A Tale of Two Armies – Chapter 4

TaleOfTwoArmies copyAfter a longer pause than intended, we submit to you, dear reader, the fourth chapter in the continuing saga of von Bomburg and von Strauss…

All along the clearing the forces of Order and Chaos clashed. Skullcrushers rampaged through units of infantry, Chaos Knights, atop mighty, yet twisted, steeds charged through regiments five times their size and laid them low. Yet amidst the seemingly senseless, explosive, violence there was an out-of-place oasis of calm. The eye of the storm. An implacable block of Warriors of Khorne, their armour daubed a muddy red, their shields locked and their feet beating the ground in perfect time moved towards the familiar form of the von Bomburg household guard. At it’s centre: the emaciated form of Ludwig von Bomburg.

Otto clucked his tongue. It saddened him to see how far his brother had fallen, but it was understandable what with that brute von Strauss dogging him for years. Were it not for a touch of luck and his own guiding hand, the Red would have had Ludwig’s head on a spike years ago. Poor bastard. But his own patron had plans for his brother, as she did him. And she would not be denied.

The battle flowed back and forth, losses mounting on both sides. Carrion birds circled overhead, squawking to the men below to hurry up and finish the bloody business before them. Mangy dogs that followed the scent of death were already pulling at corpses. Growling and snapping amongst themselves to be the first to feed. To Otto’s gifted sight he could see daemon things licking at the fabric of the world, hungry to taste the blood of the fallen. To caper amongst the entrails and severed heads. And to take the skulls back to their master.

von Strauss was yet to commit himself to the fight, content, it seemed, to allow his Skullcrushers and their deranged mounts the chance to gorge themselves on sweet meats of Marienburg fighting men. Although losses were mounting for the subjects of the Blood God, they would ultimately prevail. Nothing could stop their ferocity. Or deter their mortal master.

Otto closed his eyes for a moment and reached out with his nethersight, touching the minds of the Demigryphs. Nudging their curiosity and firing their hunger, he coaxed them to turn their heads from the main force they were galloping towards and focus on the clanking wall of doom that made up von Strauss’ escorting regiment of Warriors. The minds of disciplined soldiers were hard to manipulate at this range but creatures were far easier. Base instincts were something he understood all too well, and with the tiniest poke and prod he had done little more than stoke the fires of the Demigryphs’ natural aggression.

Otto smiled to himself, his pale features folding around lips painted thick with rouge, as he saw the alarm on the faces of the Demigryphs’ riders. He suspected it was as much to do with their hulking, clanking, target as it was the unprovoked change of direction. The Demigryphs picked up speed, shrieks ringing out from their cruel, hooked, beaks. Otto’s smile broadened as a ragtag mob of primitives turned to face the creatures, their bearded thug of a leader raising a crude axe and bellowing orders in their guttural language. They didn’t stand a chance. Had they not been in the grip of their blood frenzy they might have seen it.

The marauders didn’t so much collide with the Demigryphs as explode against them. They were hopelessly, hilariously, outclassed. Otto’s fingers twitched as his mind poked and prodded the minds of the Demigryphs, like a conductor directing a grand orchestra. Every tear of muscle, spray of blood and scream blended together into a symphony. The creatures lunged and rendered with unerring accuracy. Within minutes the entire mob was bloodied chunks of meat in pools of spreading gore. The Demigrphys hooted and chirruped their satisfaction and began to move on, towards the Warriors and hulking form of von Strauss. He had stopped to watch the slaughter. Otto had assumed the simple-minded brute was merely transfixed by the carnage but he corrected himself. For the followers of the Blood God it wasn’t, as most assumed, a sexual high or even a euphoric one. The frenzy didn’t stop them in their tracks, it drove them onwards as if Khorne himself was at the press of his follower’s backs.

No, he was thinking. Otto felt unease settle in his stomach as he scanned the tree line and then the hills. Eventually the featureless gaze of his horned helm rested on Otto. Even though he was miles away, Otto knew that von Strauss could see him. The blessings of Khorne had seen to it that the Red was far more than a mere man. Otto watched with a growing sense of fear – that made his body tremble so new was the sensation – as von Strauss lift his hunting spear in challenge before quitting the battle field with his warriors in tow, leaving five of his finest warriors to slow the Demigryphs down if only for a moment.

von Strauss didn’t even give his forces a cursory glance as he rushed back towards his own lines and into the trees, his retinue close at his heels. On the battlefield the tide had turned. The various arcane contraptions with which Ludwig waged war were taking their toll. Although the Marieburger force would be lucky to have a soul left alive but the forces of ruination would be wiped out. Not that it seemed to bother all that much.

‘Well,’ He said to himself as much as his patron, he was always listening, ‘I suppose it would be rude to pack up and leave.’ He drew a gnarled root from the flowing folds of his purple rob and began chewing on it. He closed his eyes as he felt the narcotics working their magic. He chuckled to himself as he got comfy, perching atop an old tree bole, root clenched in between his teeth as he patiently awaited the Red.

***

The armoured fist around his throat snapped Otto from his trance state. He had cast his mental net wide and was reaching out trying to soak up the raging storm of emotions that seethed in the forest and nearby townsteads. His body was opening up to the nature of existence as seen through the eyes of Slannesh only to be yanked free so close to enlightenment…

von Strauss would pay.

Before he could utter a word of protest or lay a curse upon von Strauss, the armoured giant lifted him into the air and began to squeeze. What little colour was left in his sallow complexion drained away and he gasped and flailed against the iron grip.

‘Why?’ The sound was like an avalanche. A deep bass rumble that threatened unimaginable violence. Otto, in his own way, was just as powerful as von Strauss. He had been blessed many times over by his mistress but with his brain being rapidly starved of oxygen he could do little more than try to stay conscious. And it was a battle he was losing. Forcing his manicured hands between the purpling skin of his throat and the gore red gauntlet he used all his diminishing strength to bend a digit back enough that he could draw a wheezing gasp.

‘Because She wills it.’ He managed.

von Strauss’ obvious disgust was punctuated by throwing the sorcerer bodily to the floor. Otto hit the ground hard and he felt something break and his arm exploded in pain. He rolled on the floor in a state of ecstasy, momentarily lost to the pain pleasure that was surging around his body, lost to the gravity of the situation. But the sensation passed all too quickly and his mind returned to the moment and the armoured monster looming over him.

‘So weak.’ von Strauss growled, disgust dripping from every word. He reached for the spear lashed to his back, the blade a seething mess of madness and dark light, preparing to finish off the whelp of Slannesh. Otto lashed out a hand, speaking a string of oily words that had no place in the material realm. A seething wave of energy struck von Strauss and for a moment the Khorne lord disappeared. Otto’s elation was replaced with cold dread as von Strauss appeared seemingly unharmed. Something approximating a laugh emanated from his helmet. It made Otto feel immediately sick and his head began to swim. von Strauss drew his spear and deftly spun it in his grip raising it high above his head, ready to plunge it into the stricken form of Otto von Bomburg. In the distance the sounds of battle had died away. He knew his forces were scattered but he cared not. More flocked to his banner with each passing day. For every skull he took and town he burned in his efforts to wreak misery on the son of Marienburg his power grew.

Silence fell upon the hill. Even the cawing flocks of carrion birds had given up their incessant complaining. Even the low rumble of von Strauss’ heavy breathing had faded to nothing. Otto blanched in the face of his own mortality, the fear gripping him tasting bitter depriving him of the thrill he’d felt so often in his life. He screwed his eyes shut, earning a snort of disgust from von Strauss, as he offered up prayers to his mistress, promising her his soul, the soul of his brother and all who follow him and the life of von Strauss, the favoured of Khorne. The spear lunged downwards, the blade an ever-changing horror of leering faces and daemonic fire. The edge rippled with black light as it sliced through the air.

The blade impacted with the thin, accentuated, metal of Otto’s chest plate and shattered. von Strauss was thrown from his feet as the dark energies bound within the ancient weapon were suddenly unleashed. Otto howled as the dark energies scoured his form, cooking his flesh and fusing his ornate armour to his body. But he did not die.

By the time Otto stood on quivering legs von Strauss had already recovered, his armour scorched and smoking but otherwise unharmed. The chuckle again. ‘It seems, little man, your God favours you. No matter.’ He said tossing the splintered spear haft into the bushes, the smoking end immediately setting the brittle branches alight. ‘ I will have your brother’s head, and yours. And you will perish in such agony not even you will find pleasure there. Besides,’ He growled, ‘This will make it much greater sport.’

As von Strauss left the shattered form of Otto von Bomburg, the Deviant of Altdorf, surrounded by flames and atop scorched earth where once thick grasses grew he cast one last glance back. ‘No more hiding for you, little man.’

A Tale of Two Armies – Chapter 2

TaleOfTwoArmies copyAhead of the narrative to go with the 1,000 point game Lee and I played a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to write a middle part to set the scene, if you will.

von Strauss grunted with satisfaction as Baduk’s axe impacted against the chest of his beastman opponent with a wet snap of a split sternum. The beast grunted its own sound of simple approval, a cloud of steam billowing from a scarred snout, as the life bled from its eyes as quickly as it poured from his ruptured heart.  The beastman dropped to the wooded ground in an expanding pool of blood that blackened the grass and soaked the soil beneath. von Strauss eyed the herd master carefully. These twisted children of Chaos were unpredictable at best, stupid at worst, and as likely to turn on their allies as their enemies if the hunger took them too soon in battle.

von Strauss was loathed to deal with  the herd beasts at all but he needed their brutish simplicity to draw out his quarry from behind Middenheims grat gates. He knew the arrogant fool would be keen to prove his worth following the injuries he suffered at the hands of Baduk. von Strauss could sympathise, he too had suffered wounds and with it the displeasure of his patron. Baduk’s protection of his liege despite near fatal wounds of his own had earned exultation. Baduk’s ascension had been painful for both of them. von Strauss’ failure to slay von Bomburg had drawn Khorne’s attention. As Baduk had endured the fire trials the flames had leapt from the fire pit and enveloped von Strauss. The heat had burned him to his core. His skin had become liquid, mingled with his vital fluids, and flowed from the seams of his armour, swirling around his glowing red form. He hadn’t made a sound. To utter a word of protest would be to invite his doom.

As the embers of the fires grew dim and Baduk’s body crumpled to the floor, his armour creaking and pinging as it cooled in the night air. All around them the rest of von Strauss’ force stood in silent reverence. von Strauss himself stood reborn. He stood far taller than he had been and his armour was a resplendent crimson horror. The armour he’d worn into the Northern Wastes and had protected his body ever since was no more. Every edge was razor-sharp and made of brass and gold. The plates were swirling crimson coalescing into leering daemonic faces before dissipating into maddening patterns. He knew without having to try that he’d never be able to remove his armour again and his face would forever be the hollow eye sockets and vertical slit of his helm. Such is the price of failure.

Following the duel the von Strauss and the herdmaster had entered negotiations for their assistance. Trying to understand the beast’s gutteral tones was all but impossible but they had somehow made it work. At its conclusion the herdmaster had insisted on a feast to celebrate the alliance and the promise of man flesh that would keep the herd fed for weeks. Herds of twisted creatures cavorted and brayed as they feasted on raw, rotting, carcasses the origins of which von Strauss couldn’t determine. The clearing was ruined by black, jagged, herdstones adorned with crude runes of power that von Strauss could only just identify. They were all a far cry from the symbols of power that were inscribed on the armour of his men. The earth around the herdstones bubbled and seethed with the unholy powers infused in the rock. One moment the soil melted and bubbled like liquid, the next it was leering sucking mouths.

The beastmen bounded through fires, off rocks and on to one another’s backs rutting and biting and fighting the prospect of raiding an Imperial town too much for their simple minds. Minotaurs clubbed smaller creatures to the ground and ripped them apart, gulping down wet bloody chunks of flesh, the bones audibly cracking as the powerful jaws of the minotaurs made short work of their diminutive cousins. von Strauss and his men stood like crimson statues watching the orgiastic display impassively. If von Strauss could sneer he would have, Khorne didn’t need cavorting or debasement to prove obedience but skulls and murder. His hollow eyes rested on the herdmaster who, in turn, was looking on at his beasts like a proud father. von Strauss would take great pleasure in offering up his skull to Khorne once he’d served his purpose.

***

Immelscheld was a town much like any other in the Empire. A dense collection of rundown homes, a chapel, a watch house and a low, crumbling, curtain wall. Unlike many, but not all, of the towns of the Empire this town had been chosen by the fickle Gods of fate to be the object of ruin. As the sun dipped into the luminous hours of early evening the beastmen broke cover and charged. Far too far from the town, the attack was poorly positioned, by von Strauss’ design, so the small garrison could be roused to arms. von Strauss watched them run hurriedly to the walls, yanking on chainmail and struggling to tie beltswords around their waists.

The small garrison had fought bravely, not a man fleeing in the face of the maddened, drooling, horde of beastmen as they hacked their way into the down. von Strauss was reluctantly impressed by the garrison commander’s tactics: issuing every man under his authority to man the walls with a crossbow, felling dozens of beastmen and faltering their first charge. It gave the defenders just enough time to draw their swords. It mattered very little to von Strauss, all that mattered was the town burned and Middenheim responded. von Strauss watched at the head of his vst host, concealed in the woods South East of the town. The beastmen brayed and bleated as they sacked the town, citizens attempting to flee burning homes being cut down or set upon, snouts coming up bloody. von Strauss looked skywards as if sensing his patron’s attentions. Already the carrion birds circled, the heat from the burning town making them bob and wheel in the updraft as roofs collapsed in a shower of swirling sparks. The doomed town took a long time to die. Long enough for the beastmen to gorge themselves on the town’s inhabitants and pass out amidst the smouldering ruins. 

***

The first rays of light brought with it the trumpeting of horns and the snap of banners caught on the wind. At the head of a grand host of men in black plate armour Baron von Bomburg marched with renewed purpose. His own armour was polished with lapping paste to a brilliant sheen so it shone in the light of the early morning like a second sun. And he felt as luminous as he appeared. The healing process had been long but nothing compared to the time it took to recover his physique. Endless swordrill with Viktor had slowly sharpened his skills, rifle drill with his handgunners had brought back his aim and time with his fellow nobles had honed his mind once more to the art of strategy.

When a messenger from Immelscheld had reached the gates of Middenheim, exhausted close unto death, von Bomburg had relished the opportunity to put his abilities to the test, and to run out his army that had marched for so long to reach the mountain city only to find the Chaos raiders they’d been summoned to fight had vanished. von Bomburg spared a look at Viktor, ever at his side, and the rest of his household guard resplendent in the livery of his house and he felt his breast swell with pride. No finer unit of infantry existed outside the greatsword regiments charged with the protection of the Elector Counts.

Horns trumpeted again drawing von Bomburg’s attention to the town ahead. It was a smouldering ruin, blackened timbers from homes jutting into the sky like broken ribs. The chapel had fared only slightly better but that had only meant the beastmen had defiled it with feces and symbols and runes that made his eyes hurt. Bodies lay strewn in the streets and the town square, burst open from crude axes or torn to ragged pieces by inhumanly strong arms.

He glanced at Viktor and saw his look of disgust reflected in his oldest friend’s face. Viktor nodded towards his liege and brought his arm down in a chopping action. The horns sounded once more, causing dark and twisted shapes to caper from buildings and beneath broken down wagons and hurried towards the tumbled down walls. von Bomburg drew his sword, holding it aloft for all his men to see, a gleaming blade etched with symbols of power he didn’t understand.

‘Charge!’

The Hunt Part 1: Ambush – A Mordheim Short Story

Mordheim_Intro_Logo

For my first contribution to The Shell Case I thought I’d turn a game of Mordheim I played against Phil into a short story. I crushed him basically, but in his defence he had rather ambitiously arranged a game whilst trying to look after his newborn baby so concentration was perhaps not all it could have been.

I took my inspiration from the journal style after action reports he’d quite often write from the perspective of his (female) Witch Hunter captain Comtessa Isabella von Strauss, for the campaign we’ve been playing on and off for the last year or so.

Viktor moved to the front window of the abandoned tavern and peered out across the square, paying close attention to the graveyard that brooded a hundred metres to the left. A glowered back as it perched atop a stone cut laurelled skull. He knew they were out there but as yet couldn’t see any movement.  Their assailants had somehow overheard the whispered conversation with him and his contact in the Blotted Slug a few hours earlier, giving away their intent by leaving almost as soon as the lad had finished talking.  They must have run hard to have beaten the Marienburgers to the prize. Especially as Viktor knew this part of the city well and had led von Bomburg and his men through a series of short cuts. But he knew Witch Hunters. And Witch Hunters were relentless and they were tough. Belief in their cause made them strong and they wouldn’t let it go without a fight, despite the tiring run. 

His contact had told him a mighty relic had been dug up at the Dirrelburg Graveyard at the edge of the merchant’s quarter.  But those who had recovered it had been slaughtered by a band of Witch Hunters for defiling the graves before they could escape – almost certainly the same Witch Hunters who were now waiting in the lengthening shadows for them.  The artefact would be nearby but any number of the buildings could have been used by the grave robbers as a hide out.  The Witch Hunters may even have already found it.  It was going to be a long night of searching and scrapping he thought, but not necessarily in that order.

A peal of breaking glass sounded out behind him, followed by the clattering of rickety cupboard doors being slammed open and shut.  He didn’t have to look to know his lord and patron, the Baron Ludwig von Bomburg, was searching for literally anything with any alcohol in it to drink that might have been overlooked by all those who had ransacked the place before them.

The baron enjoyed a drink in the same way a dwarf liked gold or an elf liked being an arrogant prick. The baron enjoyed a fine brandy even more than he loved shooting off his mouth – and his brace of pistols.  The number of times Viktor had stepped in to save the baron from a hiding or worse was beyond count and he had the scars to prove it.  Yet despite Ludwig’s penchant for trouble and mortal danger, Viktor didn’t completely hate him.  He was an entertaining chap, and Viktor often found himself laughing at the barrage of insults Baron von Bomberg would regularly unleash upon anyone he took a dislike to.  And as Viktor liked a scrap too, Bomberg often provided just the excuse he needed to break faces.

