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The capsule sliced through black skies, parting the planet’s anaemic air with the ease of a knife hurled through water. Light glanced off its chromed sides, the pale glare of the stars mingling with the stain of incandescent heat expanding like an inflamed welt on its underside, but never quite overtaken by it. Sparks scattered in its wake, never finding quite enough opposition in the tenuous atmosphere to coalesce into a blazing trail, nor the robustness to grow the screech of its friction into a fiery roar. Least of all did it find a force to oppose its precipitous descent, so that the incredible speed at which it had been vomited from the void was scarcely diminished.

It was not flawless, that capsule. Whatever paths it had taken through the realms immaterial had left its scarred, with burned, jagged gouges running down its flanks. An uneven round pit marred its front, as if a tendril of impossibly hot flame had lashed against it there. What yet intact quartz eyes spanned its length were extinguished, leaving to fall blindly into the endless night of the world below.

From those shadows, grey wastes rose to meet it. Sharp mountains stood in the distance like silent witnesses to its fall, as impassive before it as they had been to the aeons of desolation at their feet. A hulk of rigid angles and dim yellow lights briefly flashed underneath the arc of its trajectory, and was soon lost to the horizon. Soon the mountains, as well, receded into murk, and nothing was left but the expectant face of the lithic desert. It looked up lazily at the pod’s approach of the many eyes of its craters and cavern-mouths, unstirring in its dreary immensity.

The capsule struck.

Metal screeched against stone, its sound deadened by the emptiness. The tremendous impact, of momentum unhindered by compact heavens, pulverised and crumpled rock upon itself. The minute gap the pod had blasted into the loose grey surface blossomed into a spiderweb of cracks which soon tumbled down into an expanding sinkhole, as the shattered equilibrium of the world’s crust dragged more and more fragments into the exposed gash of its hollow underbelly. Had the stars in the black sky been any less apathetic, they would have briefly glimpsed the cavity of a small vault before it was buried in the settling debris of a great crater. But their snow-white marble eyes were jaded, and this moment of devastation went unseen and unremembered.

And below, in Laethem’s depths, the capsule fell still.

“How far away?”

“Too far, Implementor. It went over the Dtheni ridge. Beyond striking distance even in the best conditions.”


Myrline turned away from the auspex-tech hunched over his console and stalked towards the centre of the monitoring chamber, the metronome clacking of booted heels cutting through the droning hum of machinery and sporadic rattle of switches. The station took up a sizable section of a spire-floor’s corner, but its acoustics were impeccable, their design enduring after centuries of less than optimal maintenance. The lighting, on the other hand, was feeble, and issued from the rows of consoles along the walls and their shifting emerald patterns on abyssal black screens as much as from the dirty-white tubes overhead. The shabby look this lent to the worn rockcrete walls irked her, but the best she could do about it now was spend as little time in the place as possible.

“You heard that. Stop tracking the meteoroid,” she barked, the command carrying from where she stood to the remotest monitor, “Return to standard operation status.”

There was a uniform murmur of acknowledgement from the auspex-techs, more metallic in some places than others, followed by snapping and clicking as they reoriented their instruments in the customary downturned direction and reactivated their resonance functions. Some did not budge a finger as they did, the knots of cables running from their temples to the consoles relaying their instructions to the machinery with the ease of a thought. Myrline’s eyes alighted most sharply on them, for a moment’s distraction from one of them would have been more disastrous for the entire grid than the missteps of every unaugmented technician at once. But they carried through their motions as diligently as they had thousands of times before, and she strode out from the corner chamber with some amount of momentary relief.

Outside, the hive greeted her with a nervous bustle of motion. News of the rogue meteoroid had been curtailed by the Spire Council to forestall tension and unrest - which the underdweller scum was counting on, if the latest reports on their activity were correct - but somehow word of some vague novelty never failed to slink out onto the passageways. There was nothing too abnormal in the sights around her, not overtly. Small groups in light grey boilersuits filed around the massive habitation blocks in good order, without tarrying in place longer than sanctioned nor raising their voices above the permitted low tones. To her practised, intransigeant eye, however, the minute traces of apprehension were almost glaring. A ring that formed at an intersection of connecting passages near the central well and milled in place very nearly long enough for the nearest Secutor to take notice, only dispersing when his crystalline red faceguard began to shift in their direction. Some mumbles rising to a momentary pitch before being guardedly quieted.

Her glare quieted the nearest cluster, which promptly scattered along the inter-block passage, but then she turned away. Reprimands or even simple acknowledgement would confirm to their restless minds that the Council sought to suppress something, and the seeds of disorder would be sown then and there. Instead, Myrline purposely crossed the thoroughfare between the coreward hab-block clusters, vast and many-eyed pillars shadeless in the ubiquitous yellow glow of artificial light, cutting a direct path towards the well. Like an immeasurable sacrificial pit in the middle of a temple, the perfectly square abyss awned hungrily in the reinforced floor, the parapets around its edge all but invisible before its shadowy immensity. The pit measured nearly a full klick on each side and pierced the spire through its core, like a trail carved by an impossibly precise meteoroid into its semi-hollow massive. The dozens of elevator cabins and platforms that served as the main means of transportation between spire levels appeared minuscule in its maw, despite some of them being spacious enough to fit a hab-block’s base. The nests and strands of thick metal cables supporting them were no more than fleeting silver sparks in the gloom.

