Part I: Apertus
Obsidia System – Devos Sector – Ultima Segmentum – 2/071/925.M41
‘MY LIEGE, THIS is insane!’ Captain Artor Amhrad shouted into the vox-bead integrated into his ornate helm. Nearby, the volcanic lake vomited a geyser of lava into the ash-choked sky, radiating waves of carbon-vaporizing heat, growling like a mighty dragon. The heavens rejoined with ear-splitting shrieks of lightning.
‘The heathens cower up there, Captain Amhrad,’ Chapter Master Ultor Pendragus’s heroic voice was distorted through the vox by the warping heat and electromagnetic charge of the dense atmosphere. ‘Do you mean to let them get away?’
Artor stole a glance over the jagged ridge of basalt he was sheltering behind. Across the mountainside, a glimpse of dull steel through the roiling smog betrayed the position of the Chapter Master, not one hundred paces away.
‘That’s not what I mean, My Liege,’ voxed Artor. ‘We have finally located the sanctum. We can call in the ordnance to precede the assault.’
He glanced from the churning sea of magma beneath them to the slopes of igneous rock above. Squatting atop the mountain, Sanctum Imperialis Avalus glowered from within its cloaks of smoke and ash.
‘Artor, Artor,’ chuckled Ultor over the vox. ‘That would be too easy, and comms are restricted to close range anyway.’
‘We could send a runner back down to the drop-site, My Liege.’
Deafening claps of thunder reverberated through the tumultuous heavens, the fractured planet daring Artor to waste more time retracing the climb they had already achieved.
‘Remember why we are here, Artor; the holy relics hidden within the sanctum are too valuable to risk orbital bombardment.’
‘Surely the fiends have already taken them from this place, My Liege?’
‘Then why are they still here, fighting us across this damned world?’
‘You think the sisters have resisted them? The stasis seals are still intact?’
‘That’s exactly what I think, Captain, and that’s why we cannot bombard the sanctum. Our pious sisters in battle may well still be alive and in distress!’
Another angry explosion from the sea of magma showered Artor’s blue-steel suit of power armour with globules of tephra, scorching dark lines into the ceramite. He glanced up again at the fortress. Its obsidian walls towered straight up into the shrouded heavens, hundreds of metres tall, adorned with daemonic gargoyles, and the statues of righteous saints smiting them.
‘At least Thunderhawks, My Liege, even flying blind…’
‘No time. We must make the assault by ourselves, the old fashioned way,’ said the Chapter Master, and Artor could almost visualise the grin of anticipation breaking across the bearded face of his liege lord.
‘Who else is with you, My Liege?’
‘Just old Cadorius.’
‘The Wyvern, My Liege?’
‘First company were… ah… waylaid by a warband of the heathens to ensure I made it this far. That means your company are the first to the citadel, Artor: Glory to the Phoenix!’
Artor snorted, anticipating how annoyed Captain Agravain of First Company would feel about that. He reviewed the surviving Astral Knights of Third Company, sheltering from the wrath of the magma storm around the base of the mountain beneath the citadel walls. He had eighty eight men left standing. Hardly enough.
‘My Liege, are you sure…?’
‘Is the soothsayer with you, Artor?’ the Chapter Master cut him off.
Artor glanced across to Angharad Nirlem, head of the chapter’s order of Vaticinators. His grey bush of a beard was singed by the molten heat.
‘I’m looking at him, My Liege.’
‘Pray tell, what does he soothsay?’
Nirlem did not use a vox – he didn’t need to – but closed his sea-green eyes and frowned, deepening the wrinkles of his well-weathered scalp. He lurched across the pyroclastic rocks, slipping on the shingle of the mountainside toward Artor, leaning on his staff of meteoric iron. When he reached Artor he grabbed his shoulder plastron, eyes wide, and said, ‘He’s right! They are still alive inside – but there is not much time, yes, yes!’