While Bomberg pottered about, heaping curses upon the buildings former occupants for their lack of Marienburg rum, Viktor’s plan was simple.  Flush out the enemy and fill them with holes once they broke cover.  In case things got up close and personal they had plenty of muscle as back up, most of it in their hired Ogre – Grog. Grog was heading up the main body of their warband his weapon of choice – a tavern table – casually tucked under his arm, leading the way through the streets on Viktor’s far right flank, made up of the gatehouse guards, along with Onasander and that young blood he could never remember the name of. 

The perimeter watchmen had begun taking up positions in the large storefront building between himself and Grog, attempting to climb to the upper floors and cover the square and adjoining streets with their crossbows.  It was a perilous climb and he could see them struggling to make any progress as shattered floor boards broke loose or walls crumbled beneath their weight.  Rufus’ huge greatsword and Marcus’ long spear held the ground floor approach to fend off any attacks on their position while they climbed.

Over to the left the huntsmen made their way cautiously towards the grave yard, longbows in hand for fear of anything appearing suddenly at the gates.  Covering their advance was the rooftop marksman with his huge Long Rifle, Broomhilda. Able to pick off an enemy from a great distance, it was a comfort to all the members of Bomberg’s Bombardiers, as they were known, that he was covering their backs.  The sudden crack of gunfire ringing out across the streets was also more than adequate in alerting everyone to the presence of danger.  The rifle and its owner had been an expensive acquisition from the market traders who drove a hard bargain, but Bomberg had deep pockets, and always bought the best.

***

An hour before sunset a slight flickers in the shadows betrayed enemy movement and a blast from the Long Rifle sounded the alarm before Viktor could shout an order. Bomberg looked up from the hidden trap door he had discovered and wandered over to the front door, bottle in hand and another tucked in to the belt of his enormous trousers. A hulking figure, no doubt another Ogre, could be seen moving behind the grave yard wall on the left, his silhouette flickering through the railings, along with a group of smaller, man-sized shapes.  Burning torches were lit amongst the group and Viktor could now see them to be zealots, weapons in hand, gesturing towards his position.  Only one of the perimeter watchmen had managed to scale the building to the first floor, the others giving up and taking positions to cover either side of the building they were in. They began loosing bolts across the square at various perceived movements but none found their mark. A group suddenly broke cover at the end of the street opposite, making for the buildings that Grog and his group on the right flank were advancing on.  Rufus had shouldered his great sword and with his bow sent an arrow sailing across the rapidly darkening square.  Never a particularly good shot, he exceeded even his own expectations when one the figures hit the ground hard and lay still. It was an impressive shot and one he would never likely repeat, but regardless, an extra measure of rum for that man should he survive.

Von Bomberg, witnessing the incredible feat of marksmanship, was not to be out done, immediately tucking the wine bottle under his arm, yanked his brace of pistols free from their holsters and pointed them at the group of Zealots rounding the corner of the graveyard into the square.  The pistols were exquisite pieces of engineering, designed for pinpoint accurate long-range duelling and incorporating in-genius auto reloading mechanisms.  Each was a work of art in its own right and worth more than any person in the baron’s employ.  And the Baron knew how to use them, when he could see straight, reaping an impressive tally of kills during his time in Mordheim. Wine stained tongue poking past his meticulously maintained moustache he pulled the triggers. One of the Zealots dropped to his knees under the fusillade and keeled over, a dark stain spilling down his chest.

Rufus and Marcus quickly moved towards the fallen warrior Rufus had hit a moment before, only to come under fire from the upper floors of the building opposite.  A pair of gunman had lain in wait and now their pistol shots kicked up splinters of cobblestone around them as they ran. None hit their intended targets and Marcus dropped his spear and readied his blunderbuss, loosely aiming for where the shots have come from and prepared to fire.  Just as he unleashed the cannonade of shrapnel, an arrow took one of the gunmen in the shoulder.  His uninjured friend was quick to duck behind the wall but he was too distracted by the sudden wound and was subsequently shredded by the flying scraps of metal and dropped to floor out of sight.  Grinning at Rufus, Marcus retrieved his spear and they both continued after the group Grog was not doubt engaging – judging by the sounds emanating from behind the buildings opposite.

A bellow rose up from the next street over as Grog spied the surviving group of runners entering from the square. Yells and insults were hurled back and it seemed there were more than just a few voices opposing the enthusiastic Ogre. More Witch Hunters must have been emerging from their hides and were making an all out assault.  The snarls of wardogs could also be heard echoing off the walls, but Grog was as tough as troll hide and no number of bites was going to slow him down tonight.

Those with him spread across the narrow street forming a wall of steel points with their weapons, standing ready as the Witch Hunters coalesced from the shadows into a mob of gnashing teeth both animal and human.  An imposing Warrior Priest could be seen lurking behind his charges, riling them further with his words of justice and retribution.  He held his pair of hammers aloft and willed them on towards Grog’s retinue, burning torches lending even greater expression to faces already twisted with anger.  Their two wardogs broke their leashes and ran at them full sprint, the first went straight for a gatehouse guard knocking him on his back while the other inexplicably diverted through a ruined house on their right.

Unknown to the others, their nameless youngblood had sneaked into the ruined building trying to flank the Witch Hunters, but he had left himself dangerously exposed. The massive hound launched itself at the slight warrior, forcing him to step backwards and trip on the bottom step of what was once a staircase.  The hound’s momentum carried it over the prone warrior, slamming it against the wall.  Before the dog could shake off the impact, a sword blade had neatly slotted between the vertebrae in its neck and the animal was stilled. The youngblood wiped his blade on the animal’s fur, took a deep breath, and returned to the street.

The gatehouse guard was pinned under the hound’s weight, barely keeping it’s maw from his face with the haft of his halberd.  His fellow guards moved to assist and one crippled the beast with a strike to its hind quarters, the other butchering it as soon as it hit the ground.  Its brutal demise blunted the Witch Hunter’s attack. The Witch Hunters were strung out and unable to exert any real pressure on the foes arrayed before them. Even the indomitable warrior priest paused realising the folly of their strategy. Two flagellants were unsurprisingly at the fore swinging their flails with inhuman strength, and whereas most would avoid an opponent the size of an Ogre, they feared nothing. 

Before Grog could react a flail hammered across his jaw, snapping his head back with a sickening crunch.  The blow would have removed a man’s head from his shoulders but Grog merely stood there for a moment, considering the sensation. He rolled his jaw a few times while the flagellant hesitated – surprised anything could still be alive after his attack. Grog spat a handful of teeth and gore on ground and slowly lifted the heavy oaken table he used as a weapon above his head.  The flagellant watched it too, almost uncertain of what was about to occur.  In a sudden flurry of movement, Grog slammed the massive piece of furniture against the motionless flagellant.  It floored him instantly but Grog didn’t stop, he repeatedly brought the wooden construct down onto sprawled man in a series of heavy blows. Only the rain-sodden, loamy, ground saved the flagellants life, pounding him into the dirt. Although alive he was out for the count and of the fight. His cohort, however, had enjoyed far more success than his unfortunate companion and crushed a gatehouse guard with a crippling blow to the chest.  The man lay awkwardly crumpled in the dirt, a gaping hole torn through his torso. Even to Grog’s simple mind he could see there was no saving him: humans couldn’t spare that much blood.

A bullet ricocheted off a wall, passing inches from Grog’s face.  He turned to face the shot as a woman dressed in finery returned the gun to its holster and pulled another.  Grog didn’t understand much about humans or how they chose leaders, but he knew enough that the more gold and trinkets they wore the more likely they were to be in charge. And this woman had lots of gold and trinkets. Grog took a massive, lumbering, step towards her, but before he could reach the slight woman Rufus and Marcus intercepted her, catching her completely off guard.  Marcus blocked her pistol arm with his spear while Rufus’ swung his great sword around in a wide arc that caught her across her midriff.  The heavy blade deflected off the blade that she had drawn with lightning speed with her off-hand. The blow had lost none its momentum however, and the force of the strike slammed the woman against the stone wall she stood against, knocking her unconscious.

The other Witch Hunters who Viktor now realised were all also female lost their fighting spirit and gave the signal to withdraw. To Viktor’s eternal surprise, aside from the mutilated hounds, the felled followers of the Witch Hunter’s struggled back to their feet and disappeared into the shadows. Curses and vows of revenge echoed down the streets, punctuated by wild pistol fire from von Bomburg. Even the massive form of their Ogre escaped unharmed. Viktor made a mental note to have a word with the alleged sniper in the tower. He called his men back from their position’s and barked various order’s, there was still work to be done if the night was to be profitable and it never paid to be abroad at night in the City of the Damned.

***

The crunch of boots on gravel roused the Comtessa, Isabella von Strauss, third daughter of Lord Johan von Strauss, of Reikland.  She rolled onto her back, groaning as her wounded head rested on the ground, to see a somewhat ostentatious silhouette standing above her – the utterly appalling Baron Ludwig von Bomberg no doubt.  She had heard all sorts of disgraceful stories about his exploits and his appearance lived up to her every expectation.  He was dressed in clothing that seemed to have been purchased for its cost rather than its appearance, topped by a brimmed hat adorned with several large feathers from birds she had never seen the like of, and flaunted a slightly flushed aristocratic face that grinned down at her.  He offered her his hand coupled with a slightly slurred sentence proclaiming his delight at meeting her acquaintance.  Although now being held captive by a warband of mercenary scum and their foppish and ludicrous leader, the comtessa was still a lady of the Empire and a warranted Witch Hunter of the most holy church of Sigmar. Appearances and dignity had to be maintained. She ignored the proffered hand and stood with practised grace.

As she composed herself and rearranged her bustle and its heaving contents, under Bomberg’s leering scrutiny, she thought that despite his initial appearance, there was an underlying steel of a man who was once a fine, skilled and deadly warrior that the drink seemed to keep subdued. His eyes possessed a hard quality and his gaze was as intense as any cultist leader she had put to the torch. He stood before her confidently, carelessly even, and started to look her up and down. The realisation she had underestimated this man slowly crept over her and the first pangs of fear started to manifest themselves.  She was a female prisoner in the hands of a drunken lunatic with blackness to his soul. This was not going to end well.

Shell Case Shorts 12 – Winner 2

The second winner of Shell Case Shorts 12 has written a superb story set in the Dystopian Wars universe but with a far more…domestic twist to it. Enjoy…

The Circus – by Al Phillips

The crack of the gunshot made people scream and scatter in every direction, women scooping up their children and running for the nearest place of safety as the report of the pistol echoed all around the buildings of the Strand. The bullet impacted squarely in the back of the fleeing Prussian spy, pitching him face first on to the cobbled frost covered street with a thud as loyal subjects to the Crown scattering in every direction.

Special Investigator Barclay Pensworth holstered his service revolver his breathing heavy and fogging in the winter air. Pulling his jacket closed, he approached the man lying in an expanding pool of blood, cursing himself for going for the kill shot rather than wounding him. Dead men can’t talk. Wounded men do, especially once the interrogators get hold of them. And the interrogators he knew weren’t the kind of men to let a little blood and a bullet hole put them off.

Crouching down Pensworth rolled the dying agent on to his back. The man, in his thirties, in a cheap tweed suit and messy curled hair took a swing for him but in his weakened state Pensworth batted the fist aside easily enough and pinned the spy down, knee rested firmly on his chest.

‘What was your mission?’ He asked in faultless Prussian. The man didn’t have long left and the analysts back at the Circus had already confirmed his identity, wasting time asking him about it would only benefit the Prussian’s plans, not his.

The agent started to laugh but it degenerated into a hacking, choking cough as blood began to fill his lungs.  ‘We spend half our time looking over our shoulders,’ the agent gurgled in perfectly pronounced English. ‘Convinced that Special Branch is about to spring a trap and kill us all.’ More coughing and blood boiled up out of the agent’s throat and joined the spreading pool beneath him. ‘But you don’t know anything. You think we’re just interested in stealing documents and fucking your secretaries for secrets.’ The spy shook bodily and his face drained of colour, his eyes taking on a glassy look.

Pensworth had seen it a dozen times before and started to stand. The agents hand shot out and pulled him down, bloody hands smearing his shirt with gore.

‘Dies ist nur der Anfang…’ He said before his breath gave out and his body went limp.

Barclay Pensworth stood, his face set with a grim distaste as Clement Barrington arrived on the scene, panting, hands on his knees and sweat seeping through his jacket.

‘What did he say?’ Barrington gasped.

‘This is just the beginning.’

***

Pensworth sat at his desk at the Internal Securities Department, 12 Millbank, London, staring at the coroner’s photo of the dead Prussian spy. The man’s last words were still ringing in his ears as all around him teams of analysts and researchers scrutinised documents, listened to wire taps and deciphered messages from every corner of the Britannian Empire and beyond for some shred of an indication of what the many enemies of Britannia were plotting.

Pensworth knew that there were dozens of spies operating in England alone. Everyone of them hell-bent on learning anything they could about the Britannian war effort and feeding it back to their superiors. Pensworth and his fellow Special Investigators knew this because the Crown had sent hundreds of its own agents around the world to do exactly the same thing. But unlike the thuggish tactics of the Yanks or the sadistic streak of the Prussians, the Internal Securities Department had a remarkable success rate when it came to turning those enemy agents to the will of her Majesty’s war effort.

Setting the photo aside he opened the file that had been hastily compiled as the pieces of the puzzle concerning the Prussian spy’s duplicity had fallen into place. Nothing jumped out at him. Pensworth had learned the man’s real name was Moritz Schweiger, not James Kendal as his impressively convincing counterfeit documents stated. Schweiger it seemed had built a quite unremarkable cover which, from experience, was the best kind.

He had led an unremarkable life as a waiter in some of London’s nicer restaurants, always paid his rent on time, had friends which he visited regularly and even donated money to the Royal War Orphans Trust. He was even seeing a rather pretty young thing, judging by her picture, who was the daughter of the mining magnate Lord Gerald John Richardson the fifth. A veteran of the Crimean and personal friend to Prince Albert, after he was discharged from service he had made his fortune in mining raw materials and after Albert’s death had stayed in close contact with her Majesty.

The funny thing was, Pensworth thought, it wasn’t his connection with the Lord, and therefore her Majesty, that had set alarm bells ringing but Mister Kendal’s parents. The family had, apparently, repatriated from Hong Kong eighteen months ago yet his parents were nowhere to be seen and their beloved son was slumming it waiting tables. Furthermore he would make a phone call every Sunday, regular as clockwork to a West London phone number and, according to the wire taps, spoke to his father. Yet despite the apparent closeness he never once went to visit them or them him which didn’t sit right for parents that would pay hundreds of pounds to transport him from the other side of the world. Pensworth’s instructor when he joined the ISD had always told him; the devil is in the details.

Flicking through the dossier he knew this to be true more than ever with Schweiger. Both the address he had phoned and Schweiger’s home had already been searched. Both locations had turned up very little other than enough transmission and cipher equipment to keep the boys in Technical happy for weeks. Regardless there was nothing to indicate a wider plot beyond the usual espionage and clandestine activities.

Pensworth’s superiors had told him to close the case and move onto a suspected Russian spy network operating out of a Gentlemen’s Club in Soho. The Russians weren’t subtle; it was an easy collar and could wait. Besides these things always went down the same way and he didn’t relish the thought of a protracted gun battle.

But more than that, the dying man’s last words still nagged at him. He took out the photo of the dead man and stared at it once more. He looked past the peaceful expression, the pool of blood, the overly white tooth that contained cyanide that the agent didn’t get the chance to use. He relaxed his eyes and let the entire image sink into his mind.

He blinked as he noticed for the first time a familiar lapel badge pinned to Schweiger’s jacket. He yanked open the top draw of his desk, his hand snaking in amongst the files, half eaten bags of boiled sweets, the cigar tin that contained his last Cohiba as his hand closed around the handle of the looking-glass something heavy slammed into the desk draw, trapping his arm. He yelped in pain and surprise yanking his arm free.

Looking up irritated he saw that the something heavy was Clement.

‘Sorry about that old boy,’ He beamed taking a bite from a sandwich. He leaned over his partner’s shoulder. ‘I thought the Ringmaster had already told you to put Gerry to bed.’

‘He did Clem, but something doesn’t sit well with me.’ He poked the photo. ‘What do you make of that?’ Indicating the lapel badge.

Clem leaned closer, the smell of tuna ripe on his breath. His small eyes, surrounded by a flushed and podgy face, squinted.

‘Looks like the membership badge for the Beefsteak Club on Irving Street.’

‘How on Earth do you know that?’ Pensworth asked. Clement smiled and turned his jacket lining outwards so his partner could see the small round badge.

‘Because I’m a member Barclay old boy.’

‘So how does a waiter, earning three shillings and nine pence per week afford a club membership?’ Clement shrugged as he pushed the rest of the sandwich into his mouth. Pensworth shook his head at his partner. ‘Well grab your coat fatty, we’re going to find out.’

***

The Beefsteak Club was like most of the other up market Gentlemen’s Clubs of London: wood panelling on every wall, tall back leather chairs, thick cigar smoke and burlesque shows three times a day. Had Barclay Pensworth’s mother still been alive she would have been mortified that her eldest son was in such an establishment.

He and Clement walked through the club, noticing fellow members of Special Branch, her Majesty’s crown court and seventeen members of parliament all enjoying the show. Pensworth ignored them all; he wasn’t interested in how the political elite got their jollies, so long as they didn’t break the law in doing it.

It didn’t take long for them to attract the attention of the maitre’d who hurriedly intercepted the pair as the systematically and deliberately opened the door to every private room in the club. By the time the tall, wiry and weasel faced man with slicked over hair caught up with the pair and hurried them into his office they had walked in on four private dances, seven card games or various types, two illicit acts that Pensworth would be referring to the local constabulary and what looked like the shadow education minister lashed face down to a bench and having his bottom whipped by a women clad in a peculiar leather get up. Pensworth didn’t understand it himself but was smart enough to let it lie. Political currency was valuable in his line of work.

‘What can I do for you gentlemen,’ Fussed the maître’d after both men showed him their identification. Pensworth leaned against the oak desk. Like every other room in the club it looked as though a small woodland had been felled to deck out the office. Even the red leather, riveted desk chair was the same cut as those the rich and the fat currently wallowed in. Pensworth nodded at Clement Barrington who dutifully pulled out the photo of Schreiger taken at the scene of his death and handed it to the man.

‘Do you know him?’ Pensworth asked, reaching into his jacket and pulling a pencil and small notepad from his jacket pocket. The man opposite him stared at the photo before handing it back, nodding. ‘That is Mister Kendal, a regular here.’ The man’s tone was disapproving.

