inside. It’s a tight squeeze, so Carmen has to stand. “I want you to know that me and your father love you very much.”

“Momma?” The young girl frowns in confusion. “What’s happening? What are you doing?”

Understanding what his wife is doing, Hans quickly walks over as he picks up the length of rope in his hands, his pistol tucked into his waistband. Carefully, they both being lowering her down the hole.

“Momma?! Papa!? Wait!”

The yowls and roars from the Grimm grow louder as the flames begin to dim.

The bucket gets lowered deeper into the well, Carmen crying out loudly for her parents.

“Please! I’ll be a good girl, I promise!”

Marion feels hot tears streak down her cheeks as she helps her husband with the rope.

“You were the best girl, Carmen. And we love you so, so much!” She cries out loudly, her ears down fully in grief at what she’s doing. “And that’s why we’re doing this!”

“Momma!” Carmen cries out once more before she’s fully engulfed by the shadows of the well, out of sight, and, more importantly, out of reach.

Despite her best efforts, Marion collapses into painful sobs at what she and her husband have just done. But it was the only thing they could do for her.

“Marion, we need to go now.” Hans says, his voice strained, even as his eyes are clearly watering with regret. “Get up.”

Almost reluctantly, the huntress gets to her feet, rifle gripped tight in her hand as her husband leads her away from the town square. Behind them, the flames have dimmed down enough for the first, bravest Grimm to leap the fire and begin to chase the pair.

Running quickly, their lungs burning with the exertion, Marion still sobs loudly, even as she tells herself it was the right thing to do. Hans says it out loud.

“We had to do it! We couldn’t let her die like that, and I’m not killing my own child.”

The pair run towards the riverside area of the town before they slow down to a stop. The destruction here is not as bad as in the town proper, but buildings still burn, walls and windows broken down. All are joined with the smashed woodwork of destroyed boats, and again… more bodies.

The growls from behind them get closer, making Hans and Marion turn.

Marion isn’t a praying woman. The life of a Faunus, especially a Faunus woman in the wilds, teaches a person to rely on themselves above all else. So it takes her back when she hears herself being to pray.

“Holy Brothers; Lord of Light and Life, and Lord of Darkness and Death, hear my prayer. Watch over my dear daughter in this hour. See her safe, and keep her innocence and purity in life. Let her grow old and youthful, and let her days be filled with the happiness and bliss we tried to give her in our lives. Let her pass this night unsullied and in good health.”

“Amen.” Hans finishes as he turns and faces the oncoming horde, pistol held firmly in his hand.

The first Grimm bounds round a corner, snapping its head back and forth as its tries to seek out its feeling prey. Quickly, it spots them and beings prowling forward, savouring the slaughter to come.

“I regret many things,” Marion says as she readies her rifle, bringing the stock up to her shoulder. “But I don’t regret meeting you, dear. Or bringing Carmen into the world. Just that it was this world she was born in.”

“Agreed.” Hans responds as the first Beowolf is joined by another, and another. And another.

The beasts begin to lope closer and closer.

“I love you.” Marion says to Hans as the first Grimm breaks into a run.

The pair open fire.


 

Down in the well, Carmen is bawling her heart out. She can’t understand what her parents have done to her and why, so all she can do is cry.

“Momma! Papa! I’m sorry! Please! I want to go home!”

The night has been scary and confusing. The smoke, the fire, the noises. None of it makes sense to the young girls mind and now her parents have gone away, leaving her all alone in the dark underground.

“Momma!”

She reaches up, trying to grab onto the stones of the well, hoping that she can try and get herself up. But the stones are too slippery with water and moss, so she can’t hold on. With a small cry, she falls back down into the bucket, nearly falling into the water. There’s no way she can climb up the rope.

“MOMMA! PAPA!”

Above, she hears the sound of shuffling feet at the mouth of the well. Hopefully, Carmen raises herself up in the bucket.

“Momma?”

The loud snarl from the lunging Grimm echoes loudly down through the well as it reaches down with a giant paw and tries to claw its way down the well. Carmen cries out loudly as she falls back fully into the water, trying to keep herself afloat by holding onto the bucket, even as the Grimm keeps trying to claw and smash its way into the well to get at her.

When it decides that it can’t reach her, it simply stops and pulls its arm out. Looking down, it tilts its horrible, nightmarish head side to side to look at her in the water and the dark before, with a loud chuff, it moves off.

Now, the town above has finally quietened down. The Grimm have stopped snarling and baying, and the screams have stopped. All that can be hear is the roar of the flames, the occasional crash as a house consumed by the flames collapses on itself, and high above all that, the loudening then diminishing scream of the mysterious jet above the smoke.

Down in the well, Carmen, soaked to her skin, tears and snot pouring down her face in fear and grief cries out again.

“MOMMA!”

But the world gives no answer. Her voice becoming one with the sounds of the forest at night.

Chapter Text

It is the next morning after the destruction of Marysville, the act unknown to the entirety of the Kingdom of Vale, and the cafeteria of Beacon Academy in the city of Vale is busy with the morning rush of the students getting their breakfasts before the school day starts. Students, dressed in the black suits with gold piping for the boys and deep brown jacket with the same piping and a red plaid skirt for the girls, mill and walk around the tables, collecting their desired meals on their trays before heading to sit down at one of the tables.

Two such teams are Teams RWBY and JNPR. Lead by possibly the youngest student at Beacon, the red haired (or… black hair with red highlights, even her sister can’t really tell at times) Ruby Rose walks proudly to sit at her table, a bowl of Pumpkin Pete frosted flakes on one side and a glass of milk next to it. She had been forced to ditch the cookies she had alongside it because of Weiss insisting on the team leader having a ‘healthy breakfast’. Good thing she doesn’t know about the pockets in Ruby’s cape…

“Does anyone know if the meteor-showers will start up again today?” Yang Xiao Long, Ruby’s older half-sister, asks as she takes her seat at the long table, a tray of high protein cereal, an apple and orange juice as her meal. She is as diametrically opposite to Ruby as possible; tall, with flowing, curly blonde hair and a very forward personality.

“No,” Her teammate Blake Belladonna, dark of hair and light on personality too, replies as she sits down alongside Ruby as they take their place to Yang. Her outfit is the same school uniform, although her large bow made of black velvet and her catseye eyeshadow is decidedly non-regulation. Not that that matters in Beacon. “It seems like they stopped a few days ago. They were nice to look at.”

“Aww. That’s too bad.” Comes the lament from the orange-haired member of Team JNPR, Nora Valkyrie. Short, playful and filled with more energy than the Energizer Bunny, she is happily munching away on a stack of pancakes the size of her head. “I wanted to make more wishes.”

Beside her, sipping his tea from a cup emblazoned with the dual axe crest of Vale, Lie Ren, his black hair tied back fashionably into a ponytail down his back, looks in confusion at the girl next to him.

“Nora, you do know that you’re only supposed to make one wish.”

“Yeah. One wish for each star I see!” Nora replies happily.

The three other teens can’t help but snicker at the comment, Nora’s whimsical nature making the morning that much brighter. It has been a couple of days since Jaune dealt with Cardin, and while Ruby still isn’t really sure what the whole deal was about, it means that Cardin and his team have stayed away from JNPR and RWBY for a good while, outside of classes of course. It’s also meant that Jaune and Pyrrha have gotten in more training time with each other.

Ruby opens her mouth to speak but closes it as she hears a gaggle of activity from down the row of tables to her back.

“Hey, it’s Team CFVY!”

“No way. Are they on a mission?”

Turning around, Ruby can’t help but smile giddily at the sight of the four second years walking down the cafeteria, each one dressed in their combat gear. She’s known about Team CFVY since Signal and to see them in person… it’s still cool.

First up is the leader, Coco Adel, the Fashionista Huntress. Dressed in her iconic outfit of a cocoa shirt, with a dark brown waist cincher and trousers, she is decked out in a number of accessories that are more high end fashion than tactical gear. Several necklaces of black pearls and a black silk scarf are wrapped around her neck, while her weapon, currently held in its portable handbag form, is studded with golden studs, hangs from her right shoulder. A pair of gold rimmed aviator sunglasses hang lazily at the mid line of her nose, letting her dark brown eyes peer out over the world as she strutted her way down the row of tables, carried along on a pair of deep brown high-heeled boots, with a beret of the same colour completing the outfit. To Ruby, and everyone else surely at Beacon, she is a walking fashion show as much as a hardcore huntress.

Next up is Fox Alistair. A Vacuon native, if Ruby has to guess, with his deeply tanned skin and his dark, copper coloured hair, Fox gives off an almost remote vibe. While she doesn’t want to admit it outright, the young huntress-in-training thinks it has something to do with his eyes; off-white and pupil-less, a rumour persists that Fox is blind, although with how easily he follows in Coco’s footsteps… it’s honestly hard to tell. In comparison to Coco, his outfit is very understated and simple; a deep orange, sleeveless, zippered vest, a pair of simple black jeans and a pair of simple brown shoes.

Behind Fox is probably the biggest, and also possibly the cutest, contradiction in Team CFVY. Standing a full head shorter than either Coco or Fox, Velvet Scarlatina is a Faunus. There is no way around that fact, especially when it stares you in the face in the form of two large, brown rabbit ears that bring her height up to the same as the other two members of her team. With a heart shaped face, large brown eyes framed by a long head of straight, brown hair, Velvet is really, really cute. Her outfit does nothing to hide her combat abilities however: a matching pair of brown shorts and jacket over a form-fitting black undershirt, combined with a pair of black leggings. The outfit is completed by a pair of golden spaulders and bracers, while her weapon is… Ruby can’t see it, but she knows it’s there. It might be in the gold and brown box suspended on Velvet’s back…

And lastly, is Yatsuhashi Daichi, the giant of Beacon Academy. Taller than even Prof-Doctor Oobleck, and with the bulk to match, the final member of Team CFVY is probably the most imposing person that Ruby has met. Even if seeing him interact with Velvet and a few other first year students shows that he’s possibly the nicest person that the young girl knows, next to her dad of course. Dressed in his combat armour though, the tanned-youth with the short black hair, looks like an old Mistralian warrior, it’s a whole different story. With the curved greatsword on his back the same height as him, his pale-green, long short-sleeved robe worn over one shoulder, revealing the black muscle shirt beneath, and his plated armour on his left shoulder and fists, gives him the air of an ancient warrior.

All in all, as Team CFVY walk past her table, there is only one word that comes to Ruby’s mind.

“Cooool!”

As she passes her, Coco gives a wink to Ruby before she moves off, Fox in tow giving a polite nod of his head.

“Hey, Velvet.” Yang speaks up, raising a hand in greeting to the rabbit Faunus girl, making her stop and wave in response. “Going on a mission?”

“Hey, guys.” The second-year huntress replies as she stops next to the table her friends are at. “And yeah, we’ve got a mission. Nothing big, just a small search and clear.”

“Short and easy.” Yatsuhashi speaks up, smiling slightly at the younger huntresses as a look of quiet worry comes to their faces. “Nothing too hard. We’ll back before the evening, if anything else.”

For Ruby, however, only one emotion is playing on her mind.

“Oh, I’m so jealous you guys get to go on missions and we have to wait until next year!” She says out loud before she pouts. “But we have classes.”

“Oh, you are such a child.” The high-class voice of Weiss Schnee, the white-haired Schnee Dust Company heiress, spoke up as she walked up to the table, the last two members of Team JNPR in tow. A while ago, the phrase would have been an angry phrase full of scorn, but now it’s a friendly taunt.

“Hello, Yatsuhashi.” Pyrrha Nikos, the flame-haired champion from Mistral, says in greeting while behind her, her team-mate and team leader, the blonde Jaune Arc, can only raise a hand hesitantly in greeting to the giant.

“H-hey, Yatsuhashi.”

The giant of a student nods his head in greeting before he speaks to the boy who’s a whole head and shoulders shorter than him.

“Jaune, I’ve heard that you’ve been sparring with Pyrrha.”

Not sure what to say, Jaune goes for the simple, tried and true: “Umm… yeah.”

Yatsuhashi smiles again. “If you would like, I have some texts on Mistralian fencing that I think would be beneficial to you. I could lend them to you, if you want.”

At the suggestion, Pyrrha’s face lights up with joy while Jaune’s face reddens in embarrassment, before the redhead begins excitedly talking to Yatsuhashi.

Ruby, however, pays no attention to it, especially as she sees Velvet, leaning forward a bit, point to her large rabbit ears in a conspiratorial gesture.

“What’s up, Velvet?” She asks in a low voice. “Is Cardin still giving you trouble? Nora is still asking if she can break his legs.”

For a second, worry flashes across Velvet’s face before an embarrassed smile comes to the second-years face.

“No, it’s not Cardin.” Velvet replies sheepishly. “He’s been doing his best to avoid me, or he just simply says ‘hello’ and leaves it at that. What did Jaune do to him?”

For a second, Ruby thinks about telling Velvet about the incident involving Jaune, Cardin, the Ursa and the sap in the Forever Fall Forest… but that would take too long so she simply ignores it.

“Oh, not much. So… what’s up?”

A small but warm smile comes to Velvet’s lips.

“Ruby, I know that you were skipped ahead to Beacon, but just… relax a bit. Okay?”

Ruby’s silver eyes widen open slightly in shock.

“Hey,” Velvet continues. “I saw you guys in the initiation; all of my team did. You were good. But you don’t have to jump at every opportunity for a mission. Your time will come. Until then, just… keep your head down and study. You’ll get your shot.”

She has to admit; it’s a much better speech than the one Ozpin gave the day Ruby and her friends got over a month ago. She opens her mouth to respond, but is quickly cut off as CFVY’s leader calls out from all the way across the cafeteria.

“Hey, you two! If you’re any slower, we’re going to leave you behind!”

Velvet squeaks out in shock before she calls out. “Coming, Coco! Yatsuhashi, lets’ go.”

Stuck in the middle of talking to Jaune and Pyrrha, the giant of a student can only nod his head before politely bidding farewell to the pair, allowing Yatsuhashi and his Faunus teammate to quickly rush down the aisle of tables.

As the pair of second-years pass their fellow students, they slow down as they run into a group that Ruby had honestly wished to have just disappeared.

Team CRDL.

Even in their school uniforms, Ruby can’t help but make the comparison that the student team looks like a delinquent group from one of her manga, with their mismatched and attempts at suave hairstyles. A few days ago, they would have been walking around the school with a cocksure swagger in their step.

Now though, that air of superiority is gone from them all, after what Jaune did to them, and especially for one member of the team, in the Forever Falls Forest. They’re not cowards, by any serious stretch, no-one at Beacon is. But being known among their circle as ‘the guys who ran from an Ursa’ is not something too easy to live down.

As the last half of Team CFVY passes them, three of the members of Team CRDL; Russel Thrush, Dove Bronzewing and Sky Lark, all shy out of the way of the pair, not wanting to even look at them, especially Velvet.

However, their leader and Velvet’s former bully, Cardin Winchester, simply refuses to look at the rabbit Faunus as she walks past him. But looking at his face, Ruby sees that it’s not contempt on his face. It’s that he simply wishes to avoid looking at her in general, like seeing her will bring pain to him.

And if the killer glare that Yatsuhashi directs at him is any indication, Cardin takes it to heart as he takes a step backwards away from the pair, doing his best to keep his breakfast tray out of the way too.

The path cleared, the last two members of CFVY head off to join with their teammates, allowing Team CRDL to make their way to their table.

As Weiss, Jaune and Pyrrha sit down in their seats, the quartet of teenage boys walk them past in single file. They look at the two teams, and the two teams look back at them. A few days ago, a snide remark or two might have been made by the quartet, or Cardin would have made some remark about ‘Jauney boy’ needing to join them at the table (Ruby still thinks the nickname is stupid) and the blonde going off and joining them.

Now it’s an awkward and tense silence, not a word given, or a motion made between the groups, before CRDL sits down at their chosen table.

With the tension gone, the talk at the table begins. Yang and Nora begin asking Pyrrha how her sparring sessions go, although… the way that Yang says ‘sparring’ is the same weird way that Yang says it when she talks about guys sometimes. It confuses Ruby, and it also makes Pyrrha’s face turn bright red. So it takes Ruby by surprise when Pyrrha suddenly bolts up from the table, tray in her hand as she quickly excuses herself from the table, almost quickly enough to shift Ren’s long hair, crying out as she goes past; “I’m sorry!”

It takes a few seconds for everyone to get over that event, but soon the topic of talk changes back to normal things: homework, lessons, tv shows, food, the like. And then the topic of before comes up again.

“Hey, Weiss,” Jaune asks out of the blue, a spoonful of Pumpkin Pete’s Marshmallow Flakes held at the ready in his hand. “I was wondering if… well… would you like to watch the meteor shower with me sometime tonight? After my training, of course.”

The white-haired huntress opens her mouth to speak, but Blake interrupts her.

“Actually, Jaune, it looks like the showers stopped. They’ve not been seen for the last few nights.”

Deflated at the news, Jaune simply lets out a low whine before he puts the spoonful of cereal into his mouth, while Weiss gives a happy smile. Before it shifts into a questioning look.

“Has anyone said anything about where this came from? I think the last time I heard about this many meteors coming to Remnant was when my grandfather was in his twenties.”

Ren shakes his head. “Valean astronomers haven’t been able to find anything, and Atlas scientists can’t figure it out either. Some are saying it’s pieces of the moon passing into our atmosphere, others say it’s just wayward space rocks.”

“Or it’s aliens!” Nora suddenly proclaims loudly, standing up in her seat as she slams her palms down onto the table top, making her breakfast jump, along with everyone else at the table.

Six pairs of eyes blink at her in confusion, while several heads around their table turn to look at the pink-haired girl before they decide to turn back to what they were doing. Nora’s loud outbursts have become a common enough occurrence now.

Weiss speaks up. “Aliens? Really?”

Ruby, ever the optimist, instantly lights up at the idea. “Like the ones from Alien Grimm From Beyond The Moon!?”

Beside her, Yang can’t help but laugh at her sister. “Come on, we’re not talking about those lame late night movies dad let us watch here, Rubes.”

“But it could be!” Ruby replies, looking at her older sister hopefully.

“But it’s not.” Weiss coldly replies.

“But it might be!” Nora responds quickly, turning her head to look at the Schnee heiress.

Before anyone else can say anything, Jaune lets out a noise of pain as Cardin walks past him, the orange haired teen’s elbow impacting against the back of the blonde’s head, his try of half-eaten food held in his hands.

Every eye at the table turns to look at Cardin as he stands behind Jaune, waiting for what he says.

“… sorry about that, Jaune.”

Jaune simply cracks a goofy smile. “No big.”

Cardin just looks at the blonde teen for a few moments before he simply nods his head and continues walking. Behind him trail the tan haired Dove and the blue haired Sky, each one holding their trays in their hands. Only one member of the team is absent…

“Hey, Russel!” Cardin calls out as he turns to look at the member of his team sporting a light green mohawk, still bent over his tray of food. “You coming or what?”

Annoyed, the teen looks up from his breakfast. “I’m still eating here! I’ll catch up with you in a bit.”

Not saying a word, the deep orange-haired teen turned away and stalked off, the two team members following in his wake.

“Well, that was weird.” Weiss says out-loud.

Ruby nods her head, as she easily knows what is weird. As she’s about to turn back to her bowl of Pumpkin Pete flakes, a flicker of movement from the other table catches her eye.

Russel has gotten up from his seat and, after casting a cautious eye at the direction his team, begins heading right towards her team and Team JNPR?

What the…?

“Hey.” Russel simply says as he stands behind Ren and Nora. “I… I couldn’t help but hear-”

“Nora talking about aliens?” Jaune asks, a friendly and open look on his face, before he shrugs. “Yeah, that’s kind of wild.”

Weiss on the other hand looks at Russel with a pretty harsh look on her face. Like the one she gave Ruby when she sneezed Dust all over her.

“Why do you care?”

Yang doubles down on the teasing. “Yeah. Don’t you have an Ursa to run away from?”

Amazingly, Russel bites his tongue and ignore the taunts, even as he reaches into one of his pockets and pulls out his scroll.

“Listen, I know you guys don’t like me,” He says as he pulls open the screen on his scroll and begins tapping away on it. “And I’m not really all that keen on you guys either. But… I think you’re right.”

Each member of Team RWBY and JNPR looks at Russel in quiet confusion as he brings up a web-page on his scroll before pushing it forward. On it, is an open page to a RemTube video titled ‘Meteor shower over Vale: PROOF OF ALIENS’.

The eyebrows of everyone around the table furrow in confusion, while Nora’s eyes light up with joy.

“See!” She says out loud as she points at the scroll in front of them. “See! I was right!”

Ren takes a hold of her arms and gently lowers it.

“What are you trying to show us here?”

Russel doesn’t say anything. Instead he just pressed the play button, starting the video.

A black, night sky fills the screen. Everyone watching the videos sees some stars twinkling against the sky, much more than the ones that could be seen in Vale city itself. Then, one of the lights becomes brighter.

Brighter and closer.

The camera shakes slightly as the person recording it tries to focus on the point of light.

Ruby has seen a good number of meteor showers in her time, watching them with Yang and dad, but what the ‘meteor’ does next is something she’s never seen before.

Instead of carrying on through the sky, zipping out of sight, the ‘meteor’ begins to very clearly level out. It moves slightly in one direction before it carries on flying, still burning with the aftermath of atmospheric entry.

And then there’s the noise.

Ruby has no idea what sort of noise a meteor falling to Remnant should sound like, but she knows what a Dust powered engine sounds like. She remembers the sound of the Bullhead’s engine on the night she fought that Torchwick guy and met Professor Goodwitch and Ozpin. That loud, whirring sound of its Dust engines shaking her ears will never leave her.

The sound she hears from the video is nothing of the sort. It’s an angry, horrible and aggressive roar of power that seems to make the air shake with fear as the meteor… no, the ship, flies off out of view, before the video stops.

Everyone around the table is silent at what they’ve just seen. Each one processing the info they’ve just taken in silently.

Yang speaks up first, recovering quickly.

“So… maybe they’re friendly.”


 

The autocannon mounted on the high adamantium wall barks loudly, the cycling bolt spitting out the hot, heavy brass shells onto the rampart. Even with the sound dampeners in his helmet, Tychos can’t help but flinch at the sound of the heavy weapon as the soldier manning the emplaced weapon fires at the local wildlife that had emerged right at the edge of no man’s land around Fort Tempest.

Looking through his magnoculars, Tychos watches the beast, roughly a full head larger than him and looking like a frakked up combination of a man and mutated canine, have its lower half mulched right on the edge of the cleared area around the fort.

“Cease fire!” He calls out to the gunner, not taking his eyes off the animal. “That thing’s not going anywhere soon.”

Looking through the magnoculars again, Tychos sees that his statement is being generous. The predator, denuded of its entire lower half, struggles to pull itself along the ground before basic biology takes its toll and it falls down, decidedly dead.

Pressing the stuff of the microbead on his neck, the Cadian contacts his superior.

“Lieutenant Deckard? This is Tychos. Intruder put down in sector 15-G. Another one of the local wildlife. How copy?”

The light voice of his platoon leader comes into his ear as she responds.

“Copy that, Tychos. Any other sign of activity?”

Looking through the magnoculars, the trooper pans his vision across the ground in front of his area. Tall trees, taller than an Earthshaker barrel is long and with wide bright green canopies covering the ground in shadow, stand right at the edge of the no man’s land around the fort, the rapidly decaying beast slumped underneath one such tree. The forests stretches beyond Tychos’ sight, interspersed with a large mountain range that continues far into the southern horizon. An endless sea of almost uninterrupted green, which stops one kilometre out from the edge of the fort. In front of all of that, the land is cleared, blasted away by high explosive rounds and flamer burn, stripping the land of any and all vegetation, before supplanting that with the steel of the Imperial war machine on the defence: banks of barbed wire obstacles stretched out in concentric hedges, combined with the star shapes of Krieg hedgehogs anti-tank obstacles and dragon’s teeth behind the wires, while the squat, nonagonal rocrete bunkers watches over all.

It is as strong a defence as could be afforded to an Imperial base on a potentially hostile world. Simple, timeless, effective.

“No other sign of activity, lieutenant. Want me to continue watch?”

“Negative on that. Return to barracks. Out.”

Not saying a word, Tychos taps his microbead once, signalling the affirmative. Turning, he slaps the other soldier on the shoulder.

“I’m off, man.”

The other Cadian, a pale skinned youth dressed in the deep brown armour and olive drab clothing of the 66th Infantry regiment, looks up in shock before he nods his head. His face is already beginning to become red from sunburn.

“Keep safe, brother.” The youth says before he returns to his vigil on the fort’s wall.

Nodding his head, Tychos makes his way across walls towards one of the large bastion towers that will take him down to ground level. The wall he’s walking along is wide enough to fit a Chimera comfortably, and at every hundred yards is a strong-pointed autocannon or heavy bolter. At each kilometre mark along the line, the wall protrudes out into a bastion, with a glacis slope at the bottom, each one creating a dead zone with heavy bolters and lascannons.

Even if it only covered an area of thirty square kilometres, for it to have sprung up in a little under a month is still a testament to the power of the combined Adeptus Mechanicus and the Imperial Guard.

Although, Tychos reflects as he rides down the elevator in the closest bastion to the ground, it was not perfectly easy.

While the specifics are not fully known to him, the Cadian did manage to piece together what happened as soon as the first Mechanicus cohort landed on the planet. They had managed to clear away about half an acre of woodland before the first of the beasts had attacked. A pack of about twenty of the ones with the canine shaped heads had torn through an equal number of servitors before the Mechanicus had scrambled a force of skitarii, along with the reconnaissance force of Cadians sent down to the planet. They were tough beasts to put down, but lasguns and flamers always paid their toll.

But, as more woodland was cleared, and the construction of the fort had progressed, the attacks had just kept coming. Every day, scores and scores of the local wildlife, the same beasts with black fur and white skulls, would attack the construction site, and each day they would be driven back with lasguns, flamers, chainblades and heavy weapons.

As the days stretched into weeks, and the walls of the fort rose ever higher, it seemed that the ire of the beasts grew ever stronger. Larger mobs, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, would attack the walls. Learning the lessons, and using the mathematic computations from the Mechanicus adepts on the ground, the Cadians had deployed their own heavy guns to meet them. Leman Russ’ in the Exterminator and Punisher patterns spat out punishing volleys from their heavy guns, while Hellhounds in conjunction with Sentinels plugged any gaps in the lines. Men and women died, as they always did, but each death brought the fort that one step closer to completion. It only took the use of the artillery guns; the Basilisks and the quad guns, to finally get the beasts far enough from the walls to allow the Mechanicus to complete the fort.

Word had it that those who died in the days before the fort was completed had their bones added to the very walls that Tychos now stood under.

Looking up, he thought it was an odd show of respect. Walls that are just shy of being the same height as Reaver battle-titan, were propped up by the bones of dead Cadians. At least it’s a better resting place than being burnt in a firestorm, or lost to the vacuum of space, or having your soul-

The smack of a fist impacting the back of his helmet snaps Tychos out of his cold reverie.

“Hey! What the hell?”

Standing behind him, dressed in her own uniform, Sophia chuckles happily at the man in front of her.

“Man, if it’s not dreams at night, it’s you spacing out in the middle of the day. Should we put you down for a Section Eight?”

Tychos grimaces at the specialist’s words. Section Eight was a man unfit for combat because of mental health. In other Guard regiments, it was a fairly safe way to get out of duty and shipped off to some Munitorum holding area away from the fighting. For Cadians…

“Terra no.” The man replies as he walks past Sophie, the woman falling into step alongside him. “It’s just… We’re back on the ground again. Never thought I’d see it happen anytime soon.”

Sophia nods her head.

“I know what you mean. I was expecting some more void combat, if I’m being honest. But I can’t complain.” Sophia takes a deep breath of air through her nose and exhales loudly. “It’s so nice to breath actual air again.”

Nodding his head, Tychos looks at his companion as a small smile forms on his face. Sophia, Reinhardt, all the other Cadians that are on the ground, totalling nearly thirty-thousand personnel in total (if you didn’t include the flyboys from the Navy and their crews, as well as all the cogboys, servitors and their own skitarii too), all display one nearly universal reaction to being on this new planet; nearly absolute joy at being out of the holds of the Imperial Navy ships.

“What about you?” Sophia asks as the pair stop at one of the main roadways in the base as a trio of cargo-8 trucks trundle past, kicking up dust and promethium fumes as they drive past. “How are you feeling?”

Tychos stops and thinks for a few seconds, enough time for the last truck to go past and letting the pair continue their walk.

“I’m… better.” Is all he can say.

Sophia looks at him sceptically, a well-shaped eyebrow arching slightly. “’Better’?” She repeats. “You’re not waking up, calling out for-”

“Yes! I’m better, Sophia.” Tychos snaps suddenly, not meaning to but he can’t help himself before he calms himself down. “I mean… I’m not having the dreams anymore, so that’s a good thing, right?”

The specialist doesn’t show any reaction on her face before a small smile of her own forms on her lips.

“So the prayers and incense are working then?”

Tychos nods his head. “Yeah, quite a bit. Plus, I think the Reclusiarch was right that being out of the Warp would help…”

As soon as the words have left his mouth, Tychos stops moving as an arm is suddenly thrust across his chest and a hand stops his progress.

“Sophia?”

“Reclusiarch.” The specialist says disbelievingly as she just looks at her comrade in shock. “As in… Reclusiarch… of the Adeptus Astartes?”

Tychos nods his head again, really unsure where this is leading.

“As in… the eight-foot tall warriors who wear a Chimera’s weight in armour and can chew through a bulkhead? An Emperor’s own Angel of Death?!”

By now, Tychos notes, a small crowd has formed around the pair, mainly made up of guardsmen and Munitorum workers just staring at the pair, obviously having heard the woman’s cried out words. Really uncomfortable with the attention, he grabs a hold of Sophia’s flak vest by the neck and pulls her along at a quick speed, moving quickly towards the barracks of the 1st Battalion, 589th.

It takes a fair bit of jinking and dodging as he leads Sophia safely as he can towards the barracks before pulling her towards one of stacks of large crates that were used to ferry their equipment onto the planet surface.

“Gulliman’s Blood, you cannot keep your mouth shut.” Tychos swears at Sophia as he lets go of her armour.

“You talked to an Astartes! One on one!”

“… Yeah, okay, yes,” Tychos admits sheepishly. “It is a very strange thing.”

“Strange?” Sophia says back, leaning forward to look directly at the man’s face. “Tychos. You talked, one on one, with an Astartes Reclusiarch. Do you… I mean… how?”

Not saying anything, Tychos reaches up and scratches at the back of his neck not covered by his uniform.

“It was… when I went out to get the sleeping aids. I stopped to look at one of stained glass murals in the hull, and then he appeared behind me. Wanted to know why I was out of bunk during the sleep cycle. He… Akios helped me.”

“Akios…” Sophia repeats the name quietly, like saying the name would summon the being into existence right then and there. “Wh… what was he like?”

“He was friendly, actually. Much friendlier than I expected.” Tychos replies with a smile, before he chuckles softly. “He was the one who told me about saying the prayers and using the incense to help me.”

It takes a while for Tychos to realise what exactly he is saying and who it is about. In the whole wide Imperium, to have an Astartes, especially one as high ranking (he assumes) as a Reclusiarch, to have a talk with a lowly trooper like himself is just something that doesn’t happen.

“Okay, I get it.” He says, holding up his hands. “I’m ‘special’. But I bet that now that I’m here on the ground, I’ll probably never cross paths with him and he’ll have forgotten all about me. I mean… I’m just… a pebble and he’s a… a boulder.”

Sophia looks at the man in front of her in genuine confusion.

“It’s something that Reclusiarch Akios told me when he first met me.” Tychos says simply, like it would explain everything.

The sound of footsteps alerts both of the Cadians to try and get some semblance of professionalism as they stand away from each other and look like they were performing some important task.

“Why is it, when I hear about trouble, it’s one of you two?” A heavy, almost gravelly, voice speaks up as the speaker turns the corner. The sight of whom immediately sends the pair of troopers to stand at attention as they raise their right hands to their heads in salute.

“Captain, sir!” They both call out in unison.

Captain Fidor Thade stands the same height as both Sophia and Tychos, although he is much thicker on top, giving him a heavy barrel chest. His face is round and ruddy coloured, the lines around his eyes stretched heavy through his advanced years. His hair, currently covered by the peaked cap of his rank, is thinning, but the captain still keeps a well-groomed and maintained moustache that reaches right up to his sideburns, the hair a thick black colour. His uniform, an officer’s long coat in the same khaki colour as the other soldiers of the 598th which he wears under a flak vest, is adorned by a not insignificant number of ribbons.

“As you were, you two.”

At the command, the pair of guardsmen relax heavily. As they do, Captain Fidor reaches into one of the pouches on his belt and pulls out a well-used and stained tobacco pipe, which he begins filling with small shreds of the leaf.

“I’m not giving one shit either way on the matter,” Fidor says as he taps the tobacco into the chamber gently. “But I have to ask: did you meet with a member of the holy Astartes, Trooper Litten?”

“Yes, sir.” Tychos sounds out in a perfect military cadence. “Reclusiarch Akios of the Steel Drakes chapter, sir.”

The news makes the captain pause in his act, looking at Tychos from the brim of his cap, before he continues tapping the tobacco down.

“Specialist Kall, report to Lieutenant Deckard. Double time it.”

Sophia looks ready to protest, opening her mouth, but she quickly closes it. Firing off a text-book salute, she gives a small, wry smile to her friend before she jogs off quickly, leaving her friend with their company commander.

The air between the pair is silent, Fidor not lighting his pipe as he simply holds it and looks at Tychos.

“So… why did the Reclusiarch speak to you?”

To the casual ear, it’s a casual question any would ask of a man who has met with one of the Emperor’s Avenging Angels. But the delivery; the flat, droll delivery says so much more than the question ever could.

Vigilance is the brother of truth.

“He… he met me before we dropped out of Warp.” Tychos responds, not taking his eyes off Captain Fidor. “I was on my way to get… to get more sleeping aids and we met each other at one of the windows. Then we started talking.”

For a few moments, Fidor just rubs his thumb over the rim of the chamber of the piper in his hand, before he nods his head.

“I knew someone like you wouldn’t be a heretic.” Fidor finally says, chuckling as he pulls a match seemingly from nowhere, like a cheap conjurer, before he lights his pipe. The hiss of the chemicals in the matchhead igniting fills the space between them.

Fidor takes a puff from the pipe, agitating the flame in the pipe before fine smoke beings to drift up.

“Besides,” He says as he takes the implement from his mouth and smiles sharply. “The fact you’re alive really tells me all I need to know.”

Despite himself, Tychos grins warmly as he shakes his head at the comment.

“Did you ever doubt me, Uncle?”

Putting the pipe to his mouth, Captain Fidor smiles around the bit. He’s not Tychos’ actual uncle. He’s undoubtedly someone’s uncle, but he’s not Tychos. He’s just… Uncle. Been that way since he was a second-lieutenant. Even as he advanced up in rank, he was still known to the soldiers of the 598 as Uncle, capital U.

“Was it about your sister?” The officer asks, his smile turning down as he moves to stand beside Tychos, earning a nod from the younger Cadian.

“It’s… I think the Warp travel was making it worse, combined with grief. Plus, I think being sat on my arse doing nothing meant my mind could focus on it more.”

Uncle nods his head sagely as he takes the pipe from his mouth, blowing a puff of smoke his nostrils as he does so.

“We’re Cadians.” He says simply. “We’re not bred to sit around doing nothing for too long.”

And Tychos agrees with him. In Warp-transit, virtually all of the men and women he’d seen had either been lethargic, barely doing the minimum of actions, or had resorted to doing almost anything within regs, and a few outside of the regs, to keep themselves active.

Moonshining, gambling, theft, and a very unfair few more behaviours were being investigated by the Commissariat onboard the Sublime Vengeance before the ready order had  been given.

“It makes you wonder,” Tychos says out-loud. “What would happen to us if all the fighting stops.”

It’s a question that’s been bandied around the various mess-halls and tables, the barracks and even foxholes, in some form or another. “What would we do if the Eye closes?” “What would it be like if the Emperor steps off his throne?” “What will the universe be like if all the aliens were killed off?”

Tychos is silent for a few seconds before he speaks.

“I honestly don’t want to think about what it would be like for us.”

Captain Fidor nods his head as he takes a draw on his pipe.

“Let’s not dwell on that for now.” Uncle says. “Let’s head inside. We have a meeting to go to.”

‘Inside’ is underground, underneath one of the many square bunkers that line the avenues of Fort Tempest in the areas set aside for each regiment. Above ground, each bunker can hold at most a single platoon at action, firing from prepared slits with their lasguns, including pintle mounted heavy weapons. Underneath each bunker, however, is enough space for a company of Cadians to rest comfortably and safely. Plasteel buttresses and stanchions hold the ceiling aloft high enough to let a man comfortably pass beneath. A large communal space has been cleared to form the company’s sleeping quarters. All ablutions and latrines are set up above ground, of course.

It’s not a palace, but it’s home enough.


 

The bustling noise inside the barracks area for B company, First Battalion, 598th fills the space almost fully, even as Tychos and Fidor make their way down the steps into the cavernous room.

“Atten-hut!” Calls out the sergeant-major, a stocky woman with burn scar tissue covering her left eye, before every man and woman in the room clatters to attention. Silently, Tychos takes his place amongst his squad, drawing a sly side-grin from Sophia, which in turn draws an annoyed grimace from Tychos.

Silently, Captain Fidor moves past the various squads, nodding his head in greeting to a few before he takes his place among the senior staff of the company. Five men and woman clustered around a single rectangular table set near the side of the barracks, a matte-black hololith placed on top.

Commissar Anton Schreiber is present, his heavy black storm-cloak buttoned over his chest with his hands behind his back, looking every part the Commissariat officer. He recognises Lieutenant Deckard, the tall, short-haired blonde who lost an ear to an ork shoota on Belasus III. Next to her is Second Lieutenant Maulville, a head shorter than Deckard, with umber skin and a close-cropped black hair, and an ugly wreck of nose from a boarding action against eldar pirates when he was a sergeant. There’s two more second lieutenants he knows by face; Nathson, a man who would have been selected for Kasrkin training before the Fall, and Willers, a fresh-faced junior who has been recently been given his commission.

Only one face is hard for him to place a name to. Waker? Walks?

“Is everyone accounted for?” He asks as he takes his pipe from between his teeth, looking at Deckard, who promptly nods her head.

“Lieutenant Walkers counted the last ones in. The only one missing was Trooper Litten, but we knew you were speaking to him.”

Walker! That’s the name.

He doesn’t want to say it, but the 598th has been lucky in surviving fairly intact from The Fall. It took a beating, sure, but the numbers remaining were still near full strength for Tactica Command to keep the regiment together. Walker was the result of the second decision for the regiment.

Fidor is in command of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 598th. Before the Fall, he was just the captain of Brave company of the 598th. The addition of the second battalion, drawing the regiment to nearly two-thousand men and women, was unorthodox but necessary in the grand-scheme of things. But to combine five badly mauled regiments along with one near full strength was… strenuous.

Cadians were a martial race, no denying that. Of probably all of the offshoots of humanity, Cadians seemed to the human spirit for combat and martial power almost to its limit. That was apparent in their culture, but it was taken even further in its regiments. If the Imperium could be called a planet, then each regiment was like a country unto itself; its own customs, its own rituals, and its own honour and glory.

Fidor was lucky in that Walker was not from one of the five regiments joined to his own. He had been in officer training right as the Archenemy attacked, and had been among one of the refugees that had managed to escape. He had acquitted himself well, though, leading a force of Whiteshields and militia to the landing zone.

“Let’s get this over with.” He says quietly before he turns to face the assembled company. “At ease.”

The tramping of feet fills the air as the trooper’s stances relaxes.

“All right, everyone. I’ll keep things simple and obvious; we’ve been here just nearly a month now, and all we’ve seen of this world are the forests we’ve seen from the tops of the walls of the fort. And those frak ugly beasts that crawl out of their hovels to be blasted apart by our guns again and again.”

The mention of this worlds beasts causes a small ripple of laughter to flow through the room.

A hand rises above the crowd.

“Yes, trooper?” Fidor says, gesturing with his pipe at the speaker.

“Sir.” A woman, with heavy acne scarring on her cheeks, speaks up. “Do we have any idea what in the Emperor’s name these things are? I mean… from what I’ve heard, they turn into… into mist, when they die. What does that?”

It’s an important question to ask, and unfortunately, Fidor cannot answer that question.

“I’ll be honest; I do not know. The cog boys might know, but they aren’t saying anything right now.”

Another low murmur of conversation fills the space before another hand raises above the crowd.

“Sir,” The unseen soldier says without prompting. “Do we know if these things are Warp-spawned?”

That is another important question to ask, especially for Cadians. And this time, the captain has something to offer as an answer.

“At this time,” He begins diplomatically. “The astropaths and psykers have been unable to find any trace of Warp taint in the bodies that we’ve managed to secure before they… they decompose. So, I think it’s safe to say that these are just… a very strange race of xenos.”

The answer mollifies the troopers, and it also calmed part of Fidor’s mind too. Because, although he won’t tell the men, the situation is not good. While the pyskers of the 598 and the other regiments planetside, cannot discern any warp presence on the planet or in the beasts they had fought, there has not been a chance to study the beasts in detail, to see what they truly are.

Although one thing could be said to vouch for their lack of taint; there no reports of anyone, pyskers or otherwise, being driven mad at the sight of the beasts.

“We’re going off topic, however.” Fidor says sternly, as he takes a draw from his pipe and blows out a long plume of smoke. “As I was saying; We’ve not seen much of this world, only the local wildlife. Or a part of it, at least. While command does know that there are settlements in the area, it’s unknown if they’re inhabited and by what.”

He turns to look at Second Lieutenant Maulville.

“If you please, Maulville.”

The umber-skinned officer nods his head before he steps forward and presses a small number of buttons on the top of the hololith. Soon, a broad beam of green light is projected out of the box and onto the wall of the barracks. The light quickly formed an image of the local area, the outlines of Fort Tempest clearly visible, the no man’s land around it, and then the surrounding forests.

There is a lot of forest around the fort.

“Recon flights from the fly boys, and what pics we’ve managed to take from high-orbit show that a lot of the continent we’re on is mainly woodland, with settlements scattered few and far between. We’re going to one of them.”

Another series of buttons are pressed on the top of the hololith, before the image shifts from the fort and its surrounding area to the image of what is clearly a town, a walled settlement, sitting on the fork of a river and surrounded by forests, same as the fort.

Fidor continues.

“At twenty-two-forty-eight local time, a Thunderbolt of the 568th Fighter Wing, Ogre Squadron, piloted by Flight-Lieutenant Miro Jax, was performing a routine patrol over this area of the countryside,” He gestures broadly at the hololithic display on the wall. “When she came across this town. From her report, the town was under attack, but by what, she couldn’t quite tell. But one thing the flight-lieutenant saw was a large number of aerial predators that were drawn to the fight.”

An inlaid image comes into being in the corner of the screen. It’s blurry, off-centre, clearly taken from a gun-camera in action and flight, but it shows something clearly. A large avian predator, large enough to equal the size of a Thunderbolt, its dark body, clearly seen against the night sky by light green lines. Even as heavy calibre rounds from a pair of autocannons are blasting away at it.

“Another flight was undertaken this morning, over the same town to ascertain the situation. For now, all is quiet.”

“And that’s where we step in, captain?” Deckard asks, almost sounding hopeful at the prospect of ground action.

Fidor can’t help but smile at the comment. “It was a hard contest deciding who should go. Twelve proud regiments, thirteen-thousand men and women of Cadia. So Colonel Creed decided on a simple lottery; one for all the regiments, and then one for each company of the chosen regiment.”

Reaching into one of his pockets, the captain makes a show of fiddling around for a bit before he draws out a small slip of paper, marked with a small red cross.

“We got lucky. So we’ll be sent out.”

Putting the paper away, Fidor’s expression turns stern.

“We’ll be heading out within the hour. Let me make this plain; while we will be marching under arms, this is not a combat situation. This is not an invasion or an attack. In this situation… we are simply factfinders.”

“With guns.” Maulville points out, drawing a chuckle from the assembled company and a smile from Fidor.

“Yes, with guns. But the SOP is as follows: we retaliate, when necessary. Against those beasts, it’s free-fire. But if it’s locals, human… or otherwise, we only fire when fired upon. We’ll also be taking a cadre of medicae staff and supplies with us, along with food and emergency aid kits. We’re going in peaceful, this time around. But be prepared for violence at any point. Any questions?”

Not a hand is raised, nor a voice sounds out. Fidor nods his head.

“Good. Get your gear squared away for marching orders. Dismissed. Emperor be with you.”

The sound of stamping feet fill the room.

“And with you, sir.” The company intones, all stood at attention as they salute the man, before they disperse, leaving the senior staff alone around the table.

“One company? For a reconnaissance mission?” Maulville asks. “Bit hefty if you ask me.”

“With those beasts out there? I’d be thankful for two-hundred lasguns than just ten.” Deckard answers, brusquely. “Are we having any other support in this?”

“We’ll be taking a recce Salamander from the motor pool, autocannon only. I’ll be in it leading the column.” Fidor raises his pipe to his mouth, tapping the mouthpiece against his lower lip in thought. “We’ll also have some… other support, too.”

That focuses the other officers on him.

“We getting Kasrkin on this?” Commissar Schreiber asks, appearing at Fidor’s shoulder in near silence. “I didn’t know they were in country.”

“No, not Kasrkin.” The captain says, shaking his head. “Although that does remind me: send for Father Constantine. I want him on this mission. No. Our support is… not who we’d expect.”

The group is silent as they mull over what the answer could be.

Walker speaks up in a hesitant voice. “A-Astartes, sir?”

Sharp lad.

Fidor nods his head. “Eleven Astartes, sent on a scout mission. Seems those above want to find out about this world too.”

The table is silent as they all process the information.

Schreiber speaks. “Are… are they going to be taking orders from you, or are they acting independent?”

Fidor shrugs. “Don’t know. I haven’t been told.”

Putting the pipe back in his mouth, the captain raises an eyebrow.

“I see a lot of officers here that aren’t moving…”

Realising the unspoken order, the five other officers and one commissar quickly move away to go about their business, leaving Captain Fidor alone at the table.

Turning around, he looks up at the hololithic display on the wall, as he begins committing to memory the layout of the town. Sure, he’ll have a copy of the town’s layout as a map just before they move out, but it never hurt to remember details.

Soon, though, his eyes attention moves away from the town and to the gun-camera still taken from the Thunderbolt.

Something about the image… makes him shudder more than the knowledge that the Emperor’s Angels of Death were being involved in this mission.

A thought enters his mind: if that beast was as large as the report said it was… what else was out there?


 

The great, Aquila embossed gates of Fort Tempest rumble open as the column moves out. Two hundred men and women march in parallel down the path trodden by the passage of heavy vehicles and numerous other feet, lasguns held ready, while between them rumbles eight large, cargo-6 trucks carrying the mix of medical, food and other supplies, as well as the medicae staff to use them, all being led by a single reconnaissance pattern Salamander. It’s a long and winding column of bodies and machines that snakes its way down the broad path heading from the fort, through the no man’s land around the fort, and out into the forest.

It takes just shy of fifteen minutes for the company to reach the boundary of the forest.

As they approach the edge of the tree-line, an order, short and clipped, reaches every man and woman.

“Valiant Actual to all units: Redcon two.”

Almost as one, each lasgun is primed, the mechanisms inside whining as the charge pack is prepared for firing. On the trucks, bolts are slid back and released as the heavy stubbers are prepared, a round chambered and locked. The more esoteric weapons are prepared too: plasma and meltaguns hum as their ammunition is prepared and grenade launchers give a dull thunk as their heavy, forty-millimetre rounds are cycled into position.

At the head of the column, standing in the bay of the Salamander, Captain Fidor listens to his microbead as each platoon calls in that their squads are ready. When he is certain that everyone is ready, he waves the column onward, the Salamander churning up the dirt as it advances.

Looking down, he consults the map on the dataslate in his hands. The map is only formed from date gathered by Navy reconnaissance flights from the air, and also by on the ground information gathered by teams of scouts and Sentinels. So it’s simple, patchy and has the good potential to get them lost. Which in this world, could be a death sentence. But he has been assured that their reinforcements are waiting for them a mile in the forest.

The sky darkens as the boughs of the trees begin to take over above their heads. Sunlight filters down in patches, casting down beams of light that stab through leaf and branch. Above the Cadian’s heads, the air is shielded by rustling leaves in varying shades of green, while on the ground, boot, tire and track tread over the detritus of a living world once more.

For the Cadians, even the battle-hardened veterans, they cannot help but be held in rapture at what they see around them. For the last week, all they have seen of the world they are now on is what they can see from the walls of the fort, the sight compounded by the flash of bursting munitions, tracer fire and gun smoke, and before that, it has been a near uninterrupted sight of steelwork and iron. So to once more tread the ground of a living world again… it fills them with awe.

As they march along, hands reach out to stroke the foliage that lines their path. Fingers brush against leaf and bush, while some of the more athletic ones make attempts to jump up and grasp at any low hanging branches above their heads. One soldier, a veteran of five years before The Fall, stepped out of column and began to place some dirt into a small steel tin that he quickly replaces in his backpack before joining back in the column.

Throughout the journey, the whirr-click of a pict-recorder filled the air, as Trooper Corditz snaps away with his device. Commissar Schreiber’s adjutant, he is also the companies, and the regiments, designated remembrancer.

To Colonel Creed, it had made sense. “Better to have a man who knows how to use a rifle in a bad situation and a pict-recorder in a good one, than a man who doesn’t know how to use either in a bad situation.”

So, as the company trundles on down the pathway chosen for them on the map, Corditz snaps away.

Whirr-click

A photo of a trooper, rifle slung across his chest, touching a flower that was high as his waist.

Whirr-click

A photo of the Salamander rolling along, the company commander looking at his map as they pass under a large tree.

Whirr-click

A squad of Cadians moving past a tree, one smoking a cigarette, while something vaguely in the shape of a man stands behind the tree trunk.

“What the frak…?” Corditz says to himself as he lowers the pict-recorder from his face and looks again. It’s got to just be the work of shadow on a bush, that’s all. It happens often.

He looks at the spot again.

He can see a pair of eyes, blue as the blue sky, staring right back at him.

Reaching up, Corditz just about touches the stud on his microbead before the voice of Uncle comes through.

“Valiant Actual to all units; column halt.”

With shuddering squeals of brakes being applied, the cargo-6’s grind to a halt, as does the Salamander, and the infantry around them. Men and women look around in confusion.

Lieutenant Deckard speaks up. “Sir, what’s going on?”

“I think we’ve just met our support.”

From his position in the bay of the Salamander, Fidor watches what unfolds around him with awe and instinctual trepidation.

They filter in from the shadows. There’s no bursting from the foliage or straight up marches from behind tree-trunks. They literally… emerge from shadow.

Each one is taller by half a head than the average Cadian, thicker in body and limb, but they move with the grace and fluidity of predator felids. They flow around bushes and under branches, stepping over root and fallen twig almost noiselessly. Their carapace armour, thick steel plates dulled to loose their sheen, shift in the light slightly, even as a cameleoline cloaks shift before their eyes through the different woodland hues.

There’s ten of them, five on each side of the path. He sees bolters held ready in gloved hands large enough to crush a man’s head with ease. He spies sniper rifles, as long as he is tall, trained expertly from the shadows. He spies the stub-nosed profile of a shotgun held low on one side, while on the other, one of them carries a heavy bolter with ease as if he was carrying a bolter proper. Even that one makes as little sound as the others.

As they advance out of the shadows, Fidor sees their faces too, even under their camouflage paint. Each one is… to put it simply, they’re becoming larger. Growing to a size that no human should possibly reach. Necks are thicker and corded, faces become heavier with muscle and bone. Yet, even still, each one contains the distinct signs of youth. Eyes glow brightly, fearlessly, at the world. Heads of hair are a still strong, even if they’re cut short, or in one Astartes’ case, cut into a low mohawk.

Scouts of the Astartes. Trainees, to become the mighty Emperor’s Avenging Angels. To Fidor, a veteran of nearly twenty years of combat, he’s still reminded of the time he met a Kasrkin as a Whiteshield officer cadet.

The stances of the scouts relaxes slightly, weapons lowered a fraction as they look on in unearthly silence.

Fidor scans again. He counts only ten.

“Where is your commanding officer?”

The words are ready on his tongue, his mouth open ready to speak.

But he never gets the chance to say anything.

The Salamander rocks slightly, making him stumble and the trooper at his side call out in fear, as dull steel blur jumps down from above and lands on the front of the scout vehicle.

As he rights himself, Fidor looks up, and brings his face level with one that he never truly wanted to meet up close, but has seen many picts of.

The gigantism is there, hard and solid now. The face, while clearly human, is now stretched and moulded in such a way that, even though he knows it belonged to a human, is not human any longer. The face, lined and marred with scars, visible even underneath the expertly applied camouflage paint, stares back at him. A thick head of jet black hair, leading down to a thick moustache and trimmed beard, show Fidor the veterancy of the being in front of him.

Before him is not a man at all, nor a trainee. Even dressed down in carapace armour and cloth, the being in front of him radiates danger more than any xenos Fidor has encountered. He stands in the presence of one who’s very craft is swift, silent death.

Then, beneath the moustache, the mouth parts and reveals a row of large, thick, clean white teeth that are shown in a smile that… is surprisingly, genuinely happy.

“Captain Fidor Thade, I presume?”


 

The forest is filled with noise. The tramp of two-hundred Munitorum issue, hard-soled leather boots, the clanking treads of the Salamander, and the horrendous cacophony from the cargo-6s in the middle of the column.

To Thaddeus, veteran scout sergeant of the Steel Drakes Tenth Company, it’s grating.

He and his squad of neophytes had made a perfect entry during the night via Stormraven, the pilot flying low over the tree canopy before hovering at a clearing in blackout conditions. At the signal, the ten scouts had rappelled down heavy cables onto the forest floor. Even with the noise from the gunship’s engines, the eleven Astartes had executed the drop flawlessly.

Local wildlife had been a problem. But point-seven-five mass-reactive rounds put them in their place. Along with the toxic darts of sniper rifles chosen for this mission, the amputator shells used by Neophyte Carnus and the brutal bite of Neophyte Ollarus’ heavy bolter, the jet-black furred fauna encountered are quickly shown that, even at the lowest rung in the chapter, an Astartes initiate is still a capable warrior.

It helps when Thaddeus has been heavily studying the reports sent from the Militarum regiments and the Mechanicus cohorts planetside to ascertain what the enemy he and his trainees will be fighting.

Xenos lifeforms, a disgusting parody of animals. One was similar to an ursid, the other was a disgusting combination of canid and man. Armoured skulls, with patches of armour-like bone on the upper limbs and spines on the back. Nasty creatures. Quick, brutal and aggressive.

A test for any aspirant of the Steel Drakes.

Still, even the veteran had recognised that facing a horde of several hundred of them without any support was suicide, so he had ordered his squad to take cover for the night.

But then to be placed, leading a squad of ten neophytes along with a column of a company of guardsmen… it’s not too far outside of the range of his abilities. Reconnoitring unknown areas and linking up with allies to gain intelligence is the barest minimum of a scouts duties, but its still rare for Thaddeus to actively lead allied forces in the field.

It rankles him.

His scouts are spread out on the flanks of the column, their weapons and eyes scanning the surrounding forests as they pass by, their senses open to any and all threats. They’re not yet on the level of their older kin, but they are still good.

Behind Thaddeus however are half a squad of Cadians, chosen by Captain Thade as their vanguard. He recognizes their skill; weapons held ready, eyes and ears open to the world around them. But to the scout sergeant’s trained eye, they fall short. To him, their movements are clumsy, awkward. Every pass of their lasguns over the surroundings is almost hesitant, missing areas of foliage. Blind spots are uncovered.

Thaddeus stops himself, however. He realizes that he’s thinking of them as his own neophytes, beings on their way to become full-fledged Space Marines. These five, and the others with them, are not those beings. They’re simple, baseline humans. They’re well-trained and motivated. They’re Cadian Shock Troops, some of the best guardsmen that Thaddeus has ever known.

They’re just not on his level. They probably never will be.

Still doesn’t make the situation any better for him.

The Imperial force advances down the path for roughly half an hour before it happens.

It’s not enemy contact that draws the column to a halt however, as Thaddeus raises his fist up.

In an instant, all the lasguns around him are up and scanning, while the air fills with the sounds of heavy vehicles squealing to a halt.

“Contact, my lord?” One of them, a male with dusky skin and a marksman’s insignia and rifle, asks as he looks at his immediate area to Thaddeus’ left.

“No.” The scout sergeant says as he looks down at his ground. “I’m standing on rockrete of some sort.”

It’s an unexpected oddity, especially on a continent that is largely forest and the inhabited settlements are few and far between. But it is an undeniable fact that the ground that Thaddeus is now standing on is in fact rockrete, or a local variation.

Beneath the patina of earth and dirt, Thaddeus can distinctly see the dark grey colour of the material. Moving down into a crouch, he places a gloved hand against the material, brushing the top slightly. He can feel the scouring down to it by the seasons and the elements, meaning that it’s been there for a good long while, probably even years.

Looking up from the spot he’s crouched over, the scout sergeants sees more of the rockrete stretch out before him, probably for several hundred yards.

“Curious.”

“M-my lord?” Another Cadians asks hesitantly, making Thaddeus turn his head to look at him. The man recoils in fear.

Thaddeus can’t really blame him. He knows how he looks to mortals. Even crouched down, he is still greater in bulk and height than almost any non-augmented human. His head of wild black hair, combined with his cameleoline cloak give him an almost savage appearance, which isn’t helped by the steel colour of his scout armour, along with the four-foot long blade attached to the back of his waist and the extra knife he keeps on his hip. The only other piece of equipment that marks him out as an Astartes is his bolter: Tigrus-Exitus pattern, modified with a drum magazine and silenced and extended barrel.

“Answer this theoretical for me, trooper?” He asks as he stands up, seeing Captain Thade advance towards the vanguard but ignoring him for the moment. “Why build part of a rockrete road in the middle of a forest that is home to deadly xenos race?”

The trooper looks stumped as he thinks on the question, while beside him, his other squadmates think on the question too. Even the tramp of their commanding officer’s boots doesn’t distract them as he stalks closer.

“Is there a problem? Why have we stopped?”

Indicating with his head, Thaddeus draws Thade next to him to show him the road.

“There’s a settlement nearby?” The Cadian officer asks as he pulls out his map, his eyebrows furrowing in confusion at what he sees. “Strange. According to this, we’re still a good couple of miles away from our target.”

Thaddeus activates his vox-bead.

“Thaddeus to all scouts: eyes up. Anyone have sight of a settlement of any kind?”

It takes a few seconds for any reply to come through, but they all come back negative. No settlements in sight.

“My scouts tell me there’s no other settlement in sight, Captain Thade.” Thaddeus says. Looking down, he gently touches the rockrete underneath him with the toe of his boot. “This is an entirely random placement for a roadway of any sort. Especially in territory such as this.”

Looking around, Thade nods his head at the logic. The practical situation is that the woodland is home to incredibly hostile and dangerous lifeforms, and they are too far from any large sized settlement, especially what they designate as the capital city for this region.

Even with his six-centuries of experience and his gene-enhanced mental abilities, the veteran scout sergeant can’t fully create a theoretical as to why this road was sited in the first place, let alone built.

The barking roar of a heavy bolter to his right draws his, and everyone else’s, attention, their heads and weapons snapping around to the source of gunfire.

“Neophyte Ollarus.” He calls into his vox-bead. “Report.”

The gunfire stops before the scout speaks in a cocky tone of voice.

“Hostile wild-life, brother sergeant. Now no longer hostile.”

Thaddeus’ mouth sets into a thin grimace. “Next time; you report ‘contact’ before you open fire. Understood, neophyte?”

There’s silence from the other end of the vox before Ollarus replies, his ego decidedly deflated.

“Copy that, brother sergeant.”

