Maurice’s sprint for his life turned into a skid as he tried to close a curve, his shoulder impacting the opposite wall with enough force to make his teeth rattle. He kept running, not caring about the icy floor. The risk of toppling over was inferior to the risk of death. He dashed to the external stairwell, rising high enough to check where the lights were before jumping off to keep running in the street. The echo of his steps on the metal hadn’t died off when he turned to look back, his torchlight illuminating only smoke in the alley. He started running again, lungs burning while he frantically gulped the freezing air. He didn’t dare to slow down even to put his thermal mask back on. He turned another corner and saw that the light was closer.
The Obsidian Parade slipped into orbit like a bead of sweat unto a blacksmith’s brow. Far from the grandeur of other vessels of the chapter, the starship behaved with the precision of any of their tools. One doesn’t need a sledgehammer to kill an ant. Drako Rinarion was at the main window on the observation bridge. Despite the myriad worlds of the Imperium, a so-called “eyeball planet” was still not a common view. The arid side, always facing the sun, and the frosted other, always directed to the darkness of the void. They met in a green band, the most inhabited area, resembling an iris. Drako looked at the celestial body and had the absurd sensation of being watched. He wondered what secrets this metaphorical eye hid. ‘Where has the missing expedition of the planetary defence force gone?’
‘At the current vector, we’ll be on target in 1.13 Terran hours. Should I request to alter the gradient of descent? An angle 4.7% steeper in atmospheric entrance will grant us a 19.2-minute advant-’
‘No need for that. Thank you, Brother Tsu’Jal.’ The Captain of the Sullen Embers, a six-Astartes-strong reconnaissance team, was poked by the sting of disappointment that sometimes one of his Chapter felt toward the cold, machine-centric disposition of Astartes trained by the red-robed priest of Mars. Undeniable was the utility of a Techmarine, but was that alone worth the distance from their brothers, with whom they worked the forges on Nocturne?
Their objective dawned on the dark horizon. From orbit, it looked like a wart on the vitreous humour of the planet. The main drills for promethium extraction challenged the governor’s tower in height; the hive city had been built around them like a military settlement around the general’s tent. Greenlit by the screen he was looking at, Brother Numai’s face was sombre while he highlighted the main structure of the hive by clicking a couple of dot-runes.
‘Down those pipelines awaits enough raw promethium to extract for the next 5,000 years, and yet the city is not much hotter than the glacial plains on which it stands. Our auspex says the atmosphere nearby is devoid of smoke for at least a couple of weeks.’
Approaching the screen with folded arms, Brother-Apothecary Adatar Kelm alternated his gaze between the planet and the screen.
‘So, we’re here to find out who turned off our fuel tap, Captain?’
‘We were nearby, and we got the distress signal before it could reach home and cause concern. We’ll solve whatever problem, then bring the good news back ourselves.’ The commander again didn’t turn to reply. Brother Kelm looked again at the planet with a snarky smile.
‘It will be good to be home again. Doesn’t this planet remind you of Brother Kor-Kados’ sister?’ The newly minted member of the squad raised his head when mentioned by Kelm. ‘If I remember correctly, she had eyes almost this big. We should introduce her to my great-great-nephew. With her beauty, your brawn and my brain, we’ll get the perfect recruits for the next Astartes enlistment.’ To his credit, the trainee swiftly joined the jest.
‘Thank you for the kind proposal Brother, but we’ll add too much sarcasm in the genes. To find a match rich in intelligence, I had better inquire about the relatives of Lord Rinarion, or maybe those of Brother Xa’Rac.’
The little jest died at the mention of Xa’Rac’s descendants. Numai looked sternly in Xa’Rac’s direction. For his part, the mentioned Astartes seemed unperturbed. In the back, readying his gear, he continued to bless his bolter with a small hand-censer. The smoothness of the ritualistic movements looked almost antithetical compared with his hands, impressively covered as they were with scar tissue. Kor-Kados looked around, puzzled, receiving a small nod of denial from Adatar Kelm. At last, Xa’Rac, hooked by the newcomer’s gaze, lifted his head and gave him a reassuring smile that hid a trace of melancholy.
‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing. But I’ll suggest that you meditate for more wisdom. It’s not the best idea to turn down a proposal from the apothecary who’ll have you under his medical care.’ Chuckles resurfaced, except from Drako. The Captain released a breath and, for a moment, considered his reflection in the glass.
‘Sullen Embers, don your armour. We meet at the Thunderhawk.’
The various members started for the door. Passing by, Kelm put a hand on Xa’Rac’s shoulder.
‘Let’s go Brother, be careful to take cover down there… it’s a chilly place.’ The joke was rewarded with a smirk as they walked away.
From the Ground
The hive looked like a cake covered in dark candles, with only one lit. A single window in a million challenged the night. Its light flickered like a match against the wind howling between the mining towers. Auspex scans caressed the walls while they approached, revealing only sheets of ice coating the rockcrete. The gates were unmanned and unpowered. Three Salamander Marines used their bulk against a service entrance after Brother Kor-Kados carved the plasteel with his multi-meltagun, instantly defrosting and vaporising the lock. The door protested more than its owners because the interior looked deserted.
