The stygian gloom of the Underhive surrounded them. Odd dripping noises echoed through long, disused corridors and every now and then the scuttle of vermin somehow eking out an existence in the desolate halls drifted through the still air.
For three weeks, four of the Battle-Brothers of the Deathwatch had been walking these empty, metallic corridors, searching fruitlessly for the Eldar pirates being used as a trading contact by smugglers in the Hive above. While a more senior team of Space Marines had been assigned to act as Inquisitor Tandor’s retinue, Brother-Sergeant Laertes’ squad had been sent into the original colony ships that acted as the foundations of the Hive.
Officially, the planet was known as Hydron Tertius and the city was listed as Towloon, named for one of the colony’s founders. Unofficially, however, it was merely the Hive. Laertes could see why. Millions of Imperial citizens scurried around its myriad streets and hallways, each performing their assigned task to ensure the continued survival of the whole.
As an important factory world and trade centre, Hydron Tertius had resembled a large ball of rust swarming with insects when Laertes had seen it from space and now, after three weeks of empty, rusting hallways and abandoned habs, his opinion hadn’t changed. It was a far cry from Macragge.
He activated the vox-bead in his armour’s gorget to release a burst of static over the kill-teams’ radios. The two brothers with him stopped and began searching the darkness around them, their barrel-mounted torches scything through the gloom. His hands, dextrous in the thick ceramite gauntlets, flickered through the established signs for ‘rest break’ and ‘stay vigilant’ and they nodded in understanding.
While no strangers to periods of gruelling conditions, and quite capable of continuing for days if needed, all of them had sensed something strange was at work in this area of the Underhive. That was why, hours earlier, Laertes had sent Battle-Brother Frostclaw ahead of the party to scout the halls, trusting the Space Wolf’s enhanced senses to find the source of the foreboding miasma.
It took half an hour for the bearded Assault Marine to return. Laertes gestured for him to follow from the sentry position he had assumed and walked back to the other two members of the kill-team.
‘What did you find?’ He asked, attaching his bolter to the magnetic clamps built into his armour. He pulled a data-slate from a pouch at his belt and cycled through the files on it, searching for a map of their current search area.
‘Nothing.’ The Space Wolf growled. ‘There is nothing down here that I can see, hear or smell.’ He paused, his lips taut. ‘But, Throne Above, I can feel something is wrong.’ His fists clenched in frustration. Laertes handed him the data-slate.
‘Where did you scout?’
‘Up this hall, around here,’ Frostclaw began, tracing his route with one finger, ‘through these ante-cham-’ His voice trailed off into silence, prompting the other members of the kill-team to glance at him.
‘What is it?’ Laertes asked.
‘Allfather as my witness, I did not see that entire section. There was a solid wall there.’ Frostclaw said, pointing at a vast network of hallways and open spaces.
‘I guess we know where to start looking then.’ Brother Dumiel said. ‘Go to where the pup got lost and carry straight on.’ He grinned at Frostclaw’s low growl and patted the heavy bolter hanging from his shoulder harness. ‘Down, boy.’
Laertes threw him a withering glance before turning back to Frostclaw.
‘A solid wall? Could it have been a holo-wall?’ The Space Wolf shook his head.
‘No. I couldn’t smell anything from it other than rust.’ He rubbed his face. ‘All I can smell down here IS rust. With some mould thrown in.’ He paused. ‘And him, of course.’ He gestured to Dumiel. Laertes ignored the jibe and nodded.
‘Then I suppose we have somewhere to look. Even if it is just to make sure we won’t be attacked from an unknown angle.’ He briefly touched one of the Oaths attached to his breastplate. ‘We’re moving out. Frostclaw will take point, Harrik will follow him and I will bring up the rear. Dumiel, keep an eye on the motion sensor but keep your heavy weapon handy, we all know how adept the Eldar are at deception and ambush tactics.’
His brothers nodded and fell into position, their enhanced physiology allowing them to move with a rapidity at odds with their bulk. Frostclaw loped off into the darkness, his footsteps almost silent despite the heavy boots he wore. The other Marines donned their helmets, preferring to use the night vision in their helmet optics than trust to their own senses.