Thaddeus shakes his head. Children…

“Do you think we should follow the road, my lord?” Captain Thade asks, looking between the map in his hands and the road in front of him.

The scout sergeant thinks on the question.

Theoretical: the road could lead to anywhere in the wilds of the woods, right into more creatures.

Practical: roads are built for a reason, so it must lead somewhere.

Moving towards the captain, Thaddeus looks at the map. Quickly using mental calculations, he judges the columns’ position from the fort and their meeting point, along with the time spent marching through the woods. He notes the direction of the path and their relative position, which puts them on a near direct path with the town. It would be easy for the column to cut across the woodland diagonally to reach the town, but having a few hundred heavily armed men and vehicles bursting out of the woods might send the wrong message to the locals.

Thaddeus lets out a low groan. He laments that he didn’t do more to investigate the surrounding area before those beasts came in.

“Follow the road, until we come to this junction here.” He points at the map. “Then it’s a straight path to the town. Your Cadians will lead, my scouts will hold back and recon the surrounding area.”

The captain nods his head before he turns back to the column, voxing to the rest to carry on moving.

“My lord?”

Turning, Thaddeus sees the dusky skinned marksman has moved towards him, lasrifle held loosely but in way that would allow it to be snapped up to the shooter’s shoulder quickly.

“Speak, trooper.”

Visibly nervous, the Cadian swallows the lump in his throat before he responds.

“My lord… I think that maybe this road was meant to lead somewhere, or go from somewhere. From the looks of it… they just never got the chance to finish it.”

Looking behind him at the stretch of dirt that the column has just come up, Thaddeus agrees with the marksman practical. The road itself is evidence of that idea too. No markings for dividing or directing traffic, no lighting posts, even the surface has been left untended for many years.

The veteran scout nods his head before he locks eyes with the Cadian.

“A solid practical observation, guardsman. What is your name?”

The trooper stands up straighter, even as the column begins to move past the pair.

“I’m Trooper Tychos Litten, my lord.”

A small smile, genuine in its intent, creases the paint on Thaddeus’ face.

“Carry on, trooper.”


 

The sun is approaching its zenith as the column carries on down its chosen path. The finding of the paved road was a blessing, since it allowed the men and machines to more easily traverse the terrain, but it was soon clear that the road was unfinished. Large patches of grass and dirt were pushed up between large broken slabs of rockrete, some of them even seemingly torn up physically by something strong before being hurled aside. The terrain soon becomes uneven and difficult. While it doesn’t slow down Bravo’s progress, it makes things just that little bit harder for the cargo-6s and the Salamander. Moving forward at a walking pace, the vehicles jolt and jumble with each pothole and lump of rock they cross over.

As they move further into the woods, more signs of human industry in some capacity, both big and small, are revealed. At first, it’s small bits of machinery, tools and devices used to prepare of rockrete for use. Mixers, hand tools for digging and spreading; each one of the following a decidedly human construction. Each one is layered with a rich patina of rust and dirt, moss and creeping grass growing over them, showing they’ve been there for some time. Years.

It took another half a kilometre before they found the remains of the work site. It wasn’t anything huge like one of the larger Munitorum construction sites, but it was large enough to suggest a serious attempt at working in the area.

It was also a complete wreck.

A small, squat rectangular hut on wheels had been set up in a cordon made from wire fencing, but both had been completely wrecked. Almost utterly and totally destroyed by something very angry. The only thing remaining of the constructions had been simple frames of both, as decrepit and rusted as the tools. The vehicles inside the cordon were just as bad; their frames smashed beyond recognition of any shape or form the Imperials would be able to recognise. The metal work was rent and torn as if by tooth and claw.

And all around them were the decaying remains of shredded clothing, and skeletal remains left to the open air, equally as broken as the ruins they lay among.

Disconcerting, yes, but not the worst thing any Cadian had ever seen.

But it has left the atmosphere tense. Lasguns sit tighter in hands, stocks are set closer to shoulders. Even the neophytes of the Steel Drakes are more on edge after finding the ruin.

For its not the sight of the ruins and body parts that sets everyone on edge. It’s the atmosphere of hate that seems to permeate the area they came across. It’s not something any of the column can verbally express in a way they would find to be correct, but it’s there. And everyone is all the gladder when they move away from it.


 

Their journey has taken the Imperial column nearly fifteen-kilometres away from their starting point in Fort Tempest. Setting out from oh-six-thirty local time, it has been a near six hour march over rough terrain, interspersed with small bouts of combat to defend against local wildlife. Every man and woman is tired, their feet sore and beginning to blister. Water has been rationed in their canteens, but everyone is beginning to feel the effects of thirst hitting them.

A scout on the left hand side of the column sends a message on the vox to get their attention as they pass a natural embankment along a well-trodden dirt road. The column halts, and Captain Thade, along with the higher ranking officers of the company, and Sergeant Thaddeus scramble up the rise to carefully peer over the top.

Through the line of the trees, not even having to take out any magnoculars, they see their objective.

Resting his hand against an oak to get a better look, Fidor takes in what he can see.

In the cleared area directly in front of him, he can see small farms, probably communal or family owned, fenced off my low wooden fences and gates. Each one is in a horrible state, almost similar to the work site they found earlier. Crops in the form of tall stalked grain and low tubers have been shredded, torn and uprooted, although either by collateral or deliberate, Fidor can’t tell.

The captain shifts his focus, taking his eyes past the farmland and up to the wall. Dark granite stone, rising up to five metres, if he has to make a guess. They look sturdy enough for sure, but past the tops of the walls, he can see the dark smoke of burnt material rising above it.

Looking intently at the wall, he can see dark pock-marks in the wall.

“Gunfire, I reckon.” Maulville chirps up, looking intently at the marks through a small hand-held scope. “Looks like… flechette rounds?”

“It’s not flechette rounds.” The Astartes scout sergeant says, looking intently through the scope of his boltgun, as all the Cadian officers turn to look at him. “The patterns aren’t consistent with any weapon, human or xenos, I know to use flechettes. Too big, and too concentrated together. They look like… claw marks.”

 Not saying a word, Fidor turns back to look at the town ahead of him. Reaching into one the pouches and draws out his own pair of magnoculars before raising them to his eyes. Scanning across the top of the wall, he sees no movement. No people looking out for help, no guards looking out for another enemy attack.

The town seems dead from where he is.

“Okay.” He says to himself, putting the device away before he turns and begins walking back to the column, the officers and Astartes in tow. When he reaches the waiting column, he speaks loudly.

“Okay, listen up.” Fidor calls out as he stands up in the back of the Salamander. “We found the town. For now, it’s all quiet, but that doesn’t mean shit. I know that many of you have been in situations that started out as a quiet, then got very loud quickly.”

A small ripple of laughter goes through the ranks of the troopers as they form up around the Salamander.

“But this will not be a combat operation. This is a reconnaissance mission, fact-finding only. We’ll also be providing medical aid and support, if the populace needs it… Regardless if they’re human or not.”

The words are hard to say. Out of all the truths of the Imperium, one is the most simple for the Guardsmen to follow: destroy the alien. They come in a myriad of horrifying shapes and forms.  Every alien race that humanity has encountered has been hostile in some shape or form, with only a tiny majority being considered anything close to ‘clean’.

But here, on this world seemingly so far outside of the Imperium, he had been told by his colonel who had been told by an Astartes Chapter Master, they could ill afford to make enemies. Better to spin the situation to their advantage now and use it later when they rejoin the main crusade

“So remember; we shoot only when shot at, anyone with a weapon is a valid target. Watch your fire. We’ll be going in armed, but not aggressive. Father Constantine, are you ready?”

A figure steps forward from among the press of troopers. Dressed in a black cassock with large red trimming on the hems, itself lined with thick black High Gothic script, Father Constantine, is the oldest man in the company, perhaps the whole of the 598th. Well into the latter half of a century, no-one can really be sure how far, the priest is still a bear of a man, standing a head taller than the Cadians around him. A long, waist-length, salt and pepper coloured beard is offset by the close-cropped white head of hair, while his eyes, the same violet as any Cadian, burn brightly beneath a pair of thick bushy eyebrows.

Father Constantine bows his head solemnly.

“I am ready to perform my duty.”

Fidor nods in reply, really unsure about what can else can be said. They’re Cadians, troopers, guardsmen, lasmen, soldiers. They can dig a slit-trench, prep a building for combat, use virtually every weapon the Imperium makes for them, and, above all fight.

To come and save people, as a main priority, is… strange.

Still, orders are orders.

“First platoon will lead, with Second ready to provide support, in either style. The rest of the company will remain here on standby until we’re called up. Lieutenant Deckard, we clear?”

“Clear as crystal, sir.” The first lieutenant sings with a warm smile. “By your leave, captain?”

Fidor nods his head, prompting Lieutenant Deckard to turn around and begin calling out orders to her platoon. Forty troopers detach themselves from the column, moving to the right of the line, forming a gap to allow one of the cargo-6s to move out with them, all of them heading for a flatter part of the embankment.

Moving back to his original place on the embankment, Fidor drops into a crouch as he watches Father Constantine emerge from the woods, followed by Deckard, first squad, then the cargo-6 behind, and the rest of the platoon forming around the transport.

It’s a slow, almost torturous walk from the woods to the edge of the town, the miniature column advancing at a non-threatening walking pace. Weapons are holstered or slung, but even at the distance he’s at, Fidor can feel the nervous energy radiating off his men.

Deckard speaks up, her voice coming through to the captain’s ear. “Valiant Actual, this is One. We’re approaching the main gate now. Looks like it’s been smashed open. Advise?”

Fidor grimaces at the words before he speaks. “One, this is Actual. Keep advancing. Slow and easy now. That’s all you can do. How copy?”

“One copies all. Out.”

Beside him, Fidor hears movement, slight but deliberate.

He glances to his side. It’s one of the Astartes Scouts, his form covered almost fully by his cameleoline cloak, while in his large paws, he holds a long barrelled sniper rifle, which he is currently peering through the scope of.

Even next to a neophyte, a being on the way to being a full-fledged Astartes, Fidor still feels small. Even though he’s seen them die…

“See anything?” He asks quietly, not taking his eyes of First Platoon as they make their way to the town.

“I’m not seeing any movement on the wall.” The scout replies, not breaking his concentration from his scope. “No guards on the wall, no people coming to see us.”

The scout turns his head slightly, letting Fidor see the pale-green eyes of the being for the first time.

“Theoretical: With all the noise we’ve made… wouldn’t someone come up and investigate?”

Turning to look at the town in front of them, Fidor swallows. He knows what the reason could be… and he hopes to the Emperor that he’s wrong.

“Friends!” Father Constantine’s voice booms across the farmland, reaching the ears of the Cadians in the tree-line. “We come in the name of the God-Emperor of Mankind, and of the Imperium of Man! We have aid and are here to help you. Do not be shy! Come forth!”

Even across the field, the preachers voice is filled with power and compassion that has easily swayed many people to his side once before. His is a voice that has made a rioting crowd on Calduri drop their weapons and desist their actions. The same voice that, when faced with a tide of a blood-mad cultists and the heretical masters, led the guardsmen of the 598th and many others in a hymn to buoy their hearts and lead them to victory.

But now, all it gets is the fluttering of wings as a small group of carrion birds fly over their heads from the gate.

Oh, God-Emperor, please let me be wrong…

Fidor activates his microbead. “Valiant One, this is Actual. Tell your driver to try his horn.”

“Copy that, Actual.”

It takes a few seconds, but soon the space is filled with the loud, almost bestial roar of a Munitorum transport blasting it’s horn three times.

The reply? A veritable cloud of carrion birds, of nearly all shapes and sizes, take wing, the fluttering of their wings and the cawing of their beaks filling the air as they’re disturbed from their roosts at the loud intrusion. They fly over the tops of the walls, far above the heads of the Cadians who stand in shock in front of the broken gate, before they return back to their roosts.

“Oh, Terra, no...” Fidor hear Maulville moan out, the man already guessing what’s happened.

“Valiant One, get your men inside. Double time.” The captain turns to his men. “Everyone! On your feet! We’re going inside, now!”


 

She’s tired, cold and hungry. Her throat hurts from crying and calling out, and her legs hurt from crouching in the bucket for too long.

Night made way to morning, and no help came. Her momma and papa didn’t return.

She wants to scream out, to cry out. To say she’s sorry to her momma and papa for doing anything wrong, for having them leave her like this. She didn’t mean to do whatever she did! She’s just sorry.

She wants to be warm again, to wear her favourite blue-dress and to have her bunny again. She wants food, whatever’s being made, and she wants to be able to sleep in a bed again.

She doesn’t want to be in the well.

She doesn’t want to smell the horrible smell. The same smell that momma used to have on her when she came back from her hunting trips, before she washed it off with rose-water or lilac. It’s coming from above her, and she’s been smelling it all night now that it’s probably the only thing she can smell now.

The crows, the ravens are all squawking above the well, their wings and cries making a horrible noise, that she just wants to stop. She tried to cover her ears, both of them, when they started, but they wouldn’t stop, won’t stop.

Carmen wants to get out of the well.

Her Faunus hearing makes her ears prick up slightly, as she thinks she hears a voice calling out from somewhere. But wherever they are, she can’t hear the words properly.

“Please..” She croaks out, eyes beginning to water.

Then the roar fills the air, then again a second, and a third time. Carmen cries out as she covers her ears again at the horrendous noise the birds make as they’re disturbed from what they’re doing. Looking up, she sees the flock spiralling, turning, flying above the town at random before they quickly make their way down to their roosts.

Carmen is confused. That sound was like nothing she’d heard the night before, nothing like the sounds the Grimm had made. But it’s still scary, nonetheless.

SQWUAK.

Perched right on top of the well, there’s a strangely large crow, with beady red eyes, looking down at her. It tilts it’s head from one side to another, before, with another cry, it flies off, leaving her alone in the well again.

Carmen shrinks down on herself.

She’s tired, cold and hungry. And she wants to sleep.


 

The smell hits him.

It is immediately, viscerally familiar, a scent he’s known nearly all his life.

The sickly-sweet smell of decaying meat, and the acrid metallic tang of fear.

He knows the smell, and the horror that accompanies it, from the many worlds he’s campaigned on, and even his own lost home world.

Death. The guardsman’s closest companion.

The gate they pass through has been smashed asunder, wrecked beyond repair by a great bulk, or many great bulks, throwing themselves through it. The gap created is large enough for the squad to pass through unhindered and the cargo-6 behind them to follow suit.

Inside… a massacre. It’s the only word that springs to Tycho’s mind.

The town would have been idyllic the day before. The sort of town the Munitorum would advertise as a reward for long service served. The sort of town that would be ready and waiting for any guardsman that came through the hell of the Emperor’s wars alive. The sort of town any man and woman would dream of living in. Small homes, some no more than two stories tall, with stone walls and wooden doors, slate roofs and simple garden plots.

The houses closest to the gate have had their doors smashed to kindling, the stone around them smashed out in places. Cautiously and silently, Tychos turns and motions to the door with his hands, in Cadian battle-sign, to two of the troopers behind him.

Check inside. Be careful.

Nodding their heads, the two troopers detach from the small column and, lasrifles raised, they enter the house one at a time. Inside, Tychos can hear the pair moving around, their hard soled boots scuffing wooden flooring before the pair come back out.

Their lasguns hang loosely in their hands, and their faces have become pale.

“What did you find?” Lieutenant Deckard calls out, making her way over to the pair, her laspistol and power sword held loosely in her hands.

One of the pair just looks at the floor, his eyes unfocused. The other one, a trooper with a nasty scar running down the middle of his face, swallows what was in his throat.

“There… there was a family in there. And they… they’ve been…”

He suddenly turns away and vomits loudly, being careful not to get the liquid on his flak armour.

He begins to sob. “So much blood. Oh, Emperor Above… the bodies… were so small.”

Not saying a word, Tychos steps past the trooper, leaving Deckard to deal with him. He doesn’t even go through the door before what he sees stops him cold.

The interior of the building is dark, both from the shadows cast and the colour of the wood, but even in the low light, Tychos can easily see the large number of scratch marks in the flooring. And he can also see the dark stains that seep from a side room into the central room.

Bile rises in Tychos’ throat before he turns away, swallowing it with a grimace. He’s seen this level of death and murder before, enough that he should be desensitised to it.

But seeing the idyllic setting, a place he has had dreams of reaching himself, triggers something in him. That… and the small hand he saw sticking out of the doorway…

“Everyone off the streets!” Lieutenant Deckard calls out, her voice duelling with the sound of approaching engines and feet. “The rest of the company is coming in! Clear the way!”

The troopers in the settlement quickly scramble out of the way, climbing over low fences and walls or simple going through open gates or holes into once pristine gardens, or simply stepping off the street as the platoons own cargo-6 trundled into a place out of the way.

The first through the breached gate were the Astartes scouts, weapons up and trained, even as they run past the watching Cadians. In their cameleoline cloaks trailing behind them and covering their faces, they look like metallic and heavily armed spectres. Their leader, boltgun held low as he jogs into the settlement, slows down as he surveys the carnage around him, even as he orders the warriors under his command to fan out.

Soon, nearly all hearing is lost as the powerful, promethium engine of the Salamander propels the vehicle through the gate, its tracks clattering loudly on the stone tiles of the settlement as it runs past the troops, the other five cargo-6s close behind. The gunners in the cabs swing their heavy stubbers round, scanning the area, as the rest of the company fills the settlement.

The mad dash into the town slows to a trickle as each man and woman takes in the full scale of what had occurred in the town.

Climbing down the back of the Salamander, Fidor looks around forlornly at the scene spread out around him and his company. Houses are broken into, destroyed in some places while others have been burnt down. Bodies litter the place, no two… brutalised in the same manner. Bodies in all shapes and sizes, different clothing, from what can be seen under the blood and gore.

“What in the Emperor’s name happened here?” He asks himself absently, even as he covers his mouth and nose to block out the foul smell.

The deliberately heavy footfalls behind him tell who is approaching him.

“I’m amazed that you of all people would ask that question, Captain Thade.” Sergeant Thaddeus says simply, raising his bolter to rest against his shoulder, barrel pointed to the sky behind him.

If it’s a barb, Fidor bites down a retort. For he knows that the Astartes is right.

This is death, plain and simple.

“First platoon!” He calls out, turning to look at the soldiers who entered the town first. “Sitrep. Now!”

Deckard nods to Tychos, telling him that’s his cue to answer. Moving quickly, the trooper breaks into a run, moving around the troopers in his path and avoiding a few bodies on the ground that are as much trampled as they are eviscerated to stand before his commanding officer.

“Sir!” He says as he stands to attention, lasrifle against his chest. “We entered the village, as ordered, and we came across the habs that surrounded the main gate. Sir… there’s bodies… everywhere.”

“Yes, I can see that.” Uncle responds testily, looking around at the town before he turns back to Tychos. “What about the bodies? Anything you can tell us?”

The trooper shakes his head. “Not a lot, sir. The bodies are… hell, I’ve seen artillery strikes that left prettier corpses. These bodies are just…”

“Eviscerated.” Sergeant Thaddeus speaks up, his tone solemn as he looks around at the village, his eyes taking in the scale easily.

At his side, Captain Fidor nods his head. “Okay. There might still be survivors.”

“Captain Thade…” The Astartes sergeant begins before he’s cut off by the Cadian officer raising a hand.

“There’s always a chance, no matter how small, that we could find someone.” The captain says, looking at the Astartes firmly in the eye.

For a moment, nothing is said as Sergeant Thaddeus simply looks at Captain Fidor square in the face, his eyes unblinking as the Astarte’s face darkens, even underneath all the camouflage paint.

“I suggest you watch your tone with me, captain.

The voice that comes from the sergeant is chilling to a level that Tychos has only known once before. It’s akin to the growl of a predatory animal warning a lesser animal to keep away from it lest it be slaughtered. It makes Tychos, and the other troopers present, take several steps backwards in fear.

But Captain Fidor keeps his gaze, not backing down and not wavering.

Not saying another word, Sergeant Thaddeus draws himself to his full height, bolter braced in his large hands, before he turns and stalks off, talking into his vox-bead in short clipped tones. Almost instantly, the other scouts move away from where they are and join him as they all move as one away from the main body of Cadians, vanishing into the town.

When they’re gone from sight, it takes Fidor several seconds to let out a shuddering breath, sweat beading on his face, his skin turning pale at what just went down and how close he had come to avoiding something very unpleasant done to his person.

“Sir?” Tychos asks as he takes a hesitant step towards his commander. “Uncle? Are you all right?”

When Fidor speaks, it’s with the voice of a man very relieved to be alive.

“Tychos, whatever you do: do not let me do that again. That’s an order.”

All the trooper can do is nod his head at his captain’s words as Tychos waits for Fidor to compose himself again. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long.

“Okay. Here’s what we’ll do.” Fidor says firmly, once more in control of his faculties. “First platoon will push to the centre of town, look for any survivors there. Second and third go past, to the river, see if anyone is holed up there. Fourth will act as  security outside the gate. Get all the trucks into the centre.”

“What about the Astartes, sir?” Tychos asks, looking in the direction the eleven warrior-scouts left in, no sign of them now.

“Leave them to their own.” Fidor replies. “They’ve got their own mission, and we’ve got ours.”

Tychos nods his head as his commanding officer beings giving orders to his juniors, his voice mingling with the sounds of the cargo-6s moving, their engines growling, the sounds of orders being shouted, and the ever present cawing of carrion birds.


 

“You should have reprimanded him, brother sergeant.”

The statement is simple and curt, almost catching Thaddeus by surprise. But it doesn’t, as he knows that one of his neophytes would say it. Neophyte Carnus just had to be the one to say it.

Thaddeus turns to look at the scout, regarding him. Compared to his fellows, Carnus is thinner, his form still heavily muscles from the gene-therapy and training, but still slight. It makes him quicker than the others, of that there is no doubt, which makes him very lethal in certain environments, especially with his shotgun. Thin faced, with close-cropped black hair and pale green eyes.

He'll make a good assault marine.

“Should I, Neophyte?” Thaddeus responds, turning back to lead the squad through the village, boltgun held ready but gently in his hands. “And why is that?”

“He’s Astra Militarum, sir. He’s got no right to question, let alone talk back, to one such as you.”

The sergeant lets out a short, shallow chuckle at the comment.

“’One such as me’? No. No, I don’t think so.”

He doesn’t need to look behind him to see the confusion on his charges faces.

“I’m confused, brother sergeant.” Ollarus says, which draws a small snigger from his fellows.

“Wouldn’t be the first time…” That was Justus. Sniper, marked for tactical squad.

Thaddeus rolls his eyes.

“A man who can meet a glare from an Astartes with a glare of his own is worthy of commendation. Not a reprimand.” Thaddeus says sagely. “Besides, the Cadians have their orders, we have ours. I will not begrudge an officer, mortal or Astartes, for following their duty.”

The Cadians had been tasked with aiding the people of this town. That was the information that they have been given and, even though it is out of their regular remit, Thaddeus sees it as an honourable mission. Reclusiarch Akios would certainly think so.

For the Astartes scouts, their mission is more clandestine in nature. This is an unknown world. As members of the Tenth Company of the Steel Drakes, it falls to Thaddeus and his neophytes to discover all they can about this strange new world.

Orders had been specific: locate any local nations, governments, tribes, or similar groupings of intelligent life planetside. Discern from those groups which has the most power and which is most likely to aid the Imperials. Ascertain which groups or members of the groups would be willing to meet with emissaries from the Imperium, and then create a connection.

Not the simplest of orders since, by their nature, Astartes scouts are not diplomats. Hence why they were detached to the Cadian Shock Troops stationed planetside.

Right now, however, a feeling is gnawing away at Sergeant Thaddeus’ gut. And he does not like it.

Moving away from the hustle and bustle of the Cadians, Thaddeus takes his scouts to a secluded area of the town. The ruin here is just the same as in the entrance to the settlement. Habs have been broken in to, some burnt down, while butchery is everywhere.

“Spread out.” He commands. “Search the area.”

Noiselessly, the ten scouts move out, weapons raised as they look around the area. Meanwhile, Thaddeus moves towards one of the bodies in front of him.

It was once a male, and from seeing the face, it was human too. No doubt about that. But everything from the chest down has been eviscerated, their internal organs, destroyed almost beyond recognition, are sprawled on the floor around him. Amongst all the dried blood, Thaddeus can see the ruined stumps of the ribcage, while beneath all the carnage, he can see the bones of the man’s spine. He doesn’t need to touch the body to know it’s gone cold, the skin taking on a greenish-blue tint as the gases in the body begin to swell the parts of the body that are intact.

It’s not the worst sight that the veteran Astartes scout has seen, but it’s certainly not pretty to look.

“Looks like he’s taken a couple dozen shotgun rounds.” Carnus says from behind Thaddeus.

The destruction is similar. But it’s not the same.

“No. Look at the way the organs are torn.” Thaddeus says as he drops into a crouch, nearly resting himself entirely on the heels of his boots. “These have clearly been done with a cutting implement. Or something equally sharp.”

“A chainblade?” Carnus asks as he too drops into a kneel next to the body.

Thaddeus isn’t sure. The destruction is the same as that from a chainsword used repeatedly on the person, but something… doesn’t fit.

“They look like the marks made by Tyranid claws.” Justus says as he appears behind the pair, his eyes locked on the corpse they are investigating.

Not saying a word, Thaddeus nods his head. That’s the assessment he was reaching with the evidence. The brutality of the strikes matches their formation and size.

But it couldn’t be Tyranids. They would have known about that as soon as they entered the system. Their bio-ships would have been everywhere, and that’s not forgetting that the planet would have been in the process of, or even would have been fully consumed by now.

No, this is something else.

Lifting his head, the Astartes sergeant begins scanning the area taking in what facts he can from the settlement he’s in and from what he knows from the reconnaissance reports.

Stout walls surround it, high enough to eclipse a dreadnought in height, but not thick enough to protect against any heavy armaments, nor have any gun mounts been sighted on the walls themselves, so to say this place is a military outpost is incorrect.

The north-eastern side of the settlement is open to the river, which itself is nearly bordered  by the heavy forest of this land, a serious design flaw in a true military settlement, unless one is part of a chain of such outposts for supply and reinforcement. None of which Thaddeus can see.

So, for all intents and purposes, this place is purely a civilian settlement.

“Theoretical.” Thaddeus says out loud as he stands back to his full height. “Given what we know about this settlement: the walls, the lack of serious defensive firepower, the openness of the side of the settlement facing the river. What does that tell us?”

Carnus answers. “The settlement had concerns of defence against a more primal adversary than other… people.” He’s silent for a moment as he thinks on his answer. “Practical: hostile wildlife, possibly comparable to that of Fenris or of our own chapter world.”

“Your chapter world, more like.” Thaddeus hears Justus mutter under his breath, the neophyte hailing from another recruiting world than Carnus or Thaddeus himself. But the sergeant ignores it. There are more pressing issues at hand.

“A solid practical.” He says as he stoops down to look at the corpse again. “But something is missing.”

“Brother sergeant?” Carnus asks.

“Even the dracons of Sigilis V would glut themselves on so many corpses. The territorial ones would take some to use as a larder for mating season.” Thaddeus says coldly, not taking his eyes off the corpse in front of him. “None of these corpses have been touched by teeth. Only the carrion birds have had their meals.”

Thaddeus turns to look at the pair of neophytes behind him, his eyes unblinking pools of brown.

“Whatever creatures attacked this settlement, they were done so only to sow destruction and death. The greenskins and the drukhari are the only beings who do so, but their intents for doing so are different: orks attack for loot, slaves and delight. Drukhari do the same, but for the latter two reasons.”

Standing back up, Thaddeus looks around at the portion of the settlement he is in.

“No. This was not the act of simple wild animals. This attack was orchestrated by something. Or someone.”


 

The search of the slaughtered settlement is a sombre affair. Even for the battle-hardened scions of Cadia, the sights they see in the town are sobering. As the first three platoons of B Company advance through the town, the scale of destruction increases. The Fall was brutal in its intensity and scope, no part of Cadia being untouched by the Despoilers curs. The destruction of Cadia was calculated, orchestrated and carried out, even on a level no sane man can understand, by a horde of intelligent beings.

The destruction of the town is more akin to a force of nature.

Artillery hits on buildings vary with the shell type. High explosive rounds set to detonate on impact will blow up a wall, part of a roof, or both if the gunner is lucky. Delayed fuses can blow out half of the walls and most floors. High-explosive armour piercing create neat in whichever part of the building is hit, turning the interior into a mess of hot brass shrapnel and other fragments, while white phosphorus burns the stonework, filling the inside with blinding, cloying smoke, forcing a fighter to stagger out confused into waiting guns. The unlucky ones would be burnt alive.

Big or small, broad or narrow, all artillery barrages leave their mark.

Even Archenemy artillery still follows set patterns of fire from prepared battery positions.

The destruction of the town is singular and wild. Almost nothing is spared, seemingly no building unbroken by whatever attacked this town. Walls are scoured with deep claw marks, as if the attackers intended to try and bring the buildings down by hand. Doors and window frames have been smashed to kindling, allowing whatever attacked entry.

And everywhere is horror.

If they were killed by artillery fire or even simple gun fire, Tychos would imagine it would be easier for him and the others to look at, for its something that they’ve seen many times well before. Even the few that have faced the horrors of the Tyranid hive-fleets know that any attack from the beasts leaves little in the way of bodies. The Archenemy finds use for bodies too.

But this…?

As First, Second and Third platoons make their way through to the settlement’s centre, the scale of what happens becomes apparent in the town.

The first bodies that are found are found either within their own habs or just outside of their abodes, telling that they were caught unawares. The slaughter is indiscriminate; men, women, children, old people. All have been butchered. It’s hard for Tychos to tell if the ones who died together were luckier than the ones who died by themselves.

Resistance is evident; bodies clutching weapons in the forms of axes, swords, knifes. A few stub-guns are present too, but they’re simple things; revolvers, bolt- and lever-action rifles, even a few automatic rifles too, although none where evidently of any good against the attack.

The advance into the town centre is quick, smooth and cautious. Lasguns are up and ready, stocks against shoulders and eyes trained down sights. The cargo-6s have been withdrawn to a makeshift corral with Fourth Platoon outside of the walls as safety, leaving the Salamander to act as fire-support, the tracked vehicle slowly rumbling up the cobbled streets, its metal treads grinding against the stone.

As they advance, the urban drills ingrained in every Cadian takes over. Houses are entered in pairs, lasguns and frag grenades ready. But they’re not necessary in this place. Death has already visited.

One squad finds a pair of males wearing a facsimile of flak armour, pressed back to back, chipped and broken weapons in their hands. They’ve been gutted and eviscerated, their armour offering no protection against their attackers. The squad leader orders the corpses separated and taken outside.

It takes roughly five minutes for the first burnt dwelling to be found. All that remains of the building are blackened walls of stone and burnt wood. The squad investigating the hab find the bodies of what they assume to be the dwellers outside the abode, roughly a few yards away, telling them that the fire was started after they left.

Another burnt hab tells a grimmer tale. Third squad from Second Platoon are the ones who find the discovery. Trooper Carturs is forced to break down a stuck door to enter the abode, however, as soon as the door hits the floor, she wishes she hadn’t. Four burnt and charred corpses, two adults and two children, are inside, a family, huddled together. At first, looking at the blackened, manically grinning corpse, she thinks that group was simply taken by the fire. But drawing closer, she sees the distinct glint of metal in the hands of the parents.

The implication of what she finds makes her sob in grief and anger.

And it’s a feeling shared by so, so many in the company.


 

“Frak, this is depressing as shit.” Reinhardt says out loud as he slams another door shut behind him as he exits what used to be a small clothes merchant, a large bundle of cloth held in his thick arms which he deposits in front of Lieutenant Deckard. “The owner shot hisself. Can’t say I blame him.”

Tychos watches as Deckard nods her head in response. “This place is a ghost town. No-one’s reported any sign of anyone still around, so we’ll go to twenty percent watch. Everyone else; get these bodies ready for the pyre.”

As if to underscore her words, the sound of splintering wood reaches everyone’s ears. Turning around, Tychos and the others sees a squad take axes and prybars to what would have been a vending stall, the simple wooden construction holding fruit and vegetables in better times. Now, the foodstuff is spilled across the ground, trampled and smashed to pulp. No-one wants to guess where the owner is, although everyone has a vague idea.

First and Second platoons are in what Tychos has to guess to be the settlement’s centre, if the large several hundred metre square expanse of cobblestones surrounding a simple but large well, in turn surrounded by various habs and shops, is any indication.

Deckard speaks up again. “Everyone split into fireteams then spread out. Take some cloth and use that to shroud the bodies. Gloves and respirators on if you need it. We don’t want anyone getting sick. Call out if you find anyone alive.” The first lieutenant pauses. “If.”

No-one says a word as they each move forward, Reinhardt and a few other troopers already cutting the cloth into large strips with their knives.

“How many people do you think were in this town?” Sophia asks, taking Tychos by surprise as she places some fabric in his hands. “Several hundred?”

Tychos shrugs as he checks the fabric, not wanting to actually look at the woman.

“So there’s got be at least a few people who made it out.” The voice she uses is as filled with hope as it is with fear. It’s the voice of a woman who wants the best but fears the worst.

Tychos can’t bring himself to look at the specialist.

“Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.” The sour, raspy voice that comes from behind is what makes Tychos turn around.

Trooper Kian Vorster had once been a nice man to talk too. Not exactly the friendliest or the most easy going trooper Tychos knew, but he had been a pleasant sort of person to be around. The Fall had changed that. Now, the pale, thin, drawn face was marred by a large black Aquila tattooed across his forehead and down to the tops of his cheeks. His face isn’t the only thing that’s had a makeover.

Sophia looks at Kian in annoyance. “It’s not hope, Kian. It’s basic statistics. A place this size? There’s no way everyone could be killed. Some have to have gotten out.”

The trooper’s reply is mirthless, sardonic laugh.

“Look around us, Sophia. This place reeks of death. There’s blood and corpses everywhere, and fire has gutted so many of these habs. This isn’t the place for the living.”

A part in Tychos’ mind snaps as he rounds on Kian, stepping directly into the man’s face.

“Then why the bloody hell are we here if we aren’t the living?”

Even though Tychos has a full half head of height on him, Kian smiles back at the man.

“Oh, we’re not alive, Tychos, my old boy. We’ve been dead since we lost our world.” The trooper spreads out his arms wide. “This is the Emperor’s Divine Punishment.”

Inside his mouth, Tychos feels his teeth grind together in annoyance. Kian’s been slipping, becoming more and more nihilistic for every passing cycle since The Fall. His mood has gotten worse and his manner has gotten worse too.

“A prudent man forseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on and are punished.” The tattooed trooper says, that smile still on his face. The look pisses off Tychos even more.

“So at least you admit you’re a coward.” Tychos growls out, a small smile of his own coming to his mouth as he watches Kian’s smile drops to be replaced by a glare, looking ready to retort.

Thankfully, Lieutenant Deckard is still close. “Hey! You two! Get a shift on.”

Glaring at Tychos, Kian turns away sharply, stalking past one of the corpses on the ground as he moves to join his squad.

To his side, Tychos sees Sophia looking down forlornly, holding one of the bundles of cloth in her hands.

“You okay?” He asks as he steps towards her.

Sophia shakes her head. “He’s right. It’s stupid of me to think we’ll find anyone alive here. This place is…”

A hand on her shoulder stops Sophia in her speech, causing her to look up at Tychos, his violet eyes looking into hers.

“Just… have faith.”

It’s not much and the man knows it, but at the moment, it seems to be the best thing he can say to her.

“The Emperor delivers.”

Father Constantine would be a better speaker, Tychos knows, but he had to say something. And judging from the returning smile on Sophia’s face, it was the right thing to say.

“You’re right.” She says as she nods her head. “Let’s… let’s do this, and then see about helping anyone else.”

Deciding to move in the direction that Kian stalked off in, Tychos moves to the closest body to him and Sophia. Like the others they’ve come across, it’s been horribly mangled, savaged. The once-man is missing his right arm, and his torso and stomach have been violently ripped open several times, his entrails pooled around the corpse. His face, bloated now, is locked in a horrible rictus cry of fright, the sight of his killer probably remaining in his eyes, if they hadn’t been pecked out by a carrion eater.

Silently, Tychos moves the sheet in his hands and lays it over the cadaver as he kneels down, a funeral shroud being the least the man deserves.

He doesn’t stir from his position, even as he hears Sophia’s feet tread past him to another corpse. He doesn’t stir as he sucks in a small breath of air, fighting the anger that wells inside him. They had been so close the whole time! They could have done something!

Jax did! Even if she did it with a Thunderbolt, she still did something.

They were the Imperial Guard, for Throne’s sake. What’s the point of being called ‘The Guard’ if you can’t protect anyone?

Stiffly, Tychos pushes himself to his feet, intending to follow in Sophia’s direction. He takes one step forward, before the quick, black blur races past his face.

SQWUAK!

“Gah!” Tychos calls out in instinctual shock, taking a full step backwards as the carrion bird flies past his face. Turn, he looks at the animal as it settles on the lip of the well.

It’s a crow, or at least, something local that’s close to being a crow. It’s large, larger than a crow has any right to be, and its eyes are an evil shade of red that peer at the Cadian intently as it finds a perch on the stone of the well.

“What the frak?” Tychos asks out loud, even as he hears Kian make a snide comment from somewhere behind him.

“That’s one brave bird.” Sophia says from close behind him. “He didn’t give a shit about you being there.”

“A pet, maybe?” Tychos asks, turning to look at the woman.

SQWUAK!

The bird cries out again, making Tychos to turn and look at it.

“Maybe.” Sophia responds. “Probably wants attention. Best to leave it.”

Almost on cue, the crow flies up into the air, performing a circle around the well before settling back onto the lip of the well again, looking directly at Tychos.

“See. A pet.” Sophia says before she turns away and walks off. “Probably wants a treat or something. Leave it. Let’s get to work.”

Tychos nods his head, but he just can’t help but look at the bird as it lifts itself into the air again and flies around the lip of the well once more.

SQWUAK!


 

The riverside is a mess, in the simplest sense. Not that the Cadians expected anything less. Third platoon followed the trail of activity, the death and destruction like markers for the searching guardsmen.

It leads to a small dock yard, with wooden jetties stretching out about fifteen feet or so into the slow moving current of the river. Wooden boats of simple but hardy design and manufacture sit either tied to the jetties or beached on the shore. Many have been smashed to kindling or simply wrecked.

The number of bodies here is maddening. Scores of them, nearly over a hundred or so, fill the area. Torn to pieces and ravaged, they litter the ground and some even fill the jetties, staining the wood and the dirt of both dark with their blood. The scent is nauseating, forcing some troopers to fit their respirators on lest they vomit.

It tells a grim story: with only one direction to go, nearly everyone wished to cross the river to safety. Many were not able to. Some might have, but that’s not for anyone to say.

With only low murmurs of despair or anger, the Cadians get to work.

Not caring that his robes are being stained with congealed blood and mud, Father Constantine kneels down next to another corpse as he says a prayer for the dead to another poor soul, gone to the Emperor’s side.

“Him on Earth, Father of All Mankind; even in this hour and place, far from your holy light, grant your mercy to this poor, departed soul, known only to you, and those who loved him. See him safely through the afterlife, and let his soul be granted the peace he was denied in life. In your name, we pray. Amen.”

“Amen.” The soldiers accompanying repeat as they dip their heads.

Cadians take death seriously, in their own way. Living, or having lived, in the only sector of humanity in the most cursed area of space, gives a person… a certain perspective on death.

On Cadia, as long as a person had a name that could be said or read, then the person was remembered. With space at a premium, the honoured dead, those chosen for actual burial, had a careful vigil held over them by priests of the Imperial Cult. When the name on a grave, or section of a graveyard, was deemed illegible, the dead was considered to have been forgotten, their honour gone, so the remains were exhumed and placed in a communal pit, ready for the next honoured dead.

But here, on this world far beyond the Imperial truth and light, Constantine finds himself troubled.

He knows not a single person he is praying over, not a single name is known to him as he watches the body of the young man be lifted up in a sheet and placed on the ever growing pyre, ready to be cremated.

It is a test of his faith, is what he tells himself. To be tested in the simplest way; to see if his faith still holds, even in this dark place. To be surrounded by the nameless dead.

Even dead guardsmen have nametags to read.

Standing up, Constantine randomly picks a direction to walk in. There are so many bodies that to pick a direction would see him driven mad with trying to organise them all in his mind, so he simply turns to his left and heads towards a partially smashed building. Inside, through the broken wall, he can make out a pair of slumped forms on the floor.

He lets out a weary sigh as he walks towards the ruined abode. Is it a parent and a child, clutched together in their final hour, the former futilely shielding the latter with their body? Is it two lovers who wished their final moments to once more be in each other’s arms? Or is it simply a pair of strangers who did not wish to die alone?

The first thing Constantine notices as he enters the hole in the wall is the bullet casings littering the floor. They clink and clatter against his feet and the floor as he steps inside, a great many of them surrounding the fallen pair.

Then he sees the pair fully. A man and a woman, the former taller than the other by a full head. It’s hard to make out what clothes they wear, stained as they are with so much blood and dirt, but one thing is noticeable; they died protecting each other, the weapons in their hands telling that tale. The man has a revolving-cylinder stub pistol, while the woman has a lever-action rifle, double barrelled by the looks of it. Simple weapons, but potent. Against the right foe.

Clearly they were not used against the right foe.

Constantine lets out a world weary sigh.

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Imperium.” He intones as he carefully reaches out and touches the body of the woman, wishing to move her into a more easy position for removal.

Then he stops as her head lolls sideways, surprising him. Almost as much as the large pair of hare-like ears that loll down with it.

An abhorrence, a mutant. Part of Constantine’s mind is repulsed by what he is touching; the form of humanity is divine, teaches the Imperial Creed. The mutant is to be abhorred and rejected, outright destroyed even. Only those species considered to be ‘abhuman’, those just short of attainting humanity, were considered ‘clean’ by the Ecclesiarchy. The female in front of him is not part of any such group.

And yet… he mourns for her, nonetheless. She is alone, at death’s very door, among the blood and death of a town she called home, among people she knew and befriended, possibly. Looking down, he sees a small band of metal on one of her fingers, the same band shared on the hand of the man behind her, and it is clear to see that she knew love too.

“Only in death are all judged equal….” Constantine says forlornly.

Reaching up, his fingers press slightly into her neck, to check for a pulse.

In a snap, two things happen. First, the abhuman’s eyes open wide, the pupils shrunk in fear, showing the grey colour of her eyes, bloodshot and strained. Secondly, the rifle that is close to her hand is snatched up, the barrel pressed against Constantine’s chest.

“Shit! Father!” The soldier accompanying Constantine calls out as he moves to approach the hole, his lasgun ready. But the priest waves him off.

Calmly, the priest looks the female in the eye.

“Calm yourself, child. I am Father Constantine, Preacher of the Imperial Creed and Priest of the God-Emperor. I come in peace, and mean you no harm.”

Indecision plays on the abhuman’s face, as below he can hear the gun rattle slightly in her grip. But, with the speed of a felled limb, the rifle drops away and the female sags slightly in Constantine’s grip.

She opens her mouth, and Constantine braces for what will come out. A curse, a plea for aid, a hidden weapon…

The female speaks… in clear, but accented Low Gothic.

“Car… Carmen…”

“What?” Constantine asks, taken aback. The female’s voice is rough, sore from lack of fluid, making her breath ragged and scratchy. But she speaks again.

“Carm… Carm… in… Well…”

Constantine tries to understand. “Car… Carmine… Well?”

She shakes her head, tears beginning to form in her eyes.

“C-Carmen… IN… Well…”

It takes a few seconds for the words to sink in.

Constantine’s head snaps around to look at the trooper accompanying him.

“Do we have any squads near a well in town?! Hurry!”

“On it!” The trooper replies as he begins fiddling with the microbead in his helmet.


 

The crow cries out again as it flies around the mouth of the well again.

SQUAWK! SQUAWK!

Tychos just stands there, transfixed and confused by what he is seeing.

“Tychos, just shoot the damn thing and help us already!” Sophia cries out as she stands next to another body.

Her complaint is just waved down as Tychos takes a tentative step towards the crow above the well, the bird once more performing a loop around the mouth of the well before, suddenly, it moves to the middle of the well and dives straight down before shooting back up just as quickly.

“What the frak…?” The Cadian asks himself as he moves to the well, watching the crow repeat the same act again before it comes to sit on the lip of the well.

SQUAWK!

The carrion bird gives off one more cry before it flaps its wings and flies away, leaving Tychos standing in place, partway in front of the well.

He lets out a weary sigh.

What was he thinking? That it was a sign from the God-Emperor, to grant his request that they could find someone in this Throne forsaken mess?

Cut the shit, Tychos,’ He tells himself. ‘You’re not important enough to warrant a miracle.

The flutter of wings above his head draws his attention. Looking up, he sees the crow perched on top of a lamppost. And if a bird could give him a look that said it was pissed off, it was doing that right now.

SQUAWK!

Tychos narrows his eyes at the bird in confusion, before he turns to look at the well, then back to the bird. Not taking his eyes off the black feathered carrion eater, he moves towards the well.

Drawing beside it, he looks over the rim, expecting something.

Nothing comes out. Just blackness down below.

Sighing in annoyance at the antics of someone’s pet bird enjoying its freedom, he unclips the illuminator on his belt and switches it on as he shines it at the wall of the well.

Instantly, he can see the scratch-marks several feet, if not the same length as his own height, down the side of the well wall. And they’re deep into the rock, and broad too. Raked right into the mossy wall, showing the light colour of the stone underneath. The sight makes him recoil in instinctual fright before he steels himself and peers down into the well itself.

The beam of light tracks downwards, the wall cast in the light getting darker with water stains and moss, until it finally shows the water at the bottom.

And a pale face, framed with messy brown hair, and a pair of bright golden eyes looking hopefully up from a bucket sitting in the water.

“… help.” The girl says, her voice coming up clear through the well.

Tychos nearly drops the illuminator, although his jaw drops instead.

“Oh, shi… HEY! EVERYONE! GET OVER HERE! WE’VE GOT A SURVIVOR!”


 

“Father, they’ve found a survivor at the well!” The trooper calls out in joy, before he turns to call out to the other soldiers nearby. “Hey! First Platoon found a survivor!”

A pregnant pause fills the air before, almost as one, a glee-filled shout fills the air. Even Father Constantine can’t help but laugh out loud in joy, the death and misery around him all but forgotten at the happy news.

“They found her, my dear. They found Carmen…”

The smile on his face slips as he sees the female abhuman’s eyelids begin to droop, her body becoming slacker, even as the smile on her face remains.

“No. No, no, no. Not now. Not now!” He calls out, even as he lays her down on the floor.

But it’s too late, and Constantine knows it. He’s seen it too many times, on too many battlefields, on too many faces. She’s sliding into the place where the living cannot go, the last vestiges of strength that kept her alive purely for this moment finally leaving her.

Gently, Constantine places his hand behind her head, lifting it slightly.

“I am a priest of the Imperial Creed. Be calm now, my friend, for the God-Emperor of Mankind is rushing here to present you with the gift of peace you crave. Is there anything you wish to confess at this hour?”

The abhuman opens her mouth slightly, nothing but a small rasp leaving it as her eyes begin to lose focus. But Constantine nods just the same.

“I hear and understand those sins as you have confessed them to me, and I absolve you of them, as I absolve you of all other sins you cannot enumerate. It is in my power to do this thing, for I am a priest of the Imperial Creed. The winds have blown your sins away, and the saints have blessed you and, though there is pain, it will pass, as all pains end, and you will ascend without the pain of the mortal world to the place the…”

He trails off. No need to say anything more.

The light has finally left her eyes, and her soul has departed, to join her lover and the others in the afterlife.

Laying her head down gently onto the cold, wooden floor, Constantine reaches up and gently shuts her eyes. In death, as she would have been in life, she is quite beautiful.

Sighing softly, he says the words again.

“Him on Earth, Father of All Mankind; even in this hour and place, far from your holy light, grant your mercy to this poor, departed soul, known only to you, and those who loved her…”

Chapter Text

The bustle around the well is loud and uncoordinated, each soldier jostling for a position to try and either help Tychos or to get a glimpse down at the survivor in the well.

It takes a good few pushes and elbow jabs for the captain to get his way through the crowd. Not that Tychos is paying any attention to him, though, as he takes off his flak armour and pauldrons, setting them on the ground near the well’s wall, along with his rifle, pack and helmet.

“Trooper Litten.” Captain Fidor says sternly. “Report. What the bloody hell is going on?”

Tychos stands to attention.

“Sir! I found a survivor at the bottom of the well. A young girl, by the look and sounds of them. Am now proceeding to try and rescue her, sir.”

Not taking his eyes off his commanding officer, Tychos watches the older man walk over to the well and look down into the abyss himself.

Sure enough, the girl calls out again.

“Help me.”

Captain Fidor moves back from the well, turning to look at the crowd of soldiers around, before he snaps his fingers quickly.

“We need some rope, now!”

Almost instantly, several troopers pull out bundled lengths of rope from their belts or packs, holding them out. Selecting two of them, Fidor quickly unbinds them and ties two of the ends together forming one long length of robe.

“Better safe than sorry.” He says as he begins working one of the ends into a pair of loops, one fairly large and one small.

Taking the rope, Tychos steps into the larger loop and pulls the length, cinching it tight around his waist.

“Think you can fit?” Fidor asks as he takes a hold of the other end of the rope.

Looking at the well, Tychos mentally guesses who wide it is before he nods his head.

“Do it fast but it calmly. Don’t frighten her.” Fidor advises, a serious edge of his violet eyes. “We’re here to help, not harm.”

Locking eyes with his captain, Tychos nods his head once before he moves towards the well. Leaning over, he shines his illuminator down. Sure enough, the girl is still down there.

“I’m coming down!” He calls out. “Just… keep still, all right?”

“O-okay!” The girl in the well replies, sounding happier but still quite scared too.

Taking a deep breath, Tychos climbs over the lip of the well and braces his feet against the edges, holding himself steady with his hands. Gingerly, carefully, he begins to edge himself down the inside of the well. The first few feet are easy going, the hard soles of his boots keeping his progress steady. As his hands trail down the stone, however, they brush over the large scratch marks in the stone, making him pause.

They bring back memories of horrible things. Foul aliens lurking in shadowed corridors and overgrown jungles, brutal and twisted machines of war lumbering out of burning habblocks and manufactorums… and blasphemous daemons spawning right in front of his eyes, ready to claim his soul.

Breathing out a shuddering sigh, Tychos says a prayer for the protection of the soul and for steeling his mind, he continues down the hole into the earth. From above, the light of several illuminators stab down as a few of his comrades move around to help him see, or to simply watch what is going on, throwing shadows and light around the hole.

Reaching the highest point of the line of moss, the guardsmen begins to pay more attention to his progress. Several times, his boots skid on the slick surface before he steadies himself and carries down into the well.

Above him, the beams of light shift to point directly downwards, letting him see the young girl at the bottom of the well.

Her eyes are open in fear, as she tries her best to move away from the obviously strange man making his way towards her. The way the light from the sun above, and the light of the illuminators too, would undeniably cast his face in shadow, making him seem something horrible to her.

Shimmying down closer, he thinks of what he can say to get her to see him as a saviour.

Then his left foot hits a particularly large piece of moss… and he slips down.

He gives an inarticulate cry of shock as his feet give out from beneath him and he plummets down into the water, sinking right up to his waist before he stops himself, the action making the young girl cry out in shock and fright.

“Oh, Throne… that’s cold!” Tychos says loudly, sounding much more like a schola child thrown into the swimming pool than a battle-hardened soldier of the Cadian Gate.

A sound he didn’t imagine to hear hits his ears as he regains his bearings in the well. A giggle. A simple, childish giggle; a sound that should not have existed in a place marked by death and destruction. A sound Tychos hasn’t heard for a little over a decade.

A wistful smile comes to his face as he looks at the girl, who immediately slinks backwards. The motion snaps Tychos back to the present.

He knows that, to her, he must look, or at least seem, incredibly alien. He shares only a little of the features that the townspeople used to possess, and his eyes are probably so unlike anything she has seen before.

We’re here to help, not harm.’ Uncle’s voice says in his head, before he steels himself.

“Hello, little one.” He says simply and calmly, shifting his hands on the walls around him to keep himself steady.

The girl is hesitant to speak, her eyes shifting every which way and around as she tries to avoid looking at Tychos in the eye. Just like Arie used to do when she got in trouble, or thought she was in trouble…

“H-hello.” The girl replies, her accent sounding odd, but speaking in clear Low Gothic.

Tychos smiles broadly. Progress.

“My name is Tychos. I’m here to help.”

For a second, whether it’s a trick of the light or not, he can’t tell, but Tychos thinks that he sees a pair of small lumps push up at the top of the girls head of hair as her eyes open in delight. Although it passes as her eyes grow fearful again.

“Are… are the monsters gone?” She asks, her voice shivering almost as much as her body does.

Monsters… so that kind of narrows down the list of perpetrators.

Tychos smiles warmly. “Yes, they’re gone. What’s your name, little one?”

The girl looks hesitant to answer the question.

“C-Carmen.”

Tychos keeps smiling as the girl slowly opens up to him.

“Carmen. I like that name. It sounds nice. Now, I’m going to get you out of here, but you have to trust me. Do you trust me?”

Childhood nerves and fear take control once again and Carmen refuses to meet the Cadian’s gaze. When she finally musters the courage, her golden eyes shine with tears.

“Will… will you help me find my momma and papa?”

A pit forms in Tychos’ stomach, but he tries to keep the smile on his face. The girl has no idea of the devastation that has been brought on her town. The only thing that’s keeping her going is her childlike hope, the naivety, that everything will turn out okay in the end. That she can find herself back in the arms of those who loved her the most.

The Imperium teaches that hope is the beginning of unhappiness, but… in the end, what else is there for the innocent?

Tychos nods his head. “We’ll look for them. I promise. So… will you let me get you out of here?”

The fear in Carmen’s eyes is replaced with determination before she nods her head, a smile, a genuine smile of delight, coming to her face.

And that’s when they pop up.

Almost like a switch is pulled, a pair of large hare-like ears flick up from her head to stand above her hair. They are covered in a layer of wet, but downy hair the same russet colour as Carmen’s regular hair, and they stick right up above her head.

He tries to keep the shock off his face, but inside, his mind reaches one conclusion: abhuman.

He knows abhumans well. He’s served alongside the Militarum Auxilia several times, alongside the larger, lumbering and foul-smelling Ogryns, beings that could easily rip an ork to pieces with their bare hands, and the diminutive, wily but dead-eye shots that are Ratlings. Each one was a strange extension of the human species, and they filled him with confusion and revulsion in both measure, even if his life have been saved more than once by both groups.

And yet… looking at Carmen’s face as she carefully makes her way towards him in the bucket she was using to keep herself afloat, he has no feeling of revulsion for her. She is not human… and yet she is. She has the mark of the non-human on her, and yet he can do nothing but sympathise for her plight. Maybe it’s the fact that she reminds him, too much, of his deceased sister, or maybe it’s something else.

He can’t hate her.

“W-what’s wrong?” The little girl says in worry as she stops almost right in front of his face, making Tychos realise that he has not said a single word for a while.

“No, nothing.” He says, deciding that honesty is the best policy. “I… I like your ears.”

It’s not the best thing to say, but it’s a practical solution. To the Warp if she’s an abhuman or not, she’s a young child in distress, and there is no way on the Golden Throne that he is going to leave another one.

Taking a hand off the wall, kicking his legs slowly below the surface to keep himself afloat, he holds it out for Carmen to take.

“Now, I’m going to need you to hold on tight to me, so we can get out of here. Is that okay?”

Silently, Carmen looks at the offered hand with trepidation and worry before, slowly, she reaches out with her own hand and places it inside. Her hand almost fully fits inside Tychos’ palm as he gently closes his fingers around the offered limb.

Moving slowly and deliberately so she can see what he is doing, Tychos takes the smaller loop around his waist and fastens it around hers, being careful not to cinch it too tightly and cause her any pain. When he feels she is secure enough, he grabs hold of the rope and gives it a good tug to test its strength.

“Are you ready to come up, Tychos?” He hears Sophia, of all people, call out from above.

“I’ve got her secured!” He calls back, his voice almost like a boom in the tight confines of the well. “Ready to come up.”

Above, he hears Captain Fidor call out to the soldiers at the other end of the rope. “Okay, everyone! Slow and steady now.”

Carefully, the rope above him begins to pull taught and Tychos feels a tug on his waist as he and the girl being to ascend out of the dark and wetness of the well, the Cadian using his legs to help propel them up the well. As they climb, Carmen lets go of Tychos’ hand and wraps her arms around his neck, obviously scared by what is going on, even if she is being rescued.

Reassuringly, Tychos lifts up a hand and places it onto her head, right in the space between her hare-like ears, before he gingerly beings to rub side to side.

The action draws a small but warm smile from the girl.

As they climb up, the light becomes brighter, making Carmen squint in pain as she tries to protect her eyes.

“Almost got you now!” Sophia calls out, her voice strained, showing that she is part of the team pulling the pair up.

Soon, the pair reach the dry stone of the top of the well, and the head of the squad’s weapon specialist suddenly pops over the edge, a smile on her tanned face, her eyes shining with glee.

“Hello, you two! Welcome back.”

The look of glee on her face turns to quiet confusion as she cocks her head to the side at what Tychos is carrying in his arm.

“Well… that’s… unexpected.”

Tychos only gives a grunt in response as he raises a hand up and over the rim of the well, still using one hand to keep the small abhuman child clutched to his chest. Looking around the area, he sees that possibly all of the platoons that are in the town are gathered around.

“I could use a little help here!” He calls out as he does his best to try and climb out of the well single-handedly, before several pairs of hands come up and help him up and out, leaving Tychos to stand in front of several hundred men and women, a very frightened abhuman child in his arms.

The sight of so many strange men and women, in uniforms she has never seen before, all armed with strange weapons, makes Carmen shrink in on herself before she burrows her face into Tychos’ shoulder, her rabbit ears drooping downwards.

A murmur of confusion flows through the crowd, each one trying to really make sense of the situation and what it means for their situation on this world.

But, luckily, one person has the sense to say something positive right now.

“She’s adorable.” Sophia breathes out as she removes her helmet, letting the girl in Tychos’ arms see she’s a human too. “Is she all right?”

“I think so.” Tychos replies as he gently gives her a quick once over through her clothes. “Bit cold and very wet.”

“Someone get her a blanket, now.” Captain Fidor calls out as he takes a step forward, removing his peaked cap as he does so. “So… this is the survivor.”

Tychos nods, as he raises a hand to the back of Carmen’s head and giving her a reassuring pat.

“Once you’re nice and dry, we’ll see about finding your parents.”

He begins removing the rope from around her waist as Carmen lifts her head from his shoulder to look at him, her ears rising slightly as hope glows in her eyes.

“Promise?” She asks in a soft, but hopeful voice.

“Tychos.”

The stern voice of Uncle makes the man turn to look at his commanding officer, who has a forlorn look in his eyes.

“That’s not going to happen.”

Tychos begins to retort. “Sir, I know she’s not human but-”

Fidor raises a hand.

“It’s not that, Tychos. We already found her parents.”

The news should be joyful, but the tone in his voice tells Tychos it is anything but.

“Emperor, no…”

To his side, Sophia begins shaking her head, a worried look on her face, as she too knows the implication of what the captain is about to say. But for little Carmen…

Her eyes widen with joy, her ears standing tall as she gasps out. “You found my momma and papa?”

Captain Fidor doesn’t reply right away.

“Set her down, Tychos.”

His hands tighten for a fraction of a second before Tychos follows the order, setting Carmen down on the ground between himself and the captain. Once on a solid floor, the little abhuman bounces towards the Cadian officer, a happy look on his face.

“Where are they? Are they safe? … are they still mad at me?”

The frown on Tychos’ face deepens at the innocent question, and it’s clear that Uncle is having a hard time too, especially as he moves to crouch down in front of Carmen.

“Little one… I… I’m sorry.”