The Astartes and the new defence force contingent that had joined them parted in three teams: Techmarine Tsu’Jal and Brother Kor-Kados were sent with Lieutenant Riley directly toward the Governor’s spire. Commander Rinarion took Brother Xa’Rac and some soldiers with him down into the underworks. They would check the promethium storage and then beeline for the core reactor near the main drills. Brother Numai and Apothecary Kelm were to seek answers at the only light visible in the city. Sergeant Rhal, head of the soldiers dispatched with them, could not refrain from an old Terran saying: ‘Like moths toward a flame.’
Advancing into the City
Lieutenant Riley peeked around a corner, night goggles painting the scene ahead green. He gestured forward, and his men ventured on, spreading out like a fan, with the hulking stride of Brother Kor-Kados at the speartip and the similar mass of Brother Tsu’Jal covering the rear. The canopies and kiosks of a city’s bazaar looked eerie in the monocoloured vision, not to mention the absence of any living soul. They proceeded with caution inside the maze, wary of ambushers because of the surfeit of available hiding spots. Only empty stalls seemed to watch them as they paraded through, desks covered with food and trinkets left motionless, undisturbed, like a toy forgotten in a dusty service room. A soldier ducked under dangling wind chimes to briefly shine the beam of his torchlight inside a tent, greeted only by storage crates. Even if abandoned, the open market was insulated enough not to have been reclaimed by the cold outside. Brother Kor-Kados signalled to wait, his genecoded infrared Fire-Sight picking up details that the humans had missed. He broke formation, taking a few strides. The hiss of the seal was audible to everyone in the deserted market. Removing a glove, the Space Marine traced his finger in the soot around a stove, rubbing the collected grime between his fingertips. Then he shoved his hand in the charcoals like a man could do in a sack of grain, eliciting a gasp from one soldier. It resurfaced, cupping without visible discomfort the stillborn orange motes of a previous roaring flame.
‘Not much time has passed since a fire burned bright here.’ His massive fist closed on the coals of the same colour, grinding them to dust before shaking his fist and regloving his hand. ‘There has been no man-made quenching of the flames. It died alone.’ The group resumed marching, while those last words haunted some of their thoughts.
Frost coated the metal stairwell, prompting the squad of soldiers to place careful steps like they were exiting the bedchambers of a sleeping lover. With no such qualms about the risk of slipping but not wanting to make the other’s descent worse by shaking the stairs with their stride, the two Space Marines went ahead of them, scouting.‘I’ve not seen signs of battle since we entered the outer walls. An external assault did not prompt the city’s lockdown. Still no readings on the Governor’s Panic Room, Brother Xa’Rac?’
‘No, Lord Rinarion. Brother Tzu’Jal needs to get closer, I presume.’
Captain Drako Rinarion nonchalantly bashed down a door with his shoulder and swept the room with the muzzle of his firethrower, then returned to the path. ‘If we can get unnerved by this calm, our Imperial Guards must already feel in a storm. Their companions in the planetary defence force previously sent here have vanished.’
‘We will be a beacon of hope for them.’ Brother Xa’Rac opened a channel to the imperial guards behind them. ‘This place looks clear. Stride forward, sons of the Imperium. The Flames of Nocturne are beside us!’
‘Well said. Brother Kelm would have remarked that you say that while you’re the one carrying a bolter.’ The trace of irony trailed off from Rinarion’s voice. ‘Sometimes we see something as a curse that reveals itself to be a blessing later. You are a Son of Vulkan to the core. Nobody can put that in doubt, you included! Surely, this is proven by the boons of our Father. You’re more fire-resistant than most of us, born from flames.’
‘My Liege!’ Drako swivelled around to find Brother Xa’Rac with a hand on the side of his helm, as he was listening to a communication with great attention.
The nail hissed in the air and planted itself into the corner of the wall, vibrating with a menacing hum.
‘Tryn again to take me, would ya? Got munition aplenty ye bastards!’ Yelled a gruff voice before releasing another poorly aimed shot. While the five astra militarum soldiers ducked for cover as one, Brother Numai and Apothecary Kelm traded a helmed look, voxed the others to stay put and calmly walked forward. A couple of nails bounced off, the impromptu gun unable to do more than scratch on the paint of their armour. Neither was the standard-issue metal door of a civilian structure a match for their strength. Brother Kelm kicked it open. The maintenance chamber looked like it housed someone who had not exited for several weeks. The scrawny man holding the small nailgun matched the culprit in question. With skinny arms trembling in the freezing air from the wide open door and a partially ajar window, he kept shooting at the space marines standing still a few paces away. Barely standing up against the work tool’s recoil, he kept shouting like a madman: ‘Ye’re in the light! Ye’re in the light!’ Eventually, he stopped shooting, realising the futility of the attempt. As the exhausted man slumped down, the Apothecary knelt over him. The helmet’s sensor readings revealed only a bit of consumption and an expectably high level of adrenaline and cortisol, no aerial toxins or pathogens. Talking smoothly to calm him down, Adatar Kelm removed the nailgun from the man’s hand, then he removed his helmet so they were face-to-face, inspecting the shocked individual with his fiery red eyes. When the soldiers entered the room, covering their noses against the stench but otherwise appreciating the tepid air, the Space Marine was repeating, ‘You can relax now civilian, we are here, but we need to assess the situation. Breathe deeply, then tell us again what happened here. Where have the other inhabitants gone?’
