A grim-faced Astinon stared at what was left of Brother Lykasz, one of his oldest comrades. Under the crushing, armoured boots of the renegade Terminator, only a headless corpse remained, with splattered blood and brain-matter coating the tunnel floor. The Corvian Commander was in shock at witnessing such a brutal execution of his friend and battle-brother.
The berserker renegades postured like caged beasts behind their leader, who himself stood so calm and assured that he might well have been anywhere but in the thick of battle. He was crouched low, ready to charge at a moment’s notice like a predator that has the scent of its prey and is waiting for the right moment to strike.
For a moment, time seemed to stop for Astinon and he was unable to move. It was as if his body was refusing to do what he asked of it. He was rooted where he stood just before the entrance to the tunnel and the large chamber beyond. His entire body was as taut as a stretched string and he shuddered slightly. His eyes were fixed on the bloody spectacle before him and he was able to see every crack and fracture on his dead brother’s armour.
The clamour of battle around him faded into the background and to him it was as if he existed between two moments. The challenges of the enemy and the battle-cries of his strike team alike faded out as if they were being shouted from a great distance. He could hear none of that. He heard only the twin, rhythmic beatings of his own two hearts.
None of the smells of the tunnel-fight existed for him, both the sweat and blood of the superhuman warriors within or the smoke from their gun barrels. He could smell only the blood of his battle-brother, still steaming off the Carcharadon’s lightning claws.
This is not an end worthy of remembrance, he thought to himself. We have braved despair, desolation, defeat, even death itself for this? To be killed as an afterthought by mindless barbarians who are not even aware of their own glorious heritage? I shall not stand for this. He clenched his fists at the last thought, the tiny gesture breaking the spell on him, and he was aware of his surroundings again. Knowing what he had to do, he sub-vocalized an order on the comm-net.
+Corvians, halt.+ His voice as he accessed his strike team comm-channel was as cold and harsh as the fierce snowstorms of the near-mythical world of Fenris. It was so unlike his usual calm and assertive self, but his brothers did not pause at this change. They obeyed his order instantly, their discipline to their credit as they moved back to stand with their general, knowing well how he would respond to such an insult.
The Terminator lord’s posture faltered as Astinon and his warriors rallied, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with each other. The growl that issued through the Carcharadon’s helmet speakers was bestial enough to chill the Corvian general’s soul, a scream deeply primal in nature. But Astinon ignored the animalistic challenge.
+Prime krak grenades, three-second timers.+ His second terse order resulted in a slight shuffle behind him as the surviving nineteen Sons of Corax took out several small metal eggs from their belt pouches and triggered the explosives for a set countdown.
The renegade lord took a threatening step towards the Corvians and clashed his lightning claws together, bright blue sparks flying off them as the weapons’ energy fields came into contact. Roaring again, the Carcharadon waved his warriors forwards and broke into a run straight towards Astinon, their ponderous, heavy boot-steps ringing on the metallic floor of the tunnel. Once again, the renegade Astartes forsook their bolters, preferring the savagery of their close combat weapons and their fists.
+One, two, three, now!+ As one, the twenty Corvians lobbed the deadly hi-explosive grenades at the mob of charging renegades and drew their ranged weapons. They died in droves as the krak grenades went off in their midst, many of the renegades torn limb from limb and died screaming hateful curses at the loyalist Astartes. Others came on regardless of missing limbs and bleeding wounds.
+Fire!+ The roar of bolter shells that followed Astinon’s order was enough to drown out almost all other noise in the tunnel, the echoes endlessly feeding back on themselves. But the wayward progeny of the Primarch Corax did not falter in their reckless advance, as heedless of the dense fusillade as they had been off the concussive grenade explosions.
The renegade Terminator lord alone was unharmed, his armour systems potent enough to protect him from the waves of incendiary shrapnel washing over him. The cast of his helmet and the amber light of its optic-lenses along with his immense size lent him an even more terrifying visage than before as he ran the length of the burning tunnel to get to the Corvians.