The large pair of ears on the top of her head droop slightly, a disbelieving look on her face.

“W-why? Where’s my momma and papa?”

Fidor is silent, as he simply looks at the girl.

“… They’re dead.”

The news is a hammer-blow. Sharp intakes of breath and groans of pain are sounded from nearly every throat around the well. Sophia, taking a step back, says nothing before she turns around and throws her helmet solidly against the ground. Tychos for his parts just closes his eyes, grimacing as he does so.

To have come so far, so bloody close to something good…

“N-no.” Carmen says softly, taking a step away from the captain. “No. They… they can’t be. They’re not!”

Opening his eyes, Tychos looks down at Carmen just as she looks up at him. Her gold coloured eyes are open wide, tears making them glitter as they streak down her cheeks. Her ears are fully down against her head.

“They’re not dead!”

Denial. The simplest recourse and refuge for those who given bad news. Tychos has seen it before, and seen it manifest in different people in different ways. But to see a child, even if they’re an abhuman child, go through it. It rends his heart.

“M-momma… Papa…” Carmen gasps out, sobbing as she tries to wipe at her eyes. Then the crying begins. It’s the ugly, heart-wrenching sound of a young girl who’s had their world shattered, and it tugs at the hearts of everyone around her.

Kneeling down, Tychos reaches out a hand to try and console Carmen, but she quickly jerks away from him, like his touch would be the most painful thing. Her golden eyes, still streaming tears, look at him with hate and sadness in equal measure.

“I HATE YOU!” She barks out, her hair almost standing on end before, quicker than anyone can react, she bolts away from him, through the crowd of Cadians, almost bowling a few over in her dash.

No-one makes a move to try and stop her, nor does Captain Fidor make a move to stand up from his kneeling position.

The town is quiet once again as every man and woman present tries to process what has happened. The only sounds heard are the sounds of the carrion birds flying back down to earth to continue their meals.

Silently, Tychos picks up his gear, putting his armour back on before he slings his pack over his back.

“I’m going after her.” He says resolutely.

“Tychos…” Fidor says simply as he stands back up to his full height.

“We came here to help people, right, sir?” The trooper replies, looking at his commanding officer firmly.

Fidor just fixes him with a simple stare before he responds.

“We’ll talk about this later. Just get after her.”

Blinking his eyes in surprise, Tychos looks at his commander in confusion. He honestly thought he’d have to argue with him more about going after Carmen. But, they’re in the field, he remembers with a sense of surety. He’s going to pay for it later.

But right now, he takes it as it is and nods his head.

“On it, sir.”

“I’m coming too.” Sophia calls out, reattaching her helmet to her head, a determined look on her face. “We can cover more ground with two of us.”

“Good plan.” Tychos says as he nods his head.

Not saying another word, the pair head off in the direction they saw Carmen run off in, the soldiers in their path parting to let them through. Out into the sprawled out mass of houses and streets, littered with the corpses of the dead, smouldering houses and feeding carrion birds.

Not the best place to lose a distraught child.


 

The sound of cheering had reached his ears precisely four minutes before, but now the town has fallen silent once, leaving Thaddeus to cock his head in confusion to listen to the sound.

Hmm… Cadians are a strange lot.’ He muses to himself internally before he turns back to his mission. Finding nothing in the town, the Astartes veteran ordered his scouts to switch to the woods across the river from the town, following a mix of footprints, blood and carnage.

The woods are old, Thaddeus can tell in an instant. Gnarled trunks support branches that reach high into the sky, almost seeming to want to throttle the sun, the very source of their life in a display that only nature can produce, while snake-like roots dig into the soil like the grotesque tentacles of the brood-creatures of the Hive Mind. And yet, interspersed between almost every tree, is a new seedling or a sapling reaching for the sky.

A snapshot of the universe at large if there ever is one, the veteran scout decides.

And just like the universe, it is stained with blood and corpses.

Carefully, slowly, the neophytes move through the woodlands, weapons levelled and aimed. Even though they lack the autosense that will be provided later by their power armour, their hearing and sight is already exponentially superior to a baseline human’s. Although, right now, all those sense do is tell them what they already know, and secretly fear; they have been too late to help anyone else.

The interior of the forest is a slaughter-house. If a body has not been ripped to shreds, they have been smashed by some great weight, or dashed against the thickest trees, their corpses lying limp and broken on the ground. Limbs are twisted at abnormal angles, and bodies of different shapes and sizes lie everywhere.

A small roar of rage fills the air before the sound of a thick fist hitting solid wood reverberates in the space. Thaddeus knows how it is.

“We failed.” Neophyte Ollarus breathes out in frustration. “We did nothing to aid these people.”

Looking around, Thaddeus sees the same look of quiet frustration plain on the faces of the other recruits. Ollarus has always just been more outspoken with his emotions than the others.

“We did not fail, neophyte.” The veteran sergeant says calmly. “Our mission was not to aid these people. It was to find information on this world.”

“But brother-sergeant,” Ollarus begins, turning to face the sergeant with an almost pleading look on his face. “Are we not Astartes? Are we not the defenders of Humanity?”

“You are not.” Thaddeus replies quickly and coldly. “You are not Astartes. Some of you are not even close to being called one. You are neophytes; recruits, children. You have been given the gene-seed and the weapons, but you all still have a long way to go until you truly become an Astartes.

“Remember this day, children, and remember it well. Even if a vaunted Primarch has returned to us, this is the universe we live in.” He gestures to the corpse of a young female beside him, her back bent sideways and one of her limbs torn off. “This is the fate of humanity if I do not teach you well. Commit this to memory, for this is what we stand against.”

Chastised, Ollarus turns away to keep watch over his sector of the area while the other scouts spread out. Quietly, Thaddeus moves to stand behind the neophyte.

“Apologies, brother-sergeant.” The heavy bolter wielding scout says in a low voice, even as he keep his vision straight. “I spoke out of turn.”

Thaddeus looks at his subordinate levelly for a few seconds before he speaks.

“You need to control your emotions, especially in situations like this. Your voice has as much bark as your weapon… but I do not disagree with your statement. I just disagree with you calling yourself an Astartes.”

Semantics be damned. Thaddeus has been training battle-brothers of the chapter for nearly six-hundred years. He has seen them come from all the backgrounds of the worlds his chapter drew from: the maille and plate-clad warriors of Sigilis V, the city-dwellers of the desert world Sigilis Prime, the labourers of Sigilis Secundus. He’s seen haughty princelings end up rubbing shoulders with swamp-dwellers and brigands whoresons. He’s pushed them from cowering and frightened babes to hardened warriors. He’s trained the likes of the now First Captain, Brother-Captain Mardas, and even the vaunted Chapter Master, but one thing is sure for him: in his eyes, they will always be children.

To him, the scouts under his watch now are far from ready to call themselves Astartes.

His chastisement given, Thaddeus steps away and beings observing the scene around him.

Slaughter is the first and only word that comes to his mind. It’s indiscriminate, wild, animalistic, and brutal. No two corpses have fallen in the same way, nor suffered the same type of injury. A headless corpse, the missing piece of anatomy flung yards away, has fallen next to one gutted and sodden with blood.

The second and third words to come his mind are ‘tribal warfare’. He’s seen it several times on worlds that Imperium has classified as Feral; tribes that have been at war for so long that the reason for the conflict has been forgotten, becoming an internecine blood-feud, attacking one another with such force and ferocity, all to wipe the other tribe from existence.

The theoretical is there, and so many of the pieces fit. The wounds, the scale of destruction and the barbarism.

And yet… something doesn’t fit to form a solid practical.

As he stalks along the path that the slain townsfolk were trying to follow, he looks more closely at the bodies. Nearly all of the wounds were made by slashing weapons of various shapes and sizes, suggesting close quarters combatants. Even though there were signs of ballistic weapons back in the settlement, none are evident here. These people were running.

Thaddeus continues walking, carefully stepping over a pair of bodies that have been bifurcated before he finds the tree.

Out of the many trees that Thaddeus has come in his time fighting the enemies of humanity across the universe, the scout veteran has seen many trees. Some were tiny things that barely reached his knee, some were tall enough and wide enough to function akin to a hive-spire. But out of all the trees he has seen, this one would definitely rank among the oldest one he’s seen. The surface is gnarled and knotted, with branches crisscrossing and reaching to the sky at the same time. Its surface is a pale grey colour, but beneath, Thaddeus can see the thick roots that dig deep into the ground. It towers over him at a height almost akin to an Imperial Knight.

This tree has stood for several hundred years, Thaddeus is sure of it.

So if it could talk, it, like him, probably wouldn’t baulk at the bodies scattered around the base, nor the bloodied body of the young man hanging limply in the lowest branches of the tree, well over a third of the height off the ground.

Looking at the body as he moves closer, Thaddeus wonders why exactly the boy would climb up the tree to escape. The question of which is further compounded by the fact the boy is missing his left foot above the ankle, and the tree trunk is scoured with deep gouges.

The large stream of dried blood on the tree bark suggests a brutal end to the story.

To the veteran, something doesn’t add up.

Kneeling next to one of the cadavers, Thaddeus begins rooting around through their clothes, discovering that they corpse was once female, on the low end of middle age. It’s not something he, or probably any Astartes does. There is no need for the Angels of Death to want material wealth, their life being their duty and their duty being their reward. But it doesn’t mean others don’t seek rewards.

His gloved hands become sticky with congealed blood as he moves scraps of tattered cloth out of the way before he finds what he’s looking for. A necklace. Not the most artistic or expensive that Thaddeus has seen, or as far as he can estimate, but on a world such as this, it would fetch a pretty price if sold to the right person. Golden metal, with small green stones inlaid in the work.

To a raiding party, it would be the perfect spoil.

“So why haven’t you been plundered?” Thaddeus asks the corpse quietly, even though it can’t give an answer.

Not this corpse at least, he notes as he looks up at the body dangling from the branches above him.

He lets out a sharp but quick whistle. Seconds after, he hears feet rushing towards him as his scouts heed his non-verbal command.

“Brother-sergeant, what is it?” Karis says quickly.

“Ollarus, help me bring this body down. Everyone else, fan out, ten-metre spread. Eyes out and keep watch for anyone approaching.”

“Anyone, sir?” Justus asks, even as he moves to take his place.

“We can’t let the Cadians see what I am about to do.” He says as he waves Ollarus to below the body. “They would not understand.”

Even with two low-level Astartes, it is hard to move the body due to rigor-mortis, but eventually, the corpse is brought down to the ground. It’s cold like the others, pale with bloating beginning to set in, but unlike the others, it is easy to see the young boys face. Brown eyes set wide in fear, the jaw hanging slack in a silent cry.

There is no need for tenderness here, for the act Thaddeus is about to perform as he moves into a crouch is anything but tender. Especially when he draws his Night Reaper. A gift from a Catachan sergeant of scouts for a foolish but worthwhile wager.

“Neophyte, what is the eight implant of the Astartes?” Thaddeus asks, not looking up at Ollarus as he lowers the sleeve of the cadavers shirt, exposing the skin before he presses the knife into the blade.

Unphased by the act, Ollarus replies automatically. “The eighth implant of the Astartes is the omophagea, brother-sergeant. It allows the Astartes to receive the memories of the fallen by ingesting the flesh.”

The blade makes a shallow cut, removing a square inch of cold skin from the arm. Thaddeus holds up the piece of tissue to the light.

“Exactly.”

He opens his mouth, and he pushes the meat into his maw.

He’s running. Everyone is running. What’s left of the town is running deeper into the woods, while the rest are either… oh, gods, he doesn’t want to think about it!

So he keeps running. His friend is somewhere, he has to be. He knows his ma is with him, but he’s gotten separate from his pa. They’re with a group of six or so people. He can’t name all of them at the time, but he knows a few faces.

His lungs are aching, and his legs are hurting, but he keeps running. He keeps running because he can hear the horrible screams and cries from behind him, because he can hear the terrifying howls getting closer.

“Keep running, Davey!” His ma calls, a few paces behind him, her own breath coming in ragged bursts, even as she keeps pace with the group.

They follow a path in the wood, a path he and many others have been down before. They know the way well enough to be able to run it in the dark, right up to The Ancient, the giant tree near the town.

He spies the tree through the bushes, the giant form looming against the moonlight… and he sees the Grimm.

“They’re here!” Someone calls out in fear, prompting screams and cries from the others.

They all scatter, running off in whatever direction they can. But it’s no use. The Grimm are everywhere.

“Hurry, Davey!” His ma cries out as she rushes forward and pushes him towards the tree, even as a Beowulf rushes the group, bearing a man to the ground before it begins clawing him.

He sprints towards the tree, his ma right behind him.

They’re close, so close…

The Beowulf that catches his ma in its jaws springs out of nowhere, taking her to the ground screaming, even as it begins to claw and bite into her.

“MA!” He cries out, stopping to turn.

“RUN!” She calls back, even as her body is being torn to bloody ribbons.

So he turns, and runs again, jumping up onto the knotted trunk of the tree. He hauls himself up quicker than any time he can remember, racing up the surface of the trunk to the lowest branch. He gets a hold of it…

The scream he lets out is the loudest he’s ever made in his life. But he doesn’t let go, pulling himself up the branch to wrap his arms around it. Only when that is done, does he look down at what’s happened.

His left foot is gone, shoe and all, as blood begins pouring from the stump where it used to be. He can’t feel the pain.

But as he looks down at the ground, at the people being slaughtered by the Grimm, the creatures keeping them alive just enough to keep them in pain, as he looks down at the Beowulf beneath him, its claws digging deep into the wood as it looks up at him with its baleful red eyes and its maw lined with blood, he feels one thing.

He feels…

Thaddeus spits out the wad of meat, his acidic saliva burning the flesh and the ground where it lands.

He’s lived for just over six-hundred years, but it’s still a learning experience for him. Mortal emotions are so powerful at the worst of times.

Across from him, Ollarus is looking at him expectantly.

“Brother-sergeant? What did you learn?”

Thaddeus doesn’t look at him. He can’t. For an emotion is racing through the veterans mind. A white hot emotion, burning painfully in his conscious than any other pain he’s felt.

Shame.

A Scouts duty is to learn about the situation, find out who or what the enemy is, and to learn how to defeat them. As a veteran, Thaddeus’ duty is more than that: he needs to be better. He’s faced nearly every foe the universe has to offer. Chaos, aeldari, drukhari, tyranid, ork, necron, hrud,  and countless overs. He knows how to wage war against them, able to anticipate what they would do and where they would strike. He can beat any of them, because he knows them for what they are; the enemy.

He feels shame because Thaddeus, veteran sergeant of the Steel Drakes 10th Company, has made the biggest, and the deadliest, blunder a being could make in the universe: he underestimated his opponent.

Raising to his feet, Thaddeus’ face is set in a cold expression.

“We need to contact chapter command as quickly as possible.” He says gravely before he turns back in the direction of the town. “The situation has changed.”


 

It’s been several minutes since they first split up before Tychos rejoins with Sophia, both soldiers breathing heavily, their skin beginning to shine with sweat. The sun is passing the highest point in the sky, shifting the shadows underneath its passage.

“We’re running out of time.” Sophia gasps out as she looks up at the sky, shielding her eyes. “Fraks sake! This is taking too long!”

Taking a swig from his canteen, Tychos nods his head in agreement. This town is in no way the largest habitation area he’s ever been in, but it’s by no means a small place. There’s lots of nooks and crannies that a small child could hide in, lots of places familiar to her but unfamiliar to him.

It’d be a nightmare to find her quickly.

“We’ll try again. There’s bound to be places we overlooked or missed.” He says as he puts away his canteen. “We’ve got to find her.”

SQUAWK!

The loud cry of a crow draws the pairs attention, as they look up at the large, black carrion eater sitting on the sill of a broken window. It hops slightly from side to side on the window sill, moving its head from side to side as it looks at the pair. Or more specifically, looks at Tychos.

SQUAWK! SQUAWK!

“Damn, that crows taken a liking to you.” Sophia says with a small smile, but Tychos is too focused to care right now. “You must smell like death more than any of us.”

The bird, out of all of the other birds that are in the town right now eating the corpses, seems the most familiar to him. It can’t be…

SQUAWK!

The carrion-eater gives one more loud cry before, flapping its wings loudly, it propels itself off the window sill and flies away, in a direction that neither person has been in.

“Once is a coincidence, twice is a miracle…” Tychos says to himself, remembering something he heard Father Constantine say one time in mass about recognizing signs from the Emperor and His saints.

This seemed like that sort of situation.

“What was that?” Sophia asks, looking at her friend in confusion.

I’m going to take directions from a crow on how to find a missing abhuman child,’ was not something he could reasonably say out-loud. To the best of ears, it would sound like he was just going mad. To the worst… it would mean he’d be set on the pyre himself.

“I think we should change tact here.” Tychos instead replies. He points in the direction the crow went. “We’ve not been this way. If we both go parallel, we might be able to find her.”

For a second, Sophia looks sceptical at the idea, but then her face hardens under her helmet as she nods.

“Okay. I’ll take the right, you take the left.”

With a nod, Tychos takes off at a jog on the left side, Sophia close behind on the other side of the street. This street is a straighter than the other ones, with no serious jinks or offshoots to get lost down, with many of them ending in dead ends.

A few days ago, it probably would have been an idyllic setting. But now, it’s a ruined mess. Fences are smashed apart into once pristine gardens, now torn up by monstrous foot and paw prints. Doors, windows and walls to formerly peaceful homes are smashed and broken, from both outside and in, while some are little more than blackened and smouldering ruins where flames took them in the night. In some places, walls are marked with bullet holes and scratch marks, while dark brown marks stain stone and grass alike.

Jogging along the street, Tychos lets his eyes scan over any and all terrain around him, using the skills he was taught to aid in detecting a hidden enemy. Disturbed ground markings, moved pieces of wood; anything that shows a person was through here.

But so far, no sign.

SQUAWK!

Up ahead, the crow hovers in the air at the entrance to a side street. Deciding to trust the bird one more time, Tychos jogs towards the bird. With a flutter of its black wings, it darts off the side, drawing the guardsmen behind it as it flies towards its destination.

Turning the corner, Tychos sees where he is being lead to.

It’s a hab, a single small unit. It’s not a prefabricated block like he’s seen on many worlds, nor is the stout blockhouse constructs he’d seen in the Cadian outlands. It’s single storied, made from dark grey stone, built around a timber frame and a simple slate covered roof. It’s size is modest in every way… but it radiates something that Tychos hasn’t properly felt for nearly a decade now.

Home. It is a home, in every sense of a word, even if it is removed from the towering hab-blocks that Tychos grew up in in Kasr Drak. But it still speaks of the things that a home should be; warm, cosy and welcoming.

The house has managed to survive the destruction wrought upon the town it’s in, with nothing worse than a portion of the fence at the front being smashed to kindling by something big barging its way through the garden.

Tychos doesn’t need the crow to tell him what he already knows; this is Carmen’s home.

Rooting out an enemy with grenades and bayonet would be a better prospect than this.

He hears footsteps come up behind him, but doesn’t turn when he hears Sophia speak up.

“It’s a nice place.” She says wistfully as she stands beside Tychos, both looking at the house. “Shame about everything else… Think she’s in there?”

“She has to be. Nowhere else for her to be.” Tychos replies.

Sophia nods her head before her squadmate takes a step towards the gate. It’s open, off its lock, letting anyone simply stroll towards the house unimpeded. But to Tychos, the thought of touching it in the current situation seems… almost sacrosanct.

Gingerly, he pushes the gate open, the wooden portal creaking slightly on its hinges before the two Cadians make their way up the gravel path to the house. They pass several small flowers of different colours and hues, each one lovely to look at as they walk up to the door.

The portal is a simple thing, used the universe over from Ultramar to Cadia, from Valhalla to Bakka. Made from deep brown wood, it’s a simple door, with a brass metal handle on one side, while hanging in the middle is a small plaque, made from a light coloured wood hung by a piece of string, which across is written the word, or rather the name, ‘Gael-Harts’. The name is surrounded by bright sunny flowers.

A pained sound comes from Sophia’s throat before she sighs.

“Let’s just get this over with.” She says resolutely.

Nodding his head, Tychos moves to the side to prepare for a door breech… but then stops, remembering that there is nothing hostile behind that door. The fact that his hand is reaching down to one of the grenades on his belt before he snaps it back does not help.

Not saying a word, Tychos reaches up and twists the door handle before he pushes open the door. Raising his lasgun carefully, he pokes open the portal slowly and carefully.

The arm holding the lasgun drops like a lead weight.

The inside of the house is pristine and clean, probably having only been cleaned before the destruction that engulfed the town the night before. A kitchen and dining area on one side, the smell of recently cooked food still lingering in the air and a pot of something delicious smelling on the cooker, while on the other side is a small living area with a small selection of couches and chairs. A set of stairs leads up to the attic, while a pair of doors goes off to the side of the living area.

It’s rustic, bit cramped, but clean, and inviting.

Tychos and Sophia have opened many doors in their time in the Guard. Many of them held the complete opposite of this on the other side; the horrible remains of a firefight or explosion, a lasgun or stubber pointed waiting for them, or a horrible monstrosity of flesh or steel on the other side. Or sometimes all three.

It is a far cry from any situation either Cadian have found themselves in, and they are stunned into inaction because of it. So it’s a surprising noise, in the midst of this idyllic setting, that moves both of them into action.

Sobbing. Low, mournful, slightly muffled sobbing. Coming from one of the rooms.

Tychos points at the door closest to them before he signs in Cadian battle-sign.

Going in. Stay here, stay quiet.

Sophia nods her head as she moves into a more relaxed pose, slinging her lasrifle across her front as she moves to investigate the kitchen. Tychos doesn’t give a response as he unfastens the strap of his helmet and approaches the door the sobbing is coming from.

As he steps closer to the door, her hears a voice.

“Momma… papa…”

It reminds him of so many nights in barrack rooms and bunkers. Of those who have lost, crying out for those taken. Of those with last words unsaid and unheard. Of those who wished to switch places with the missing. A simple lament for loved ones.

Sighing softly, he reaches down and pushes open the door.

For a second… he sees her. He sees her as he remembers her; small, with dark brown hair cut to her shoulders, dressed in one of the utilitarian uniforms of the Whiteshield platoons of the Cadian Youth Army; a simple tan jacket and trouser. She is looking out of the window, watching a flight of Marauder bombers return to their airbase, as she sits on mother and father’s bed…

“Arie…” Tychos whispers out, disbelieving what he is seeing as he takes a step forward.

A floor-board squeaks.

The face that snaps around to look at him isn’t Arie’s. It’s the face of a frightened child, her tears streaked with still wet tears which make her golden eyes redden. Her hair is dishevelled and still wet, and her large rabbit ears are flat against her head.

“GO AWAY!” Carmen snaps before she dives under the covers of the bed she’s on, hiding herself from sight. Her voice is muffled as she speaks again. “I hate you! I want my momma! I want my papa!”

The room that Tychos is standing in is a simple bedroom. Four walls, one of which has a window facing a side of the town protected by its wall, with a simple set of wooden cupboards, chest-of-drawers and a wardrobe set against the other walls. In the middle, a king-sized bed, enough for two people to sleep comfortably, sits forlorn, a shivering and whimpering bundle on the top.

Tychos cannot find the right words to say right away. Wordlessly, he removes his helmet, before setting it, his backpack and his rifle against the wall. Carefully, he steps around the room and stops before the end of the bed, sinking into a crouch which then turns him to sitting crossed legged on the floor.

“Carmen…” He can’t find the words, because he’s never had to. Even with all its dangers and horrors, combat is more simple.

“Why did they have to go away?” Carmen sniffles out beneath the blanket.

Now that’s something he can work with, Tychos realises. Because it’s a question that he’s heard practically all the time since the Fall.

“Carmen… I can’t answer that.” He admits, shaking his head forlornly. “But… I know what it’s like to have your world broken like this.”

A solitary sniffle comes from the bundle. “You… you do?”

Tychos nods his head, even though he knows that the abhuman girl can’t see it. “I… I and all of the other men and women out there… we lost our home, years ago.” He doesn’t know how much he should say, since it’s not something he was told not to talk about. Plus, how do you describe to a small child that your home was literally smashed to pieces?

A rustle of fabric draws his attention, as he sees Carmen’s face, cheeks wet with tears, peek out from beneath the blanket, a strand of russet coloured hair splitting her face.

“Y-you did?” She asks hesitantly. “H-how?”

For a second, Tychos taps a hand against his boot, thinking of the right words to say.

“We… Our home was in a very dangerous place. A lot of… nasty and horrible things wanted to get past us, to destroy other places… Like this world.” He stops for a second at the thought of the legions of the Archenemy marching on this world, at what they could do on this world. It’s a sobering thought, and it sets him on the path for what else he could say. “Nearly everyone on my planet was a soldier. We were trained, from a young age, to stop those things getting past us. We did a pretty good job at it too.”

Tychos can’t help the prideful chuckle at the boast that any Cadian can make… could make. His face falls as he remembers the suffering and sadness of those times.

“Then, one day, they came. In numbers we never imagined. We fought back, as hard as we could, with everything we had and with everyone who could fight, every one of our allies helping. But… in the end, it didn’t matter.

“We lost our home… And I lost my family. We all lost our families.”

Carmen’s eyes open wide in shock at the statement, her head raising slightly. The blanket falls back slightly, revealing her large hare-like ears as they pushed up a bit in surprise.

“You… you’re like me.” She says in a sad but surprised tone of voice, making Tychos smile wanly as he nods his head.

“I am. I… I lost my mother… and my younger sister.”

It was something he never imagine admitting to another person outside of the regiment, but in Carmen, he finds something of a… kindred spirit.

“I’m like you. All of us in the regiment are.” He says, gesturing to the area outside of the house in a sweep of his hand. “We know what it’s like to lose something precious. And we want to help you.”

Carmen’s eyes drop to look at the bed she’s on. Carefully, she pushes the blanket off her as she sits upright, then she looks at Tychos’ face.

“They’re gone. My momma and papa.”

Tychos nods his head as he sits more upright, his face now level with Carmen’s. Fresh tears being falling down her face.

“I want them to come back!” She wails, raising a hand to wipe at her face.

Unbidden, Tychos reaches out, cupping one of her cheeks as he uses a thumb to wipe away her tears.

“I know you do. I want my family back.”

“We all do.” Comes the voice of Sophia, leaning against the door-frame, helmet dangling in her hand and tears glistening down her cheeks. “But they’re gone. And we can’t change that.”

Carmen lets out a sob and a sniffle, still looking at Tychos. “But… I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be alone.”

Reaching up with his other hand, Tychos gently cups both of Carmen’s cheeks in a tender touch.

“You won’t be.” He says firmly and happily. “I promise you.”

Instantly, Sophia’s face brightens as she tacks onto the idea right away.

“Yeah! We’ll take you in!” She says happily as she quick walks to stand beside Tychos, putting a hand onto his shoulder. “With us, we’ll protect you, and you’ll never be alone.”

Tychos looks up at his squadmate in uncertainty before she speaks out of the corner of her mouth in Cadian.

Just until we find any relatives.

Despite himself, the idea sounds very appealing to Tychos. The noise that came from his comrades when he announced that he had found her, and he was certain he heard similar noises from across the town too, told him that they were as excited by her discovery as he was.

Even if she was an abhuman, that didn’t mitigate that she was the sole living being left in a massacred town.

A miracle in of itself. And to deny his company even that…

“Okay.” Tychos says as he nods his head. “We’ll do it. What do you say, Carmen?”

Hesitation comes to the young girls face, as she looks between the two Cadians. The tears have stopped, but her cheeks are still wet. She sniffs again.

“Can… Can I take some stuff with me?”

The pair of guardsmen nod their heads, before a thought enters Tychos’ head.

“I just realised; we know your name, but you don’t ours.” He puts his hand against his chest plate. “I’m Tychos. Tychos Litten”

“Sophia Kall.” The other female of the trio says with a smile.

Confusion comes to Carmen’s face as she cocks an eyebrow.

“You two have strange names.”


 

Fidor is not normally a pacing man. The training fields of Cadia teach a man, especially the officer class, to rigid stances and stoic stillness on the parade grounds. If a man paces, then it means his mind is pacing. He is not thinking clearly.

The captain’s mind is trying to figure out the situation he has led his company in to.

Their mission had been to help the inhabitants of this town. By the fact that his town had been depopulated to literally just one person, even if they were an abhuman, in one night meant that that mission had been a failure from the outset.

There’s another source of worry for Captain Fidor.

The presence of the abhuman child.

It’s not the fact that she is an abhuman. At this moment in time, that is a secondary issue. What is an issue is the affect she has had on morale. When he and his men had come into the town, even though they had all seen similar levels of death and destruction before, many of them, like himself, several times before, but the manner with which it had been carried out was… it was unsettling.

To find someone amongst all of that carnage and slaughter, especially one so young; it’s something each Guard regiment dreams of happening. It’s directly out of a propaganda piece, a story right out of the Regimental Standard.

And then he had to be the one to bloody go and ruin it.

It was the truth, no doubt about that, but was it the right time to tell it? That was the question that played on his mind as he makes his twelfth circuit of the little path he has made for himself.

Around him, half of the soldiers of Bravo Company are either milling around in their squads or simple sitting on their packs in huddles of friends. Each man and woman is chatting in a low voice, but the murmur of voices in the air says the same thing.

“What are we going to do now, sir?”

Commissar Schreiber’s voice makes Fidor stop before he executes a perfectly textbook about-turn to look at the black-clad political officer standing behind him, Father Constantine walking up behind the commissar.

Fidor can’t admit the reality that he doesn’t know what they can do. He knows the works of the Tactica Imperium almost by heart. He knows how to lead his men to clear defences of enemies and defend them in turn. He knows the right words to say to lead his men into battle, as well as any member of the commissariat.

But right now…

“We wait for Trooper Litten and Specialist Kall to return. Then we move out. It’s too dangerous to linger here for too long.”

Commissar Schreiber nods his head, his face an impassive mask. Father Constantine steps forward however, quickly coming close to the captain. He places a hand on Fidor’s shoulder and motions for the man to turn around.

“This is about the child, isn’t it?”

Cut to the quick. The priest is good at things like that.

Fidor sighs. “While finding her was a godsend from the Emperor… was I in the right to tell her the truth? About her parents?”

“You didn’t kill them yourself.” The priest points out.

Fidor looks at Constantine flatly. “If you had seen her reaction… you’d think I might as well have.”

“It was anger and grief, nothing more.” The Father replies. “It’s a natural response to loss. We all know that.”

Fidor blanches for a moment, before he realises that the priest’s words are accurate. Even when he was ordering his men onto the heavy landers, along with the civilians, he knew what his own feelings had been, along with those of his men. He, and the others, had raged at the injustice of it all, raged at the Archenemy for finally doing the unthinkable. He and all the others had grieved at the loss of their home and their families.

He knows where Carmen was coming from in her emotions… but to be on the receiving end of it, was not a wholly pleasant experience.

A voice calls out from the side.

“Hey, they’re back!”

All at once, the murmuring stops as each Cadian quickly gets to their feet or moves away from their small huddles to go towards the source of their attention. Past Constantine’s head, Fidor can see Tychos and Sophia approach the company. Although, there is a strange space left between the pair. But he thinks he can guess what the space is for…

“Captain Fidor, sir!” Tychos calls out as the pair stops, a pleased smile on his face, a look that is copied tenfold on Sophia’s face.

Father Constantine moves out of the way, letting Fidor see that the pair have found her.

She’s drier now, and dressed in a deep blue dress. Her hair has been brushed finely, lovingly even, while on her back, she carries a small but full rucksack. In her hands, she holds, ironically enough, a small stuffed rabbit.

It’s a small measure of normalcy in the ruined town, and it makes Carmen look even more upset.

At the sight of all the people looking at her, the young girl shrinks in on herself, holding her toy to her chest before she slides in behind Tychos’ leg.

“Everyone.” The trooper says loudly in the lull of noise as he puts a hand onto Carmen’s head. “This… this is Carmen Gael-Hart.”

The introduction is so simple and forthright, perfect for the child, who slowly holds out a hand and waves shyly.

“H-hi.”

The Cadians are stunned into silence, not really sure how to respond. As ever, it’s Father Constantine who takes the reins on the situation. Stepping forward, his hands clasped together in a non-threatening pose, he carefully makes his way towards the trio before he drops into a crouch in front of Carmen.

“My child,” He says softly. “I am Father Constantine. I am terribly sorry about your parents… But I want you to know they loved you, with all their hearts.”

Stepping closer, Fidor sees Carmen look down to the floor, her large ears still drooping down, at the news, before she looks up.

“Did… did you find them?”

The priests nods his head forlornly.  “We did, sad to say. What were their names?”

Carmen hesitates, unsure of what to say to the stranger. “… Momma was called Marion. My papa was called Hans.”

Despite himself, Fidor can’t help but smile. The dead have a name. Even if it’s only two out of several hundred, it’s a positive.

Stepping to his feet, Constantine turns to look at the captain.

“With your permission, sir, I’d like to-”

“See to it. It’s the least we can do here.”

The priest nods his head. “By your leave, sir.”

“I’ll assist, Father.” Commissar Schreiber says, walking over to the priest. As he walks past the trio, the commissar casts a look at the young girl, which again makes her shrink behind Tychos’ leg. Without another word, he follows behind Constantine away from the group.

Fidor turns to the group. “All right, let’s get a medic up here. Make sure she’s all right.”


 

Anton is a man who considers himself unflappable. As a commissar of the Officio Prefectus, drawn from the ranks of the Schola Progenium, the man likes to think that he has seen, or has at least been trained to see, all that the universe can offer.

So it takes him by surprise when he almost has to jog to keep pace with the priest.

“Father Constantine, slow down.” He says before he draws level with the man. “What has gotten into you?”

The speed with which the Munitorum priest stops and turns to look at the Anton is surprising. Not as surprising though as the wild, fervent look.

“Do you not see what this is, commissar?” Constantine asks as he clamps his hands onto the political officer’s shoulders, keeping the man in place. “This is why we were brought here!”

For a few seconds, Anton just looks at the bearded priest unblinkingly. “… come again.”

“The reason we were brought here, commissar!” Constantine almost roars into the other man’s face, but not a roar of anger. A roar of joy. “Our purpose. Our reason for being here, on this planet. The Emperor has given us a purpose again!”

Furrowing his eyebrows, Anton just looks at the priest uncomprehendingly as he takes in what he’s been told.

“Wait a moment,” He finally says when the pieces click. “Are you saying that the reason the whole fleet has been brought to this planet… is because of the Emperor’s divine will?”

“Can you not see why?” Constantine asks in reply. “This world, even though it carries the constructs and holy touch of humanity, is blighted by these foul… xenos beasts, to such a level that small settlements just like this run the risk of disappearing in a night. Can you not see the reason why we, those of Cadia who have lost their home, have been brought to this world?”

A commissar is a faithful man. Before they are trained to be the executor and judge of the Militarum, each young boy and girl of the Schola Progenium is a sound and worthwhile adherent of the Imperial Creed, believing the letter and the text of the holy books of the Ecclesiarchy. The various denominations and minor eccentricities exist (Anton remembers Commissar-Captain Muhaned El Sadat of Tallarn and his practice of praying facing Holy Terra) exist, but the main, underlying facet is there: worship of the God-Emperor and His place for humanity in the universe.

But… the second edge of that sword exists. A commissar must be a hawk. He must be on the constant vigil for sedition, heresy and faithlessness. He must act swiftly, with all the power of his rank to cut away the weeds of heresy before they suffocate the flower of belief (to use a phrase from his old instructor, Senior Commissar Lucrecia Salesia, may she rest in peace). He must be on the lookout for demagogues, heresiarchs, and infiltrators at all time.

So… Anton is torn. To the religious part of his mind, Constantine’s words sound right… but he cannot stop his suspicious nature as a commissar from raising its head.

“Father Constantine. Are you truly suggesting that the Emperor… brought us here? As a sort of…” Anton moves his hands in vague gestures as he thinks on the words to say. “Recompense of us losing Cadia?”

“Well, why isn’t it?” The preacher responds simply, like it’s the easiest thing to say. “Cadians have done so much in His service, in His name, that He should not allow us to just… waste away as mere guardsmen. He has a plan for us. And it starts here!”

Coldly, Anton looks the preacher square in the face.

“Father Constantine. I know you’ve been in the service longer than I have but… you cannot be that naïve?”

“Naïve?” Constantine repeats, looking at the political officer like he’s the strangest being in the world right now. “Is it naïve to wish for my fellow Cadians not to simply waste themselves away? To not wish for their purpose, our purpose, to be taken from us through time and bloodshed? Is it naïve to wish for us to be given a higher purpose?”

Here in lies one of the greatest divides in the Astra Militarum, the Imperial Guard; the commissariat, ever vigilant like a hawk for all the horrors and failings of Humanity in combat and to punish them, and the Ecclesiarchy, those who extol the virtues of Humanity in a horrible universe and to guide them, spiritually, to a better place.

Anton wishes Constantine no ill will. In many times, the pair have combined their oratory skills, along with their combat prowess, to bolster their comrades flagging resolve. But each man has a different outlook on the universe. The commissar cannot find himself to follow the same line of thought as Constantine says.

“Let’s just get this over with.” He says, turning away to follow the path the pair are walking on.

“Is it because she hits too close to home for you?” The preacher says loudly. “The girl… losing her parents.”

The sentence make Anton halt in his steps. Leather creaks as he flexes his gloved hands into fists, the fabric groaning under duress.

“Don’t. You. Dare.” The words come out as a hiss, Anton not turning to look at the preacher.

His face is set in a cold mask, cold and unreadable as taught to him by his instructors, the cold mask of a commissar. But inside, a fire has been lit inside him. A fire of anger and shame.

Footsteps, slow and gentle, approach him from behind.

“Anton, there is no shame in admitting your feelings on this situation.”

“Well, this isn’t the time or place.” Anton replies testily, turning his head slightly to look at Father Constantine. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Not saying anything else, the black-coated political officer stalks off, leaving the preacher to follow up behind. For a while, the pair walk in silence, Constantine quietly directing Anton on where to go.

It doesn’t take them long to reach the area of the settlement the corpses were found in. Even though Third Platoon has been hard at work clearing away the bodies left discarded after the events of last night, piling the bodies carefully onto a specially constructed pyre, yet still the dirt on the ground remains sodden and dark with blood, while the wood of the jetties is likewise stained. The only thing with any colour of life remaining is the clear blue water of the nearby river, flowing downstream, likely as it always did and ever will.

“Father! Good to see you back.” Lieutenant Nathson calls out, a smile broad on his face, despite his surroundings. “And Commissar Schreiber. Good to see you to too.”

Anton nods his head in greeting before he looks around his surroundings. His professional eye sees the lack of ranged weaponry, of any size or scale, used offensively. The destruction of the town being undertaken by melee implements it seems. Buildings, wall, boats, even the jetties themselves, seem to have been deliberately attacked, and yet… the whole area does not feel that it was properly targeted in the attack. From what he can tell, the attack was… wanton, frenzied.

“Where are the bodies?” The commissar asks flatly, still looking around the area, just in case there’s something missing.

“Right through here, sir.” Nathson says, motioning towards a small hab set a ways from the river’s edge.

Through the hole in the wall of the side of the building, Anton can see a pair of troopers, their helmets removed from their heads, moving gently to and fro inside the room. He can hear a small amount of muttering from inside the open room. As they get closer, Anton can clearly hear a prayer being recited.

“… Holy Emperor, see these souls safely to your side. Holy Emperor, protect their souls from the predations of the daemon and the blasphemer…”

It’s a trick that many commissars are taught, or some develop by themselves in some form or another. Being able to make themselves noticed without giving anything away. A cough is too theatrical, while simply going ‘ahem’ can be taken for someone clearing their throat. No, a commissar needs to inspire fear in the right measure at the right time for them to be taken seriously.

Moving his foot surreptitiously but heavily, Anton grinds the heel of his boot against the stones on the ground. The grinding noise fills the air, alerting the two troopers of the presence of the commissar close as they shoot up and stand at attention.

“Commissar, sir!” The first, a woman with a small shock of bright ginger hair peaking out from underneath her helmet, says as she stands upright. “We… we were…”

“Preparing the bodies for moving, sir.” The other one, a male definitely in his middle age and possessing a scar that splits his lower lip and his chin, says simply.

Not saying a word, the political officer steps towards the room, and promptly stops at the hole in the side of the hab when he sees the bodies.

The male’s skin is bloated, and his clothes are soaked with blood from the large gash in the left side of his chest. But his skin has been cleaned as best as it could be, and a large piece of cloth has been placed underneath the corpse. Likewise, to his side, the… abhuman, as evidenced by the large ears on top of her head, has been similarly cleaned up, making a decidedly better corpse than the one next to her.

To a follower of the Imperial Creed, this… union, human and abhuman together, is almost sacrosanct to the Imperial faith. Humanity, in all its purity, should not lay with the impure, nor should they wish too. Even if the female would be considered attractive in life, seeing the pair together almost earns a sneer from Anton.

But… they fought. They fought to the last to defend themselves, their loved one, their home, from who or whatever attacked this settlement. That’s worthy of some small measure of respect.

Anton reaches up and removes the peaked cap from his head, placing it solemnly against his chest.

“By our deeds are we known, and by our deeds are we measured.” The commissar intones solemnly as he looks at the two corpses, ready to be covered by their burial shrouds.

When he replaces the cap, the woman’s moves a step closer to him, a sparkle of hope in her violet eyes.

“Sir, I have to ask… is it true? The survivor First found…? Are these her parents?”

Constantine responds, nodding his head as he does so. “They are, my child. And their names are known to us.”

A look of quiet acceptance and relief comes to the woman’s face, while the man leans down and carefully wraps the bodies with the shrouds.

“You know this isn’t Cadia, Father?” Anton asks quietly, leaning his head to come closer to Constantine’s.

The preacher is quiet as he watches the pair of troopers carry on preparing the bodies for burial, carefully moving the bodies as they tighten the shrouds with small lengths of rope. Without a word, Constantine reaches into one of his sleeves and removes two pieces of parchment. Anton knows the type; prayer sheets, ones that would be placed on a body bag or coffin (if a lasman in lucky), prepared to protect the soul of the recipient from harm and to pray for a quick journey through the afterlife to their final resting place.

Placing the parchments carefully, reverently, on the chests of each cadaver, the preacher remains stooped over when he speaks.

“As long as we live, as long as we carry on our customs; Cadia will not die.”

When he stands, Constantine is looking at Anton with a forlorn but hard look.

“As long as we stand, Cadia stands."


 

High from its perch on a burnt out wall, the crow watches as the two men in black, one of them clearly a priest and the other… the crow isn’t sure what he is. The younger one’s outfit looks like an old Atlesian policeman before they changed the uniforms, but in all black.

It watches as the two men talk to each other a bit, before the preacher calls over eight more soldiers to their position. The soldiers each carry a stretcher made from strips of wood and a large piece of cloth, which they carry between them. With no small amount of pomp and ceremony, the soldiers lay the stretchers on the floor before they gently, very gently, place the shrouded corpses onto the stretchers. Without a word, the soldiers, four to a group, lift the stretchers up onto their shoulders between them, acting as pall-bearers for the dead.

As they begin walking away, the officer (the crow guesses he’s an officer) at the rear and the priest leading the procession, the crow cocks its head in confusion.

People on Remnant view birds like crows and ravens as clever, an old piece of mythology that just kept going. Even as the old gods were replaced or discarded, the stories remained. This crow is definitely no different.

Giving a slight ruffle of its feathers, the corvid propels itself from its perch as it soars into the air, flying over the ruined town. Turning its head side to side, it takes in the lay of the land once more and sees what the mass of people are doing. For the last couple of hours, the uniformed people have been taking down some of the more decrepit buildings that haven’t been burnt down and have been building large funeral pyres on which the more… complete bodies of the townspeople are placed.

Setting down on another building near a pyre, the crow watches as the soldiers mill around a nearly completed pyre as the soldiers in khaki cloth and armour uniforms place one more body on the wooden pile.

“Is that everyone in our area?” One of them asks from below the crows perch, looking around him.

“Yeah, that’s everyone, sergeant.” A woman asks, her voice sounding much older than the other one. “Should we get a flame to it?”

For a moment, the bird watches the sergeant pause in thought before he reaches down and picks up a single, long piece of wood. At the end, the crow sees that it’s been wrapped in some kind of fabric which has been doused in some sort of liquid.

“Do it.”

The woman steps forward as she pulls out a small metal box. Soon, the unmistakeable sound of a lighter being ignited proceeds the smell of something pungent burning reaches the bird. Without another word, the sergeant moves away from his comrades and begins to set the pyre aflame. The fire takes to the wood quickly, and soon the air becomes thick with haze and smoke, and the unmistakeable smell of burning flesh.

There’s no sounds from the people as they watch the pyre become engulfed in flame. There’s no cheers, no chants or jeers. Just… silence. Quiet, stony silence. In fact, the crow is certain that he can even hear a few muffled sobs too.

Looking up from the pyre, the bird sees another plume of black smoke and flame take up at another part of the town.

The bird has seen flames of this severity before. Usually, they’ve been in the aftermath of a bandit or Grimm attack, sometimes both, the malice and brutality of nature and man combined into a hate-filled display. And part of the bird feared that the soldiers it’s watching on the ground were going to be another such group. That they were another of her minions, and that she had somehow managed to get her hands on a proper military force.

It was that reason why it had to abandon the Faunus girl trapped in the well. There was no way it would have been able to get her out in time to save her, but it knows that if those people had tried anything to harm her… there would have been hell to pay.

But it had watched. It had seen the care the people had taken as they discovered and moved around the bodies. It had heard the anguished and pain-filled comments from the soldiers, and it had seen the careful and respectful way they had treated the bodies they found.

So it took a gamble. When it saw one of the soldiers closest to the well the girl was in, the bird made its move to get the soldier to investigate. And it had worked. Even after the girl had run off at being told what happened to her family, he had helped the soldier find her.

As it propels itself from its perch once more, it makes a bee-line of the centre of town, using the thermals from the pyre in front of it to push it higher into the air. Flying the sky, another, smaller plume of smoke in the woods to the north catches its eyes.

Now that’s a group that the crow needs to keep its eye on when it can. Those buggers are HUGE, even taller than General Ironwood, and they packed some serious firepower. They seem to be allies with the soldiers in town, but they are operating by themselves in the woods, and there was also that little stand-off with the guy the bird guesses is the commanding officer, if these guys are a proper military outfit.

But that raises the question: just who are these people?

As the crow flies closer to its destination, it can see the group that found the Faunus girl gathered around her, a soldier with a white helmet paying special attention to her, almost doting on her. With its enhanced vision, it can see that the girl is unharmed and is also being treated very gently and calmly. The two soldiers that went to find her, the man and woman, are sitting on each side of her, keeping her calm.

It dips down to have a closer look.

Afterall… who would notice a simple dusty old crow?


 

Carmen watches the crow as it flies through the air before sitting down on the top of a roof.

Her Faunus ears allow her to pick the small SQWUAK it gives, making a thin smile comes to her mouth. This had to be the crow that she saw when she was down the well. It has to be.

Her view of the bird is blocked though as a white helmet with a bright red twisted, and winged, symbol above an old but warm face, a smile creasing the short, well-trimmed silvery beard… and the saddest eyes Carmen has ever seen.

“Okay, little one,” The man says warmly as he lifts up a small flashlight in his hands, clicking it on. “Say ‘ah’ for me, and let’s look at your mouth. Okay?”

Carmen nods her head at the doctor’s orders, and proceeds to open her mouth. Even if he is dressed as the others, she thinks as the man looks in her mouth, he has to be a doctor, right? He knows about medicine, doing all the things that Doctor Fall had done for her when she was sick. Besides, the… Cadians called him ‘doc’, so he has to be a doctor. At least, that’s what her mind tells her anyway.

The flashlight clicks again. “Okay, you can close your mouth now.”

 Carmen closes her mouth dutifully.

“So,” Sophia says as she takes a firm but gentle hold of Carmen’s left hand, “What’s the verdict, Doc?”

The doctor smiles the same warm smile, the smile that does nothing to warm his eyes. “Nothing serious. Some water, some food, and I think some proper sleep will be all the little one needs. In fact…”

Trailing off, the doctor reaches around to his side and, after rummaging for a few seconds in one of his pouches, held between his thumb and forefinger, he pulls out a small item, roughly the size of a two-cent coin, wrapped in simple brass foil. With her Faunus sense of smell, Carmen can easily smell the scent of butter toffee.

Despite the size of it, to Carmen it looks like the tastiest thing she’s ever seen.

“I think this would be the right place to start.” The older man says in a warm voice before he holds out the candy.

She doesn’t mean to do it. She’s been brought up to be polite and well-mannered at the dinner table. It was something her papa insisted on, and her momma didn’t object. But seeing the sweet offered to her… she can’t help but snatch it before she proceeds to almost rip open the small coating.

She’s about to stuff the candy into her mouth before, her mouth open slightly, she stops and sees the bemused but happy looks of the three Cadians around her. Slowly, she closes her mouth sheepishly.

“.. ‘nk you, sir.” Carmen says timidly before she pops the candy into her mouth and begins chewing happily. For a space sweet, it tastes nice.

To her sides, Sophia and Tychos start laughing again. It’s not an evil laugh, one that she’d hear when she was being picked on. But the same gentle laughter of joy that she once heard from her… parents.

Even with the sweet in her mouth, the young Faunus girl can’t help but feel the tears begin to fall down her cheeks.

A finger rubbing against her cheek, wiping away the tear dripping down. Looking to her right, she sees Tychos smiling down at her, a small but heartfelt smile. The sort of smile that means nothing has to be said between the pair of them.

Carmen sniffles. Then she sniffs, her eyebrows furrowing.

“I smell… burning meat.”

The three soldiers sniff the air too, before Sophia turns and looks past one of the roofs nearby, the same roof the crow is sitting on, as a large cloud of black smoke drifts into the sky, another one a ways off to the side.

“They’ve started lighting the pyres.”

Confusion remains on Carmen’s face, before the doctor speaks up.

“It’d take too long to bury all of the bodies, and if what attacked your town is still nearby, then we can’t risk it. Plus, leaving the bodies out for too long could help spread disease.”

The idea makes sense, and if a doctor is saying it, then it must be right to Carmen’s mind. But still… it’s weird.

“Tychos, Sophia.” The stern of the man that they call Captain draws everyone’s attention, mainly the two people he’s called out. “Over here. I need a word.”

The man scares Carmen, his height and clothes , combined with his moustache, makes the girl shrink in on herself when she sees him. It doesn’t help that this purple eyes burn bright with… something hard for Carmen to describe, but the man scares her.

Even if the other soldiers call him ‘Uncle’ (which doesn’t make sense to Carmen since some of them are old enough to nearly be his age) doesn’t mean that she’s any less scared of him.

“Don’t worry about the captain, little one.” The doctor says calmly as he moves to sit down next to Carmen, sighing as he takes his seat. “He’s got a tough job, and what happened here isn’t making it any easier for him.

“We were told that we were to come here and help people, since we knew that this place got attacked last night. But we didn’t know about the severity of it. We thought there would be people here to help not just… a person. It’s not a good thing to find, and it’s not sitting well with him.”

Chewing on the last bits of the sweet before swallowing, Carmen looks down at the floor sadly. She’s alone now. She’s the only person from Marysville alive. She’s all alone.

The tears start coming again and she sniffles as she tries to wipe them away.

A comforting arm appears around her, pulling her towards the doctor. When she looks up at him, Carmen sees him smiling down at her, the gesture making the man’s beard widen in size.

“But you’re safe. I think that’s what matters the most.”

The words make Carmen smile as she leans into the hug. These strange men and women had been scary to her, with their guns, their outfits, even their eyes are scary. And yet… they’ve all been so nice to her. Tychos rescued her, he and Sophia came to find her. The doctor helped make sure she was fine. Even that big one, the one with the bear-like bare arms, Reinhardt (Carmen thinks) spoke to her softly and gently when he said that they’d make whoever did ‘this’ pay, kneeling down to speak to her almost eye to eye.

The sound of approaching feet draws Carmen’s attention as, sitting up slightly, she sees Tychos, Sophia and their ‘Uncle’ coming towards her and the doctor. All of them with grim expressions on their faces.

“Captain, what’s wrong?” The older man beside her asks as he pulls the arm from around Carmen.

Not saying a word, Tychos takes a step forward before he kneels down in front of the Faunus girl.

“Carmen.” He begins softly. “… were there any flowers your parents liked?”


 

The town known as Marysville is now a ghost town. Life has ceased, civility gone and replaced by the cold call of the wind from the mountains and the hungry roars of the funeral pyres as they consume the bodies of the town folks. It will take time for the flames to finally use up their fuel, burning through the cloth, the skin and the bones, several hours at most, but in the end, all that will be left are piles of ash and burnt wood, and then the town will be silent of man. All that will be heard in the future is the sound of the river running its course and the sounds of the wild as nature retakes that which is hers.

The sounds of silence are kept at bay for now by the steady thump of footsteps moving in unison as the Cadians form a small funeral procession for the bodies of Marion and Hans Gael-Hart, their names recorded and given to the Emperor as payment of their service in the defence of mankind. Their bodies are born aloft on simple palanquins quickly made from wood, both carried by six Cadian troopers from Third platoon, their heads bowed as they are lead in the procession by Father Constantine, the preacher looking very solemn and straight-laced as the bodies are lead towards their destination. Their route is lined by troopers from First and Second platoon, standing at ramrod attention.

Their home.

As far as gestures go, it seems the most banal in its simplicity. Not knowing where the communal graveyard would be, even if the settlement had one at all, it seems logical that the Cadians would bury the Gael-Harts in their home.

But, Anton, standing with the other platoon leaders, minus Fourth Platoon, muses as he watches the procession approach the fenced domain, the small, waist-high gate held open by a grim-looking sergeant from Third Platoon, it’s really a payment. A sort of… blood dept, the commissar thinks as stands at attention in front of the house.

‘Sorry’ is not in the lexicon of any Imperial commander, lest of all a commander of the Astra Militarum. The Imperium does not makes mistakes. And to show forgiveness is to show weakness, a sign of death in the galaxy.

But for the pair, it is… fitting. To have fallen inside their home settlement, it seems right that the pair be buried in their family plot.

Certainly better than what happened to his own parents.

Anton remembers the dark sky, threatening to spill with rain, even as it flashed with far-off artillery rounds. He remembers the sombre procession, the pair of coffins born aloft by twelve stern-faced and stiff-backed Kasrkin troopers, accompanied by two full squads of Tempestus Scions, hellguns held in perfect parade order…

“Funeral party! Present, arms!”

The cry rings out, as the soldiers lining the road raise their rifles parallel with their bodies, the weapons clattering in their hands as they’re raised vertical with their barrels pointed to the sky. A silent, heartfelt salute from men and women who know the face of death.

The procession comes closer to the home, Father Constantine leading the way through the gate, the stretcher bearers following in his wake. The commissar watches as the bearers carefully and steadily thread their way through the open, waist high gate while keeping the bodies over their shoulders. Past their bodies, Anton can see Captain Thade marching behind them, his uniform still dirty from the trip to the settlement, but doing nothing to detract from his presence.

And behind the captain, he sees Tychos, his hand down low as he gripped the diminutive hand of the small abhuman child. Even clean and properly dressed, a pair of small bouquets, one white and one yellow, held to her chest, the girl is a picture of unhappiness. Her body posture, her downcast eyes… even her large animal ears dropping down over her hair broadcast the depression Anton knows she must feel.

His father had been a commander, a lieutenant colonel of the Kasr Karth garrison during one of the Despoilers’ attacks on the planet, in what had later found out to be a probing attack. His mother had stuck by her husband throughout the fight, even helping the man lead the rearguard action that saw the Interior Guard regiment of Kasr Karth link up with the 69th and 72nd Armoured Regiments to drive back the enemy. An action that saw both of them sell their lives, for the kasr and the Emperor.

He had been far away from the fighting, of course. It is perfectly all right for parents to risk their lives, but not to risk their life of their only child. He had been eight at the time, old enough to understand what had happened, but still young enough to weep loudly at it. Very unbecoming.

His parents had been buried with full honours; his father being promoted three full ranks to brigadier, while his mother had been given the rank of colonel for the aid she gave to her husband and her people. They had been buried with full honours, even as the enemy was beaten back to the void, and Anton had been sent to the Schola Progenium.

Leading him to here.

Moving out of the way, Anton lets the burial party move past him, the shrouded bodies passing him at eye-level. Inured to the aspects of death, he doesn’t blanche at the corpses moving past him. It’s the sight of the small child being brought along by Tychos which gives him pause, and his eyebrows to furrow in thought.

Many emotions must be supressed to become a member of the commissariat, least of all pity. Pity allows a fearful soldier to spread his cowardly taint through the ranks. Pity lets the heretic slip from the holy power of the flames. And yet… the only thing he feels at the sight of… Carmen, he remembers as the name pops into his head, is pity.

Surrounded by unknown people, people who clearly know violence, and no one to guide her form her old life, she is truly alone. Even when he was in the Schola Progenium, Anton was with people of similar ages, but to be a child surrounded by adults? It’s daunting, to be polite.

With the group moving past him, Anton falls into step with the other platoon leaders as they move around the side of the house to the back. The rear garden plot is large for a hab of its size, definitely large enough to contain the two, six-feet deep graves dug into the dirt, their sides dug with the neatness and precision that only those who know death as a constant companion can achieve.

It’s in front of these graves that the two stretchers are placed reverently on small raised blocks, Father Constantine taking his place between the pair. Turning around, he faces the soldiers behind him.

“In His name, we pray.” He intones. “We gather here today to bury Marion and Hans Gael-Hart, a beloved mother and beloved father. Though they were born… far from the light of the God-Emperor, their actions, in the defence of their daughter, Carmen, and the defence of their town, highlights the virtues of the Imperium, and Humanity: courage, sacrifice.

“Without either of these virtues, one of our number would not be standing before us today.”

Unbidden, all eyes turn to Carmen, the girl shrinking in on herself in shyness, before Constantine continues.

“So, as is our custom as Cadians, we declare these martyrs to be ‘the honoured dead’, and we give these bodies to their true resting place; their own native soil. Little Carmen, if you will.”

Taking that as her cue, the young girl steps towards the bodies of her parents. Almost like she is in a dream, Carmen takes the flowers and places them on to the chests of the shrouded corpses, the yellow one for her mother and the white one for her father.

It’s hard to make out, but in the quietness of the garden turned gravesite, the Cadians can hear Carmen begin to sniffle before she speaks.

“G-goodbye, momma. Good-goodbye, papa.”

The flowers placed on her parents, Carmen turns around, letting Tychos see her eyes shining with tears beginning to flow down her cheeks. Unthinkingly, he holds out his hands in front of her. Without hesitation, the young girl takes a small run and leaps into his arms, crushing herself against his chest as begins sobbing loudly.

Not knowing what to say, or if anything should be said, Tychos just wraps his own arms around the girl before he lifts her up, resting her head against his shoulder.

Unperturbed, Constantine continues with the rest of the ceremony.

“We now commit their bodies to the dirt, to be made into corruption, to be resurrected at the coming of the God-Emperor once more. Let their memories be ever sacred in our hearts, and let their sacrifice which they have offered for cause be acceptable in His sight. May the saints watch over them, and may they in turn watch over us. In His holy name, we pray.”

As the preacher begins reciting the prayer for burial, four of the stretcher bearers step forward and begin attaching ropes to the underside of the bodies in simple cradles before they lift them up and over the graves, showing the same reverence and respect they had done throughout the whole affair.

Slowly, carefully, they begin to lower the bodies into the dirt. No noise is made, save for Carmen’s quiet sobs and the Father’s prayer, no bird nor motion disrupts their work, not until the ropes cease their movements down and are carefully brought upwards, empty.

“Ave Imperator.” Constantine says with finality as he looks at the graves. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. May their rest be forever eternal. Amen.”

“Amen.” The Cadians repeat solemnly, as seven troopers march to the side of the gravesite, lasrifles leaning against their right shoulders.


 

Trudging through the village, Thaddeus has his face set in a grim mask of professional neutrality as he leads his neophytes to their destination.