‘Thoy’ve left the light. Got banished, the Lectio wull say. But ye can stay. I hav the light. I won’t be alone anymore.’
‘You won’t be. Some of these good soldiers will stay and protect you. But we need to advance and meet up with our Brothers. Can’t you tell me anything else useful about what awaits us outside?’ He had to add a “Please” to regain the man’s attention.
The human wreckage started to shake his head. ‘Ma wife. Ma wife is out there. She went out, she left the light, she left me in the light.’
‘We won’t obtain much more from him, I suppose, good hunting Brothers, out.’ Brother Numai blink-clicked out of the vox channel shared with Xa’Rac and the other group’s commsmen. ‘Let’s move.’
‘Santos, Ayabusa, stay here with our guest. If he calms down, ask him again about the previous defence-force mission which vanished here.’ Sergeant Rhal instructed, pity in his eyes while looking at the mess. He was headed out of the door just as the survivor spoke again.
‘What awaits ye outside…’ he said, blankly staring at the opening, ‘…it’s death.’
The soldier considered it for a moment.
‘I’m urging you to consider a career as an Astra Militarum Recruiter. You have the perfect attitude for the job.’ Then he ventured out into the darkness to face the usual soldier’s odds.
‘Tense nerves can summon more ghosts than a cemetery world,’ thought soldier Gregor the first time he heard the faint rasping. He considered taking a pill from his pocket when he heard it a second time, something to help him focus and ignore the whispers of his worried mind. The third time soldier Maria asked if someone else heard something, Gregor felt an incongruous mix of emotions. It was a relief that his senses were not mistaken, but the realisation that there was indeed something in the darkness was more chilling than the freezing air. Confirmations of the sound brought the squad to hold their breaths, stop and scan the area in a ballet of infrared goggles and las-muzzles, turning around almost frantically. The forward duo of Astartes backpedalled to regroup, moving as silently as their heavy thrumming armour allowed.
‘There! Seventh level!’
‘I… maybe a silhouette Sir.’
‘The sounds seem closer and below.’
The murmured conversation between soldiers ceased while they listened intently. Gregor became aware of the buzzing of a space marine’s equipment, the fickle creaking of ice clinging on the metal platforms, the rattling of someone’s teeth. And that rasping again, too erratic to be natural. The wary guard ventured forward a little, and that was when he noticed the protrusions. He pointed them out to Lord Rinarion, who squinted against the dark.
‘Roots. Darker than the perpetual night of this place, they have wormed their way around and inside some of the structures; the rockcrete and plasteel alike. No report had mentioned these. Did anyone native to the planet know something about strange xenos-plants?’
Brother Xa’Rac felt a need to inform the other teams of this discovery. He recognised that he wanted both to provide his brothers with critical information and also to be the first to give the teams a potential tactical advantage. Even after many years, the Burned One needed to prove himself. He voxed his observations.
‘No actual data from visual or auspex matching the denomination of “roots” in our transit areas, will inform if found.’ Tzù’Jal’s tone was dry, his words clear to those around despite the howling wind. Exiting the market area, the frigid gale had become a constant nuisance on the main road. Large and uncovered to allow cargo transit from and to the city’s centre, walking through it was like being in a high mountain valley. The channelled breeze blew ice dust across their lenses. It impeded their progress but provided cover to enemy eyes, they hoped. Still, a soldier noticed something in an alley and went for it. Just four or five strides brought her to the perimeter of a small square, tucked between dull houses. The frost cover extended on all sides like sugary icing, cracking under each of her steps. It did not crack under the excited jumps of the two children who were playing ball in the space. The domestic scene left her dumbfounded for seconds until the children’s toy evaded a catch and rolled toward her. The children turned and giggled, while her gaze descended on the object near her feet.
‘What in the warp?’ she stared at the detached head of the missing defence force soldier Maurice, a nail jutting from one eye.
‘I dare ask, my Lord: We heard many tales about His Angels, always aloof, cold in the face of unspeakable dangers… You don’t seem to fit the holier-than-thou description, starting with the kind manner in which you talked to that civilian… You look more lively, may I say.’
‘What did you dare to say, Guardsman?!?’ Adatar Kelm snapped and turned to loom over the Sergeant, prompting all the other soldiers to step back or stop dead in their tracks. Brother Numai lifted his eyes to the sky and kept advancing.