The entrance to the cabin she had ascended on was covered by a Secutor. His presence truthfully served no greater purpose than to denote that this conveyor was being used for pressing Authority business, as the transports in that well area were designated for exclusive military usage regardless, and so Myrline motioned the black flak-armoured figure aside with some irritation. There was the customary instant of unease when the cabin, which was more akin to an elongated cage with a lower half of solid plasflex, swayed under her entering steps before finding its equilibrium again. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the surface of the door as it closed. It was an unpleasantly ruinous sight. A sharp-edged stony face, still all too young, pale even for a Koytan and marked with weary shadows; once trim chin-length black hair deteriorating into greasy strands; dark grey uniform whose press and silvery pins could not hide how limply it hung in places. She grit her teeth and yanked a lever in the wall, and with a silent shudder the cabin began its downwards slide.

There was no independent lighting in the well, and so the cabin fell into darkness when it crossed the floor-stratum beneath, only to dazzlingly reemerge into the next layer, and thus again and again, in an accelerating succession that would have been kaleidoscopic had it not been so monotone in all its parts. Every shadowy interlude was exactly as long as the previous one, and every illuminated layer was so uniform as to appear a continuation of each other. The yellow light, the even rows of towering hab-blocks, the geometrically regular passages and crossroads, the grey figures that traversed these sterile landscapes in regimented order. In spite of the elevator’s now considerable speed, it was a long time until shades of imperfection began to appear in the defilade. Dimmer lights, grimier walls, the stench of rust and cinder in the air. The spire’s lower levels were ailing from the decay that crept up from the degenerate underworld, and though the figures moving about its bridges and grate-floored alleys - ever so gaunt now - were no less orderly, the hive around them was steeped in the rot of centuries despite their and the Council’s best efforts.

For all that it held to this tenuous and unwilling compromise, even that precarious balance stood on the brink of annihilation if the underdwellers were to breach it. If they struck at the generator districts, the entire spire would fall with it. If they cut through her defences, she would be the one to bear responsibility for it before humanity’s last silent grave. If she failed ---

The cabin ground to a halt with a moaning clank. Myrline breathed in, straightened her jacket, its edges beginning to wear from the periodic redundant tugging, and unlatched the door, stepping out into the subterranean corridor.

The depth she had reached was not the lowest one, reserved for the mustering of rank and file troops and the unloading of supplies from cargo platforms. Here, the elevator opened directly onto the entrance of a tunnel just about large enough for two people, once carved into the live rock, then reinforced and sporadically lit by evenly spaced illumination tubes. The two sentries that greeted her with their faceless salutes were not Secutors, but grey-clad troopers of the Entrance Guard. The bulky tubes and reserve tanks of their flamers gave them the look of something mechanical, but under their protective masks she was glad to know them as human as herself.

The stone corridor led Myrline through a claustrophobic span that was deceptively short for how it awkwardly twisted and sloped, as if in preparation for the striking sight that awaited on its other end. Under the natural balcony of the outcropping she found herself on, almost wide enough to accommodate an entire hab-block, but minuscule in proportion, there gaped the enormity of the access chamber. The cavernous hall was at least a fourth as large as a spire level, and almost as high; testament to the immensity of the work that had reared Koytos itself, its smooth floor was covered in a labyrinth of control towers, depots, rail stations and inspection points, most of their angular carcasses now eviscerated by time or worse. In the potent floodlights that still lit the half of the chamber closest to the entrance, she could see the teeming of grey-uniformed bodies among the ruination. On the further side, however, only the distant lights of a few guardposts tentatively straddled the edge of what seemed to be boundless, bottomless shadow.

It was a sight that could awe a newcomer, but not one who, like Myrline, had seen it more often than the hive proper in the latter years. What instead drew her eyes was the handful of figures gathered around a wide plas-table set on the edge before her, near the pointed antennae of a field vox station.

Two of them turned to look as the clacking of her steps on the stone roused them from their contemplation of the sonar chart spread on the table. One wore the same dark grey as her, though the fabric of his uniform was stretched taut over the girth of his flaccid constitution. None knew how Implementor Zarec Guicon could have grown fat on siege-time fare, though rumours abounded of misappropriated rations and a ghoulish taste for reprocessed meats, but as long as he kept himself useful about the access, none thought to ask either; his unassuming stature and dull, faintly melancholy eyes drowning in rolls of pale flesh belied the mind that had won him his position. Presently, however, any wit in his features was further concealed as he flinched at the inhuman rasp that rose from the man across the table.

“Implementor Levran! Were you hoping to arrive as the next push began? Your punctuality would be wasted on the Pale Ones.” Myrline did not dignify the mechanical jibe with more than an undisguised contemptuous sneer. If Guicon was respected or tolerated at worst, Tech-Intendant Kleial was suffered. There was little about him that could endear - not his abrasive flippancy, not the mystique he deliberately and grotesquely cloaked himself in, and least of all his awareness of how indispensable he was for the hive. She avoided the sight of his fleshless jaw’s eternal sardonic grin and the five lamp-eyes set in a semicircle above it, of the wires and tubes protruding from his bulky frame’s rust-brown trappings, of the two faceless hulks of steel towering behind him. Even after years of reluctant collaboration, she could hardly stomach the wilful rejection of humanity that oozed from him like a miasma.

Guicon gave her a placid shrug and nodded upwards. “How is it up there?”

“Controlled,” Myrline leaned on the table, running her weary eyes over the charts. Masses of movement. Sharp spikes signalling the clatter of metal. Jagged plateaus, something heavy scraping over the cavern floor. The mutants were moving in force. “The Secutors don’t need reinforcement.”

“Good, it’s not as though we could spare any,” the older Implementor looked discontentedly over the troops shifting around the chamber below like grey rivulets. Numerous as they were, they were far too few to fully cover such an immense space. “If anything, the Council could have transferred some of them to our command. Lasguns are lasguns.”

“And donate more of those precious guns to the enemy?” Kleial leered, “Levran’s newfangled vanguard units have already cost us enough. My manufactora are not so boundless as to supply every genetic reject and untrained floorwatcher you fancy.”