The revelation he has found have not given him cause for any joviality. The nature of the creatures on this planet, and possibly the planet itself, have set his blood to simmer. Thaddeus knows that if he were a mortal man, he would be raging at the beasts and seeking to hunt them down. But he is not a mortal, he is an Astartes.

Even if his heart tells him he should be raging at the destruction and slaughter he has seen, his mind keeps it in check, telling him that he has a job to do. An important task.

As the Astarte scouts are making their way through the settlement, Thaddeus casts his eyes around for the commanding officer of the Cadians. It is urgent that he must be found, and yet the fool of a mortal refuses to answer his personal hails on the vox! Bastard.

Well, time to do this the old fashioned way.

“Trooper!” Thaddeus calls out as he moves toward a squad of Cadians.

At the sound of his shout, the ten, battle-hardened shock troopers instantly freeze up and look at the veteran scout with a mixture of fear and reverence, not knowing what to do when one of the Emperor’s Chosen calls out to you. Especially when they don’t know who said Emperor’s Chosen is calling out to.

Thaddeus picks a trooper at random, a soldier with corporal stripes and three, small serrated scars on his left cheek.

“Corporal, where is Captain Thade? I need to speak with him at once.”

To his credit, the Cadian only looks stunned for maybe five seconds before he responds. “M-my lord. Captain T-Thade is at the northern edge of the settlement. He’s overseeing a funeral, my lord.”

“A funeral?” Justus calls out incredulously from the ranks of the squad. “Here and now? What is the man thinking?”

“Silence.” Thaddeus growls out, turning his head slightly to look at the neophyte before he turns his attention back to the Cadian. “Show me where. Right now, they ‘why’ doesn’t matter. Just the ‘where’.”

“Right this way, my lord.” The corporal says, gesturing the Astartes to follow him, leaving his squadmates to look on in awe, and for some to mutter in concern.

It doesn’t take long for the Cadian to lead Thaddeus and his scouts to the site of the funeral, a small, stone walled, wood roofed domicile, almost untouched by the slaughter and destruction brought to the town. Already, he can see a group of seven guardsman, walking in perfect parade drill, around the side of the house.

Thaddeus turns to the squad behind.

“Wait until I return.” He turns to the corporal. “Return to your squad, quickly. You have done what I asked, and I thank you for it.”

Quickly and clearly glad to be free of his burden, the guardsman snaps off a fast but smart salute before he jogs away back to his squad, leaving Thaddeus to walk towards the site of the funeral.

Walking through the open gate in the fence around the hab, Thaddeus is struck by how… alien his location has become. In his six-centuries of service for the Imperium, the veteran Astartes has found himself in many locales, each one touched in some shape or form by the hand of war. So to find himself in an environment that can be considered pristine is… strange. Not unnerving, but just… strange.

His Lyman’s Ear implant picks up the sound of the Cadian preacher, a man who Thaddeus has not had the pleasure of personally meeting, giving a sermon in a sincere and clear voice. He can also hear the sound of… a child sobbing? That sound makes Thaddeus pause in his movement.

Theoretical: if that is the survivor, then why are they present?

Practical: their parents are the ones being buried.

Inwardly, Thaddeus grimaces. He’s had to work with children, that is a fact. All the neophytes that come to him from selection are but children, none less than ten or nine. Some come willingly, some do not, but all know their purpose, and they show the right amount of reverence for that event.

A crying child… he has never had to work with that before.

Problematic. Still, he must tell the captain the news.

Turning the corner, he sees the event unfolding before him. The guardsmen have taken their place to the side of the graves, presumably after the bodies have been placed inside and the officers present are standing ready, while a single guardsmen is standing with… a crying child in his arms.

A child… with large hare-like ears, pressed flat against the back of her head.

… ‘That’s new, even for me.

The situation before him is being conducted with a degree of solemnity and reverence that would not appear too out of place in the Steel Drakes, and to disturb it would be something akin to blasphemy.

So Thaddeus relies on his skills as a scout.

Treading lightly, he almost flows over the grass, his feet not making a sound above a rustle as the material of his boots and his centuries of experience move him swiftly and quietly to his destination, right behind Captain Thade.

He quickly muses on how to get the man’s attention.

“H-hello.” A small voice says, shy but earnest in its greeting.

The child with the animalistic ears is looking at him, her (since the face and voice are definitely those of a female) eyes wet with tears even as they look at him in rapt attention. While in return, Thaddeus just stares at her in amazement. Not for what she is, but for the fact that she could hear him move up to the group.

“Sergeant Thaddeus.” Captain Thade says in surprise as he turns to look up at the Astartes. “Why are you here?”

Blindsided momentarily for the shift in dynamics, the ball no long in his court, Thaddeus sets his mind to the important task. Even as everyone is staring at him in expectation.

“I need to speak with you, captain.”

“I… I’m sure you do, but I’m afraid that now isn’t the-”

“Now is the best time to speak, captain.” Thaddeus cuts the Cadian off, his voice flat but forceful. “It’s vital that I speak to you. Alone.”

That does the job as the senior officer contemplates the Astartes’ words before he nods.

“Lieutenant Deckard, take over until I return. I won’t be long.”

Motioning, Thaddeus takes the captain around the side of the hab, away from earshot of the other Cadians.

“Captain Thade, I have some information that is important to our mission here.”

“What information is that?” Thade asks, looking confused. “And how did you come about this information?”

Normally, a small smile would play at Thaddeus’ lip as he would comment on it being his directive to gather information. But now is not the time.

“My scouts and I found it while investigating the woods past the river.” Thaddeus says flatly. “More bodies were found, but they weren’t found far from the river bank.”

Captain Thade’s face turns hollow for a second. “So she is the only survivor then.” His face resets to a look of determined resolve. “Did you find who did this?”

“Not who. What.” The veteran Astartes replies flatly. “Captain, this wasn’t armed conflict, gang or tribal warfare that did this. These people weren’t killed by other people.”

“What were they killed by?” Thade asks, his interest piqued, both professionally and personally.

Behind him, the voice of the Lieutenant Deckard rings out.

“Honour guard! Present, arms!”

As the clatter of lasrifles fills the air, Thaddeus tells Thade what he has learnt. He leaves out the specifics of the ‘how’, since those are not for a mortal to know. But he tells him, earnestly and truthfully what he has learnt. What they face on this planet.


 

Standing outside the wall of the settlement, Lieutenant Stepan Walker hears the sound of the seven lasrifles cracking off their shots clearly. Seven guns, three volleys. A salute for fallen noteworthies.

Watching over the stowed away cargo-6’s and the troopers of his platoon sitting in huddles, many watching out from the base of the walls at the woods, the only thing Walker can do is hear the reports over the vox traffic, and they’ve painted a grim picture so far. The entire down massacred down to a single survivor, a child at that. Even if she was an abhuman, the news that she was rescued was a boon to morale. But the tall palls of black smoke from numerous funeral pyres painted a grim picture.

The vox crackles to life again.

“All Valiant units, this is Valiant Actual.” The commanding voice of Uncle came through the junior-officer’s microbead. “Get ready to move out within half an hour. Out.”

The vox falls silent as Walker turns to look at the broken open gate in confusion. Granted, the… giant…hole is not a boon for any sort of defence, but the walls are stout and can easily be buoyed by extra defensive works. But to abandon a defensible position is…

Something must have happened for the captain to make that decision.

“Okay, everyone,” Walker calls out to the platoon. “Get any loose gear stowed up, and get those engines ready. We need to bug out soon.”

“Any reason why, lieutenant?” A trooper asks, even as he stands up straight from his crouch, his rifle cradled against his chest.

“Uncle gave the order, that’s all.” The man says with a shrug. It’s the only answer he can give, and while it fills him with some reservations, he doesn’t doubt Uncle’s choice. If the man gave an order, there has to be a good reason behind it.

In seconds, Fourth Platoon is up on their feet, weapons still held ready for use, prepping for their departure. All the action is carefully watched over by the sergeants and Lieutenant Walker himself. However, each man and woman keeps a watchful, careful eye on the ominous woods they travelled through.

So it doesn’t take long for one of the troopers to notice the piebald, brown and white horse to come galloping out of the woods, their rider clutching tight at the reins as it stamps across the grass.

“Lieutenant!” The woman calls out, hefting her lasgun to her shoulder. “Contact! Rider, two-hundred-metres and closing fast.”

Over two dozen lasrifles snap to attention, pointing at the rider.

“Hold fire! No-one shoot. No-one shoots.” Walker cries out, stepping forward as he waves down the guns.

This, this right now, is first contact. The Imperium with the local population of this planet, or at least a subset of it. A living breathing individual, not a cadaver.

He activates his microbead. “Valiant Actual, this is Valiant Four. I have one rider, repeat, one rider on horseback, approaching my lines. Request permission to try and talk to them, over.”

As he waits for the answer, the only sound in the air is the approaching drumbeats of the hooves and the nervous shuffling of men and women armed with good quality weaponry.

Finally, as the rider begins to come close enough to let Walker see that is a man in his late-twenties, his hair a bright red, the microbead in Walker’s ear crackles to life again.

“Valiant Four, this is Actual. Keep your weapons low but keep them ready. Remember, we’re not here to start a fight.”

Easier said than done.’ Walker thinks to himself as the rider slows his horse down to a canter. The rider is slight in frame, dressed in a sleeveless, brown jacket lined in the front with bullet loops arrayed in rows over the chest, which he wears under a red and black plaid shirt and a pair of deep tan trousers tucked in to a pair of black riding boots. On his back, Walker can see the form a rifle of some design held on to his body by a sling.

As the rider finally slows down to a stop, Walker finally sees the look on their face. A look of wild-eyed and awed confusion.

Taking a deep breath, Walker steps forward. He knows that he’s looks as alien to the man, because the thick beard tells him it’s a man on the horse, in his khaki uniform, flak armour and field cap, and his power sword and bolt pistol attached to his hips.

It takes a moment for the lieutenant to think of what he can say.

Finally, as he stops a foot away from the horse’s head, the animal staring blankly at him. The same look is almost repeated on the rider, but it’s a lot less unnerving.

Walker raises a hand slowly and carefully. Unbeknownst to him, Lieutenant Stepan Walker will speak the first recorded words between a member of the Imperium of Man and a Remnite.

“How’s it going, my friend?”

Chapter Text

It watches from the shadows, far from the sight of the humans, hiding in the deep forest.

It watches as the rider on horseback gallops up to the gate of the town before they stop and are greeted by one of the humans. It can’t understand what is being said, it never can or will, but it seems to be a greeting, if the relaxed posture of the people are to be believed.

Standing up from a crouch, the Alpha Beowulf steps a pace forward, snarling softly at the sight of the town it had lead its fellows to destroy the previous night. It had lead the other Grimm in the rightful destruction of the human creation in the wilds. And yet, not a day later, it is filled with people.

It can see them from its vantage point. The vile redness of humanity is present, it can smell the same but somehow different odour of gun-oil, marking these humans out as guards. The Alpha can also smell the scent of decaying and burning meat on their clothing.

And yet, there is another smell to them. Something the Beowulf has not smelt before.

It’s a noxious, cloying, heady smell. Even at the distance the Alpha is at, the smell sticks to the back of the throat, making it growl in annoyance. It smells of decay and smoke and metal. It’s cloying and sickly, and it sticks to each of the new humans like a disease. Some of the humans smell more strongly of it than others, but it’s there on every one of them.

And those contraptions too, the big metallic boxes on wheels. They reek of the smell.

But above all, there’s something… else it can smell. Something that the Alpha has never smelt before in its life. Something strange. Something… wrong.

The Alpha has learnt the value of patience, and so it uses it. It waits. It watches as the rider is brought to the gate of the town as more humans emerge, each one smelling of burning wood and meat, sadness, and the strange smell again.

Again, the beast is taken by surprise.

In its lifetime, it has seen human negativity as a beacon. The baleful red colour becomes bright and attractive to a Grimm like itself, the hues shifting colour to display the negative feeling that the prey is feeling. Red for anger, green for jealousy or envy, blue for loss. The greater these feelings become, the stronger the colour becomes until it is like a burning fire.

These humans… they burn. The aura of negativity around each person is like a walking pyre, the anger and rage surrounding each person like flames. They move and talk to each other like nothing is wrong, even as one of them, their own alpha, starts giving orders to them, but it’s there. That overwhelming feeling of hate-filled anger.

The air is soon split by the roar of the contraptions, the machines coming to life with growls deeper than any Ursa can make, and more of the acrid smell is thrown into the air, this time accompanied by dark, cloying smoke. From inside the town, another vehicle, squatter than the others, comes rumbling out, belching smoke and scent like the others. Even the vehicle radiates anger.

As the humans form into a long line, the vehicles in the middle and the front with the rider leading, the Alpha Beowulf moves away.

In it’s lifetime, it has seen many humans who find destroyed settlements, and usually the anger or despair at what they find drives them to become easy prey for the Grimm, their emotions blinding them to the presence of their enemy.

But this time… it has no idea what to do. It knows that it must kill. It must destroy these humans, to rend them limb from limb and feast on their despair. But, in its mind, a voice speaks up. Not a human voice, but a primal voice. A voice of nature. A voice of warning.

Attack these humans… and you will perish.

It is just one Alpha. But the Grimm are many. It knows that many of the other creates are around in the forest, watching the group of humans move away from the town, wherever the rider is leading them to. The human’s emotions will draw them out. Draw them to them. Draw out their doom.

An ambush in the forest would work… but the Alpha feels that the time is not right. They do not know what these humans are capable of doing with their weapons, or their contraptions. Or their emotions. And, as it racks its mind, there is another settlement nearby. One that has been left untouched by the Grimm for far too long.

Slinking away, it drops to all fours as it lopes away. There are others nearby. Other Grimm. Other Alphas.

Plans must be made.

Then… then they will strike.

For Her.


The pace the column is setting is close to punishing. The mid afternoon sun is beating down hard on the company as they quick march through the forest. The progress is helped by the flat road they now found themselves upon, being guided by the rider on horseback who introduced himself as Rufus Goldthwaite , the nephew of the mayor of the next town over. He had been sent by his uncle to investigate the town the Imperials now knew was called Marysville.

Marysville…

It was a town, a place that people lived in, were born in, found love in and worked in.

Seeing the town destroyed makes it all seem far off, distant. Like seeing something through a haze. But give it a name, and the haze goes away, revealing the true image for it is, for what it was: Someone’s home.

It sets Cadian blood to a boil.

Yet, even in the punishing pace, with anger boiling through their veins, the most basic motives of humanity come to the fore.

“So…” Sophia calls out as she keeps pace behind Tychos, her flamer-tanks sloshing heavily on her back. “Any idea what the hell is going on?”

Panting, Tychos doesn’t even bother to look behind to answer. “H-how should I know? You know we don’t get told anything.”

“But who was that guy?” Sophia asks loudly. “Is he… is he human? Or is he like Carmen, but we just can’t see what’s different about him?”

“I can’t tell you, Sophia, because I don’t know! So please stop asking me!”

That finally gets the man to turn and look at his fellow trooper.

“Why have you got your flamer out already?”

At this question, Sophia smiles happily as she hefts up the nozzle gleefully.

“Lieutenant’s letting me have fun.” The smile fades from her face quickly. “But she did say that all flamer units need to be prepped and ready. Captain’s orders.”

Turning back, Tychos just shakes his head, a confused smile on his lips. Sophia liked her flamer, no lie about that.

But still… at the pace they’re moving right now, something doesn’t fit. Tactical column, weapons at the ready, being led somewhere by a strange local on horseback. Even with a Salamander leading, and four cargo-6s as backup. Throne, the backup of a full squad of Astartes scouts nearby should quieten the voice of suspicion in Tychos’ mind, but that small voice is there.

Where were they being lead to? And for what purpose?

Running parallel to one of the cargo-6s, a small bit of movement from the front of the vehicle catches his attention.

Pulling herself up to look out of the open window of the cab, Carmen looks around as she sees the column moving at speed. She’s nervous, hunched in on herself with her ears flat against her head, her gold eyes nearly bulging out of her skull as she scans the surroundings as they go past.

In her searching, the abhuman child’s eyes fall onto Tychos as he runs a small ways behind the cab.

In an instant, her eyes lock onto his, gold meeting violet.

And she smiles.

It’s not the sort of smile Tychos imagines she’d make in happier times. The sort of smile which would see her cheeks glow red and make the world just that bit brighter. She’s experienced too much for that smile to come back soon, possibly never. But when she smiles, it’s the heartfelt smile of a child.

So Tychos smiles back, and he knows that behind him, Sophia is smiling back too. And the man in front of him, and anyone else who can see it.

Because her smile is precious. And the smiles of the Cadians shows an immutable fact; no matter where they are going, not one of them will allow Carmen to come to harm.


 It takes B Company eleven kilometres  to reach the walls of Carterstown, each man and woman of Cadia’s finest bearing the march with the professional stoicism of their title. They do not grumble (too loud) nor yell out at the injustice of having to march the extra distance on top of the fifteen they’ve already march (although many of them silently scream out at the agony their feet are in). But they make it.

Carterstown is an older town, older than Marysville by many decades. Built in clearing that started as natural and has been expanded through the attention of mankind, the town is the same size of Marysville, except surrounded this time on all sides by tall and stout walls of grey Valean granite. The top of each wall is crenulated like a feudal fortress, parapets lining the length of the walls while each corner is stopped by a cylindrical tower twice and a half the size of the wall. Even the tops of the walls below the parapets have been lined with cast-iron spikes driven right into the wall at a downwards angle.

‘Defence’ was obviously the main key-word when this settlement was built.

People watch from the tops of the walls as Rufus leads the column of nearly two hundred people, each one wearing the strangest uniforms and carrying the strangest weapons they’ve probably seen, and definitely with the strangest vehicles they’ve laid eyes on. The group is led out of the woods at a quick run before, up reaching the first of the farms that surrounds the town, they all slow down to a quick walk, each person looking happier for it.

Although the same cannot be said for the townsfolk.


As the Salamander trundles behind the rider, Captain Fidor watches the walls of the town draw closer. Looking up at the walls, Fidor casts a critical eye over them. They’re similar to the to- Marysville, he reminds himself. It had a name.

Marysville’s walls were much the same, but these ones have been given more consideration in terms of defensibility. The fortification runs the whole length of each wall, and the towers are manned by guards armed with stub weapons of a local manufacture. The spikes angling down from the wall is a nice touch which Fidor can respect.

Although, these walls obviously pale in comparison to the walls of old Cadia. But to the locals, they had to have been good enough for the job.

The words of Sergeant Thaddeus swim back into his head.

“These beasts that exist on this world,” The Astartes scout said in a low voice, even as their conversation was being drummed out by the lasgun salute. “These are not mindless beasts.”

“What are you talking about?” The Cadian replied in shock.

“This massacre was done with simple violence, but the beasts that carried out this act… they knew what they were doing.”

Fidor is taken back. “What do you mean?”

“All of the dead… the ways they were killed were done not to just destroy or to cause as much pain, but to terrify and spread as much fear as possible.”

The lasguns fire off a volley again.

“To spread fear?” Fidor repeats disbelievingly. “My lord, I… I don’t understand.”

Thaddeus was silent, almost as if he was listening to the lasgun volleys intently.

“Neither do I, captain. And I do not like that fact at all.”

Nearly being thrown forward from his position in the backstep of the Salamander, Fidor regains his sense of where he is as the vehicle halts in front of the town gates. The gates are taller than him, probably tall enough to allow an Astartes dreadnought passage with about a foot of clearance on both the head and sides.

Not too dissimilar to the gates of Marysville.

“Captain, sir?”

The voice draws his attention.

Looking down from the open top platform of the fight vehicle, Fidor looks down into the face of the young man. Rufus Goldthwaite’s face is almost ringed with bright red hair from head to chin, and his eyes, a bright shade of green look up at the Cadian inquisitively.

“So what’s going to happen now, Master Goldthwaite?” Fidor asks as he leans over the armoured siding of the Salamander. “My men have been run ragged today.”

“I know, sir. I can see.” Rufus responds, earnestly and apologetically. “But I honestly can’t say. My uncle just sent me to investigate Marysville. He didn’t say-”

“Oi!” A voice calls out from the top of the wall, drawing both men’s attention to the man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a stub rifle in his hands. “Rufus! Who the hell are these people?”

“They’re soldiers, Tanner! I found them around Marysville. I think my uncle will want to talk to them!”

The nervous energy practically radiates from the wall as Fidor begins to see more faces peer over from the tops of the parapets, and Fidor remembers how he’s seen similar looks on the faces of people he in warzones he’s visited as a ‘pacification force’; the fear, the distrust, the confusion.

Someone has to say something to bring down the situation.

“Good friends!” The loud voice of Father Constantine comes out from behind him, making Fidor turn to see the preacher walking towards the front of the column with his arms outstretched. “Be not afraid! For we are not enemies, we are fellows. In the name of the Imperium of Man, and of the God-Emperor of Terra, we have come to the wilds to bring aid and assistance to those who require it. Please! Do not be afraid.”

The preacher stops besides the Salamander, his arms held open to show he is unarmed, as the echoes of his words reverberate across the clearing. And the tension becomes heavy in the air enough that it would need a chainsword to cut it.

This is the moment. The moment that decided how the Cadians would proceed on this world. How B Company, 1st Battalion of the 598th would go down in the annals of history.

Seconds tick by.

Above, Fidor can see the man named as Tanner talking to someone who can’t be seen below the wall. Their tones are hushed but hurried, the man constantly looking down at those below the wall.

Suspicion is a watch-word of the Imperium. Reaching down, the captain unclasps the cover of his holster and rests his hand on the grip of his plasma pistol.


 

Through his bolter scope, Thaddeus watches the scene at the town’s gates unfold. Or rather, watch them not unfold, since so far, no-one appears to have done anything.

The inaction drags on, the only sounds coming from the column are the purring noises of the vehicles as their engines idle.

Creating human contact was the important aspect of the Imperial  mission to this world, but Thaddeus knows that it is best to let the Cadians be at the forefront of this endeavour.

“They’re taking a long time.” Justus says as he looks keenly through the scope of his sniper rifle. “I’ve got six… make that seven, easy kill shots on potential shooters on the wall if things go south.”

“Hold your fire until I give the order.” Thaddeus gives as a response, still looking through the scope of his bolter at the scene not unfolding in his sight.

Hidden in the woods roughly four-hundred metres away from the towns walls, the Scouts are all camouflaged, their cameleoline cloaks shrouding their bodies in the hues of the woodland. Sniper rifles are raised, while Ollarus has his heavy bolter resting against the thick roots of a tree.

“I see movement.” Justus points out.

“Report.” Thaddeus commands, even though he can easily see it for himself.

“Looks like the men on the wall above the gate are moving away, splitting up. They’ve all gone down behind the gate, behind the wall out of sight. They’re not rushed though. Definitely not a combat stance, but they’re… edgy.”

Thaddeus nods his head as the veteran sergeant lowers his boltgun.

“Brother-sergeant?” Ollarus’ voice comes out as a low rumble of a whisper. “Permission to ask a question?”

The scouts not looking at the wall turn to look at the biggest of their number quizzically.

“When, in the Emperor’s Name, have you ever asked for permission before, Oll?” Neophyte Karis asks in genuine shock.

“Permission granted to ask.” Thaddeus responds, turning his head slightly to look at the scout. “But do not expect an answer.”

“… when you used your omophagea… what did you see?” Ollarus asks, still not looking at his superior. “What did you see that we had to change our mission orders? To contact chapter command?”

The question seems to kill sound. All the neophytes turn to look at Thaddeus, except for Georg and Ollarus who are still focused on the town. They want the answer too.

Thaddeus, for his part, remains silent as he mulls over what to say.

“I saw… I saw humanities greatest foes, manifest in bestial form.” He finally says as he turns and looks at the inductees of the chapter under his command. “I saw rage, anger, pride, and fear, manifest into the physical forms we’ve seen on this world. And they represent a threat to the people of this world.”

The sentence hangs heavy in the air, like raw promethium on water, as each scout process what he has just been told.

Justus, not having taken his eye off of his scope, speaks up. “The gate’s opening. They’re being let in.”

Turning to look at the town, Thaddeus sees the wide, wooden gates slowly open inwards, a party of figures moving out of the open portal to meet with the Cadians.

“We leave them to their task.” The Astartes veteran says, moving away from his position beside an old oak. “Now we go about ours.”

Around him, the scouts move away from their positions, stealthily slinking away into the darkness of the woods.

“What is our task, brother-sergeant?” Ollarus asks as he moves to walk beside Thaddeus.

“What it has always been, neophyte.” Comes the reply, coupled with a small but toothy grin. “The destruction of mankind’s enemies.”


 

The first officially documented meeting between representatives of the planet of Remnant, specifically the kingdom-state of Vale in the form of the town council of Carterstown, and the representatives of the Imperium of Man in the form of B Company, 1st Battalion of the 589th Cadian Infantry Regiment, is one conducted without any due fanfare.

Not simply because B Company did not bring their musical instruments with them, nor because Carterstown has no town band, but because the air of suspicion and intrigue have mixed themselves together to form an almost permeable barrier between the two groups of humans.

Valean frontier-folk pride themselves on self-reliance and independence, free from the rule of the main city and its council.

An armed force represents order, obedience and the rule of the Vale council.

And the claim that these people serve a ‘God-Emperor’ does not sit well with the older townsfolk, and those who remember their history.

Even though the Cadians are allowed entrance to the town with their vehicles, they are done so under careful eyes and readied weapons, weapons not tacitly pointed at them but weapons ready to be pointed at them.

In the middle of the town, possibly one of Remnants tensest political meetings unfolds.

While the basic political niceties are observed; greetings exchanged mostly, neither person in charge really knows what to make of the other.

It is the preacher that offers the simplest solution, and possibly the oldest one known to mankind: no weapons present, no backup or support. Two men in a room to talk.


 The interior of the office of the mayor of Carterstown can be summed up by Fidor in one single word: wooden.

Casting his eyes around the room, the Cadian seems incapable of spying a single piece of metal that isn’t either attached to something wooden, or is just a piece of decoration. The floor, the ceiling, the walls, the door; everything is made of varying shades of wood. The panelling on the corner beams reflects the nature the town is in, with vines, branches and leave over almost very surface, while the large desk the mayor is sitting behind shows scenes of a rider on a hunt with hounds. Behind it is a wall almost covered in books of varying sizes and thickness.

It tells more about the mayor of the town than any words can. Although the words will help.

Mayor Cole Goldthwaite is a tall man, just an inch short of standing eye to eye Fidor, with a weight-lifters paunch and a quill-pushers head of receding pale-blonde hair on his square head. Those details tell Fidor all he needs to know about the man. Although the obvious and painful looking limp on his left leg solidifies the fact.

This man was something grand once, but now he’s a shadow of what he was. Even looking out of the window in his office, its glass panes reinforced with iron diamonds, Mayor Goldthwaite looks imposing.

“Okay, Captain… what was it again?”

“Thade, sir.” Fidor says diplomatically, having had to repeat the same thing several times on worlds where his Cadian accent differed heavily to those of the locals. “Fidor Thade.”

The mayor turns to look at the Cadian, moving from the window with a critical eye. “Fidor Thade… strangest name I’ve heard, let me tell you that. And I’ve certainly never seen your sort of getup before. Even in the Atlas military.”

Fidor stiffens his back slightly. “I was named for my great-uncle, who was a famed leader of men on Cadia, sir.”

The mayor’s eyes blink slowly in confusion. “Come again? Ca… Canadia?”

Fidor’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. “Wha… no. Cadia.”

Goldthwaite just blinks in confusion again. “Is… is that a region in Atlas I’ve never heard of? A military base perhaps?”

Wordlessly, the captains mouth moves up and down. How can this man not have heard of Cadia? The famous Cadian Gate, the door to the Eye of Terror? His own world is famed and praised throughout the Imperium of Man, enough that even vaunted Ultramar, home system of the Lord Commander, gives their own praise to just that one single world. Entire systems and planets have had their own forces and defences based around the Cadian model.

So… how in the name of the Great Angel has this man not heard of Fidor’s home planet?

The answer clicks into place like a hammer striking a firing pin; the mayor, and very possibly everyone else on this planet, simply hasn’t.

Fixing his face into a professional mask, Fidor looks at the man flatly.

“Sir, I’m going to tell you something that may sound shocking, but I assure you that ever word of it is true: I, and all the men outside, come from a world far from your own planet. A world called Cadia.”

Silence fills the office, the only sounds coming from the Cadians standing around outside, the few townsfolk brave enough to venture out to look at the strange arrivals, and the tick-tock-tock-tick of the clock in the room.

Seconds pass in silence, before Goldthwaite speaks.

“You are not lying, are you.”

It’s not a question, but a statement.

Fidor shakes his head. “I am not lying, no, sir.”

Stepping forward, the limp making his face grimace slightly as Goldthwaite approaches him, Fidor wonders what sort of injury could cause that sort of lasting pain.

Not saying a word, the mayor looks the man in front of him up and down, taking in almost every detail of his uniform and gear with a professional eye before, unhesitatingly, he reaches forward and taps at the armour on Fidor’s chest. Specifically, the aquila over his heart.

“In all my years across Remnant, I’ve never seen a symbol like that, in any of the kingdoms.”

Remnant. Fidor files that name away in his mind for later. High command will want to know that name. But as he does, he thinks on it. Remnant, the last.

How fortuitous for us Cadians…’ He thinks to himself.

During that thought, the mayor has moved away from Fidor and back to looking out of the window.

“Besides, all that gear you guys have. Those weapons. Those vehicles! Those things sound worse than any Grimm I’ve fought against, and I’ve fought a few, let me tell you something. Outer space, you say? Wow.”

Leaning forward, the man rests his knuckles against the window-frame.

“Man, this world really is changing.”

Fidor stands silently, not knowing what to say in the matter as he watches Goldthwaite look out of the window.

So far, this conversation is going in the direction he imagined it would go; awkward and uneasy. Throne, he should have had Father Constantine come with him. The preacher is better at these sorts of things than he is. One on one conversations with bureaucrats are not his forte.

“About Marysville…” He says out of the blue, hoping to get the conversation in a direction he wants it to go.

“Oh, yes, right.” The mayor begins, turning back to look at the officer. “Yes. We had heard the noise last night, and we’d seen the smoke in the morning, and me and some of the townspeople were debating on whether we should go. The last month, people around these parts have been very nervous because of what’s happening up north.”

‘Up north…’ Fort Tempest.

… Well, that was definitely a lot of machinery and men to move down to the planet. And you can’t clear an area of that size without some serious amount of noise and motion. And when those beasts attacked, they had to respond with every single weapon they had on hand planet-side…

But he can’t wrap his head around it.

“And then we saw the smoke after noon, and we had to send someone to look. We had to find out, right? Whether it was bandits or… or Grimm.”

There’s that word again. The mayor’s nephew, Rufus, used it before when he had met the Cadians, and the mayor himself has used it twice now.

“Grim what?”

“Pardon?” Goldthwaite asks in return.

“You keep saying ‘grim’. Grim what?”

For a second, the mayor just looks at Fidor like he’s a simpleton before the penny drops.

“Wow. You… you don’t know? About the Grimm?”

Fidor shakes his head, before something makes him stop.

“Wait. Those black furred beasts? Kind of look like canines mixed with humans, and some look like large ursids?”

A look of relief comes to Goldthwaite’s face. “Well, that’s two types of Grimm, yes.”

Disbelief comes to Fidor’s face. “But… there’s no way those things can destroy a whole settlement, let alone a town of that size.”

The mayor doesn’t say anything as he regards Fidor with a disapproving eye. Not saying a word, Goldthwaite stands and moves to the bookshelf, before he quickly finds and selects a thick tome bound with leather. He turns, and, with a large thud, he places the book on the desk.

“Maybe some reading will help.”

Turning the book round, he shows off the cover and the title. Unadorned, the book has only three words on the front, written in thick, blocky gothic script.

Grimoire of Grimm.

Reaching forward, Fidor carefully lifts open the book, randomly picking a page.

The parchment is thick and laden with ink in easy to read Low Gothic, which Fidor beings reading.

… For as long as humanity has existed on Remnant, the Grimm have existed alongside them. They are creatures yet are not animals. Many cultures once considered them to be the spirits of tortured and slain animals, while others believed them to be animals possessed by evil spirits. But as the centuries have unfolded, and more and more strange patterns of Grimm arise, many of them differing significantly from regular animalistic body-types (see entry 14 ‘CREEP’ and entry 16 ‘GRIFFON’), scientists and scholars are unsure of how to classify them.

‘However, one definitive way of describing the Grimm is to describe them as ‘empathic’, or as close to empathic as possible. While it is clear that the Grimm that have been encountered lack the mental functionality to understand the situation when negative emotions arise, they are aware of where these emotions arise from. And, similar to the Vacuon arrowheaded rattlesnake, they can sense these emotions regardless of distance or cover. They are drawn to negative emotion in an inexecrable fashion, like moths to a flame.

Steadily, Fidor closed the book and let out a small sigh.

It reinforces a worry he has but one he did not want to give voice too. The nature of these… Grimm settles it for him.

Fidor Thade has fought many alien lifeforms in his life and service to the Golden Throne. He has fought the wretched drukhari, the perfidious aeldari, the brutal orks and the monstrous tyranids. He’s lead operations to clear out nests of hrud, ambulls and umbra, and has even been forced to work with the irksome T’au, and fought against them as well.

He has seen the horrific shapes and forms the xenos can take when assaulting the realms of Humanity. He has seen the dreadful weapons they have at their disposal and the effects they have on the human body. But above all else; he knows them. Some Fidor knows more than others, but in the end, he knows what they are and how to kill them.

These… these beasts challenge all that he knows about the xenos. Their bodies fade to nothing, yet do not reproduce by spores like the greenskins. They fight only through teeth and claws, yet they do not have any single mind like the hive mind akin to the tyranids. There is no technology to counter, no clan structure to decapitate and take advantage of.

The Grimm are a force of nature. And yet, are nothing natural.

As he looks up from the closed book, Fidor knows that he must have a stunned look on his face as the mayor looks at him sympathetically.

“You boys are a long way from home, aren’t you?”


 

They peek from behind curtains, from behind partially open doors and from keyholes. Hundreds of pairs of eyes, filled with fear, worry, apprehension, wonder and confusion, all look out from the homes that make up Carterstown as they try their best to take a look at the strange group of people that have been allowed inside the town’s walls.

The people of Carterstown trust the mayor. They always have. He’s negotiated good trade deals with other towns, and he’s helped defend the town from Grimm himself on many occasions, which is how he got his limp. But the decision to let these strangers in, to allow them to wait within the town walls for gods only know how long? It confuses many. And confusion leads to fear.

Watching from the kitchen window that looks out over the town square, Nella Stone, has one major emotion playing at her mind as she watches the strange men and women stand or dally around their strange and ugly vehicles.

And it is nothing to do with outside the house.

“Come on, you…” Her bear of a husband, Bear Stone, who is not a Faunus as he has to repeatedly point out to anyone who asks, growls out as he messes with the lever-action rifle he’s pulled from the chest under their bed.

“Bear, will you put that thing down now, for the Brother’s sake?” Nella says sharply, not taking her bright green eyes off the people in her town. “You’ve been struggling with that thing ever since you pulled it out from under the bed. You’ll never get it to work.”

Bear lets out another growl as he pushes at the level, edging it out of the receiver to a triumphant “HA!” before it gets stuck by half an inch.

“Gods damnit. Too much rust.” He growls loudly as he lets the rifle drop onto the table before he stands up and leaves the room. “Where’s the gun oil?”

“Where you left it.” Nella answers, still not taking her eyes off the scene outside.

From an adjoining room, she can hear the sounds of numerous bottles and other small things being moved. She honestly has no idea where the bottle of oil is, and she frankly doesn’t care. Serves Bear right for not looking after his gun. Plus, the last thing the situation needed was for someone to start taking pot-shots at these clearly well-armed and professional soldiers.

Not that her bear would do something like that. But still…

“Ma.” A small voice comes from behind, accompanied by a pair of light footsteps. “Are those people still out there?”

Turning her head slightly, Nella looks at Melo, her twelve-year old daughter. Taking more after her mother than her father, Melo is wiry, a sprinter while Bear is a weightlifter. Her hair is a deep green, a shade darker than Nella’s and totally different to Bear’s dark brown head of hair, although her eyes are his hazel colour.

She is normally an outgoing and friendly young girl, but the… ‘visitors’ have her worried.

“Yeah, sweetie, they’re still out there.” Nella responds, turning to smile at her daughter. “They’re just standing around the mayor’s home. Doesn’t look like they’re in much of a hurry to do anything.”

Turning back to look out of the window, Nella sees the truth to her words; the soldiers are just standing around their vehicles, which are parked in a diagonal row in front of Mayor Goldthwaite’s home. They stand in small groups, some numbering only half a dozen or so, some less, either looking in at the house or out on the town.

It’s not very easy to tell from the distance of the house, but Nella can see they’re all uneasy about something, which doesn’t help the mood in the town either. Armed people on edge is never a positive combination.

“Pa’s got his gun.” Melo says in the simple, point-out-the-fact way that only children are capable of. “Will he have to use it?”

Nella doesn’t say anything, still looking at the people around the centre of town.

“I see someone coming out of Mister Goldthwaite’s house.” Melo suddenly chimes up, drawing her mother’s attention to the fact.

What looks like a woman, dressed in the same uniform as the others except with a flat top cap on instead, walk out of the large building before she stops in front of the large mass of people, the soldiers looking at the newcomer intently. From the distance, it is hard for Nella to hear what is said, but whatever the woman tells the people has to be an order of some sort since a large portion of them move to sit down on the floor, removing large packs from their backs and also taking off their boots once they’re on the floor… and begin to check their feet.

The sight is very strange, and almost comical, if it wasn’t for the fact that a lot of the soldiers still have their weapons on them.

“Well, I’m sure they’ve walked a long way-” Nella begins before she’s interrupted by her daughter calling out.

“Ma, look!” The young teen points, her fingertip directly against the glass of the window as she directs her mother’s attention to one of the vehicles.

At the back of the large, six-wheeled truck, Nella sees a man with a white helmet removing a few boxes and taking out what looks like bandages. After a certain amount is in his hand, he bends down and hands them off to a small…

“Is that a Faunus with them?” Nella asks out loudly.

“Faunus!?” Bear’s voice calls out loudly from an adjoining room. He has always been sensitive to that word.

But right now, Nella is not focused on that as she watches the young, rabbit Faunus girl take a large (for her) armful of bandages and move to the group of soldiers sitting down on the floor. She can only see the mouths moving and the general body language from her place in her house, but it seems that the soldiers are grateful for the young girls efforts. They take the rolls of white gauze from her, gesturing their thanks to her, or even giving her little pats on the head if they’re standing.

“She’s so cuute.” Melo says happily as she looks at the little girl with shoulder-length brown hair, rabbit ears to match, busily working to help the soldiers. “But… why are her ears down? I thought rabbit Faunus had their ears sticking up.”

Nella blinks at her daughter before she turns to look at the young girl. Sure enough, instead of having her Faunus ears standing tall above her head, like other rabbit Faunus that Nella has seen, the young girls are down, flat against her head. She looks happy enough, smiling at some of the soldiers as they thank her, but still… it’s not right.

Bear’s presence looms behind the two Stone women, even as he growls low in his throat.

“What is a group of grown-ass men doing with a girl that young?”

Despite all of the faults that Nella can name (and there’s a good few), Bear is an honourable man, and above all he cares for children, even those not his own.

“Easy there, hun.” Nella says peacefully as she turns and puts a comforting hand on to his left bicep. “There’s got to be a good reason for all this.”

Her husband doesn’t give a reply immediately. Soon, a low growl leaves his throat before he turns back to trying to clean his rifle, letting Nella turn back to looking out of the window with Melo.

The pair watch as the Faunus girl hands out the last of the bandages, the soldiers happily taking them as they continue checking the condition of their feet, before she’s left with nothing in her hands. Almost instantly, the girl spins around and moves to sit next to one of the soldiers sitting down, this one putting his boots back onto his feet.

When she’s close, the girl carefully sits down onto the ground next to the man. In an instant, the juxtaposition of the girl in the lovely blue dress and the soldier in the khaki clothing and armour is jarring and worrying to the mother, but it almost vanishes as she sees the girl lean her head sideways to rest against the taller man’s arm. It’s a strangely peaceful scene, especially when the soldier relaxes and leans back against his seat near one of the vehicles.

“Well…” Nella says in surprise at what she’s just seen. “That’s… that’s sweet.”

“Still wonder why she’s with them though.” Melo says, not taking her eyes off the pair, a small but sincere smile on her face.

It is a cute scene, Nella has to admit. But it’s still strange.


 

The afternoon sun begins to wane as evening sets in. Shadows lengthen in the woods as the sun dips towards the horizon. The houses at the western edge of the town become bathed in deep shadows, while the town square and the Cadians occupying it are cast in the light, turning them almost into living bronze statues.

Normally, Carterstown would be becoming busy with afternoon commerce and life. People would be finishing their shopping or buying the last few things they needed before they headed home to fix their meals for themselves and their families, or head to the tavern for a well-earned drink.

But the town now knows a silence it has not known for an age. The streets are virtually deserted, only the bravest of the populace daring to venture out of doors to either pick up the much needed items from shops for dinner, going across to gossip and worry with friends and neighbours, or were in dire need of a pint of Valean ale considering the situation.

For the Cadians, indecision is still the rule of the hour. Captain Thade is still in discussion with the town’s mayor, leaving the junior officers to their own devices. Since they’re not in a true combat situation, although the situation is still tense, the company is dropped to a twenty-five percent watch, leaving three-quarters of the men and women to go about on their own. The population of the town is still not forthcoming, so the Cadians keep to themselves. Blister checks continue, weapons are taken apart and cleaned, the more engine-savvy assist the drivers in the maintenance of the cargo-6s, rations are consumed, and bullshit is talked.

It will take a miracle for any connection to be made between the two groups.

But… sometimes miracles come in the most unlikely of forms.


 

Putting her spoon down, Nella lets out a small sigh of satisfaction at her own cooking. Living outside of the city of Vale, she knows it’s the one of the few things she can take pride in. Her job is to keep the home, tend to the garden and vegetable patch and keep her family together.

And Brothers damn it, if she wasn’t good at it.

Pushing their empty bowls away, neither her husband or daughter said a word as they went back to the tasks they’ve been doing all day. Bear has been meticulously cleaning each part of his rifle, having taken the gun apart before cleaning it the gun oil he finally found (Nella is still not really sure how that tiny bottle clearly marked ‘gun oil’ ended up in the medicine box), while Melo has been watching the soldiers out front almost religiously. Sometimes she’d have a book with her, sometimes not, but always, she’s been watching the people.

Nella just lets out a sigh at what is going on. Admittedly, she herself is happy that such obviously interesting people have come to her town, but she knows that it’s not a good idea to approach the people in the town centre. Outfits and weapon like the ones carried by the two-hundred odd people in the town do not belong to people whose main skill is ‘socialization’.

Inwardly, Nella lets out a sigh as she stands up from her seat, since her food usually gets a great reaction. But the commotion in town has caused everyone to lose their appetites it seems.

Collecting the bowls, the woman moves to the sink in the kitchen. Cleaning was all that was left for to do today.

“Hey, something’s happening.”

Looking up from the dishes at her daughter’s quiet exclamation, Nella moves quickly to stand behind her at the window.

“The little bunny Faunus is doing a dance.”

Looking closely, Nella can see the object of Melo’s attention out in the town square. Sure enough, the woman can see the Faunus child standing next to the soldier she was sitting beside before, hopping slightly from foot to foot, her hands clutched over…

“Oh.” Nella says, at the realization of what she’s seeing. “She’s not dancing. But… it is a ‘dance’ of sorts.”

Melo just looks at her mom in confusion as the scene unfolds outside. After a few seconds of anxious looking back and forth, and some muted comments between him and his comrades, the soldier quickly takes a hold of the girl’s upper arms in what is clearly a calming gesture before he carefully lifts the girl up into his arms.

The move sets off something in Nella’s mind. The mothering instinct kicks up. The move the soldier pulls off is obviously done with care; the way he lifts up the child done so as to keep her safe and secure in his hands, but the fact that it’s a person like him doing it… something doesn’t sit right.

She watches as the soldiers around the pair laugh at the antic, although from the distance she’s at, it’s hard to tell if it’s derisive or not. The soldier responds by giving a dismissive wave before he moves off, one hand against his helmet as he carefully balances the Faunus girl in the seat of his elbow.

And he starts moving towards the area of town the Stone family lives in.

“They’re coming this way!” Melo calls out in surprise, obviously excited about meeting the two strangers in the manner of so many children at the strange and unusual. But for the mother and father, other emotions come to the play.

“What the hell?” Bear says loudly as he stands up from his seat, rifle in hand as he begins reaching for the bullets.

“Bear Stone! You put that down right now!” Nella commands in a stern voice, the strong voice of a matriarch. “I will not have you taking pot-shots at anyone, especially a little girl!”

Chastised, Bear moves away from the box of cartridges, but the rifle remains in his hand. Her work done, Nella turns back to look out of the window.

The man is moving down the path to the houses in the row that the Stones live in. His gait is steady, but unrushed, clearly trying his best not to needlessly jostle the child in his care. As he moves closer, Nella begins to pick out the detail of his outfit more clearly. His torso and shoulders are fully armoured in a piece of body armour that looks like the type worn by the Atlesian soldiery, except more rounded and also drab khaki. His uniform is well worn and dirty around the boots, but it’s clear that it’s made from good, tough material. In the late afternoon light, Nella can see iconography glinting in the sun, but she can’t quite make it out.

And she can see the rifle hanging over his right shoulder, barrel pointed to the air, along with the pistol, knife and grenades at his waist. None of which are designs she has seen before.

The man’s path keeps moving forward, even as he turns his head to look at each house with a critical eye, seemingly wanting to choose which garden to enter and not sure. It takes a few seconds for him to choose one.

“Mom! He’s coming to the house!” Melo calls out in equal parts shock and joy.

In an instant, with a speed that only a mother’s fear can produce, Nella grabs Melo by the shoulder and pulls her away from the window and behind the door.

“Mom…” Her daughter whines out before the woman puts her finger to her lips in the universal sign for ‘quiet’.

Nella’s mind right now is in turmoil: she cannot trust the man outside, the man armoured and armed with strange equipment, showing that he is not a Huntsman but definitely a soldier of some stripe. But… she cannot deny that she is curious. She wants to know who this man is, who his companions are, where they’re from, and why they’re here in Vale.

She can hear the crunch of the man’s boots on the ground outside before he knocks on the door.

“Hello?” The man calls out. “I know you can hear me. Please, just hear me out.”

“Nella, don’t you even think about it.” Bear whispers out in a firm voice.

“But ma, you saw that he’s got the little girl.” Melo whines in response. “And she’s so cute!”

Nella doesn’t say a word as the man knocks again.

“Please. For the love of Sanguinius, open up!.” The man calls out again, his accent making the words sound coarse. “At least do it for the child!”

If it had been any other phrase at all, Nella would have ignored it. She would have just pushed it down and simply let it slide, letting the man stay out there and move on… but her maternal instinct kicked in enough for her to stop and listen.

To listen to the small, pained and pitiful whine that came from the other side of the door.

“Please…”

That loosens the shackles in her heart.

Turning back to the door, Nella silently moves to the peephole set into the wood, letting her see outside. The immediate view through the peephole is taken up by the man’s chest and the lower part of his face. She can see the dusky skin of his round chin, constrained by the strap of his helmet, with his mouth set in an uncomfortable grimace.

But at the height of the peephole, she can see the small Faunus in his arm. She is so small, much smaller than Melo. Her shoulder length, russet-coloured hair is tidy but clearly in need of a proper clean, while her deep blue dress could do with a bit of a scrub. But, apart from the obvious need to go to the toilet creasing her face, she looks perfectly fine.

The feeling of her fingers brushing against the metal of the door handle jars Nella back to the waking world. Unconsciously, she’s made to open the door, letting this clearly armed stranger into her home.

She swallows nervously, as she withdraws her hand the door handle.

At the same time, a sigh comes through from the other side.

“Come on, little one.”

An uncomfortable whimper comes as a reply.

That breaks the chain.

Even at the protest of her husband, Nella’s hand lunges forward and grabs the handle, before, remembering her composure, she carefully and simply opens the door.

The soldier is half turned away from her, his right side and rifle presented to Nella, while he holds the Faunus girl against his left shoulder. Both people look at the woman expectantly with wide eyes, the girls a pair of golden orbs bright with age, his…

“Umm…” He begins, not sure what to say at the exact moment before he points a finger at the girl in his grip. “She really needs to use the loo.”

To emphasise his words, the girl nods her head vigorously, her hair and ears bouncing wildly.

Even though she can hear Bear grumbling to himself behind her at her decision to open the door, Nella simply nods her head.

“All right then. Come on in.” She says, entering the house and moving to one side. “We’ve got an outhouse out back. Melo can take her.”

Looking to the side, the youngster’s face brightens up with joy at the offer of spending some time with the cute rabbit-ear girl. Gingerly, almost like he is scared to let the girl down in case she might break, the soldier places the girl on the floor, who immediately has her hands taken by Melo, a broad and welcoming smile on the teens face.

“Sure! Here, come with me. What’s your name by the way?”

“C-Carmen…” The young girl says hesitantly, surprised by the other girls greeting before she’s lead out of the house at the back, leaving Bear and Nella with… a heavily armed and armoured soldier in their front room.

Now that it’s just the adults, Nella gets a better look at the man. His skin is dusky, either from a life spent long outdoors or natural, she can’t tell. It’s also hard for her to tell how old he is. He looks like he could be in his late twenties, but the lines and weathering on his face make him appear older than that. And then there’s his eyes. Violet, a shade of violet that Nella has not seen in an age, hard as stone and yet…

“So…” Bear growls out as he moves to stand closer to his wife protectively, his arms cross his huge chest. “What’s your name, soldier-boy?”

The man shifts his eyes from the Stone patriarch, who is at eye level with the soldier, before he looks down slightly at Nella herself. And then she sees them. Eyes filled with sadness. A sadness that has turned what once would have been bright and clear to lustreless hues of colour.

“Tychos. Tychos Litten.” The man says evenly, not betraying anything. Before his mouth widens in a small smile. “As you can probably guess, I’m not from around here.”

Nella can’t help but reflexively roll her eyes at the comment. Like his gear and weird accent weren’t a give-away enough, the name definitely clicked as foreign, even a little exotic. But if that wasn’t enough, the icons on his gear were definitely strange, and a little scary too. A winged skull on his helmet, coupled with a skull surrounded by what seemed to be a house, if Nella had to guess, on one of his shoulders, and a dual-headed eagle on his left breast. They were foreign, strange and also intriguing too.

“Where are you and your friends from then?” Nella asks, looking up at the man.

The man opens his mouth to speak, before a decidedly female voice fills the air.

“We’re from Cadia, ma’am.”

To Nella’s eyes, Tychos spins around so quickly that it makes her almost jump back into Bear’s arms. Past him, through the doorway, she can see another person, a woman this time, dressed in the same outfit as the man in front of her, appear half way down the footpath. Her skin is tanned, with an angular, pretty face, while she herself is lithe and tall, almost statuesque. Nella can definitely call her attractive.

Although right now, her gaze is fixed on Tychos as he lets his hands drop at his sides. Hands that were very close to a pistol and knife. The speed with which his hands had gone to his weapons was so quick that she almost couldn’t see it. He was like a coiled viper.

“Sophia!” The man growls out in annoyance. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Lieutenant’s orders.” The woman says nonchalantly as she walks closer to the man, letting the rifle on her back slide into view with each step. “Had to make sure you had a buddy. In case…”

The statement hangs in the air, the comment not being completed out of politeness’ sake. Although it does still rankle Nella’s sensibilities that these people think one of their own would be killed by anyone in Carterstown. But, she can see the sense in it a bit.

“Fine.” Tychos responds in annoyance. “But… just wait outside, please. Carmen’s out back, using the toilet, so we won’t be long.”

The woman, in return, gives off a quick thumbs-up and a broad smile. “Then I’ll wait out here then.”

Nella blinks quickly as Tychos turns back to face her and her husband, a resigned look on his face. “Sorry about that, ma’am. Sophia… she’s a friend and she’s always been a bit quirky. But, she did answer your question. We come from a place called Cadia. It’s… a long way from here.”

“You don’t say…” Bear mutters out simply. “So… how did you folks end up with the little girl?”

“Bear!” Nella says in shocker exasperation, knowing that there’s being blunt and being rude.

For his part, Tychos says nothing against it. “No, it’s a fair question. Umm… can we step inside? It’s… it’s a bit of a story.”


 

Sitting at the table in the room, Nella can’t help but stare, wide-eyed in disbelief at the wooden tabletop in front of her. To her side, Bear has his eyes closed and his head shaking in disbelief at what they’ve just been told.

Marysville. Gone.

“I can’t believe it.” She finally says out-loud. “But… but I thought Marysville was a safe-town.”

Slowly, she raises her head to look at the soldier sitting across from her. Tychos has his helmet off, revealing a head of short, black hair. His face is neutral, although Nella can see the apologetic look in there.

“E-everyone, apart from the little… Carmen is the only survivor?”

Tychos nods his head. “Yes.”

Just one word. Just one word to say about an entire town almost being wiped out in a single night by the creatures of Grimm, if the man’s words are anything to go by.

She’d been to the town before, many times even. She can remember seeing the different faces, the faces of the townsfolk and the people living their lives as they went about their jobs. Children playing in the streets, all so happy and content with their place in the world.

All of them… gone.

“And so… you took in the girl.” Nella says simply, stating the fact.

Again, Tychos nods, a small, wry smile playing at his lips. “It was the right thing to do. We buried her parents… and we gave the people proper send offs. Or as proper as we could. We don’t know how those sorts of things are done here, I’m afraid, so we followed our own customs.”

He’s sincere in his words, Nella can see that. And she appreciates it.

In his own seat, her husband leans forward, putting his arms against the table as he opens his eyes, fixing the soldier with a simple stare.

“Young man,” Bear begins. “I want to apologize if I caused you any offense over asking about Carmen. It’s just… seeing a girl that young with so many grown men… it’s…”

Tychos holds up a hand. “It’s fine. I understand perfectly. There’d be the same sort of questioning from us if the situation was the same. Although, in our history, a lot of regiments from Cadia end up adopting orphans from warzones we visit, mainly to keep them safe too.”

“Well, it’s good that you’re keeping her safe from the Grimm.” Nella adds in, smiling sweetly at the man across from her.

At the mention of the name ‘Grimm’, Tychos’ face shifts to a perplexed look.

“I… I’m sorry. I don’t know what a ‘Grimm’ is.”

The revelation earns a shared look between the two Stone parents, a look that screams ‘is this man for real?’.

“Oh!” The man exclaims with a loud snap of his fingers, a look of realization on his face. “Those are the big, black and white beasts, right? Some of them look like a frakked up version of a man and a wolf? Oh. Pardon my Gothic.”

The loud guffaw from the woman outside, combined with the fact that this obviously hardened soldier apologized for swearing, can only do anything but make Nella smile at the man.

It was a fact, and one that Nella knew well: you learnt nothing about a person just by looking at them from a distance. It was only when you met someone up close and personal that you can find out what kind of a person a man is. And from what she’s finding out about Tychos is that she likes him. Well mannered, friendly, and open.

She hopes all the others in his group are like this.

The sound of the back door being opened fills the space.

“We’re back.” Nella hears Melo call out as she enters the house. “Sorry it took so long. Mom, we’re nearly out of toilet paper.”

The young teens bluntness, which Nella swears she gets from her father, is enough to make all adults in the room, and even the one outside, to laugh, and it helps calm the atmosphere down even further.

“Thank you for letting me use your toilet.” Carmen says demurely, even as a smile is on her face.

Nella returns the smile warmly. She sees that the girls Faunus ears are still drooping down the back of her head, pressed flat against her hair.

Poor girl,’ She thinks to herself. ‘To be orphaned at that age…

“Did you wash your hands?” Tychos’ voice suddenly cuts in, his voice sounding less soldierly and more… brotherly, which earns a shake of the head from Carmen. “Well, Miss… Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t ask for your names.”

“Nella Stone.” The matriarch responds, raising a hand to indicate her large husband beside her. “And, as you can probably guess, this is Bear. And yes, Carmen can use the sink to wash her hands. It’s no trouble.”

Watching as Carmen quickly makes her to the kitchen sink, raising herself up on her tiptoes to reach the faucet, Nella can feel the maternal instinct coming again. This is a little girl that has seen the worst, and she needs to be protected, in so many different ways. Physically and mentally. Shifting her vision slightly, she can see Tychos watching the girl go about cleaning her hands, and she smiles again.

He can do it.’ She thinks to herself. ‘He can protect her.

She doesn’t know much about these Cadians, where they come from and why they’re here. But if they can save a little girl from a town destroyed by the Grimm, then can they really be bad people?

The room lapses into comfortable silence, the only sound in the room is the sound of the running water. It’s an almost domestic scene, like Carmen and Tychos are but relatives visiting for a day. It’s nice.

And then the bells start tolling, making everyone turn their head to look at the window.

“Sophia?” Tychos calls out, as he pushes his chair back a ways. “What’s going on out there?”

“Ma, what’s happening?” Melo asks in fear, moving towards her parents, even as Bear steps away to the rifle he now has leaning against the wall.

Another bell joins the tolling of the first. Then a third. And a fourth.

It’s a signal. A dreadful signal, a signal that no-one in town wants to hear, and those that have heard it have never wanted to hear again.

The door opens quickly as Sophia bursts in. “There’s a black cloud, coming in from the south-east. It’s moving fast. Against the wind.”

Then the noise reaches them. The sound of manic, hellish cawing.

“Grimm.” Nella breathes out in fear.


 

They come. A maniac horde of black wing and feather, white bone and talon. An airborne armada of destruction and hatred given avian form. Body shapes that should have been majestic in flight, wings sweeping and beating over the landscape, are now naught but forms to bring ruin and death to humanity.

The swarm of Nevermores fill the air. They are not numerous to black the skies, like they would have done nearly a century ago during the Great War. They are more of a dark cloud than a storm, but they number just over a hundred strong. Not enough to wipe out the town by themselves, but enough to leave it weakened for their kin to slaughter. The makeup of the swarm varies in size, from ones no larger than a raven, to some with a wingspan the size of an adult human. The largest of them all, a true Alpha, is a monster, with both wings the size of a full-grown draught horse, each wing beat buffets the air with a blast of power.

The vanguard, outriders of the group, ride swiftly on quick wingbeats. The fly low over the tree-tops, the green foliage passing them by in simple grey blurs. Young Grimm, they have no clear indication of what they pass. They blur over trees and foliage, over numerous fleeing forms of wildlife. To either sides, they can sense and see conflict against their ground-based kin; to the far north-west, a group of three humans and a Faunus are battling a small contingent of their kin around a ruined relay tower, while in a shorter distance to the south, a group of eleven individuals, their bodies flaming with anger, are engaging the vanguard of the horde that is on the tail of the Nevermores.

But neither of those groups as the flocks concern. Their target is the town ablaze with fear and apprehension. It calls to them, like a flame to moths.

The forerunners of the swarm, the youngest and the quickest, shoot over the woods, the bells atop the towns walls as much as a lure as the emotions within the town itself.

The Nevermores, about twenty in all, plunge on through the sky, their wings beating faster and faster as they build up speed. Racing right towards the middle of the town.

The people gathered almost right in the centre are unsure of what direction the attack is going to come from. The face all directions, weapons at the ready, nervous energy radiating from them. They’re also spread out.

Not an ideal target for an aerial attack, but the Nevermores don’t care. They only desire to kill.

Almost as one, they stop in the air, as they push their wings out in front of them. It’s not a learned skill. It’s not something that a young Nevermore is taught to do by an older Nevermore. It does not work like that for Grimm. Nature does not apply to them, and they do not know an ounce of nurturing in their body.

They are anathema to both.

Like the hissing of a great multitude of snakes, the Nevermores unleash a barrage of their dagger-like feathers at the humans on the ground.