Disgust filled Astinon at this fearsome mockery of his own self. Where the Corvians were noble warriors and represented the highest ideals of the Adeptus Astartes, the Carcharadons were base savages who were nothing but twisted, fallen parodies of everything it meant to be a true Space Marine. To him, these renegades were an abomination and would need to be purged to their very core, Vulkan’s orders be damned.
Holstering his pistols, he removed his helm, wanting to look at his enemy with his own eyes. He gazed straight into the renegade lord’s optic lenses, trying to divine something of his nature through the soulless ceramite. Astinon snarled at the Terminator and drew the Stormblade, making a chopping gesture with it at the enemy in an effort to goad him.
The Carcharadons just came on and the Corvians braced themselves for the impact.
‘What word of Captain Astinon’s task force, Dalmor?’ The Captain of the First Commandery turned at the soft voice behind him to see his Primarch entering the command sanctum. He immediately kneeled before his liege, who wore only a simple, knee-length robe of emerald and gold.
‘My lord,’ answered Dalmor, his voice slightly inflected with concern for his honour-brother and the warriors he had often fought beside years ago. ‘We received word from Lieutenant Kostar less than three hours ago that the Corvians had begun their deployment on Medan in full force. Astinon’s teams are last known to have walked into the ruins in strength; we have not received any updates since. The good Lieutenant has advised that the high metallic content of the abandoned manufactora may be blocking any transmissions from the Corvian strike force.’
‘Just as we predicted might be the case,’ said Vulkan softly as he came to stand next to his First Commander. The Primarch went without his usual panoply of armour and weapons that he always wore when he held his court or when he attended battle briefings. Even in his simple robe, Vulkan exuded his warrior heritage and his manner was anything other combat-readiness.
‘Contact Lieutenant Kostar again and request an update of the situation. Astinon and his warriors will be facing an opposition they are not likely to have faced in years and their faith in the true ideals of the New Imperium will be tested to the limit.’ Vulkan frowned for a brief moment as he continued. ‘It is also vital that they succeed in their mission for the riches of Medan will accelerate my plans considerably. And rescue the Corvians at the same time from their degeneration’
‘If they are still intact, my lord,’ offered Dalmor. ‘We take a great risk in this mission. The Corvians are nowhere near optimal strength for this mission. We should have sent reinforcements from the other Commanderies currently on Armageddon.’
The Primarch waved away his captain’s concerns with a simple shake of his head. ‘No, my friend, this is a task for the Corvians alone. Loathe as I am to put Corax’s surviving sons through such an ordeal, only they can complete this mission. They, and they alone have it in them to see it through and numbers do not matter.’
‘I have faith in my honour-brother and his warriors, Lord Vulkan, but I still fear the worst. Medan is going to change the Corvians, for better or for worse,’ said Dalmor.
‘Then it is a good thing we are here to guide them, are we not, First Commander?’ asked Vulkan, winking at the Space Marine and smiling for the first time since he had entered. ‘I want an updated report on Medan within the half-hour, Dalmor. I am very much interested in Astinon and how he handles this mission. He reminds me of Corax’s captains from the glorious days of the Great Crusade.’ With that, the Primarch began to leave the command sanctum.
‘Where will you be, father?’ asked Dalmor.
Vulkan thought for a moment before answering the Commander’s question. ‘I will be with He’stan in my private sanctum. He and I still have much to talk about.’
Thanks to his superhuman constitution, Adrastos was rarely out of breath, if ever, but this was definitely one of those times when he was. Smoke and ash filled the air, making it nearly impossible to breathe as he stood in the dilapidated ruins of the vast manufactorum. Around him, his battle-brothers helped each other recover from the furious battle they had just fought against a horde of renegade Astartes, the Carcharadons. The Corvians had taken little damage, since the enemy had numbered far less than them, but both sides had been equally matched in their savagery.