They ran down hallway after rusting hallway, the shapes of long dead machinery loomed in alcoves to either side of them and tatters of what were once great tapestries hung from hooks near the ceiling. Pools of water, fuelled by trickles of runoff from the Hive above splashed beneath their feet as they ran through the deserted complex. More than once, Laertes caught sight of the rapidly moving figures of the blind vermin that preyed on each other down here and he shook his head at the wasted space that could be used to relieve the urban pressure in the city above.
Cracked and long dead glowglobes hung from the ceiling at regular intervals, their fixtures barely attached in some places. Doors hung crookedly from their hinges, or had fallen down, and the rooms beyond were as desolate as the rest of the complex, their contents long since scavenged or stolen.
Laertes was impressed with the sheer length of time the colony ships had lasted without rusting away to nothing, and he felt certain that, had they the time to explore, they would find relics of interest to the Techmarines of the Deathwatch or the Adeptus Mechanicus stored away in long forgotten rooms. But they hadn’t the time and on they ran, following the tireless Space Wolf as he moved with a hunter’s gait down the interminable hallways.
They eventually reached a large, high-ceilinged room, the floor covered with a threadbare carpet and an enormous, cracked vid-screen hung crookedly along the length of one wall. Broken furniture and a toppled lectern in one corner provided scant cover for the vermin that erupted out of a hidden nest at the Space Marines’ approach.
Frostclaw grinned at Dumiel’s barked oath of surprise and then turned to face the wall opposite the vid-screen.
‘Here. The doorway should be here.’ He said, striding to a spot roughly halfway along it. Laertes walked over to him, brushing the surface of the wall with one gauntlet. His fingers met the expected resistance and he lowered his hand again, absently noticing the rust flakes that drifted to the floor. Frostclaw did the same and sniffed his fingers cautiously. A frown creased his craggy features and he turned to his sergeant.
‘Can I see your gauntlet?’ Laertes offered his hand without thinking. Frostclaw sniffed it and then looked back up. ‘Can you direct your lights at your hand?’ He asked. Laertes blinked in surprise and then looked down, directing the temple-mounted faint lights his helmet boosted to provide the night vision at his gauntlet. He noticed Frostclaw looking intently at his fingertips. ‘There’s no rust.’ The Space Wolf said quietly.
‘What are you talking about, Wolf?’ Dumiel asked, annoyance colouring his voice.
‘Look.’ Frostclaw instructed, brushing the wall heavily with his hand. A large cloud of rust flakes fell to the ground. ‘And yet no rust on my gauntlet and no smell of rust on it either.’ He turned his hand over, showing them the clean palm of his gauntlet. There was a moment of silence as his words sank in.
‘Go through the wall.’ Laertes said. Frostclaw nodded and readied his chain-axe. ‘No. Punch your way through. The metal won’t be that thick and your axe will make more noise than your fist. We’ve heard sections of the roof give way, but we haven’t heard a chain-axe. Hopefully, if there is anything down here, it’ll think something has just collapsed.’
There was a minute look of disappointment on Frostclaw’s face as he holstered his axe. He strode up and down the section of the wall they were in front of a few times, consulted Laertes’ data-slate and then threw a punch at a bare section of metal. Laertes had activated the audio dampeners in his helmet in preparation for a thunderous noise and was surprised at Frostclaw’s reaction.
The Space Wolf froze as his fist went through the wall and bared his teeth, dashing forwards through the seemingly solid surface. Dumiel and Harrik glanced at their sergeant, Harrik’s helmet hung once more from his belt clamps. Laertes nodded, readying his bolter and stepped cautiously through the same section of wall, the targeting optics of his helmet bursting with static as he did so.
The feeling of foreboding crawled down his spine as he crossed the threshold and, when the static cleared, he could see the Space Wolf in front of him, his teeth bared and his head turning this way and that.
‘Calm down, brother.’ Dumiel whispered from his position at Laertes’ right shoulder as he emerged from the psychic illusion. Frostclaw blinked a few times and shuddered.