Pandemonium follows quickly.

Feathers lance at the ground, clattering off stone and metal with a great ringing on the latter. Some punch through canvas, shredding the fabric.

But the humans are moving.

While they have been caught unawares by the sudden direction of the attack, as soon as the feathers were unleashed upon them, they scatter, running to take shelter behind any solid barricade they can find. Discipline takes over from shock and fear as guardsmen dive into cover beneath or around their cargo-6s, even as the rain of lethal feathers come as a deluge.

Many are quick. Some are not.

The unluckiest are in Fourth Squad of 3rd Platoon. As they run for the closest piece of clover, they are caught in the barrage of natural flechettes. The ones at the front manage to dive into cover, leaving three of their squad still out in the open as the feathers hit their marks. One man goes down, a single feather digging right through the gap between his helmet and his flak armour, smashing through his skin and out the front of his neck in a spray of arterial blood, dropping him to the ground wordlessly. The other two are luckier; one takes a feather to her left hip, staggering her with a yell before she manages to right herself and hobble to cover. The last of the squad to be injured takes a feather right through the sole of his foot as he dives over into cover.

One killed, two injured. Good numbers from an ambush. But the real damage has been caused. Panic and fear has begun to spread through the town.

Fear and anger.


 

The doors to the mayor’s house are thrown inwards with a loud bang as Captain Thade storms out of the man’s house, his facial hair bristling with anger at how badly his Cadians have been caught unawares by this new enemy.

Damn the Eye, they should be better than this!

“Captain Thade, slow down!” Mayor Goldthwaite calls out from behind, his limp, marked by the irregular thump of his boots, slowing him down. “You need to calm down!”

“Dorn’s Blood!” Fidor cries loudly as he steps through the door and out into the town square. In front of him, still parked in their original positions are the cargo-6s, only now they have men and women ducking behind them for cover. “What the bloody hell are you people all playing at?”

In the sky, the avian… Grimm, Fidor forces himself to remember, are flying back, back to the large swarm that is bearing down on the town. His mind begins to form plans.

“Sir!” Lieutenant Maulville calls out into the microbead in the captain’s ear. “Third Platoon is reporting casualties: two wounded, one dead, sir.”

Deckard chimes in. “Trooper Litten and Specialist Kall haven’t come back from the hab-blocks!”

Commissar Schreiber. “Captain, I have panicked civilians in my area, urging the men to come into the homes, and we can’t get them to calm down.”

Voices. Many voices. So many voices, all clamouring for attention, for notice. For words of comfort or guidance. To be told what to do, where to go. He can lead them all, tell them all what to do, but a simple order will not do it. He needs something more. Military discipline will not help Fidor right now. He needs something greater.

“Fury of Cadia!” The loud booming voice of Father Constantine rolls across the square, and maybe further, as the bearded man strides directly into the open space. “You! You are all guardians of the Cadian Gate, the wardens of the Eye of Terror! What fear does this putrid xenos species hold on you, when you have faced the very forces of hell itself, and walked away unscathed? Stand tall, my brothers and sisters! Stand tall as the mighty Praetor of Terra himself! Stand tall as the walls that surround this town! Rise up! Rise up and strike down these beasts! For the God-Emperor is with us, and we shall not fail!”

At the words of encouragement, and slight chastisement too, each guardsman stands up from their cover, eyes raised to the sky, with weapons held surer in their hands.

“Steel your hearts, and stoke in your breasts the fires of rage! Kill the alien! This is your mother’s prayer! Burn the xenos! This is the cry of your Terran ancestors, your holy blood-lines! These spawns of foulness are the cause of the destruction you saw at Marysville! Remember your rage at those sights! Let it flow through you like holy wine, let it stoke in you the fires of vengeance, and then let your lasguns be your holy instruments of destruction once again! In the Emperor’s holy name, let it be so!”

Fidor can feel it. The anger he felt at the ambush changes, shifting in heat and intensity from a burning anger at himself, to a broiling fury at the universe, at the sort of world that would create such beasts like the Grimm.

A hand on his arm makes him turn around. Having finally caught up, Mayor Goldthwaite looks at the man, eye to eye. A look of fear mixed with shock is on the man’s face.

“Your man needs to calm down!” He says, in a voice somewhere between pleading and commanding. “He’s getting your men worked up, and getting them angry leads to nothing good when Grimm are concerned.”

They are drawn to negative emotion in an inexecrable fashion, like moths to a flame.

The words flow through Fidor’s mind. And a savage grin forms on his face.

“Good!” Fidor calls back, almost laughing as he smiles. “Let them come! It’ll make it easier for us to kill them.”

Goldthwaite’s shock deepens, as a terrified expression falls across his face. He relinquishes his hold on the Cadian’s arm and he takes a shaky step backwards.

“Y-you’re mad.”

“I’m not mad.” Fidor replies evenly, as he reaches down and unsnaps the leather cover of his holster. With ease from years of practice, he withdraws the plasma pistol from its sheath and activates the energy coils in one go. The pistol is archaic, but elegant. Steel all over, with a bronze barrel and cooling vents, blackened and blued with use. As he activates the coils, the blue glow of the weapon comes to life, casting his face into something… hellish. “Just doing my duty. For Emperor, and Imperium.”

Turning away, he marches down the short steps into the square, to stand next to Father Constantine.

“Forget about Litten and Kall.” He calls out. “Knowing them, they’ll be holed up somewhere. They know their duty, and we know ours. Tell Commissar Schreiber to ignore the civilians and get his soldiers here on the double-quick. Tell Third Platoon to get their wounded to an emergency triage position as direct by Doc Valim and then join up with the rest of us here. Everyone else, execute defence protocol Sigma-Two-Delta. On the double now.”

At the command, each squad moves away from cover and out into the open, where they split. Each ten man squad splits into small rectangles, two men deep, five men across. Without a word, the front five men drop to a kneel, lasrifles held to their shoulders as they point their weapons up at the sky and at the approaching horde of Grimm.

“Tell the Munitorum crews to man their heavy stubbers. We’ll need their weapons in the next few minutes.”

Seconds later, the clack and clatter of loaded and readied heavy stubbers fills the air, before the only sound that fills the town square now is the approaching wingbeats and caws of the aerial beasts.

“Any words, captain?” Father Constantine asks.

Fidor thinks for a second. He checks the charge on his plasma pistol. Then he speaks.

“Not a beast survives.”


 

With loud cawing cries and shriek, the flock of Nevermores descend onto the town. The avian Grimm fly pell-mell down through the sky, their first barrage of feathers sending the humans into disarray. The miasma of fear and nervousness that wells up from the town is a mask to them as much as a lure, blinding them to what the group of humans in the middle of the town are doing.

“OPEN FIRE!”

The cry rings out loud and clear, repeated from dozens of throats, well suited to calling out against the most cacophonous of noises.

Seconds later, the air is filled with the snap and whine of lasbolts spitting forth into the sky, angry red against the blue. They fill the air in blinding arrays of lines, bolts intersecting and crossing the other. And Grimm die.

Nevermores fall from the sky before they realise what is happening. Smaller Grimm are simply blasted into oblivion, their bodies scattering to the four winds as the atoms that make up their wretched bodies are burned away by the searing heat of the Cadian guns. Larger ones have their bodies perforated, multiple bolts slapping into and through them, tearing their feathers and wings to ragged shreds. They fall to the ground even as their bodies begin to disintegrate.

And yet still the Grimm come on. So driven in their own rage and desire for the destruction of humanity, they continue their dive, beaks open in wide cries of avian anger.

The chatter of heavy stubbers comes as their reply. Heavy solid slug bullets, each one point-fifty in calibre, roar out of the long barrels of the guns mounted on the cargo-6s and the Salamander into the sky. Every fifth bullet is replaced with a tracer, the ammunition burning red hot as it flies through the air. Long streams are cut through the air, the guns tracking back and forth through the aerial horde, cutting Grimm to pieces, feathers and ichor to fall streaming to the floor as they begin to dissolve.

But the Nevermores keep diving. The younger ones, the smaller beasts, keep going because that instinct to kill, to rend and claw and tear, is all they know in their short lives. Some of the older ones are trapped by gravity, their own speed their undoing as they hurtle down to earth. A few manage to pull back, an emotion not unknown to Grimm but hardly experienced by them creeping into their minds: fear.

It’s still too late.

As they close, the whine of the specialist weapons of the Cadian arsenal powering up fills their hearing.

Far too late.

Five separate blasts of light, each one as bright as a star, fill the air as they lance out into the enemy flock. Plasma weaponry, so poorly understood by the Imperium of Man, treated with superstition more than any other piece of technology in the Imperial arsenal. Yet still, it is the most single most destructive weapon the Cadian Shock Troops possess. Searing bolts of raw energy blast up into the heavens. Nevermores are atomised instantly as they contact with the plasma, while those at the coronas of the blasts are set aflame, making them fall to the ground in shrieking fire balls.

The swarm is in disarray. Torn between their instinct to destroy humanity and their fear at the heavy decimation of their flock, the Nevermores scatter in different directions. Some wheel off, making for the safety of the trees, over descend further onto the town. At least, in their minds, their deaths will still bring ruin to humanity.

The biggest one, the Alpha, turns aside, leaving the smaller ones to their fate. It knows it will die here. It just needs to wait. So it lets its smaller kin die.

Lasbolts still lash up at them, red hot beams that sear and slice through flesh and feathers with ease. Bolts of plasma energy spit upwards, broiling fire that incinerates packs wholesale. And yet still the Cadians have more weapons at their disposal. Ones nearly as ancient as war itself, and one as deadly as they day they were constructed.


 

Standing by the window of the hab, Tychos stands besides Sophia as they watch the carnage their comrades are unleashing on the enemy. They whining snap and crack of lasbolts, the clatter of stubber ammunition and the potent roaring whoomph of plasma energy being let loose. It’s a stirring sight, of that there is no mistake, and being able to just watch it from the side-lines is a very rare thing for either of them to do. Their viewing place is usually right front and centre.

Still… it’s not a good feeling to know that you should be doing something while you’re doing nothing.

“They’re putting up a wall of fire, no mistake.” Sophia says simply.

Tychos knows that she, like himself, wishes they were at the front and centre of the action, right in there with their squadmates, but the situation doesn’t allow it.

Turning his head slightly, Tychos can see Bear Stone, his rifle clutched tightly in his hands as his wife and daughter stay behind him, hiding behind a very sturdy wall. They either look at the tumult outside in wide eye fear, or at the two Cadians, their rifles hung across their chests as they stand by the open door, in confusion.

Tychos doesn’t say a word as he turns back to look at the display of Imperial small arms fire in the centre of town. He doesn’t want to say it, but he thinks that his and Sophia’s body language definitely tells them everything they need to know: this is not a big deal to either of them.

A loud, roaring whoosh fills the air as a giant, rolling tongue of flame, probably a hundred metres in length spits out from the square up into the air, sending screeching, flaming bundles to the ground in ruin.

Sophia lets out a back of laughter, absolutely filled with joy. “Throne damn, it’s good to see a flamer in use again! Just wish it was mine!”

To her side, Tychos just rolls his eyes. ‘Fire-freak.’

His thoughts are interrupted as a small tug pulls at the thigh of his left leg. Looking down, he sees Carmen has come to stand beside him. Her eyes are wide open with fear and shock at what she sees outside, while her ears are still pressed flatly against her head. Tychos will admit that he does not have the best knowledge of non-human biology, other than a lasbolts to the head will put down most xenos beasts, so he’s unsure how her ears relate to her mental state. But something about the way they are tells him that the child is scared.

“Don’t worry, little one.” He says, shifting his rifle to his side as he moves to a crouch next to Carmen. “We won’t let them come. Not now, not ever.”

At his words, Carmen turns to look at him directly, the worry in her face shifting to wide eyed hope.

“Y-you… you promise?”

He doesn’t mean to say it. He can’t stop himself. Nearly every rational fibre inside of him, every intellectual nerve in his brain tells him he should not say what he is about to say. But his heart tells him to say it.

“Big brother won’t let anything happen to you.” He says, putting a comforting hand onto her head.

She’s not Arie, he knows it. Nothing short of intervention of the God-Emperor would be able to bring her back to him. The rational part of his mind is telling him that it’s just to make her feel better, to make sure that Carmen doesn’t get into trouble with the rest of the soldiers, and to keep her in line. But the irrational part of his mind tells Tychos that she needed to hear it. To see her happy again, to see her smile, will be the thing that makes all of the shitty situations they have been through on this planet all worthwhile.

She needs this.

“They’re bugging out!” Sophia cries out in glee, making both Tychos and Carmen turn to look outside.

Sure enough, the last of the xenos-beasts still capable of flying are wheeling around and away, chased by las and heavy stubber fire. A horde that must have been just over a hundred was cut down in a couple of minutes of sustained and disciplined fire and Cadian fury. A paltry number escape, while the slowest of the beasts are cut down from the air. As the last one clear the field of fire, a great cry rises up from the centre of town: a cry of victory.

Behind them, the sound of Bear loosening his grip on his gun reaches them. “You… you made the Grimm turn tail. … Even the best Huntsmen have trouble with that.”

At his words, the pair turn around and they see the Stone family looking at them with both admiration and hope. Emotions that Cadians have seen very rarely since The Fall.

The microbead in Tychos’ helmet, left in its place on the table in the scramble for cover, sounds off, prompting the man to take it off the table and replace it on his head.

“Tychos!” Lieutenant Deckard’s voice calls out. “Are you there? Come in, over!”

“I’m here, lieutenant.” Tychos replies. “We’re still holed up in one of the civilian habs with Carmen. We would have left sooner but-”

“No time for that now!” The woman replies testily. “Just get your arses over here now. Double time! Uncle’s orders.”

“Copy that.” Tychos says in response, clipping the helmet back in place. “Sophia, we need to head back. Uncle needs everyone there.”

“You’re leaving!?” The young teen, Melo, replies in shock and fear. “But what if the Grimm come back?”

“I think that’s why they’re going, sweetie.” Nella Stone says in a soothing voice, as she turns to look at the pair. “Right?”

Tychos nods, before he turns to look at Carmen, the young girl seeming to have shrunk down on herself in fright.

“Carmen.” The Cadian begins. “I need you to be a good girl, and stay with the Stones, okay? Something bad is going to happen, and I want you to be safe. All right?”

Fear fills the girls eyes again before she lunges forward, wrapping her arms around Tychos’ waist.

“No! No, don’t go! I want to stay with you!” She cries out, pleading in her voice as she looks up at Tychos with watering eyes. “I’ll be a good girl! Please! Don’t leave me like momma and papa did!”

Looking at his squadmate, all he gets from Sophia is a noncommittal shrug.

“I can’t see a reason why we can’t take her.”

Tychos nods his head. “Okay. Okay.” Bending down, he picks up Carmen full in his arms. “We won’t leave you here, but you have to do what we say. Okay?”

Carmen nods, even as she wipes away the tears in her eyes. Taking that as his cue, Tychos turns to face the Stone family.

“Thank you all for the hospitality. But we need to leave.”

Bear nods his head. “You stay safe, soldier-boy. And keep her safe too.”

Tychos nods before he watches Nella move out fully from behind the wall.

“May the Brother Gods and the Maidens protect you.”

The words are blasphemous, of that there is no doubt. There is only one god, and he is seated on a throne of gold orbiting a distant star. The words should see them shot for heresy by the commissariat, or any good guardsman.

But now is not the time or place.

“The Emperor protects.” Tychos gives as a reply, Sophia nodding her head at the side, before they turn and leave the house.

Moving at a quick jog, they cast a look between the other.

“This is the strangest planet I’ve been on.” Sophia says.

Tychos cocks an eyebrow at her. “Stranger than Mortus IV?

Sophia’s brows furrow at the mention of the planet. “… okay, maybe a close second.”

In his arms, Carmen just looks at the pair in confusion, not understanding what is being said between the pair.

It takes them a minute to reach the town square, slowing to a walk as they approach their company. A few soldiers give them exasperated looks for not taking part in the fighting, while others simply bid them ‘welcome back’ as though they missed a small jaunt in the woods. Others say hello to Carmen more than the pair of Cadians she is accompanied by. Out of the corner of his, Tychos can see Anton, his commissariat black uniform flecked a bit with mud, eye the pair suspiciously, but he ignores it as Lieutenant Deckard joins the pair.

“Missed one hell of a show, you two.” She says warmly, before turning her gaze to the child in Tychos’ arms. “Good to see you safe, little one.”

The words earn a smile from Carmen, the gesture copied by Tychos and Sophia.

“So what’s the word?” Sophia asks.

Silently, Deckard just points over her shoulder at Captain Thade, who is currently holding a vox-caster set to his head and speaking loudly.

“Say again, Sergeant Thaddeus! What is your situation, over!”

He falls silent as he listens to the Astartes on the other end of the line.

“I’m sorry, my lord. Repeat your last! Situation is… a little hairy?”


 

The canine-faced xenos beast roars as it charges. In reply, the Tigrus-Exitus pattern boltgun spits out a shell, the internal self-propellent pushing it past a speed that can only be dodged only by those with the most honed reflexes.

This beast has none of that skill, natural or otherwise.

The shell flies straight and true, punching through the bone like armour of its head, before it detonates inside in a cloud of black ichor and white bone fragments. The creature drops to the ground without a noise, its body steaming blackness as it begins the strange process their kind undergo upon death.

More come. And Thaddeus does his killing work.

A beast leaps over a fallen log to his left. Double shot to the chest, blowing out its internal organs and sending it sprawling to the ground.

Another one powers along the loamy forest floor on all fours from the right. One shot to the left shoulder, sending the limb cartwheeling as it crashes to the floor in a heap. The Astartes veteran dispatches it with a single shot to the head, blowing out the top and back of the skull.

And the horde keeps coming.

“I repeat, Captain Thade,” He says into the microbead in his ear, even as he pumps round after round into the beasts. “It is getting a little hairy. I have estimates of roughly an eight to one disparity in numbers of these beasts. And they’re all converging on your location.”

Thaddeus never means it, but every time he ends up in an operation with the Militarum, he always finds himself slipping into their parlance at times. While he chastises himself for it each time, he finds that it often gets the point across.

Around him, the trees erupt in fire as his neophytes fire into the approaching horde. Bolters spit out their mass-reactive shells, shredding the beasts at mid-range, Neophyte Ollarus’ heavy bolter roaring as he swept it side to side methodically. In every direction he points it, black-furred beasts are blown apart and even a few trees fall to the ground, crushing some of the horde underneath and forcing others to go round.

But still they keep coming.

Neophyte Karis’ shotgun barks, the amputator shells doing their namesakes as he shreds off limbs at the joint, sending the bests to the floor struggling and snarling in pain. Behind the lines, the sniper rifles of Neophytes Justus and Markis snap as they take out targets of opportunity. Which is virtually every beast in front of them.

“Can you hold your position, Sergeant Thaddeus?” Captain Fidor asks, worry evident in his voice.

Thaddeus fires off three shots as he beheads two of the beasts and destroys the right side of the head of a third. Bad shot.

“Negative, captain. Falling back is our only option, but we’ll slow them down.”

A curse comes through the vox as Thaddeus disembowels another beast.

“Understood, my lord. I’ll contact command for evac. Keep the Grimm back as best you can.”

Thaddeus’ brow furrows in confusion as he cores the chest of an attacking foe.

Grim. Synonymous with dread and foulness. An apt name.

“Scouts! Fall back by fire team! Now! Justus and Markis, engage snare mines and timed charges! Ollarus; keep up your suppressing fire!”

“On it, brother-sergeant!” The two snipers reply over the vox before the sound of their sniper rifles drop away. Which does nothing to decrease the noise level in the woods. The Grimm keep coming, and the Astartes keep killing them.

It is not a retreat. Astartes do not retreat. To retreat is to turn your back on the enemy, to admit defeat and accept the battle as lost.

The Angels of Death do not retreat. The scouts walk backwards, weapons kept ahead and still blazing death. Ollarus moves atop of a rock, allowing him to pour the fire of his heavy weapon upon the heads of the onrushing horde as his brothers withdraw.

“Grenades!” Thaddeus roars, not taking his eyes off the enemy in front of him. His bolter kicks in his hands as he kills another, and another.

Above his head, fist-sized objects fly over his head and land in the onrushing horde. Cacophonous explosions send up clouds of dirt, while sprays of razor sharp fragments zip out. Limbs are shredded, while torsos are flayed open by the detonations and organs pulped. Bodies are hefted into the air as if by a giant hand before slamming down, snapping necks and spines or crushing other beasts.

It does nothing to slow the horde.

A theoretical comes to Thaddeus’ mind: the manner of attack brings to mind the chitinous swarms of the tyranids, or the more base and feral variants of the greenskin orks. There is no discernibly organized rush, just a pell-mell assault on the enemies front. A rush to overrun and destroy.

But, even as he fires more bolts, taking easy and sure steps backwards, Thaddeus realizes that there is no practical to that theoretical. Tyranids are not mindless beasts; the Hive Mind and synapse creatures allow a swarm to ebb and flow as the battle dictates. Greater beasts support the lesser broods, walking artillery-beasts acting as tanks while being commanded by the Hive Lords or Swarm Lord.

And yet… there is no manner of the greenskins taste for bloodshed. While some beasts are fleeter than the rest, and there is the jostling for position that comes from such large bodied animals being in close proximity, there are no clashes for position or larger beasts lashing out to reinforce their position in the swarm. Each beast knows their place in the swarm and their role in their task.

 They are an instinctual force, a force that knows its role in this world. But at the same time, they are as alien as anything he has faced.

And that is unsettling.

The last round of his bolter spits out, coring through the torso of another Grimm, the sixtieth that Thaddeus has killed. A good kill-count, but worthless against the horde advancing on him.

“Reloading!” He roars as he reaches to his waist to draw a standard sickle magazine while simultaneously moving his finger to press the ejection button of his bolter.

Senses attuned by centuries of combat to minute changes go off and combat time kicks in for Thaddeus. His bolt rifle drops out of his hand, the sling on his shoulder going taught as it takes the dropped weight. His hands go down to his hips, moving to grasp at the twin blades he wears, even as the Grimm beast lunges at him, its head and upper torso armoured heavily in white bone. A mighty forepaw, almost as much a hand as a paw, is outstretched, ready to grasp and kill.

His hands grasp onto the hilts of his blades as Thaddeus pitches his upper body backwards, letting the limb sail above him. He draws his weapons; one a shining, superb example of Imperial craftsmanship in the form of a cruciform pattern power sword, three and a half feet of finely wrought and polished steel, quickly becoming wreathed in potent blue energy at the press of a button. The other is simple but no less lethal. Triangular and wickedly sharp, its eighteen-inch long blackened blade is no less deadly for its shorter length. For it’s a Night Reaper of Catachan, held in the hand of one of the Emperor’s Avenging Angels, even in a reverse grip.

The blades cross over his body, each one hitting a different target. The Night Reaper speeds through the air with a whistle, ramming into the pit of the Grimm beasts armpit, even as the power sword sings upwards and severs the offending the arm at the elbow.

The beast howls in pain. It slams its feet into the ground to arrest its lunge, turning to face the Astartes, but all it does is leave itself open.

The Night Reaper is withdrawn, and the power sword is brought down diagonal, splitting the armour open from right shoulder to left hip in one single swipe, the powered field of the blade making a mockery of the armour the beast is clad in. The Grimm beast lets out a death-rattle, or as close to one as such a beast can make, before its two pieces drop to the floor in a flurry of ichor and dissolving matter.

And the horde still keeps coming.

“Charges and mines set, brother-sergeant. Recommencing fire.”

The snap of precision sniper rifle fire joins the din of battle again, the marksmen covering the steady advance backwards of their brothers from afar, while Thaddeus hold the line at the front by himself.

He’s a whirling dervish of death. His cameleoline cloaks spreads around him as he spins his Night Reaper and power sword in concert. He is a blur of movement. The cloak on his back shifts colours faster than the eye can track, disorientating his opponent, leaving each beast that tries to bring him down merely snapping and clawing at empty air or the edge of his cloak. The power sword and Night Reaper lash out in concert. Limbs are shorn off, heads run through and bodies are sliced open, all as he moves surely backwards.

Thaddeus grimaces in annoyance, even as he executes beast after beast that get in range. He needs to reload his bolter lest he get swarmed. He needs an opening.

The roar of Ollarus’ heavy bolter, coupled with his own roar of rage, as he tears apart the Grimm beasts in front of the veteran sergeant is the opening he needs. Quickly bounding backwards, Thaddeus deactivates the power sword and sheathes it and its sister blade in one fluid motion. The bolter is soon up in his hand, drum magazine ejected, and a fresh sickle magazine inserted. In seconds, he adds his own bolter fire to the din.

“We need to withdraw to the settlement. Link up with the Cadians!” He yells as he puts down beast after beast with pinpoint shots. A slight twitch of his jaw to the side activates his vox link. “Any Imperial Navy units, this Brother-Sergeant Thaddeus, Steel Drakes Astartes, 10th Company. Request for air support against ground targets from any available attack aircraft. How copy, over?”

The only sound to reach his ears is the roar of gunfire at his sides and back, and the roar of the swarm before him.

A female voice suddenly clicks in. “Brother-Sergeant, this is Miro Jax, Ogre Squadron, 568 Wing. I have a flight of three Thunderbolts with me, loaded for bear. What is the target, over?”

Even in the middle of a firefight, Thaddeus keeps his voice level, making sure his words come across easily through the tumult around him.

“Large horde, over a thousand strong. Ground based organisms, no air cover or support. Coming in from the south. How copy, over?”

More gunfire, more beasts die.

“Copy all that. Am approaching from north-east. ETA sixty-seconds. Mark positions with smoke. Emperor be with you, my lord.”

Sixty seconds. In a combat scenario, a lot of different scenarios can happen in sixty seconds. Thaddeus knows this from over six hundred years of experience. Not all of those scenarios are positive ones.

“Squad; use flash and concussion grenades to cover our withdrawal. Justus, cover Ollarus as he pulls back. Break contact as soon as you’re able, and make straight for the settlement and link up with the Cadians.”

The horde presses inwards as Thaddeus switches out his magazine. The sun is dipping lower, the soft tinge of orange beginning to grow stronger against the darkening sky. He glances it only through the gap in the treetop briefly before his view is taken up by the maw of a Grimm beast, which is promptly decapitated by a bolter round.

Thaddeus is not cursed with the gift of foreknowledge. But experience has taught him many things, and he knows. The sky will glow tonight.


 

The inside of the command centre is in tumult. Junior officers and aides are calling to each other, talking loudly to be heard over the noise their fellows are generating. In contrast, silent servitors, hardwired so their hands are connected to banks of cogitators and rows of readout machines, their glass eyes staring blankly at their screens as they look at potential shipping manifests, rotational readout, weather and climate reports.

In the midst of the large room, an island of calm in the sea of noise exists. It’s a hololith table, it’s display glowing bright green in the subdued military grey of the Cadian bunker. The display is nowhere near the most complex display it has shown. No blasted cityscapes that stretch for hundreds of miles. No interconnecting trenchworks, zig-zagging across a continent spanning warzone. No alien jungle teeming with life, even as parts of it are subsumed in atomic fire, great fireballs engulfing swathes of flora and foliage.

In the grand scheme of the Imperial war machine, the view on the display is nothing great at all. A simple walled town, five square Terran kilometres in size, surrounded by a vast clearing, in turn surrounded by woodland. It’s an insignificant little town, compared to the grand vistas of the Cadian kasrs, or any other Imperial hive.

And yet, in that town, over two-hundred men and women of the Cadian Gate have their lives at risk.

“Well…” Major Maxwell Bellechenko says gruffly, his hand never leaving his chin as he stares at the display alongside his superior officer. “That snowballed quickly.”

“To go from a simple reconnoitre and humanitarian mission, to a full-blown siege in less than twelve hours. That’s got to be a record in some way.” The comment provided by Commissar-Captain Mycella Trakis sound almost jovial, were it not for the hard stare she directs at the table in front of her.

As she speaks, the image on the screen is supplanted by black. An almost foul blackness that forms like fast-moving mould as it spreads through the woods to the south of the settlement. Numerous tendrils of the swarm speed towards the treeline, although those are stopped by timed explosives or aerial firepower provided by Ogre Squadron’s Thunderbolts.

Through it all, Colonel Leontij Creed just stands there, leaning both arms against the table’s surface as he gazes down at the display. To an outside observer, the sixty-year old Cadian officer is the picture of coolness and calm, but inside, his mind is in turmoil.

Mycella’s words are correct. What has happened is a record. A record in disaster for a force already reeling from disaster.

Taking a breath, Leontij pushes himself to stand fully upright.

“Someone get my Captain Thade, immediately.”

Exactly five seconds after the order is given, a subaltern appears at his side, a vox-caster placed on the table and a mic in hand which the colonel swiftly takes.

“Valiant Actual, this is command. Do you read? Over.”

Static fills the air for a second before the voice of Fidor Thade comes through loud and not perfectly clear.

“Command, this is Valiant Actual. Signal is good. Over.”

“Captain. I want a no bullshit assessment: what the Throne is going on down there? Over.”

Static again fills the air.

“Command. We’ve got a horde, just over a thousand strong, all bearing down on us. Veteran Sergeant Thaddeus is withdrawing his scouts to our position, but he estimates that they’ll be on us in roughly fifteen minutes. They can slow them down… but they can’t stop them. Over.”

Leontij processes the news as he looks at the major and commissar-captain across from him. Moving the mic away from his mouth, he address his junior.

“Get me the flyboy. Now.”

Major Maxwell nods his head, before he turns smartly and marches out of the command centre to fetch the Officer of the Fleet. Bringing the mic back up to his mouth, Leontij continues speaking.

“Captain, what is your status? Over.”

Static again, slightly stronger this time.

“Unbroken, sir. We’ve got two wounded, one KIA, so we’re still combat effective. But we’ve got around three-hundred-plus civilians with us, sir.”

Civilians… that complicates matters.

A chime in the vox-mic goes off, a stronger signal overtaking Captain Thade’s.

“Colonel Creed, this Sergeant Thaddeus.” The Astartes speaks in a flat and unhurried tone of voice, completely at odds with the screams of aircraft engines above his head as they unload munitions on their target. “Suggest you begin an evacuation process, immediately. This horde will not stop.”

“You want us to evacuate to facilitate an evacuation of a whole company of infantry?” Mycella says in confusion as she moves closer to the vox-caster. “My lord, with all due respect-”

“Commissar-Captain.” The veteran Astartes interrupts quickly. “In over six-hundred years in the Emperor’s service, I have yet to meet anyone who is respectful when they begin a sentence with ‘with all due respect’. But I was not talking about the company. I was talking about the town.”

The pair of Cadians stand absolutely still and stare at the vox-caster in silence.

“Facilitate the evacuation… of a settlement of three-hundred-plus civilians… who aren’t event Imperial citizens?” The commissar-captain says aghast. “My lord, what you are suggesting is… it’s treason.”

The voice that comes back through the vox is as low as far off thunder, but drips with danger.

“I know treason, Commissar-Captain Trakis. I also know duty, as I’m sure you do. For Astartes, our duty is our life. And our lives are considerably longer than yours.” His voice softens slightly, even as the sound of fast paced running filters through from the background. “But to answer your question: yes. I am saying that you should evacuate the town of the civilians.

“Let them see that these men and women from a world they have never heard of, from a far-flung empire that have only just heard about today wishes to aid them in this terrible time. Show them that men and women from a distant world, who serve a distant lord, are ready to lay down their lives for them.”

Leontij looks over at Mycella as she process the Astartes’ words, and she sees the flash of recognition that only a life-long political officer could have.

The distinctive bark of bolter fire comes through the vox.

“Besides,” Thaddeus continues, his voice sounding nonchalant despite the danger he is undoubtedly in. “We take a vow in our chapter. As long as one Steel Drake draws breath, then we defend humanity. The wall that defends all; innocent, lost, pure, impure. Faithful, and unenlightened. That is our duty.”

“We guard the realms of the Emperor.” Thade’s voice cuts in, still laced with static. “Colonel… we’ll do it. We’ll hold the line.”

“That’s not your decision to make, captain.” Mycella says sternly, as she turns to look at the colonel. “Sir, what are your orders?”

We guard the realms of the Emperor’. Leontij Creed repeats in his head. ‘What are the realms of the Emperor? How far away from his light can we be before they stop being His, and ours? Cadia sat on the edge of Hell itself… and yet it was still the Emperor’s. It was humanities wall, our gate. And we stood there. That was our duty then. Why the hell does our duty stop because we’re in this backwoods system?’

When Leontij speaks, his voice has a tone of finality in it. “Captain, I want you to be honest with me: is a breakout possible?”

Silence comes from the other end of the line, as silence begins to fall in the control centre, everyone wanting to listen to what is about to be said.

“Negative. If we try to get everyone out, then we’ll get caught by the Grimm, as the locals call them. We’ll loose everyone. If we just try to get the company out by itself… it’ll just be a massacre.”

That settles it.

“What do you need then, Captain?” Leontij asks.

“Sir… we desperately need heavy weapons. Missile launchers, mortars, heavy bolters. Anything that we can use against ‘nids, we can use against these beasts. We’ll also need close-air-support and air-strikes ready at our call.”

“Ask, and the Aeronautica Imperialis will provide.” A new voice says with no small amount of pride.

Turning his head, Leontij sees the form of Officer of the Fleet attached to the 598th, First Lieutenant Constantius de Pikalov. A tall man, dressed in the emerald green and blue uniform of the Segmentum Pacificus fleet, his slender and well-kept aristocratic features are at odds with the battle-hardened looks of the trio of Cadians before him. The row of ribbons he wears on his left breast show him to be a capable man though.

“Officer of the Fleet, reporting, colonel.” Constantius says with a smart salute and a click of his heels before he walks towards the display table. “I know it’s out of place for me to tell you how to do your job, if we’re going to be executing a civilian evacuation while also simultaneously resupplying infantry in the field, then I suggest… how large is the landing zone?”

“Able to comfortably fit a Destrier and a pair of Valkyries, but nothing larger.” Captain Fidor chimes in. “We don’t have enough time to clear a larger landing zone.”

Constantius nods. “… not perfect, but workable.”

Reaching down, the Officer of the Fleet pulls out a personal data slate before he begins typing in various numbers and figures.

“If we need close-air-support, then I can set a flight of Thunderbolts and Avenger Strike Fighters on hand. Anything larger, I will need to liaise with the fleet.”

As he lets the flyboy do his work, Leontij sees Major Maxwell approach him quietly from behind.

“Sir.” He says quietly. “We run the risk of loosing an entire company, for faithless unbelievers.”

Leontij nods his head.

“Yes. But we swore an oath of duty to the God-Emperor and the Golden Throne, to defend humanity from all enemies within and without. That oath does not stop just because the Warp shat us out somewhere only the Emperor knows about.”

Turning back to look at the display table, Leontij’s voice hardens.

“We have lost our home, but are still sons and daughters of Cadia. We have lost our kasrs, but are still Cadian Shock Troops. Our planet is gone, but we are still the bloody Imperial Guard. And here and now, we do our duty.”

Looking up, he lets his eyes scan the room quickly but steadily before he speaks.

“Everyone, report to your posts. Sound the general alarm. First Lieutenant de Pikalov, alert all your pilots for the job at hand. I want the first craft launched within the hour. Major Bellechenko, alert Alpha Company of the First of the 589th, tell them to get their heavy weapons teams on stand-by for combat drop. Move!”

At his commands, the officers in question, and several others began their tasks, moving with speed to their stations, just as a whooping siren sounded off within the walls of the fort, signalling the beginning of movement for the Imperial war-machine on Remnant.

In the organised maelstrom, Commissar-Captain Mycella takes the colonel aside.

“If this falls through, colonel…” She warns him, quietly.

“I know the price. And I’ll gladly pay it. But this must be done.” Leontij says, putting his hands firmly behind his back as he draws himself to his full height. “Now… is there anything else you wish to add, commissar-captain?”

At that, a small but deadly smile comes to Mycella’s face. “I think there is. I was informed, not too long ago, that the 57th Battalion stand ready for action. The kasr’s kin stand ready for action.”

A smile of his own spreads on to the colonel’s face.

“Then let’s show this planet how the Cadians fight.”

Chapter Text

There’s always noise in an evacuation. Tychos has known this for his whole life. The sound of panicked yells and screaming, the roar of aircraft engines duelling with the sound of vehicles moving to positions to facilitate or hinder the escape, and the sounds of running gun battles by both defender and attacker alike.

Despite the sounds of the Thunderbolts in the distance unleashing their fury on the Grimm horde still in the forest, the residents of Carterstown are… quite subdued. Sure, they flinch every time one of the aircraft makes a pass with its engine or commits to a strafing run, but they all largely stand ready. Families clustered together, small packs of supplies and valuables deemed too precious to be left behind, while young children stand near their parents with faces torn between wide-eyed terror and wide-eyed awe at what’s happening.

“They’re taking this in stride.” Tychos unwittingly says out loud in amazement.

“It’s not the first time this town has had to be evacuated because of Grimm, son.” The mayor of the town says as he looks up from the data-slate that Captain Fidor is showing him. “Usually, the evacuations are a lot more hectic and with the Grimm a lot closer. So this is definitely one of the better ones.”

Tychos looks at the man simply, not knowing what to say before the mayor turns back to look at Uncle.

“Captain, I appreciate all of this, but if this horde of Grimm is as big as you claim it to be, then surely an evacuation is out of the question. Or at least, a full scale one you seem to think you can pull off.”

To the mayor’s side, Tychos sees Captain Thade look at Mayor Goldthwaite with a confused look.

“You don’t think we can pull this off?”

The mayor lets out a weary sigh.

“Captain… you don’t live to be my age in the wilds unless you’re fast. And being fast means that you end up leaving people behind. It’s not fun, but it’s a fact of life. Try to take care of everyone, and you end up letting people down. And here… that gets people killed.”

His words make Tychos look down at the floor. He understands that logic too well. It’s the logic of the Imperium at its core; the many before the few. If a settlement can be saved but for a single hab-block, the hab-block is sacrificed. A city sacrificed to save a continent, a continent sacrificed to save a world, a world sacrificed to save a sector. That’s why the Imperial Guard exist. They’re the few that are sacrificed to save the many, the few that stand before the horror and stand to cover the others.

But most of all… they stand.

“Mayor Goldthwaite, I understand that logic perfectly.” Captain Fidor says simply as he places both hands onto the data-slate. “But this evacuation is still going through.”

“But how can you expect to save everyone? Is there enough room for all your men as well as my town?”

Tychos raises his head at the question, and he lets a small smile grace his lips. He knows what’s going to be said.

“Mayor Goldthwaite. In our society, there is a saying.” Uncle says almost conversationally, like he’s giving a lecture. “Two sayings, actually. The first; ‘the blood of the martyr is the seed of the Imperium’. And the second; ‘only in death does duty end’. I know that to you people they must sound strange, but to us Cadians, they mean more than probably anyone else.

“This town will be evacuated. And your people will get out safe. Because we’ll make sure they get out safe.”

The mayor’s mouth drops at the comment, the man at last fully comprehending what has just been said.

“Captain!” Another guardsman calls out. “The Astartes are back.”

Turning, Tychos blanches at the sight of the eleven transhuman warriors pounding up the street to the centre of town at what would be a jog to them. They’re massive, bigger than anyone in the company or the town, with corded muscles and giant hands hefting giant guns. They are giants of war. And apparently, ten of them aren’t even full Astartes yet!

The group slows down, their leader in front ordering them to halt as he moves to talk to Captain Fidor. Out of the group, he is undoubtedly the leader. Seven feet tall, and built like a Leman Russ, the veteran Astartes exudes power, lethality and authority in his every step. But this warrior has become even deadlier looking since their first meeting outside of Fort Tempest. Sweat and dirt has matted his beard and hair, while the bolter carried in his giant mitts has obviously been fired repeatedly, with a sickle magazine replacing the large drum magazine it had not half a day ago. The camouflage cape that trails over his shoulders has been torn, the edges becoming jagged and torn, looking more like a ghastly burial shroud as he stalks towards the group of Cadians.

Around them, the townspeople slink back in fear at the sight of the warrior towering a full head and shoulders above them, and the mayor just stares up at him in wide-eyed fright.

“By the Brothers…” The man gasps out in fright and shock. “They… they grow you lot big on Cadia, don’t they?”

“I’m no Cadian, good sir.” The Astartes says as he stops next to Captain Fidor, letting his boltgun go slack on its sling. “More’s the pity, I must admit. I am Sergeant Thaddeus, Veteran Sergeant and lead Scout of 10th Company of the Steel Drakes chapter of the Emperor’s Adeptus Astartes. I apologise that we must meet in such circumstances.”

For a few seconds, the man says nothing, simply looking up at the Astartes in a mix of aw and confusion.

Finally he speaks.

“Greetings. Were you lot with the Cadians in the town? I don’t think I saw you.”

The veteran Astartes lets out a small chuckle at the statement, seeing the man quickly overcoming his fear.

“I was with Captain Thade’s company from before the settlement known as Marysville and was with them until we came to outside your settlement’s walls. But the situation dictated us to remain in the woodlands outside. So, yes, this is our first meeting.”

The mayor swallows. “… And. What is the situation like?”

Tychos looks up at the Astartes warrior as he contemplates what to say. The response is what he imagined a veteran of the Emperor’s Finest to say.

“Not terrible. I’ve certainly seen worse.”

Mayor Goldthwaite blanches, looking like he’s just been struck by Sergeant Thaddeus.

“But…!” The older man stops himself before he yells out the news. “But you said the horde is over a thousand Grimm strong. That’s ‘not terrible’ to you?”

When the Astartes answers, it’s not with a single hint of pride or boasting. He says it simply and flatly, his features falling to an impassive mask.

“I’ve faced worse odds.”

The mayor’s mouth beings to flab open and closed as he tries to figure out what to say, but the large warrior ignores him as he turns to face Captain Fidor.

“Captain, I’d estimate that we have around five minutes until the horde arrives at the walls of this settlement. Maybe less if their numbers prove greater. What’s the earliest that we can get the first transport here?”

“Fifteen to twenty minutes for the first wave of aircraft, my Lord Astartes.” Fidor replies quickly.

“Then you know what you must do, captain?”

The Cadian nods his head before he turns to face his men. The next second, he’s bellowing out his orders.

“Bravo Company! Ready yourselves! The enemy is coming. Make sure your weapons are ready and the rites are said. We go to war!”

A joyful cheer meets the proclamation, the other Cadians raising their fists into the air at the order before they quickly ready themselves for combat. Packs are dropped and stored against walls, power cells are checked while sights are adjusted for range. Those troopers with melta- and plasma guns being the process of preparing their esoteric weapons for action, while flamers have their pressure and flames checked and rechecked, and grenade launchers have their rounds readied.

Squads fall out one by one, packs left in bundles near the parked cargo-6s, before they pound up the streets towards the main gate and wall.

“Bring up the company and platoon colours!” Fidor calls out. “Let’s let these motherless beasts know who they’re dealing with.”

Turning, Tychos can’t help but grin at seeing the older man looking in awe and confusion of the action around him, a look echoed by the other townspeople.

“I… You people are really going to do this?” The mayor asks, looking at Tychos in confusion.

Tychos shrugs, a smile still on his face. “We’re the Guard, sir. It’s what we do.”

Mayor Goldthwaite blinks at the strange man in front of him before a look of understanding comes to his face. Slowly, he turns to see Veteran Sergeant Thaddeus stalking off quietly, too quietly for a being of his size, as he gives out orders of his own, hand gestures pointing to different parts on the wall to emphasis his orders.

“And.. what about him? Them? Are they… are they ‘Guard’ too?”

Tychos shakes his head. “No, sir. They’re Adeptus Astartes. The Emperor’s Finest. They’re something different.”

To say that though is an understatement, Tychos will definitely admit. To compare to a single Cadian to the likes of an Astartes neophyte, even just by equipment alone, a person can easily tell that they are two very different warriors. Their large suits of carapace armour, their massive boltguns, sniper rifles and shotguns. It is easy to see that an Astartes Scouts are not in the same league as humans.

“So,” The mayor asks again. “What are they?”

Tychos’ brow furrows at the actual inanity of that question; how does no-one know, even in passing about the Adeptus Astartes? The Emperor’s Angels of Death?

But he stops before he speaks, once he remembers where he is. Or rather, where he isn’t.

"The best answer to that question, sir, is pretty long-winded and given the current situation, it’s best not to go into too much detail about it. So to answer quickly and bluntly; they were made to kill beasts like your Grimm. And they do it bloody damn well."

The mayor’s brows furrow at the comment. “’Made’…?”

Tychos prepares himself to have to explain what Astartes are to this man, but the voice of his platoon sergeant catches his attention.

“Tychos! Stop fraternizing and get your gear stowed!”

“I… ugh. On my way!” He calls out behind him before he turns to face the mayor. “I’m sorry, sir. Duty calls.”

And with that, he turns and quickly jogs off, leaving the mayor of the settlement very flustered and confused about has been happening and he has been told.


 

Another Thunderbolt makes a pass in the distance, its autocannons chattering as it unleashes its payload into the woods, as Tychos moves to his squad’s staging area. Set to the side of a large enough field of grass chosen as the landing zone for the evacuation. As such, it’s almost jam-packed with locals, which are simultaneously jostling for first place in the evacuation, or trying to keep away from the Cadians as they prepare for war.

As he approaches, he sees Sophia, her fuel tanks filled with promethium slung over her back, the flamer sat atop them, as she crouches in front of the girl who is quickly becoming the company’s mascot. Carmen is standing next to the pile of discarded packs, all of them bundled into a pile as tall as her, and she looks very distraught.

“Carmen, sweetie,” Sophia tries to say softly. “You have to stay here. It’s too dangerous for you.”

“But I don’t want to be left here!” The young girls cries out, her eyes wet with tears. “I don’t want to be alone again!”

As he shucks off his backpack, Tychos can’t help but frown at the girls words. She’s panicked, worried by the strange things going around her, the sounds of combat going on outside the wall, the press for evacuation from the townspeople, and now the soldiers that have been so nice to her are preparing for combat.

No wonder she’s scared.

“Carmen,” The man says as he places his pack on the ground in the pile, coming up beside the girl. “Come here.”

He holds out his arms in front of him and the girl walks into his arms, sniffling slightly as she is lifted up.

“Don’t go.” She sobs out. “Please. Please, I’ll be good.”

Shushing her gently, a hand brushing down her hair, Tychos looks around the area. He’s not sure of what he can say right then.

“Look around you.” He finally says, making Carmen look up, even as she rubs the tears from her eyes. “Look at all these people; the families, the children, the old people. Merchants, farmers, tradesmen. You had all of them in your hometown, didn’t you?”

The little girl doesn’t say anything, her face downcast as she nods her head.

“You’re a good girl, Carmen. So I know you don’t want these people to suffer like you suffered last night.”

The words aren’t nice, but they’re not meant to be. Carmen shrinks on herself at the Cadian’s words.

“I’m not saying this to be mean, but to tell you the truth; what happened in Marysville could happen here. If we don’t step up and stop them. That’s why we have to go.”

Looking around, Tychos remembers. He remembers this same sort of scene unfolding at the landing ports in Kasr Drak. The chaos as the Archenemy pushed on the port, the interior troops pushing back with all they had. The horrible screaming of enemy shells incoming, the roar of outgoing shells and the roar of ascending and descending jet and plasma engines as they ferried evacuees out of the spaceport and came back down to pick up more.

As he looks around the civilians, he spots a set of familiar faces.

“Do you want to see them suffer?” He asks softly, directing Carmen to look at the Stone family, seeing Nella Stone holding onto Melo, both looking worried at the goings on around them, while Bear stands behind them both, rifle in his hands and a pensive look on his face.

Whimpering softly, Carmen shakes her head, making her hair and rabbit-like ears whip around slightly.

“Good girl.” Tychos says softly. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the squad assemble nearby, watching what’s going on and  what he’ll do next. “Come on, let’s go see them.”

He’s wasting time, and Tychos knows it. But it needs to be done. As he approaches the family, the youngest of the family turns to look at the approaching duo. Instantly, Melo’s face shifts into a look that is rarely seen by soldiers of the Imperial Guard; unrestrained joy.

“Tychos! Carmen!” She cries out, drawing her parents attention onto the pair. Almost instantly, their trepidation is forgotten as they see the familiar faces.

“Hello, you two.” Nella says, false calm in her voice, even as her eyes betray her. “So this is really happening then. You’re going to get us out?”

“That we are, ma’am.” Tychos says with a nod of his head before he falls into an uncomfortable silence.

A commotion behind him makes him turn. And he smiles.

“Now that’s a sight and no mistake.” Bear breathes out in awe at what he sees.

The company colours are up. A single solitary flag, a thick blue saltire against a red field, and set in the middle is the symbol of the Cadian Gate. Battle honours, small pieces of plain cloth, over a hundred on each side, line each side of the flag, while a pair of golden tassels dangle down from the top of the pole beneath a golden aquila.

The command squad is moving out, heading towards the wall, a stream of guardsmen following in their wake, lasrifles and other weapons held at port as they quick jog in time.

“I need to go with them.” Tychos says simply as he turns back to face the Stone family. “Look after Carmen. Please.”

Releasing her grip on her daughter, Nella Stone steps forward. “Yes. No problem. She’ll be safe with us.”

Tychos begins to hand the small child to the mother, but Carmen grips tight onto his flak vest.

“No!” She cries out. “No! Don’t go! Big brother, please!”

The words sting but still Tychos carries on, prying her small hands off him as Nella takes hold of the girl.

“You be a good girl now, Carmen. Do what Miss Stone tells you. I’ll be back when this is over.”

“Please…” Carmen sobs out, tears streaming down her face. Without a word, Tychos places a hand against her cheek, using his thumb to wipe away one of the tears on her face.

Then he turns and jogs off, leaving Carmen with the Stone family, not looking back. Not looking back as he hears her cry out for him, begging him to come back, begging him not to leave her.

He jogs to reach up with his squad, no-one saying a word as they keep pace with the other. Just keeping their attention on the man in front of them and the incoming fight.

That’s the trick.

Never think about coming back. Never think that you will come back, that’s what Tychos’ old platoon sergeant had said. If you think about coming back, you think you’ll live. And if you think you’ll live, you’ll think your special, that you’re protected, that you’re invincible. You’ll get sloppy, careless, reckless. And that will kill you.

So Tychos doesn’t think he’ll come back. To him, that was as much a good-bye as he could muster for the little abhuman girl. The others don’t deride him for it, for they’d do the same.

Cadians only live one life. And it’s lived for the Emperor and the Imperium, never for themselves.

Ahead, the gate looms tall and foreboding. It’s nowhere near as tall as the walls of the Cadian kasrs, but they’re good walls, stout and tall. With minimal fanfare, the Cadians spread out across the wall, taking up positions by platoon and squad. There’s little jostling, no fussing, even as they spread out around the large forms of the Astartes scouts, their own weapons trained on the woods in front of them. Without heavy weapons apart from the solitary heavy bolter of the Astartes, the Cadians are at a disadvantage.

But when has that ever stopped them before?


 

“Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” The black-clad form of Commissar Anton calls out as he waves the last of the guardsmen up steps to the wall. They don’t give a reply, none of them do, but he sees a few of them smile at his words.

When the last man is up, only then does Anton ascend the stairs himself, his steps measured and unhurried, even as he unsheathes his weapons for the oncoming fight. A simple bolt pistol and chainsword, the classic tools of the commissariat. He tests the grip of the chainsword as he walks behind the backs of the Cadian gunline, watching each man and woman as they go about their own little rituals for the oncoming fight.

Some readjust the sights of their lasrifles, making sure they’re set right. Others offer words of prayer and protection to the Emperor. Father Constantine would do that himself, but he has elected to stay behind with the townsfolk, to keep them calm and to help liaise with the Imperial Navy when they arrive.

As he walks along, Anton stops behind a familiar figure.

“How are you feeling, Trooper Litten?”

Tychos is silent for a few seconds, his eyes fixed ahead.

“Good to be back in it, commissar, sir.”

Anton nods.

“And the child?”

Silence again.

“She’s safe.”

Anton nods again before he walks off again. Best to leave it at that.

He’s just behind Lieutenant Deckard’s squad when he hears the roar of the trio of Thunderbolts peeling off in a loop above the forest before receding into the distance. For a few seconds, he can see the bright red wing tips and pale blue undercarriage of the lead aircraft as it leads its fellows away from the fight.

“They’re at bingo fuel and need to rearm.” Deckard says as she hands the vox-caster back to her subordinate. “They’ll be back in ten minutes. Lieutenant Jaz wishes us Emperor’s speed.”

She turns to look at the commissar, a flat look on her face.

“Crunch time.” She says simply.

“Crunch time, indeed.”

A shout soon ripples down the wall.

“FIX BAYONETS!”

“Fix bayonets!” Deckard calls out, furthering the chain of shouts, her platoon sergeant taking up the call.

A ripple of glinting metal lines the walls as the fifteen-inch knifes are drawn from belts and attached to bayonet sockets, each weapon sliding home with a click of finality.

“Do you have any words for us now, commissar?”

He’s silent for a while as he thinks before he starts moving. Close by, he can see the command squad formed up on the portion of the wall above the gate. There’s no local militia here, they’re in the town helping with the evacuation. Just Cadians. So he knows what to say.

Walking along the wall, Commissar Anton holds his bolt pistol ready, his chainsword purring hungrily down at his left side, gunning the motor to a roar as he walks to emphasise his words.

“Once again… we find ourselves standing at the walls that divide Humanity from the foulness of the wilds! Once again… we see with our own eyes the horrible and terrible forms the foe brings to bear against us! And once again: We. Will. Not. FALTER”

He raises his chainsword high above his head as he stands above the gate, surrounded by Cadians.

“We are Cadians! For generations, we have stood as a bulwark against the terrors of the Eye, and the Archenemy! We have spilt enough of our blood to regrow the oceans of Holy Terra itself, but once again, the Emperor asks us for more. And we will oblige!

“These craven beasts seek to kill the innocent people of this town. But will you, braves sons and daughters of Cadia, let them?”

“NO!” The soldiers roar out as one.

“Will you let these foul beasts desecrate and destroy their homes?”

“NO!”

“What will you do to these beasts?”

“KILL THEM!”

“Again!”

“KILL!”

“Let your hatred be your armour, and your rage your weapon! Let your contempt be as the lasrifle in your hands, and let the fury in your breath be your battle-cry! Not one step back! For the Emperor, and for the Imperium!”

“For the Emperor, and for the Imperium!” The guardsmen reply as one, all two-hundred odd voices yelling as one in pitch to match the roar of the Grimm charging at the walls.

Lowering his chainsword, Anton moves to stand next to Captain Fidor. Standing beneath the company banner, with his face set in a fierce scowl and his plasma pistol held ready in his hands, at the right angle, he could easily be the subject for a recruitment poster. His facial hair bristles strongly, even as his violet eyes are locked onto the horde emerging out of the forests and towards the town.

“Anything you’d like to add, Captain?” Anton asks diplomatically.

The captain is quiet for a few seconds. Silently, he takes a step forward, placing a foot onto the ramparts of the wall, before he raises his pistol high above his head.

In a loud, booming voice, he cries out. A cry that was called out by one greater than him nearly a decade ago during the Fall, a cry that has issued from hundreds of other throats since then, and will continue to do so. It is a cry that is taken up his command squad, and by the squads on either side of them, until the entire wall cries out in one single voice.

“CADIA STANDS!”


 

The sun sinks in the west, its rays sweeping over the treetops in rays of blood red and fiery orange, making the shadows beneath lengthen.

Shadows that snarl and roar. Shadows edged with razor teeth and claws, white bone and red eyes filled with malice and rage. Shadows intent on death and destruction.

Like a tide, the Grimm charge. They charge pell-mell across the open field, their hunger for destruction overriding every instinct in them. Alphas and minors alike, Beowulf and Ursa run across the field towards the walls of Carterstown.

As the horde advances, they roar. They snarl, and growl and bellow. Each and every beast generating a noise in some form. It is a cacophony of sound that is created to horrify humans even more than the sight of the creatures making the noise, a sound to void the bowels and empty the stomach in fear. To make limbs quake and to send the weakest fleeing in fear.

On normal humans, it would work. But on Cadians, it stands no chance.

Silently, the guardsmen on the walls watch the advancing horde, weapons held low but ready. Waiting for the command to be given.

As they wait, sergeants pass out simple orders, the kind that strengthen a soldiers mind through rigorous discipline and drill.

“Look to your front. Mark your target when it comes. Look to your front. Mark your target when it comes…”

The baying horde rushes closer.

“Company!” Captain Fidor bellows. “Present – Arms!”

With a clatter, lasrifles are raised and stocks pressed against shoulders. No other move is made.

The first of the Grimm have crossed the boundary of the clearing around the town properly now, four hundred metres from the base of the walls.

“At four-hundred yards!” The captain commands. “Company will give volley fire. Take aim!”

Lasrifles are tightened against shoulders as the guardsmen pick their targets in the oncoming horde.

The baying horde passes into the killzone.

“FIRE!”

With a sound like hundred pieces of wood snapping at once, the top of the wall erupts into a flash of light as each lasgun fires. A volley of energized photons, each beam travelling faster than the eye could track and building up intensely in heat until they hit their targets in small eruptions of light and flame.

In the hands of anyone, a lasgun is an ideal weapon for a shooter: lower recoil than any solid-slug weapon means it’s an easy gun to handle, even for raw recruits from a backwoods tribal world. For soldiers of the Cadian Gate, it’s the perfect weapons.

Each round hits their targets.

The front rank of Grimm are hit with miniature sun blasts, their centre mass erupting in tiny balls of plasma as the heat from the lasers explosively turns their skin and air to gas.

The Grimm in front roar and growl in pain. The shock stalls their advance, making the line directly in front of the wall waver. Then they keep running.

“Fire!” Fidor calls out again.

Internally, he has a suspicion that a single volley of lasgun fire would not do a thing to halt a charge of these Grimm. The construction of Fort Tempest showed that these beasts are as resilient as any ork ‘boy’, and as the second volley of light snaps out from the wall, he sees it with his own eyes.

The front rank of the horde wavers again, but the Grimm recover and keep running towards the town’s walls. And they’re now over halfway distance to the wall.

“Independent! Fire at will!” He calls out again.

Each Cadian with a lasgun fires at his own pace, although their drilling means there is almost no loss of rhythm in the volume of fire. A near continuous stream of lasbeams spits down from the walls as the Grimm grow closer.

Again, the strength of the lasgun comes to the fore again. No propellent to burn means less recoil per shot, letting the shooter stay on target easier. And on targets that are almost as large as an ork, it makes it all the easier to hit. Each shot fired by a lasgun hits its target, and soon, the first wave of beasts falls to Imperial firepower. As they fall, the nature of the horde shows itself; the dead and dying are dragged under and trampled by those behind, and the horde advances into the fire.

A scowl comes to Fidor’s face. It’s horribly, naturally perfect. It’s the way the Imperial war machine operates; those at the front are killed to waste the enemy’s ire and to allow those behind to take their place. The Grimm don’t care about the casualties they are receiving, they don’t care that the forms in front of them are being gunned down indiscriminately. They just keep advancing.

It’s horrible. And it will succeed in time.

“For the Primarch, for the Emperor!” One of the Astartes scouts, the one wielding the heavy bolter, calls out before he hefts his huge weapon and begins firing into the mass of enemies, the weapon roaring as loud as the shooter as its mass reactive rounds scythe through the horde, closely followed by the bolters carried by his brothers. Limbs are torn off in sprays of ichor, heads are blown apart and torsos are blown open. On the extremes of the Imperial line, stationed in the two large towers, the Astartes snipers work their deadly craft, panning side to side as they hunt for larger Grimm to kill.

It still does nothing to the horde, as they now within a stone’s throw of the base of the wall.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

The sound of grenade launchers firing adds to the maelstrom of sound. Some of the gunners aim their weapons straight, laying round after round into the swarm. Forty-millimetre explosive rounds arc through the air and sail into the horde and explode with small but no less impressive detonations, sending dirt and twisted limbs in geysers of ichor and fire. Some of the Cadians improvise with their weapons, resting the tubes against the tops of the wall’s embrasures and aiming them upwards, turning their weapons into small, makeshift mortars. They drop their rounds over the heads of the vanguard of the swarm and into the main body behind.