Adrastos muttered an oath of appeasement to his power armour’s machine spirit as he knelt besides one of his dying battle-brothers, Sergeant Samer, a Raven Guard like himself. The Hawk Lord Apothecary assigned to his strike force, Romio, shook his head at his captain, indicating that Samer was beyond his arts to save. Adrastos nodded faintly and looked at his sergeant.
‘You fought honourably, brother,’ he said, not without a little anguish. There were few enough of the Corvians left alive after ten thousand years of bitter fighting, and the Raven Guard themselves numbered fewer than ever, barely more than three squads’ worth. Samer’s loss was a hard blow.
Samer tried to speak but only blood poured out of his mouth. He had taken four bolter rounds straight to the chest during the fire-fight and an enemy warrior had hacked off his right arm at the shoulder with a lucky blow. His wounds were too severe, his genetically-enhanced body struggling to repair the damage but failing miserably. The Space Marine was dead within seconds.
Romio hung his head in sorrow and began to extract the warrior’s gene-seed, the reductor drill mounted on the apothecary’s left-arm punching through the sergeant’s chest plate and neck in quick succession.
Adrastos got up and looked around for his second-in-command, Sergeant Decra. He spotted the Storm Hawk Space Marine across the chamber, wiping his chainsword of the blood of the enemies he had killed in the fire-fight. A pair of long, fresh scars bisected the left side of his face, giving him a savage look, more so than was usual even for him.
Decra was one of the best close combat fighters among the Corvians, due in no small amount to the ancient traditions of his nearly extinct chapter, and his wounds indicated how close the battle against the feral Carcharadons had been. He was also of the old stock, recruited from Zephyr itself forty years ago during a dangerous recruitment mission undertaken by Astinon’s predecessor, Tomar Rao. Adrastos walked over to him, passing some of his other battle-brothers who were piling up the dead in one corner of the room.
‘Brother-Sergeant, any luck getting through to Commander Astinon or the other strike teams?’ he asked as he approached.
The Storm Hawk looked up at his Captain, his blood-shot scars twitching as he spoke in his heavy, rumbling voice. ‘We have had no further word from the others, Captain. The comm-net signals simply cannot penetrate the thick adamantium walls and the ferrocrete that is part of the manufactorum’s structure. We will need to find some sort of a booster relay or a hardwired vox-caster unit to be able to communicate with the Commander or the other Captains.’
Adrastos cursed under his breath at the Sergeant’s response. Without the ability to contact the other strike teams, it would be that much harder to coordinate their progress through the manufactora. Or know if the primary objective had been accomplished in case any of the other strike teams found the prize the Corvians had come to Medan for. He made a quick decision about what to do next.
‘Sergeant, assemble the strike-team within two minutes to proceed further into the manufactorum and send out a squad to recon ahead of us. I do not want any more surprises.’
‘As ordered, First Captain,’ acknowledged Decra and began issuing commands to the remaining fifty-four warriors of Adrastos’ strike-team.
Astinon ducked to avoid a murderous sweep of the renegade lord’s lightning claws, rolling backwards into a crouch just beyond the reach of the power weapons. He glanced up at the Carcharadon who snarled as the Commander once again evaded his murderous swings.
The Corvian general’s armour was pitted and scarred with damage from the renegade’s blows that he had not been able to avoid. His left pauldron, with its gilded chapter iconography, was a ruin and a significant chunk of his breastplate was also missing. Quick as he was, against the Terminator’s relentless onslaught he was quickly tiring.
In contrast, the Carcharadon’s armour was still unblemished by anything more than light scorch marks, its potent defences keeping him safe from any attack. He had somehow managed to block the Stormblade again and again with his twin lightning claws and Astinon was unable to find any weaknesses in his opponent’s defence.
He glanced briefly to his right to see Manov skewer a Carcharadon on the adamantium-reinforced chainsword the champion preferred for close combat, the whirring jagged teeth of the weapon turning the renegade’s innards to a bloody, chewed pulp. Manov nodded at his commander and engaged another Carcharadon, this one wielding a morning-star of unknown design.
