Another quick visit to the Warhammer 40,000 universe and the Siege of Terra during the Horus Heresy. Part I of this short story can be found here.
Tick-tick-tick. Letholdus’ blood dripped rhythmically on the floor of the tank’s transport compartment, the metallic ping audible to his enhanced senses even above the distressed growl of the Land Raider’s engine. He was breathing heavily, wracked with pain and heat as his transhuman body fought to repair the hurt inflicted upon it. But he was still standing, for the moment at least.
They had met the Iron Warriors in the streets and alleys of the Petitioner’s District, blade to blade and muzzle to muzzle. The Imperial Fists had burned out the lead tanks as the Traitors pushed their way through the fortified perimeter, choking their armoured column in steel and flames.
Shield-Captain Hyperion had led the Custodians down the right flank. Letholdus had not seen them clearly, just the occasional flash of baroque gold amongst settling rad-dust. But he had heard the Olympian oaths and screams over the unsecured vox though. The four Custodians had clashed with a full tactical muster of the Iron Warriors. By the sounds of it, the Iron Warriors had the worst of that encounter.
Letholdus had met the Traitors eye-to-eye in the shadow of the Triumphal Arch of Unity. Letholdus spat out a mouthful of blood, the irony of the location leaving a bitter copper taste in his mouth. His Breacher squad had locked shields and advanced into the narrow alleyways, hosing down the enemy Astartes with burning promethium from their flame throwers. A few succumbed, but flamers were for clearing nests of crawling Xenos and mobs warp-mad humans, not Space Marines. Here and there Iron Warriors fell to the flames, the weak joints and seals of their suits succumbing to the heat, but there was no stopping the tide of Traitors. The Palace walls were in sight. They had the scent of blood in their nostrils and insanity in their eyes.
The lines of transhuman warriors clashed in the narrow alley. The sound was deafening. Overwhelming. Maddening. Letholdus felt the thunder of it in his chest even through his plate. Mono-edge combat blades hacked gouges in ceramite shields and bolters barked desperately into the face of the enemy. There was no room for blade-craft, no room for fancy footwork. Just blood, sweat, gunsmoke and raw, straining muscle. The Iron Warriors were expert stormers, but this sort of close action with shield and blade was meat and drink to the Imperial Fists. The line ground back and forth like a slipped gear, neither side gaining traction.
Then Letholdus spotted his opposite number in the press of bodies. An Iron Warriors Siege Breaker. A Centurion and a ruiner of worlds. The Traitor officer wore his helm, but Letholdus could still read the contemptuous sneer on his face from the way he held his head. The two officers surged through the melee towards each other, their subordinates knowing better than to come between them. The Iron Warrior carried a huge powered mace and was attended by a cyber-vulture familiar that squawked and snapped at the Imperial Fists around it.
As they came within a few paces of each other, rank and name idents of his opponent began to automatically scroll across the feed from Letholdus’ bionic eye. He blink-clicked them away in rapid succession. Tick-tick-tick. Irrelevant. All irrelevant. A Traitor was a Traitor.
The Siege Breaker struck first. He snarled a challenge and swung his mace in a huge arc. Letholdus had been expecting it, but there was no-where to go in the alley. Even if there had been, he knew that his pride would not allow him to take another backwards step now he was face-to-face with the enemy. A powered mace could pulp flesh in an instant. But Letholdus was not flesh. He was metal and stone and war.
The mace crashed into his reinforced shoulder guard with the noise like over-eager thunder. One of the sub-layers cracked, but Letholdus’ armour was wrought by the finest artificers that his Legion had to offer. He rode the blow, shrugged it off, and stepped through the arcing lightning wake of the mace and inside his opponent’s guard. His cyber-vulture screeched in alarm and the Siege Breaker tried to ride the momentum of his own back-swing to carry himself clear, but it was too late.
“TRAITOR!” roared Letholdus, blood and spittle flying into the melee along with his words. His energised Solarite gauntlet crackled with lightning as he pumped it into his opponent’s chest. The Iron Warrior was knocked directly backwards by the blow, his brothers around him losing their footing and stumbling. Letholdus lunged forward to finish the job, but the press of warriors closed in around the fallen enemy officer.
“TRAITOR!” howled Letholdus again, furiously pulping the helm of an Iron Warrior trooper with his mighty fist. He reigned in his rage; to be denied his chance to finish the enemy warlord was a frustration, but he had a company to command. Besides, it would be a miracle if he survived the injury that Letholdus had inflicted. The resolve of the Iron Warriors was wavering. Now he just had to-
Tick-tick-tick. The sounds of three heavy canisters sailing overhead to strike the stone walls of the buildings one after the other in a perfect rhythm. Tick. Tick. Tick.
With a sucking PHUT the Iron Warriors’ Phospex canisters exploded in the twisting streets, the white alchemical fire licking around boarding shield and melting proud yellow armour. Screams were burnt from throats and hideous shadows were etched on the walls as the eerie living fire crept and fed and consumed.
Letholdus staggered back with the surviving Breachers, preparing to receive the inevitable charge of the Iron Warriors. To deploy hated Phospex in such close quarters boarded on a desperate madness that was so typical of this fratricidal war. But the expected charge did not come. As the crawling white fire finally guttered and died, a colossal Leviathan Dreadnought smashed its way into the alley to cover the retreat of its brethren. An incoherent snarl crackled from its vox amp, accompanied by the sounds of cycling autoloaders.
“Shields!” called Letholdus. The Breachers reacted in less than a heart-beat, just as the Leviathan began raking the surviving Imperial Fists with a ear-splitting fusillade of high calibre shells from its storm cannons. The rain of fire was beyond punishing, like the bezerk punches of an angry god. The Breachers tried to form a shield wall, to fall back in an orderly fashion, but ceramite buckled and boarding shields gave way one-by-one. A shell struck Letholdus in the greave, knocking him down onto one knee, then another took him in the shoulder, then the chest. As the Breachers died around him he was weighed down by the press of armoured bodies and pulled into momentary unconsciousness.
He came to less than a minute later, dragged clear of the massacre in the alley by the few survivors. The Imperial Fists had triumphed. The Iron Warriors had failed to take enough ground within their allotted mission parameters, so they had fallen back to regroup and replan. Tick-tick-tick. The timer was counting down again, sloughing away the seconds until their next advance. And Letholdus had too few men to hold the Petitioner’s District against a second wave. So here he was, in the Land Raider, listening to the tick-tick-tick of his life blood dripping onto the metal deck, and grimly watching the walls of the Imperial Palace loom large on the view screens as the fell back towards the Imperial Fist’s next defensive line…