“The vanguards are adequate as long as your machines cover them, Intendant.” Myrlinee picked up a simple magnocular device from the table and pointed its lenses at one of the chamber’s central thoroughfares. A column of grey-clad scrawny figures was marching down it towards the edge of the light, holding weapons that seemed bulky in their hands. Most of the vanguards were young, having just entered the age of conscription and immediately fallen under the purview of her new recruitment census. Lawbreakers, gene-deviants discovered by the Council’s periodic scans, children of unsanctioned couplings - all dangers to the hive’s stability, better served holding ground in the siege’s deadliest spots. Kleial was not wrong; more than one lasgun had been pried from their inexpert hands by the Pale Ones. But the mutants had paid dearly for it every time, and that was what mattered.

She shifted the magnoculars further back along the road, where a second, smaller column trudged in the vanguards’ wake at a distance. Twelve hulks of rust-coloured metal akin to Kleial’s bodyguards marched in perfect lockstep, dome-shaped heads staring stolidly ahead, arms ending in piston-claws and integrated heavy weapons rigid at their sides. Since the last cyber-priests on the planet had perished in the fall of Hive Baligae many decades prior, the venerable automata had been dwindling in numbers. As with most relics of the order, its inheritors in the Tech-Intendancy could maintain them well enough, but were unable to reproduce their design, and their losses to the mutant hordes, however rare, were keenly felt. Unbidden, the thought grew from this stray observation: the Pale Ones were innumerable, and Koytos only had so many robots, so many weapons, so many people. Eventually, it was inevitable that their sheer mass would drown out anything the hive could array against them, and then it would go the way of Baligae and Stagyas. It and, as far as she knew, all of mankind.

Only something unexpected could change that. Something from outside the dying world, like that insignificant meteoroid…

No. She scoffed and clenched her jaw. That was not the way. They had not survived until now by hoping for miracles. They would trust in their own strength alone, and it would have to suffice.

For her, for Koytos, for humanity.

Golog Kin-Breaker crouched at the summit of the ruined tower. Once a compact square pillar of a structure, the edifice had been eviscerated by surfacer weapons in the early days of the siege, and now bared its skeleton of stairs and crumbling floors to all sides through ample fissures in the walls. He preferred it this way; the sounds and smells of the battlefield reached him easily through the gaps. The padding steps of his warriors told him of their advance, how they split off to slip into the stone maze ahead and flank through hidden tunnels in the distant walls. The wafts of metal, unsettled dust and restless bodies showed how many had gathered where, who was afraid, who was impatient. All this Golog knew, though he had no eyes to see with.

His enemy alone was outside his reach. The surfacers were too far for him to smell, without a breath of moving air to bring their scents to his perch, and only the echoes of their war machines’ clanging steps reached him now and then. But he knew well enough that they were soaked with fear, twitching with unease in their holes. They were aware that the thing which fell from the upper world would herald his next attack, and they dreaded it even more than they must have the mystery of that impact. For many lifetimes, they had held their vault against every warleader who had tried to breach the last way to the surface, and then he had come and claimed most of it in less than half a generation. They were right to fear. No vault-lord in the lower world was or had ever been greater than he.

The Kin-Breaker slavered with pride as he took in the immensity of his horde. More of his warriors had already been spent in this siege than in any conquest, and still he had the strength to both advance and hold his vast dominion in the lower world against his many rivals. His predecessors had paid with their reigns and their lives for rushing blindly to the surface, sure that their forces would overwhelm the sparse defenders of the uppermost vault, but he knew better than them. By moving forward with the steadiness of the iron-head worm, he had come so far that the sharpest eyes among the lookouts could see the vault’s far wall and the great doors that opened in it. He was patient, but he knew that soon he would reach these gates and storm through them, sweep away their last defenders and climb to the very top of the surfacers’ lair.

And then he would live like a god.

But Golog reined in his ambitions. Before that moment, many battles awaited still, and one lay just ahead. He rose from his haunches and grasped his shard glaive, the unbreakable weapon whose blade was a fragment of a metal lost to antiquity. Scales of that strange alloy were fixed to his armour, tightly held and padded with dry moss so that its jangling would not disturb his ears. His panoply was the envy of every warrior in the lower world, but it did little more than flaunt his wealth and authority; it had been a long time since he had taken to the field in person, and he knew that not even this protection could stop the strange weapons from the surface.

With almost silent steps, the Kin-Breaker loped down the spiral staircase in the tower’s center and out upon the vault floor. The semicircle of his warleaders and advisers already waited for him around the gouged door, and they prostrated themselves upon his appearance. Satisfied with the scraping of their hands and chins on the stone ground, the warlord clicked his tongue, and they obediently rose again.

“Is everything done as I’ve ordered? Are all the warriors in place?” he growled in the chest-deep voice of a native of the deep vaults.

“Yes, great Kin-Breaker,” replied one of the warleaders, stooped in servile cringing. Most would have balked at that title of infamy, but Golog wore it with nonchalant arrogance: let all know there was no blood he would not spill in his bid for power.

“The Glaathi will be stirring again after that quake from the upper world,” Uluudh, one of his veteran advisers, spoke up, “It’s just the sort of thing they would take for a sign from their putrid god. I doubt the sealed tunnels would hold them back.”

“Then send word to Ogon to take his warband against them. If they clear the tunnels, tell him to clog them again with their rotting carcasses.”

Uluudh made a sound of assent and scampered away to summon a messenger. At a curt grunt from Golog, the others scattered in the same way, their footsteps rushing in all directions. The Kin-Breaker listened to their sound growing faint for a few moments, then unhurriedly crawled forward over the unnaturally smooth ground, his long loose-jointed limbs stretching and bending like the legs of a spider. He smelled broken rock and dust ahead; his hands found grips in a broken wall, and he deftly climbed onto the roof of a small monitoring cabin, his dense armour of little burden for the still powerful muscles underneath. From his new forward station, he breathed in the first signs of the starting battle.

