Flames billowed from the rune-etched walls of the Talisman of Vaul and the rumbling beat of the ancient structure’s heart tearing itself apart filled the air. Violent tremors rocked the chamber and obsidian shards detached from the ceiling, crashing down around the figure kneeling at its center. Clad in battered black armour with a flowing bone-coloured cloak, he placed a hand on the forehead of a body lying before him, its limbs twisted and broken. His helmeted head was bowed with sadness as the floor tilted and sparks flew from the ruptured ceiling.
“Forgive me for leading you to this”, whispered Eldrad Ulthran, Farseer of Ulthwe, raising his head to take one last look at the glassy display wall. He could see whipping darkness and smashing into the Talisman of Vaul’s hull like blows from the gods themselves. Crescent-shaped starships that had not known the touch of starlight for uncounted aeons surrounded the ancient star fort, hammering it with powerful energies and ripping it to pieces.
Even though he had foreseen their involvement here, he still shuddered to look upon the craft of the ancient enemy. Beyond even them, distant flares and streaks of light spoke of furious battle raging in the cold dark of space. But dominating the display, filling the base of the wall was the Guardian world – the one the Mon-Keigh called Cadia. Its mountains burned and its seas boiled as the column of fire from the Talisman of Vaul destroyed everything in its path.
Eldrad closed his eyes and tried once more to follow the strands of Fate that had led him here to see what lay beyond. But there was nothing, nothing at all.
The tac-logis map displayed on the holo-slate showed nothing but bad news, and Ursarkar Creed knew it would only get worse before it got any better. The forces of the Arch-enemy were pushing hard at the banks of the Viklas and the Cadus, where the Departmento Munitorum Engineer corps had thrown up a massive series of earthworks and batteries for the guns of the Siege Auxillia Corps. The Knovian Gharkas were holding well on the south-eastern front, earning their reputation as brutal close-combat specialists, but without heavy armour support, they were taking a fearful punishment from the enemy artillery.
Forty companies of Kasrkin, supported by seven full Cadian regiments and the White Consuls Chapter of Space Marines held the northern and eastern fronts. On paper, it was an impressive force, but as in so many arenas, reality was somewhat different. Millions of traitors hurled themselves at the Imperial lines, choking the dark waters of the rivers with their bodies, chants to the Dark Gods bubbling from their lips as they drowned. Brazen artillery pieces hurled tank-sized shells at the earthworks and daemon engines clanked forward on jointed limbs to spew burning ichor through the breaches blasted by fang-mouthed cannons.
Maddening drum beats and billowing flags stitched with symbols that drove men mad struck fear into the hearts of every soldier on the ramparts. Each regimental commissar was stretched to the limit in maintaining discipline, and even here, nearly a hundred kilometers from the front where you could hear the war being fought as a continuous series of thudding booms, men wore defeat like a shroud. Tensions had been high since the defeat at Kasr Gehr where nearly three thousand men of the Cadian 8th had been taken prisoner and ritually disemboweled before the walls of the Viklas line. Officers with haggard faces worried with each fresh report that came in relaying their grim tidings with the same mournful expressions as the flagellating doomsayers who filled the refugee campsites on the shores of the Caducades Sea. One such officer, a dark-skinned colonel of the Thracian Guard named Hallet, brought Creed a data slate with the latest butcher’s bill for his regiment.
“It’s bad, sir,” said Hallet, “nearly two thousand dead and perhaps twice that wounded. Combat effectiveness has been degraded below operational viability. I request that the 34th be rotated to the rear and reserves fed in.”
Creed shook his head. “No, colonel, your men will stand. We won’t have the time to organize a rotation until the enemy forces let up in their assault. And I don’t see that happening any time soon, do you?”
“Well, no, but-”
“I said no, colonel, and that is my final answer,” stated Creed flatly. “With respect, Lord Castellan, my men cannot continue in this way. They have no more to give.”
“Then you must find more, colonel,” snapped Creed. “What choice do you think we have?”
Creed turned to face the officers in the command center, raising his voice so that every man could hear him. “Let me make one thing clear, gentlemen. We are in the fight of our lives now. The Arch-enemy has come to our home once more, with greater force and fury than ever before. All that stands between him and victory is us. Us, gentlemen. It is we who must stand before the enemy and turn him back. Why? Because we’re here and there’s no one else to do it for us. So if any man here believes he cannot do his duty to the Emperor, then he should present himself before the regimental commissars and stop wasting my time.”
Creed planted his hands on his hips and glared at his officers. “Does everyone understand that?”
A chorus of affirmation washed over the burly general.