‘Psyker?’ He asked, his voice icy and venomous. Laertes nodded.
‘It is most likely Eldar sorcery creating an illusion. Nothing more.’ He shook his head to clear the lingering ominous feeling. ‘I would guess the feeling of foreboding that has been affecting us was the first line of defence, designed to unnerve anyone who ventured this far.’
The Space Wolf clenched his jaw, drawing his bolt pistol and chain-axe.
‘Let us find this foul xeno witch and end them.’ He said, stalking forwards. Laertes nodded, whispering a prayer to the God-Emperor under his breath. He glanced at Harrik, noticing the grim set of the Hawk Lord’s features.
Laertes remembered the briefing he had been given about the Marine. Brother-Captain Kest had been standing in front of the observatory’s window on the Inquisitorial cruiser they had made planetfall in, the ebon plate of the Deathwatch forming a pupil-like figure in the centre of the rust red orb of the planet. Kest had told him of Harrik’s oath of silence and of the disastrous mission against the Eldar that had killed every member of Harrik’s squad and seen him selected for the Deathwatch.
Harrik noticed the sergeant’s helmet turned towards him and nodded abruptly. Laertes took a few steps forwards and noticed a gradual lightening of the walls around them, the night vision optics adjusting smoothly until, within minutes, he could see the world around him as it was, and not in shades of green.
The light, he saw, came from gems the size of his head, fixed to the walls of the corridor every five yards or so. He resisted the urge to shoot them out, doctrine overruling the instinctual hatred of xeno technology. Ahead, he could see Frostclaw and Dumiel at a fork in the hallway and he glanced at the map superimposed on his vision by his armour’s machine-spirits.
The corridors from here on in seemed to converge at one point, an enormous chamber that the Imperial cartographer had tentatively suggested could have been a civic recreation area whilst the colony ship had been in use.
‘Right.’ He whispered, directing his men to take the shortest route to the central area. They turned and continued, Dumiel allowing his sergeant to take his place behind the scout. ‘Keep it ready.’ Laertes said as he passed and the Dark Angel nodded, checking the belt feed to his heavy bolter.
As he walked slowly behind Frostclaw, Laertes saw the Space Wolf’s hand clench sporadically around the hilt of his chain-axe.
‘Is everything okay, Luka?’ He asked after observing this for a while. The Space Wolf stopped and looked at his sergeant. Laertes frowned as he saw the bloodspots in the Wolf’s eyes.
‘Sir?’ Dumiel said from behind him.
‘What is it, Dumiel?’ Laertes asked approaching Frostclaw slowly.
‘I think something is wrong with Harrik.’ Laertes span and saw the same bloodspots in Harrik’s eyes. He activated the sensor suite in his helmet and cursed.
‘Holy Terra, put your helmets on.’ He turned back to the Space Wolf to see a brief frown of puzzlement cover his weather-beaten features. ‘I don’t care if it interferes with your scouting ability. Do it.’ He paused, awaiting a response. ‘NOW!’ He roared after a moment. ‘There’s something in the air. Something even our metabolism can’t handle.’
‘More xeno trickery.’ Frostclaw growled, slurring slightly, as he sealed his helmet with one hand, wrapping the other around the Frostwyrm claw he had hung from a leather thong around his neck.
Behind him, he heard a soft click as Harrik obeyed as well and Laertes clenched his jaw. He wondered what the Eldar had pumped into the air that was strong enough to overwhelm even a Space Marine’s bio-engineered superhuman metabolism. He cast the thought aside, recognising it as a distraction from their duty.
‘We’ll wait a few moments and then press on.’ He said, wanting to give his battle-brothers time to recover.
‘I’m fine.’ Frostclaw growled, turning on his heel.
‘No. We wait.’ Laertes repeated, his tone one of quiet authority. He saw Frostclaw’s gauntlet tighten on the metal haft of his chain-axe and then loosen.
‘Fine.’ The Wolf spat, turning his back to his brothers.