Feet and hands scrabbled over stone, metal quietly rattled. His warriors were on the move, advancing, encircling, probing. Soon came the surfacers’ reply, the sizzling and strange smell of burning air spat out by their weapons. Golog’s scouts had told him that the vault’s defenders made a habit of sending their youngest, weakest runts to the very front. Perhaps they wanted to lure him into striking this weak, inviting target, all the more likely since their far more threatening machines were usually close behind.

The warlord knew better than to fall for such transparent bait. More scorched wafts filled the air, but now they came from his own side, fired by the chosen warband he had armed with trophies seized from fallen enemies. These clumsy armaments, guided by eye rather than ear and instinct, were not made for Pale Ones, and almost none of their shots ever struck home. But these surfacers were young and nervous, and the mere sight of his horde returning their fire threw them into a panic. Their cries rose in pitch, their shots became scattered and disorganised. They were already as good as dead.

Heavier running steps came and passed. The Kin-Breaker expected the machines to show themselves now, and he was not disappoint as the crash of heavy mechanical movement drowned out the frightened voices. More fiery intangible spears cut the air, this time impossibly fast and regular, and other arcane smells accompanied them - acrid fire reeking of earthblood, something difficult to describe and crackling like a sack of dried bones. Golog had felt some scraps of armour struck by the strange forces let loose by the unliving monsters from the surface; it was as though the iron was melted and cooled in the same breath, and only ashes were left beneath.

Yet the machines were not invincible. He heard the heavy steps again, and then sharp Pale One battlecries, tremendous crashing and shattering, the screech of wounded metal. Under the cover of the surfacer vanguard’s disorientation, some of the strongest and bravest among the horde had slipped past them. They carried great shard-mauls tipped with spikes of ancient alloy, and their sudden attack was clearly costing the machines dearly. The Kin-Breaker grinned to himself as he savoured the sounds of the surface’s most terrible weapons being smashed to scrap. Many of the champions would be dead as well, but more were always eager to take their place.

The commotion of battle was steadily rising. More voices shouted as the surfacers’ main force came into motion, and their weapons’ fire filled the air. Savage cries answered from his side as his warriors surged to take advantage of the frontline’s disarray. The deafening scrape of enormous iron plates pushed ahead as massive shields filled his ears.

It was now impossible to follow the course of the battle, but he had heard and felt enough to be satisfied. The Kin-Breaker bared his pointed teeth in a rapacious smile, knowing that his conquest of the upper world moved ever ineluctably closer.

His first sensations were a hard impact, followed by silence, distant points of light in blackness, and the smell of dust. This, he decided, was birth.

He lay unmoving for some time as he absorbed all that was laid out around him and tried to make sense of it. Under his back was a rough presence, rigid and stinging with many small points. It was not pleasant, but nor was it unbearable, and so he let it be, sweeping aside the tiny spikes of pain. Above him was emptiness. He could vaguely see something large and grey with the corner of his eye - his eye - but was shapeless, indistinct, no more than a sign of presence. Everywhere else, his sight met nothing but empty murk and innumerable white eyes far above.

It was restful. The darkness felt welcoming, somehow familiar, a protective and reassuring embrace he did know he could long for. The lights did not feel like an intrusion. They were but an ornament to the gloom, a toy for his eye-

His eye.

With jittery, uncertain motions, he raised his right hand to his face, smelling the dust and pebbles that stuck to it. Cautiously, he ran his fingers over the bare smoothness of his forehead, the timid bristle of his eyebrow. After that, nothing. He lowered a trepidant finger into the cavity, and felt nothing but more unblemished skin. His hand quivered as he withdrew it. The absence rankled him, chilled him with anxious unease and a nameless feeling that resembled impotence. He knew that it was wrong to not find anything in that hollow, that he lacked something he should have had. Suddenly, the ground below him seemed less tolerable than before.

He tried to push himself to his feet, propping himself up on backward-turned hands until he could raise himself upright with a shove. More things came into his view as his head moved up. The amorphous grey presence resolved itself into a compact enormity of matter - a wall, yet more than that, a monumental outgrowth of the earth underneath him. He lay, he saw now, at the bottom of a titanic pit, so wide and deep that its rim was lost in shadow far above. It reminded him of the aberration of his socket, but magnified on an incalculably greater scale. As with it, there was a wrongness about this staggering hollow, obvious in the great shattered heaps of boulders, some of mountainous size, that rose around him. It was as if the earth had fallen inward and met a hungry gap of emptiness that swallowed yet more of it.

His arms strained, shoved, and for a moment he staggered on his two feet. But his legs were unsteady, and he collapsed forward, landing on his outstretched hands. The unsettled dust stung his nostrils. Laboriously, he moved on four limbs. A hand and a knee. A hand and a knee. He looked around.

The seed of the cataclysm lay behind him. Rounded, hard and smooth, it bristled with angular growths whose purpose he could not imagine. It was surprisingly intact for having struck such a blow, but it had suffered all the same on its deformed, dented underside, and an odd darkened gouge ran along its side. Something about that last detail unsettled him, not merely as another image of mutilation, but with a deeper, more obscure feeling he could not catch hold of. He left the object behind and crawled towards the edge of the pit, his motions quickening as they gained confidence.

It was a long way. The fissure was immense, so much so that soon he stopped thinking of it as one. He was moving along a surface, one that seemed without end, among the feet of ruined colossi and fractured giants of silent stone. Cold began to set in. Breathing, something so natural he had not noticed it until now, became more difficult, first stifled, then almost painful. Whatever sustained him in this abyss was fading, and it was being replaced by an emptiness that had little in common with the soothing arms of night. He redoubled his efforts, the ache from his scraped and torn hands and knees rivalling that in his belaboured chest. Would he truly be safe if he reached wherever he was going, the thought stung him, or was his survival just a brief accident whose time was quickly expiring now?