‘You didn’t like him?’ Pensworth probed. The maître’d shook his head.

‘He was a common sort, a waiter for a footman if I were to guess. It’s the shoes you see.’ The man cast his eyes down at Pensworth’s own scuffed Policeman specials before continuing. ‘But we had to suffer him as he was a member by another man’s graces.’

Before Pensworth could ask further questions the man continued. ‘And he certainly made use of those good graces. He ran up bar bills into the hundreds attempting to brown nose his way in with our more exclusive members. I even caught him harassing Lord Livingstone Melbrooks-‘

‘Wait,’ Pensworth cut in, ‘Lord Melbrooks as in the new ambassador to the Covenant of Antarctica?’

‘The very same.’ Said the maître‘d.

Suddenly a bad feeling settled in to Barclay Pensworth’s stomach, heavy and brooding.

‘Clem, call the Circus, get as many men as they can spare over to Lord Melbrooks’ residence on Upper Grosvenor, I’ll start the carriage.’ Pensworth darted from the office the door slamming behind him.

The maître’d dropped to his chair startled. Clement smiled down at him.

‘Don’t worry old boy,’

***

The carriage growled and chugged its way through the streets as fast as Pensworth could make it go. Unlike the newer combustion engines now available, Pensworth still used a steam-driven model. It was far better of long distances but perambulating through the cobbled streets of London it was a hateful device and made the 2 mile journey all the more intense for fear the contraption would simply breakdown.

By the time the pair pulled up outside the Lord’s home the sun was starting to set and lights were coming on all down Upper Grosvenor Street. The Melbrook’s residence was shrouded in darkness. Both men disembarked from the carriage, the boiler whistling and clucked as the furnace was turned down to idling, and drew their weapons.

‘Where are the others?’ Pensworth asked. Barrington shrugged. He’d produced a bag of humbugs from somewhere and was cheerfully and noisily sucking on one.

‘They said they were on their way.’ He mumbled.

‘Well we can’t wait.’ Pensworth bounded up the stone stairs of the grand abode and without breaking stride kicked the door in. The black lacquered door splintered from the impact sending splinters of wood in all directions. Before Barrington could stuff his humbugs into his pocket his partner was through the door and sweeping his gun side to side for targets. By the time he’d joined him, Pensworth had already skulked his way through the impressive living room and was now stood in front of the hanging corpse of Lord Melbrooks, in the main dining room.

Pensworth holstered his gun with a curse and surveyed the scene. The body had been there for a couple of days judging by its stiffness and stink. There was a chair over turned below the Lord’s feet and the room itself was largely untouched, the table still set for dinner. Walking back into the main hallway Barrington was the first to break the silence.

‘Looks like the old bugger topped himself.’

Pensworth shook his head. The hallway rug wasn’t straight, something unheard of in a home such as this. Folding the carpet back he could see the parquet flooring was scraped and scuffed.

‘Look,’ He said pointing at the floor. ‘There was a scuffle.’ He turned and walked slowly back into the dining room scanning the floor for more clues. He crouched down next to a drinks table and picked something up.

‘What is it?’ Clement Barrington asked.

‘A small sliver of what I suspect was a crystal decanter. I’d say the Lord put up quite the fight. Little wonder, he was career military and boxed for his regiment.’ Setting the sliver down he moved to a small blood spot. ‘Someone took a nasty sock to the mouth.’

He heard Barrington sigh behind him. ‘How do you know all this?’ He asked.

‘Research, Clem, old chap. When Melbrooks was announced as the next ambassador to the Covenant the Circus did a full work up on him to make sure he wasn’t going to sell all our secrets for his very own snow fortress.’

‘Don’t they all live underground?’

Pensworth rolled his eyes as he pulled himself upright and dusted down his trousers. ‘Come on Clem, we need to report this and make the Foreign Minister he’s going to need a new ambassador.’

Then the window and everything around him exploded. The air was filled with noise, shattered glass and bursting wood. Both men dropped to the ground as the dining room and the hanging corpse of Lord Melbrooks was torn to pieces.

Pensworth and Barrington crawled out of the room, glass and splinters raining down on them from above as the fusillade from outside continued. Making it into the hallway Pensworth risked a glance out of the side window. Three men, nondescript suits, all armed with auto repeating rifles. Military hardware.

Pensworth edged round the shattered door and took aim at the nearest shooter, slowly pulling back the firing hammer with a practised hand. He was about to fire when a hand grabbed him by the collar and yanked him backwards. He span instinctively reversing the grip on his pistol ready to use it as a club on his attacker but it was Barrington pale-faced, his hands held up defensively.

‘What are you doing?’ Pensworth growled, ‘I had a clear shot.’

‘At the first one, yes. But what about the other two? That door affords you no protection old boy, they would have cut you to pieces.’

Pensworth scowled but knew his partner was right. The shooting had stopped and Pensworth spied the shooters jumping into a auto-carriage and sped away. ‘After them!’ He shouted, running down the steps, reaching his own conveyance only to find that the shooters had been thorough and riddled the boiler with holes.

A thought surfaced in his mind but before it could formulate a crumpled bag of humbugs was thrust under his nose. ‘Want one old boy?’ Barrington beamed at him.

***

The following morning Pensworth stood in his best suit and smartest shoes, and ram rod straight as the foreign secretary, Lord Cornelius Blackwood, read his report. It wasn’t much and it was inconclusive at best. Pensworth was unable to pursue the gunmen and so was yet to determine who they worked for or how they knew he and Barrington were there. Only the weaponry was identifiable as a Lee-Enfield Auto-Repeater ARLEIV a British made weapon and one found as a support weapon in every squad, in every regiment bearing the Britannic flag.

Blackwood turned over the last page and folded the report closed.

‘An interesting work of fiction Mister Pensworth.’ Said Blackwood leaning back against his overstuffed chair and steepling his fingers.

‘Pardon me my Lord?’

‘All this nonsense about Lord Melbrooks being found hung.’ He said waving a dismissive hand at the report. ‘A load of poppycock.’

‘My Lord, I saw the body with my own eyes.’

‘Then tell me,’ Blackwood stood and stared out of his window of the Houses of Parliament, staring down at the dirty waters of the Thames, ‘How is it that Lord Melbrooks departed these shores for Antarctica three days ago.’

‘What?’ Pensworth’s surprise overrode his sense of propriety. ‘That’s impossible.’

‘Impossible or not, when plod finally arrived at Melbrooks address all they found were bullet holes and bloody great mess. If you weren’t a Special Investigator I’d have you charged with breaking and entering and criminal damage.’

‘I don’t understand, my lord. Melbrooks is dead and I believe a Prussian spy is behind it.’

‘Enough,’ Blackwood raged. ‘That couldn’t have been Melbrook.’

‘I know what I saw!’

‘You forget you place Investigator! That couldn’t have been Melbrook because the damn blasted fool arrived in Antarctica yesterday and subsequently provoked the Covenant in to declaring war on the Kingdom of Britannia. His body washed to shore on the Falkland Islands this morning.’

Pensworth mind was reeling. Nothing was making any sense.

‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I have Lord Richardson waiting for me in the other room.’

‘Richardson?!’ Blackwood’s irritation was almost tangible at Pensworth’s lack of respect.

‘Yes, Investigator, now we’re at war with the Covenant as well as every other damn fool nation we’re going to need raw materials like never before.’

Pensworth felt numb as he was ushered out of Blackwood’s office.

What did it all mean? Melbrook, Richardson, Schweiger, what did they all have in common?

***

Clement Barrington sat in one of the private rooms of the Beefsteak Club on Irving Street and waited for the showgirl. He liked the burlesque shows as much as the next man but he found it all got a bit awkward when the show got to its racier parts. He’s much rather looking at ladies in a state of undress be a private experience. He reached for the scotch he couldn’t afford and took a long and lingering sip.

The door latch clicked behind him and he smiled. Rose was his favourite, and not just because she offered extras. The door closed and he adjusted, making himself comfortable.

‘Come on Rose my dear, don’t keep me waiting.’

‘I’m afraid Rose will be a while longer. Old boy.’

Barrington froze as he heard the familiar click of a gun cocking.

‘Barclay,’ Barrington said slowly, ‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m doing my job Clem.’ Barrington felt Pensworth move closer but he stayed behind him. ‘Or do you prefer Udo Herzog?’

Barrington let out a sigh.

‘Bravo Barclay old boy, you finally figured it out.’

‘I understand the Prussians wanting to provoke a war between the Covenant and Britannia, we were the only power left that they had remotely cordial relations with, but I don’t understand what Richardson has to do with all this.’

Barrington rose and turned to face his partner.

‘You presume too grand a plan Barclay old boy. Richardson came to us. Gave us the means to infiltrate the Circus. Even offered up his daughter to help maintain Schweiger’s cover.’

‘But why?’ But Pensworth already knew the answer as he said it.

‘Money. Richardson wants to be the exclusive provider or raw materials to the Britannic war effort and a war on another front, especially one as seaborne as the Covenant would hundreds of new warships.’

‘All this over money?’ Pensworth spat taking a step closer to his former friend.

‘Don’t be nieve Barclay. This war will burn out eventually and when it does Richardson will be the only man left standing with any credibility left. And the fortune to silence anyone who knows different.’

Pensworth nodded. He had pieced it altogether after his meeting with Lord Blackwood. He’d subtly investigated Lord Richardson’s holdings and finances and noticed not only aggressive expansion in mines but steel production. He’s also identified Richardson as Schweiger’s benefactor at the club. And for one other.

‘Just answer me this one last question Clem.’

Barrington shrugged, finishing off his scotch with practised ease.

‘Why did you kill the maître‘d?’Barrington smiled. It was a cruel smile Pensworth had never seen on the man before.

‘He gave me up. He didn’t realise it, of course, but as soon as he mentioned Schweiger and the ambassador I knew it would only be a matter of time. I knew my own movements in the club would eventually come to light.’

‘And the gunman outside Melbrook’s house?’

‘Necessary. I had to silence you but when the bullets started flying and they hadn’t killed you in the opening volley I found myself unable to do the job myself. We’ve been through a lot you and I these last two years.’

Pensworth nodded. ‘We have.’ He smiled at Barrington. ‘Which is what makes this so hard.’

The shot was swallowed up by the burlesque music and bellowed laughter of dozens of drunk and happy businessmen. Barrington’s body wouldn’t be found for another three hours by which time Rose had been paid off to say that he’d attempted to rape her and an unknown patron, hearing he screams for help, had shot him in her defence. The constabulary were currently unaware of the shooter’s whereabouts.

The following day the papers ran a headline story about mining magnate Lord Gerald John Richardson the fifth being tragically killed in an automotive accident whilst travelling to his country residence. He had been planning on spending time with her daughter following the shooting of her gentleman friend by muggers barely two days before.

Eye witnesses reported hearing what sounded like a gunshot before the auto-carriage lost control and collided with an oncoming lorry but they were unconfirmed.

Lord Richardson’s business holdings were currently frozen by the treasury while a will is found. However, due to the looming threat of war with the Covenant, sources close to the PM suggest that the assets may be nationalised until the crisis of war is over.

Pensworth folded the paper and tucked it under his arm tossing coins on to the news stand before joining the rest of the commuters on their way to work.

Shell Case Shorts 12 – Winner

And so this humble competition draws to a close but with not one but two superb winning entries. I really couldn’t decide between them so as there was 5 lovely books on offer I decided to award prizes to both.

The first story is a Warmachine offering from Twitter favourite, #warmonger and all round nice guy Mike aka @MrChom. The second winning entry will be posted separately.

So first up I give you…

Widowmakersby Mike Chomyk

Stanislav ran his hand over the ice cold frame of the Juggernaut. Its heartfire extinguished, its cold empty eyes stared at the grey sky. Anyone glancing would barely have seen Stanislav, his white ankle length duster draped over the snow around him. The coat was meticulously patterned to break up his shape from a distance and fool the eye into believing he was nothing more than another patch of snow and rocks.

‘Legion’ he said quietly, observing the scorch marks and deep gouges in the juggernaut’s frame. ‘I do not know if this one can be saved, he is old, his heartfire has gone out. If we move his cortex to a new frame he may not survive, Natalya’, he added, turning his head to the officer crouched beside him. Her breath hung in the air as she crouched, her back to him, covering the ground he could not see with her rifle. Her brown hair hung in a loose ponytail behind her, its end dusted with snow and ice.

‘Then we move, Stanislav. Whatever immobilised him may still be watching. The Legion may look blind and diseased but we know they see better than even we do. We must return to camp and see what the Koldun thinks to this.’ She replied, keeping her eyes trained on the horizon of the depression they found themselves in.

It was a long cold journey back to the camp. They were currently housed the burned husk of the border fort Kapitan Natalya Matovy and her crack team of Widowmakers had initially been ordered to reinforce. Dusk became darkness across the frozen landscape and the Widowmakers were bathed in the pale silver of moonlight. They moved with a quiet reassurance, barely shadows across the land. Matovy was rightly proud of her team, they were veterans, crack shots, the best that Khador had to offer. Often times, as now, her orders were unspoken as the four of them moved from cover to cover and always on watch for nearby threats.

Koldun Lord Berezov looked at them as they returned, his face underlit from the sickly pale glow of the fire lit in front of the Officers’ tents. He was a tall man, his face sunken behind a thin brown beard. He was young for his office but his voice carried age beyond his years.

‘Report, Kapitan Matovy.’ He ordered as she approached.

‘The Legion ambushed and killed the forces sent out to deal with them leaving little for us to find. We retrieved a unit patch of one Northern 12th Division rifleman, there were also some cogs and pistons from the fort’s Destroyer and the almost intact frame of a Juggernaut. All were marked with signs of Legion. It would appear that the Legion in this area have become very good at clearing their tracks. While we saw signs of battle, and of their victory we saw no signs of them at all.’

‘The Legion have always been clever at hiding themselves when they do not wish to be found’ He looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘This Juggernaut…did you preserve his cortex?’

‘My men are not mechaniks, my Lord. We know how unstable the Cortexes can be. His heartfire was long out, we were worried that if we attempted to move his cortex it might crack…or worse’

Berezov pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, obviously tired. ‘Very well, Kapitan. Sleep now; in the morning you will lead myself, some Kossites, and some Rifles to this Juggernaut. Empress knows we need every cortex we can find at the moment. I will retire also and see you and your men in the morning’ Matovy cracked off a sharp salute at her dismissal, the Greylord merely nodded in acceptance and then turned to enter the nearby tent.

That night her sleep was fitful. She had seen her share of combat. She had held the line as wave after wave of Mechanithralls had crashed against the might of the Khadoran army in full swing, she had been well and truly alone in the Thornwood, lost and low on ammo…knowing that the druids of the Circle hunted her. These Legion should be no worse and yet they somehow were. She had seen their beasts, all muscle and sinew, rip through Imperial warjacks like they were nothing more than paper and good wishes. She had watched with horror as men, still not quite dead, were taken and plunged into the spawning pots these abominations carried with them, had seen the lingering looks on the men’s faces as they sunk into the gory fluid that filled them. She had even witnessed one Legion swordsman be shot down only for one of the deadly Incubi to spring forward in his place…a mass of quivering slavering flesh that devoured all in its wake.

In the morning a cold light filtered through into the tents and the Widowmakers emerged to find a fresh dusting of snow had settled overnight. This was not unusual in the north but it would make progress more slow. The Kossites would be able to keep up, they were hardy people who knew how to traverse rough terrain but the Winterguard were a unit from Korsk also sent to reinforce the fort. They were cold, and hungry, and their simple boots were no match for the lands they walked. Matovy smiled as she gulped down a mouthful of Uiske offered from Stanislav’s hip flask but cursed the fact her team would have to babysit these men. At least the Greylord could look after himself, he was no warcaster but no one reached the rank of Koldun Lord without powerful magical abilities.

Koldun Lord Berezov emerged from his tent in full dress which was just as well, his long cloak and layered shirts would prevent the worst of the chill from hitting him.

‘Kapitan Matovy!’

‘Yes, Lord’

‘See to it that Lieutenants Ulyanov and Demerov are ready to leave. You will be briefing them on my plan and seeing to it that it is carried out. Your Widowmakers will lead the way; ten Kossites will run as detached units to your men, Ulyanov and twenty Rifle Corps will bring up the rear, the rest to be left here. I will, of course, be travelling between you with Zelnikov and Uzman of the Mechanikal Assembly in case this Juggernaut can be retrieved.’ Matovy saluted Berezov again and headed off to talk to Lieutenant Demerov, she had a feeling that Lieutenant Nikolai Demerov would not be happy about having men detached to accompany the widowmakers.

‘Natalya, this is lunacy, you know my men work better together. I’ll tell this greylord idiot myself if you refuse to!’

‘Calm yourself Nikolai.’ replied Matovy. Demerov was clearly fuming. Part of the irregular Kossites he wore a mixture of skins and leathers to keep in the heat that bulked him up to be a fearsome presence. Matovy re-shouldered her rifle as she tried to calm him, ‘I know you work better together but this Greylord seems determined to present as wide a front as possible to prevent ambush…he does not want his four best rifles all on one flank.’

Demerov sneered at this ‘Natalya, you have spent too long with these people, not only is their strange approximation of what might be called tactics making sense in your mind but you also seem to think that that garbage you call a rifle has somehow made you into a better shot than any of those you worked with for so long. You disgrace us.’

Matovy made to turn away and adjust her rifle but ducked down and swung the butt from a low stance into Demerov’s jaw. He tumbled back into the snow dazed and bleeding, his thin grey hair flapping in the breeze. ‘Do not forget, Nikolai, that I do not THINK I am a better shot. You forget your place. You are fat and old, Lieutenant; you have grown soft without Cygnarans to fight.’ Demerov lay in the snow and slowly focussed on her; he then began to smile.

‘You have not forgotten how to fight dishonourably…perhaps one day you may even be called Kossite once more. We will do as is asked, but know that it is under protest’ He stood and spat blood into the snow at her feet before heading back to his unit.

As Demerov skulked away Matovy turned her attentions to a third man who had watched the discussion. ‘I trust, Lieutenant Ulyanov that I will not need to take such measures to confirm your orders?’

‘We would be delighted to be the rear-guard for you, Kapitan Matovy.’ He stood, uncomfortable for a second, before continuing ‘May I ask, Kapitan, do you know Lieutenant Demerov?’