‘Say-that-again.’ The vox distorted the booming voice, adding a rough layer to the words, as the Apothecary took another step toward the guard. Rhal swallowed, mentally prayed to the Emperor to watch over any sons he didn’t know he had, and then raised the stakes.
‘Well, this confirms my hypothesis, but I pray thee, O Mighty: If you desire to come even closer, at least offer me a drink before doing so.’
Brother Kelm stood his ground, but could not resist more than a handful of seconds before bursting into a full-chested laugh.
‘Hahahaha, by Tu’Shan’s loincloth, this planet has much more than promethium as fuel. Your humour burns much more brightly tonight.’ He slammed a merry pat on the Sergeant’s back, not strongly enough to leave bruises and test bones, but not so far from it either. ‘Listen to me, Son of the Imperium. We’re Salamanders. We embrace emotions other Astartes choose to forget. They are brave and honourable indeed. All of us know no fear. But we, Sons of Vulkan, think that we need to remember more about how it was to be human. To best know where we must stand. And it’s a pleasure to stand beside such a brave man, but I’ll suggest you dial down your humour with other Chapter’s Marines… except maybe-’ The comms came to life and made them rush to the other Space Marine.
Brother Numai was almost blocking a side alley with his bulk, facing a scruffy and frail-looking peasant some distance away. The man was crouched and dressed in rags despite the perpetually cold night. Hearing the crunch of ice under the squad’s feet, or maybe seeing the little flame on the tip of Numai’s weapon, the figure rose with sudden but stiff movements.
‘Stand down civilian. We are here to protect you. What happened? Calm yourself, in the Emperor’s name.’ Lost in some world only he could see, the individual stroked his face, eyes almost bulging out, then bounded forward with his mouth wide open in a soundless shriek.
‘I said stand down!’ Numai lifted his left hand, hitting the man with no real force, keeping him at arm’s length. The man reached up, and the space marine saw razor-like fingers penetrate his wrist joint. He felt the truest reminder of having been human: pain.
‘What the…’ Superhuman reflexes shoved the aggressor back and squeezed the trigger. The flamethrower roared to life, with all the indignation the weapon’s machine spirit felt for the slog in the freezing place. His fury enveloped the offender and washed the narrow alley in a torrent of flame, the brightest light the city had seen in a while. The threat alerts in his display vanished, and Numai retracted the assault, keeping the fire on the muzzle to better scan the area. He observed the sizzling ground and walls, marred by the heat but with not even a single flake of ash; only smoke remained. Flexing the injured wrist, he turned to the rest of the approaching squad.
‘I’m not sure what just happened. I can swear on Nocturne’s Sacred Ground he, or it, was-’ the words were drowned in a wet gurgle when a hand reached out from behind him, clawing at Numai’s neck.
Fighting Through the City
‘Why won’t they fall??’ The frustrated scream of a soldier was almost lost among the staccato sound of lasrifles. The squad unleashed their weapons into the frenzied mob that charged from the alleys, an outpouring of bodies that looked human but ignored the fire. Lasers made them stumble and opened smoky holes but didn’t stop them. Brother Tzu’Jal stepped in front of the guardsman and swatted with his thunder hammer, launching half a dozen of the aggressors in the air in a mess of crushed corpses. The sonic boom staggered those nearby, soldiers and enemies alike. With a hydraulic whirl, the space marine pointed a servoarm-mounted plasma pistol and fired. The gush of incandescent matter brought slightly better results in stopping them than the lasrifle fire.
‘Observation: the subjects seem impervious to energy-based weapons. Application of kinetic force is instead preferred.’ Another servoarm surged, halting another assailant in midair by grabbing him by the neck.
‘Record everything. When we get back, we’ll send those data to the xenobiologists and the Inquisition.’ He crushed an enemy’s neck with his pincer arm, and bright blood splashed across his red armour.‘The blood appears similar to standard human biology.’ The dispassionate demeanour of the techmarine was disconcerting for young Brother Kor-Kados, already disheartened by the fully human appearance of their foes. He pushed away those thoughts, unsavoury on the line of duty, and opened fire with his multi-melta, vaporising a wave of disconcertingly silent attackers.
Brother Kelm caught his falling brother as the Guardsmen opened fire on the human-looking figure. Beams of superheated laser light punctured the body, turning chunks into smoke but never leaving a wound, the grey mist congealing back a moment later. ‘The-gllugll ligggth-‘ With each pump of the two hearts, Brother Numai felt hot liquid coursing down under the breastplate and up in the helmet. Larraman cells fought to clot the neck wound, like people trying to wade a river reaching for each other’s hands. Discarding the idea of talking, he pointed a weakened hand towards the array on the back of the companion holding him. And Kelm understood him, instantly blink-clicking the command and pointing the shoulder-mounted headlight to shine at the enemy.