Laertes waited a few minutes, watching Frostclaw’s impatient movements and then instructed the kill-team to move on. As they followed the hallway, he noticed more and more signs of life. Footprints disturbed the dust on the floor and the vermin here were bigger, better fed. Once or twice a member of the kill-team had to push one of the beasts aside with a booted foot because it refused to move.
After an hour or so, they began to feel a vibration coming up from the floor and Laertes boosted his helmet’s audio systems. A deep hum, barely perceptible, came from the direction they were heading and he muttered a prayer to the Emperor and to the machine-spirits of his bolter and armour. With swift, practiced movements, he checked the magazine in his weapon and loosened his combat knife in its sheath.
‘Careful. There’s something up ahead.’ He broadcast to his kill-team, the display in his helmet showing their affirmation. They continued moving for another half an hour, their steps near silent.
‘Halt.’ Laertes whispered into his vox-bead. Ahead, he saw Frostclaw stop and bring his bolt pistol to bear, checking for targets. ‘Luka, scout ahead and tell us what you see.’ The Wolf stalked forwards around the next corner and disappeared from view. The minutes stretched out as they waited.
‘It’s clear.’ Frostclaw’s voice came over the vox-net. ‘I think you should see this, Brother-Sergeant.’ Laertes motioned for Dumiel and Harrik to follow and cautiously moved off.
He almost missed the hulking form of the Space Wolf in an empty doorway but acquiesced without question when he beckoned for the kill-team to follow. Frostclaw led them through a small complex of rooms and then up a ladder in a shaft barely wide enough for their power armour. The sounds of their boots on the metal rungs echoed in the narrow space as they climbed, the sound reverberating in their ears until they emerged into a sparsely lit room filled with broken furniture.
Frostclaw lead them into the next room and motioned to a large cloth hanging along one wall. Unlike the other hangings they had seen, this one was almost intact, rotten only along the hem.
‘What made you come up here?’ Dumiel asked from the doorway. The Space Wolf reached into a belt pouch and lifted out a small, black box. He depressed a button on the side and weak vox-pulse began emitting from it. He pressed the button again and tossed it to Laertes.
‘The Inquisitor has been here.’ He grunted and pulled the hanging slightly aside, revealing a pane of glass. ‘It spans the length of the wall. He wanted us to see something.’
Laertes frowned and walked to exposed window. It took a few moments for what he was seeing to sink in.
‘Throne. Does their treachery know no bounds?’
The cavernous open chamber that he was overlooking should have been empty. Instead, a small army of unkempt humans was positioned around the outside of it and a large dais had been erected in the middle, upon which was a table and a few chairs. To one side was the cylindrical shape of a grav-tube.
As he watched, a well-dressed man of indeterminate years stepped out of the tube and adjusted his clothing, walking swiftly to one of the chairs. The men around the edge of the room straightened noticeably and presented arms.
Laertes recognised the man as one of the Trade-Lords who ran the Hive. The man gestured and a servant carrying a pitcher appeared from somewhere and placed it on the table. Another crossed the room with a tray of glasses. The two servants bowed low and then both turned to leave. As they did so, however, they glanced at the window Laertes was looking through. One of them gave a minute nod.
Invisible in the darkened room, Laertes was surprised they would even think to look in such a specific direction but, as he enhanced his helmet’s optics, he realised he recognised the servants. Unlike the traitor Trade-Lord, these were true and faithful members of the Imperium.
‘Ready weapons.’ He commanded, knowing it was unnecessary but sticking to the Codex Astartes’ established practices. ‘The Inquisitor is coming.’
‘Finally,’ Frostclaw growled, ‘some action.’ Laertes turned to face his kill-team.
‘Now we wait for the signal. Dumiel, you’ll take first watch through the window.’ The Dark Angel nodded and stepped up to the glass.
‘Are you okay to fight?’ Laertes asked Frostclaw. ‘Is the toxin out of your system?’
‘I’m fine. I survived worse on Fenris.’ The Space Wolf snapped. ‘Worry about the scholar at the window.’
‘Just keep your helmet on.’
‘Is that an order?’