‘Know him? You might say that. He was my superior officer once before I left for the Widowmakers. I don’t think it ever really sat well with him that I could be promoted this high while he was left where he was. You are dismissed Lieutenant Ulyanov.’ Ulyanov saluted and returned to the waiting rifle section to talk them through their mission for the day.

The journey to the site of the battle was as slow as Matovy had feared. Patches of deeper snow necessitated that the Widowmakers and Kossites slow down for the Rifle Corps to stay within a supportable distance, and Koldun Lord Berezov’s insistence on travelling by horseback meant that the forward scouting elements had to be as far forward as possible using runners to communicate and stay in formation lest he be spotted before they could spot incoming threats.

It was past midday when they arrived at the wreck of the Juggernaut. Matovy had sent her men and the Kossites to occupy positions in amongst nearby rocks and a stand of trees. The Koldun Lord smiled as he neared the downed Juggernaut.

‘He misses his master, Koldun Medin. He saw him die, and then the Legion punctured his boiler and left him to go out.’

Matovy shivered slightly. The faraway look of a magician communicating with a cortex had always bothered her. She felt the Radiance in her pocket and said a small prayer in the hope that they would make it out of this safely.

‘Uzman, Zelnikov, he thinks his main damage is the boiler, can it be fixed?’

Two stocky men in overcoats dismounted their horses and approached the Juggernaut to inspect it. There was a brief exchange in Umbrean before one opened up in thickly accented Khadoran ‘We can fix him for now. He will be able to walk back so long as he is left to thaw for long enough and does not build up too much pressure, we cannot weld the boiler damage in this cold, merely solder and rivet.’

‘Then do so, and make haste. He has shown me that Legion patrol this area’ the two mechanics looked at each other and quickly began to set up their tools and get work underway on the juggernaut.

The Koldun Lord inspected the work as it went on; hammering, shaping, and the application of rods of metal to melt between the boiler and the patches. Many of the Rifle Corps began to mumble under their breath about being sent to save an ancient piece of junk, and the time it was taking. The cold was getting to them, and they had little to do but stand around and wait for orders to return to the fort. Matovy smiled; they were recruits…fine shots, yes, but they had seen no battles. They had not seen what a warjack could do, how it could turn the tides of battle, even one so old as the Juggernaut. Where Cygnar had scrapped its opposite number, the Nomad, Khador’s Juggernaut class had lived on as dangerous echo of a violent time. They had their quirks but left to their own devices their formidable strength was undeniable and for all their cortex shock technology even Cygnar had yet to find a quick way to cripple the chassis quickly and reliably.

Molten metal ran out of some of the joints and dribbled down into the snow leaving a hissing pool of water near where the ruined warjack lay. It seemed like hours but eventually the Mechaniks declared that the Juggernaut could be brought back online. Matovy sent runners out to warn her scouts…this was the most dangerous part of the operation. Until now there had only been noise and bodies to show where they were, a lit boiler on the other hand would give the Legion a marker that would be seen for miles in any direction. Riflemen were instructed to down rifles to give the Juggernaut water and coal from the supply sled the Mechaniks had brought with them.

‘We are ready, greylord, we await your command’ said Uzman as Zelnikov cleaned away their tools.

They Greylord looked at the Juggernaut again, ‘Then get it moving.’ he said.

The fire was lit and the two mechaniks looked on nervously as the water began to heat. Slowly life returned to the Juggernaut’s eyes, its heartfire restored.

‘It will be some time before he is able to move, 20 maybe 30 minutes, and that presumes his leg joint will hold up when he stands…some of the gouges run quite deep’ said Uzman, his nerves showing as the Juggernaut continued to warm. The trail of smoke began to spread into the cold grey sky. The sun edged to the horizon; the ground was bathed in a fiery orange glow, silence had descended; the only noise was the hissing of the Juggernaut’s boiler as its pressure rose. Breaths hung frozen in the air; still, quiet…Matovy could almost feel something was coming.

The chill was drawing in now, what had been mere discomfort in Matovy’s mind was now almost a physical presence screaming at her, but she could see nothing. It was then that Uzman keeled over with a gurgling cry, an arrow sticking through his back. Matovy reacted in an instant, running to the greylord and shoulder pulling him from his horse as an arrow sailed through where he had been sitting.

‘Rifles! Form up!’ It was Lieutenant Ulyanov. His men formed rank, freezing hands struggling to load their cloth-wrapped rifles. Arrows rained down on them, they had virtually no cover where they were but the legion archers had to contend with avoiding being silhouetted against the setting sun.

‘FIRE!’ he screamed, the rifle corps rippled out with fire, six of their number were already down and the cold was not helping their aim. Shots ricocheted off the rocks pinning the archers in place and downing one even as another four of the rifles fell. Matovy began to assume a firing position and wondered what had happened to her men and the Kossites that were with them. Surely they would have heard something if these archers had found them, even if they were caught unaware.

She raised her rifle to her eye, the small Radiance from her pocket pressed into the palm of her right hand, she saw a flicker amongst the rocks and fired, an archer fell clutching his neck. Beside her the Koldun had raised himself up to his full height once more and Matovy felt a twist in her gut as his eyes glowed blue and a blast of cold belched from his hand. The rocks in front of them shattered like they were no more than thin glass, the archers behind them met this pure and cruel cold head on. Several of the archers, like the rocks they used as cover, shattered before the arcane power, these were the lucky ones; those further away looked to have been blinded or were breaking out in cold burns on their exposed skin.

The archers had lost the element of surprise and with a lack of co-ordination began to flee their position from the top of the depression towards a nearby ravine. Matovy recognised this for what it was; this force had just been scouts. She knew they had to be stopped.

‘Ulyanov, have your men advance to that ridge and fire at will, stop them all before they reach the ravine!’ she cried. He moved what remained of his men forwards, half their number already lost to the punishing hail of arrows. Matovy headed for the ridgeline and saw similar fleeing figures from the areas the other troops had been in; clearly they too had been ambushed and driven off the attacks. The archers ran, knowing that the shadows on the lower ground would make it harder to be hit; this did not stop Matovy stopping another four before the ravine, a similar number from the rifles and the Kossite/Widowmaker teams meant only two escaped alive.

‘They know we are here now’ Berezov said, his face pale and worried. ‘There will be more, we must pull back to camp, it is defensible.’ He turned to Matovy and spoke ‘Kapitan, you will withdraw your men. Any bodies or wounded to go on the supply sled. We must hurry.’ The greylord was tired, she could see it. His spells had taken out as many archers as the all the rifle corps combined but at a huge cost to him. She sent her runners out and soon the troops returned from their positions. Casualties had been lighter there but these were men used to cold hard winters and long tedious waits on the hunt. Where the Rifle Corps had been distracted these men had seen the incoming Nyss archers, and stalked them. Only once the fighting began elsewhere had they used that moment of surprise to take down most of the attackers. One of her own men, Valentin, was down; he had been a good friend and drunk well. Three of the Kossites were dead…Demerov sadly not amongst them, she thought.

The Juggernaut, almost forgotten in the fight, clenched one of its mighty fists and rose. As it stood it vented its steam in a low bellowing roar, raising its head to look at Koldun Berezov in as close to a gesture of respect as its cortex could manage.

‘Good. We can move now.’ Berezov turned to Matovy ‘have three Kossites accompany Ulyanov as spotters with the rifles, Kapitan Matovy, your men will accompany myself and the Juggernaut…’ Berezov’s eyes turned far away again ‘…’Topor’. Two Kossites will be sent back to the fort at full speed to gain reinforcements, the rest will scout the ground ahead for threats.’

‘Yes, my Lord’ replied Matovy snapping off a quick salute and returning to prepare the remaining troops for a run to the fortress.

It was a long and hard fight in the retreat. Nyss archers sprang from nowhere to pick off one or two of the rearmost Winterguard, their bodies left behind in the snow as their numbers dwindled. Matovy could see them fall but the range was too great to shoulder her rifle and help. She sent forward runners and pulled back half the Kossites to aid the failing rearguard action, grim-faced men and women trudged back past her to join the inexperienced rifles and bolstered their strength in the fight.

The journey was longer and harder than it had felt in the morning but at last the pale light of the fires of the camp were visible on the horizon. The men were exhausted, ammunition was running low, of the twenty riflemen only five survived, half the number that had left where the Juggernaut was found. Even the Kossites’ fabled hardyness could not save them from the fire from the stands of trees and rocks that littered this place, several of their number had been left bleeding in the snow during the retreat without the time to save them. The attack slackened off as the fresh Kossites from the camp joined them, and vanished entirely as they rejoined the camp.

Berezov looked down at Matovy from his horse ‘This is not over Kapitan. They felled the garrison here, then they burned down the tower…they will be back and in greater numbers.’ He looked off to the dark horizon they had come from and shook his head ‘…have the remaining men prepare barricades and send a messenger back to the nearest town telling them this place has fallen. We must rest here tonight, the men can march no more’. Matovy could see in his eyes a sort of desperation; he knew they were going to die. Deep down in his soul Berezov knew help would never arrive in time and the Legion would destroy them all.

Men slept poorly or not at all as those who had stayed at the remains of the fortifications hastily used rubble to block easy access and began to use planking, logs, and offcuts to fill the rest. It would not hold in the face of a concerted assault but the point was merely to look like it was at least partially defended. A defensive trench was cut in front of the tower, enough to contain rifles sufficient for a fairly withering fire to be laid down on the approach.

Matovy slept fitfully, her skin crawled as her mind’s eye showed her every man they’d lost on the march back. Every man who’d been lost to Urcaen looked blankly past her, their wounds still open, blood no longer flowing, dustings of ice fringing their clothes, hands, and mouths. In the dream she turned and was met with a bright light, too bright to look at but neither burning nor blinding. It infused her, strengthened her… and then it spoke, strong and masculine but with a darker feminine echo ‘You were meant for more than this’.

Matovy was wondering what this meant when she was shaken awake by Stanislav.

‘Kapitan, Kapitan! A Legion force approaches from the horizon, Koldun Lord Berezov demands your attendance’ Matovy pulled herself together, the dream fading with her haste and headed out to the fortifications.

The area itself had been nothing more than a tower with a curtain wall surrounding a small courtyard being used as a rough stable, the small sleeping quarters and armoury being underground. The tower itself was relatively sound but missing its top level, overnight what had been the previous Kapitan’s quarters had had the walls levelled to use as a heightened platform for the lookouts and snipers. Stanislav lead her there. As she passed through the courtyard she could see holes in the walls had been filled, the one major gap in the west wall having been covered with around 7 feet of planking and with a rough firing step placed inside.

They ascended what remained of the tower and arrived before Berezov, he stood next to Leiutenant Ulyanov and brooded as he looked through a spyglass into the distance.

‘Good morning, Kapitan. Tell me what you see on the horizon.’ Matovy moved towards the rough attempt at battlements and peered through her rifle’s scope. She could see the oncoming troops. Legion archers and swordsmen, numerous smaller ‘Shredder’ warbeasts, and one large Carnivean flanked by several Shepherds.

‘I see a well-armed force we need to take down from range, Koldun Lord. We are vastly outnumbered, and there is no retreat from here. I suggest we begin cutting down what we can.’ Berezov nodded at this, he had seen death before, dealt death before, but this was the first time he had had to face odds like this, and it showed. He had originally only been deployed to the fort to be the eyes and ears of the Greylords Covenant, to replace his predecessor and report unusual activity from the Legion to Korsk. If he lived it seemed he would have a lot to report this time, Matovy thought.

‘Ulyanov, send ten of your men into that trench, have the rest take up positions on the walls. Matovy, your men are to line this tower top. Aim for squad leaders and beast handlers…after that pick your targets at will.’ Both saluted and went about their duties.

It was very manner of fact. They knew the Legion were coming, it would take them ten to fifteen minutes even at a dead run. Plenty of time to get men in place and as prepared as could be. The wounded were propped up against the walls if they could hold a rifle or were left in the small stable area if they could not. Every man and woman there knew what was outside, could see it coming closer and closer. Suddenly in the distance there was a ripple on the flank of the incoming force. A few seconds later the cracks of rifle fire could be heard. Demerov’s Kossites had lain in wait overnight outside the tower. Camouflaged and snowed over they were almost invisible in the field and an entire unit of archers fell after passing their rifles.

Matovy sighted in on the Kossites from her position atop the tower once more and watched as a unit of swordsmen ran to engage them, blades flashing in the low morning sun. She saw the Kossites reload and fire again, the first rank of Swordsmen fell from their shots before the Kossites turned and ran. The main body of the Legion was still headed for the fort but Demerov’s men had successfully drawn off some. As they ran Ulyanov signalled to the men in the yard and two great Khadoran mortars rang out. There were not many shells for these great guns and the Legion had done their best to prevent them being fired again when they sacked the fort but working through the night the men had righted and repaired them.

The shells dipped and landed short of the incoming Nyss, blasts sending some of them tumbling. The mortars rang out again, as often as the gunners could manage. Shells ripped through the Legion lines but their pace only grew. At last they were in range of the trenches, fire burst out and rained down from the snipers on the tower. Bodies fell, twisted and awkward but still the numbers were greater, the charge broke through the trench, and the Legion were at the wall. Lacking the Iron Fangs for such a defensive action the remaining riflemen retreated to the courtyard even as the Carnivean smashed through the barricades.

Matovy had picked off Shepherds and leaders throughout the assault but now she followed as the Greylord ran to the courtyard. They flew down the stairs and could hear the Carnivean smashing through everything it could find. Men, machines, mortars, all were brushed aside by the behemoth that stood before them. Berezov reached the courtyard and once more used his arcane powers to attack the legion. Some froze, many died, and the beast turned to face him. With a roar and a blast of heat the Carnivean made Berezov no more.

Matovy cried out ‘Fall back to the stables!’ and the remaining defenders gathered there as the legion relentlessly pushed on. Men fell, screams came from above everything, Matovy frantically reloaded her rifle and the beast backhanded her body through the stable wall into the Juggernaut. She slipped into unconsciousness and once more the bright light returned to her dreams.

Ulyanov could do nothing as Matovy was flung across the stables into the useless hunk of metal with a sickening thud. The Koldun’s death had left it inert, its cortex scrambled. He saw her fall even as he took out another swordsman with a well-aimed shot. It was then that he heard it. The Juggernaut sighed. He turned and saw its eyes flare, steam spewing from its vents, smoke now pouring from its stacks. Matovy was standing next to it, her eyes lit by an arcane blue glow. Her words rang like thunder in his ears and he was helpless but to obey…

‘In the name of the Empress KILL THEM ALL!’ The wounded rose where they lay, beleaguered rifles raised high and as one they fired. The Nyss before them fell and those behind began to falter, the Juggernaut barrelled into the screeching Carnivean sending it flying backwards towards the hole in the outer wall. It rose again and Ulyanov watched Matovy as blue runes surrounded her rifle, coalescing as she fired. A blue bolt thundered out and hit the open mouthed carnivean square in the jaw; its head disappeared in a shower of gore.

With their major threat gone and the riflemen reforming before them the Nyss faltered, failed, and then ran. Their flight took them straight into the Kossites who had doubled back behind them. Caught in a crossfire their force was extinguished, leaving behind only a bloody memory of the battle for the small border fortress.

Matovy watched the remaining fleeing Nyss and felt the fire pulsing through her veins. The power she had was unimaginable, if she thought hard she could even see the world through the Juggernaut’s eyes. Slowly she calmed herself, felt the power recede, and saw the looks on the faces of Ulyanov and Demerov.

‘You did well’, she said, her breaths ragged as the power receded ‘We must repair the wall and prepare for those reinforcements. Try and give the dead a decent burial too…’ She fell to one knee as it receded further, she was utterly spent.

Demerov spoke first ‘You too seem to have grown fat and lazy, Kapitan, you cannot even stand after a short fight such as this.’ He reached out an arm and pulled her to her feet ‘But in victory it seems that perhaps you are still worthy of being called Kossite.’

Ulyanov’s shock broke ‘Kapitan…what was that? You commanded the Juggernaut…that should not have been possible!’

‘This is Khador, Ulyanov, and she is Kossite. Put those two things together and anything is possible…now, let us get Kapitan Matovy to a place she can rest and we can begin clearing this place. I fear that for better or ill her life may be about to become far more interesting than either of ours.’

Shell Case Shorts 11 – Winner

A little later than intended as I really agonised over who should win the penultimate Shell Case Shorts. There was some great entries but I had to go with this entry in the end as it not only was action packed but wrote about Titans. I’d be mad not to. This first time entrant has netted himself signed copies of Luthor Huss and Wrath of Iron by Chris Wraight.

So I present to you;

War Horns by John Alexander

War horns blared, momentarily drowning out the tumult of war. Even through the adamantium head of the Warlord Titan Furious Intent the angry cry of the corrupted Titans of the Dark Mechanicum made it to the ears of Princeps Ioda Krill. He shuddered, the sensation translating via the haptic link into the Warlord’s gargantuan frame. The Furious growled its displeasure, the mighty machine spirit automatically spinning up the auto loaders of its gatling blaster, the tremendous barrels spinning freely in its mount. Krill gritted his teeth as he bent the will of the Furious to his own. For one hundred years he had been the princeps of the this indomitable machine of war and he knew its moods and what rankled. Moods formed by over a millennia of fighting the wars of the Emperor and the Machine God.

Moderati Jun Nian glanced up from his console alarmed by the sudden arming of systems.

‘Princeps?’

‘It’s fine Jun, just the old girl getting herself all worked up.’ His eyes were closed in concentration. Amongst other Princeps the battle of wills that raged between them and their God-machines was known as the dance. A violent tango between a man and a fiery willed woman who wanted as much to kill you as take the lead.

As he settled the Fruious beneath his boot once more he opened himself to the noosphere, providing him with all the information he needed. He saw what the Furious saw. He saw the bombed and shattered buildings, some of which loomed over even the Furious‘ 33 metre tall frame. He saw tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks churning about his feet in full retreat. The arrival of traitor Titans had caused a general retreat from Pavonis City. Pavonis, like the rest of Daltamoor had fallen to the Ruinous Powers three years previously and after 2 years of unsuccessfully wresting control the Departmento Munitorum had requested the aid of the Adeptus Titanicus.