Broadly illuminated, it became fully made of smoke, a swirling angry nimbus in place, incapable of moving further, it seemed, deprived of any physical form and force. Surging with fury and contempt, the Salamander dove with his wrist-mounted narthecium towards the head of the creature. Diverting the light at the last split second, he made it rematerialise in time for the impact. Blood, bone and brain matter sprayed around, now real and tangible, and the being fell dead. Dead as Brother Numai would soon be. By the time the apothecary could reach his grievous wound, he had not much else to do but rev up the drill again and proceed to remove the progenoid glands.
‘Numai is dead.’ The news reverberated among the team members, pausing the steps of each member.
‘About those monsters… It’s the light, like the distressed civilian was saying.’ The joy has gone from Adatar Kelm’s voice. ‘Light turns them to smoke. Until they return to the shadows, they can neither move nor be wounded.’ He raised a hard stare towards the guardsman with him. ‘Lasguns shots will render them insubstantial for a second, instead of dealing damage.’
‘Our observations confirm yours, Brother. Plasma weapons will have negligible effect.’ said Brother Tsu’Jal over the vox in agreement, his voice cold as it was unfiltered.
‘I suspect not even flamers will be effective. We need to unravel more about this threat. Currently, we’re at too much of a disadvantage. So much that it seems almost intentional.’ The Commander growled, his brooding anger making his blood grow hotter than his weapon. Lord Rinarion closed with an order.
‘All guardsmen, keep your torches lit. Focus on slowing them and leave engagement to us Astartes.’
At the starting point of the communication, the quip of Sergeant Rhal was a bit drier than usual, rising sarcasm to fight fear. ‘Well, after all this time, a win for those who addressed our rifles as “flashlights”.’
Commander Rinarion would soon come to regret his last order. As the party proceeded down into the bowels of the refinery district, they noticed black roots invading the structure of the building around them. Thick and gnarled like ancient tree roots but dark as the void, they twisted through the very rockcrete. Sweeps with torches revealed that the roots were as sensitive to light as the hoards of monsters above. Three guards focusing the light they wielded on a wall made the branched tendril grappling it shrivel and turn to smoke. A low rumble sounded, and the three froze in surprise. The ground beneath them buckled, throwing them into the air. Rinarion charged, somehow manifesting the speed necessary to reach the soldiers in time and the control of the momentum to push them away without hurting them much more than the ensuing avalanche would have. Absent the added support of the shadow growths, the rockcrete plummeted into the metal passageways, and the structure shook from the impact, but it held.
Coughing from the dust, two guards rose. Brother Xa’Rac could see the arm of the third sticking out from the debris that trapped his body. Commander Rinarion started to emerge, but his lower half was stuck in the rubble. His struggles with the weight of the debris and the plasteel began to moan. His would-be rescuers stopped dead.
Still as they were, they could hear the onrushing enemy. A riot of steps down the ramps heralded the incoming mob of human-looking monsters. One of the soldiers who had caused the collapse started whimpering about his failure. His nerves had been broken by the detritus even if his bones had not. There was a jolt on the platform, the support as ready to collapse as the soldier’s resolve. Lord Rinarion took in the whole scene and sighed.
‘My last order is for you to move on, squad.’
‘Sir, we ca-’
‘You will be a great Captain Brother Xa’Rac, I have no doubt. But for now, you’re under my command, and I gave you an order. Move!’ The subordinate was taken aback more by Rinarion’s suddenly calm voice than by the last yell. He had not enough time to process it, as creatures ran and jumped onto the platform, swarming the Commander and the guilt-crushed soldiers, raking at them with their talon-like hands. The extra weight tilted the towering structure even more than the rockfall. When the flamethrower’s reserve detonated, Brother Xa’Rac instinctively raised an arm in front of his face, even if he was in the armour, the blaze firing deep memories.
The explosion was the last insult the structure would bear. Reached by the sudden light, other support tendrils lost consistency, contributing to the collapse. The attacking shadow creatures lost cohesion, turning to smoke briefly before their penumbras solidified again. Their nascently-solid bodies plummeted into a newly-opened chasm that ended in crushing death.
The surviving soldiers were already on the next railings, but as Xa’Rac tried to sprint towards it, the tonnage of an armoured Son of Vulkan worked against him. His fall was just a couple of storeys but had enough momentum to make him pierce a huge metal duct. He immediately started sliding down the dark, round, slippery path.
The squad on the main road, headed to the Governor’s Spire, had most of the monsters on their trail. Their advance became a slog, and the two Marines were forced to spin around the guardsman to face the aggressions from different sides. Suddenly, a beam of light descended on the besieged group.
‘Vulkan Lives!’ Kelm shouted as he emerged from the nearby buildings at the head of Sergeant Rahl and the rest of the guardsmen. The sudden arrival of reinforcements slowed the assault enough to be repelled.
Brother Kor-Kados grasped Brother Kelm’s forearm in a warrior’s salute, but his voice was solemn. ‘Lord Rinarion’s vital signs vanished. I presume you’ll be the one in charge now, Brother Apothecary.’ Kelm nodded, his usual wisecracks absent. Brother Tzu’Jal acknowledged the others but was distracted. His servo-arms moved in the air like an orchestra conductor, tuning into the noospheric frequencies his Brothers could not appreciate.‘I’m sensing a code seven confirmed lockdown. I’m 98.37% positive about Governor Lucathis Neto Shandall being sealed in the Command Centre. Storage inventory proves six months of standard provisions in place.’
