+ Common Core Concepts +

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

+ inload: Where we first see our narrator +



Moving in twos and threes, we scuttle from cover to cover like cockroaches, our ebony armour proving oddly effective camouflage against the hard black ground. Coalstan leads, his footing and pace steady. As a sop to standard practise, we avoid a direct route to the crash site, instead approaching in a long curving arc that both avoids the great gouge it ploughed whilst keeping it in easy sight. 

The Stormbird proves curiously difficult to find. It is – bizarrely – not at the end of the great gouge. Any smoke that the might betray the location of the wreck is utterly lost in the burning rain of ash and fire of the raging wider battle. 

I am unwilling to divide our meagre forces. We consolidate and form a small – too small – circle at my hand signal, ducking into a sheltered lee in the rock. Each marine crouches and faces outward; the three Breachers forming a laughably loose shield wall that brackets Medardus and Miredan, with the Immortal awkwardly positioned at their side. I am the centre. 

Each Marine taps the brother to his right, and the Immortal turns to touch my boot. Involuntarily, I flinch at the touch. His helm remains blank and impassive as he turns back outwards.

I realise have no idea what to do. My focus on the Stormbird was complete – dangerously so. Now it is missing, I am completely at a loss. 

The six are looking outward, but I feel the judgement of each. Weak

I pause and attempt to lift my helm away. The lower part grinds, then remains stubbornly fixed even as the top portion comes away. It falls into three large parts in my hands. The hot, dry wind of Isstvan grates over my bare scalp. It provides no relief.

Staying here is foolish. At best, the enemy have investigated and moved on. At worst, an artillery strike might fall in a moment. I try to clear my thoughts. Facts. We are near the peak of a mountain, though the topography remains frustratingly unclear. What little breaks in the pillars and natural columns exist are black with dust, ash and smoke and taunt our lack of vision. Without access to the noospheric battle-net that our support in the IVth should have up and running by now, we have no idea of our position.

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Vo Colmach was a bear of a figure; taller than the rest of us by a clear margin, and strapped around with muscle-bulk. An experienced veteran, his armour and shield practically dripped with sigils, markings and honorifics that marked him as participating in more than a dozen extinction-level campaigns during the Alien Wars of the early Crusade. 

His experience was vast; his adaptation to different threats – whether the speed of aspected Saim-Hanni, the bio-horror of the Arc, or the creeping precision of the Terror Lizards of Shrin – unparalleled. He had trained obsessively, modifying his body and equipment to cover incremental weaknesses and make himself a true god of war. 

On any other battlefield, Colmach would have been invincible.

On Isstvan, he was merely the first of us to die. 

+++

Even as I prepare to swallow my pride and ask for ideas, the Children emerge from the fog. Three of them, moving away from our position at an angle, their rear left sides to us. Remnants of a Seeker squad, judging by the markings, though these are non-standard. Less than a hundred yards away, they are seemingly as mazed by the smoke and din as we were, and show no sign of having seen us.

Their movements are sinuous, creeping and oddly hypnotic – though whether it is this or something else that makes us all freeze, I do not know. Instinct has brought my salvaged boltgun up, which alerts the others to my target through their armour's hoods, but none of us fire at the other Astartes. Their armour, opulent and saturated, looks obscenely lavish against the black, black rock. 

+++

Time stretches, until the rearmost turns, checking all angles. It is such a natural movement, so measured and by-the-book, that its familiarity disarms us. Isstvan feels like a training exercise. I give no order. For Colmach, my pause proves fatal. 

The Emperor's Children have no hesitation at firing at us. The rearmost puts two bolts into Coalstan's legs even as he moves to stand, expertly targetting beneath his rising shield. This alerts the other two, who dart forward, away from us, and into cover. 

Our return fire is sporadic. Even now, even now, we're firing to suppress. It feels wrong. Four shields come together, the Breachers instincts to lock and protect, rather than attack. Bolt rounds shriek past and clang into the iron wall, and we step forward as one. No, not as one, I realise. I hear Medardus above the roar of blood in my ears. Something. Behind us.

The fourth Seeker – appearing over the rise behind us – puts two bolts through Colmach, one in the back of the neck, decapitating him, and the other that tears off his arm below the elbow. His shield clatters to the floor, and he falls upon it, heavily. The shield wall is broken, and the three enemies to our front are dug-in behind the rocky cover and firing at us.

Thank providence for brother Miredan – and thank Telerac for volkite. A thrumming eye-watering ray of emerald-ruby evaporates the rearguard, before the culverin-toting Heavy Support specialist turns the beam on the rocks. A second Seeker erupts into short-lived flame, his gaudy purple and gold turning as black as our carapace. 

I turn and see Medardus collapsing to his knees, the sheared-off remnants of a long combat blade driven down through his gorget and out below his right pauldron. The fourth Emperor's Children marine has jumped down and all but impaled him. Blood is sobbing out of Medardus, washing down his flank. His left hand, silver and gleaming, is grappling with the Seeker, trying to stop the Emperor's Children warrior from finishing the job with the foot or so or the broken blade that remains in his grip.

My bolter is up. My breathing is ragged. My head feels close, and hot, as though wrapped and padded in wet felt. I have lost my Crusade. I have lost my craft. I nearly lost my head. I will not lose my friend. 

My first angry burst of boltgun fire knocks the Seeker back. The second burst puts him on the floor. The third – finally – penetrates his armour, pulping and ruining the marine within, turning the traitor into charnel meat and boiling pink mist. Waveringly, I put a bolt round through the head of the purple-armoured warrior. My enemy neutralised, I whip back round to see my brothers advancing haltingly on the remaining Seeker, sheltering behind their great tower shields. 

Triumph is face-down in the dirt, and Coalstan is slow; limping. Smoke is rising from him, along with a stench of burnt meat. A bolt whips past the Immortal and punches into my side, cutting through me and spinning me onto my back. It burns. It hurts. The Emperor's Children's bolt-fire is punching through our armour and shields as though it were cloth. I look up to see Miredan stumble backwards, aspirating a great cloud of blood through his vox-grille. His culverin drops. 

The Immortal stands alone against the remaining Seeker. He is a handful of steps away. The light is weird. He discards his shield, rent and punctured. The Seeker stands – arrogant – and blazes away. Every shot hits, tearing through the Immortal's armour.

The Immortal is armour. Nearly every component of the disgraced Iron Hand has been replaced with cold, hard iron. There is little flesh to burn; few nerves to torment. The great punctures in his torso do not even break his stride. The light transfixes him, falling through his torso and leaving glittering red-gold shafts behind him. 

He reaches the Seeker's paultry cover and vaults it before the marine can reload. One steel-cold hand bats the Seeker into a nearby column, before he closes and the wraps the other round the throat of Fulgrim's child. The Seeker scrabbles at the hand at his neck. The Immortal closes his hand with finality.

Victory. 

Of a sort.

+++





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