It’s with a sickening crunch that the Grimm smash themselves into the southern wall, literally. The Grimm that have not been downed by lasgun and bolter run straight into the stonework of Carterstown’s wall, trying to clamber up the wall. The creatures called Beowolves dig their claws into the stone, but they never manage to pull themselves further before they are crushed by the weight of the mass behind them. The drive to get at the town is so strong in the horde that being within its presence drives them into a frenzy. They become less of a swarm and more of a tide, each successive wave climbing and clambering of the one in front to get the humans on top of the wall. They crush the ones beneath them, even as more of the fellows try to clamber upwards to get at the Cadians.

Numbers begin to win out. Slowly, with a cacophony of sickening crunches and roars of pain and anger, the horde begins to scale the wall at different points.

“How’s the gate?” Fidor asks, not taking his eyes off the horde in front of him.

“Holding.” His sergeant-major answers, the woman grinning broadly. “These folks build good quality walls. But Terra knows it won’t hold for long.”

Fidor nods his head in agreement.

“Grenades! Disperse these bastards!” He roars his command, his voice fighting equally with the noise being generated on and in front of the wall.

Seconds later, small, fist sized cylinders are tossed over the crenelations of the wall, tumbling through the air behind the scaling Grimm. Detonations rip through the air, sending white hot fragments of razor sharp metal outwards in expanding coronas. Hide is torn asunder, armour is cracked and what passes for organs are mulched by overpressure. Bodies fall to the ground, filling the air with their dissipating forms, while the masses clambering up the walls hit by the explosions of the grenades fall to the ground with howls of denied rage.

But the horde presses again, and more Grimm swarm up the walls.

“Flames!” Fidor roars.

“Flames up!” Sophia calls out, almost with glee as she swings her flamer forwards, the pilot light burning bright as she steps up to the wall. Carefully but surely, she climbs up between the protective battlements of the wall, letting her see the enemy.

A tide of black fur, white armour and fang, and baleful red eyes greet her. The noise generated by the horde almost buffets her, and she can feel it. She can feel the baleful energy emanating from them. It’s a miasma of anger, rage, despair and pain that these beasts create. It’s the sort of feelings that sap the strength from lesser men, leaving them weak from fear at what they face as they realise how hopeless their situation is.

But to the Cadians…

“Burn, you freaks!” Sophia cries out as she depresses the trigger of her flamer. With a mighty roar of flame, a tongue of burning promethium over sixty-feet in length jumps down from the tops of the wall, burning every Grimm it touches. A conflagration springs up at the front of the horde, joined by another and another as the other flame specialists in the company lend their ire to the battle.

Sickly smoke, rich with the metallic reek of promethium and stringy smell of burning xenos, fills the air.

And yet the horde does not stop. It keeps charging forward, and it keeps baying.

But the Cadians keep firing.


 

The people are getting restless now.

The Stone family can feel it around them as much as they can see it. The gunfire, the roars of the Grimm and the sound of the Cadian’s strange weapons mixing together is a sound that none of them have heard before. The sound fills the air at a level that almost drowns out conversation, and everyone sticks to the area around what the Cadians call the ‘LZ’. No-one is brave enough to venture towards the sounds of the fighting.

Nella swallows a lump in her throat as she feels the two shivering forms in her arms. Melo is clutched in her left arm, while Carmen is stuck in her right. Both have their attention focused on the fighting, but for two very different reasons.

The Faunus child still surprises the Stone matriarch. After she had taken her from Tychos, the little girl had been practically kicking and screaming to go join the man she called her ‘big brother’, trying her best to follow the soldier towards the wall.

It had taken a frank word from Bear that, if Carmen had followed the man, she’d be in a lot of danger if she went with him, and then he’d be in a lot of danger too to look after. And that would mean neither of them were safe.

His words calmed Carmen down, but she still looks longingly in the direction of the fighting, completely at odds with the look of fear on Melo’s face. So Nella does what any mother should; hold the children close and keep them safe. Carmen is now clutching a small stuffed rabbi tightly to her chest, her eyes fixed on the far wall.

A succession of bangs from the direction of the wall fills the air, followed by a loud roar, makes everyone at the ‘LZ’ flinch in shock. As she raises her head to look, Nella sees large plumes of smoke, jet black and angry, climb quickly to the sky.

“Brothers, I hope they’re safe.” Nella says out loud, although whether she means Tychos and Sophia, or the Cadians as a while, she can’t truly say.

A harsh, derisive laugh comes in reply, although it is definitely not from a deity.

“Are you daft, woman?” Cole Tanner says, the town guardsmen having a near manic look on his face. “They’re fighting probably the biggest horde of Grimm I’ve ever seen! Come on! You can hear the noise!”

“Yes, Mister Tanner.” Nella says flatly, looking at the militiaman in annoyance. “I can hear them. Everyone can. And I also know that they’re doing it for us.”

Tanner just scoffs at the statement. “For us? Really? Who in their right mind would go towards a horde of that size? You’d have to be mad to even think of doing that!”

Nella wants to defend the action, but living in the Valean wilds, there is a simple fact: if you’re ever faced with a horde of Grimm at least twice the size of your town, you run. If it numbers in the thousands, you run like holy hell. You’d have to be insane to run towards the Grimm.

And… she can’t help but think about it. Those men and women were happy to actually go to fight the beasts. The demons of darkness that haunted and hunted humanity on Remnant, and these strangers actually wanted to go and fight them.

“But…” Melo says softly, looking at the taller man in child-like worry. “They said that they were going to get us out, didn’t they?”

Tanner lets out a loud, derisive scoff, which makes the girl shrink into her mother’s arm in fear.

“How can we even trust these sorts of people? They’re fight junkies!” The man says, sweeping his arms broadly, a manic grin on his face.

“Well at least they’re doing something!” The loud roar of an angry Bear Stone calls out as he moves past his wife, Nella protectively holding the two girls closer to her. “And what the hell are you doing then, Cole Tanner?”

“Oh, fucking come off it, Bear.” Tanner drawls out in a snarky tone of voice. “You bloody well know they got the mayor to have us wait here to protect you lot. Now why would soldiers with as much gear as them order us lot to do that?”

Bear’s eyebrows furrow as he takes on a tone similar to talking to a problematic child. “Because there’s only two-hundred of them, you twit. Do you think there’s enough of them to protect everyone in town if they all stayed with us here?”

Their argument has drawn many eyes on them, with many of the townsfolk now looking at the militiaman and father arguing with each other. So Bear uses it as he turns to face some of them.

“Those people, these Cadians, have put themselves in the best position to shield us from the Grimm. They chose to do this. Like they chose to protect us from the Nevermores. They do this without knowing a single one of us. And they didn’t hesitate either!”

“Of course they don’t know us!” Tanner replies loudly. “They don’t know us, because they don’t care. They’re doing this because they just want to fight.”

Nella can’t help but smile at how the militiaman’s argument is falling about. He’s scared, that’s easy to see. No-one in this town has ever had to face a horde of Grimm as large as the swarm outside their walls, and certainly never had to hear a battle pitch like the one coming from said walls either. Tanner is a good man, no lie about that, but the situation has just unnerved him and everyone else.

A fearful mind is not a straight-thinking mind.

“They do care!” Melo suddenly calls out, pushing around to stand in front of her mother. “If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be doing this!”

The young teen turns to look at the little girl held in her mother’s other hand.

“And they wouldn’t have rescued Carmen if they didn’t care either!”

Tanner’s mouth begins to move up and down in confusion, but it’s clear that the man doesn’t have much to say anymore. He stops trying to speak all together when a black-clad figure appears at the side.

“Do you think you’re the first people to find us scary?” The preacher called Father Constantine says in a loud but calm voice. The man walks purposefully but calmly towards the crowd, even as the sword that now hangs at his waist dangles into view.

“We know how we look to outsiders, to civilians.” The preacher continues. “Even to our own fellow Imperial citizens, we terrify them. They know us by reputation; the reputation of our world, our sector and our deeds. And those that have seen us know that reputation is well-founded. We scare people. That is a fact.”

Wordlessly, the bearded man approaches the Stone family, moving to stand near the youngest of the group. Even though the man’s form, dressed in the long black and red cassock and a sword at his waist, can be scary to the wrong person, Carmen shows no fear, even when the man places a gentle hand onto her head.

“And yes. We don’t know a single one of you. The only person we know here is little Carmen. But that is the same on every world our people visit. We know none of the people we fight for, none of the names of the families we protect from vile aliens and monsters like your Grimm. But we do this nonetheless.”

He turns and looks at all the people gathered around him. Nella and Bear. Tanner. Everyone. He looks each of them in the eye as he lets his gaze move across the crowd.

“Only a small number of us ever find out the names of the people we protect. For many of my brothers and sisters, we die, never knowing a single soul we meet. They pass us by, like simple motes of dust. But we do this. We do this willingly, because it is our duty. Our pact, our pride. And some would say our curse. Yet we do this, because it is what the Emperor expects of us. We do this… because it is our lives.”

The words are simple, and they’re sincere. They say much by saying so little. The man removes his hand from Carmen’s head as he puts his hands into his voluminous sleeves.

“The evacuation is coming. That is a fact. And it is also a fact that all of you will leave this town alive. Because we Cadians will make sure that you will leave this town alive. And that is a fact.”

The mood in the air changes. The tension is almost removed, although it still remains. The words of the holy-man has mollified the people and the agree to return to a state of readiness for the evacuation. Tanner, for his part, looks ashamed of himself.

Nella, for her part, is curious.

“Sir.” She calls out to the man, as he prepares to walk away.

“Yes, my child.” Father Constantine replies, stepping towards her. As he comes closer, she sees it.

His eyes, the same violet colour as Tychos’ and Sophia’s eyes, are ablaze with light now. They show a sense of vitality and readiness that Nella didn’t think possible.

“I… I don’t mean to be disrespectful to you and yours, but I have to ask… why? Why do all of this, for us?”

A confused look passes across the preachers face, before it swiftly shifts to a friendly look.

“Because we’re Cadians, ma’am. It’s what we do.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Who else would do it?”


 

The Grimm are scaling the walls, climbing paw over paw, claws digging into the stonework. Even as lasbolts, burning promethium and grenades rain down on them. They are insatiable in their hunger for destruction, their drive for death pressing them further into the Imperial guns. Even as the Astartes bolters blast away limbs and foreheads with precision application of mass-reaction rounds, the horde advances.

“Plasma guns!” Fidor roars. Adding strength to his order, he leans over his portion of the parapet, plasma pistol aiming over the stonework into the face of a climbing Beowulf. The captain’s portion of the wall is briefly lit up with the intensity of a sun as he depresses the trigger.

A single ball of broiling plasma, blue-white in the air, splashes down into the beasts, atomizing any it hits directly. Those caught at the edge of the corona of energy are melted, their bodies reduced to ash and glass. The piling collapses into itself, beasts braying in denied fury and anger.

Along the wall, miniature suns flare into existence and are let loose onto the Grimm, Imperial plasma weaponry venting the ire of humanity on the beasts below. Grimm are either atomised quickly or turned to molten glass.

But numbers still continue to win out.

As the horde climbs, the construction of the wall becomes much less friendly. The row of spikes, cast-iron and driven deep into the stonework, point downwards at a fifty degree angle. The perfect angle for attacking Grimm to drive themselves onto the spikes.

Metal rends fur and flesh and bone, making dark ichor and black blood rain down onto the beasts below. The spacings of the spikes in the wall are clever in their brutality. Iron pierces through skull, shoulder, torso and back as the horde climbs, pushing the ‘unfortunate’ Grimm at the summit of the pile. So focused on their goal, the beasts below are blind to the roars and death cries of the Grimm above them all.

The horde kills itself in its desire to kill the humans before them.

But again, the numerical superiority of the Grimm wins out.

In places, the pressure of the beasts below forces the piles against the wall up, tearing the Grimm stuck at the top to be shredded to bloody ribbons. The first Beowolves to reach the top of the wall are dead already, their bodies oozing ichor and particles as they crest the ramparts. Some spasm weakly as brains send signals to move limbs that just can’t be moved.

The second Beowolf that makes it to the wall is neither dead or dying.

It is torn bloody from the spikes, its fur matted by its own blood and the blood of the beast that preceded it. It roars and growls as it hauls itself over the wall, ignoring the damage the spikes are doing to its own body as the metal tears away at it. Claws are cracked, and some are broken from the climb, and the armour plating on its head along with the spines protruding from its shoulders are scored and blackened from battle damage. Its yellow-in-red eyes burn balefully at the humans on the tops of the wall who have denied it a vent for its rage.

It is, in a single word that is universally singular in its application, pissed.

The first to feel its ire is Trooper Kalvin Mesters. He had been sixteen years old, 668th Whiteshield, when Cadia fell. As a Whiteshield, he and many of the others like him had been split up and sent to the numerous understrength regiments that needed their numbers shored up. In another circumstance and world, Kalvin would be considered a veteran trooper.

He cries out in anger as he swings up his lasgun, bayonet outstretched to skewer the beast in the neck. But he is too slow.

A paw large enough to engulf his entire head, with claws akin to Catachan knives in length, slams down into the troopers body. Claws smash more than cut through his flak armour, tearing the front of his body to khaki edged gore and ruin before the corpse is sent backwards to fall off the wall.

Kalvin is the first Cadian to die officially in the defence of Carterstown.

The Beowolf opens its mouth and lets loose an exulting bellow, the roar growing in its throat.

“Cadia Victor!” Commissar Anton cries out, his chainsword matching his battle cry as he revs the engine.

The chainsword rips through fur and flesh as the teeth bite and tear through the Beowolves throat, turning its roar of joy into a grizzly death rattle. The adamant-carbon alloy teeth shred the Grimm’s throat into bloody ruins.

But the beast does not die easily. It tries to swipe at its attacker, swinging a large paw at it, even as the act pushes its body further along the chainblade. It snarls and roars, even as the chainsword embedded in its neck and larynx tears it to bloody ribbons. Anton has to duck and dodge to avoid the killer claws, but he keeps his grip on his chainsword firm, his teeth clenched with determination. The beast has to die.

Three more bayonets stab up, right into the creature’s chest and neck. A trio of guardsmen have moved to support the commissar, lending their blades to end the thrashing and roaring beast before it runs roughshod on the wall.

The beast swings wildly, pain, anger and rage driving it past the point where basic biology should tell it that it’s now dead. It lunges forward with its head, jaws snapping loudly as it tries to bite. Its forearms flail in all directions, forcing the Cadians to duck and dodge this way and that way to avoid getting hit.

One soldier is just a fraction too slow. A claw swings right at her face, catching her at the point of the skull behind her eye. She can’t even let out a scream as the claw reduces her face to gore and blood. Noiselessly, the troop falls backwards off the wall to the floor below.

The Grimm lets out a roar. The pressure is off, and it now only has three opponents instead of four.

The beasts roar is replaced by a crueller roar. A mechanised roar of fyceline propelled anger splitting the air with a heavy crack, followed by a piercing roar of rocket propellant. Explosions, one after another follow a split second later, the beast’s torso erupts in fire, black blood and ichor.

Anton forces himself to look away, risking a glance to see what’s happening. And he commits the sight to memory.

Brother-Sergeant Thaddeus is running full-pelt along the top of the wall, his steel armour slick with dissipating Grimm ichor, his cloak still flowing behind him, even as he fires his bolter from the shoulder. His quick pace does nothing to impede his aim, each bolt hitting its target square on.

As he runs, Thaddeus has to rethink his theoretical on these beasts, even as he quickly shifts aim and promptly decapitates three more that are trying to clamber over the wall. These xenos-beasts were easier to put down before they got within bolter shot of the wall. Limb and head shots still work, but it takes more shots to the centre-mass to put down one, he notes grimly as the bolt in his weapon cycles out more empty shells to clatter on the stonework.

They seem to grow stronger as more of them gather together. A gestalt resilience… not comforting.

The Astartes veteran’s bolts have done their job, turning the Beowolf’s torso to ragged gore, the commissar’s chainsword still embedded in its throat. It staggers backwards, clearly in pain. But it still won’t die.

“Commissar!” Thaddeus calls out as he skids to a halt, covering the last few feet of the run before he comes to a stop in front of the beast.

Anton hears the command, and he instinctively knows what to do.

“Move!” He orders the two other Cadians, the troopers removing their bayonets with spurts of black blood. Anton revs the engine of his chainsword, churning the toothed-blade in the beasts throat to further reduce it to offal, before he yanks out the weapon hard, spraying blood and ichor in all directions.

The beast bellows a gurgling cry, its throat rendered to ruin, even as it still manages to stand albeit on shaky legs. It lowers its head, glaring at the being in front of it as Thaddeus squares up against the beast.

It happens in a blink. The Beowolf prepares to lunge forward, a claw swinging forward to skewer the Astartes. But Thaddeus is already directly in front of the Grimm, his foot directly against the beasts chest before, with a sickening crunch, the Astartes’ foot goes through the front of the Beowolves’ chest. The beast is suddenly kicked backwards, pitching over the wall, knocking down some of its fellows as it falls.

A scowl of contempt never left Thaddeus’ face.

“Grenades!” He calls out, unhooking an explosive from his belt as he gives the order. Quickly, a trio of grenades are thrown over the wall, tumbling through the air before they reach the cresting wave of Grimm. The detonations throw up razor sharp, white hot pieces of fragments and bits and pieces of Grimm.

Thaddeus turns to the commissar.

“Carry on along the line, commissar.” The veteran says, just sounding slightly out of breath. “Go where your presence is needed. I’ll remain here.”

Anton takes a brief second to process what he has been told before he nods, his face grim. He guns the engine of his chainsword to rid the blade of the gore that has quickly built up before he looks around. To no surprise, the scene on the wall has not distracted the other Cadians from their task. The rate of fire does not slow, the two surviving troopers from the skirmish moving back to their place on the line, the snap of their lasguns joining with the bark of the Astartes’ bolter.

A flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye draws Anton’s attention, and he removes his bolt pistol from his holster. Combat time takes over.

He sees the face of the Beowolf, black blood pouring over its white skull head, its eyes burning bright. He depresses the trigger of the pistol, sending a bolt flying from the muzzle with a roar of its own. The second-stage ignition kicks in after the munition leaves the weapon, blazing bright against the evening sky before it flies straight and true. Directly into the mouth of the Grimm that is trying to bite the arm off the flamer specialist turning to douse it in promethium.

The creature’s head erupts like an overripened fruit before it sags out of sight beneath the rampart, quickly followed by a torrent of flame.

Not holstering his weapon, Anton turns back and walks down the line.

“We hold them here!” He calls out loudly, punctuating his words with another blast from his bolt pistol at another Grimm. “We do the duty we are entrusted with; the protection of Humanity! This, we have been entrusted by the God-Emperor Himself and our ancestors! Do not let them be shamed this day! Not one step back! Let these beasts pay for every inch! And remember, above all else: as long as one Cadian draws breath, Cadia stands!”

Above the roar of the swarm, the crump of explosions, the constant droning snap of massed lasguns and the bark of lasguns, his call is echoed by every throat capable.

“Cadia stands!”

The call is challenged by the roar of the Grimm.


 

Las and bolt. Claw and blood.

The evening sky falling on Carterstown, turning the air pink even as black clouds rise up to meet it, sees it all.

The roar of the Grimm is matched by the roar of explosions, the massed snap of lasguns on full auto, their wielders foregoing accuracy for volume, the bark of bolters, and the various other noises of the exotic weaponry of the Imperial arsenal, accompanied by the roar of the Cadians as they refuse to permit the Grimm any advance they can gain on the wall.

The mindset of the Grimm is almost singular in its desire for the destruction of humanity. No thought of strategy enters their minds. No thought of simply out-flanking the humans on the wall. To them, their desire to destroy, to kill and rend, is so overwhelming that even the eldest and ‘wisest’ among them lose any rational thought. They simply wish to close on the humans as swiftly as possible.

Multiple times, the weight of numbers comes close to spilling over the wall. Lone Beowolves or sometimes small packs manage to survive to the tops of the battlements, where they set upon the Cadians. The Imperials fight back with as much ferocity as they can, and parts of the wall become slick with blood, black and red, as the Grimm set about trying their best to butcher the humans who stand before them. Limbs are shorn off, bodies laid open and smashed apart. But no ground is given.

With bayonet, chainblade and power sword, the Cadians hold and refuse the line. With battle-cries on their lips, they charge at the beasts. Unheeding of the danger they are in, they do this willingly. No threat can cajole them now, no promise of reward. No such thing holds sway over any living Cadian now. They become beings of anger, of wrath and righteous vengeance against the universe that denied them their home.

They fight for their lost home. They fight so no-one in Carterstown will lose theirs.

Bayonets thrust, chainblades hack and power swords slice. Each Grimm that reaches the tops of the wall is met by the fury of man encapsulated in one single body. And there are nearly two-hundred of them on the wall top.

Lending their fury to the fight, the Astartes neophytes earn their marks.

An armoured Beowulf, a beast as large as any greenskin ‘boy’, tries to make for Captain Fidor while he is directing plasma fire on a group of great Ursa beasts that are charging the gate. His attention away from the wall, the commander makes a tempting target for any predator. Discarding the body of the guardsmen it has crushed the life from, it charges, it’s intent on murder and slaughter.

It’s lack of attention makes it an easy target for any predator.

Lunging upwards from his position on the wall, his heavy bolter swinging upwards to slam against the beast’s lower jaw, Neophyte Ollarus puts all his strength into his gene-enhanced muscles as he can. Though he lacks the power afforded by the full remit of genetic manipulation and surgeries a full battle-brother would possess, Ollarus is still stronger than any normal man.

“We are the Last Wall!” He roars out as he beats the heavy bolter upwards into the Grimm’s maw, shattering bone and teeth, stunning the beast. In a second, before the creature recovers its wits, he depresses the trigger of the heavy weapon, blasting a quick burst upwards into the Beowolf’s skull, pulping it beyond recognition.

Unphased by his own deed, Ollarus quickly takes his place back on the firing line, lending his firepower to the defence.

Bolters bark, sniper rifles crack and Grimm die. They die by the dozen, by the score. But more replace them.

The first wave of reinforcements come.

Drawn by the negativity in the air, the sounds of battle and the scent of death, a minor horde of juvenile Death Stalkers emerge out of the woodland. Pincers snap, mandibles snicker and feet clatter as the horde of three dozen oversized scorpions, the height of a medium sized dog and the length of two combined, is almost insignificant in number compared to the Beowolves and Ursa already attacking the town. They are simply a single drop of black chitin and white exoskeleton in a sea of black and white.

But they’re fast. Fast and nimble enough that they can slip through the push and pell-mell of the attack on the human settlement, dodging and weaving through the press of bodies to reach their goal. They slip and weave through stamping legs and claws and latch onto the stone of the walls. Like quicksilver, they scale the stonework, their claws digging into the bricks.

Some are brought down by the actions of their fellow Grimm, Beowolves and Ursa smashing them aside like they have done their own kin on the attack, while others are wasted by plasma, grenades and scorching fire from above. But enough brave the death and clamber up the wall. More are taken by the spikes, yet enough remain.

Pincers pierce through flak armour into flesh and bone beneath, drawing quick cries of pain that are silenced just as quickly either by the pincers snapping shut on necks or their stingers, horribly nearly bright gold, stabbing into chests or even faces. They make no move to devour the dead. They just kill and move on, ignoring the bodies of the fallen.

They are alien in the mannerisms, just as they are alien in them as well. A paradox of nature and unnature.

And yet, to the Cadians, they are some of the most familiar beasts they have yet to see on this planet.

Shotgun barking, blasting pieces of armour plating and stone away in equal measure, Sergeant Mira can’t help but smile as she discharges shot after shot at the beasts. Pumping the slide of her Accatran pattern shotgun, she ejects another spent, bright red shell before she fires off another shot.

It’s like fighting the Tyranids! At least with the scorpion looking ones.

Her shot is a bit high, clipping the beast in the tail. The stinger, still dripping with blood from the chest of another Guardsmen, is sent flying into the swarm below, causing the beast to screech angrily in pain before it turns to face her. All ten eyes, blood red and blazing, lock onto her before it charges.

Another shotgun blast booms into existence, the sound much deeper than her own shotgun’s report, as the Grimm is blasted sideways against the parapet. Holes smoke in its thorax as it tries to right itself, but another blast sends it reeling, black ichor pouring through various holes in black chitin.

Striding purposefully through the battle, Neophyte Karis levels his shotgun at the beast as he steps closer to Sergeant Mira.

“These beasts are tough.” He growls out, before he turns and looks at the woman a full head and a half shorter than him, with tawny-coloured skin and bright purple eyes. “Two shotguns should be enough to end it.”

Mira says nothing as she nods and levels her weapon at the beast’s exposed body.

The reports of their shotguns are lost in the battle-din.


 

The second wave of reinforcements are inbound.

The first to notice them are the Grimm not engaged in the battle directly. Beowulf and Ursa halt their manic pace and lift their heads to the sky, turning this way and that way to try and discern the increasingly loudening roar they can hear. Ears twist and turn, trying to pinpoint the noise.

Some of the ones with keener noses can scent things on the air above the battle smell. The smell of heavily burning air and the scent of something close to gunpowder. But above all, all can feel it. Negativity; hatred and rage approaching at quick speeds.

The doppler-scream of Imperial Navy aircraft eclipses nearly all sound as the three heavy Thunderbolts rip over the treetops. Autocannons chatter away as the heavy rounds tear through Grimm, sending limbs, torsos and ichor to spray into the air. One of the aircraft dips lower as the pilot lines up with their target.

Two bombs drop from the aircraft, their ovoid forms falling and tumbling haphazardly, almost lazily, as they drop to the ground.

They impact on the ground, the noise a simple ‘boom’, which is followed a split-second later by a loud roaring whoosh as a wall of raging fire that expands outward with the forward momentum of the bomb. The flame chases the Thunderbolt as it flies off, eating up Beowolves and Ursa to fuel it’s fire as it tries to chase after the one that unleashed. Black smoke rises to the sky in a thick sheet, while below, Grimm bellow in rage and pain as the promethium burns through their skin and armour plating, devouring them.

Flailing pillars of flame run from the edges of the walls of destruction. Some are consumed quickly by the fire, dropping to the floor without any other movement, while other beasts thrash around in agony, trying to somehow beat out the flames engulfing them before they too are snuffed out by the raging promethium.

The trio of Thunderbolts peel off, their fury sated but for the moment as another trio of aircraft fly in behind them. Inverted gull-wings and a pair of powerful engines keep the pair of Avenger strike-fighters in the air, their noses pointed at the broiling horde, the attack of the mass interrupted by the arrival of strange and powerful aircraft.

Their pilots tilt slightly to the right to get their aircraft in the right position for an attack run. The pilots depressed the triggers of their guns, engaging the mechanisms to make the barrels spin and fire.

The whirring of the mechanisms is quickly eclipsed with the deep, bass howl of the guns firing.

BRRRRTT!

BRRRRTT!

Each gun fires for two seconds, but each gun spits out fifty rounds. Mass-reactive bolts in point-nine-nine-eight calibre slam into the horde. Ammunition designed to bust open any tanks below super-heavy class pulp, burst and generally disintegrate Grimm. Beasts explode in puffs of black ichor and blood as the Avengers carry on their pass, their guns firing again in tandem.

BRRRRRTT!

BRRRRRTT!

More Grimm are blasted into non-existence by the powerful guns of the Avengers.

The attack has stunned the Grimm not at the wall. They have been attacked so quickly and horribly, by an enemy they have no defence against. The aircraft are too high to reach with claw or even with anything they can throw, and they can feel the negativity from the machines, or the pilots, or possibly. The hatred and anger directed towards the horde on the ground. So the beasts attention is drawn away from the wall and the town, and to the sky instead.

And what they see enrages them further.

Six aircraft; one huge and ungainly, five sleek and powerful fly in from above the smoke, the waning sun lighting their flanks in hues of pink and orange, highlighting various symbols in steel and silver. Twin headed eagles, winged skulls, grinning razor teeth painted onto the noses of two of the smaller ones, while wicked, predatory eyes scan around.

Two of the smaller aircraft detach from the aerial flotilla, their engines pushing them fast as they skim towards the ground. Suddenly, the undersides of their wings are covered in smoke before, with whooshing roars, missiles fly out. Corkscrewing on contrails through the air, the missiles streak down to the ground before the wall.

They detonate on the ground with heavy claps of explosive compression, destroying Grimm wholesale in clouds of pulverised dirt, bodies and fire. Grimm that were trying to scale the wall are mulched by the concussive force, causing multiple swarms to pitch and fall to the ground.

The four remaining craft, a mighty Destrier and three smaller Valkyries, shift their path as they move towards the area of town now marked by three burning red flares. Passing over the wall, the Valkyrie crew chiefs give their own support, firing pintle-mounted heavy bolters into the swarm below.

Beneath them on the wall, the Cadians notice their passing, but they return their focus immediately back to the fight. Now is not the time for rejoicing. Even as the Thunderbolts and the Avengers make their own passes over the Grimm again, the Cadians and Astartes keep on firing.

Now is the most important part of the battle. The central key to victory or defeat. To lives being saved or uncounted being lost to the fury of the swarm.

The evacuation of Carterstown has begun.


 

Angling its four huge engines, the Destrier dips low before the wall of the town. Its bellowing engines throw up massive clouds of warm dust and dirt into the faces of the townspeople as they simultaneously try to get closer to it and also back away from the large flying machine. To the sides, the engines of two of the Valkyries reach a screaming pitch as their pilots set them down on the ground, throwing up their own clouds of dust. The other keeps a vigil over the parked craft, hovering above its fellows like a mother hawk.

The clouds quickly settle as the engines fall to a soft roar.

Father Constantine watches as the rear ramp of the Destrier opens up, casting harsh red lights out of the portal.

“Double-time it, men!” A voice calls out from the transport. “There’s work here needs doing!”

At the command, the sound of feet pound on metal fill the air as the soldiers in the back of the transport disembark. Although there’s only thirty-six of them in total, the sight of them fills Constantine’s heart with gladness.

They are Alpha Company, 1st of the 598, and while they only represent the small fraction of the unit, the sight of them still swells the preacher’s spirit.

Men and women come out carrying heavy weapons: mortar tubes and boxes of rounds, heavy bolters, missile launchers and autocannons. Even with their own personal weapons, lasguns slung on their backs and their own ammunition, they carry the larger weapons steadily but hurriedly out of the Destrier.

Directing the action is a lieutenant. Middle-age, she is a stern looking woman, her patrol cap sat squarely on her head as she directs her soldiers with barked orders and a pointing hand. Past her, Constantine sees the passengers of the two Valkyries disembark. Emerald green uniforms underneath flat steel carapace armour, their heads covered in helmets of the same colour with bright orange goggles. Naval armsmen of Segmentum Pacificus Fleet. Each one is armed with either a matt-black hellgun or a brutal over-under pump-action shotgun.

A man, clearly the officer of the detachment starts directing his men to spread out in a semi-circle around the landing zone, before he advances towards Father Constantine. A brutal looking shock-maul hangs on one side of his hip, while a bolt pistol hangs on the other side. The Cadian lieutenant moves to join as her Cadians move to stand by in formation beside her.

“Father Constantine.” The naval man says respectfully, nodding his head. “I am Chief Petty Officer Sanctus Karilian. First Lieutenant de Pikalov sends his regards. Me and my men are her to facilitate the evacuation of the… civilians, father.”

Constantine nods his head before he turns to look at the infantry officer, smiling as he does so.

“Lieutenant Karoline. It is good to see you again.”

Galdina Karoline was considered one of the beauties of the regiment. A wide, olive-skinned face, with almond shaped eyes, small nose and naturally pouty lips. The Fall broke her beauty. A large mass of scar tissue on her left side has wrecked her left ear and eye, forcing her to wear an eyepatch.

She still smiles though. The horrors didn’t take that away from her.

“Alpha Company stands ready, father. Just say us where you need us.”

“Good.” Constantine says with a nod. “Captain Fidor needs your mortars firing as quickly as possible. He also wants your weapons teams deployed on the walls; missile launchers and autocannons at the flanks on the towers, heavy bolters on the wall.”

“On it!” Lieutenant Galdina calls out happily, before she begins giving out the orders.

At the wall, the cacophonous explosions of aircraft-borne munitions reaches a pitch again as the aircraft of the Imperial Navy swoop in for another attack run.

“Chief Petty Officer, tell your craft to begin the evacuation of the civilians of the town.” Constantine tells the Navy officer before he raises his eyes to the hovering Valkyrie. “And tell that pilot that he needs to be ready to take on passengers. Tell him to land!”

The officer raises a hand to the vox-unit replacing his right ear, relaying the orders to the pilot, even as some of the armsmen move towards the gathering of people. A shift of engine tone is the reply as the Valkyrie moves to hover almost directly over the heads of the preacher and Navy personnel.

“What in Dorn’s name is he doing?” One of the armsmen calls out as the downward blasts from the aircrafts engines force the people below to cover their face from the heated dust.

Looking up as best he can against the wind, Constantine sees the rear loading ramp open downwards, a dark square of metal backlit by red light against the waning sun. Seconds later, thick lengths of rope are cast over the side to drop to the ground in static lines.

The preacher’s eyes open wide at the figure he sees move to the end of the ramp and rappels down the line.

“Kasrkin…” He says in amazement at the figure that hits the ground firmly.

The figure is armed head to toe in thick carapace armour, brutal, blocky lines that deflect las- and solid-rounds. Although their armour bears the same marks and designs as the regular Cadian flak armour, even the standardized woodland camouflage, the figure is more deadly than any trooper of the Gate. The soldier’s face is covered by respirator at the mouth and nose, and reflective lenses cover their eyes, but Constantine can tell the critical eye that is being cast around the area, accompanied by the practice sweep of the matt black hellgun held in the thick gloves of the soldier.

They are a Kasrkin, and eleven more like him drop down to the ground around him. They carry hellguns, grenade launchers, flamers, melta and plasma guns. They are armed to the teeth with the most potent weaponry that the Imperium can give them.

“Father Constantine.” The commanding officer, a thick bull of a man, with square, tanned face, steel lower jaw, all underneath a pair of fiercely burning violet eyes and a green beret, a silver Cadian Gate under an Aquila, steps forward to the preacher. “A blessing before battle, if you please.”

Clearing his throat, Constantine as he looks over the Kasrkin assembled before him. Looking at their war-gear, their weaponry and their uniforms, he mentally rehearses his benediction chosen for this moment. Clear over the roar of battle outside and the roar of the aircraft engines within, he speaks.

“In the name of the Great Angel, beloved by all, grant your holy servants the holy light of your protection as they prepare to fight the enemies of your father this night.”

Immediately, the Kasrkin give their reply. “Emperor and saints, hear our prayer.”

It is an answer that they give at each pause in the preacher’s benediction.

“In the name of the Lion and the Khan, grant your warriors the strength to defeat the foes of your father at the gates before us this night.

“In the name of the Praetorian and the Promethean, give our souls the strength to stand firm in the face of the horror of the enemy this night.

“In the name of the Great Wolf and The Gorgon, grant your warriors the strength in their wargear to see this night carried through till dawn.

“In the name of the Avenging Son and The Deliverer, grant your warriors their insight into battle! Let your spirits guide them through this night and through until the hallowed dawn.

“In the name of the God-Emperor, let this night pass with the destruction of the enemy, and with the victory over His enemies come the dawn.

“In His holy name, we pray!”

Constantine turns and points his hand in the direction of the gate into the town. An area wreathed with black smoke, flames and plasma fire.

“Go forth! And remember; you fear no darkness! You are the light which stands against the darkness! You are children of Cadia! This is your duty!”

The Kasrkin officer draws his blade, a single-edged power sword, bright steel blade and golden basket-hilt, as he orders his men forward. Quickly, the break into a jog, a pace that is quicker than any man could attain. They move without a sound save for their equipment, even as the newly placed mortar teams begin to add their fire to the battle, the hollow thwomp of their mortar tubes launching rounds high into the air.

Seeing the Kasrkin on their way to fight left a sour taste on Constantine’s mouth as he turns back to join the evacuees. Though he was a member of Ecclesiarchy mission on Cadia, his birth-right was to be in their place, right on the front-line. He has done that many times before, he knows that and does not delude himself of that fact.

But faith calls to him. The men and women who face the fury of the Grimm have their faith in their very hands, clutched tight against their heart in the midst of the fury of battle. Their faith is in the God-Emperor, his beloved sons, the Primarchs, and their comrades. It is in their wargear, their weaponry and the vehicles that are assisting them this night.

Faith calls to Father Constantine this night. It is the faith of the unknown, the unknown of the faith. These poor souls know fear, but in their hearts they do not know faith. He has heard, and he has seen; there is no font of worship in this town, nor was there in Marysville, though some houses kept small shrines to what deities are worshiped on this world. Some worship ‘The Brothers’, pagan deities if he has ever heard of them, but ultimately not heretical.

They do not believe because they simply have not heard the word.

But how to approach this? That is the key. How to turn fear into faith and having it not spill over into horror? Especially at this critical juncture.

He looks at the evacuation. The first group is being brought onto the Destrier. It’s not many; fifty souls in all, made up of children, the elderly and the infirm, those who would suffer the most in an evacuation.

But it is not a silent evacuation. Mothers and children weep at the separation from each other, while some older people cry at their perceived indignity of it all. There is, above all, an absence of prayer, and it disturbs Constantine.

At all times in the Imperium, there is the undercurrent of prayer in all day and life on any noise that exists in the universe: transports engines idling, the sound of a hive city in motion, a bust Mechanicus shipyard, a battlefield. Prayers to the Saints, to the Primarchs, to the God-Emperor Himself are all being given in praise by all voices, automated and natural at almost all times in the Imperium.

It is as alien to him as any xenos form he has met.

But like any xenos, it can be conquered.

But how?

“How are you so calm?”

The question sounds like an accusation, but Constantine steels himself against the question as he turns to face the speaker. They’re a father of two children, a teenage boy and girl, twins by the similarities in face and hair, and all three of them are looking at the preacher with wide-eyed shock and fear.

“How are you not scared by what’s going on?”

Ah. Ask, and the God-Emperor provides.

“I am scared.” The preacher admits, as he carefully takes a step towards the family. “Deep down within my soul, a part of me is scared. For myself, and my fellow Cadians, and for all of you. But there is something else there. Something beating back the fear.”

The girl looks at him. “W-what is it?”

Constantine smiles. “Faith. Faith in my brothers and sisters, who will stand against the darkness. Faith in the crews of the Imperial Navy, who will get your fellow townspeople out of this night to safety. And above all, faith in the God-Emperor. For he is the light, the way, the truth. Through Him, all things are possible. Even the defeat of these Grimm. And with the God-Emperor, victory is assured.”

The family calm down, the preacher’s easy rhetoric cooling the fire of their fear. Around them, several other people have moved closer to listen to Father Constantine. His words have sparked something in them that neither he nor they can place.

“C-can you tell us?” The father asks. “More about your… your God-Emperor.”

Constantine smiles warmly.

“Certainly. But he is not my God-Emperor. He is the God-Emperor of all. He is Him on Earth; the Master of Mankind and the Father of the Imperium, the Lord of the Golden Throne. He grows neither tired nor weary, and His thoughts, none can understand. He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall, and they will stumble and fall.”

The roar of ascending engines almost drowns out his words as the first Valkyrie full of evacuees lifts off into the night sky, but Father Constantine does not waver in his impromptu sermon.

“But those who keep faith with the God-Emperor shall have their strength renewed. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.

“This is my faith. Faith in the being, who gave His life for humanity to live in a harsh galaxy. And faith in the Emperor who commands us, His servants, to protect humanity.”


Muttering the prayer of reloading as fast but as clearly as he can, Tychos ejects a spent power cell before he slaps home another cell. As soon as the ‘ready’ button lights up, the stock of the lasgun is against his shoulder and he’s firing into the mass of Grimm before the wall.

“Starting to run low on ammo!” He calls out. “Fly boys could have gotten here earlier!”

None of his squadmates give a proper reply, but Tychos is sure that he can see a few lips curl up in a smile, even as these men and women fight for their lives. Not that he really expected an actual reply.

He’s been lucky to even get a word in edgewise during the fight. With the arrival of the Imperial Navy, the pitch of the battle kicked upwards. The roar of the engines as they skimmed several hundred metres above the ground, autocannons chattering away, while the Vultures swoop side to side almost directly in front of the wall, their noses aimed down to direct accurate heavy bolter and missile fire into the swarm beneath. The Avengers tear up great chunks of earth and beasts with their heavy cannons before they drop promethium bombs on the swarm.

The cacophony is dreadful; the snap of lasguns, the roar of engines passing overhead, the crump of small scale explosions, and the myriad beastly noises of the Grimm horde.

It’s a horrifying mix of noise. But nothing he hasn’t heard before.

Tychos fires his lasgun steadily. Even with the low recoil of the weapon, Tychos does not switch to full-automatic like his compatriots have. He didn’t earn his marksman lanyard by doing so. Through the small but powerful scope attached to the top rail of his M36 Kantreal pattern lasgun, he picks his target with care. Heads, throats, armpits. Anything to maim the enemy or kill them outright, those are his targets.

He leans his body as far over the wall as he can, allowing himself to see the broiling madness of snapping maws, thrashing limbs and flailing claws that ebb and flow like a tide against the stonework. Baleful red eyes stare up at Tychos from white bone armour, and he can feel it.

The inhuman hatred. The desire to destroy all that stands in front of them. To rend, and tear, and gore, and gut, and…

Tychos gives a cry of alarm as he pushes himself backwards, his lasrifle swinging up just out of reach of a stout snout that quickly clamped shut on the space he formally filled. For a second, Tychos is certain he sees teeth crack and shatter before the maw slips below the stonework.

Letting out a growl of his own, the Cadian swings his lasrifle back over the wall and depresses the trigger. A red hot beam of energy stabs downwards into the mass below. He’s certain he’s scored a kill, but the swarm swallows the slain beast before he can identify if it was a sure kill. He knows it has to be a sure kill though.

“Keep up the fire, men!” Lieutenant Deckard calls out, her sword arm red with blood  but her sword still clutched tight. “The first transport is away!”

As if to give truth to her words, the roar of Valkyrie engines boosting upwards accompanies her declaration, the craft’s engines burning blue and white against the night sky before it bangs off into the now dark sky.

Tychos doesn’t watch the craft fly off though, focusing his attention solely on the fight. He fires his lasgun again and again, smoothly, methodically. He was trained slowly to fire his lasgun, trained to fire it smoothly. That means that now, he can fire it quickly. Each depression of the trigger fires of a shaft of red-hot light, each shaft accompanied by a snap as it lances into the horde below.

There is a shift in the pitch in battle. Years on the battlefield have tuned Tychos’ sense, not to the same level as the hallowed Astartes can attain, but it’s enough to have kept him alive through the years.

The mortar shell drops right in the middle of the portion of the horde in front of Tychos’ portion of the wall, the scream of its descent cutting out a fraction before it hits the ground. The impact is nowhere near as devastating as an Earthshaker round, but the detonation sends Grimm flying in pieces. Limbs, entrails and other pieces go spiralling through the air on the tops of a mushroom of earth.

More rounds drop over the tops of the wall, screaming loudly as they fall to the earth. Each explosion kills scores of Grimm.

The sight stirs the hearts of the Cadians. Some of them whoop and cheer out in joy, even as they go about pouring more fire onto the horde below.

“Watch your backs!” A voice calls out. “Friendlies coming up on you six o’clock.”

The sound of heavy, jogging feet makes Tychos move from the wall to look behind him at the new arrivals and turn to face. The sound of heavy carapace armour is distinctive, the sound known to every son and daughter of Cadia.

“Kasrkin.” He breathes out in awe at the figures he sees coming across the top of the wall.

They move into position with a word, twelve of them in all, taking places seemingly of their own choosing before they leap up onto the tops of the parapets and begin firing. Hellguns roar sharply, their lethal beams of energy cutting limbs and heads to pieces, flamers let loose torrents of burning promethium, while melta and plasma guns spit out energy that turns Grimm to cinders and glass on contact.

Their arrival does more than help stem the tide though.

The Kasrkin are the elite of Cadia. Before The Fall, the arrival of even a squad of them like now, did more to harden the resolve of any Cadian regiment in battle. They are at their best in times of great stress, never wavering, never folding. Each battalion raised was for a kasr, and like the kasrs themselves, they are bastions of Cadian resolve and strength in times of fire.

They are fury girded in carapace armour and steel, and that fury flows across the wall now. Cadians stand taller, even those that were proudly standing before. Their aim is surer and their anger more directed. Even the roaring bark of heavy bolter and autocannon fire seems to grow in strength, a roar that mingles with each fired shot and each beast brought low.

Now, the top of the wall is alight in fire. Bright lasbeams stab out, tracer rounds from autocannons skip over the heads of the Grimm, mortars, bolter shells and missiles strike out at the horde in explosions of light, sound and smoke. Flames, balls of plasma energy and melta beams splash into the horde.

The bangs of power as the last two Valkyries pitch up and away, accompanied by the Destrier go unnoticed. But as they fly over the clearing and then the forest, the crew that fire out of the side notice that the ground still swells with the forms of Grimm.

And some of them are getting bigger.


 

Letting loose a furious bellow, Yatsuhashi Daichi swings his greatsword in a wide arc. The wide, curved blade, nearly as long as Yatsuhashi is tall and curved to an almost wicked hook at the reverse of the tip, sings coldly as it cuts through the evening air before it hits the Beowolves trying to attack the huntsman-in-training. The noise the blade makes as it digs into and then through the bodies of the Grimm is one that Yatsuhashi has no taste for. It’s a horrible, sickening, cracking sound as Fulcrum both cuts and smashes through fur, armour and bone alike.

It’s almost as bad as the Grimm he kills.

Three creatures fall to his blade, the bodies falling to the floor in disparate heaps of limbs and bodies. But more are attacking, so Yatsuhashi doesn’t allow himself to let up.

But he’s tiring, even as he charges into the fray once again, holding his weapon in a double-handed grip above his right shoulder. His Aura lets him keep working past the limitations of any regular human, and even with his muscular body, he’s still a force to be reckoned with without it. But Team CFVY has been almost constantly fighting and moving for nearly a full twelve hours now.

Leaping up, Yatsuhashi lets gravity pull him back down sharply, seconds before he swings his sword down to the ground, right onto a small pack of Beowolves below him. The impact is tremendous, his Aura and naturally prodigious strength cratering the ground, while the Beowolf directly below his blade is bifurcated cleanly. The two to the sides are blasted off their feet, rocks and dirt peppering their skin, sending them reeling. He doesn’t let them. Fulcrum swings out, side to side, and the beasts are beheaded cleanly.

Yatsu,” Fox says into his head, his voice coming in as if he was directly behind the giant of a student even though he was over a hundred-metres away at the CCT relay tower with the rest of the team. “How you holding up? Need to switch off?

Casting a critical eye around the immediate area, he can still see the forms of Grimm slinking and running at the boundary of the clearing around the support tower, but none of them are making a move towards it and the Team.

“No, I’m good.” He calls out instead. “It looks clear right now, so I’m heading back.”

Not taking his eyes off his surroundings, Yatsuhashi begins to move back to the support tower. The sky is now a deep shade of blue with the barest hints of a pink sunset in the west, but in the east, the sky is bright with the colour of flames, and it’s alive with the sounds of a pitched battle.

It’s been going on for the last three hours now, and Yatsuhashi nor anyone else in the team has any idea what’s going on.

The distinctive sound of fast-moving aircraft, faster than anything that they know of Vale possessing, has been snapping back and forth through the air, above their heads almost. The engines aren’t the same as any other engine that Yatsuhashi has heard however, either in Vale or in his native Mistral. The engines are brutal, aggressive loud roars of power, almost equal to an Ursa Major. But… somehow more angry.

Turning his head slightly, Yatsuhashi watches the Grimm as they move through the forest. Beowolves and Ursas of all sizes, stampede past them, throngs and hordes of them barrelling through the undergrowth. Even in the relay tower, he can hear the snarls and roars of the Beasts of Grimm as they charge to the fight in the distance. Sometimes, a solo Grimm or a small pack will stop, looking intently at the relay tower and huntsmen-in-training within. They will snarl, and roar and stomp at Team CFVY. Sometimes, they’ll charge at the group, forcing them to fight. But largely, the beasts will turn aside, their attention returned to the distant fight and leave them alone.

‘That must be a hell of a lot negativity’. Yatsuhashi muses to himself as he stops outside the door to the relay tower.

Coco is standing outside, Gianduja set and ready in its minigun form. She’s running a cloth over a section of the barrels, picking out dirt and built up Dust particles out of the mechanism. Even in the middle of the chaos of a simple search and clear mission gone foul-up, the team leader still oozes confidence.

“Good hustle, Yatsu.” She says happily, looking up at the taller teen. Her aviator glasses, which were definitely becoming next to useless as the light fell, were resting almost on the tip of her nose, letting the young woman peer at Yatsuhashi with her dark brown eyes. “Although it seems like we’ve been getting the small fry now.”

The giant teen gives a noncommittal grunt. Doing nothing but fighting and running all day, it saps the strength out of even the best of them, and Yatsuhashi is no exception.

“Fox, how’s it looking up there?” Coco calls out to their teammate currently crouching on top of the lower segment of the relay tower like a gargoyle, setting her minigun back into its purse form.

Yatsuhashi still can’t help but smile slightly at Coco’s choice of words when talking to the only member of the team that, technically, can’t see.

There’s still a shit tonne of Grimm out there.” Fox sends to the pair, as he looks out into the woods around the  tower. “Man… if you guys could see what I’m seeing.

Without a word, Fox drops from his perch on the tower and lands beside the pair, the only disturbance from his movement a little pall of dust at this feet.

“Bad?” Coco asks.

Fox nods.

Turning, Coco opens the heavy door to the support tower and steps inside, Fox and Yatsuhashi following.

“Velvet? How are you coming along in there?”

While the CCT relay mechanism of the tower itself is tall, probably around seventy-five metres in height, the area that bottom is a squat circle, roughly five metres in height and ten metres in diameter. Space is taken up by walls of stone and steel that are two metres in thickness, while the inside is taken up by various monitoring devices and other devices needed to keep the CCT up and running.

Normally, there’d be a crew of three technicians inside, keeping the devices working and checking for anything strange, but they had fled by the time that CFVY arrived. At least, Yatsuhashi hopes that they’d fled. So the sole occupant of the building now is Velvet.

The rabbit Faunus is sitting at a control panel, her scroll put into a slot in the device. The display of an oscillating frequency is shown on the screens of the scroll and the machinery, although there’s nothing but static coming from either. Paying attention to her work, Velvet has a large pair of headphones pressed against one of her human ears as she fiddles with the dials of the machines.

“Still working it out…” Velvet says in a distracted manner, her eyes flitting between the machine in front of her that is almost as tall as Yatsuhashi and the scroll connected to it.

Out of the four of them, Yatsuhashi has no qualms admitting that Velvet is the best suited for this task. Ever since he’s known her, Velvet has displayed a keen knack for anything technological. In classes, if there’s anything to do with scrollwork of any sort, she’s always the one in the team who can figure it out quickly. Plus, her semblance of a photographic memory, which works more with her combat style, still allows her to quickly remember passages read from books and such, so finding a manual on how to find radio frequencies has helped her greatly.

Plus, she’s the one who had found it. The weird radio signal.

“Any luck?” Yatsuhashi asks as he moves to stand next to Velvet, his eyes fixed on the display in front of them.

Velvet fiddles with a dial again before she speaks.

“It’s… it’s annoying. The radio wave is definitely one that the relay can pick up, but it’s either too low on the frequency, or it’s not powerful enough to fully connect.”

Got some more Grimm coming in.” Fox sends to all of them. “I’ll take care of them.

Without another word, the other three members of Team CFVY hear their friend running to the fight, leaving Coco and Yatsuhashi to stand beside Velvet.

“If it was any other place and time,” Coco began. “I would say you were imagining it. But…”

The team leader lets the sentence hang in the air, and Yatsuhashi knows what she’s referring to.

They had been trying to call in an evacuation, just before the Grimm horde had barrelled their way through the forest; Coco, Fox and Yatsuhashi covering Velvet as she tried to contact Beacon. It ended up not working though, since a relay tower must have been knocked down the line. Emergency channels were in place for this sort of situation, ones that are strong enough to bypass local, minor relay towers and go straight to major cities. Although fighting against a horde of Beowolves and Ursa makes it a bit of a challenge to find the correct channel.

Velvet had been using her scroll to find the right channel for Beacon when she had stumbled on the message.

It was fragmented, scratchy and almost indecipherable but it came through clear.

“…Evacuation… Carterstown… squadron heading… Emperor be with you.”

Soon after that, the loudest amount of gunfire that anyone on Team CFVY has ever heard started up, a good few miles to the east. Even as the sun dipped below the horizon to the west, the sky still lit up in the east. Angry, red with fire.

And then the aircraft came, fast and low. Engines roaring, guns chattering a deep bass note. Yatsuhashi could tell that they were firing at Grimm. The sound of a horde of beasts is unmistakeable, and the Huntsman-in-training can tell that whoever’s doing the shooting is punishing the horde hard.

But more beasts have been coming, and it doesn’t look like they will stop any time soon.

Velvet lets out a frustrated sigh, taking the headset off and letting it dangle in her hand.

“It’s not a ghost signal, I know it’s not.” She says out loud, more to herself than anyone in the room.

“Hey, we all know it wasn’t a ghost.” Yatsuhashi says reassuringly, putting a hand onto Velvet’s shoulder. “We believe you. Plus; how could we have missed those aircraft overhead? They have to have responded to the signal.”

“Exactly.” Coco says in return. “So, the signal has to exist. And if it exists, you can find it.”

The sound of footsteps on stone announces Fox’s arrival.

Done. We’re definitely getting the small-fry here. Whatever’s going on outside is attracting the big ones.” He says casually, flicking Grimm gore off his tonfa blades. “Any luck on the signal?

“I’ll give it one more shot.” Velvet says firmly, putting the headset back to her ears before she begins fiddling with the dials again.

While she does, Yatsuhashi motions with his head slightly to Coco to pull her to one side. Not saying a word, she follows the taller teen to a side of the room. The area is a little bit more cramped, a desk that comes up to Yatsuhashi’s thigh and a row of shelves taking up space.

Without aplomb, Coco boosts herself to sit on the desk.

“What’s on your mind, Yatsu?” She asks flatly, taking off her sunglasses to look at her teammate directly in the eye.

“Coco… if this doesn’t work…”

“It will.” Coco interrupts. “Velvet can do this.”

“No, I know she can.” Yatsuhashi says, putting his hands up defensively. He’s one of the last people to knock Velvet’s skills. “But… just on the off chance… what if?”

Coco is silent as she looks down. It’s a sore spot for any huntsman-in-training; the ‘what if’. Being a Huntsman has its ups and downs, that’s a fact. The ups are right up there; sponsorships from companies, fame in the kingdom, money, glory. But the downs? Those are often six-feet under. And those aren’t rare.

Professor Goodwitch and Port, in his own rambling way, never shied away from describing the horrors that professional and semi-professional Huntsmen face in the wilds. The luckiest ones had a teammate who lost a limb. It was lucky to lose a single teammate. But it wasn’t unheard of for whole teams to be listed as Missing or Killed In Action.

In their first year, CFVY had to attend two funerals for classmates. The families… Yatsuhashi wished he could get rid of those memories.

Coco lets out a sigh. “If it comes to it… then there’s not much we can do about it.” Her tone as she speaks is low and morose, giving voice to the question she never wanted to answer. “But… I know that we’ll do what we do best. We’ll protect each other.”

Yatsuhashi, the Giant of Beacon, smiles warmly at Coco’s words as he nods his head. The question still unsettles him though.

“Hey!” Fox calls out, actually calls out with his own voice, showing his surprise. “I think we got contact!”

In an instant, Coco and Yatsuhashi are next to the machine Velvet is now leaning over intently, both headsets covering her ears as she delicately fiddles with a dial. The oscillating frequency the machine’s display, mirrored on her scroll, moves finely, each adjustment creating static.

“Did you find it?” Coco asks expectantly.

“I think I got it.” Velvet replies, her attention focused on the dials and displays in front of her. “Just got to.. find the right…”

“Ogre 3, good tone! Missile away!” A rough voice, the accent not like anything any of them have heard, suddenly calls out from the scroll, a man’s voice masked by something heavy. “Target hit. Good effect on target.”

Team CFVY just blinks in surprise at the voice they just heard.

“That’s… not the voice we heard before.” Fox says, again showing his surprise.

Again, Velvet fiddles with the dials, shifting the frequency in different directions. Each one brings up a new voice unheard of to them. And a new scene that unfolds with each second.

“They’re pushing on the right flank! Direct mortar fire to the right! Drop them in close!”

“We need resupply! Third platoon is nearly out of ammo!”

“Bravo Platoon. Hold tight. Second wave of transports in-bound. Just hang on.”

Velvet moves the headset off her head to sit on her neck before she turns to look at Coco.

“They sound like they’re getting slaughtered over there.”

Coco nods her head slowly, taking in the information she’s just heard.

So what do we do?” Fox asks, quickly getting over his surprise.

“Well we’ve got to help them.” Yatsuhashi says simply with a shrug. “That’s our job.”

Yatsu, we’ve been out in the field for over half a day now.” Fox counters. “We’re all tired, we’re low on energy, and I’m nearly out of Dust, and I know that Coco and Velvet are the same. What good will we be in a fight?

“Huntsmen don’t run from a fight.” The Mistralian native says, squaring his chest with pride at the name. “We defend those who can’t defend themselves. That is our oath.”

“That…” Fox says, pointing his hand in the direction of the gunfire. “Does not sound like people who need help defending themselves.”

“But they do need help.” Velvet responds, fixing her eyes on Fox. She turns to look at Coco. “Those people need help.”

Coco is silent for a second before she pinches the bridge of her nose with a grimace.

“All right, all right. I don’t want to be guilt-tripped by your or Yatsu. But… damn it if Fox isn’t right. I’m running low on fire Dust, and if we get into another stand-up fight, I’m sure as hell going to need it. Velvet, you’ve used some of your best photos… but I know you’ve got lots of photos of Fox and Yatsuhashi, so we’re good on that.”

Coco turns to look at Yatsuhashi and Fox with a solid stare.

“No jokes on this: how good are you guys to keep on going? This might turn into an all-nighter.”

Yatsuhashi relaxes slightly, letting his muscles loosen as he works out his shoulders.

“I’ve been better… but I’m still good to go. My grandfather trained me well.”

Fox nods his head before he flexes his wrists, setting Sharpe Retribution to flick forward and backwards menacingly.

I can keep going.

Coco nods her head at the words from her teammates and friends. They’ve got their quirks, their foibles and their problems. They can argue and make fun of each other… but she knows that she can rely on them when the chips are down.

“Okay,” She says finally. “This is going to be a tough one. So we all have to commit to this. Are we going to help these people out?”

For a second, the room is silent, the only noise the distant bedlam filtering in.

In succession they speak.

“Aye.” Velvet says, standing up from her seat.

“Yes.” Yatsuhashi nods.

“Let’s do it.” Fox states.

Coco nods. “Then let’s get to it then. Velvet, can you contact these guys? Let them know we’re coming?”

“Let me try something.” The rabbit Faunus replies, bending forward to fiddle again with a dial. Before long, another set of voices come through.

“Rapier Two-Two, keep it tight on the left flank. Give Warhorse Six-Three enough room.”

“Copy that Rapier Two-One.”

“Sounds like pilots if I had to guess.” Yatsuhashi says as he looks at Coco. “Probably the best people to talk to.”

Coco nods her head in agreement before she steps towards the scroll and the machine holding it. Clearing her throat, she glances at Velvet almost for support before she presses the transmit button on the machine before she says one of the phrases taught by Professor Greene.