‘At least it seems like we’re onto something. Enough wasting time, we press forward!’ Kelm proceeded, checking the status of his medical supplies, should their target require those.
Lacking reinforcement, Brother Xa’Rac was alone, cut off from his guardsmen. He could see them through the small vents high on the huge metal tube. From here, he deduced he was around five or six levels lower than where his skid had started before being stopped by the tube’s closing mechanism. Squinting, he observed the soldiers descending on parallel staircases, which ended a level below him. The guardsmen were being pursued by the enemy, but the sounds of someone coming down the tube after him required Xa’Rac’s immediate attention.
The three guardsmen were bundled together on a narrow rockcrete passageway straddling a canal of promethium refining wastes. The toxicity of the sludge prevented it from freezing, and it flowed languidly. They held the position, hearing Brother Xa’Rac struggling in the ducts above them. Gregor eyed the sludge.
‘Hey Novak, do you have a light?’
The massive grenadier, who often boasted that his grandmother was from Catachan, checked his comrade with a whine from his crude bionic eye.
‘Your last cigarette?’
‘A smoke is better for the lungs than the fumes we’ll generate from burning this slop.’
Novak smiled showing some missing teeth and took out two flare sticks. A moment later they were safe for the time, even a bit warm, as the burning waste projected light and heat around their position. Xa’Rac’s bolter echoed from inside the tube he was stuck in above them.
Brother Kelm wondered when it happened. When did he stop caring about the human appearance, and probably former nature, of the enemies he was bashing around? Vulkan’s doctrines engendered compassion. They did not make his sons hesitant, but Kelm now worried that it burdened them unnecessarily. He had repelled the man-like monsters again and again mechanically, bodies tumbling down the slope to be crushed underfoot by the villains who kept trying to reach the top, the entrance to the Governor’s Control Room. Such detached aggression was alien to him, granted he never shirked his duties, but this mission was starting to take a toll on the survivors, as well as the deceased.
Sergeant Rhal was still aiming his torchlight with one arm while the doctor injected him with painkillers and stopped the haemorrhage of his other arm, severed at the elbow by a vicious clawing. Brother Tsu’Jal’s hands were also out of commission, one typing furiously on a keypad while the other’s finger connector cables linked his mind directly to the panic room controls. Kelm asked the techmarine how much longer it would take.
‘Following the litany of Awakening, I will need to reroute power from the auxiliary energy of my blessed battlesuit, then I will establish a three-arrayed feed if the Machine Spirit will comply. Alternatively, I will try coaxing it to cease its vigil. Engrammatic Codes will need to be stir-‘
‘Coals and ashes!! How much time, Brother?’ Brother Kor-Kados lost his temper. Tsu’Jal, imperturbable, got to the point.
‘Around three standard Terran hours.’
The Apothecary looked at the slope sorely. ‘I’ll give you two.’
The soldier Maria was an average child. She grew up the fifth daughter among eight children in a family of agri-workers and had looked towards the stars with expectancy no more than the next-door fellow. She looked around at that moment, while she and her comrades were shooting, trying to delay the enemies coming down the stairs. With bolter shots ringing loud in the tubes and the fuses of their lives burning so bright as the end drew near, soldiers and Space Marines alike, so close but also so far divided. ‘Burn to burn…’ She thrust her rifle to Novak, who took it and started to shoot akimbo, trusting his fellow guardswoman. Gregor instead turned to check on her.
‘Soldier, get back in line! …Wait, Maria, what are you doing?? Maria!!’ She did not listen, occupied in judging the distance toward a metal catwalk and the control panel of the valves. Then she clenched her teeth and rushed into the burning sludge.
The flames chewed at her legs. Every step she took, there was less fabric, less skin, less flesh on them. She half fell, and half jumped towards the lever, pulling it down and at the same time pulling herself up over the catwalk. Moaning, the shutter at the end of Brother Xa’Rac’s tube opened, and the Salamander jumped out. Maria had the leftover strength to shake the lever back in place, trapping the monsters inside. She then collapsed, poised over the rising heat, but was promptly seized by two huge arms.
‘I won’t leave you here. Soldiers! We move deeper into the complex!’ Xa’Rac shot a glance to the path of fire Maria had braved; his determination rekindled by her bravery.
They raced through an anthill of passageways, distant sounds of followers that they expected to emerge from every corner with each nervous glance at the back. Like raindrops merging over a windscreen, the paths gradually joined, until they reached a T-intersection. There, Gregor and Novak stopped. Xa’Rac noticed after a couple more steps.
‘Soldiers! We must hurry.’