Artor nodded then voxed, ‘My Liege, forgive my doubts…’
‘Oho Artor, no time for that! You were ever the cautious one, but now there is no time to wait. Let us teach these fiends the error of their ways. Charge!’
Artor repeated the order over the company channel, and the Adeptus Astartes gathered their weapons and marched up the treacherous slopes towards the fortress walls. Their company banner wilted in the heat, scorched in a hundred places. Upon the great flag soared a phoenix woven from golden flax set against a scarlet field, bearing in its talons a broadsword; Captain Artor’s personal heraldry, which was repeated upon his left shoulder plastron. He hefted his bolter across one shoulder and gripped his buzzing chainsword in his right gauntlet. The rugged blade of spinning diamantine teeth had already scored dozens of kills for him this long day.
A renewed storm of fire rained down on them, but not magma or tephra. Bolter shells and frag missiles roared down and exploded in the hillside amongst the struggling knights. The crashes were lost in the cauldron of volcanic violence and atmospheric storms. His men weathered the storm, stoically maintaining their march, and the fire was thankfully inaccurate.
Scorched and dented by the battle, the Astral Knights’ storm-grey battle plate still proudly presented upon their right shoulder plastrons the chapter heraldry of six bright stars set against a midnight sky: Three stars for their sacred oaths to honour the Emperor, their liege lord, and their gene-father, Rogal Dorn; and three more for the three virtues of the Astral Knight; honesty, courage and faith. Their left plastrons each bore their personal coats of arms – earned as clan warriors of their homeworld.
Artor offered praise to the Emperor for the sensor-blinding atmosphere of Obsidia, which prevented any kind of accuracy in all but close-range shooting from the heathens. Even targeters were thwarted by the molten temperatures and electromagnetic distortion.
A moment of stillness cleared in the storm, and a line of explosions erupted before him. Artor took cover behind a basalt boulder.
‘Auto-cannons!’ he yelled over the company vox.
‘Hell of a place for a sanctum!’ Artor shouted at Nirlem, who collapsed next to him.
‘I expect that is precisely why the relics were hidden here, yes, yes!’ said Nirlem, a manic gleam in his eye.
The ground heaved again beneath them, and Artor was gripped by a sudden premonition that the incessant seismic ruptures of the planet were about to swallow whole the fortress and its mountain. Then he recalled the engram-patch and that the improbable island was in fact floating just above and safely separated from the unstable planet surface, kept aloft by the ancient miracles of the Mechanicus; thermal-powered suspensors of awesome strength.
The ash clouds closed in and the enemy suppressing fire ceased. The Astral Knights renewed their blind march. Fifty metres from the fortress walls, they formed up behind their liege lord. Reclusiarch Alain Cadorius, the chapter’s chaplain primus, lurked nearby in his pitch battle plate, his helm a grimacing skull.
‘Look,’ Ultor pointed to the fortress walls and grinned, his wide-set eyes gleaming. ‘The heathens made it easy for us.’
Ultor did not wear a helm, trusting his multi-lung to protect him from the poisonous atmosphere. It was a matter of honour, and a display of disregard for the dangers. His golden crown sat upon his charcoal brow, dulled by centuries of warfare.
Artor followed his pointing finger. The portcullis and gates had been smashed asunder by the previous besiegers. The way into the sanctum was open.
‘My Liege, they are coming out to meet us!’ Artor said.
‘Aye, they mean to pretend some semblance of honour,’ the Chapter Master said. ‘Let us end that charade with haste!’
The Astral Knights of the Third Company roared a battle cry and loped up the hillside. Ahead, Artor watched the hated Word Bearers stride out from the fortress to fight them.
Armoured in battle plate stained the colour of arterial blood, the Chaos warriors chanted mantras in the insane languages of the warp-spawn. The hideous voices reached out to Artor, filtering through the cacophony of the volcanic storms. His skin crawled at the unnerving din, but with the psycho-indoctrination of the Adeptus Astartes, fear transformed into hatred.