“Attention; to any aircraft in Valean airspace in the vicinity of Carterstown. This is huntsmen team, Team CFVY, out of Beacon Academy. Can anyone hear me? Please respond. Over.”

Static fills the air.

“Who the hell is that?!” The second voice says incredulously. “This is a secure channel!”

“Rapier Two-Two, stow it.” The first voice says sternly, obviously the more professional of the pair. “Caller, identify yourself. Your signal is unknown. Please identify. Over.”

The team can’t help but smile at the request. Again, Coco takes the lead.

“This is Huntress Coco Adel, second year student out of Beacon Academy of the Kingdom of Vale. We’ve heard the radio chatter from Carterstown and we’re willing to provide support. How copy? Over.”

Whoever Coco is talking to is obviously military, Yatsuhashi realizes. The tone of the man’s voice and the style of speaking spoke of a high level of training. But the accent… that was definitely not something he could place.

The first speaker, the man identified as Oscar Two-One if Yatsuhashi has to guess, speaks up again.

“Huntress Coco Adel, I’m patching you through my superior. Repeat your message to him. Over and out.”

Rude.” Fox sent.

Brief seconds pass before another voice comes through. This one is more aristocratic, if Yatsuhashi had to put a word to it. Clipped but almost sing-song.

“This is First Lieutenant de Pikalov, of His Emperor’s Navy and Officer of the Fleet of the 598th Cadian Regiment of Foot. Am I speaking to… ‘Huntress Coco Adel’?  believe that you wish to provide assistance. Over.”

Not a question. A statement.

“That… that’s correct, sir.” Coco replies, her face betraying her confusion at the proceedings while her voice is level. “We’re near the town but we can’t get there by foot… Over?”

“Ah,” The man named de Pikalov replies. “So you require an airlift. Tell me… how can I be assured that you wish to aid the men and women defending that town? Over.”

To his side, Yatsuhashi sees that Velvet is about to say something, something that is likely not to help them, so he quickly steps in and speaks up.

“Sir, my name is Yatsuhashi Daichi. I’m a team-mate of Coco’s.” He says simply. “And while she can talk for herself, I’ll speak my mind; we want to help because we’re Huntsmen. Our task is to defend the kingdoms of humanity and the people within them from the Grimm without. We want to help because for the last few hours, we’ve been hearing the fighting going on at the town. And we’ve not been able to do anything to assist!”

No reply comes from the other end of the transmission. Fox swats his taller teammates’ arm hard.

Good going, genius. He probably thinks we’re idiots.

De Pikalov’s voice comes back again, sounding more focused, somehow, as he speaks.

“You’d willingly charge into the jaws of death, into the very mouth of hell, for people you don’t know about nor have ever met? Risk your lives for complete strangers?”

Yatsuhashi turns to look at each of his teammates, Coco doing the same before she turns back to address the scroll.

“Yes we would.”

“… Excellent!” The man on the other end says loudly and happily, the sound of fingers snapping clearly heard. “I’m relaying one of the transports to your position. Hold tight until they arrive, and prepare yourselves. Good luck to you all. May the Emperor watch over you.”

The signal cuts out quickly, leaving the quartet in silence again.

“… did he says ‘Emperor’?” Velvet asks in confusion. “… but we’ve not had an emperor on Remnant for nearly a century.”

Obviously they didn’t get the memo.” Fox sends.

The voice of Rapier Two-One fills the air again. “Huntress Coco Adel, this is Rapier Two-One. We approaching from the north-west. ETA, ninety-seconds. Suggest you get your gear together. This is gonna be a quick pick up. How copy? Over.”

“Team CFVY copies all.” Coco replies, a smile on her face. “See you shortly. Over and out.”

The signal disappears from the scroll, and Velvet unclips it from the machine, removing the headphones as she does so.

“All right, team.” Coco says cheerily. “Let’s tear this place apart. Try and find anything that we can use. There has to be Dust in here somewhere. We’ve got less than a minute to find it.”

“Let’s hop too it.” Yatsuhashi says quickly and simply.

Velvet lands a solid punch against his bicep.

“Ow!” The giant replies, before he realises what he just said. “Oh… well, it’s a common expression.”

Velvet rolls her eyes. “Come on. Let’s get to it.”


 

It has taken Team CFVY less than twenty seconds to ransack the support tower for any Dust. Time was saved when Yatsuhashi broke open a weapons locker on his first guess, revealing a store of Fire, Lightning and Ice dust for both Coco and Fox. Of Velvet’s coveted Hard Light Dust, there was no sign, meaning she’d have to ration out her weapons carefully in the coming fight.

Prepared for the fight ahead, the team exits the relay tower. Night has now fully fallen, smothering the forest in darkness and shadows. Close up, some of the shadows slither and creep out of the corners, the red lights of eyes signalling the passage of the Creatures of Grimm. At the edge of their hearing, they can hear that the sounds of battle have not diminished.

As they move into the clearing around the tower, a lone Beowolf roars loudly, sensing their presence. It is a chilling roar, a primal sound that chills the blood and makes bone tremble. Velvet hears the sound and she wonders on a question that Doctor Oobleck once asked to his second year class.

What would ancient man or Faunus have thought when they first hear the roar of a Beowolf or Ursa? The screech of a Nevermore or Griffon, as they huddled in caves or primitive dwellings for protection? The dark night surrounding them, the fire their only source of light, as the red lights of the beasts of Grimm advanced on them. Would they have prayed to whatever deity they had? Ask their ancestors for protection that night? Would they have wept in fear, holding their loved ones close as they sought comfort in their final moments? Or would they have stood against the night, weapons held tight in shaking fists as they prepared to fight to the last?

“And what do we do?”

“What do we do, Velvet?” Yatsuhashi asks, drawing Fulcrum from his back before he tests the grip one more time.

It shocks Velvet that she had said the question out loud, her reverie getting the better of her in the moment.

“Throwing a flare!” Coco yells out as she twists the cap of one of the sticks in her hand and throws it hard over hand. The stick somersaults through the air, even as the cap throws out red sparks that grow into a full, eerie red light. It falls as gravity takes hold and it bounces across the grass before it stops short of the trees, casting the immediate area around it in dancing red light.

Light that catches the form of an advancing Ursa, the bear-like creature emerging from the darkness. It draws drip with what passes for saliva to Grimm, and its claws clutch at the earth as it plods forward. At its flanks, more beasts join the first, their visages made demonic in the red light.

Fox and Yatsuhashi each throw more flares to the sides to light up the clearing, and each point of light reveals more enemies. They are surrounded on three sides, and it is no doubt that more are at their backs.

“So…” Coco asks as she activates Gianduja, the minigun spinning up, ready to kill, as she finishes the rest of their history teacher’s question. “What do we do, Velvet? Do we run? Do we cower and hide in our homes?”

Yatsuhashi raises Fulcrum in a middle guard, blade swept back. Fox readies Sharp Retribution, crossing the blades across his chest as he crouches, one leg extended back.

For her part, Velvet activates Anesidora. She’s prepped the weapon she’s chosen for this fight already, one that she feels the best for the situation.

In a small series of flashes, she soon holds a bright blue wire frame copy of Crescent Rose, the weapon of her friend, Ruby Rose. She holds the wire frame weapon tight in both hands as she takes the same fighting pose as her friend would.

“We stand against the darkness.” Velvet says firmly.

The Grimm charge.

Coco open fires, her gun roaring loudly as she sweeps the gun side to side in front of her. The rounds themselves will do next to nothing against the demons of the night, but as they hit their targets, Coco activates her Semblance. Instantly, the Dust in the rounds activate, becoming super-charged. Grimm stop as muscles seize up, lightning coursing through their bodies in voltages that nothing living could withstand. Fur is set aflame, and liquid inside the bodies boils. Body parts explode violently.

Yatsuhashi charges to the flank. A Beowolf makes to swipe at his head. The giant student stops his charge, but swings his sword, bringing the blade up. He cleanly slices off a limb and the head before the Grimm connects with him, and he easily side steps the falling body before he moves onto his next opponent. He fights like the warriors of old that his grand-father told him stories about. He cuts, slices and hacks Grimm to pieces, always moving, never stopping for a moment. Claws slice past through the air, missing him by centimetres, while Fulcrum never misses.

With a blur of red, Fox dashes forward. The low light level does nothing to impede his progress, his lack of sight being as worthless to him in the dead of night as it is in the day. He flows almost like liquid across the field as he is charged by a pack of Ursa. It’s almost mocking the way that Fox flows past swiping claws and over broad backs. His blades flash with each pass, and each pass shears off limbs in sprays of black ichor and blood before he either guts or beheads each beast. He is in constant motion, an exemplar of death at speed.

For her part, Velvet stands her ground. A pack of Beowolf see her as an easy target, so they charge at her. One moment she is standing on the ground, then she is spiralling through the air, scythe extended. Depressing the trigger, she fires a hard light round up into the air, propelling herself down. The blade swishes, and a Beowolf is decapitated. Another shot rings out, and Velvet is in motion again, bowling over another beast as she slices it from shoulder to hip just above the hairs on the tips of her rabbit ears. She is always moving, a gunshot sounding off each movement. And each time, a Grimm dies.

The clearing is a battle-scene that would make Professor Port beam with pride. The Huntsmen-in-training are never still, always watching the backs of the other as they fight. Even when Velvet is forced back by an Alpha Beowolf, Yatsuhashi grabs her hand and spins her, using his strength and momentum to propel her back into the fight. Crescent Rose fires again, sending Velvet speeding at the Alpha, blade ready before it connects with the creatures open maw. Speed does the rest as the hard light blade slices the Alpha’s head clean in two from cheek to cheek.

Coco’s minigun fills the clearing with more noise than she can almost bear, grimacing behind her sunglasses as the barrels keep spinning. Out of the corner of her eyes, she sees a new pack of Ursa charge at her. She shifts her stance to turn her weapon on them.

She never gets the chance.

In a flash of light and a thunderclap of pressure, the beasts are vaporised by a missile. Even before the dust from the explosion settles, more missiles streak overhead. Each one detonates with a flash like a small sun come to life in the darkness.

Hot winds from directly above buffet Coco’s Aura, the soul’s shield sparking slightly as it stops her being peppered by flying fragments of dust, wood and rock. Lifting a hand to her beret, she looks up above her.

I think our ride’s here!” Fox sends.

Coco is not sure exactly what the machine above her is, but whoever designed it definitely had one goal in mind: aggression. A thin prow, thick body and long wings give it the appearance of a hovering bird of prey, which in the darkness makes it look almost like a Nevermore. The wingtips glow bright blue as they send down buffeting blasts of super-heated air, keeping the craft hovering, while to its back, two large engines roar loudly as they power the machine. A split tail, connected by a rear boon, keeps the aircraft level.

It is not like any craft that Coco has seen, in real life or in fiction. But right now, it’s a fucking god-send.

Gunfire, heavy and bass in volume, spits out from the nose as the aircraft slowly spins downwards. Grimm and trees are mown down, their bodies splitting apart from the rounds that hit them. The gun at the bow is soon joined by two from the sides of the thick body, the unmistakable forms of people manning the weapons as they lend their own fire to the fight. Red light comes from behind them, but in the darkness and confusion, Coco can’t make out any details of the figures, especially as the vehicle completes its spin.

A rear ramp opens, spilling out more red light above them as the craft moves to hover downwards.

“That’s our ride, all right!” Coco calls out over the din. “Velvet, Fox! You two get on first. Me and Yatsu will cover.”

On it.” The pair send back, using Fox’s semblance to give their answer.

The craft is now twenty feet above them. Speed is needed here, Velvet knows, and if they land, there’s still a good chance they could be overrun by the Grimm. So, as she moves to the back of the craft, she does the only thing she knows she can do.

Pushing her Aura downwards, the Faunus Huntress-in-training jumps. She propels herself upwards, sailing through the air, towards the open ramp. As she clears the metal, she sees the interior, red lit and cramped by people in military uniforms that’s she never seen before. Split seconds later, she moving forward as she sails towards the interior.

Right into the arms of one of the soldiers, a stunned look on his face.

Velvet gives a grunt as she lands against the soldier, the man wrapping his arms around her to stop her forward momentum. He’s tall, lean but powerfully built, and his armour is solidly constructed. As Velvet looks up at his face, she can’t make out any major details, other than that his eyes are a shade of purple, and he is looking at her in confusion.

“You jumped?” He asks, raising his voice to be heard above the roar of the engines just above their heads.

Another grunt to the side makes both of them turn, Velvet seeing Fox land easier than she did.

“To be fair,” Fox says nonchalantly. “It’s not the highest we’ve ever had to jump.”

Instantly, Velvet remembers the fight below.

“Tell the pilot to keep hovering at this height!” She calls out loud. “Do not land!”

Easily removing herself from the soldier’s grip, Velvet looks out over the side of the ramp to the ground below. Coco and Yatsuhashi are still fighting the Grimm, but they have now been forced almost back to back.

“Guys!” She calls out. “Quick. Jump!”

Below, Coco takes one quick look around at the situation. The Grimm are getting closer, but the arrival of the aircraft has thrown the assault off balance. She fires off Gianduja once more, using Hype to enhance the force of the fire Dust in the bullets. Grimm are blown to pieces, and she clears the pair some breathing room.

“Let’s go!” She calls out as she folds her gun back into her purse. Once it’s done, she’s jumping through the air, her Aura pushing her high. She catches sight of Fox extending a  hand to catch her, which she takes as she sails in front of him. In his grip, Fox spins her backwards and out of the open air into the interior of the aircraft.

Yatsuhashi jumps too, his strength and Aura making him clear the lowered ramp and letting him land squarely on the metal.

All the soldiers are looking at the team in awe and surprise at what they’ve just done.

“What are you waiting for?” Velvet calls out. “We’re all on board. Go!”

The soldier who had caught her shakes himself out of his shock before he puts a hand to the side of his helmet.

“Rapier Two-One! Everyone’s on board! Punch it!” He takes his hand off his head as he looks at the team. “Get off the ramp! Inside, now!”

Team CFVY is pulled into the interior of the craft, the soldiers doing their best to make space for them, even in the already cramped troop bay, as the aircraft rises quickly and steadily. The gunners at the sides, men dressed in thick green overalls, steel body armour and full-face breathing masks, still fire their bulky heavy duty weapons down at the Grimm below.

The ramp closes with a heavy ‘thoom’, pneumatic hinges closing the door tight.

“Hold on, everyone.” The pilot’s voice comes in through an internal speaker as a warning before the aircraft shoots forward, nearly throwing everyone standing off balance at the speed and force of the engines.

For her part, Velvet is pushed backwards against Coco, who, despite her designer high heels, still retains her balance perfectly, catching Velvet easily. Looking over her shoulder, the rabbit Faunus can’t help but give her team-mate a smile.

“So…” Fox says out loud, looking around the space. “Where to next?”

Chapter Text

The aircraft, that Velvet is quickly told is a Valkyrie, speeds over the rooftops. It isn’t just different in form to a Bullhead; it is faster too. Even at its top speed, a Bullhead still flew almost leisurely through the air. The Valkyrie blasts through the night’s sky. And compared to a Bullhead flight, it’s a lot bumpier too.

The Valkyrie pitches upwards as the pilot avoids an extra tall tree, which unfortunately pitches the rabbit Faunus backwards again with a cry of alarm. She clutches at the handhold that has been lowered down above her head, but Velvet still almost goes off her feet.

“Got you!” One of the soldiers says loudly as he puts a steadying hand against the middle of her back. It is not the worst way that someone has touched her, with or without her permission. It is a strong hand that keeps Velvet from falling flat on her arse. But the touch is so unexpected to her that Faunus Huntress-in-training shoots to stand right up.

“T-thanks.” She stammers out, the man withdrawing his arm to cross it back over his chest. He gives her a look of confusion, but it only lasts a second before he lowers it and he begins fiddling with his rifle again.

That’s the thing that has Velvet on edge. As a Faunus, she has become so used to people looking at her in undisguised disgust, pity, or quiet indifference.

These men and women look at her with a mix of confusion and intrigue, mainly directed at her ears, and also.. what looks like critique at her outfit.

It is the strangest reception that Velvet has ever experienced.

Fitting that it’s from the strangest group of people that Velvet has ever seen.

None of their uniforms match any design that she’s seen from Atlas or Vale, and definitely nothing like what she’s seen from Mistral. The armour they wear only protects the torso, shoulders and head, for starters, and it’s a deep shade of what Velvet guesses is khaki (even with the natural Faunus ability to see better in low light, she can’t tell for sure), while the rest of their uniform is just cloth. Their weapons are long rifles, supplemented by grenades and knives. Knives!

It’s only taken Velvet a few seconds to take in this information, but she still can’t figure it out.

A buzz fills the air as the pilot speaks through an intercom.

“We’re five minutes out, everyone. It’s taking a little longer because we had to take on some… extra weight.”

Behind her, Velvet hears Fox nudge Yatsuhashi.

“I told you; you shouldn’t have had that extra plate of food before we left.”

Yatsuhashi stammers in annoyance at the joke. And the soldiers chuckle at the comment too.

Hey, look at that.” Fox sends. “I’m breaking intergalactic ice.

Intergalactic. Velvet has heard that word thrown around all the time in the bad, and sometimes good, sci-fi moves that she’s seen. The ones that invariably dealt with aliens coming from ‘outer space’, aliens that looked like Grimm but with extra stuff like stalks added to them, or humans and Faunus in ridiculous amounts of makeup and prosthetics. And to her, that’s where that word belonged; in science-fiction.

And yet… here she was. On an aircraft that was definitely not built to any standard on Remnant, with men and women with clothing and weapons she has never see before.

“So… where are you-GAH!”

Velvet, and everyone else, cries out in alarm as the Valkyrie jinks to the right, nearly throwing everyone around, a warning klaxon straining at Velvet’s ears. The soldiers grumble and call out in annoyance at the act, while Fox add his own cry to the din.

“Hey, buy me dinner first!”

The pilot’s voice came through again.

“Aerial contacts in-bound! Fast movers! Everyone, buckle up. Crew chiefs, get those heavy bolters ready!”

The men in the green uniforms and steel body armour on the large bore guns at the side, turning the guns on their swivel mounts from side to side as they track for targets.

Fast aerial movers… Nevermores.

Picking her way carefully, Velvet moves to the airman on the right side of the aircraft. The wind coming in is furious, whipping at her face and hair, and forcing her to drop her rabbits ears behind her head lest they suffer an injury.

She opens her mouth to call out to the airman.

She never gets the chance as the Valkyrie jinks to the left, pitching everyone to the right. And unbalancing the airman hard. Velvet rushes forward to grab at him, to pull him back in. At her side, one of the soldiers has pushed himself out of his seat to do the same.

The man disappears out of the doorway just as Velvet reaches it, her hand inches away from grabbing at his gear. In the darkness, she sees his form tumbling away, arms flailing as the airman screams. The fall will surely kill him.

The shadow that blasts past, snatching him from sight and silencing his screams kills him instead. It shreds the body cleanly in half, the lower portion tumbling to fall beneath the treetops instead.

Velvet can’t help the gasp of fright and shock that comes to her throat. It’s not the first death she’s seen… but it is the most pointless death she’s seen.

A strong hand lands on Velvet’s shoulder and she is pulled back into the bay. It’s not the soldier who helped her into the Valkyrie, but he’s the same height and build. A sharp nose and chin, with a scar going through his upper lip to bottom of his right chin. He wears a helmet on his head too, but it’s not hard to see the violet eyes staring at her. He’s an officer, Velvet can tell right away.

There’s little emotion in those eyes, although Velvet feels that there’s a smidgen of pity in them.

“Arkin!” He calls out, turning his head to the side slightly to look at the other soldier out of his seat. “Get on the gun.”

The soldier who was out of his seat nodded his head as he got onto the crew-served weapon, checking the weapon before he swung it out of the doorway. He immediately sees a target as he begins firing, the space now filling with the heavy bass roar of the gun. The gunner on the other side begins firing now, their weapon adding to the din.

“We’re in the shit now, everyone!” The officer calls out. “Get your weapons ready and loaded! Get set for a combat drop!”

“Yes, sir!” Each soldier calls out in response. Immediately, they each begin to check or recheck their weapons. Each rifles whines as buttons are pressed on the side, small lights switching on. Others pull out more… esoteric weaponry. Long barrelled devices with pilot lights at the end, fat bellied weapons with pipes for barrels, a thick cylinder set in the side and a simple trigger and others that Velvet finds hard to describe. The only weapon she recognises is the grenade launcher.

The feeling in the vehicle changes; anticipation laced with anger fills the interior. And it has the rabbit Faunus fidgeting.

She feels she has to do something.

Turning her head, looking past the soldier fiddling with the small laser sight on his rifle, she makes eye contact with Fox. Or… as close as she can with the blind Vacuon.

You okay?” He sends.

Velvet nods her head instinctively before she remembers. She replies. “Yeah, I’m good. Should… should we do something?

Wouldn’t do any good.” Yatsuhashi cuts in, his own thought-speak coming in loud and clear. “None of us can fly. I think we should save our strength for the fight on the ground.

Besides,” Coco chimes in, shrugging even as she speaks on Fox’s telepathic link. “If these guys have things like this for transport, they have to have things like jets or something.

Velvet sees the logic in that. Huntsmen, even students like them, are capable of a lot of things. But flying without aid… that’s not something they can do. So all Velvet can do is just sit in the seat given to her.

The soldier at the gun to her side, Arkin, keeps firing. Short controlled bursts, the rounds zinging out in the darkness, fat brass shells either falling to the deck or into the night’s sky.

Something pricks at the edge of Velvet’s hearing. Something loud and fast, incoming, but she can’t tell from which direction. There’s too much noise to tell properly.

The intercom sparks to life. “Three minutes out. Good news, everyone: the cavalry has arrived.”


Half a minute before, flying over a stretch of the Emerald Forest towards Carterstown, a lone aircraft flies straight and true.

They call her ‘The Crimson Baroness.’

Only half of that appellation was right. Her Thunderbolt was partially painted red, but she wasn’t a baroness. Not anymore.

Shifting the throttle, Flight Lieutenant Miro Jax, Ogre Squadron leader, 568th fighter wing of the Imperial Navy, drops her craft into a shallow descent before she levels off, thrusters burning hot as she shoots over the treetops of the forest below her. Everything is shown to her in shades of green, the night-optics of her heads-up display on night vision mode.

As she flies, keeping an eye on the sky outside and the radar inside, Miro checks her instruments.

Ammunition – Two-thirds down.

Fuel – Half-way down.

Avionics – in the green.

Engine temperature -  nominal for combat operations.

Her ‘Bolt was flying good and true, same as always.

Miro Jax loves the Thunderbolt. She loves the Lightning too. And the Avenger, the Marauder, the Aquila. She loves to fly. And she has her uncle to thank for that.

“Ogre Leader, come in Ogre Leader.” A voice squawks in her ear. LeGeun, her number two.

“Ogre Two, this is Ogre Leader. What’s the skinny?”

“Ogre Leader, we got a Valkyrie getting pecked at by some big birds. Bearing two-six-niner, mark-zero-eight-three. You’re close enough to assist. How copy?”

“Ogre Leader copies all. Think you can keep that horde at bay without me?”

A short chuckle comes through, the sound laced with static. “We’ll save you the best targets, Baroness. Good hunting. Ogre Two out.”

‘Cheeky git’. Even as she pushes the fighter forward, she can’t help but smile. She’s no longer a baroness. She has told them before, when she was a rookie, not to call her that, but she found that the more she pushed to not be called it, the more they used the title.

She was a baroness, another lifetime ago. Back when she used to wear frock jackets and petticoats with too much lace and not enough breathing room. When she was 3rd Baroness Miro-De Silvia-Organes, scion of the noble house of Jaxson, from Biskari Secundus.

The world whips by, the night sky dotted with stars above flashing past in her flight. She scans her head side to side, watching for any sign of contact.

She was the first Imperial pilot on this world to score an aerial kill, three in fact, the previous night. Her targets were avian in shape and form, yet almost as big as a Lightning, and she could tell from the way the night vision worked on them that they were as black as pitch. They looked like unrefined and feral carrion birds. Ugly.

And one has just flown into view on her starboard side, two o’clock low.

The radar pings back incessantly.

Looking at the target, Miro gauges the size quickly. The creature is flying almost at a leisurely pace, but the huge wings beating the air are deceptive on how fast the creature is flying. Looking around, the pilot scans for any more beasts in the vicinity. None she can see, and the radar only shows the one.

Pushing her ‘Bolt forward, Miro lets herself overshoot the target. No good shot from the back, so she has to do the next best thing. She pushes the craft up into a turning ascent, flying up further into the night sky.

Turning her head, she looks down at the beast below. Sure enough, it’s pitching itself up, moving to follow the aircraft.

Perfect.

Gunning the throttle, Miro pushes her ‘Bolt into a turn, right at the apex of her climb before she pushes the aircraft down into a curving dive. She goes straight for the beast.

She likes to think she’s caught the beast by surprise, but she doesn’t know if they’re capable of such things. But she knows that her autocannon ammo punches through the wings and pinions like a knife through paper. She goes over the falling corpse as the beast falls beneath the canopy, disappearing from sight.

Fourth kill.

Banking, she turns her ‘Bolt around and heads back to her target.

That move had been one of the first ones her uncle had taught her. The decorated Biskarin air-ace, Flight Captain Theodorus Jaxson, veteran of the Insurrection War, eighty kills in three years.

Miro loved that man, and still does. He’s probably dead now though.

The tree canopy flies past her again. And does the blazing form of a tracer from a heavy bolter.

Miro jinks her ‘Bolt to the side before levelling off, eyes scanning for targets. Then she sees it in the distance.

It’s a lone Valkyrie, heavy bolter fire pouring from its open side-bay doors and its nose gun as it tries to avoid the quartet of flying predators that are skimming past it. The avian beasts try to rake at it with their claws or snap at it with their beaks, but the pilot is flying too fast for them to catch. But not fast enough.

Miro flips a small switch on her dash. “Valkyrie Two-One, this is Ogre Leader. I have you in my sights. Peel down and try and go to the nap of the earth. I’ll deal with the big birds. How copy?”

“Rapier Two-One copies all, Ogre Leader.” The pilot says, clearly relieved at being rescued. “They’re all yours.”

The Valkyrie guns its engines, descending sharply before blasting off. The act doesn’t deter the beasts though as they quickly give chase. These beasts were big, each one the size of Miro’s Thunderbolt in length and width, and if they were lucky, one could easily bring down the Valkyrie.

Four together… they’d tear it apart.

She works the rudder of her ‘Bolt, pulling herself along behind the chase. She lets the gun sight waver over her chosen target for a second, but the lock is lost as the beast at the back surges forward, snapping its maw at the tail rudder of the gunship.

“Shit.” Miro mutters to herself before she activates her radio. “Rapier Two-One. You need to pick up speed. I cannot get a good shot without hitting you.”

“Ogre Leader. I can’t. We’re overweight, can’t get the speed up.”

Shit. Autocannons won’t work here. Too great a chance of a stray shot, and the lascannon is out too. Too much penetration power.

An idea clicks in her head. Working the shaft and rudder at the same time, Miro kicks the ‘Bolt to the side, gunning the engine so she’s now flying at an oblique angle away from the Valkyrie, eight kilometres away. The timing had to be right for what she planned.

She counts down in her head. ‘Three… two… one… NOW!’

G-forces kick in hard as Miro virtually slams her ‘Bolt around before she guns forward again, engine burning white-hot as she guns forward. The Valkyrie is coming up from the port side, and the beasts still following behind.

She switches from autocannons to her lascannons. And she just flies forward.

She’s got to get this right. Got to get it just right. If she’s too late, she’s miss completely and if she’s too early…

Let the ‘Bolt do its job,” Her uncle’s voice comes to her mind, the mental image of him sitting with her in the still cockpit of the trainer aircraft he owned to teach her how to fly. “The machine knows what it’s to do and what it’s job is. We just point it in the right direct. The ‘Bolt decides on how fast we get there. And after that? It’s all in the Emperor’s hands.

The Valkyrie is approaching the target point, the machine just on the edge of Miro’s HUD. She breathes out, the sound heavy and cloying in her oxygen mask.

Her finger hovers over the firing stud. The Valkyrie gets closer to the centre of the reticule.

Time seems to slow as she sees the crosshairs go over the nose, the cockpit, the engine, the troop bay…

She depresses the firing trigger, and her lascannons blaze into life.

Twin beams of white hot energy spit out from the nose of her ‘Bolt, slicing neatly through the night air. They cleanly cut through the head of the first beast, obliterating it’s maw and head in one shot, while the second beast is decapitated. Their corpses tumble to the ground like thrown toys by a petulant child, and it makes Miro’s heart soar with joy.

Six kills.

Miro roars over the two remaining beasts. Her radar pings. They’re on her six o’clock, low, and gaining.

“Rapier Two-One, this is Ogre Leader.” She says happily. “You’ve got your breathing room. Punch those engines hard. Good luck. The Emperor Protects.”


The soldiers in the troop compartment whoop and holler in joy at the sound of the explosive sounds and the heavy mechanical roar outside, and Velvet can’t help but smile in turn.

“Angels on our frakking shoulders!” The soldier on her left cries out happily, raising his hand to fist bump the soldier who would have been sitting in place of the Faunus Huntress-in-training. He stops, hand raised, as he realises who is beside him instead.

Velvet simply smiles in return before she bumps her own fist again his. It’s a small thing, but it makes the soldier’s face light up in joy as well, and it’s a familiar thing for Velvet to do.

“So what was that?” She asks loudly. “What saved us?”

“Thunderbolt!” Arkin calls out from the side door. “Air-superiority fighter. Lot of guns at front, big engine on back.”

Coco was right then.” Fox sends. “They’ve got jets.

Velvet doesn’t say anything else as she turns in her seat, to try and look out of the door. She can make out their destination in the distance, and she is soon filled with worry.

The sky is blazing orange. A huge fire has taken hold somewhere, although whether it’s the town itself or outside of the town, she can’t tell. But it doesn’t bode well.

In the distance she can see other dark spots moving in, although from the general shape and speed, she has to guess that they’re other aerial transports too. Not Grimm like Nevermores or Griffons. Human machines, coming in to help other humans against the Grimm.

If these guys really were from outer-space, humans from outer-space, and that they had come here to help humanity on Remnant… that thought made Velvet’s heart soar.

Velvet,” Fox says with his telepathy, sounding quite morose. “Can you try and get eyes on outside? Something big is moving out there, but I can’t get a good read on it.

Getting out of her seat, Velvet stands up next to the door and looks outside. The sky above is clear, although it’s beginning to stink of smoke and other smells that she doesn’t want to dwell too much on. So she looks down.

Even with the vaunted low-light sight of the Faunus, especially for a rabbit Faunus like herself, Velvet can see nothing below the treetops.

“What you looking for?” Arkin calls out to her, having to with the wind whipping past them and one of the engines virtually right above their heads.

“My team-mate says there might be something below us!” She replies. Velvet doesn’t reveal how Fox’s Semblance works, since she has no clue as to how these people would react. “His gut’s acting up! Have you got anything for seeing in low light?”

The soldier purses his lips in thought for a moment, looking past Velvet’s head at where his commanding officer is, before he reaches into a pouch at the back of his waist. Bringing the hand forward, he pulls out a what looks like a small metallic box, but in the red light afforded by the interior of the Valkyrie, Velvet sees a small series of buttons and dials on one side of it.

“Magnoculars.” The solider explains as he fiddles with some of the buttons with one hand, keeping the other on the butterfly grip of the heavy weapon. “Got it set to night vision mode for you.”

Taking the proffered device, Velvet gives it a once over. It’s flat grey, a simple, utilitarian design and it’s clear that’s suffered a good few knocks during its use. So it’s definitely useful. The Huntress-in-training is a bit perturbed by the winged-skull icon on the top.

‘Maybe it’s a fashion thing.’ She thinks to herself before she moves to stand in the doorway.

Raising the magnoculars to her eyes, her view of the dark landscape below is quickly replaced by differing shades of green. It’s not the best night vision device she’s ever used, but Velvet is thankful for it nonetheless, as she begins scanning the trees below.

She pans the magnoculars left and right, trying to find anything that would set Fox off. His ability to sense Aura or, in the case of the Grimm, the lack of Aura, is never wrong. But, trying her hardest, Velvet can’t see anything that would have set Fox off.

“See anything?!” Arkin calls out.

“Not yet…!” Velvet says, turning her head slowly to see if she missed something. The treetops are so damn thick!

“Five o’clock! Low!” Arkin suddenly calls out. “I saw a flash of something!”

Velvet flicks her head round to the direction that the soldier called out, magnoculars scanning the area. She doesn’t want to discount what the man has pointed out. Soldiers have a different perspective on combat than Huntsmen do, Professor Port always said, so it would be wrong to ignore any call they made for movement.

But right now, she can’t see squat. Just more green as foliage and branches pass by. She sees a gap in the trees as they speed by…

Then she sees it.

It’s a flash of colour, lighter than the green around it. It’s segmented, long and it looks like it ends in the form of a stinger.

The foliage thins out a bit more, and then she sees more of it. Or rather, more of them.

Death Stalkers. Five of them. The one bringing up the rear is the largest, easily the height of a three storey building at the tail, but the ones in front are still terrifyingly big.

“What did you see?” Arkin asks.

What did you see?” Fox sends at the same time.

Removing her magnoculars from her eyes, Velvet moves back into the interior of the Valkyrie as she turns to look at her teammates, which means she’s looking at every virtually every soldier in the aircraft too. And, apart from Fox, they all see the look of fear and worry on her face.

“Nothing good.”


The line is breached in half a dozen places. Beowolves stream over the parapets and they are met with Cadian fury. Lasguns flash in the night, explosions rock the wall, and fires rage. The earth to the eastern edge of the town is aflame with promethium fed flames from the Navy weapons, unlucky Grimm feeding the conflagration, while discharge from flamers bathe parts of the wall in their fires as they burn Grimm to cinders.

And fire rages in the heart of every Cadian that fights this night.

“Remember Cadia!” Commissar Anton bellows as he fires round after round from his bolt pistol. His hat has been lost in the fight and blood matts the side of his face, but still his stern voice and visage does not waver. “Remember proud Ursarkar, and the glorious Eighth as they held the last line! Remember their courage, remember their resolve! Remember their fury, and we shall carry this night to victory! Do not let them be ashamed! Cadia stands!”

More beasts scale the wall. The Kasrkin meet them. Even as the Grimm scale the walls, hellguns blast them to pieces, meltaguns and plasma burning them away to oblivion. The heavy bolters and autocannons are forced to depress their fire as low as they can to send the hordes clambering the fortification crashing to the ground or send their rounds winging right in front of the faces of the defenders to blast the Grimm climbing the wall.

Running battles are being fought in the area of Carterstown just behind the wall, squads of newly arrived Cadians running to and fro to draw any Grimm that breached the line to them, keeping them away from the civilians.

All this, Captain Thade sees and knows intimately. Because it’s playing out almost exactly as in Kasr Drak. Sure, there’s no need to seek cover in the face of inbound fire, and these beasts do not rend the mind as well as the body with their unnaturalness.

But these beasts, these creatures of Grimm, are very much as chaotic and unnatural as any fodder of the Archenemy and the Fell Powers of the Eye.

And so, it falls to them again. As it was, as it is, as it always will be.

“Cadia stands!” Fidor roars as he swings his fist at a Beowolf that has managed to climb the ramparts in front of his position at the gate.

Such an act would be futile against a beast that takes several bolter shells to fell… if the captain’s fist wasn’t encased in several inches worth of adamantium, itself surrounded by a crackling field of energy.  The beast’s head explodes in an explosion of ichor, meat and evaporated tissue.

Kasr Drak fell. Cadia fell. But not this town. Not this night, not ever. Carterstown will not fall.

“As long as one Cadian draws breath, as long as our hearts still beat, Carterstown will stand!”

He fires his plasma pistol again, the blue coils on the back lighting up in furious life as a ball of sun-hot energy splashes another creature in a shower of ashes.

Blood, fire and ashes.

That is the Cadian way.

The roar of an engines overhead as a Valkyrie pitches up and away, its hold laden with evacuees, the gunners at the doors firing away at the enemy on the ground as they pass overhead.

“Status on evacuation!” He yells out, his voice straining to be heard above the din.

His vox-operator, a young man called Tolya, holds a hand to the side of his helmet to hear the report before he replies.

“Destrier crew is reporting a small mechanical fault! Ten minutes to fix, flyboys say, sir!”

Tolya quickly removes his hand from his helmet to take a hold of his lasgun, firing it quickly and efficiently at the head of a Beowolf that appears over the wall. The weapon discharge is thick and bright, the vox-operator pushing the lasgun to full power. It still takes two shots to the head to drop the creature off the stonework. Fidor blasts the head of another with a shot from his plasma pistol. The shot is low enough to melt part of the ramparts.

“Bullshit!” He roars back. “Tell those Navy arseholes to fix that craft, or I will torture their frakking souls myself!”

Tolya doesn’t reply as he puts a hand back to  his helmet.

“Navy also reports that one flight is late. Something about… a pickup? I’m not sure.” The man shrugs and shakes his head as he keeps reporting. “They’re running behind schedule. Mobbed by a flock of ‘big birds’, but they have us in sight. ETA… ninety seconds.”

Quickly, Fidor casts his eye across the battlefield, seeing over the flames and the smoke and the darkness. The sky is just shrouded by clouds, but his veteran eye quickly spots the tell-tale twinkle of a fast moving Valkyrie on approach from the west.

Venting the built-up gas from his pistol, Fidor takes a quick look around his area. The battle is at what to the untrained eye would be a stalemate, but to the veteran officer, something in his mind prickles.

An instinct, gained and honed through battle against the enemies of Mankind too numerous to recount. A survivor’s instinct that has kept him and those under his command alive for many years.

He pays attention to the instinct. And it screams trouble.

“New contacts!” Someone calls out. “At the treeline!”

Turning to look in front of him, casting his eye over the battlefield. Through the writhing masses of Grimm and the dancing flames, it looks like the trees at the edge of the clearing are moving, bulging slightly.

No, check that. They are moving. Or rather, they are being moved.

The first pair of trees are smashed to the ground, the sound lost in the swell of battle.

“Rocket teams; lay krak on the treeline. NOW!” He bellows.

The heavy reports of several missile tubes firing in concert, their propellant charges blasting smoke and dust to shroud parts of the wall, roar out before their rockets fly through the air. Propellant burning, the long missiles topped with armour-piercing warheads fly over the mass of bodies below. It takes seconds for the rockets to reach their targets.

In the black, firelit night, it’s hard to see the impacts properly, but Fidor can just make out white insectoid carapaces, lined with red marks before the rocket’s armour-piercing warheads punch through.

The krak missile is an armour killer, plain and simple. Against tanks, the adamantium dart inside tumbles, shredding the crew inside with razor sharp fragments of their own tank. It’s a brutal death for any tank crew. But against a beast like that…

The first beast crashes down to the ground in an explosion of dirt and leaves, blood and ichor leaking through three neat holes in its carapace. The others rush past it, right into the melee.

“Bio-titans!” Someone calls out. And Fidor is hesitant to ignore the term.

Each beast is a scorpion in look, but monstrously huge. Giant pincers large enough to bisect a man snap menacingly in the air, while above them wave bright stingers, almost golden in colour, dancing tantalizingly above their forms as their tails bob and sway. Three of the beasts are as tall as a two-storey hab-block.

They remind him heavily of the Tyranid bio-titans, the lesser strains, just above a carnifex in deadliness and ferocity. Not something you want to meet eye to eye.

The new arrivals march across the field, their spindly looking legs propelling them easily across the mass of bodies swarming underneath. If they trample any of the other Grimm underfoot, they show no signs of noticing it.

“Target and deny!” Fidor roars, directing the missiles against the beasts.

More rockets bang out, their shooters switching from the swarm to the larger beasts. Missile streak out on streaks of white smoke, creating strange whorls in the smoke as they pass through or over the fires of battle. Some shots streak over the targets, missing to impact on the trees, or smashing underneath to throw up clods of earth and dirt.

One missile strikes true, right in the head of one of the beasts. The anti-armour warhead destroys the head of the beast outright, causing it to pitch forward as it’s body drops dead.

Then the largest one bursts from the woods. Trees are flung to the side by claws as large as a Chimera’s chassis. It’s body is the bulk of two Leman Russ’ and the length of three. Its curved tail reaches the height of a three-storey hab. And it charges straight at the wall.

Specifically, at the gate.

“It’s going to ram us!” Tolya yells out, even as he raises his lasrifle to fire at the beast.

“Get on the radio! Tell the flyers to target the beasts! Now!” Fidor calls as he raises his own pistol.

It’s a futile gesture of defiance. But it’s a comforting gesture in a cruel universe.

No order needs to be given. The section of wall above the gate opens fire, an indiscriminate blaze of fire and fury. Las-shots, bolt rounds, plasma and melta light up against the beast, scorching and scouring its hide, even as it barrels towards them. Above their heads, the Avengers blast through their air again. Their rockets spent; they rely on their main cannons again.

BRRRRT!!

BRRRRT!!

Bolt cannons roar and Grimm die by the multitude. But the Alpha beast is fast enough and smart enough to use the lesser beasts for cover. It quickly works its way alongside one of the smaller beings, letting it take the brunt of the aircraft’s ire before it dashes towards to the wall.

It’s now close enough for Fidor to see its face. Eyes, ten blood red balls, burning with rage, stare balefully up at him and the occupants of the wall.

“BRACE!” The Astartes neophyte yells out, his voice almost akin to a Medusa cannon firing.

The sound of the Grimm smashing into and through the stone wall is louder. Stone is sent flying, some of it reduced to dust from the impact.

Fidor doesn’t have time to brace, so he is sent flying off the wall. He sees the battle revolve around in front of him, flames and smoke tumbling end over end, stars twisting. He sees Tolya, careening to the side, his arms flailing wildly as he tries to latch onto something. The Astartes scout is nowhere to be seen, lost amidst the dust and stone. He sees the company standard, the beautiful battle standard of his home, fly lazily through the air, the pole snapped from the force of impact. The bearer is nowhere to be seen.

Then the ground rushes up to meet him, and Fidor Thades’ world becomes blackness.


It is a testament to fate and luck, to those who believe in such things, that the waking world returns. The Mechanicus would call it the motive force in action.

It’s sheer bloody good luck that Fidor Thade opens his eyes at all.

His body aches all over, his head spins, he tastes blood and he’s certain that one or two things are broken.

But Captain Fidor is alive.

He’s lying in the front garden of one of the settlement habs, landing on softer grass and dirt than the stone cobbles used for the town’s roadway.

His world spins heavily as he tries to right himself, and he coughs out vomit flecked with blood. Fidor winces as pain lances down his left hand side. But by the Emperor, he is thankful for it.

He is alive.

A loud, blood-curdling screech echoes out, drawing his attention.

The scorpion Grimm, the Alpha that breached the gate, is being peppered with lasgun, plasma, and melta shots. The guardsmen do not stay still as they fire at it, constantly moving from side to side, going any direction they can to confuse the beast as it snaps down at them with its pincers and stabs with its stinger.

The bark of a heavy bolter joins from nearby. Turning to look at the point of the noise, Fidor can’t help but grin as he sees the giant Astartes scout, his steel coloured armour dented and fractured in some places, blood visible in the fire, holding his heavy bolter firm as he pours shot after shot into the beast. But each shot only scratches its white carapace.

It's like spitting at a raging inferno for all the good it does.

The ground beneath Fidor rumbles slightly, the sound of metal tracks clanking on stone filling his ears and dizzying his senses further. The Salamander crew, deciding now was the right time for their guns to enter the fray. The autocannon roars a bass note as it fires, the steady pom-pom beat of the heavy ammunition. Munitions designed to tear through light-skinned vehicles and heavily armoured troops just glances off the Grimm’s carapace. It doesn’t even flinch.

A cry of defiance goes up, although from whom, Fidor can’t say. It goes up as more Grimm begin to spill through the gap created in the breach. The Salamander shifts target, its autocannon firing along with the hull-mounted heavy bolter, into the encroaching horde.

Feet rush around the captain as more Cadians rush to the breach to stem the tide, lasguns and other weapons sparking and roaring, their cries of defiance on their lips in a roar of increasing volume.

“Hold them!” The voice calls, Fidor finally recognising it as his own voice. “We hold the line! Not a beast gets past us!”

He pushes himself to his feet unsteadily, fighting down nausea as he moves to stand upright. His power fist still sparks into life, and he clenches his fist in defiance as he takes a slow step forward.

A guardsman fighting the scorpion Grimm rushes forward with a flamer and begins dousing its face in flames. Raging promethium fire engulfs its head and it screeches in pain, trying to use its own claws to protect its face and put out the flames. Suddenly, its tail whips forward, skewering the soldier through the stomach. The trooper is killed outright, but his flamer still spews fire, even as the tail lifts the cadaver up and then down to smash the body into the floor.

In Fidor’s eyes, the scene takes on a new form. The flames shift in his view, growing larger and wilder. The walls shift, becoming taller and stouter, spouting gun emplacements which roar and boom, even as the breach in them grows alongside it. The forms of the Grimm shift, becoming less natural and more mechanical… but also both more and less in both.

The scorpion Grimm, still with the flamer wielding cadaver on its stinger, changes too. The carapace changes, becoming slicker in form, almost running with molten fire and blood. Brass work appears on its limbs and body, as writing and symbols obscene to nature and reality bleed into life. When next the beast speaks, it’s a soul-rending roar of death and destruction.

Kasr Drak is falling again.

“We hold them here!” Fidor roars as he advances down the streets towards the breach in the hive’s walls, his power fist raised above his head as a rallying signal and a sign of defiance against the slaves of the Despoiler. “Kasr Drak will not fall while one Cadian still draws breath! We fight them! To the last round, to the last man!”

The defenders rally around him, pushing back to the tide as they rush forward with bayonets gleaming, banners flying. To his side, a might Baneblade speaks, its heavy shell whipping through the air to strike the horde spilling through the breech, while above, artillery rains down on them like the fists of the Emperor Himself.

The Brass Scorpion raises its tail high, as horrible, golden flames streaked with red build up, before it rushes towards Fidor.

He knows he will die tonight, but as long as he dies, Cadia lives…

Fidor lets loose a feral bellow of rage and defiance as he charges the Brass Scorpion, plasma pistol raised to fire and power fist ready to strike.


The wind buffets Yatsuhashi’s face fiercely, and he’s thankful for his Aura to protect him. His height, combined with the length of Fulcrum attached to his back, makes it an uncomfortable fit for him inside the Valkyrie’s interior. So he’s forced himself to lean out of side door, opposite to Velvet’s door.

He doesn’t need to borrow a pair of the spacemen’s ‘magnoculars’ to see it.

The town they approach is a scene unlike anything he’s seen before. He sees the fire raging outside the furthest wall, he sees the mass of Grimm pouring from the trees against the town, and Yatsu sees the soldiers on the wall, pouring fire of all sorts of a level that he’s never seen before into the horde.

And he’s just seen the Alpha Death Stalker smash through the gate.

It’s hellish. And Team CFVY is heading right for it.

“The Death Stalker Alpha breached the wall!” Yatsu calls out behind him, informing the soldiers about what’s happened. He knows the soldiers can only guess what he’s referring to, but he’s surprised by their reactions, or rather, their lack of reactions.

He’s not done many sorties with professional soldiers, apart from a joint operation with the team and a few squads of Valean militia troops, and he remembers their reactions to hearing about a Death Stalker sighting nearby.

These men and women…

“Shit, I didn’t bring enough krak grenades!”

“Hey, Floyd, make sure your meltagun is ready!”

“Hey, sergeant? Why did we leave our rocket launchers back at the base?”

“Who gives a shit? This is just another day in the Emperor’s beloved Guard, boys and girls!”

These guys want to fight…

“See anything else out there, big guy?” One of the soldiers close to him asks.

Turning his attention back outside, Yatsuhashi quickly scans the ground. There’s running battles as more of the soldiers blast away at Grimm on the ground, or groups of soldiers hunkering together in ragged circles on the walls as they fight more of the beasts on the wall. At the epicentre of all the fighting is the breach in the gate.

And what he sees, has Yatsuhashi’s eyes widen in shock.

One man, clearly an officer by the cut of his clothing, is standing tall amidst the chaos. He has a giant fist, covered in crackling energy, raised above his head. A tracked vehicle rumbles beside him, spitting fire at Grimm advancing through the breach. And he’s advancing towards the Death Stalker.

“Holy shit…” The Huntsman-in-training mutters to himself.

“Twenty seconds!” The pilot calls out. “We will not be stopping! Get set for a combat drop!”

A shudder runs down Yatsuhashi’s spine at the words. Turning his head, he sees Velvet looking at him in shock from the other side of the door.

Guys,” Fox sends, almost sounding fearful. “…I’m not the only one feeling that, right?

No, you are not.” Coco replies, sounding as shocked.

The atmosphere in the room has shifted now. It’s like an oppressive feeling is crushing down on Yatsuhashi’s chest. It is rage, pure and barely bridled rage that emanates from each of the soldiers in the aircraft. But then he feels it… he feels it flow through him. His hands, now balled into fists, begin to shake with rage, and he knows the rage is not his own.

Looking back, he looks at his teammates. Coco is stoically standing in place, although he can see her clenching and unclenching her fists. Fox is trembling, his arms shaking as he flexes his arms, his chest rising and falling as he sucks in air through gritted teeth. Velvet has it the worst as she trembles in a mixture of fright and anger, unsure of what is going on as she is affected by the emotions.

‘Who are these people?’ Yatsuhashi asks himself.

A roar outside draws his attention. The Valkyrie is passing over the wall now, and Yatsuhashi can see the soldiers charging the breach, the officer at their head. And the Death Stalker is moving forwards to meet them.

“They’ll be slaughtered…” He breathes out in shock. These men and women are willing to charge against Grimm, Alpha Grimm, without a thought for themselves.

Looking into himself, using the techniques taught to him by his mother and his grandfather, Yatsuhashi let out a slow exhale.

“Guys!” He calls out, not really caring who he’s addressing. “I’m going on ahead. I’ll see you on the ground!”

Coco and Velvet begin to protest, but he doesn’t hear them as Yatsuhasi lets himself drop from the Valkyrie, nearly thirty-feet in the air now. Even if it’s descending, it’s still a long way to drop. So, as he feels his body pitch down, he channels his Aura, sending it down to the sole of the foot that is still against the metal of the aircraft.

He’s off like a shot, drawing Fulcrum off his shoulder as he flies towards the Alpha Death Stalker.


The first event that forms the final stage of the defence of Carterstown, the mutual cooperation between the Huntsmen cadets of Team CFVY and the remnants of Cadian elements of the 46th Fleet of the Indomitus Crusade occurs at twenty-two-sixteen local time.

After action reports from the numerous NCOs and ranking officers present at the defence of the settlement known locally as ‘Carterstown’ differ from the other as to how exactly the first member of Team CFVY entered the battle to assist the defence.

One sergeant says; “he must have been wearing a locally made miniature jump-pack”.

Another sergeant reports; “Rockets. Had to be rockets.”

Lieutenant Deckard reports; “All I saw was a flash of green-light. Although, it was hard to tell since I was trying to avoid getting gored.”

Lieutenant Maulville says in his report; “He came down on the wings of an angel, sent by the God-Emperor to help us.”

Captain Fidor Thade’s report is much simpler and succinct of the encounter: “He flew down. And killed the beast.”


He flew down and killed the beast.

That was the only way for Fidor to describe what he had seen happen. What the person, if he was a person, in front of him had done

He had seen all manner of things in his tours of duty for the God-Emperor. He had seen scores of hundreds of aircraft, Imperial versus greenskin, duel for aerial supremacy on Tartarus, each side blasting their opponents from the sky, even as frigates and destroyers of both sides plunged through the atmosphere.

He had seen the blasphemous forms of Chaos forces, brought to reality by heretics and blasphemers, wrought in iron and flesh storm through fields of razor wire and mud, only to meet with the mind-bending displays of colours from the leaping and tumbling fighting style of Eldar harlequins.

Those sights would never leave his memory for their horror.

But some sights would remain for the majesty alone. And those memories were always with the God-Emperor’s angels of death.

They are forces of nature; humanity’s divine wrath and fury given form. They are brutal honour and true martial majesty in the shape of a man. They are as armoured as a Leman Russ and as agile as a Sentinel, with the same destructive force of a platoon of guardsmen. They are the warrior-lords of old Terra reimagined for a cold, uncaring future.

The being in front of Fidor, standing in the shallow crater that he helped create, his curved greatsword held ready at his side, lacks the true awe-inspiring form of the Astartes war-plate, but he is no less majestic for it.

He killed the scorpion Grimm. He dropped down from the heavens, his form glowing with pale green light as he streaked through the sky. In a blur of green light, the warrior had smashed aside the stabbing stinger, the sound of his sword colliding with the appendage ringing in the air. The sound hadn’t receded when the warrior made contact with the ground, before he near instantly rebounded back against the beast.

It was as suicidal as Fidor’s own charge. But the warrior was committed. He didn’t look back, his head focused on his opponent in front of him.

Even when the beast tried to ensnare the newcomer with its pincers and stinger, the warrior did not alter his course. Still carrying forward, straight and true like an arrow, his sword flashed out in arcs of bronzed-metal. White carapace cracked and splintered into hundreds of shards, the pincers breaking, before he landed on the Grimm’s back.

With a loud cry, he drove his sword down. The natural armour of the giant resists the weapon for a second, before it cracks. Then it splinters, then black ichor and blood spurt upwards as the sword penetrates down. Down into the beasts’ body, before the sword is pushed upwards, though the thorax and up to the tail. His sword was twisted, and the tail was removed with a mighty snap.

In seconds, the warrior has bifurcated and destroyed the Grimm’s tail, in three blinks of Fidor’s eyes. Jumping back from the corpse, he stands in front of the dumb-struck captain.

Reality is slowly coming back to Fidor’s mind, but as he stands in place, finger just ghosting over the trigger of his plasma pistol, he can still only see the most recognisable form to him.

“My lord…” Fidor sighs out, beginning to move into a kneel behind the armoured giant in front of him.

The warrior turns… and the black-gore streaked but earnest face of a tan skinned youth looking at him in confusion.

“Pardon? I’m no lord.” The giant teen, if Fidor has to guess, says in an embarrassed voice, even as he hefts the sword the same size as him.

Fidor blinks away the sights from his eyes. The walls of Kasr Drak are gone, replaced with the stonework of Carterstown. The hordes of the Archenemy have been replaced, the hordes of baying Grimm taking their place.

He slipped hard, and he knows it. But now is not the time.

Especially not when there’s a Beowolf charging at the teen’s unguarded back.

He raises his plasma pistol, aiming it past the giant teen’s torso as the beast closes in.

The teen spins, his sword sweeping up in a brutal arc that severs the Beowolf’s head, along with a forearm and half of its torso, in one clean stroke.

More beasts come through the breach, even as they are punished by the Cadian guns.

“Damn, that’s a lot more than I’d expected.” The teen says in annoyance at himself, even as he swings the blade downwards to remove the worst of the gore from it.

Not saying a word, Fidor moves forward to stand next to the teen, his pistol held ready. His soldier’s brain tells him to be wary of the person next to him. He’s just seen him destroy two beasts of Grimm, one of which had broken through a stone wall several metres thick, and he’d dispatching another as a hot knife through butter.

He’s dangerous in every sense of the word.

But… standing next to him, Fidor gets the same sensations he does when he sees the Astartes. The danger is there. But so is the surety. The innate feeling that this warrior will not run. He will hold the line as long as he can to protect those who need his protection.

“The civilians still can’t be evaced,” Fidor says simply as he raises his plasma pistol in a fighting stance, his power fist crackling with energy once more. “So we need to hold the line. Just a few minutes.”

The teen gives a nod of his head as he hefts his sword in reply. More Grimm are charging at them.

“I’m Captain Fidor Thade.” The Cadians says as an after-thought.

“Yatsuhashi Daichi.” A small smile comes to the teen’s face. “No doubt my name sounds as odd to you as yours is to mine.”

 “No doubt.” Fidor says simply. He sets his face into a grimace as the wave of beasts charge the pair.

Both fighters set their stances for their weapons, Yatsuhashi Daichi setting his sword back to his side, while Fidor takes up a text-book pistol shooters stance, one handed.

The first Grimm, a Beowolf, is within throwing distance now. Its hide is pockmarked with lasgun hits, fragmentation wounds and burns, but it still runs straight and true at the pair.

Fidor wonders who’s going to be the first to make the move.

The red blur that zips down from above, landing directly onto the head of the Beowolf, smashing it into the ground about a feet down. The dark-skinned youth, with burnt-orange hair and a red top and black trousers, jams a pair of blades worn on his forearms down into the beasts shoulders before he rips them out, severing the Grimm’s arms at the shoulders before spinning around and driving them down into the creature’s skull. The squeal the beast creates as it dies is satisfying.

“You just had to jump!” The second teen says loudly in annoyance, standing up to his full height, which is much shorter than Yatsuhashi’s. “Really? What were you thinking?”

Turning his head slightly, Fidor raises his eyebrows in surprise as he sees the taller teens face colour at the admonishment.

“I… I…” He tries to say before he simply gives up. “I got nothing. I’m sorry, Fox. I just…”

“Behind you!” Fidor calls out, firing a searing blast from his pistol, vaporising the head of a Beowolf, while the one called Fox spins around a shears off the arms of another creature.

The mass of Grimm is now on them. The flanks are being hemmed in by the guns of the Kasrkin and the other troopers, the Salamander’s heavy fire power tearing through the creatures when they get too close. But it still leaves Fidor and the two local warriors to bear the brunt of the frontal assault.

Fox and Yatsuhashi spring forward, their weapons swinging. Each blade, each slice of their weapon, leaves a trail of Grimm blood and bleeding energy, contrails of light following the paths of the blades. The pair are always in motion, only stopping for seconds as to change direction near-instantaneously or to parry a direct hit against them.

It’s an amazing display of martial skill in action, and Fidor is dumb-struck. So much so that he doesn’t hear the two, softer pairs of feet landing behind him.

“Wow. I’ve never seen Yatsu or Fox riled up that badly.” A silvery voice says from behind the captain. Turning, Fidor finds himself dumbstruck once again.

Several years before The Fall, after a fairly routine suppression of a minor workers insurrection in a hive world, Fidor and many of the senior officers of the Militarum regiments present were invited by the inhabitants of the upper hive to a showcase of various forms of art. One of those forms was fashion.

The girl, who stands about the same height as Fidor, even in two-inch heels, looks like she has stepped right of the memory of that event. Her clothing can be considered the height of fashion to those who care about such things. Even to someone like Fidor, he can appreciate the fine craftsmanship in the woman’s outfit of multiple shades of brown, even if it is definitely not suited for the practicality of military combat. Even the beret on her head is decidedly not one that follows any military guideline he knows. Also, how can she see with those shade-glasses on?

The girl tilts her glasses down with a finger, casting an appraising eye on Fidor.

“Nice outfit, I gotta say.” She says with a smile. “You guys look like you need some help. Where do you need Team CFVY?”

Fidor stares at the young woman, his mouth moving up and down soundlessly. His brain struggles to process the information of what is going on around him. He’s been in battles before, sure, but he’s never had a battle that just… took such a weird turn.

The crash of a body landing right near his feet, makes him turn. A bisected Beowolf lands just at his feet. It’s missing its lower half and it’s left arm, but it still tries to snap and slice at Fidor.

A blur of motion from the woman is all Fidor has as warning as she slams the square box attached to a strap down hard onto the Beowolf’s head. Hard. The skull armour splinters, cracks and breaks in a spray of blood and bone. Fidor’s brain can’t fully process it. Sure, the bag has studs on the bottom corners, but there is no chance that  such a thing could destroy the head of anything, let alone one of these Grimm.

The woman doesn’t care as she lifts up her handbag and sets it back on her shoulder, the look on her face like she had done nothing strenuous or extreme.

“Yeah…” She says simply. “Want us right here?”

Fidor can only nod as the girl saunters past him, walking in a way exactly like the fashion models at the showcase. She is confident, cocksure and brave, even in the face of the creatures that barrel through the Cadian crossfire and past the blades of the warriors scything through the horde.