His eye had begun to darken, his breath grown ragged, but inexhaustibly he crawled on, unconscious of his own tremendous endurance. The wall of the abyss now towered before him, and the pale lights were nothing but a memory. With fading sight, he saw heaped stones at its foot, and among them, a gap. Small, perhaps just wide enough for him. A final, furious effort pushed him through its mouth, its edges scratching his sides, and into the blissful reward of warm air. Unbalanced by his passage, stones fell behind him, sealing the opening.

Exhausted, he did not immediately notice that the darkness was now absolute, even more than at the foot of the wall. He lay on his belly, breathing deeply, feeling nothing but the strained beating - in two places, as it seemed - inside his chest. Gradually, more sensations came to him. The smell, still dusty, stale, dry. The solid bodies all around him. And to his ears, at last, so feeble, yet persistent…

Water. Somewhere far away, he clearly pictured in his mind, ran a flow of something light and limpid. Water.


If there was water, he realised in a way that astounded him, he could survive.

Breathing deeply, he rose to his hands and knees again. He moved without haste now, crawling leisurely, but with surety undaunted by his blindness. He smelled walls in his path before he met them, felt the emptiness of tunnel turns and branches at his sides. The darkness here was not constrained, as it had seemed at first, but winding and sinuous, enclosed in many passages that ran deep in the rocky earth. He could scarcely imagine the spaces he was moving through, but he held steadfastly to his guide, the clear, flowing sound that drew closer little by little.

It was, he thought, very close by the time he heard the other. Somewhere behind him and off to the side, a heavy, rhythmic dull thumping on the tunnel floor rolled to his ears. More sensations followed it closely: a stench of something warm and unclean, the perception of something very large moving in the dark, and a strange weight inside his head. He did not immediately understand what the latter was, and the realisation only unfolded after a few moments of confusion. Something alive was approaching, and somehow, by means he still could not grasp, he felt this life, this thinking mind as it neared. He had no sense of what it was, but instinct stirred in alarm within him. He hastened his pace, but it was not enough.

Massive, horrid, something loomed behind him, sending out foetid breaths that almost made him wince. A monstrously large hand forcefully curled around him, filthy nails digging into his skin, and he lost his grip on the ground as he was lifted with dreadful ease. He felt something - a mouth - opening before him, disgorging its rancid breath, and then he was moving helplessly towards, into it-

Anger surged up, surpassing his alarm. He had survived the journey through the abyss. He would survive this. His hand reached forward, brushed over the sharp points of gigantic teeth and found the coarse sides of the cheek. With a surge of strength that almost rivalled his captor, he seized it and tore away.

The next moment, a dull, raucous roar deafened him, and he fell, landing painfully on his tailbone. His hand was warm and wet, dripping with something that ran down his arm in twisting rivulets. He hardly had the time to think about it before the hand seized him again, swung him through the air and let loose.

He struck the wall with a crack and a jolt of lacerating pain throughout his body. He had not imagined anything could hurt so much. Dazed, numb from the spreading agony, he tried to reach for something, but found himself rising again, a furious grip around his ribcage wracking him with more torturous fracturing snaps, feral roars rattling his desperately groping mind.

His hands moved almost of his own. He reached forward again, but instead of avoiding the thing’s teeth he eagerly grabbed them, heedless of the wounds they tore in his wrists, and stretched his fingers around its jaw.

Then he wrenched.

The bellowing was so stunning that he barely felt the blow of his fall, though he himself cried out as it cascaded through his broken body. Hazily, he felt his assailant stumble away into the dark, howling and gurgling as it gripped its limp lower mouth. He did not think of it anymore. The pain. He could not die. He had to survive.

Life. Water.

With no thoughts, no conscious hope, he tugged in the direction he thought he had heard the flow. The throbbing in his head filled all his senses now. He could no longer move his legs, or perhaps he did, yet felt nothing but pain. His left arm hung deadly from its broken shoulder. Every twitch seemed to nearly tear him into bloody shreds.

Still he moved. Stubbornly, he dragged his mangled body ahead, leaving behind a damp, viscous trail. His senses struggled to rise above the pain, sporadically warning him of walls, turns, descents. In the moments they did, he could feel the running water increasingly close.

Rapid, continuous motion. He sensed it in front of him, its strength enough to momentarily dissipate the fumes of torment that clouded his head. He leaned forward, trying to reach it with his lips, only now conscious of a thirst almost as overbearing as the pain, but it was too far below the lip of its dimly perceived stony canal. With an effort that made him groan, he leaned forward, trying to reach deep, deeper-

Too deep.

The half-agonizing, half-insensate weight of his body slumped over the sheer edge. He tried to grasp for it, but it was futile, and instantly he was wreathed in cold more pervasive than he had known outside. He spluttered, flailed, but the current had him in its grip, and carried him far, far and down.

The last thing he felt before utter inanition claimed him was the chill of water spilling down his throat.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh

By then, Ilshar could not find it in him to be glad at how this new standoff was defused. Yes, they had gotten out of it without a bullet fired or embedded in their hides, blessed be the Nexus, but the fact that a misunderstanding had wasted this much time irritated him. Worse still if these guerrillas had a direct link to his employers, as their equipment suggested, in which case the whole scene could have been averted with a bit of coordination, something that had been in precious short supply in this operation so far. Downsides of working at the scale that the Intranszjednota did, he supposed, and with forces as haphazardly mixed at this. His first off-planet missions before the war had been clean jobs in comparison.