Around them, the swirling combat between their battle-brothers continued, with neither side able to gain any advantage over the other. The berserker fury of the Carcharadon renegades was matched by the cold discipline and training of the Corvians. More Astartes had died on both sides and the Corvians were still outnumbered three to one, but it was essentially a stalemate. Both groups of warriors drew heart from the presence of their duelling war-leaders and the outcome of this tunnel-fight rested on them.
In his anger, Astinon spat at the Carcharadon. ‘You are utter filth, a hideous mockery of all the nobility of an Adeptus Astartes and the ideals of the Great Raven. You are undeserving of the legacy that you bear and I shall remind you of that when I take your head, you honourless, misbegotten insect!’
The renegade stopped in mid-swing at Astinon’s outburst, his surprise at the Corvian general’s words evident in his posture. Astinon drew in a ragged breath, for this gave him a moment’s respite to recover from the renegade’s relentless attacks. His chest heaved with the exertion of the close-fought duel. Around the two leaders, their battle-brothers also ceased their fight and looked on, anticipating something momentous about to happen.
Without ceremony, the Carcharadon removed his own helmet, revealing a surprisingly handsome and sharply-visaged patrician face, though scarred heavily. Astinon stared in shock, for he had assumed that these were mutated and degenerate warriors, but that was obviously not the case with the towering Terminator-armoured warrior before him.
The Carcharadon’s expression twisted into a feral snarl as looked at Astinon with murder in his eyes, which were a disconcerting all-black, fathomless and pitiless as the void between the stars. ‘And what would you know of honour, Angel of Retribution?’ he asked and the rich, calm voice that addressed him shocked Astinon once again. What in the name of the True Emperor was going on here, he thought. I was told to expect barbaric savages, not warriors who speak as if they are standing in an Imperial Royal Court!
Noticing Astinon’s confusion, the Carcharadon laughed a grim, toothy smile. ‘I am not what you expected is it, Angel of Retribution? You have not seen the half of it I am sure.’ He motioned to his remaining warriors and as one they all removed their helmets, revealing their faces to the Corvians.
Each and every one of them was unmarked and unblemished by mutation, their features as noble as that of Astinon and his own warriors; even the colour of their skin, whether Corvian or Carcharadon was the same waxen, deathly white. The only difference between the two forces was the armour they all wore, the grey of the Carcharadons against the multitude of colours among the Corvians.
‘Who are you?’ Astinon whispered with a rising dread in his voice. He was completely off-balanced by the normalcy of the renegades before him.
The Carcharadons all laughed at the question, as if the Corvian general was stupid to have asked it at all. The lone Terminator joined in his brethren’s mocking laughter.
‘Who am I? Ten thousand years must have dulled the memory of you and your forebears, proud son of Corax, if you cannot recognize me,’ he said. ‘Do you at least recognize these markings on my armour?’
It was only now that Astinon could make out the faint lettering on the armour. It was an old sub-dialect of High Gothic, old even before the fall of Imperium of Man. As he deciphered the armorial wording, he gasped in horror.
‘It cannot be!’ he cried out. ‘No Astartes can survive this long, it is impossible!’
‘Nothing is ever impossible, son of Corax,’ the Carcharadon lord responded. ‘I am living proof of the longevity of our kind. Your expression tells me that you know full well who I am, what I am.’
‘You lie,’ said Astinon hotly. ‘You wear the armour of another, undoubtedly like many others before you. You cannot be the same hero whose name was once spoken of with respect and admiration among all the chapters of the Adeptus Astartes ages ago, before the Imperium fell for a second time. It is impossible. The victor of Endymion cannot have fallen so far from those glorious days.’
‘Do not convince yourself that all you have been led to believe is right, brother,’ snarled the Carcharadon. ‘I am he whose name is scrimshawed on this armour; the very same victor of Endymion that you believe was one of the greatest heroes of the Imperium of old.’
‘No it cannot be,’ Astinon managed to say, his voice hoarse. ‘You cannot be Tyberos of the Red Wake!’
‘Ave Imperator Verimus,’ whispered the Carcharadon through rows of sharp ivory teeth.