She doesn’t a say word as she swings her handbag up in front of her. It opens, the sides, front and back folding open… and revealing the unmistakeable inner workings of a heavy calibre gun platform. Six barrels slide seemingly out of nowhere like a cheap conjurer’s trick, the form easily identifiable to Fidor as an assault cannon. Gravity joins with weight and the weapon swings down.

It’s almost the same in length as she is in height, and has an ammunition drum that nearly touches the ground when held at her waist. And she wields it like a Space Marine would a heavy bolter: with astounding ease.

She’s got the trigger depressed and the barrels spin up, the whirring sound filling the air before it becomes a roar of rounds breaking the sound-barrier. Fidor can’t tell what calibre they are, but they strike the Grimm hard. Although not hard enough to kill, but enough to punch through skin or impact into bone. The beasts don’t slow, but the woman just pans her gun side to side, still firing.

He almost misses it. If he wasn’t watching her intently, Fidor would not have seen the grin, the look of sheer manic glee on her face. But he does see what happens next.

The ripple of explosions through the rushing horde is hard to miss. Beowolves and Ursas are torn to bloody ribbons of black, as flowers of red and yellow fire erupt from within them. They die, as all enemies of humanity die; gloriously.

Fidor’s legs give out from underneath him as his head swims once more.

“I got you!” A sweet sounding voice from behind him says, as a pair of small but strong hands catch him and gently lower him to the ground. No-one around him sees it happen, his own Cadians focused on the fight, and the local warriors fighting the enemy.

So it’s a shock for him when he turns around and sees a round, innocent looking face framed by long dark brown hair… and topped by a large pair of rabbit ears.

“… C-Carmen?” Fidor asks in confusion.

“Huh?” The abhuman girl, the much older abhuman girl, responds in confusion. “I’m… I’m not Carmen, sir. I’m… I’m Velvet. Velvet Scarlatina, sir.”

Fidor blinks his eyes before he looks at the girl in confusion. She’s right; this girl is decidedly not little Carmen. Mainly because, even though she is small, the girl called Velvet stands just over five-feet tall, excluding the ears. She carries much of the same features; an expressive round face, long brown hair, and large innocent eyes.

She’s cute, in a word.

So it surprises Fidor to no end to see her here.

“Do you need help, sir?”

The wind rips away Fidor’s answer as a Valkyrie skims the ground just behind them, more soldiers pounding out of the open rear door, lasguns pouring fire into the enemy. They jump out of the transport at a run, even as the Valkyrie continues forward and then jumps up over the rooftops.

“Where do you want us, sir?” Velvet Scarlatina asks again.

Looking around, Fidor scans the battlefield. Her male comrades are in the thick of the fighting, slaying Grimm left and right with their blades, while the other woman works the centre with her assault cannon. The flanks are being suppressed by his Cadians and the Kasrkin.

He shakes his head, before he pushes himself upward. “Wherever you feel best, little miss.”

The girl quickly looks around her, the large ears above whipping side to side with the motion before, without a word, she nods her head and speeds off.

Fidor doesn’t see where though as he feels himself be pulled up by multiple pairs of hands.

“Captain, sir? Are you all right?”

The familiar voice makes Fidor look around, and he sees Tolya standing behind him. The lad is a mess; the sleeve is torn from his left elbow down, his flak armour is dented and covered in dust and mud, and a nasty gash on his forehead is spilling blood down to cover his left eye. His vox-caster is gone, most likely wrecked. But he smiles brilliantly at the sight of his commanding office alive.

Fidor nods his head. “A little dazed, but I’m alive.”

Tolya nods as soldier run past them, the Cadians shouting encouragement and cheers to their commanding officer. And also cheering on the local warriors that have joined the fight.

“Who are they, sir?” Tolya asks as he takes a hold of his lasgun again, the weapon somehow managing to survive the destruction of the wall.

Fidor shakes his head. “I do not know… But I thank the Throne they arrived when they did.”

Feeling presences around him, the captain turns and sees several Cadians looking at the trio of warriors fighting. Staring at them, dumbstruck as they were the first time they saw a Space Marine in the flesh.

And Fidor is not pleased by it.

“What are you lot gawking at?” He calls out as he hefts his power fist again, flexing his fingers again before he forms a fist. “We’re children of Cadia! Are we going to stand by and let… children do our job for us?”

“No, sir!” They all cry out.

“Then forward!”

He runs forward into the battle again, his mind clear on the reality of what is happening before him.

But the objective remains the same: this town will not fall.


She spotted them when she was dropping down beside Coco, that giant in steel armour with the heavy calibre gun, and when she was beside the commanding officer of the defending soldiers, she saw him clearly through the press of bodies around the breach.

So she runs towards him, weaving and dodging through more of the soldiers rushing to stem the gap.

It’s… it’s madness. To rush towards Grimm, especially a hoard of such size, is madness. Everyone on Remnant knows that. Even the most well-trained Huntsmen would balk at willingly charging a horde with as much fervour as these men and women are showing.

It’s madness.

But, the weirdest thing is… it’s working.

As these people charge in with their rifles and other weapons, they do something that not even Atlas is capable of doing; the slow the Grimm down. The torrent of fire they put is astounding to see, all the different discharges from the weapons coming together in a kaleidoscope of sound and colour that’s both amazing and scary to see. But it’s so coordinated. They’ve capitalized on the blow that the rest of Team CFVY has hit the Grimm with, and they plug the gaps missed.

Grimm are dying in droves. And a glimmer of hope fills her.

Considering how much destruction and death the Grimm deal out on a near daily basis, to see them suffer in kind… it activates something primal in Velvet. Something… angry.

Velvet skids to a halt as she reaches her target.

And instantly her anger is forgotten. And a primal fear takes over.

The giant IS a giant. Not the gentle-giant that the Faunus knows Yatsuhashi to be, but a brutal giant of war. Standing roughly seven-feet tall, his body is thickened with muscle and sinew. He’s wearing fatigues in a woodland scheme, with his torso and shoulder encased in steel plates of armour, almost like the old Valean knights, dirtied and pitted. He’s firing the heavy calibre gun in short controlled bursts, arms as thick as tree-trunks keeping the weapon aloft while legs the size of pillars keep him stationary. His square head, with features enlarged and oversized with gigantism, is twisted in a snarl of rage… and pain.

The giant pitches forward, his heavy weapon hitting the ground with a deep thud as he grimaces in pain.

“Brother Ollarus!” A deep voice calls out from behind them, making Velvet turn. And she pales in shock and fear at what approaches them.

There’s three more giants, advancing at a quick pace. Wearing the same, all steel armour, they are as enlarged as the first one is, although their weapons look comparatively lighter compared to his one; one carries a weapon that is clearly a shotgun, and the other is… she has no idea what he is carrying, but it’s got a sickle magazine and uses a heavy calibre round, judging from the size. Two of them also look… young, when she looks past the size and musculature. The looks of concern that is plain on their faces.

The third one, however, is another being entirely.

“On your feet, Neophyte.” The giant with a thick, pitch-black beard and piercing green eyes says as he bodily takes a hold of the first giant’s shoulder. “Raise your weapon and keep firing.”

“I can’t, brother-sergeant.” The warrior, that Velvet guesses is called Ollarus, says out through gritted teeth. “… The pain… is too much.”

The giant looks down at the other, Velvet doing the same, and her eyes open wide in shock. What she thought at first was dirt was blood, seeping from open rents in the armour. It flows in thin lines across the armour and down to the ground, pooling slightly around his form.

Ollarus turns to look at his commander… and notices Velvet standing aghast at them. The giant with the beard follows his eyes as he bodily turns to look at the Faunus.

His eyebrows knit in confusion.

“What are you doing here?” He asks, his voice a deep-bass rumble. “All civilians are to keep to the evacuation area. Leave.”

Velvet shrinks backwards. The noise of the battle holds no fear on her, nor the Grimm. But this giant… terrifies her. He radiates a killing energy, a being who kills easily and unhesitatingly. His eyes, green as emeralds in the night, stare at her unflinchingly, and she feels… small. Like, she wants to run and hide.

A lot of the people who have bullied her for being a Faunus liked to play up the predator-prey aspect, making fun of her for being one of the many ‘prey’ Faunus. It never worked with them because none of them were threatening. Even the Faunus who were considered ‘predators’ didn’t threaten her.

The giant in front of her is a predator. Through and through, he is a predatory killing machine.

Velvet reaches behind her and pulls out Anesidora. Her team-mates have all shown their weapons and shown their skills, so she should too, if she wants this giant to take her seriously.

Her nerves betray her. “I… I’m a… I can…”

A sound of disapproval comes from the giant’s throat; a growl of annoyance.

“Get back with the non-combatants, girl. Now.”

Velvet feels herself deflate. To be treated so coldly, so dismissively, without a word in edgewise for her defence.

She forgets it though as the three giants begin firing their weapons, each gun roaring and barking loudly, at onrushing Grimm. The one in pain, Ollarus, tries to add his own fire to the fusillade being thrown up, resting the gun on the ground with its large box magazine and bipod to keep it steady.

But, even as their weapons blow Grimm to pieces, Velvet sees it’s not enough. It just needs something extra.

Her fingers tighten around Anesidora’s camera box. As Coco says; actions speak much louder than words.

Even as they fire, she trains Anesidora on each weapon. The shotgun, the compact automatics, the heavy weapon. She takes pictures of them all. As she does, her Semblance takes effect. The motions to operate the weapons, to control them, to use them as if she had used them for years even though she’s just seen them, all of that information flows into her mind.

She selects the first weapon. One of the compact automatics.

She ignites the hard-light Dust in her weapon.

It takes seconds for the wire-frame to form in her hands. Each mote of Dust flows along the same lines in the same mould the weapon would have been cast from. Each groove in the fore and pistol grip are copied, every nick and bump in the metal frame, the dual-headed eagle with outstretched wings is copied in bright, light-blue light, as the weapon forms in her hands.

As soon as the light is formed, Velvet depresses the trigger. The barking roar from the muzzle is the exact same as the one sound from proper weapons, each bolt strikes the Grimm with the same strength as the actual rounds. Limbs are shorn off, bodies are burst open and Grimm are decapitated.

The firing only lasts seconds, but throughout it all, Velvet has been focused and professional. So it’s only when she releases her finger from the trigger, allowing the weapon to disappear does she notice that she is being stared at by the giants.

The stares are mix of confusion, wariness and restrained hostility.

The one with the beard looks at her dubiously, studying her hard. All Velvet can do is smile wanly at him as the Dust disintegrates into miniature motes of light, the copy disappearing into the night sky.

“P-problem, sir?” Velvet asks, just to break the silence around her.

The giant sniffs the air…

Then turns around and takes the large weapon from Ollarus, passing him his own automatic weapon in turn.

“Move back to the second line. Get yourself patched up and await my instructions.” The leader tells Ollarus.

For a moment, the younger giant looks as if he is going to protest before, resignedly, he nods his head and stands up. Even wracked by severe pain, Ollarus still holds himself tall as he jogs away from the fight.

“Keep on the attack, Neophytes.” The lead giant orders as he racks the slide of his new weapon, checking the load, before hefting it heavily in his hands. He turns his head to look meaningfully at Velvet. A look of a challenge.

In seconds, the Faunus Huntress-in-training has the same heavy calibre weapon in her hands. It’s just a few pounds lighter than Coco’s minigun in hard-light form, but it’s still a hefty thing. She racks the slide, just the same as the giant did before she turns to look at him.

The giant nods his head.

“Thaddeus.” His voice is a low, bass grumble.

“… Velvet.” She replies, her voice considerably lighter.

Thaddeus grins, perfect teeth showing through. “You can copy our weapons. Can you keep our pace?”

Velvet returns the grin before she aims her copy of the weapon at the horde.


Coco is pouring fire onto the Grimm. Gianduja is running hot, she’s sure of it. But not as hot as she is right now, she’s sure of it.

She pans the minigun left to right, making sure to spread her bullets and Dust liberally among the crowd. When she’s got the spread right, then she does it. She brings the Hype.

Her Semblance is exactly like herself: dynamic, expressive and hard to miss.

The Fire Dust in each bullet, of each round dug into the hide and skin of each Grimm, ignites in a rolling wave of explosions. Grimm are shredded and destroyed, bone armour and limbs go flying. Coco Adel kills Grimm at an accelerated pace.

But it’s just not enough.

At the edges, she can see Yatsu and Fox adding their own kills to the tally, and they do it with all the skill and strength they possess. They are green and red blurs of movement, their weapons flashing as they dismember and decapitate the beasts in front of them.

Coco racks up a body count as high as her teammates are, but she’s at a disadvantage and she knows it.

Gianduja is not a mobile weapon. Even with her Aura, Coco can’t handle her weapon on the move. The recoil from the gun, and the spread of the bullets work against each other on the move.

So she bounds forward, spinning down her fire every time she does. It’s not great, and it’s nowhere near something she likes to do. But she needs to support her friends. She keeps the barrels of her minigun spinning, but Coco doesn’t fire as she moves forward.

Forward, fire, stop firing, forward. It’s a nasty set of stops and starts. Even with the extra firepower being poured onto the horde from the soldiers, Coco still realizes that she is exposed against the Grimm.

Velvet would be nearby in any other fight, helping Coco with supporting fire, but she’s disappeared. Probably finding new weapons to photograph, not that Coco blames her. These guys have all sorts of interesting weaponry and she’s sure that her friend will find some great ones to copy. Whichever one she finds though, Coco hopes she uses it soon.

She stops firing for a second as she moves up. And that’s all it takes. Even through the gunfire raining down on them, a pair of Ursas have singled her out as a target and they barrel towards her. They speed up as they see Coco’s weapon stop firing and she rushes forward.

An easy kill for the beasts.

Coco’s Aura tells her of the onrushing beasts, but she’s at the point of no return in her bound forward: she can sacrifice stability for firepower, or sacrifice firepower for speed.

She lands on the ground, and she lifts up Gianduja, and she depresses the trigger. Fire spits from the muzzle of her gun. No time for theatrics now, so she uses her Semblance almost right away. Each bullet that fires hits the first Ursa like a missile, blasting it to ribbons and ash.

The second one barges pasts its fellow. It’s larger, faster, more armoured. Its bone armour is merely charred by the flames from her minigun. It gets within the arc of her fire faster than she thought possible.

Coco grimaces as she moves to shift Gianduja into its handbag form. Time for a brawl…

The blast of cornea-burning bright blue light that splashes into the right shoulder of the Ursa Major makes Coco thankful that she wears sunglasses. She watches as the ball of blue energy hits the Grimm square in the shoulder joint, atomizing fur, muscle and bone in an instant. The limb comes flying off the Ursa careens to the side, roaring its fury and pain at those that would dear interrupt its charge.

Another roar comes in answer. The roar of human anger, accompanied by the roar of guns. Soldiers run forward, ten of them, this time wearing more bulkier, more encompassing plates of armour. They carry larger, matt-black guns, firing out white-blue beams of energy in a near-constant stream, right at the Ursa that tries to charge back. One of them has what looks like a pistol version, thick cables connecting it to their back, and a sword that shines with coiling sparks of energy.

A soldier steps forward, their face covered by a full-face mask and helmet, while in their hands they carry a short, stubby gun with a thick, blackened barrel.

Ursa roars at the soldier at rears onto its legs. And the gun speaks in reply.

The blast of energy that punches through the Grimm’s torso, coring it with intense heat and energy, stops the beast dead. The Ursa topples to the ground dead, its body dissipating quickly.

Without a word, the soldiers split into two teams, five bodies in each, as they move up on either side of Coco.

“We’ve got them pressed!” The soldier with the sword and pistol says as he stands next to Coco. “Now let’s kick them in the teeth!”

The soldiers give a loud cry in response, a two-syllable yell, before they begin firing heavily onto the Grimm horde.

Coco is thankful for her sunglasses for several reasons. One thing is that she can easily hide her eyes when she shows an emotion that doesn’t fit her perceived personality.

The look of wide-eyed awe is one of them.

But she shakes it away as she grips Gianduja again. Lifting it up, she aims it at the horde of Grimm once again before she smiles.

“You don’t have to tell me twice!” She hollers out before her gunfire joins the fray.


It’s the oldest equation in the universe: the immoveable object versus the irresistible force.

Battered, bloodied, but unbowed and unbroken, the Cadians and neophytes of the Steel Drakes have resisted the horde for nearly six-hours. They have spent enough ammunition to lay waste to the town itself many times over. The aircraft of the Imperial Navy have scorched and scoured the landscape with their fury in ways that only Mother Nature can ever hope to repair.

They have resisted the Grimms advance hard.

In any other time and place, the numbers of the Grimm would have won out. The arrival of the Death Stalkers and the destruction of the wall would have signalled the death knell of the defence of Carterstown, and the destruction of two companies of Cadian infantry, two platoons of Kasrkin, eleven Astartes and scours of Imperial Navy armsmen and crew, and the massacre of the remaining civilians in the town.

It would have been an unprecedented loss to the 46th Imperial Fleet and their mission on Remnant. To Remnant at large, it would have just been another night of fire and blood-shed. Another town that would have been lost to the Grimm, even if the arrival of visitors from outer-space, humans from outer-space no-less, had stepped up to help defend the town and its citizens.

The Imperium had the Grimm at bay by their very jaws.

The arrival of Team CFVY altered the equation.

With the blow struck to the horde by the team of Huntsmen-in-training, the horde reels. The hold it has on the town weakens, leaving it clutching victory by the skin of their teeth.

Now, a cry goes up from the defenders. A cry that is the opposite of what even Alpha Grimm, the most veteran of veteran creatures, would hear in a situation. A cry of victorious rage.

Capitalizing on the blow, the Cadians rally and counter charge. They charge right into the teeth of hell, void black forms and fire seeking to welcome them to death. They charge into the mouth of hell.

Lasguns, melta, plasma, flamer, chainsword, bayonet. All do the bloody work of the Imperial war-machine as the Cadians clutch the enemy by the jaws and kick them in the teeth.

Even as men and women are disembowelled and butchered, the Cadians do not let up their counter-attack. They cry out in righteous fury, their martial fury aided by the skill and weaponry of Team CFVY.

Older Grimm, ones that have caused death and despair for years by themselves, see the shift in their prey and they are confused. What should have been cowering humans, reeking of fear and panic, are glowing figures of rage and anger. It was an impossibility, just as the Grimm themselves are an impossibility. Even with the glowing forms of the Huntsmen cutting them to pieces, the horde can only take so much punishment before the brutal mathematics of Imperial war win out.

The death knell for the horde comes when Veteran Sergeant Thaddeus, along with Huntress-in-training Coco and Velvet, combine the fire power of their heavy guns, along with the remaining Kasrkin and the reconnaissance Salamander, to hose down the remains of the gates with heavy firepower.

The ground and broken stones run thick with black Grimm blood.

And then, as is the remit of the Cadian Shock Troops, the horde breaks.

The immoveable object has overcome the irresistible force.


Anger! Rage! Spite and fury!

If the Alpha could speak, it would be ranting and raving at the iniquity of what was going on. It would be cursing out the humans for what it had done to its packmates. It would be yelling about how such an easy victory had turned into a protracted siege and had seen the deaths of multiple Alphas of so many stripes.

Instead all that came out of its maw was a series of bellows, howls and screams as it roared its anger against the humans.

These humans. These… strange, foul-smelling, angry humans.

There was no fear! Always, when the Grimm attacked any human settlement, fear was present in the defenders. Even if the vaunted Huntsmen from the Kingdoms came, the fear remained. How could humans not fear the Grimm? They were numberless as the shadows in the world and as vast as the night sky. They could never be stopped, only slowed.

And yet these… these humans. Fear had no hold on them. The wall and the shattered gates burned as brightly with rage as the eastern edge of the town did with fire. Each new Grimm that appeared seemed to add fuel to their hatred and their anger.

The easy victory became a stalemate, and with the arrival of the Huntsmen, the stalemate has now become a route.

The Alpha Beowolf howls and roars, trying to exhort its pack-mates to remain! They can win this! They could! They just had to keep attacking! Attack, attack! That was always the way of the Grimm. No matter their form or locale, attack was the only thing they knew. It deep within them, right from their spawning.

But now something new was spreading through the horde. Something alien to the Creatures of Grimm. Something they knew but had not experienced on this level before, especially not in the Alpha’s lifetime on Remnant: panic.

What had first been a trickle of Alphas deciding enough was enough became a stream of Grimm that were running from the flames and the fight, the creatures streaming past the Alpha in droves.

The desire to lash out at them was there. Weakness was to be culled, fear was to be met with claw and tooth. But Grimm could not kill Grimm. It is impossible for one beast of the night to harm another, even though the Alpha sorely wishes to at this moment. So instead of lashing out at the runners, all it can do is growl and snarl at them as they retreat into the forest.

Yet, even as it rages at the defeat being handed to the horde, the Alpha thinks. Its age allows it to do so, so it has been hanging back during the battle, watching the path of the human airships that have come down from the sky and into the town itself. It’s been watching as they land in the eastern corner of the town, then lift off after several long minutes.

And it’s noticed the change. The aircraft come down filled with anger… but leave filled with fear and sadness.

The beast looks around the battlefield. Other Grimm are still assaulting the gap in the wall, or trying to clamber up the wall to get over. But all of those attacks are focused on the southern and western sides of the town, leaving the eastern side unmanned.

Not that it isn’t unprotected. The grass around the stone wall is engulfed in flames, roaring and roiling fires. The Alpha has seen what the flames have done to others that it has touched; consumed into walking, wailing pillars of flame before being reduced to ash.

But it is the only side of the town that the humans with guns are not guarding.

The voice in the Alpha’s head returns:

No. Do not enter the flames, for you will perish. Retreat to the woods, to the safe dark. Live, grow, and strike again.

But as much as the Grimm are the embodiment of darkness, they are also the embodiment of dark thought. Fury, rage, anger… spite.

That’s what the Alpha wishes at this moment. The dreams of destruction of the Kingdoms is forgotten, the thoughts of the slaughter of humanity and Faunus are pushed aside.

The Alpha wishes to spite the humans. And where better can it spite the enemy from an area they thought protected, and against a prey that cannot fight back?

So it runs forward. A speeding bullet of obsidian fur and white bone. Its size allows the Alpha to bulldoze those too slow out of the way, while its status means that other beasts stop their retreat to allow it to pass. It cuts across the horde, dashing away from the fight at the breach, toward the flames.

Enemy shot and bullet wings past and over it, other beasts taking the hits. Some hits impact on the armour or punch through flesh and fur, but they do nothing to impede its advance.

It only stops at the edge of the flames.

The roar of the flames is louder than any noise the Alpha has encountered before, and indecision worms in the Alpha’s brain. It has reached the size and age it is now by avoiding such things, by not taking such risks. It has kept itself alive by knowing when to run to a fight and when to run away from a fight. This action is one that even its own brain cannot comprehend.

But it must. It has to kill humans. It must destroy humanity.

What’s a little pain when it can bring glory to its dark mistress?

So it plunges in.

And is immediately engulfed in pain.

Time and distance lose all meaning to the Alpha as it barrels through the burning field. All it knows is that it has to travel a straight line to reach its destination, everything else is secondary.

But the fire licks at its fur, scouring away hide and skin, exposing muscle to the hot, angry air. Bone armour is scorched, and the pads of its paws send agony through its body.

A large, flat, dark shape looms ahead of it, and the beast jumps up. Claws extended, they dig into the unremitting stone of the wall, and it climbs.

Even up on the wall, the fire still burns horribly, and it tries to sap the beast of strength. Claws crack and splinter as the Alpha fights the agony during the climb. Steel spikes reach down, and tear open the skin on the chest, breaking open armour to let blood and ichor pour out, only to evaporate from the heat.

It reaches the top. Even in the air free of flames, the Alpha is still in pain. The damage done to its body cannot be repaired without a return to the spawning pool. It is dying a slow death, caused by its own desires and hubris.

But, from its vantage point on the top of the wall, it feels vindication.

It can see the shapes of a single human aircraft, big and blocky, sitting in a large square of land surrounded by buildings. It simmers with anger and the wrong smell again, while humans, small in number but numerous in weaponry clamber around it. Yet that is not what takes the beasts attention.

Hidden in a large building just to the edge of the cleared space, the Alpha can smell and see the taste of fear and panic on the huddled forms of humans within. It is tantalizing to the Grimm.

Pushing itself up to its feet again, the Alpha Beowulf stalks across the top of the wall towards the building. As it does, its long tongue slips from its maw to hang limply from between its teeth.

It will die tonight. But it will not die alone.


The storehouse the last group of civilians are sheltering in is quieter now. The main group of children were the first to be evacuated along with the elderly and the infirm, so that left only the adults and the families that did not want to be separated under any circumstances.

One such family is the Stone family, along with their newest family member.

Nella and Bear had no true reason for not putting either Melo or Carmen onto the first aircraft the Cadians sent to the town. They know that, and they accept it. It’s a parents instinct to protect their child. So they knew they should have sent them off with the aircraft.

Instinct also told them that to send the children out with the Cadians, into that horrible night, was dangerous too. Safety surrounded by danger. To separate would be to lose sight of them, and to lose sight of them would be the worst thing for them.

So the Stone family, and the last remaining townspeople, are left to wait in the cleared storehouse, families clustered together with others. Mothers try to keep their children calm with songs or stories, fathers armed with whatever weapons they preferred or have stand watch over their families, even as they chat with the other men.

The sound of heavy footsteps moving quickly draws Nella’s attention from them. Turning her head, she hears the sound of hurried movement as a door bangs open.

“Triage!” A gruff voice calls out. “Where’s the medic?”

A woman’s put-upon voice replies quickly. “O-over here! Wounded on the left, hurry!”

Nella suppresses a shudder at what she knows is happening. It’s no secret, and the Cadians aren’t shy about showing it either.

They come away from the battle in small streams. Groups of men, maybe two or three, supported by the people in the green and steel uniforms. Each person was a wreck. Their uniforms were invariably dyed with blood, always their own. They were missing limbs; arms or legs, while others had faces or torsos reduced to rags, yet were somehow still alive.

Nella has seen better accidents from the men who went out cutting lumber for the town.

The Cadian medic, an older man called Valim, was the person left behind to tend to the wounded, along with five other medics. And they took to it well, alarmingly well even. Wounds were sterilized and patched up, flowing blood was staunched. But it wasn’t enough. Even though they were kept away from the main group of townspeople, they could hear the wounded as they succumbed.

Doctor Fleur stepped up. A woman in her forties, her children were already on the first transport out, so she stepped in to help the medic with the treatment of the wounded. Following her example, several other women, the ones who were best at first aid, stepped up to help.

Nella Stone is not one of those women. She is better at mending clothes rather than mending bodies, so she stays with the other families, keeping Melo and Carmen quiet, even as the world outside resounds with the noise of battle.

A door opens, the sounds of battle outside raising in volume along with the cries of the wounded, before it drops again as the door shuts.

Nella looks at the new arrival.

They’re one of the ‘naval armsmen’, as Father Constantine had called them, and he’s conversing with the mayor. He’s a stocky man, his body covered in an emerald green body suit which is then covered by steel armour not too dissimilar in cut to that worn by the Cadians, but bulkier on the torso. It also looks… almost archaic in design, even if his helmet is bulbous and simple; a pot-shaped helmet with a sliding visor of orange coloured glass. He cradles a lethal looking shotgun in one arm as he speaks to the mayor.

Gods, if ever there’s an example of duality, it’s the men that Nella sees standing in front of each. One, tall but thick in the guy, dressed in the jacket and trousers of a life-long frontier mayor, his lever-action weapon hung across his shoulder, the other, shorter, simplistically dressed in green and steel, with his weapon held lazily in his arm.

“What are they saying, ma?” Melo asks, seeing who her mother is focused on.

“I don’t know, dear.” The woman replies. “I… let’s try and get closer.”

Standing up, the two Stone women form a chain of hands with Carmen at the end as they move a bit closer to the pair of men talking.

“… it won’t take long, sir, I promise you that.” The armsman says simply.

“I believe you, son.” Mayor Goldthwaite says, sounding sure of the man’s words. “But you need to tell us.”

“… I already have, sir.”

Goldthwaite shakes his head simply. “No. You need to tell us.”

Nella and the girls stop as the armsman turns to look at the room filled with just over forty people.

“E-everyone,” The man says out loud, clearly unused to speaking to civilians like he is now. “The pilots have found a small fault with one of the engines of the Destrier outside. Something’s been sucked into the air intake of one of the engines, so we’ve had to shut it down for safety before they find out what’s wrong. Word is; ten minute fix. Then they’ll get you out of here.”

The relief that permeates the room now is palpable, with Nella’s sigh being echoed by almost every person around her.

They’re almost safe… just a little more…

The sound of crushing rock and splintering wood precedes the sound of metal being rent and wrecked before the building falls into blackness. Screams and yells accompany the loss of light. And a roar answers back.

The roar of a Grimm.

An enraged and pained Grimm.

A big one.

“Grimm!” Someone calls out, stating the obvious in the way that only a panicked person can do.

“How did it get in?”

“Have they been killed?”

“What about the wounded? Could it smell the blood?”

Nella can’t answer. Not that she knew the answers to those questions, because she didn’t. But because the loud roar has clenched her throat shut, her mouth is dry with fear and she is rooted to the spot.

Living in the wilds means that Nella is acutely aware of the Grimm. She has seen their shapes and forms, heard their roars of anger and their death noises as they are dispatched by the town militia. But to hear one up close…

“Ma…” Melo says as she begins to shiver, holding her mother’s hand tighter even as the girl pulls Carmen closer to herself.

Opening her mouth to speak, Nella’s words of comfort die on her lips as the world shakes. Stonework splinters and cracks, timbers are smashed aside, and a wounded Grimm, larger than any that Nella has ever seen, smashes through the wall furthest from her.

It is blinded with pain and rage, that much is clear, as it makes no attempt to attack the people inside the building. In its agony, it is seemingly content to destroy the stonework of the building it has somehow found itself in.

However, the worst is done.

The people in the room panic.

Cries of fear ring out as every person rushes towards the door, some even going for windows to escape the Alpha Beowolf as it works on levelling the building.

Nella does her hardest to keep hold of the girls, bringing both arms to take hold of them, but the tide of people works against her. The children are taken from her grasp, herself separated in the tide of fearful and panicked people.

Nella calls out to them, but her voice is drowned out in the cries of people and the roars of the Grimm.

A pair of strong hands take hold of her arms, stopping Nella from being pulled down by the crowd. Looking behind her, Nella sees both the mayor and her husband are now stood behind her.

“I lost the girls!” The mother cries out, tears beginning to form in her eyes. Either in fear or the feeling of failure and loss, she can’t be sure.

“They’ll be fine!” Bear cries out, even as the Grimm roars again and more masonry falls. “We need to get out of here!”

“Mayor, sir!” The armsman yells, having easily made his way to stand in front of the trio, acting like a shield as the last of the townspeople fled the building. His brutal shotgun is held ready in his hands. “Please assist the medics in evacuating the wounded. You two, for the love of Sanguinius; run!”

The Grimm suddenly turns, taking its attention away from the building, to the only people in the building. Its ears flick back against its skull as its eyes focus on the humans.

“NOW!” The Imperial cries out.

Nella is yanked outside by Bear, the mayor rushing off as fast as his game leg can allow, before she and her husband are outside the building. Behind them, they can hear the ferocious bark of the Imperial’s shotgun, firing shot after shot. They can hear the building tremble again, the Grimm growling. The scream that follows is mercifully cut short.

The rest of the townspeople are being herded into other buildings by the towns militia and more of the armsmen, their guns ready even as they wave for Nella and Bear to come to them. At the edge of her sight, Nella can see Carmen and Melo with another group making for the Imperials.

Even as she runs, the mother breathes out a sigh of relief. Which is quickly replaced by a scream as the wall of the storehouse behind them erupts outwards, stone-work and masonry flying free to crash to the ground. She risks a glance back.

The Alpha Beowolf is standing tall, its form dripping with dust, dirt, and blood, red and black. It’s a giant, larger than any Grimm Nella has seen, a giant walking nightmare of a beast, made all the more fearsome as flames begin to take hold of the building. In one giant paw, it holds the dismembered and eviscerated corpse of the armsmen.

The Grimm howls and roars as it sets its sights on the group that Nella and Bear have joined.

Another roar answers it. An equally bestial roar, but one issued from human throats.

“For the Emperor!”

Squads of Imperial armsmen have come running towards the site of the attack, their weapons bared and ready. There’s over two dozen in all.

Nella gets a sickening feeling in her stomach as she sees the beast throw the corpse in its grip away, dropping to its haunches before it sprints towards the Imperials.


The men and women of the Segmentum Pacificus battlefleet are some of the most hardy that exist in the Imperium of Man. With their proximity to the Ocularis Terriblis to the galactic north, the Halo Zone that encompasses the boundaries of the galaxy and the ork freebooters that exist within, the Aeldari of Saim-Hann, the battlefleet of Segmentum Pacificus is sorely tested day in and day out. Xenos pirates, heretical and renegade marauders. Enemy ships of nearly all shapes and forms are faced by the captains of their ships, while the armsmen face the inscrutable and perfidious beasts of the void with nothing but a prayer on their lips to the God-Emperor and a shotgun or hellgun in their hands.

So, as the Alpha charges, they open fire. Solid buckshot and lances of light flash out through the night air, slapping and stabbing into the beasts hide.

But like so many other enemies of Mankind, it simply rushes through the fusillade directed at it. But the armsmen still hold their ground. Shotguns bark and hellguns thrum as they continue to pour fire at the beast.

The rounds do nothing to the beast. Neither slowing nor feeling pain, the Alpha barges into the ranks of the armsmen. The luckiest and the fleetest dodge out of the way, rolling to the sides before coming up firing again. The unlucky ones die. Their carapace armour affords no protection against the Alpha Beowolf. Bodies are torn asunder, blood arcing in the air as they are savagely ripped apart.

Naval discipline holds. Not confined in the tight, manic corridors of their regular field of battle, the armsmen begin to run rings around the beast. Like carrion predators hunting a larger predator, they chip away at the Grimm as they circle round it, shotguns and hellguns peppering the creature’s hide.

Yet even as they scour flesh and hide, drawing blood and marking bone, the beast gives no indication of feeling pain, or even feeling the hits landing. As it turns its head to look at its new quarry, the armsmen see the creatures eyes. Flat red, with no hint of an iris or pupil, while black veins worm their way from the edges. Eyes filled with madness.

“Keep firing, men!” A sergeant calls out, pumping the slide of his shotgun as he chambers new rounds. He never gets the chance to fire them as his head is torn from his shoulders by broken claws the size of forearms. Blood welters up to the night air before the Grimm tears into his body again, ripping apart the carapace armour with little resistance.

It does not stop to savour the kill nor the slaughter it has meted out before it spins on its heel and lunges forward, bearing another armsman to the ground. Its jaw snaps down, hooking into the sides of the man’s ribs before, with a sickening crunch and a blood-curdling scream, the Alpha slams its jaws shut. Armour, cloth, bone and muscle are all ripped away in one single stroke.

The speed of the act has shifted the combat. What had before been a ready counter-attack to protect civilians had stalled quickly by an equally swift attack from the beast. Though the armsmen still pour all the firepower they can onto the creature, in the end, it does nothing to slow it down.

The Alpha slaughters them. Bodies are torn, ripped and crushed to bloody gore as the beast metes out its maddened anger and fury on the armsmen. To the credit of their training, the armsmen do not baulk or run from the beast slaughtering their fellows.

Inside the Alpha’s mind, it is a swirl of madness. Pain from the body sheers its mind blank, flaming nerves fraying at every semblance of sense in its mind. Where once was a mind possessed of brutal and primal cunning, now stands a tortured psyche, brought from pain and anger. Pain from the fires, pain from the wounds of the climb, pain from the rounds impacting against its hide, and pain from the sound echoing through its head. Just at the edge of hearing, it’s neither a sound made any humans, nor a sound made by Grimm, but it grates at the Alpha’s mind, nonetheless.

So it drowns out the sound. It drowns out through its maddened roars and howls, and it drowns it out by slaying the humans around it. It doesn’t matter which human it gets, even though it’s sating its thirst for blood on the soldiers, it will target the nearby civilians soon.

Chief Petty Officer Karilian sees the slaughter of his men. It’s not the first time he’s seen armsmen under his command die, and it’s nowhere near as close in savagery as in some fights he’s been in. But it still riles him up, angers him.

So he falls into an old truth; anger does as much good in a fight as courage.

Karilian lets loose a mighty bellow from deep in his core as he charges at the Grimm. His power mauls sparks to life, full charge. Enough to decapitate an onrushing ork nob, or to cave in the power armoured chest of a traitor Astartes. It will be more than enough to kill this beast.

So he charges. He charges right at the beast even as it shreds another armsman to pieces before it stomps another one flat. He charges, power maul held ready and bolt pistol in his other hand.

When he’s at the right distance, with the Grimm’s back presented to him, he swings the power maul. A solidly built man, with the strength in his arms spent in a life-time in His Divine Majesties’ Navy, Karilian knows the kinetic energy from the swing, combined with the weight of the maul and the energy from the power source will kill the beast. He doesn’t know the actual formula, but he’s done it enough times to know it will work on any foe.

The power maul goes past the point of no return, and a look of savage glee splits Karilian’s face.

… then the Grimm turns to face him. And the chief petty officer’s body feels lighter.

The man’s eyes dart to the side as he sees a green and steel object fly out of sight. It takes a split-second for his brain to realise that it is his forearm, power maul still sparking as its held in his former grip, flying off in a different direction.

He tries to bring his bolt pistol up, but by then it’s too late. The beast’s jaws are on him.

“Oh…” is all his brain manages to tell him before he begins to be savaged by the Alpha Beowulf.

The mighty jaws of the creature bite down, engulfing the man’s head, shoulders and upper torso. Teeth puncture through armaplas and ceramite like it was simply paper, before tearing through cloth and skin beneath. The officer’s screams of pain are muffled by the Alpha’s own muffled roars of anger as its teeth grind on the armour. So it does what its most basic of instincts tell it to do: shake the human apart.

Karilian’s body, for the man is now certainly dead, is tossed back and forth and side to side like a ragdoll. Blood pours from large punctures in his body that grow in size with each violent shake of the body. One of the teeth punches down through the nerves of the shoulder, and the fingers in the corpses remaining hand contract, firing the bolt pistol.

Karilian had loaded his pistol with Kraken penetrators, a round he found to be very effective when dealing with the shock and awe nature of the zone mortalis. Now, his only act of foresight does little to change the situation. Ammunition designed to punch through heavy ceramite and adamantium-equivalents punches through the remains of the bone armour and becomes lodged underneath, spilling more black blood in droves. It drives the Grimm to new heights of madness.

It thrashes the body solidly side to side, flinging the corpse around its head, even as the bolt pistol in the cadavers hand still looses its ammunition. Shots go wild, flying through the air to vanish into the night or to fly wildly into masonry, causing more shrieks and cries of panic. Civilians move out of the way of the shots burning through the air, many of them knocking others aside to escape the potential for airborne death.

One of the people knocked aside is a small child, just a little over six years old, with russet brown hair and large hare-like ears of the same colour. Either through accidental indifference or just plain basic human drive to look out for oneself, she is pushed aside and away from her place of safety as the Beowolf finishes it treatment of the corpses.

Bolt pistol now spent, the limbs shorn free from such violent motion, the Alpha lets the naval officer’s upper torso fly from its maw to smack wetly to the ground. It lets out a loud growl as it advances towards the cowering mass of people hidden in a home. It stops, however, as a new scent reaches it on the air, making it turn its head.

Its ears flatten against its lupine head as it swivels slowly to take in the sight of the Faunus child, rooted to the spot in fright.

The same child that escaped its ire in Marysville, the smell of that doomed town still upon her.

Glee, primal and baleful, comes to its mind, unbound and unrestricted, through the madness. Its mouth opens in a tortured parody of a smile as it slowly creeps towards the child. It savours each mote of fear coming from her.

The mood swings in the townspeople. Cries of fear and begging become cries of anger and rage. Shouts for the creature to turn away from the child and to face them instead range from men and women, one pair even rushing out of the house to try and divert the Alpha’s attention to themselves. More shots ring out, solid shot and Dust rounds impacted on its hide.

But its course will not be swayed. Not when its victim is so close. Drool mixed with blood drip from between its teeth as it savours the death that will come at its hands.

“YOU SHALL NOT HAVE HER!”

The shout does something that it shouldn’t have done to an Alpha such as itself, a being of destruction created from one of the deep spawning pools in the Valean wilds. It has seen the death of hundreds of humans and Faunus, and put scores of Huntsmen to death with its claws and teeth. It is murder and discord given form by the whims of the Brother of Darkness.

And yet it is frozen in place by the sheer volume of hatred and anger directed at it from one solitary human.

“Turn and face me, beast!” The booming voice calls out. “Be you alien or daemon, I care not! For the Lord of Terra is with me, and I fear no evil!”

It is a challenge; the Alpha immediately knows this. The voice is issued from a human throat, but it has heard the same tone in animals. Wolves, bears. They have all dared to challenge the Alpha for domination of hunting grounds, and have all either been sent with their hide and pride wounded, or fell before its ire.

So it spins around, its form a blur of black fur, white bone and red eyes.

And is instantly blinded, by both light and pain.

Bright silver light, brighter than a star and equally as painful, radiates from the human’s upraised hand, shrouding his body in darkness.

Again, he shouts.

“The Emperor is my Shield and my Shepherd! He is protection against the blasphemy of the xenos, against the blasphemy of the daemon! And He is with me tonight, foul alien! So I say to you again: You shall not have her! As the God-Emperor is my witness, I shall not allow it!”

The Alpha roars, madness and pain taking hold again. This… this is the source of the noise! That horrible grating sound. Louder now, stronger. It is the antithesis of everything that make the Grimm, everything that opposes the darkness that the creatures of the God of Darkness stand for.

“So come at me, foul beast!” The human challenges again, the sound of a sword being drawn preceding the sight of the three-foot blade at his side.

The Alpha pulls itself to its full height and roars again, spittle and blood flying from its maw, as it stretches out its paws. Its claws shine with blood and its eyes shine with madness.

The swordsman advances undaunted, sword held at his side and the icon emitting the silvery light held in front of him. His steps do not falter, nor does his voice.

“That thou wouldst bring them only death, that thou wouldst spare none, that thou wouldst pardon none. We beseech thee, destroy them!”

The Alpha lunges at the man, and he screams in incoherent rage as he lunges in return.

Sword and claw clash in the night.


Fear has frozen her to the spot. Fear that paralyzes the limbs and the brain into inaction.

Carmen knows that monster. Her papa had tried to stop her seeing it, but she had seen it during the bad night. She saw it standing over the mayor, its mouth and claws ready, and it was trying to get down the well at her too, trying to claw its way down the well her momma and papa had put her in.

She’s terrified.

So she can do nothing but stand there as she watches Father Constantine fight the monster, his sword flashing with steel in the light as he swings it against the Grimm. He’s slower than the beast, but the icon in his hands keeps the beast back, seeming to hurt it every time he holds it to the Grimm’s face.

Her view of the fight is blocked by a familiar face blocking her sight.

“Melo!”

“Carmen!” The older girl cries out before she takes the Faunus girl in her arms and lifts her away. Quickly, the pair begin to run. Away from the fight, and away from the protection of the townspeople. “We need to get out of here!”

So the pair run. Melo has to put the younger girl down after a while, overestimating her own strength in the rush of adrenaline, so they end up running hand in hand. Directly towards the Cadian lines. They run, faster than either has run in their lives, driven by fear.

Behind them they hear the clash of blade and claw stop, before an ear-splitting roar fills the night sky. Quickly followed by the rapid sound of heavy footfalls.

Melo lets out a squeal of fright. “Run!”

Carmen does her best to keep up, but she is much shorter than the older girl. Nearly every run is a stumble and a fall for the girl, but she does her best to keep up. Out of breath, and out of options, she does something she has never actually done before; she prays.

Her momma and papa never taught her any serious prayers to anyone, nor did she ever hear either of them saying any. But she tries.

Brothers of Light and Dark, Holy Gods… anyone! Anyone who can hear me; please help us!’ She cries out in her head, even as she begins to feel tears stream down her face as she hears the sound of footsteps behind them.

“This way!” Melo calls out before the pair jink down another street.

Someone, anyone! Oh… Emperor, please, if you’re listening… Help us!

“Where are you?”

Carmen lets out a gasp in shock as she hears the voice respond inside her head.

“T-The Emperor?” She says in quiet shock.

… If you want to speak to me, you need to think what you’re saying.”

That… did not sound like something a God would say. But the rapid and heavy footsteps behind them, and a quick roar, put that thought from Carmen’s mind.

We’re being chased by a big Grimm! Help us!” The young girl screams inside her head.

Just keep running,” Another voice, this one deeper and wiser than the first sounded, cut in. “We’ll find you.

So the pair run. They run even as the sounds of pursuit continues behind them, the beast roaring and snarling. They run as they hear the snapping crack of lasguns and other rifles firing away at the Grimm.

It’s instinct that keeps them running. And it’s instinct that makes Carmen put all of her miniscule strength into pulling Melo down to the ground, the older girl crying in shock as she falls.

The sound of a claw slashing through the air above their heads, accompanied by the sound of a heavy weight sailing above their heads prove Carmen’s actions right.

The Grimm misses them by inches as it tries to leap at them. Its jet black body flies over their heads as the pair of girls hug the ground, before it impacts on the ground with a tremoring rumble. Flagstones crack and splinter, some sent flying in dangerous shrapnel.

Slowly, painfully, angrily, the Alpha Beowolf pulls itself upright. It stares blood red eyes straight at the pair of girls cowering on the ground in front of it. It roars at the pair and lunges at them.

There is nowhere to run now.

Melo grips Carmen tight to her as tears begin to fall at the sight of the beast lunging at them. She weeps and calls out to her parents, hoping in the childlike manner that they will appear out of nowhere to save her. Carmen’s mind just goes blank with fear.

The beast reaches the apex of its jump… but does not angle itself to fall down onto its prey. Instead, it just sails right over the two children, flying several dozen feet before it impacts against the stone wall of a building, sending bricks and mortar into dust before the roof caves in on it.


He has reservations about using his Semblance, but only on people. On Grimm, Yatsuhashi has no such issues. They are beasts. Worse than beasts. Demons of the dark, nightmares given form.

And as he watches the Alpha Beowolf pull itself from the rubble of the house it flung itself into with his aid, the Huntsmen-in-training realizes that he’s not far off the mark.

It is at least twice his height at the shoulder, not counting the large spines coming out of the shoulder blades and spine. Like all Grimm, it has black fur with white, almost grey scales of armour on the arms, torso and thighs. The bone armour, from the horrible head to the toes, is nicked and scoured with countless signs of conflict, truly marking it as an Alpha. An old one too.

As the creature pulls itself clear of the ruin of the home it landed in, the nightmarishness of the Alpha is revealed. Parts of its jet black hide have been burned away to the flesh by the heat of the flames outside of the walls, patches of ruined and burnt hide visible from the light afforded to the evacuation and the flames of battle. Its claws are ragged but deadly from the climb over the wall and its shoulders have been torn bloody by the spikes. The heat, in a twisted sense of irony, has cauterised the wounds, making them horrid to look at, even as some hint of bone peeks out from beneath. Ichor and blood oozes from bullet holes and laser burns on its hide, and blood and human skin drips and hangs from its panting maw.

Black, white and red. The colours of Grimm. The colours of death on the world of Remnant.

The Alpha Beowolf roars, a screaming cry that almost sounds human. A deep, human cry of pain and anger combined with an animal’s howl. It’s a primal sound, and it sets Yatsuhashi on edge.

But he forces down the sensation. He forces down the fear the roar sets in him and the rage that he feels at the beast going after the two children.

Tightening his hands on Fulcrum’s grip, Yatsuhashi draws the sword back, blade parallel to the floor. He focuses his attention as the Alpha gets over its disorientation. He keeps focus even as a figure all in red, with two children in his arms, lands beside him.

Good timing, Yatsu.” Fox sends, keeping his eyes on the Alpha as he carefully handles the girls. Looking down to his side, the blind Huntsman-in-training speaks up. “Are you girls okay?”

The eldest one has her eyes shut tight, tears streaming down her face. “I want my ma!”

“We’ll get you back to your parents soon.” Yatsuhashi says as calmly as he can, given the situation. “Fox, you get them out of here. I’ll handle this guy.”

Fox lifts his head, ready to say something to his friend, but he can feel the determination radiating from his teammate, so he just nods his head before he dashes off again.

The ground tremors slightly as the Alpha now stands clear of the house, drawing itself to its full height. The teen doesn’t know what’s going on in the creature’s mind, but as Yatsuhashi sees the beast slam its forepaws onto the ground before it lets out a bellow directed at him, he instinctually knows what it’s saying.

Challenge. It’s challenging him.

“All right then…” He says softly, readying the muscles in his arms for the fight.

“OPEN FIRE!”

The flurry of beams that splash out against the Alpha, scarring its hide more and causing it to growl out in pain and anger.

They come, firing at a run. Armoured head to toe in armour that would make the Atlesian army jealous, with guns pouring enough fire to match Coco in a good mood. There’s only ten of them, but they match the firepower of twice their number. Even as they split into pairs and begin to circle around the Grimm, their firepower does not let up.

Yatsuhashi moves forward to engage the beast, but finds himself held back by a pair of strong arms. Looking quickly, all he sees are faces covered by heavy duty rebreather masks and orange goggles. The grip on his arms are surprisingly strong.

“Stay back a moment, son!” One of them says, their voice coming out as a near metallic rasp.

“Throwing frag!” A soldier in one of the pairs calls out, before their voice is followed by another yelling: “Throwing stun!”

Flashes fill the night, forcing Yatsuhashi to shield his eyes, as nearly a dozen thunderclaps and explosions fill his vision, jarring his sight. His ears ring but he can still hear the sound of the Alpha Beowolf roaring with rage and pain.

“Fry it, Womack!”

Another soldier jogs up to the fight. Instead of the standard laser guns, this one carries a large, heavy looking weapon. It’s spine is ribbed like a caterpillar and glows with a light blue glow. It vents blue steam while the barrel is discoloured from repeated firing. The soldier stops and points the gun at the Alpha.

Yatsuhashi doesn’t know what the gun is called, but he knows that it’s definitely a Grimm killer.

And as he turns to look at the Grimm being peppered, seeing it bombarded by grenades, the huntsman-in-training sees the same realization come to the Alpha.

A giant paw smashes down into the ground, shattering flagstones as it uses its claws like a plough, not caring over the broken state of its claws as it gathers the stones in its paws, and then propels them, throws them, at speed.

“Watch out!” Yatsuhashi calls out, grabbing the soldiers at his side before he spins them both. Using Fulcrum as a shield and allowing his Aura to take the hits, the giant teen feels the barest impacts from the flying rock fragments.

Even as the soldiers still keep firing, not all of them are lucky.

A bright flash of blue light blinds Yatsuhashi momentarily, the sound of the explosion almost deafening him. Although it does nothing to mask the quick, painfilled scream. Blinking away spots in his vision, Yatsuhashi turns and instantly pales. Where once was a man in armour now stands a smouldering pair of legs, everything from the waist up charred away into just smoke.

The legs crumple to the ground, and the Alpha is on him.

Training and his own natural reactions allow Yatsuhashi to bring his sword up to defend against the claw that is aimed at his face. The claw collides with the flat edge of Fulcrum, driving the weapon into Yatsuhashi’s face, but he lets the blow ride, leaning backwards to take the shock out of the hit.

If it had been another day and another place, Yatsuhashi would have easily countered the hit, letting the arm slide past him before driving Fulcrum into either the Grimm’s chest to bisect it, or taking the arm off before going in for the kill. This is not one of those days.

Yatsuhashi’s arms burn with lactic acid build-up, making his muscles ache. He strains against the strength of the blow forcing him down and he begins to feel his backbone ache from him being bent nearly double. Even injured as it is, the Alpha is still formidable.

Looking into its eyes, he can see why: it’s all madness. All that remains in the beast’s mind is madness from the pain of its injuries.

Yatsuhashi’s Aura flares into life, doing what it can to off-set the pain in his arms and back as he pushes back against the Alpha. He lets out a roar of his own as he stands himself back up to his full height, leveraging his sword upright before he gets it loose and starts swinging again.

Fulcrum’s near-golden edge flashes in the night as it swings scything arcs through the air. It connects soundly with white bone, drawing dull sounds of impact. If the beast is bothered by the hits, it gives no sign.

Even as white hot lines of laser fire splash into the Grimm, the Alpha is still focused on Yatsuhashi. It’s an exploitable weakness, but he’s by himself.

Fox, where are you?!” Yatsuhashi calls out with his mind, knowing that Fox should hear him, even as he parries more blows from the Beowolf.

I’m on the way!” Fox replies, his voice sounding harried even as he responds telepathically. “I’ve also brought friends.

Dodging a downward hit that shatters more stone, Yatsuhashi swallows. ‘Oh, if it’s Coco, this fight will not get better…

He doesn’t dwell on the thought long, as the Alpha swings a heavy punch that connects with Yatsuhashi’s right forearm, sending it, and Fulcrum,  far off balance. His Aura flares into life to take the hit, but it still leaves him exposed to the Alpha as its mouth opens wide and lunges directly at Yatsuhashi’s head.

Yatsuhashi Daichi is not a young man prone to swearing, even in the rare times that his anger is let slip. But as he feels the warm, rancid breath of the creature was over his face, one word springs to his mind and mouth: “Shit…”

Spots of light flash into his vision again as a beam of light the same thickness of his wrist flashes almost an inch in front of his face before it hits directly in the side of the Grimm’s skull. Straight in its left eye. That draws a true bellow of rage from the creature, pitching its head back to howl in agony and distracting it from its attempted meal of bleu Yatsuhashi.

“How do you like that, you shit-head Warp freak!?” A man calls out, his voice thick with rage and fury, making both combatants turn.

It’s just one soldier, less heavily armoured and armed than the others. His face is dirtied and a large cut runs diagonally on the left side of his chin. His face is twisted with anger even as he ejects a short, spent magazine from his smoking gun and replaces it before he cries out again.

“You want something to eat? I’m right here you frakking piece of xenos shit!”

Even with a steaming hole where one of its eyes should be, the Alpha turns its head at the lone man. His anger is greater than Yatsuhashi’s, so the Grimm charges him, knocking Yatsuhashi onto his back.

Pushing himself back onto his feet, the huntsman-in-training chases after the beast. One man alone? Even with whatever sort of space-technology the man has, there’s no way that the soldier is going to face the Grimm down alone.

The soldier calmly raises his rifle to his shoulder and aims it at the onrushing beast. On Remnant, if you’re not a Huntsman, of any stripe, such a gesture is the same pissing against the wind. But the soldier doesn’t even blink as he simply stares down the beast that rushes at him.

The Alpha holds a giant paw out in front of it, reaching forward to skewer the soldier on its claws. Yatsuhashi prepares for the inevitable. Something so courageous wouldn’t go unanswered with blood on Remnant.

He does not expect the loop of metallic-grey rope that springs out of the darkness and encircles the Grimm’s outstretched arm, pulling taught as it reaches the end of the forelimb.

“Pull!” A deep bass voice commands and the rope is suddenly pulled back, pitching the Alpha off-balance and checking its run.

Stopping himself short, Yatsuhashi’s eyes follow the length of rope, back to where it was thrown from. His eyes open wide as he sees three of the giants in the steel armour pulling the rope tight, thick muscles in their arms and legs almost bulging out from their clothing as they put all of their weight into keeping the Alpha Beowolf in place.

Another rope hisses out of the shadows, looping around the confused beasts other arm before it is pulled taught too by three more of the giants. Whatever the material is used to make the ropes, it keeps the Grimm in check, even as it thrashes against the restraints.

With a heavy sound of strained grunts and creaking metal, the giants pull tight on the ropes in their hands as they fight against the beasts strength.

Yatsuhashi just stares dumbfounded at what he is seeing. Six men, each one the size of him, is keeping an Alpha Beowolf at bay with what appears to be lengths of metal rope. Granted, the Grimm is not being kept still as it thrashes around left and right, but still, it’s something.

The sounds of battle cannot mask the howls of impotent rage and checked anger from the Beowolf as it fights against its bonds. It takes a step forward, pulling one of its arms across itself to unbalance the giants keeping its right side constrained.

Fox is there in a flash, in front of the Alpha. Raising his tonfas, he dashes forward and begins landing blows onto the creatures torso, cutting away at the exposed skin and muscle on the Grimm.

The howl of pain that the Alpha unleashes signals that was not the best idea. Whipping its arm around, pulling the giants off their feet, the Alpha swings a paw at Fox’s right side, just catching him unawares. The student-Huntsman catches the paw on his tonfas, but he doesn’t expect the claws to tighten around his arms, keeping him pinned.

Whatever plan had been quickly hatched now falls apart. The soldier, who had so bravely acted as bait now starts yelling at Fox to try and get out of there.

“Take the shot, Guardsman!” One of the giants holding the right arm steady bawls out as they do their best to keep the Alpha Beowolf off-balance. The other band of giants try and get control of the other rope, but the wild movements of the Grimm keep the rope from their grasp.

Yatsuhashi runs forward to help in any way he can when he hears Fox call out to the soldier: “I can take it! Just take the shot!”

He can’t see what happens next, but Yatsuhashi can hear the sounds of the rifle firing, and then the beast roaring in pain as its head pitches backwards, letting Fox go in the process.

He takes that as his cue. Rallying his strength, Yatsuhashi charges forward, Fulcrum held ready. He aims for the Alpha’s torso, putting all of his arm muscles into one single swipe that will bisect it.

He swings his sword, yelling an atonal inarticulate cry as puts all his strength behind it, and slams it directly into the Beowolfs exposed chest. Fulcrum’s edge cuts through muscles, sinew and bone, severing all almost neatly. The lower half drops to the ground, dissolving almost instantly while the upper half follows seconds after, jerked onto its back by the giants still holding the rope taught.

The jaws of the Alpha still snap and growl, weaker than before, but still deadly in its own right. Yatsuhashi draws in a deep breath before he lets out a growl in annoyance. ‘How the hell is this thing still moving?

The Grimm defied all known biological law, Yatsuhashi knows that. Seeing one up close and in such a state proves that. Did it have to do with the nerve-endings in the creatures, one of the few single things that would be able to show that a Grimm is indeed an animal? Or was it just the creatures mind that drove it on; that sheer unrelenting desire to slay humanity and Faunus alike? Or was it, he thinks as he sees the Grimm manage to flop itself onto its front and try to snap at his feet, just the fact that this Alpha had gone completely insane?

Just kill it, Yatsu.” Fox transmits, from his position lying on his back next to one of the crouched giants.

The student-Huntsman nods his head, getting his breath back as he takes a grip of his weapon. Whatever powers this beast matters little, he decides. Right now, it’s just a ghastly mess.

The sound of a blade punching though Grimm flesh shocks Yatsuhashi into inaction. Standing on top of the fallen Grimm, the same soldier from before is standing over the beast, rifle in hand. He’s attached a bayonet to the barrel of his gun and has driven it directly into the back of the creatures skull. The man doesn’t say a word, his teeth bared in a spiteful grimace, even as he pulls the trigger of his weapon. A blast of light flashes forward and destroys the entire top half of the beasts head.

The Alpha’s movements stop and its body beings to dissolve.

No-one says a word, even as the soldier steps down from the dead body and hocks up a large glob of spit onto the fading corpse. The wind takes the wisps of black matter away even as they dissolve into nothingness.

No-one says a word, because they all listen to what is happening on the wall.

The sounds of battle have finally petered out, leaving only a few cracks from lasguns or isolated barks from heavier weapons. And in their place, sounding over the fading roar of the retreating Grimm that are running into the forest, a cry has been taken up.

No-one knows who started it, and no-one will be able to say who they think started it or if they even started it themselves. But it’s just one word. A name. A cry of defiance and victory, repeated over and over again.

“MARYSVILLE! MARYSVILLE! MARYSVILLE!”