The Legio Crucius, universally known as the Warmongers, had responded in force. The campaign would have been over in days had the forces of Chaos not been keeping their own war engines in reserve for just such a tactical move. Engine battles had raged across the entire globe, levelling cities, rendered thousands of hectares of land irradiated wastelands, and annihilated millions in the conflagration of the God-war.

Chaos Titans had moved in force into the capital city of Pavonis, halting the scything counter attack by Imperial forces that had all but retaken the city, and with it the Governor’s palace, in barely a day of concentrated fighting. The first the Imperial Guard knew of the titans was when the entire 443rd Balian Dragoons were snuffed out when two traitor Warhound Titans caught them in the open and unleashed their Vulcan Megabolters in a withering crossfire. Nothing remained of the heroes of the Lou Campaign but a fine red mist. Similar reports were heard across the city as Titans tore chunks out of the Imperial armed forces. The Furious Intent was the only engine in the vicinity and responded as quickly as possible. At full stride it still took the Furious three hours to reach the outskirts of the city in which time the traitors had made Pavonis its ghoulish playground. It took less than three minutes for it to account for its first kill.

As the Furious stepped into the city limits of Pavonis a traitor Warhound lopped round the corner chasing fleeing troops like an angry bird, gleefully tearing chunks out of the formation with weapons designed to lay super heavy tanks low. The Furious didn’t even wait for Krill’s haptic input. It’s weapon systems and void shields already powered to a state of battle readiness, it fired a single spear or energy from its volcano cannon that struck the warhound clean on the snout. Its own void shields squealed and popped before collapsing and the head of the Titan exploded in a shower Astartes sized shrapnel and flame. It lurched backwards, feet suddenly without direction like a drunk soldier after closing time, before pitching forwards and burying itself in a collapsed hab.

Since that initial contact the Furious had spent the last 10 hours fighting running battles with at least 6 other engines of Reaver class or above. He’d only glanced one target in the swirling dust storm their engagement had thrown up. Since initial contact their shooting war had raised fourteen buildings, most of which had stood since the earliest days of the Imperium. Sensori Okas had managed to identify 3 of the enemy engines from their silhouettes, their crimes against the Imperium stretching back to the darkest days of the Horus Heresy. Krill and his crew were under no illusions that, unless they were relieved, that Pavonis would be their tomb but they had all resolved to ensure as many of the heretical bastards hidden in the choking dust went with them.

‘Contact plus fifty-seven degrees starboard.’ Shout Okas, the glow of his sensor screen giving his skin a sickly green glow. Krill spotted it a moment before and was already simultaneously moving the Titan behind the gutted remains of the primary administratum building, and rotating the Furious’ torso. ‘All batteries reactive fire.’ He blurted through his MIU. His moderatis responded like puppets, their own links to the noosphere reading and interpreting the Sensori data, plotted firing solutions for a maximum spread, blurting the data to the weapon servitors and the sensori so he could watch for hard returns. The entire process took less than three seconds. The Furious unleashed two full salvos before the building blocked its line of fire.

Energy and solid rounds speared into the swirling gloom swiftly followed by a rippling series of bangs signalled hits.

‘Impacts.’ Shouted Okas. A cant would have been quicker but the moment over took him. ‘Three energy flares consistent with void shield flares.’

‘Get a fix on its position. Recharge main batteries.’ Krill muttered. As the crew acted out his orders the reactor core of the Furious amped up in response to the increased demand. Krill’s own heart quickened in response, his limbs flooding with warmth. Sweat beaded his brow as Krill picked apart the torrents of data that flooded the noosphere. The Furious was hungry. He could feel her straining at the leash of his will. He moved the Titan around the far side of the administratum building and sent an impulse blurt to the weapons servitors to fire.

There are few things more awe-inspiring than a Warlord Titan opening fire with all its weapons systems. Remembrancers of Great Crusade described it as the Emperor’s wrath made manifest. The reality was something entirely more terrifying. Air itself seethed. The thunderclap of over pressure made the air itself to shriek. Dust churned and swirled like angry hornets. A ruined building nearby shuddered and collapsed under the pressure and men fleeing between the Furious’ feet were knocked to the ground. Less than a second later the sky lit up with exploding energy as void shields howled and collapsed, less than a second after that explosions blossomed.

‘Solid hits.’ Reported the Sensori. Krill wasn’t paying attention, the Furious had sensed something. It was already moving in response. Krill tried to fight it but he couldn’t. He was too old. Too much a part of the Titan. The Furious Intent took a step back, then another and  another. It moved with an agility Krill didn’t think possible. The Furious moved itself back behind the Administratum building, back braced against the crumbling façade.

‘Princeps! What’s-’ Nian shouted before the world outside the armour-plas of the Titans head and the sensor screens exploded with energy returns. The Sensori registered weapons fire pummelling the building and the space around the Titan. Energy flared at the edges of the Titan’s shields as near misses glanced off them.

‘Enemy Warlord Titan,’ Shouted Okas needlessly. Negative one-hundred and eighty degrees aft.’ Krill wasn’t listening. In his head he was waging a battle of wills with the Furious. She was a seething mass of rage in his mind. Determined to stride out and confront the threat. Krill couldn’t be certain if he felt the same sense of indignation or if the Furious was starting to encroach on his mind. It happened to all Princeps. The longer they spent in the chair of a Titan the more the Titan’s machine spirit began to dominate the princeps. Titans as old as the Furious Intent had absorbed the minds of so many Princeps over the centuries that she was all but self-aware. Krill knew he didn’t have long. He hadn’t spent enough time out of the link. It was an important part of preserving ones sanity but it hurt him to be away from the old girl for too long.

The incoming fire ebbed away. Either the attack titan had drained its energy reserves or it was moving around for a better firing position. Krill decided not to wait to find out. Turning left he took the Furious back the way they came at a walking pace, the sensori systems stretched out to maximum. He and the Furious could sense something was out there, waiting.

The dusty gloom lit up with muzzle flashes as a gatling blaster opened up. Heavy calibre shells smashed into the Warlord Titan’s void shields making them pop and fizz. Krill’s skin prickled as the void shield generators struggled to cope with the onslaught. He took direct  control of the weapons systems, his vision suddenly becoming the focussed aiming auspex of the volcano cannon. As he sighted down the monstrous weapon he felt the familiar snap of a void shield failing. Ignoring the stinging sensation covering his body he aimed at the muzzle flash and unleashed an over charged blast. There was a blinding flash in the gloom and the incoming fire suddenly stopped. Then there was a series of secondary flashes, dimmer than the first, as explosions touched off starting from what Krill suspected to be the enemy Titan’s magazine. Within moments ahead of the Furious was little more than a seething mass of secondary blasts before an indistinct shape fell to the ground.

‘Confirmed engine kill.’ Announced Okas. Krill, like the rest of the command staff already knew it. They could sense the change in the noosphere. But it was for the logs: another confirmed engine kill for the proud and noble Furious Intent. Then Krill’s world was filled with pain as the Furious’ shields were hammered to break point from behind. He instinctively put the titan into a stride searching to put distance and cover between the Chaos Warlord Titan that had flanked the Furious whilst she had dealt with what they knew to be a smaller Reaver class Titan. The war horns sounded behind him like a call to the hunt. Which it was.

Turning right the Furious was confronted by a Warhound Titan. It’s armour twisted and marked with obscene iconography and daubed expressions. Krill’s anger flared and he pushed the Titan onwards. The Warhound opened fire, turbo lasers causing another shield to collapse but it had chosen to stand and fight rather than flee. The Furious slammed into the scout Titan, knocking it off its four-toed feet before the much bigger Titan brought its follow-up step down hard on to its body. The Warhound Titan died quickly and with little drama, black ugly smoke boiling out from under its ruined carapace, its’ body twitching like a recently dead animal put out of its misery.

The sudden change of direction had put some distance between the Furious and its pursuer but the tremors Krill could feel vibrating through his God-machine told him he had little time. With skill born of a century of service, he reversed course, bringing the Furious about whilst blurting to his moderati to bring all weapons to readiness, overriding their initial priority of bringing shields back online. As he felt the warm tingling sensation build in his arms once more the ugly, warped face of the Chaos Warlord Titan loomed into view. A twisted, nightmarish shadow of its former glory, every surface was an unholy seething mass of faces, icons, scriptures and other horrors. Its head was a leering gore spattered skull that had what appeared to be mad staring eyes.

‘Fire.’ Krill exclaimed, opening his eyes for the first time in days to witness what was to come. The Chaos Titan had rounded the corner right into the waiting guns of the Imperial Titan and caught the full force of its fury at point-blank range. The result was instantly cataclysmic. Void shields failed with a pop of energy that struck the Furious causing systems to overload, relays blowing across the engine. As the shields of the Chaos Titan collapsed the combined incoming fire struck it in the head and chest, super charged energy and mass reactive shells the size of mag-levs melting or smashing apart armour plating and critical systems.

An explosion blasted outwards, shrapnel the size of battle tanks ripping outwards slamming into the Furious, scything through its unshielded torso and hip mount. Krill cried out feeling psychosomatic lesions to well up across his abdomen and thighs. The damage wasn’t severe, the armour-plate taking the worst of the impact but the hip-joint was buckled and snarled. Without attention it would slow the Furious and make her an easy target.

‘Bring void shields back online,’ Krill said through gritted teeth. ‘Jun get repair crews down to the port side rotational cuff, I need that joint de-fouled ‘ Jun nodded and began relaying orders, all the while keeping a worried eye on his Princeps. The way in which Krill had barrelled down that Warhound was reckless and potentially fatal. The kind of behaviour one would expect from hot-headed Princeps and their Warhound steeds. Had the reactor gone critical it would have blown the Furious apart. She was starting to win. Starting to slowly take Krill over. Depending on how this engine battle ended this could well be Krill’s final stride.

***

The sun had set on Pavonis. The Furious Intent stalked through the city with as many systems powered down as Krill and his Techpriest – Dolan – dared to avoid detection. Stealth was a peculiar concept to engine combat. To anyone on the ground a Titan was impossible to miss but to the crews of a God-machine they relied on auspex and the noosphere. A powered down Titan was surprisingly hard to detect, only the residual heat bleeding off its armour plates from the heat of the day gave any real return in the infra-red. A God-machine alone in a city against at least 3 enemy Titans of unknown classification was vulnerable, if such a notion could ever be considered so every effort had to be made to keep a low profil. Fortunately for the Furious and her crew the arch-enemy weren’t being as subtle. Heat spikes and energy discharges flashed across the passive sensori screens as the Chaos Titans indulged their baser instincts, slaughtering those Imperial forces yet to flee, or unable to flee, the necropolis Pavonis was fast becoming.

The Furious lurked in the darkness watching at a distance as a traitor Reaver and two Warhounds capered through the streets, pouncing on infantry and tanks with equal abandon, executing them with short ranged bursts of mega bolter fire or simply stamping on them with their adamantium shod feet, smearing flesh and metal across streets, the gleeful blare of their war horns echoing between the buildings and sounding for all the world like the laughter of maniacal children. Krill felt his anger rise, the fires of the Furous’ reactors burning hot in response. The sight sickened him and the Furious responded in kind, systems powering up to combat readiness, void shields springing to life. Krill’s moderati’s started to panic, blurting queries and pleading with the Princeps for an update. He ignored them. And the Furious were too intent on their prize.

Taking on three engines at once would be suicide in any normal circumstances but Krill didn’t care, he could feel Furious Intent creeping into his mind. The rage he was feeling wasn’t his own. The strain of the last few hours had finally eroded the last vestiges of his resolve. He was losing control. But before his consciousness was consumed he would bring low the traitorous dogs that had defiled this world. Taking full control of bridge systems Krill set the Furious into a run, each foot fall like the of the world.

At first the enemy titans didn’t notice the Warlord bearing down upon them, so intent on their cruelty. The nearest Warhound detected the impending threat first, it’s keener auspex array picking up the heat flare even as it crushed a Leman Russ battle tank beneath its foot. It hooted a warning, turning to face the new threat, hunkered low like a cornered beast. It didn’t have time to do anything else. The Furious hit the Warhound at full speed, void shields flaring as the energy field collided with the smaller engine and shredding it utterly. The Furious didn’t slow, leaving the mangled wreckage in its wake, swinging its weapons outwards delivering a point-blank shot from its volcano cannon into the chest of the Reaver titan. Shields flared and peeled like a dying flower, and the Reaver stumbled, crashing into a tower block in an explosion of collapsing shields and shattering masonry.

The second Warhound surged forward, vulcan megabolters spitting, shells ringing off void shields. The Furious responded in kind, rotating its gatling blaster and sending a torrent of shells slamming through its void shields in a thunder-clap of over pressure, and chewing into armour plating. The Warhound’s advance faltered and it shuddered like a dog shaking then it exploded, briefly being replaced by a small star as it’s reactor went critical. The event wave slammed into the Furious Intent, knocking it backwards, shields overloading in a brilliant blue flare momentarily casting out the night. Krill screamed with pain as the heat of the detonation seared the Titan’s armour plates and blinded its auspex arrays. Momentarily blinded the God-machine stumbled, crashing into a building almost toppling. On the bridge alarms were blaring as power system fluctuated. Moderati Nian was stood in front of Princeps Krill desperately trying to shake him from the battle catatonia he had slipped into. To Krill it was too far aware to matter. A moment later an energy beam speared out of the night and struck the Titan in the torso. With the shields down the blast punched clean through the Titan’s armour and out the otherside. Krill and the Furious cried out together, the Titan’s pained cry from its war horns ringing out across the landscape. It was met by a mocking honk of triumph. The wounded Chaos Reaver Titan stepped out of gloom its gatling blaster blazing.

Shells tore into the Furious’ body, chewing armour and causing explosions to puff in the night air. The crew on the bridge watched from the view ports as the Reaver charged its turbo lasers one more for the killing blow as its war horns trumpeted. There was a flash and an explosion. On the bridge the crew stared dump founded as the watched the Chaos Reaver stumble, a smoking ruin where its turbo laser mount had once been as the Warlord Titan Sol’s Justice strode from the darkness weapons systems blazing. The Furious’ cry of pain undoubtedly drawing her sister Titan to her aid. The Furious, seizing her chance, pushed herself upright, smoke billowing from a hundred wounds, stabilizers screaming, and fired its volcano cannon point-blank in to the face of the stunned Reaver, sheering off its head, neck and the top 10 metres of its beetle-back in a corona of fire. The Reaver toppled backwards, bringing down a building with it and lay dead in the rubble.

As the Furious blared its triumph, its war horns shaking the very buildings around it Nian stood before Princeps Krill, sadness etched onto his face. Blood drooled from Krill’s mouth and nose. His navy blue uniform was stained with a hundred patches of blood from the haptic backlash. The fact that the Titan strode on told Nian all he needed to know of Krill’s true fate but his report would show the crew taking manual control at the critical moment when the Princeps died of his wounds. Anything less would risk Furious Intent having her machine spirit wiped rather than risk the Titan becoming sentient. But Nian wouldn’t allow that. The Furious Intent would stride again.

Shell Case Shorts 10 – Winner

There were some great entries for October’s Shell Case Shorts but, as usual, there can be only one winner and it goes to a short story rather appropriately set in Firestorm Invasion written by a previous Shell Case Shorts entrant, Lee Faccini, who got an honourable mention for his Loyalist Emperor’s Children origins piece back in April.

Lee clearly did his home work I think capturing the what it means to be on the ground in the Firestorm Armada Universe very well. And the lucky bugger wins himself a Dindrenzi starter army for Firestorm Invasion for his trouble.

Firestorm - by Lee Faccini

Davin ran through his system checks one last time. One last time before it all became real. The academies trained you to your peak during simulation but nothing can truly prepare you for that which you have not yet experienced.  Nothing happens as you would expect it to, or want it to. Taking a slow deep breath Davin triggered the main power up sequence, tensing sharply as the display blacked out, flickered, and then gradually brought his surroundings into focus. Waiting a moment to allow his senses to adjust to their new sources of feedback, he flexed his neck and attempted to settle as comfortably as possible into his piloting position.

One by one the system indicators started to come on, each flicking through various warning states before settling on a column of green across the right side edge of his view screen. They glowed prominently against the dull red hue of his suits optics that made the world around him seem even darker than it probably was. Looking left and right, he could see the other members of his unit running through their own pre-combat rituals. Some moved impatiently in their harnesses, others stood still almost lifeless.

There were five of them in all lined up against one side of the metal container and all were ready to go into action at a moment’s notice. Davin ignored his squad mates and merely stared at the ground some ten feet below him, trying to remember everything he thought he’d never forget after the intensive, seemingly endless, training he’d endured leading up to this day. Although a rookie pilot he was a seasoned soldier and had seen enough combat to last more than his life time, with a few more besides. Fighting on foot was easy he joked to himself, easier to fight when you don’t have to remember how to walk.

And it was a joke. Being a true infantryman was utterly unforgiving without ever having to make a mistake.  Unprotected by heavy armour, casualty rates were severe in the extreme and you were lucky to see the other side of a battle, let alone a campaign.  Only through a mix of ability and luck could one hope to progress and eventually gain promotion, and the mix leaned more in favour of the latter the longer you served. Modern day battlefields were no longer a place for unprotected soldiers and he was glad to have left it behind. He had trusted in his ability and knew he would come to rely on it more ever now – he was good, and he knew it.  It was why he had been assigned to this unit despite it being his first suited combat drop.

Davin had never seen himself as the Elite Sections type, but his situational awareness and natural aptitude for combat techniques had got him noticed by his superiors. It wasn’t long before he was training to operate a War-Strider for one of the specialist Combat Infiltration Units. Adept at gaining access to heavily-defended positions in the midst of a full engagement, they were usually deployed away from the main thrust of a diversionary attack. After quickly breaching defences, they were tasked with completing critical objectives – primarily search and destroy- which would either complete the mission outright or enable the main attack to succeed.  It was a risky tactic as the possibility of being observed while deploying was high, and if the enemy had sufficient reserves to spare they would quickly be overwhelmed. But on many occasions the gambit had proved successful enough to now utilise it as a legitimate plan of attack – even if the CI Unit didn’t survive the attempt.