‘Throne above. Of course it is. You are under my command, you will do as I say and I will not lose any of you to stupidity. We’re going fight clever and we’re going to win.’
‘Brother-Sergeant, you have to see this.’ Dumiel said from the window. Laertes crossed to it and looked out.
Emerging from a tunnel cut into the metal wall of the room perpendicular to the one they were looking out of, was a group of humanoid figures in ornate robes. They walked with an inhuman, sickening grace and crossed to the dais quickly, barely paying the human guards any attention. From here, Laertes could see their pointed ears and narrow features.
‘Eldar.’ Dumiel spat from next to him. A squad of Eldar warriors in tall, crested helms and deep blue armour spread out along the walls of the room, interspersing with the human guards. A few of the men shifted uneasily, but it was clear to Laertes that this was not the first time they had encountered the xenos.
‘We have a problem.’ Laertes said. ‘Run of the mill Eldar pirates do not come accompanied by a squad of Aspect warriors.’
‘I’m sure the Inquisitor knows.’ Dumiel said. ‘If he doesn’t, he will soon. Look.’ He pointed to the grav-tube.
A square object had just fallen down it, unnoticed by anyone in the room. Laertes recognised it as one of the shipment the Inquisitorial cruiser had been carrying and turned away from the window. Next to him, Dumiel did the same, sliding his finger onto the trigger of his heavy bolter.
There was a dull crump from behind them, followed by a flash of light that illuminated the room they were standing in, and a yell arose from the large chamber.
‘Now?’ Frostclaw asked with a savage glee. The sharp bark of bolter fire erupted from behind the glass.
‘Now.’ Laertes said grimly.
The Space Wolf howled and charged, smashing his way through the window. His massive armoured form made short work of the fragile structure and he arced into the room below.
‘Use this as a primary fire point.’ Laertes ordered Dumiel. The Dark Angel nodded and readied his weapon. ‘Harrik, with me.’
Laertes turned without waiting for a reply and stepped out of the jagged hole in the glass. Gravity made his stomach lurch for a moment and then he readjusted, bracing his legs for impact.
The guards around the edge of the room were shouting in the aftermath of the explosion, the sedative contained in the gas making their response sluggish. From somewhere in the haze that now filled the large area, he could hear the roar of the Space Wolf’s chain-axe and the loud bark of bolter fire came from various directions.
Something whined past his head as he landed with a loud crash and he moved forwards immediately, his helmet display searching through the smoke for a target. A man emerged from the haze, his gun firing wildly behind him. Laertes squeezed the trigger and the man’s head vaporised as the mass reactive bolt shell exploded in his cranium.
‘Brother-Sergeant Laertes, follow the Eldar. We will keep the traitors contained.’ Brother-Captain Kest’s voice came over the vox-net on the command channel, overriding the settings in his helmet vox-system.
‘Emperor guide you.’ Laertes replied. ‘Dumiel will stay and cover you.’ Kest’s reply was a grunt and Laertes turned to face where the dais was, switching back to the squad channel.
‘Luka, find those Eldar.’
‘Gladly.’ Came the snarl over the vox.
Laertes began to advance, Harrik at his shoulder, his bolter firing sporadically as targets presented themselves.
The haze began to dissipate, allowing Laertes to see more of the room as he crossed it.
The hulking forms of the other Deathwatch kill-team were clustered around the grav-tube, firing controlled bursts in all directions. They began to move, spreading out from the tube with the smaller figure of the Inquisitor in the middle of them, an ornate pistol in one hand and a power sword in the other. Laertes could see his mouth moving and presumed the Inquisitor was issuing orders to his human retinue.
A spray of crimson caught his attention and his focus snapped to Frostclaw as the chain-axe rose and fell in a deadly rhythm, scything through the human guards. Laertes noticed that all of the Aspect warriors were falling back to cover the retreat of the robed Eldar from the dais. Something sparked from his pauldron and he snapped off a shot at a previously unseen guard. The man’s shoulder disappeared in a red mist and he dropped his gun.
The crack of a bolter at his own shoulder alerted him to Harrik’s presence and the man dropped, a steaming crater in his chest.