“If you’re hanging back, keep an eye open for whatever did this. Would hate if it was patrolling and caught us in the attack,” he rumbled into the transmitter before shambling ahead. Specialty or not, the group in the woods looked more than heavily armed enough to provide decent support in a direct assault; more likely than not they simply saw Echo as an excuse not to put themselves at risk. Arguing the point would be worse than pointless, but they had been preparing to face whatever had taken out those vrexul, so at least they could put those railguns to use.

Whatever dregs the universe gave, he would scrounge them. That was how one survived.

A further stretch of tense woodland march later, Ilshar’s vision organs leered at the first line of defenses before the squad’s ultimate target. The armoured hulk that directed the automated soldiers brought back unpleasant memories of just what being outgunned by League heavies meant. These cybernetic shells were an unpleasant way of overcompensating for other bipeds’ lack of tarrhaidim-kind’s rotborn blessings. They did have their own poisons, but EMP rounds were so damned expensive.

“Killbox, good idea,” he nodded to Rasch as he chambered the precious lightning-marked ammunition and pointed onward to the left with a momentarily free hand, “I’ll cut off from over there, keep the pressure from the front.”

Ilshar was about to disappear under the double veil of overgrowth and aetheric cloaking when the other voidhanger’s voice almost made him start. With how quiet their kind was, he tended to forget she was there.

“The higher-ups would like it if we take him alive,” the tarrhaidim grunted noncommittally, “But I wouldn’t risk it. Nexus knows he’ll have some failsafe implant, I don’t think whoever sent him wants to leave loose ends if things go bad for their side.”

With those words, he shuffled quietly forward, taking an advanced and slightly lateral position away from the main group. His Ulvath had neither the voidhangers’ precision nor Echo’s indiscriminate potency, so to make the most of it in a surprise attack he had to make the most of firing angles. From where he crouched, he had the widest view of the armoured soldier and the lineup of automata, and the advantage was more than an observational one. As the rest of the Envonomed opened up on the target, Ilshar fired off a quick burst at the power armour’s conspicuous center of mass, then smoothly trailed off into a cone that swept over the enemies’ profile. The most damage with the fewest wasted rounds, a prize that would be worth his riskier station.
Maulland Sen, Nordyc

A storm was breaking.

The land was no stranger to storms, since even before the seas had boiled away, the land had been beaten by frigid winds pulled off long gone seas, surging past far away mountains. 

This was not a storm of such making, but the work of the species who had ruined the oceans and the land, and were doing so yet again. In a moment, a thousand, thousand munitions fell upon the far off emplacements of the enemy. The fringes of a corrupt empire, given way to witchcraft and mutation that nestled in the mountains of old Nordyc. The Maulland Sen were some of the worst of the human nations that the Imperium would have to sweep away, should it seek to claim the mantle of Terra.

A first blow in a war that would no doubt cost much in time, men and resources, but a minor one, were it not for the providence of those who watched it. There was a second storm at play, but the second was simply the presence of a being powerful enough that reality seemed to bear his presence with only great trepidation. The Emperor did not need the pict-imaging devices his commanders were using to examine the bombardment from afar, instead he simply watched, alone for the moment, as the Balt-Forts began to show the first signs of damage to the torrential bombardment the Imperial Army had begun the day before.

Even with the shell cracked, the meat within would hardly be vulnerable, it would be yet another early test of the new warriors he had forged. His space marines, that had been made from what remained of his greatest project.

“Come before me, I will listen.” The Emperor spoke before he was addressed, sensing the approaching presence of his warriors, a scant number of them, who might interrupt his private viewing of the battlefield to come.

With heavy, hesitant steps, three figures drew near, as if rising from the soil itself at his beckoning. Faceless in the smooth masks of their visors, featureless in armour of dull slate and bare grey, they truly seemed fragments of the dreary northern landscape come to life, all the bleaker before a presence that dwarfed even their superhuman size. They bore no identifiers save for the numeral IX on their pauldrons, but one was clearly the leader; as the others remained standing at a distance, he moved several more steps forward before lowering himself to one knee.

“My Emperor,” he began in a guttural voice with an odd, harshly whistling timbre, “We are your instrument. We fear no enemy, no death. But doubt eats at our warriors from within.” He bowed his head. “Before even we reached the front, many of us were crippled as organs and muscle failed them. Too many, we were told, and too late for simple rejection of the procedure that made us, but no more than that. Now the others grow uneasy. They dread that their bodies might fail them, and that they might fail you. We beseech you, my Emperor. If anything can choke these doubts, I would not have them poison our spirits.”

The towering figure of the Emperor did not turn as the warriors spoke, the gleaming gold of his armour standing out against the wasteland of his surroundings. Forged in recent days by the smiths of the Terrawatt clans, it was a great work of marvel, one of many that his vision had brought about in recent times, but in his own opinion, a far lesser one than the work which had forged those who now spoke to him.

“Your concerns are heard, my warriors.” It was only then that he turned, the full might of his presence falling upon the men, the air around him seeming to shimmer with intensity. “Each of my new legions is not alike, you come with great strengths, and challenges, that are all your own. We are on the cusp of greatness that will propel us far beyond the scope of this world, but for this vision, there will be sacrifices, as you all well know.” The future Master of Mankind stood with his hands clasped behind his back, a pose of military formality, yet still his expression provided some familial warmth to the helmeted warriors. “It may not seem such, but even this contributes to our cause, to defeat what ails you will provide you with greater strength for these wars to come.” The Emperor paused for but a moment, before continuing it a barely quieter tone, “I am not deaf to your worries, however, we will continue to improve the manner in which new legionnaires are made, and to protect against the ravages that it inflicts.”