Davin’s unit had their objectives located in a large thermal energy facility that was supplying power to a number of military installations. If it could be captured or destroyed it would severely hinder the defensive efforts in this sector. The Terran Alliance had sought to hide it from the Dindrenzi in a wooded valley far away from any other positions of tactical value.  Hidden conduits running underground and the close in vegetation meant it was difficult to see from the air and almost invisible on the ground.  Only through meticulous intelligence gathering had the RSN pinpointed its location and once the list of assets it supplied became apparent, a full scale attack was inevitable. Three battalions comprising a full regiment from the Storm Legions had been allocated as sufficient for the attack plus a periphery of support elements – including their CIU assistance.

Just as he was about to do another mental check of his objectives, his comm-link sounded. The squad snapped to attention as a calm voice announced himself as Field Commander Horten. The sounds of war could be heard in the background and Davin knew the audio dampeners of his comm were straining against the cacophony of noise that must have been pouring through the transmission. Despite this Horten continue to talk as if nothing was amiss – secure in the knowledge his voice would be heard. Even though they had been extensively briefed on what was expected of them in the next few hours, Horten explained his exacting demands of their action and left each of them in no doubt that failure was not an option. They would succeed, they had been commanded to. 

As soon as Horten signed off, tactical data lit up Davin’s view screen, spooling lists on all manner of information flickered in the corners of his vision. With a jolt, the wall in front of him began to separate and sunlight spilt into the dingy container as it parted along its length, as the roof and floor pulled back behind them more of their surroundings came into view. The drop ship, nearing its target location, had begun to point its nose down for a sharp dive and as it rolled into the manoeuvre the battlefield stretched out in front of them.  As they descended, he could see Dindrenzi forces approaching the facility through the nearest end of the valley and tactical data told him the same was happening on the other side. 

Explosions billowed up from the tree line and fierce fighting could be glimpsed as they skirted the edge of conflict.  Flying lower Davin could see the Terrans were putting up a wall of fire to prevent any of the attackers from breaking through. Valenfyre tanks in concealed positions relentlessly sent shell after shell screaming through the undergrowth, punishing the dense Dindrenzi formations as they negotiated the dense terrain.  Blazing wreckage clogged the spaces between the massive trees towering overhead, providing a measure of cover but also further restricting room for manoeuvre. It was quickly degenerating into a blood bath.

A squadron of Long Bow tank hunters eventually managed to find a position with a good field of fire and holes had started to appear in the Terran lines as they unleashed the fearsome power of their rail-cannons. Lines of fire streaked between the trees, the extreme velocity of the rail slugs igniting the air as they ripped through it at hyper velocity. Trees centuries old and tank armour alike was torn asunder by the force of the slugs, bones of nearby soldiers turned to powder by the concussive force. Successes were short lived however, the distinctive contrails revealing the position of the tank hunters and they soon fell victim to the continued concentrated shelling that was steadily tearing the forest apart.

We need to move quickly thought, Davin.  The attack was doing its job in absorbing the Terran’s attention but at the current rate of attrition it wouldn’t last long, the forest negated their superior manoeuvrability and the Terrans had prepared their defences well.  Time was his biggest enemy now.

They approached the facility perimeter away from the fighting and attempted to break any sight lines the enemy had drawn on them.   The drop ship skimmed the forest canopy as it came in low, dodging the sporadic anti-aircraft fire that lost its way through the dense foliage.  The pilot swung the tail around so it was pointing towards the facility and levelled out for a few seconds before powering vertically into the sky, eventually disappearing into the cloud cover. In that brief pause the ten members of the 201st CIU had disengaged their harnesses and jumped out of the open container doors on both sides of their transport.

Davin braced himself for the impending impact as his suit plummeted to the ground – his descent ending abruptly with a jarring impact and his suits leg servos and inertial dampeners protested against the strain, warning lights momentarily flashing on his HUD.  His team thumped down around him as he pulled himself upright. An amber warning light had stayed lit on his HUD causing him to frown in irritation. A quick diagnostic told him the uneven ground had meant the joint had twisted a load pin on landing the would shear through within the next 30 minutes based on projected operational requirements.

Pushing the concern to one side, his first objective flashed up on his view screen and a timer began counting down – 90. sec. Until Mission Failure.  Breach the Perimeter.

Davin’s suit scanners had begun registering enemy contacts a small circular display in the bottom left corner filling with insistent red flashing dots. As his active scanners started to pick up hard returns his vision was overlaid with white ghosting silhouettes of enemy positions. His system highlighted the weakest defended sections of the perimeter on his map and his squad leader selected their target zone. “Unit 8, you’re with me.” Came his order and he dutifully followed as the squad dispersed further into the trees, some branching out to the flanks in a standard bull horns formation. They pounded their way onwards through the undergrowth, the twelve foot tall armoured exosuits pulping the foliage and smashing through brushes and fallen logs with ease. Their small window of opportunity meant there was no room for stealth of subtlety but within moments they were close enough to launch their attack.

A collection of icons floated on his screen with a distance counters rapidly counting down. They were just over 150 metres away from the perimeter wall. Echos of targets rippled all along their primary objective. Their silhouette identified them as a section of support platforms armed with autocannons and were risky to take on in frontal attack, but time was a factor – they had no choice.

60 sec. Until Mission Failure.  Breach the Perimeter.

Davin’s squad leader stopped ahead of him and knelt down behind a dead fall, checking everyone’s position before he gave the order to break cover.  Turning to look straight at him, he motioned ahead with his free arm and Davin heard the go signal in his comm-link. He started forward without hesitation and it was only a few paces before he crashed through the tree line and into the open.  As one the sentries arrayed ahead turned to face the detected threat and locked on to their chosen targets, gun fire rippling along the defensive line a hundred metres ahead.  Evasive manoeuvres were already being taken by the members of the 201st as the 54mm rounds began stitching lines in the dirt towards them but dozens of rounds still found their mark.  Davin’s suit began to register impacts on various locations though thankfully his speed meant they glanced off the thicker plating of his armour.

His comm-link was a chorus of noise. Grunts and yells punctuated by the odd cry of pain filtered in as the cascade of fire maintained its punishing rate. Several of the squad member indicators on his view screen had changed colour, mostly yellows and ambers but a few flashed red then winked out.  Another warning flashed up – it was his left knee again. The warning light had changed from amber to a ruddy orange. He ignored it, pushing on, faster now, dodging side to side as the early warning systems informed him when he was being targeted. Ducking under a sweeping burst, his knee joint protesting vehemently, he risked a sharp glance to his left and was just in time to see Unit 04 get caught in a cross fire than cut him in half.  Another red light. 

30 sec. Until Mission Failure.  Breach the Perimeter.

He had closed to within thirty metres and only now raised his coil gun to try and carve a gap, for fear of slowing his rate of advance. Quickly locking on to the nearest turret, he sent a burst of fire towards it, aiming for the sentry’s targeting array. The high velocity slugs tore through the armoured housing with ease, shredding the delicate sensors inside. Denied targeting information the gun fell silent, patiently awaitig instructions that would never come. Davin and the rest of the squad quickly exploited the gap he had created and the guns fell silent as they were neutralised one by one.  Blasting through the perimeter wall, they entered the facility and took up position amongst the closest group of buildings.

Objective Complete.  New Objective – Neutralise Primary Control Tower. 120 sec. Until Mission Failure.

Sirens sounded out as their presence was detected and alarm raised to the Terran defenders.  More ghosts appeared on Davin’s view screen and began converging on their position.  Seven of the squad had made it through in various states of combat effectiveness – but his squad leader was not one of them, a lucky shot shredding his torso as they cleared the breach.  Unit 2 quickly assumed command and split the survivors in to two fire teams, each group moving towards the objective via a different route.  The Control Tower itself was a tall spike of concrete, looming over the smaller structures that were scattered around it like leaves from a tree.

Davin and his two other squad members hastily moved through the industrial maze wreaking carnage with every stide. Enemy infantry were constantly appearing to launch attacks only to be annihilated by the trio’s fearsome weaponry, but there had been several near misses with Unit 6 now missing the left arm of his suit.  Explosions tore through power conduits and heat exchangers as they fought their way onwards causing a warning klaxon to blare out across the compoud. Davin could see on map overlay that Unit 2 and his group had taken a shorter route and were now closer to the tower, but judging by the ring of enemy contacts surrounding them it did not look like they were going to advance much further.

60 sec. Until Mission Failure.  Neutralise Primary Control Tower.

Enemy War-Striders had started to appear amongst the defenders in the heart of the facility and Davin realised the threat they posed had now been realised.  It wouldn’t take long for heavier armour to be redeployed and the facility to be locked down entirely. Reaching the base of tower the three remaining Gauntlet suits formed up to defend themselves against the army of defenders now on the verge of overrunning them.  The Morbius suits the Terrans used were somewhat smaller and less well protected than their Dindrenzi equivalents but their superior numbers were beginning to tell.  Davin fired his weapon continuously without pause, shell casings clattering around his feet. Temperature warnings flashed angrily telling him it was on the brink of a catastrophic jam but he continued to fire, smashing apart the his poorly armoured foes.

Withing moments the Terrans had closed the gap and were amongst them. Unit 6 dropped suddenlty. Without his other arm to defend himself it was all too easy to tear his suit to pieces and his screams were abruptly ended as an armoured fist smashed through his chest plate.  Davin was knocked sideways as another suit blindsided him, sending both of them sprawling to the floor amidst twisted armour plating and spent shell casings. Davin ended up on his back and reacted first to backhand his opponent who was trying to stand.  The blow caved in one side of the cockpit and a variety of fluids seeped out of cracks in the armoured plate as it slowly toppled over, its pilot pulped from the impact.  

As Davin tried to stand. There was a sickening thud as the pin finally gave out, trapping him in place. Two more Morbius suits body checked him to the floor and pinned him to the ground whilst another fired it’s Shardgun at him at close range, trying to find weak points in his armour.  Davin’s arm ignited in pain as it was blasted apart at the elbow, followed almost immediately by the other as it was torn off at the shoulder through brute force.  Fists began hammering down on his face plate which began to buckle under the repeated impacts. Warnings flashed and flickered as cracks appeared across his view and the last thing he could make out before his suits armour plating was peeled open were two words posted across his view screen.  Mission Failed.  Bio-electric feedback coursed through his body and he screamed as every muscle in his body contracted uncontrollably.  Screwing his eyes shut he almost felt a release as he faded out into the black.

***

Davin’s vision began to return from the darkness. The hazy glow soon becoming a blinding light he couldn’t turn away from.  Dull noises reached the edge of his hearing as he lay still, his body seething with pain and unable to move.  His body was still contorted with electrical discharge from the haptic feedback his nervous system had endured just moments earlier.  The lid of his neuro-chamber came in focus and he remembered where he was; back on the RSN Cruiser orbiting above the planet he had been fighting on.  A voice spoke from beside his chamber, slightly muffled by the glass. ‘This one’s alive too’ it said.
‘That’s four. Total.’ Answered a second voice, ‘A forty per cent survival rate is good for their type of unit.’
‘They must be as good as they say then.’ Said the first voice.
‘I don’t think the brass will see it that way. They failed the mission.’
‘Shit.’ The voice whistled. ‘He’ll wish he was dead after all.’
Davin considered the statement for a moment and closed his eyes.  They were probably right.

Shell Case Shorts 7 – Winner

Last month’s Shell Case Shorts was all about Steampunk as the prize was a signed copy of Dystopian Wars by Spartan Games. There was some strong entries which just goes to show much passionate the community is about this growing genre. But as ever there can only be one winner, mainly because I only had one prize.

And that winner is James Wilson (@ChairmanAsheth).

Traitor - by James Wilson

Yeoman Wilson leant against the fore turret of the MKII Tribal Class cruiser HMS Aggressive and stared out into the soupy night. The mid watch was not amongst his favorite duties mainly because nothing ever happened. Just a few late night arrivals, usually drunk and rowdy after a days shore leave. This time of year was especially poor for it. The smoggy haze of Plymouth docklands obscured any possible view, not even the dockyard lights were visible, just an ugly, oily yellow haze creeping through the fog. To make matters worse the December chill had him hankering for the warm beef stew he’d packed away below deck earlier that evening. And the dumplings, the thought of them warmed him briefly. Navy cuisine was hardly fine dining but he’d happily chew his way through the gristly scraps that passed for meat if it meant not being out in the cold.

Further along the dockyard raucous singing echoed through the air. He couldn’t make out all the words but he gleaned enough to know it was a typical Navy tune about a woman named Suki from Bangkok and her surprising anatomic abilities. Wilson couldn’t make out any shapes in the fog and the voices and their colourful ditty didn’t appear to be coming any closer so he allowed himself to relax slightly. He jumped as a chorus of bells start to chime across the dockyard. Wilson moved to the ships bell and began to sound the six chimes that marked the third hour of the watch. 3am rang out for anyone foolish enough to be able to hear it, which was mostly the other poor souls on watch like him on their respective ships. Plymouth was all but empty. Normally a thriving military and civilian port space was usually at a premium. But with a big push in the Pacific to deter the Japs from harassing her Majesty’s interests in that region it was all but empty. The Aggressive was only docked here for a few days maintenance, refitting its ailing shield generator. The MKII substituted fire power for the protection afforded by the shield generator and Wilson had been more than happy with that choice on several occasions over the last year.

Wilson was glad of the relative peace and quiet as it meant time away from the front lines, time away from being shot at and time away from tipping his dead friends over the side wrapped in a Britannic flag. The Britannic empire had mobilised like no other point in history and was involved in some of the most brutal engagements. It was not for the faint of heart. They say that a soldier’s life expectancy drops by 20% with each tour of duty. He was only his forth. He and theAggressive had beaten the odds so far but he knew it was only a matter of time. He loved England but not in a chest puffing salute the flag kind of way that the Yanks beheld their upstart nation. He could see little point in the wars breaking out the world over. Wilson had joined the navy as a way to get an education and learn a trade, now he embroiled in a war that he just wanted to survive. He felt no particular hatred or ill will toward his enemies. He had no doubt that most soldiers serving on the other side felt the same way. That they wouldn’t shoot him on sight or vice versa but that was the business of war. Survival was all that mattered.

Wilson paced the polished oak decking, moving port aft towards the gangway. The early morning chill nipped at him as his oppo on this watch, Bob, appeared with a mug of tea in each hand. Bob came from the furthest reaches of the Empire and his real name wasn’t Bob but it was much easier than trying to pronounce his real name. Bob was we well liked through the ship for the most part but Wilson kept his distance, despite having to share a billet. It wasn’t prejudice, Wilson couldn’t care less where Bob was from so long as he did his job. It was just he was too…good. was just… too good. Too nice. Too popular. It made James suspicious which he suspected was more like jealousy. He Headed toward the Foc’sle and called back to Bob,

‘Gonna do a circuit.’

Bob nodded his response from behind his cup, not saying anything as he watched Wilson disappear into the murk. Moving slowly around the deck lost in his own world, Wilson half heartedly checked the mooring lines with a slight kick to each one. As he completed his circuit he noticed a shadow near the gangway. Probably Bob. He Wilson approached he saw the shadow break up into two distinctive shapes. One moved quickly to the gangway and down off the ship, the other remained in place. Wilson moved closer to it to see the familiar form of Bob emerge from the curling fog.

‘What was that about?’ he asked.

Bob shrugged as he moved towards the stern of the vessel, flinging the remainder of his cold tea overboard. ‘Just some drunk. Got the wrong ship.’ He soothed placing one hand protectively in his pocket. Wilson grimaced at the creeping sensation he felt as Bob spoke. He returned his attention to the cup in his hand, now half drained and took a sip. Cold. Typical.

Wilson continued his circuits around the ship, pausing only to hastily smoke half a cigarette despite light and noise discipline being in force, resigned to yet another tedious night until frantic alarm bells started ringing across the base, the alert bells of those ships at anchor quickly adding their voice to the tumult. Wilson rang to follow suit, grabbing the grimey, rigid rope and clanging the clapper against the sound rim with jarring force. He didn’t know what was going on but the base was on high alert. Moments later a deck hand came scrambling up to Wilson and hurriedly informed him that enemy spies had been spotted on the base and anyone attempting to board was to be shot on sight.

***

The next day, when James awoke, the vibrations running through his birth told him the ship was moving at speed. He hauled himself out of his cot, washed and dressed. As he buttoned up his tunic the familiar and foreboding klaxon blared through the ship signifying the beat to quarters.

‘Action stations, action stations, action stations.’ Wilson frantically tugged on his boots as the ship made a sharp turn to port, throwing him into the bulkhead. Cursing the pain and the helmsmen he made for the hatch as another sharp turn knocked him off-balance. Behind him he heard an exclamation as Bob was thrown clear of his bunk, rolled up papers spilling onto the deck below. Wilson instinctively went to help his comrade scooping up one of the rolled up bits of paper. Bob, fully dressed, scrabbled on the floor scooping up the spilled scrolls as they slide across the ship with the yaw of the hull. Stuffing the papers into a battered satchel Bob eyed the on clasped in Wilson’s hands jealously. The two men stared at each other, neither moving, the scroll still in Wilson’s grip.

The distant report of cannon fire and the screech of incoming shells caused Wilson to flinch instinctively. Bob seized his chance, snatched the paper from Wilson’s hands and ran through the hatch. Wilson wanted to chase after the man but his better judgement prevailed. HMS Aggressive’s own guns roared into life, the recoil vibrating through the ship as Wilson grabbed his tool belt and ran through the hatch to take his post.

Running through gangways he squeezed past fellow crewmen on their way to posts throughout the ship. As Wilson took his position with the rest of his damage control team he heard the spitting report of Aggressive’s ack ack batteries turned the sky above it into a death trap, a rasping counter point to the boom of the main guns. Wilson leaned his weight against a bulkhead as the ship pitched heavily to port, at moments like this there was no chatter. A tense silence was the only thing shared between the damage control team, along with the nervous stares. The saying was that the waiting is the worst part. It was said by people who had never served aboard a ship of war in combat. The worst part came next.

Wilson’ hearing was reduced to a high-pitched whistle and he was thrown to the deck as the cruiser took a direct hit. As he pulled himself to unsteady feet he saw water start to floor from the adjoining corridor. The Aggressive had been holed just above the waterline and the swirling ocean was spilling through the gaping wound in her flank.