‘You’re right, Sir. Hurry up. This way seems to lead out of the complex. We won’t defeat them, but in these narrow passages, our flashlights will stop any number of them. If you run without us, you’ll reach the storage facilities in no time.’ Gregor stood calm, his voice never trembling as he pronounced their death sentences. The man covered the way they came with a serene expression. It took Xa’Rac a moment that seemed stretched into eternity before deciding and nodding. He could not disrespect the soldiers’ choice. In his arms, Maria struggled.
‘No! My Lord, please, leave me here and bring Gregor with you. He won’t slow you down like me or Novak’s fat ass.’
‘Took it from my grandmother.’ He interjected.
‘Please, I’m useless anyway in this condition.’ She looked up at her carrier, who was on the verge of agreeing and set her down.
‘Your mother and siblings would disagree with that.’ Gregor reprimanded her with a sad smile. Those words resounded inside Xa’Rac like a rock thrown into a well, multiple echoes carrying inside the memories of his own family. His grip on the soldier tightened, and he sprinted away.
The echo of the metallic footsteps soon left Gregor and Novak alone. They stood back to back, facing the opposite corridors, soon filled with smoke at the farthest point reached by their torchlights. They moved only to shift weight from one leg to another, or to pass one another a canteen of some ignoble alcoholic concoction Novak’s grandmother had made. Gregor was deciding if he should share a shameful but funny experience from his last leave when his flashlight started to dwindle. His sweat under the heavy furs he wore felt suddenly cold. He looked at the alley, noticing a figure take a step forward before becoming formless smoke again. The light flickered again, another step. Trembling fingers gently stroked the object, while he murmured praises to motivate its machine spirit. ‘Hold on, hold on a bit more, please.’ His heartbeat quickened in time with the flickers; the monsters advanced an inch at a time. A single tear ran down his cheek.
‘It’s all right. We chose this life. We knew about this death. We have done our duty.’ The burly man handed the other the grenades he had left, the safety pin already off from one, and then he drew his grandma’s oversized knife. Gregor looked at the claws so close to his face. Tired, he sighed and lowered the light.
‘Let us go with the God-Emperor.’ The soldier managed to say with a hopeful smile before being submerged in bodies. Novak stabbed one, and then they vanished together in a blast.
‘How do you think the others are faring?’
‘Comms are tense, but I hope well. Gregor owes me three rounds at the Martyr’s Head’
‘And you hope that miser will deliver? You’re more likely to get a drink off them.’ Ayabusa gestured toward the motionless mass of ex-people. He and Santos had been watching them from the window for hours now. Those motionless figures looked like men, women, and children, but clearly, they weren’t anymore. That display was unsettling, but at least it distracted them from the mess of their guest. He was stammering to himself and pacing around in the soiled room. That is why they didn’t immediately notice the change in his behaviour.
‘I’m tired. I’m tired. I’m tired. Ma wife, ma children. I’ll join them. It’s better that way.’ He swung a rebar, smashing the light generator and opened the door. There was a brief flurry of shots followed by silence.
Subconsciously, Xa’Rac’s mind noted the lights blinking off in the distant skyline. He was more focused on his misdirection of their pursuers. He entered a service room in the promethium storage area and waited for the sounds of pursuit.
The Salamander magnetically clasped his bolter to his leg, removed his helmet and eyed Maria, inviting her to speak freely. The woman shuddered inside the cradle of the arm holding her, rising waves of woe now that the painkillers were wearing off.
‘I overheard him talking to you about a scar you carry to… Something you fear, from the sounds of it… I thought it was impossible for a hero… His Angels know no fear…‘
Sour but not devoid of tenderness was Xa’Rac’s smile.
‘I was not born an Astartes; I became one. I was chosen not for being bright, not for being strong. I was chosen because I was, of all, stubborn. A double-edged blade about holding grievances, I suppose.’
‘…You were… stubborn?’ She tried to mirror the smile, but it was just a grimace because of her pain.
‘I was eight when my house caught fire. My home planet is not a kind one. Even with all our might, we can’t fully keep the forces of nature at bay forever.’ His eyes went out of focus as his mind meandered.
‘They found me in the desert, not an inch of skin untouched by burns. I kept walking away from that pyre that engulfed my relatives because I was stubborn. That’s probably the core of my being. But even now, even if I recognise the sanctity of the purifying flames… It’s not fear, as you thought; it’s something worse: Even mighty Astartes are not impervious to traumatic memories, branded in fire far deeper than the flesh.’
‘Or maybe I’m not enough’. In dire hours, such doubts crawled inside him.
‘During my training, what happened stayed fresh in my mind and the minds of the other novitiates. They named me ‘The Burned One.’ He wore a smile more open now, trying to bring her some hope, trying to summon something for himself, too. ‘To be one of my Legion is not to be the strongest, the fastest, the one without doubts. It’s to be reminded we bear the burden of humanity, for me now even literally.’ She let out a pained chuckle. ‘And because of that, we must keep going. Like you did, even without the resistance of a Son of Vulkan. You freed me in more than one way, reminding me of my past self. You are the true hero today, soldier.’