Awed by the force that fell upon them with his every word, the legionnaires were silent for a time, their visored eyes downcast, until at last their leader found his voice again.

“Then we shall fight to master our weakness in your name, as we do your enemies in the field. But…” He halted, clearly uneasy at the thought of raising a demand, were that even a humble one. “Allow us to carry a word from you to our fellows. A command to drive them forward without fear, knowing your eyes are on them. Their misgivings would be ash on the wind, and the priest-king’s blades snowflakes in their path.” His voice dipped, little more than a reverent whisper overtaken by his whistling accent. “My Emperor.”

The Emperor paused for several long beats of his warriors’ augmented hearts before one hand drifted to the great eagle that sweapt from his left pauldron, the insignia of the Aquilia which had been adopted across the nascent Imperium he was building. His fingers touched upon the wing of the golden bird, before pulling away. A single feather of gold seemed to seperate, in a structural impossibility, from the armour. Small in the Emperor palm, he offered it down towards the speaker.

“Take more than words, carry this with you, the bearer of my singular honoring of yout kindred who have, and will, perish from this trial. Let none who hear of it use it as a weapon against you, for none have given more to my cause so early in their great service.” As the Emperor spoke, the pounding of the guns which had become little more than white noise backing their discussion rose in a fearful roar, a great intensity of bombardment that could only herald the imminent commencement of the assault. “You will fight with me this day, let us strike the first blow together.”

Three figures walked down over the coldly dry Nordyc soil. Behind them was the light whose spark they now carried; ahead, others like them – many others – awaited the resolution of their audience. Before their Master, they had stood nameless, for they did not doubt he knew all that needed to be known. Yet among their own ranks their names, these echoes of a desolate and frostbitten land much like the one they now trod, carried the great weight that had propelled them to this honour. From a host of orphans, they had emerged as leaders.

They were Osorin Skorr, who always found the finest words and thoughts, and now bore a gleaming feather with reverent care; Tevr Nyrid, whom none could surpass with the sword; and Tzosh Ghaal, who already in the gene-labs had been the most curious and observant.

“If the next generation is gestating now,” Ghaal rumbled in his cavernous voice, “We can expect an improvement in the third at the soonest. Likely much later.”

“I was naive to hope it could be all solved so easily,” conceded Skorr. Now that he no longer addressed the Emperor, the whistling accent is his words had emerged as strongly as in his fellows’. “But you heard him. We are not to be discarded, even if death walks with us. Give him reason for his faith, and we shall not only be free, but among the most favoured.”

“And if we do not live to see it?” Nyrid asked grimly.

“Then we will at least have died a proud death.”

“Were it only for me, I would not mind,” the blade-champion shrugged, “But the others need our guidance now, Osorin. We were all taken young. So few of them remember anything of our traditions, the way of battle in our blood. If we are gone too soon, what will be left when a perfect generation comes will no longer be us.”

“What concerns me,” Ghaal spoke up, “is who is to find this cure for us. Our makers were so clumsy and sluggish, and I was still nascent when I saw them.”

“They are the Emperor’s finest,” Skorr chided.

“And yet they are only human.”

They walked a few steps in silence.

“We will do this,” said Skorr finally, “Tevr, make sure our people awaken to their birthright. I will give them a push with this,” he lifted the gleaming feather, “and you lead them through the forge of battle. Tzosh, however the day goes, many of us will fall. Look at the bodies reviled by flesh and see if you can find anything, if you are not one of them.”

“I do not count on dying,” Ghaal answered without a hint of jest.

“Then it is decided.”

The three warriors mounted a knotty ridge, and a sea of familiar grey metal stirred to receive them.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh

Nexus be praised, everything had worked out after all, at least for now. There was no telling if these new presences would remain even as friendly as that, but having fewer guns pointed at him right not was something Ilshar could appreciate. At the very least, these people knew what exactly they were going up against on the way to the cannon, and namely what had slaughtered these vrexul in the clearing. What was "worse than an unztadlige". Ilshar could think of a few things, but none that would not have been visible from this distance already. If they could get some intelligence, and better yet some fire support-

Of course, the channel was cut just then.

Grumbling, Ilshar hauled himself to his feet and shuffled over to where Rasch was holding the transmitter, hands no longer up but weapon safely dangling away beyond threatening reach. Through his many sight-organs, he kept moving with ease while looking at the brief transmission that circulated the squad's displays. Good thing he was not there, he thought. Unnerving as the still unknown defenses they were facing might have been, he would much rather go up against them than jump into the sort of furnace the rebellion had stirred up. Still, that did not mean they could get careless now.

"Ask them what exactly we're up against here, I'm tired of this unknown," he gurgled, leaning in as the voidhanger tried to restore contact with the other party, "And if they've got something that can help kill it."
Ilshar Ard’sabekh

The unpleasant wave of sensation hit Ilshar an instant earlier than the putrid nerve-clusters in his body could interpret it, drowning him in a surge of vague but stifling unease that would have made someone less hardened freeze up on the spot. As it was, his body was already halfway behind a rock, a proper lithoid one, before he recognised the sense of vulnerability for what it was. Open. Defenseless. A clear target. Augmented senses screamed danger at him, and the message they sent was every bit as clear as the whizzing bullet and the peremptory words that followed it. The feeling did not fully subside even when the rock was safely interposed between most of his body and the now even more sinister treeline, and every inch of himself he left exposed to keep watch over the woods made him keenly aware of itself.

He was about to growl something in response to Rasch, when the staccato of a new series of shots interrupted the gurgle in his amorphous throat and left his shard-toothed maw hanging open in bemusement. The pure human - Kleo, was it - seemed determined to antagonise every force on this worm-forsaken world, to the point Ilshar was beginning to doubt if she was some sort of double agent embedded in their ranks to sabotage them. Most humans were Leaguers, after all, weren't they...