Move!’ The order snapped the stunned crew out of their shell shock. They moved as one, training leading them to the feeling of rushing air. Rounding a corner they were met with a spray of water as the motion of the ship placed the damage just below the water line. ‘Get that shored up!’ Wilson still couldn’t hear properly but it scarcely mattered, the training was working well. The damage control equipment, such as it was, consisted mostly of wooden wedges, planks and their own mattresses. Wilson hammered a handful of wedges into one of the smaller holes, as the others placed a folded mattress against the largest hole and placed a disc of wood against it before jamming it in place with a wooden beam against the bulkhead. James looked about him and saw Bob passing through the section the bag still clutched in his hands. Abandoning ones post during once action stations had been called was a capital crime. Whatever Bob was up to it must be pretty important to risk a short drop and a sudden stop.

There was a shudder as an enemy shell exploded just metres from the hull jerking the ship to starboard throwing Bob from his feet, hitting his head against a strut, his grab spilling from his grasp. Leaving his team behind him, Wilson closed the distance between the prostrate Bob in moments, scooping up the bag. Injured but not incapacitated Bob whirled from his prone position and caught Wilson’s feet with a sweeping kick, bringing him down hard on deck. The grab burst open spilling files, equipment and photos into the ankle-deep water that now flooded the corridors. Realisation crept into Wilson’s consciousness, it was all too clear what Bob was. Bob was on his feet and looking for a way out but Wilson’s team had seen the exchange and rushed to Wilson’s aide. Another explosion rocked the ship and the damage team stumbled and Bob took his chance, darting through the nearest hatch.

Wilson wanted to go after him but duty overrode his personal desires. A series of bangs signalled the Aggressive’s torpedoes taking to the water and the ack ack batteries opened up once more. The tannoy squawked ordering crews to recovery boats. The small task force had taken losses. Wilson wasn’t surprised, the rest of his team were talking about fleet strength opposition. The Britannians were being taken to pieces. Then the tannoy went again.

‘Brace! Brace! Brace!’ Wilson went cold, they were under rocket attack. Even below decks a faint whistling could be heard over the general din of war and the sound of panicking crew. The hairs on his arms stood on end as the Aggressive’s shield generators flickered to life and a serious of vibrations reverberated through the hull, then the ship lurched as it was struck hard then the world turned white as the magazine exploded. Wilson’ world exploded into fire, heat, blood and pain. He had a sickening sensation of flight then the air was forced from him as he landed on what felt like concrete. He then sank into it. As his body was engulfed by the freezing ocean some coherency was rammed into him but it did no good. He tried to swim but all his energy left him and he stopped struggling. The waves engulfed him. Then he felt rough hands and the sensation of being lifted. Then felt nothing at all.

***

Wilson woke up with a jolt. He was in a hospital bed. God only knew how he got there but he thanked Him all the same for his salvation. Looking around he could see he was in a private room. A small window let in a warm breeze and he could hear the sound of birds singing outside. His arm was in a cast and strapped close to his chest and his head was bandaged.

He tentatively got to his feet, feeling the cool of the floor on his skin. He turned his head, taking in his surroundings causing a sudden wave of pain shot through him as the bailiffs in his head repossessed the energy his body had borrowed. Unable to pay up, his body gave in under him and he collapsed. Crying out, both for help and in pain, he tried to prevent the ground striking him as guards entered the room and rushed to assist him.

Wilson’s pain turned to horror. He quickly redacted his thanks to God as he realised the guards were belonged to the Empire of the Blazing Sun. He tried to fight them but it was futile, his strength quickly leaving him. The guards lifted him back onto the bed and a nurse was summoned. He felt a spreading warmth on his side and realised in his struggle he’d torn some stitches. He lay there paralysed by a cocktail of fear, pain and panic as the nurse entered the room with a trolley. His sense of anxiety rose as he saw a charged syringe. His body refused to act as the nurse swabbed his neck injected him.

A sense of calm swept through him as the sedative took over and he returned to the darkness of his mind, a happy place full of quiet, peace and a complete lack of soldiers. His dreams eventually became fevered and polluted by the leering features of Bob. He had the sense he ought to do something. When Wilson came to days had passed and he’d lost weight. The guards brought him to a mess room where he found there were prisoners from all over the world eating. Most were Britannic. Wilson ignored the rest as they would be of little help or comfort. When he joined the Britannic prisoners they shied away from him. Some stopped eating and asked to be taken back their cells. Wilson was horrified, their bodies looked wasted and broken. He tried to speak to the nearest prisoner. He didn’t look round. None of them would look at him. These prisoners had been treated like unwanted pets. Tolerated. Fed just enough to stay alive and punished ruthlessly for the slightest infraction. Wilson wondered why he had not suffered a similar fate.

As the days passed his strength returned and his wounds healed and all the while Wilson was waiting for the interrogations and gruelling tortures that the Blazing Sun was infamous for. Finally the waiting was over as after his morning meal he was taken to a different part of the detention camp. He was marched down clean brightly lit corridors, guards flanking him every step of the way. He was halted outside an office, the script on the door was unreadable to him but his imagination filled in for his lack of knowledge. One of the soldiers knocked on the door and lead him in.

‘Ah! Yeoman Wilson, welcome.’ The voice had a heavy accent but it was easy enough for Wilson to understand him. ‘You have been made comfortable?’ Wilson nodded, not saying a word. ‘We, of course searched your person when we found you Yeoman Wilson.’ The officer paused and drank a yellow liquid from a small grey cup. ‘You had a number of intriguing items upon your person.’ He opened a draw and began to lay out documents. ‘These papers, specifically, were of great interest.’ Wilson had no idea what he was looking at but they were important enough to have kept him alive. ‘We are gratified you should bring this to us Yeoman Wilson. It seems you intended to defect?’ Wilson’s mind reeled. No wonder the others hadn’t said a word. He’d thought they were broken men. Not so. They thought him a traitor to Queen and Country.

The enormity of it dawned on him. Were he to attempt escape and by some miracle make it home questions would be asked. He would be branded a traitor. He’d be hanged. Wilson’s thoughts came quickly like gunshots, each piercing his soul. The realisation of what had happened shocked him to his core. ‘Did…did you find others near me?’ It was his only bargaining chip. Someone, anyone from the damage control party, someone who had seen what had happened with Bob or whatever he was called would destroy any hope of salvation.

‘You were found floating amongst your…former colleagues, clutching a bag Yeoman Wilson. None was alive but you.’

Nobody would believe he hadn’t betrayed his country now. The thought sickened him. He had no choice but to go along with this officer’s assumption, nnauseating as it was. The officer lit a cigarette, taking a long pull before puffing the smoke into the air.

‘What is it you hope to gain from this Yeoman Wilson? You do not speak Japanese I presume?’ The officer asked clearly not entirely convinced by what had happened or that lowly sailor would want to swap one master’s yoke for another, let alone one where he couldn’t function or even speak to anyone. Wilson’s head, still rushing, went through several possibilities.

‘Peace!’ He said suddenly, truth breaking through the dullness he’d felt since being rescued.

‘I do not follow you Yeoman Wilson.’ The officer took another long drag on his cigarette. Wilson’s brain was cartwheeling through ideas. Being a prisoner was not a good idea, being worked to death had possibilities but it was known that the Empire of the Blazing Sun was not very humanitarian to its own, let alone foreigners. The path of peace was the best he could hope for. To be put somewhere and forgotten. ‘I seek only somewhere to live, away from the fighting, sir.’

Realisation came across the officers face as he pieced together a language he did not fully command. ‘Ah! What is the word for this? …Coward I believe?’ Wilson flinched. A vestige of his sense of honour made its presence felt but he was getting desperate. He needed this officer to believe him, to relent a little. He couldn’t go home, it was too late, too many would suspect him a traitor now, he couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone at home knew already or would find out soon, then he would be hanged. The Japanese would kill him one way or another unless he could pull off the biggest con in history. He couldn’t let this officer think him dishonourable, that was important to these people, to the officer class at least, so far as he could remember. If they found out that this was all an accident he’d be sent to work, tortured to death or just shot as an example to others.

Everything was about survival now. The words flowed from him; ‘No sir. Not coward. Were I a coward I would not have gone to sea. I would not have stayed with my ship. I would not have gathered those items. I would have fled the fighting, not sign up. . Cowards do not go to war. Sir.’ The officer pondered this. Wilson kept up the pace, his conscience quieting down to allow his mind to clear. Tired is the word sir. Tired of fighting. Tired of death. I seek a peaceful life before I die, preferably of old age.’ The officer strolled to his window and looked out. ‘We all seek this Yeoman Wilson. I too am tired of the death. I am inclined to grant your request. Find somewhere quiet to place you. But first,’ he wheeled round to face his prisoner ‘you will speak with me of everything you know about Britannian movements, tactics and procedures.’ The officer motioned to the door. ‘Please, this way.’ Wilson stood and went through to be flanked by his guards. He had no choice. He was already thought a traitor. He didn’t want to die. He would tell them everything. Survival was all that mattered.

Shell Case Shorts 8

August. Who’d have thought I’d manage to keep this competition going this long. It of course wouldn’t be possible were it not for you lovely readers entering and those lovely people donating prizes. And this month’s prize is the tits. It’s nothing less than a signed copy of Dropzone Commander from Hawk Wargames.

This month the entries must be from a science fiction wargame in honour of this top prize. Steampunk isn’t included I’m afraid, sorry.

So what do you have to do to win this rather large slice of awesomeness? Well, I’m glad you asked…

Rules are as follows:

Your work is your own but intellectual property rests squarely with the companies in question and is only used under fair use. I reserve the right to publish any submissions in a strictly non-profit capacity. All published writers will be credited accordingly.

Submissions should attempt to evoke the IP the story is based on.

Short story entries word limit should be 3,000-4,000 words.

All entries must be received by midnight UK time Friday 31st August 2012 after which a single winner will be chosen. Submissions received after this will not be considered.

1 submission per person.

Work believed to be plagiarised will be disqualified.

All submissions must be sent as a Word document attached to an email to theshellcase@hotmail.co.uk

[Any spam from entrants will result in disqualification]

Submissions must include the entrants name, a contact email address, Twitter name if applicable and the title of the story.

1 winner will be chosen and notified by email.

The winning entry will be published initially on The Shell Case blog and later in a free to download anthology.

No discussion will be entered into, my decision is final.

The prize may not be exchanged for its cash value or an alternative. However, I reserve the right to substitute the prize if necessary.

Good luck and have fun!

Sponsored by

Shell Case Shorts 2 Winner

The winner of the second Shell Case Shorts was a tough call between two entries. Both were well crafted engaging stories but in the end it had to be Hive Walker by Dave Cahill (@d_cahill). A film noir set in Hive Primus of Necromunda it’s in quite a different vein than one would expect but it still manages to evoke the grim reality of life in the 41st Millennium. It sits nicely alongside last month’s winning entry The Bone Carver by Patrick Burdine, who, as it goes was this month’s runner-up.

Patrick’s story was a great opening gambit to a much wider story and I’d love to see it fleshes out into a novella because all the pieces were there. But, as they say, there can be only one winner, and so I give you this month’s winning entry:

Hive Walker by Dave Cahill

A Watchman pounding on my office door was hardly news. My work as an enquirer sometimes invited attention from the Emperor’s own. Bribes would only get you so far; a new recruit who didn’t yet understand how the Hive functions, a commander freshly rattled by his superiors and so on. Any number of dents could arise in my somewhat grey relationship with the Hive Law, leading to dents in my door.

The look on the man’s face though, that was new. He was young, his armour still sitting heavy on his shoulders, not moulded to his body in the manner of an experienced officer, his eyes lacking the cold, detached look they so prided themselves on – always striving for the far grimmer countenance of the Enforcers. In fact, he looked nervous and almost…sympathetic? Something was up.

“Citizen Mak Talton.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes sir, at the Watch’s convenience and service, as ever.” Pays to fawn sometimes.

The young Watchman just looked embarrassed.

“Sergeant Jarrak sent me.”

Jarrak and I went back a ways, had a good working relationship, so far as an enquirer and a well-bribed Watch officer could. Odd that he hadn’t come himself.

“Ah. What can I do for the Sergeant, sir?”

“I’m afraid it’s your father. There’s been an… incident.”

Ah Throne. What had the old bastard done now?

“Sir, I can assure you, no harm or disrespect was intended – he’s an old man, his wounds, he sometimes has trouble-”

“It’s not-”

“I can redress any damage he’s-”

“Citizen, your father is dead.”

I noticed his left boot was worn, the armaplas plating over the instep dented and scratched where it wrapped down to the armoured sole. Administratum recycling equipment again, few supplies making it this far down-hive. I wondered what had become of the boot’s previous owner. Senior enough to rate fresh gear from a rare resupply? Transferred up-hive? Or just dead?

Dead. He’d said the old bastard was- “Sir, what? Terra.”

I sat down heavily on the nearest hard surface, which turned out to be the floor plating. The young officer’s dented boots shifted uncomfortably in front of me.

“I regret your loss, citizen. Sergeant Jarrak asked me to convey his similar sentiments. Unfortunately he is currently… indisposed.”

“Indisposed? What happened?” Work the details. Focus.

“The Sergeant is in the Infirmary. He was injured in the same incident where your father… ah…” Still nervous.

“What incident? When-”

“There was an accident last night. Down-hive, near TrussTown. A partial dome collapse after a localised hivequake. Your father was fatally injured, Sergeant Jarrak was also hurt”.

What the hell was the old bastard doing that far down? He’d never…

“I see. Thank you, sir.” An awkward pause.

“The Emperor protects, citizen.”

“The Emperor protects.”

The young Watchman cleared his throat, turned and strode back out into the dome.

I sat on the cold metal floor for another few minutes, feeling the thousand tiny vibrations that bled through the Hive’s structure every second of every day. The Hive had a heartbeat – the interplay of layer after layer of tunnels and domes, millions of citizens and vast ancient machinery spilling and singing through the countless billions of tons of adamantium and rockcrete that formed this man-made mountain. In places you could feel it as a tiny background sensation if you concentrated, in some tunnels and shafts the Hive practically shimmered with it. Right then it seemed to ebb and flow rhythmically. Soothing, almost.

******

I still remember the day he left with the Guard regiment. I can’t have been more than thirteen years old, standing in the doorway of our small hab in the lower reaches of Hive City. He placed a hand on my shoulder, squeezed. His flak armour creaked and rustled as he bent close. He reached down and pressed something into my palm. An aquila pendant, one wing broken. His pendant, that I’d seen him clutch in the dome’s Imperial chapel for as long as I could remember. One night, drunk on Wildsnake a travelling peddler had brought up from the Underhive, he told me that pendant had belonged to my mother, long-dead and as much a myth to my young mind as the sky or the Emperor’s Astartes. He never spoke of her again.

“Work hard and stay safe where you can, son. Trust in the God-Emperor. I’ll be back someday.”

Even as a boy, I knew well what the likelihood of that was. I resumed my work in the manufactory, and Hive life carried on, as it has done for thousands of years. Ten years later, I left the reclamatorium supervisor’s post and began work as an enquirer, hunting information and tracking knowledge for those in need. Those in need with access to credits, at least. His face faded and blurred in my memory, though his broken aquila still rested around my neck.

But he did return, twenty years on, almost to the day. A changed man, scarred, grim, still suffering from wounds received in action against Chaos cultists on Terra knew what hell planet. It was obvious to anyone that the worst wounds weren’t physical. The once genial man was prone to dark, silent moods and bursts of disoriented rage.

He settled in the outskirts of the dome, in a ramshackle hab not far from the edge of a void. The isolation and the wide emptiness seemed to suit him, and his meagre Imperial Guard pension kept him in drink. I visited the old bastard from time to time, and we maintained a relationship of sorts. I wouldn’t say that we were close anymore, but he was the only father I ever had, and I his only son. We shape what the Hive leaves us.

 ******

The office door sealed with a hiss as I headed out into the dome. I liked the outdoors. Some hivers were troubled by the emptiness and open spaces of larger domes, but I had always felt a certain peace out in the open, the giant girders and plates of the ceiling almost out of sight overhead, light filtering down from a thousand different sources, the feel of the Hive wind shifting over my face. Sometimes the Hive’s heartbeat felt stronger out in the open spaces, the vibration passing up through my boots and reminding me that I was a part of something larger than I could imagine, much like Necromunda was just one planet of a vast Imperium.

Today though, my mind was elsewhere, more shaken by the news of the old bastard’s sudden death than I’d care to admit. I would have to claim the body and organise a burial slot in a suitable Wall, before the reclamatoria got their hands on him. First I wanted to know what had happened – the Watch hadn’t exactly been forthcoming. TrussTown was some ways down-hive, bordering the upper reaches of the Underhive. I passed through often enough in the course of my work, but he hadn’t any connections down there that I knew of.

Sergeant Jarrak. I had to talk to Jarrak. The Infirmary loomed ahead, sharply arched windows gazing down over the square, the tall edifice framed by two giant ducts that ran up into the darkness. As I neared the building, the Hive’s subtle vibration seemed to shift and become stronger, setting my teeth on edge and making me dizzy. Grief and stress could do strange things to a man’s imagination. The disorientation became worse, and I dropped to one knee, snarling and pressing my palms down into the trash-loam. Then the building exploded.

******

I left the dome and headed down-hive, my ears still ringing from the blast. The Watch had showed up almost immediately, pawing the rubble like armoured rats as they searched for survivors. A glance at the devastation convinced me they’d never find any.

A pair of Enforcers had stood to one side and watched, solid and grim as iron statues behind their armoured face plates. Whatever about the Watch, I had no dealings with Enforcers if I could avoid it. Seemingly incorruptible, no hesitation, no compromise, no remorse. Laying down Imperial law in the Underhive, I guessed that’s how you had to be.

The Watch were talking about a promethium spillage and a fume blast taking out the Infirmary. Ratshit. No accident. From where I’d been crouched in the open, I’d seen the flashing ripple of the krak charges taking out the building’s supports, then a larger blast that demolished its interior. Jarrak wasn’t going to offer me anything now, that was for sure. Coincidence? I didn’t make a living by believing in coincidence. Best stick to what I did make a living from and enquire further.

TrussTown took its name from the giant support it clung to – a vast and ancient part of the Hive’s structure, over a hundred metres long and at least thirty wide, solid adamantium, spanning a yawning void. Popular myth had it that the Shaft led all the way to the noxious Sump lake below the Underhive. I doubted that, but the Shaft was undeniably impressive, a wide and seemingly bottomless black pit with mutated bats swooping and the occasional servitor skull gliding about. The Hive wind whispered up from the depths, carrying strange noises and wafts of foul pollutants. More than a few hivers had met their end tumbling down into that darkness.