The Astral Knights smashed into the Word Bearers, bolt-weapons exploding and chainswords clashing. Crimson warriors with bronze horns curling from their helms wrestled with silver-armoured knights. And the heavens roared approval with peals of thunder and lightning.
Chapter Master Ultor Pendragus led the charge, his great broadsword smiting heathen foes left and right as he advanced for the arched gateway beneath a defiled statue of the Holy God-Emperor. Brother Cadorius covered his liege lord’s shieldside, his Crozius Arcanum battle-mace rising and falling with mechanical rhythm, pulverising any foes that dared attempt the loathsome trick of blindsiding Ultor.
‘To the Dragon!’ yelled Artor. The Astral Knights formed a wedge and stormed their way up the aphanitic shingle, driving back the scarlet renegades.
Ultor, Cadorius, Artor and Nirlem powered their way through the sundered gateway and into the fortress, the knights of Third Company battling behind them. Passing through invisible repulsor fields, the retinal display icons inside Artor’s helm reported the plunge in temperature, and the blinding smog vanished to be replaced by the echoing darkness of a stone-walled hall.
Two more Word Bearers lumbered from the shadows, chain-axes swinging, but Cadorius smashed one of the giants to the flagstones while Nirlem closed his eyes and stretched out a palm. Exhorting the primal powers of the Annwn, he hurled the horned warrior into a wall, crushing the life from the fiend.
Reclusiarch Cadorius hissed through his skull-helm’s vox-grate, displaying his abhorrence for the soothsayer’s sorcery. Ultor turned to Artor, the grin still splitting his scorched beard.
‘To the dungeons with you, Artor. You must rescue the sisters!’
‘And you, My Liege?’
‘I have an appointment with a blasphemy in the keep. Cadorius, are you coming or not?’
‘I am with you, My Liege,’ Cadorius’s deep voice rumbled from his vox-grate.
A lofty hallway stretched away from the entrance into the bowels of the fortress, arched portals picketing either side. The battle between the knights and Chaos warriors spilled under the ruined gateway, shattering the moment of silence. Roars of hatred and screams of chain-axes split the darkness. Blood and mechanical fluids fountained. Stray bolt missiles shrieked about the hallway before exploding in the walls. In the madness, Nirlem dragged Artor to a flight of stone steps hidden behind a hefty doorway.
‘To the dungeons, yes, yes!’ he said.
They scrambled deeper into the darkness, Artor looking over his shoulder, aware that his knights were fighting for their lives.
‘Not much time!’
On the lower level, a dingy corridor marched into darkness and with the roars of battle left behind, Artor could hear a new sound. His blood curdled. They were screams. Artor activated the teeth of his chainsword and charged along the passageway, Nirlem striding behind, illuminating shadowy recesses with the jeweled tip of his staff.
Artor came to a doorway and witnessed the scene within, lit by the fires of wall-mounted braziers. Sisters lay chained to rockrete slabs, Word Bearers standing over them with lashes and hot irons. Whatever secrets they had tried for so long to torture out of the sisters were forgotten, as a black-helmed warrior moved from slab to slab, beheading each sister in turn with a double-bladed axe. The blade reared like a snake, a pale sister reciting prayers with her eyes closed beneath it. Artor could only watch as the blow fell, ending the pious damsel’s life.
Artor swung round his bolter, and Nirlem flanked him, pointing his own pistol. With a righteous roar they hurled mass-reactive fury into the dungeon, hammering each Chaos warrior in turn until his crimson armour ruptured and exploded from within, detonated by the bolts. The Word Bearers scrambled to return fire, several even leaping the stone slabs to try and close, but Artor and Nirlem maintained the torrents of destruction on full-automatic and soon the chamber was filled with cordite smoke and blackened corpses.
Artor rushed to the nearest slab, wincing at the state of the blood-drenched damsel.