"Kadharra! Hold still!" he cursed, churning as loud as his voice would carry. Perhaps the force in the trees would hear that and take it as a sign of goodwill on his part, but to pray for such a fate would have been hubris at this point. Regardless, he had to make some attempt to defuse the situation, and the only vocal channel was with Rasch. The tarrhaidim let go of his gun and raised both empty hands, splayed wide oped, over the rim of his covering rock. The gesture was universal enough; it remained to be seen if the hidden guerrillas would trust it for what it was.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh

The tension in the air did not dissipate, but neither did the treeline erupt in fire and shrapnel, and thus after a few slowly creeping moments Ilshar felt safe enough to turn his attention away from the looming uncertainty and back to the plate still held in his hand. The intensity of the sensations he could feel seeping from it was unsettling even to an ether-touched mind, perhaps moreso due to how familiar they were as opposed to the slippery and nebulous emanations of the Chasm. Unfamiliar as he was with vrexul spirituality, he wondered just how much of the fallen insurgent lived on in this fragment. How fitting, he thought, as he slotted the plate into a loose gap on his back, to be properly integrated where his suit was lacking once conditions were more favourable. The fungus thrived on the dead and almost-dead. Such was the way of the Nexus.

"These ones were on our side. What got them is after us," he replied over the comms. On their side as far as Zanovia went, at least. Who, if anyone, the vrexul had truly followed remained a mystery, though Ilshar was ready to wager that they had been breakaways from the war. A venomous resentment much like the one he felt now had suffused those he had seen turn away from the battlefields and disappear into the void. What was less familiar, however...

"And they've been tampered with." It did not look like simple looting, certainly not his own crude groping and severing. Even if the CivSec and their allies had decided to harvest the vrexul's organs for some reason, it seemed much too clean for the hasty field job it ought to have been. Perhaps their main goal had been to make space for these implants, but this only raised even more ominous questions. The fact that the pulsating tangle did not look like an obvious booby trap, be that a bomb or an infection vector, did little to set him at ease. "I'd stay clear of them."

With crouching, wary steps, Ilshar began to make good on his own warning, keeping close to the ground as he edged away from the bodies and towards the surer protection of the rocks. The unpleasant suspicion lingered that he might already have been too late to avoid the bio-construct's effects, but for the moment it was drowned out by the awareness that he was an exposed target. He kept his gun trained on the edge of the clearing, noticing with some relief that the voidhanger looked ready to provide cover. Even if he did make it, however, he knew the safety would be temporary. There were too many unclear things in this place for it to be secure - and the cannon still waited ahead.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh

There was something wrong about this place, that much Ilshar agreed with as he dropped off the unztadlige's back onto the clearing's blasted ground. The increasing distance they had gained from the sounds of battle below had not been unwelcome, but there was always such a thing as too quiet a moment, especially this close to an enemy's positions. He found himself doubting whether the steadily creeping fog that had welcomed them among the trees was itself some trick of the cannon's defenders, an artificial vapour released to obfuscate the approach to the mountaintop. Excessive as that might have seemed in a heavily wooded area like this, it might not have been without its advantages. Right now, much to his irritation, it was interfering with his own detection attempts. The organs of taste and smell opening and breathing about his skin were quickly flooded with its bland humidity, leaving these senses useless. All he was going to perceive without seeing it were qillatu discharges through his more exotic implanted receptors, and even than might have been too little, too late.

And then there were those bodies.

Ilshar trudged up to the grotesque heap of mangled carcasses and crouched beside them. He had seen similar-looking things before. Not quite identical, but then they tended to be as augmented as any military type in the Expanse, if not more. The memories he had of them were not good.

"Hope these aren't what I think," he grunted aloud as he dug about the mass of splintered carapace and insectile viscera, now and then extruding a long, wormlike tongue to try a piece to the taste. If the League had brought vrexul, they valued this planet much more than anyone had imagined, and his squad's job had gotten that much harder and more dangerous. But even if these were vrexul - he was still not fully sure - had they actually been with the League? If their shells had borne any signs of their allegiance, most of it was now too battered to tell. As he rolled over a dismembered body with no small effort in search of identifying marks, Ilshar spotted an intact smaller plate on its underside. The material looked solid. Too heavy for a whole suit, certainly, but this much was just about the right amount to patch up a vital spot on his own piecemeal armour.

He had just finished painstakingly tearing the segment of slick bio-metal from its host when he heard Rasch's warning. Rotting Abyss, let it not be vrexul. He hunkered as best he could behind the heaped bodies, reaching for his gun and casting out his ethereal senses. If the Nexus was propitious, this cover, however improvised, would be enough.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh

With the situation defused, Ilshar eased back into his usual slumping hunch, briefly raising a hand as the ZRF group departed. Ultimately, it was a small thing they fought for. A planet, a government, a few billion lives at most. A little spark for hatred; the lords of the League or the Dominion, every bit as mortal as they were, would have thought nothing of it. But it was all their world, and it was hard to blame them if they snapped at the blundering of those supposedly here to help. Here to help - the Dolsilvec people had sounded like that during the war, too, and what had come of it? The good kind of allies kept quiet and did what they had to do, and so he, too, remained silent as he listened to the Intransigence contact's briefing, eye-rifts warily opening in his squadmates' directions all the while.

"Ready," he finally assented once everything had been laid out and the group prepared to move. Approach, seize, commandeer. The human had been right to look askance at him; that had never been his specialty. Covert approach and sabotage, yes, but the plan here was supposed to be something a touch more elaborate. What that would leave for him to do besides watching the approach once they got there remained to be seen. "Any of you good with League systems?"

If they got there, of course. If CivSec had any neurons, they would not have left their benefactors' gift lightly defended.
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