Above TrussTown, the roof was barely visible fifty metres up, dimly lit by glowing patches of luminescent fungus. The settlement’s sole street ran down the centre of the vast girder, a lone strip of light in the darkness of the Shaft. Habs and other structures perched several stories high on either side, right up to the edge of the abyss. How half the place didn’t topple into oblivion was a never-ending mystery to me. As one of the safer transit points between this part of Hive City and the beginning of the Underhive, TrussTown was a busy trading and supply post, despite its constrained size.

The Dying Ganger was still going strong, old Harlon behind the bar, scared and affable as ever. Much as TrussTown was a route to the Underhive’s dangers and opportunities, Harlon was my route to the Underhive’s knowledge and secrets. He knew the Houses, knew the gangs and the independents, all the players. I knew the Underhive below TrussTown, could practically walk it with my eyes closed, but he knew the people, and that was always a harder pit to mine.

He sympathised on the old bastard’s death, seemed shaken by it himself, though as far as I knew they’d never met. Good man that way, Harlon – people he cared about, he took their burdens on himself. The destruction of the Infirmary troubled him too – “Bad business, boy, bad business harming medicae and the sick. Emperor frowns on that, He does.” He seemed genuinely upset beneath his usual gruff but genial demeanour. Compassionate man, for a hiver – a rare breed this near the Underhive.

With Harlon’s direction I soon had what I came for. An Orlock juve come up-hive to drink the results of a big score gave me what I was after. The hivequake that killed the old bastard and sent Jarrak to his doom in the Infirmary apparently happened in a small, partially ruined dome not far out of town near the main Underhive tunnel route. The dome was uninhabited as far as I knew, but used as a sometime meeting place and tradepoint for gangers, merchants and others. I’d done occasional business there myself, bartering information.

******

I headed out of town, past travellers, merchants and workers traversing the wide tunnel sloping to the Underhive. A few hundred metres down, I branched off through a large crack in the rockcrete and entered a low metal-walled pipe passage, empty of traffic. Mushrooms squelched underfoot as I entered the dome, pushing past dangling wiring and corroded pipes. It was small, maybe a hundred metres in diameter and twenty high. A large corroded pipe rumbled quietly overhead.

One wall of the dome had collapsed, shattered rockcrete and bent wall plating spilled out across the floor. But there was no sign of the wider damage and buckled floor panelling I’d expect from a hivequake. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. A quick inspection revealed the telltale blackened scars of a melta charge on one of the supporting struts in the dome wall. Somebody had brought down this section of wall deliberately.

I pressed my palms flat against the cold wall, feeling the hive’s familiar hum through my fingers. The news of the old man’s death had gotten to me, and the feel of the hive’s ever-present living bulk increasingly brought me solace, odd as that seemed. The minuscule vibrations almost seemed to flow down the wall like running water. I crouched, running my fingertips along the iron plating, straining to-

The lasbolt struck the wall a half-metre above my head with a blinding flare, searing my back as it passed. A hot-shot round, dangerously overcharged for maximum destructive potential. Sparks of molten metal showered from the impact point, stinging my hands. Momentarily blinded, I threw myself down and rolled behind a large fallen wall plate as another round exploded into the floor. Today seemed to be the day for near misses.

I drew my laspistol, the familiar leather grip moulding into my palm. The second round had come from the entrance to the dome, and I peered around my rudimentary cover, searching for a target. Soon enough, I spotted figures moving in the shadows of the entrance tunnel. Gangers – House Goliath, from the bared bulk of their torsos and flaring, spiked hair. Ambushed by a pack of gangers in an abandoned dome? I should have been more careful, wandering around the edges of the Underhive, broadcasting my presence in TrussTown.

More las rounds and some solid slugs clattering from an autopistol flew my way, less well-aimed than the first shot, flying wide and sparking off the floor plates around me. I returned fire, the pistol twitching in my hand as bright bolts flared into the pipes around the entrance. I wasn’t much of a shot, and I only had one spare powerpack. My situation wasn’t tenable – I didn’t know of any other exit from the dome, I was outnumbered and outgunned, and it was only a matter of time before they worked up the courage to close in and finish the deal. If they tossed a grenade or two…

“Get the bastard!”

“You get him, you ratshagging juve!”

Charming bunch, Goliaths. Another glance over my improvised shelter confirmed there were three of them, crouched around the entrance to the dome. Another solid round ricocheted off the plating I hid behind, whining off into the dome.

“Fellas, maybe we can shape a deal here? Credits for the taking, but you won’t find them in here.” Worth a try.

“Screw you, up-hiver! We’ll get what we came for!” So much for deals.

The las-rounds flew in hard and fast – clumsy but effective covering fire. Sure enough, two of the Goliaths roared and charged forward as their companion laid down fire from a lasrifle. This was it. I glanced around, growing desperate. The pipe overhead rumbled softly again. It was badly corroded…

I rolled onto my back behind the wall plate, sighting carefully down the laspistol’s brass barrel. I heard the crash of the Goliaths’ boots as they charged across the dome floor, their companion’s las rounds continuing to splash and flare around me.

My shot blew out a large section of the pipe’s underside, releasing a corrosive deluge of toxic waste down on the unwitting gangers below. Swept off their feet by the searing flood, they didn’t stand a chance. The wall of waste took them and ate the skin off their bones before they could even scream.

Their terrified companion at the entrance screamed plenty. A few snap shots in his direction had him ducking back down the tunnel. I jogged across the floor, my boots hissing as their thick soles met the toxic gunk, my head spinning from the choking fumes, laspistol up and ready. The bulk of the waste had drained off down some hole, and the flow from the ruined pipe cut off as suddenly as it began, a machine spirit somewhere sensing the damage and sealing valves.

Leaving the dome, I saw the surviving Goliath stagger back out into the main tunnel in the distance. Bastard wasn’t getting away that easily, not if there was a chance he was involved in the old man’s death. I ran through the passage, out into the transit tunnel, down towards the Underhive.

******

The fleeing ganger made it nearly a kilometre further. He didn’t try to turn and fight – fortunately for me, armed only with a pistol. I chased him across a high walkway over a hissing steam-filled void, past a slag pit where curious miners looked on and guards raised their weapons, along the top of a giant waste pipe that poured a waterfall of noxious sludge into a bubbling lake. I ran him down at the far side of a small settlement in an ash-floored dome.

He had nowhere left to go. A large man, massively muscled as all Goliath gangers were, bare-chested but for those chain and webbing harnesses they wore, hair spiked high and stained a bright purple – the flash of colour that had helped me track him all the way from the TrussTown tunnel. He didn’t seem to be armed, his weapon lost when he’d stumbled on the high walkway. I raised my laspistol.

“You’ve run out of tunnel, big man. Talk. What’s the game?”

“I swear man -nothing -just jumping hivers for credits, you know-”

He was lying. I took careful aim down the laspistol.

“OK, OK, them cloaks said you was sticking your nose in, told us to watch that dome, anyone came through was to get the same as the old drunk-”

Simmering, glowing and bubbling like that sludge lake, the Hive’s vibrations in sympathy through the soles of my boots, through the grip of the laspistol.

“The old drunk?”

“Yeah man, just some beat-down old hiver, they said he had something of theirs, we was to get it. Said make it look like an accident, then that Watchman showed up following him. Nearly got caught, but we blew the charges- Hey man, you aren’t mad are you? Just some Watch-rat and an old guy, looked like he was half dead already-”

“Sure, some old bastard. I understand. Business.”

He started to relax. I shot him in the face.

From that range, the lasbolt didn’t leave much behind, just that spiked hair, flaring up an even brighter purple as the chemicals caught fire.

Not a smart move – he wasn’t any use to me now, and whoever hired him and his fellow gangers was still out there. As I neared the corpse, I spotted the mini-frag he had clutched behind his back, his thumb on the grenade’s arming stud. Smart move after all.

Then I noticed the floor hatch just behind where he lay, almost concealed by the ash and dust. About a metre square and solid-looking, it had a brass gene-key locking mechanism attached. Didn’t see many of those lying around no-account domes in the Underhive. Virtually impossible to pick, gene-coded only to those- I glanced back at the sprawled Goliath.

The ganger was still some use after all. The lock clicked open as its machine spirit recognised a familiar gene-key. The hatch hissed upwards, ash falling away as it rose. Warm, wet air and a foul stench spilled up from the dark opening. I dropped down into the hole, knowing what was coming.

******

A girder swamp. These structures weren’t uncommon in the Underhive – the underlying supports of domes, a low-ceilinged expanse filled with vertical girders. They often flooded with a metre or more of stagnant water and waste, and combined with the heat from pipes and Hive tech running through the floors, a fetid swamp developed. Deadly fungus, semi-sentient plants, crawling and swimming creatures of the worst sorts. Unpleasant places, even by Hive standards.

I moved further into the swamp, trying to ignore the stink and the damp heat. Girders rose all around me like the mushroom stalks of a real forest, a dense network of metal, almost completely covered with moss, fungus and creeping plant life growing up out of the filthy water. I passed two more ceiling hatches, both of which had been sealed from the inside with plasma cutters. Somebody wanted this place to themselves.

The swamp was dimly lit by luminescent fungus and occasional glow-strips. As I waded between the girders, I soon spotted a pool of brighter light in the distance, barely visible through the dense forest of steel. There were crude structures of flak-board rigged between the girders ahead, a camp of some sort. A raised platform provided a floor over the swamp. I moved closer, slow and careful.

Figures moved through the light, casting flickering shadows out amongst the girders. At least two more Goliath gangers, and a hooded figure. The dead ganger had talked about “cloaks”. I heard a soft splash close behind me, started to turn-

The cold brass muzzle of a lasrifle pressed into my neck. Make that three Goliaths.

“Move or you’re ratfood!”

“Alright, easy, easy-”

A none too gentle nudge from the lasrifle was my only reply. He herded me in towards the three figures in the camp, the other two Goliaths now covering us with their own weapons. One of them cradled a plasma weapon. Nasty piece of work, sun-guns. A bit cumbersome and prone to the occasional misfire, but those superheated globules of plasma will vaporise just about anything that gets in their way.

Damned expensive though, beyond the average ganger’s trade-power by a long shot. Whoever was hiring these muscle-bound idiots obviously spared little expense. I turned towards the hooded figure.

He wore a dark cloak, containing more than a little flak-weave by the way it hung heavy and stiff. The hood was up, but his soft pale face was easily visible in the light of the glow-globes. From a distance, I’d thought he might be a Delaque – the pasty face and bald head under the hood resembled that House’s trademark  appearance. He didn’t wear their customary dark photo-goggles though, and in any case, the ‘lackers and House Goliath rarely got along. Different philosophies.

A nondescript character, if it weren’t for the scars that crisscrossed his face. I wasn’t a squeamish man by any measure, but that face disturbed me. Not just the ugliness of the scars, but their pattern, something about it- I grew nauseous and dizzy as I tried to grasp the symbol they formed across his face.

I wrenched my gaze from that disturbing visage and focussed on his eyes. They didn’t match the dizzying wrongness of his scars, but they weren’t exactly right either. His left eye was dull and dead – like looking into the eye of a corpse, if it weren’t twitching and moving. His right eye burned with an unsettling intensity, seeming to stare right through my head.

Thoroughly shaken up, I glanced around, concentrating on the bulk and presence of the Hive all around me, grounding myself in its endless layered complexity. My head cleared and the disturbance eased.

“Citizen Mak Talton.” It wasn’t a question. His voice matched his appearance, a slightly too-slow, almost-rasping murmur that still somehow carried clearly.

“Look, whatever you-”

“An enquirer of some reputation. It would seem you have enquired too far, Citizen Talton.”

I waited. The Goliaths didn’t move, still training their weapons on me.

“Like father, like son. Your father enquired further than he should have too. Where is it, Citizen Talton?”

“Where’s what, you Throne-damned freak?”. Pays to fawn, sometimes. Sometimes not.

“The device, Citizen Talton. Your drunken fool of a father did not bring it to the tradepoint, and died before he could… converse with us on the topic.” This with a glance at the Goliaths, who paled and shifted uncomfortably.

I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Any valuables the old man had owned were long ago traded for drink.

“It’s gone. I threw it down the Shaft at TrussTown. Best get your rebreather on, freak. It’s for the Sump now.”

“You are lying, Citizen Talton. Lies are a familiar currency to me, do not think you can barter with them here.”

He turned to the hulking gangers.

“Secure him. We will… talk… further.”

Massively muscled arms took me in a crushing grip. The cloaked man moved forward, reached for my head. This wasn’t looking good.

He placed his palms on either side of my head, his fingers pressing into my skull. His hands were freezing cold, like a corpse in the chiller awaiting recycling. I could feel that cold spreading into my head, numbing my mind. A buzzing seemed to build behind my eyes. A psyker, prying into my head like a man peeling a mushroom stalk.

I reached for something, anything to fend off the alien wrongness of his intrusion. I felt the Hive’s presence all around me, its bulk, its layered vastness, its myriad domes and tunnels and voids, inhabitants and creatures and machine spirits. I felt the Hive’s hum, its vibrations, its pulse. I felt the Emperor’s presence in the Hive, His strength, His power, His will. I let the Hive’s pulse flow around me, through me, into me.

The hooded psyker snarled and ripped his hands from my head, the skin tearing where they’d frozen to my scalp. The Goliaths released me and stepped back, wiping frost from their hands in terrified awe.

“It would seem your roots go deeper than most corpse-worshipping insects in this place, Citizen Talton. Interesting. No matter, one greater than I will bring this conversation to its conclusion soon enough.”

Still dazed from the experience, I had no idea what he was rambling on about. For that matter, I had no idea what had just happened. But I knew exactly what was happening when I dived off the platform and surged through the swamp water, ducking behind the most intact-looking girder I could find.

Back on the platform, the frag grenade I’d taken from the dead ganger in the dome above hit the flak-board with a dull thump. I tucked behind the girder, hunched low in the stinking water.

The grenade exploded with a crumping boom, blowing the platform in two, sending pieces of flak-board flying. Then the powerpack of the Goliath’s plasma gun detonated.

A searing blast of heat sent a wall of water and steam rushing outwards. I emerged from the mess choking and gasping, wiping foul swamp water from my eyes. The platform and structures were totally destroyed, the Goliath gangers torn apart and cast into the swamp. Of the psyker, there was no sign – vaporised or fled?

Either way, I’d had enough. The old man’s killers were gone, and I had barely escaped their fate. Hooded psykers with bizarre scars that made a man dizzy to look at? I’d never encountered it before – thank Terra – but I recognised the taint of Chaos. I knew when I was out of my depth.

I realised just how out of my depth I was when I found the psyker in the dome above, crucified on a crossed pair of iron beams. His facial scars had been cut through and mutilated, deep searing cuts that only a power blade could make. They no longer formed that sickening pattern.

But it was the large, stark “I” symbol branded into his forehead that shook me but good. The Emperor’s Inquisition. A whispered terror in the minds of doubting men, the dark that dark places feared. No one would ever dare carve that symbol who wasn’t-

I muttered the Imperial Creed as I fled the dome, heading back towards TrussTown and the relative safety of Hive City. This wasn’t my business – I’d found vengeance and at least a few answers, and even an enquirer knows some floor plates are best not lifted.

******

I found Harlon pacing the dust in an open area just short of the TrussTown tunnels. He was waiting for me, and he didn’t look happy.

“Boy, what the hell have you gotten into, you rat-brained bastard?”

“You don’t want to know, Harlon. Bad business. It’s done now.”

“The Warp it is. It’s all over the public vox. You’re a wanted man. Enforcers are after you, for Terra’s sake.”

“What?”

“Said you killed that Watchman Jarrak and a bunch of folks at the Infirmary up-hive, murdered Goliath workers and guards down-hive. Even talk of heresy.”

“Harlon, I never-”

“I know, boy, I know. Figured you weren’t the type for those sorts of dramatics. Can’t shoot for shit anyway, how you’d take down half those bodies’d be a fine mystery. What’s really going on? And don’t feed me no ratshit, boy. Knew your father. He may have come back wrong, but he went out right. Good man. Shouldn’t have ended like he did.”

That shook me – I’d only met Harlon a year after I’d begun working as an enquirer, long after the old man had left with the Guard. He’d never told me he knew-

“Come on boy, spill.”

I told him everything that had happened, even the apparent involvement of the Inquisition.

“Well now. Busy day you’ve had, boy. Someone’s set you up for sure. Watch looking for an easy mark? Friends of that hooded thing, Emperor protect us? Or the Inq- well, other parties? Doesn’t much matter anyhow. Hive City ain’t safe for you now. Always did take well to the Underhive, time you gave it a try for real. At least until this business blows off or blows up.”

He was right. I’d been set up good, and whoever was behind it, I didn’t stand a chance against any of the forces involved. I needed trouble with House Goliath or the Enforcers like a hole in the head, and as for the minions of Chaos or the attentions of the Inquisition, Holy Terra…

“Head to Pakk’s Pitfall, look up Martok Half-Hand. Good man, solid. We go back a ways – knew your father too.”

Seemed there was a lot I didn’t know about the old man.

“Those Goliaths won’t have had House sanction, not for this kind of racket – too far even for those meatheads. Still, best avoid their ground for now.”

He was right, but House Goliath was the least of my worries compared to dodging Enforcers and darker threats.

“One more thing, Mak.”

He’d never called me by my name before.

“You told me you could feel the Hive… hum – feel a pulse. Sort of… helped you out of tight spots.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that, it’s just-”

“Sounded clear enough to me, boy. Might have something to do with how well you find your way around down here, too.”

“Guess I did feel something, but that’s just the usual vibrations that run through everything down here – you know how it is, just got to pay attention.”

“I don’t, son. I never felt the Hive, not like that, or at all. No hiver can, that I ever heard of. But they do.”

He turned and pointed. In the distance, on a high platform over a giant smoking vent, ragged brownclad figures moved. Ratskins. True natives of the Hive, worshipping its ancient might, living simple lives largely remote from the dealings of hivers. Unusual to see a group this high in the Underhive, in fact. A primitive bunch of savages, depending who you asked.

“What are you-”

“Down-hive, boy. Follow your path.”

He started walking away, not looking back.

“The Emperor protects, Mak Talton.”

I turned and headed out into the Underhive, my father’s broken aquila around my neck. We shape what the Hive leaves us.