‘Frostclaw, the Eldar.’ Laertes growled over the vox. He saw Frostclaw spin and then dash for the tunnel, blood flying from the whirring blades of his chain-axe.
A hail of razor sharp metal erupted from the dark entrance, the force of it causing the Space Wolf to stagger. Laertes heard his roar of anger over the vox and smiled grimly. The sound of Dumiel’s heavy bolter roaring into life made him look around. A mass of reinforcements were entering the room from a previously unseen door and he prayed to the God-Emperor to guide the actions of the Inquisitor and the other kill-team.
He turned his attention back to his own orders and unleashed a fusillade of bolts into a charging knot of guards. He heard Harrik’s bolter spring into life as well and the two of them began running forwards, trying to catch up to the swiftly vanishing form of Frostclaw. The men fell to the floor and the two Marines kept moving, their heavily armoured bulk crushing bones and liquefying organs under their feet.
Another guard appeared in Laertes’ sights and he fell as two bolt rounds impacted against his chest simultaneously. He heard the sound of a click as Harrik reloaded his bolter and sent one last shot slamming into the last guard between them and the archway before reloading his own.
The sounds of battle faded as they entered the tunnel and followed its winding course, every sense heightened and ready for danger. From ahead, they heard a feral roar of pain and sped up, their boots raising dust from the rock of the floor with the impact of their footsteps.
They came across Frostclaw sparring with one of the Aspect warriors, his chain-axe sparking along the xeno’s sword. The Eldar twisted, using the Wolf’s momentum to push the blow aside and bring his pistol to bear, aiming for the weak points of Frostclaw’s armour. The Space Wolf turned, following through with the blow and brought his own pistol slamming into the side of the Eldar’s head. The slim alien staggerd sideways and then slumped to the floor as Frostclaw brought his axe back for a return stroke, the teeth biting through the alien’s armour and disembowelling it.
‘That way.’ Frostclaw growled, motioning down a side corridor with his pistol barrel. ‘I’ll be fine. It’s just a scratch.’ He straightened and Laertes saw the rent in his thigh guard. ‘He got a lucky strike in.’ Already, the blood flowing from the wound was clotting and Laertes knew his scout would be fine.
The Space Wolf stooped and cleaned his chain-axe as best he could on the dead xeno’s cloak before turning and loping off. Laertes followed, Harrik not far behind.
The three ran, following the twists and turns of the natural rock tunnel until a lambent, purple glow became visible on the walls. Frostclaw looked back over his shoulder and Laertes nodded, slowing to a walk. Frostclaw crouched slightly and disappeared around the corner. Laertes checked Harrik’s position and then checked the load in his bolter, the habitual action performed unconsciously.
Frostclaw returned within a minute, his face pale.
‘What is it?’ Laertes asked. Frostclaw merely shook his head and beckoned for his brother-sergeant to follow him. Laertes did so, curious to see what had shaken the tough Space Wolf. The corridor turned a few times and then opened out in a huge central cavern.
From his hiding place just behind a rock outcropping jutting from the last corner, Laertes could see most of the cavern. He could see the ornately robed Eldar hurrying across the floor, he could see the honour guard of Aspect warriors drawn up around them, and he could see the inanimate, statue-like constructs that occasionally joined the Eldar on the field of battle with weapons capable of distorting reality itself.
But most of all, he could see the source the glow. Set into the far wall of the cavern, easily 20 feet tall, was an intricately carved archway of a bone coloured substance. Gems, lit with an internal fire, were placed around it at regular intervals and the flowing sigils of the Eldar language were carved along its exterior. In the middle of the arch, somehow flat against the wall, was a roiling, nausea-inducing purple liquid that was throwing the peculiar light onto the walls.
Without knowing how he knew, Laertes instinctively understood that he was looking at the physical manifestation of the Warp.
‘God-Emperor save us all.’ He said, one hand pressing firmly to an oath of devotion sealed to his shoulder-plate, the waxen Aquila seal in the centre of the Ultramarine’s Chapter sigil. ‘The Inquisitor needs to know about this.’