‘I am alive,’ she whispered, ‘but the Canoness…’
Her eyes flicked to a doorway on the far side of the chamber.
‘Go,’ said Nirlem, ‘I will release the survivors, yes, yes!’
Artor nodded and dashed through the lingering haze from the firefight. He smashed down the door with an armoured boot to reveal a circular dungeon walled with moist stone. A lady dangled in its centre, chained by the wrists and dripping blood. Just as he detected the unnatural stink, a monster hissed at Artor, leaping from the shadows on his blindside.
Artor parried a swipe from an… appendage… the torturer was a mutated wretch. Its once proud battle plate of the Adeptus Astartes had buckled and deformed over millennia of exposure to the warp. The stench of putrefied ectoplasm assailed Artor’s nostrils even through the auto-senses of his helm. The abomination forced him back a step, three tentacles lashing from one side of its corrupted physique. He countered with a cross-swing from his chainsword, but it smashed into a monstrous claw that ended the creature’s left arm. The chitin was rugged enough to deflect even the diamantine jaws of his blade.
Artor stepped back again as the claw thrust for his neck, horrified to see a featureless blob comprised the mutant’s head. He bashed aside the mutant’s pincer, ducked another whipping tentacle, and scrutinised the thing, looking for a weakness.
‘The belly,’ gasped the sister. ‘Cut its cursed belly!’
Artor realised what she meant as he spotted a rent in the body armour of the mutant, revealing glistening horror within. A snakelike tongue slobbered from a maw in the thing’s abdomen. He suspected the pulsing orb in what should have been its chest cavity to be its eye. The tentacles lashed again, one slinking around his left vambrace. Coils of electric energy shrieked through the appendage and surged into Artor’s body. Psycho-indoctrinated to deal with pain, Artor gritted his teeth and shuddered. With monumental effort he wrenched his arm free of the grip and swung his chainsword again. The mutant sidled under the horizontal strike and circled, hissing from the body-mouth.
Artor made his decision. The mutant was too quick and bore too many weapons to achieve a clean strike. He placed his faith in his armour and the Emperor and lunged at the mutant.
Surprised by the straightforward attack, the mutant could only lash back like a cornered animal, scoring scratches and jolts of electrical pain through the knight’s armour. Artor thrust his chainsword and rammed the tip deep into the dark orb. It screamed like a banshee banished to the underworld, and viscous fluids bubbled from the eye. The mutant jerked in its death spasms, limbs flailing, its daemonic howl ripping through the darkness. Finally it crumpled and remained still.
Artor shrugged off his revulsion and crossed to the Canoness, supporting her in one powerful arm while he sliced the chains above her wrists with his sword. She sagged into his embrace. Her flaxen hair lay limp against her wan skin and her sapphire eyes stared up at his helm.
‘You saved us… Lord Knight,’ she whispered.
‘It is our creed,’ said Artor, resting the Canoness upon the flagstones. ‘I am Captain Artor Amhrad of the Astral Knights, at your service, My Lady.’
‘Sister Caelia, of the Order of Our Martyred Lady, and it is I who pledge my service to you.’
Artor knew mortals felt pain differently to him, and admired her composure despite the raw lash-wounds and electric burns marring her body. Her eyes flicked to the dungeon entrance.
‘You are the wizard?’
Artor glanced over his shoulder and saw Nirlem filling the doorway, half a dozen surviving maidens behind him. He nodded, the manic gleam in his eye.
‘One came, a long time ago, and read the Tarot to us. He spoke of your coming,’ she returned her long-lashed stare to Artor, registering the phoenix heraldry on his shoulder plastron.
‘The daemon prince came with his… minions,’ she threw a glare at the dead mutant in the corner of the dungeon, ‘to steal a sacred weapon. It believes the weapon is fated to destroy it, and wanted to break the prophecy.’
‘Is the prophecy true?’ said Artor.
‘It is time to find that out,’ she said. ‘Follow me.’