‘My lord… you honour me… with those words…‘ her voice was faltering, but she mustered the energy for the smile that escaped her before.
‘No, the honour is mine. And you… soldier! Maria! Keep talking! Talk to me! It’s an order!’ But she had nothing more to say.
Finally, the security doors budged, and Tzu’Jal immediately turned to ease the fight for his superior. The door was barely open, but Kelm rushed inside.
‘Rescuers! I never had doubted our brave Salamanders would come! I waited for you!’ The richly dressed figure of the Governor held his arms wide in a welcoming gesture.
‘Sir, I mean no disrespect, but there is no time. I was ordered to escort you to safety. Let’s go before the situation changes for the worse.’ Lieutenant Riley hastily stepped forward.
‘Change is always for the best, Commander.’
A sickening sensation coursed through the Brother-apothecary, standing a few steps back.
‘Riley, step aside.’ The soldier turned to the space marine, confused, while Kelm pointed the beam of his light at the governor. The man insubstantiated, becoming smoke. Unlike the others, two points of baleful darkness remained where his eyes had been, and his pipe clattered to the ground. It was a beautiful, vibrant green, purple, and blue object that was now in plain sight. Its stem curved upright, resembling feathers or flames in the breeze or something else entirely. Its bowl, belching thick smoke, was round like a sphere, with an eye depicted on the side. Riley could have sworn it blinked and turned towards them.
‘Throne, help us.’ The words escaped his lips, while in the darkness around and above them, hundreds of eyes that were darker-than-darkness appeared. A deluge of claws descended on them.
Following the cacophony of shouts and weapons discharge, the comms fizzled down to static. Moments later, another transmission went through, the Obsidian Parade replying affirmatively to the signal of ceased danger and preparing to dock at the hive. A flustered Xa’Rac tried to interject and warn them.
‘It’s the enemy! They are using the city’s array and our Brother’s equipment!’ His radio received another signal, the last mockery.
‘You are the last Ember. No human is left alive in the city. You’re alone. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Join us. Open yourself to the Change like the others on the ship will do when they arri-’ It was his turn to cut off the voice of what had been the governor. He had heard enough. ‘Not a single human still surviving here’. The realisation brought a condescending smile to his face. ‘So that was what Father demanded from this son’.
‘I shall walk a path of pure light, one as none of them could have.’ Xa’Rac vowed over Maria’s corpse, turning towards the lines of colossal promethium tanks.
The hive was ablaze, the walls becoming those of an oven, dappling light bathing every corner. The liquid-made fire washed the city like a living, roaring mantle. Here and there, explosions bloomed. Trees of fire sprouted and left behind pillars of smoke, glistening in refracted light. In that inferno, a figure walked. If anyone could watch him without being blinded by the radiance, he would appear to stretch and dance after the distortion of the heat. But Xa’Rac did not feel like dancing. Each step is heavier, each breath shallower. Under the failing armour, his charcoal skin had no more sweat to shed. All moisture evaporated, and it felt on the point of fusion. Pure force of will and genetic resilience kept him going, lifting his legs one step at a time. The subtle voice of the armour’s machine spirit pushed him further, the proud essence of the cuirass refusing to give up before its master. Even the most highly resistant armour would not withstand that fire forever. The flames ate through his armour’s mechanisms. One eyelense had already cracked. The tall figure wore a cloak of jade particles made from the flaking paint of his armour. Maria’s remains had turned into fine cinders a long time before, in a funeral pyre more majestic than that of any hero of old. The Salamander raised his red eyes and looked towards his final goal.
From moment to moment, he saw disparate things summoned by his heritage. The forges of his Fathers, the one dead, and the one who will never die. His child self, charred feet bleeding on the obsidian scraps of Nocturne’s black soil. The tales of the march on Mount Deathfire with the body of Vulkan, coruscant lava all around. He waded through them, asking for more endurance, but dismissed them in front of the main pipeline’s valve. ‘Enough promethium to last for the next 5,000 years. Sad that they won’t enjoy the light’.
The hull gleamed red, reflecting the bonfire that was now the town. The starship swerved to encircle it, auspex searching for signals long after all machines down there must have died. The deployed Thunderhawk descended dangerously close to the conflagration, fighting against strong upward air currents.
Xa’Rac crawled aboard, unrecognisably charred under his partially-melted ceramite. For a moment, his mind was again in the barren plain, a child’s feet digging in the dark dirt, stepping away from his burning home, coughing, on the verge of collapse. The Burned One lifted himself and kept walking. He walked into a new, heightened existence, leaving behind only smoke.
About the Author
When not lost in the folds of the Webway, Enzo lives on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, Holy Terra.
He writes mostly about ttrpgs, he’s an avid scholar of both history and mythology of our world and various lore of the fictional ones.
It is said that he loves to make others laugh, crafting plots that intrigue and surprise them.
Worshipping Tzeentch has granted him some eldritch powers like being invisible when nobody looks at him, and turning money into books.