High explosive shells landed with a string of concussive impacts, shaking the ground like an earthquake. A wall of noise and dirt swatted the advancing men of the Cadian 23rd, smashing apart their battle line. Tens of thousands of men marched through the smoke and fire wracked nightmare of the battlefield, firing as they advanced in the shadow of a Titan battle group and the rolling thunder of massed tank companies.
The craggy plains of the Viklas had once possessed a savage beauty, with sweeping grasslands, glittering tributaries and a primal essence that awed even the most jaded of hearts. But that beauty had been destroyed forever, the majestic plains shelled to a crater-pocked ruin. The rivers choked with blood and bodies. Noxious yellow fog hugged the ground, the pervasive, metallic smell of war inescapable and it was impossible to distinguish individual explosions or shots amid the constant rumble of fire.
Lieutenant Escarno felt the blast wave buffet him, but held his ground, even though hot fear attempted to paralyze his limbs. His entire world had shrunk to the single act of putting one foot in front of the other, leading his men on despite the terror. The shouted exhortations of Commissar Jarrko were inaudible, but his fiery words were backed up with drawn sword and pistol and, as terrifying as the enemy was, the thought of facing the hatchet-faced commissar was even worse.
Escarno saw shadowed forms through the smoke and shouted, “Enemy ahead!” before dropping to his knee and loosing a burst of fire from his lasrifle. One of the shapes dropped and a flurry of weapons’ fire from the rest of his platoon cut down the others. Before they could enjoy the rewards of their success, an answering volley of fire slashed through the fog and felled three of his men. Escarno dropped flat, feeling the crack of rounds snapping past him. He fumbled for a fresh charge pack for his rifle as roaring shells sawed the air above him. The enemy had some form of heavy gun covering their position and he fired blindly into the smoke, desperately trying to pinpoint the gun from its muzzle flashes. The ground shook and he cursed, wishing for just one moment where he could aim and the ground didn’t heave and buck.
“We can’t see anything!” shouted one of his platoon’s snipers. “Too much damned fog!”
“Just shoot where you think they might be!” ordered Escarno.
More gunfire ripped through the smoke, tearing screams from those it hit and Escarno realized that the fire was coming from their flank. He rolled into a crater filled with brackish water and shouted, “Brostte, Edran, get that heavy bolter over here! We’re taking enfilade fire!”
The two gunners nodded and swung their tripod-mounted gun over to cover the flanks, letting rip with the thudding fire of heavy caliber shells. The fog was suddenly illuminated by streaks of light and phosphorous explosions. A tank roared past nearby, but Escarno couldn’t tell which side it belonged to as a massive detonation blasted huge chunks of earth and water high into the air. Something huge and dark hammered the earth behind him and before he could do more than gape at its vastness, another gargantuan shape dropped through the fog and Escarno saw it was a foot. A titan’s foot. The monstrous god-machine’s foot slammed into the ground, punching through the muddy earth and sending up massive spumes of dirty water before ripping up swathes of the ground as it moved on. He watched the glorious machine stride onwards, as streamers of lasfire and whipping solid rounds cut spirals through the fog. Escarno could feel the immediate situation slipping rapidly beyond his control, but there was nothing else they could do except stand and fight.
Captain Rameia felt the Wrath of Hellaine lurch to port as another torpedo impact struck the rear quarter of his Sword frigate.
“Come on, old girl, hold together,” he whispered to his ship, but knowing that there was little chance they could outrun the three Chaos vessels that harried them like hunting hounds running their prey to ground. Her sister ships, Aguan and Hell’s Fury, were already dead, drifting wrecks gutted by lance impacts and torpedoes. And unless the Emperor himself intervened to save them, it was likely that they would all soon be joining their shipmates in the icy graveyard of space.
“Are we capable of Astropathic transmission yet?” he asked his flag lieutenant, Riza Pernn.
“ I’m afraid not, captain. Astropath Yerrel reports that there is some form of artificially generated psychic feedback coming from the pursuing vessels. He cannot enter his trance while it is in effect.”
“Damn,” swore Rameia. “Tell him to keep trying. We’ve got to get this information to Imperial forces.”
A Blackstone Fortress! Who could have believed such a thing could be here now. The last survivor of one of Admiral Quarren’s long-range patrols that hunted for targets of opportunity, the Wrath of Hellaine had discovered the corrupted star fort lurking in the debris fields around what had once been the planet of St. Josmane’s Hope. But it had not been alone and now the Wrath raced back towards Cadia with a small flotilla of enemy vessels in hot pursuit.
Another impact struck the Wrath, throwing the deck officers around as the ship’s Master of Surveyors shouted, “Captain, fresh contacts!”
“What? Where the hell did thy come from and who are they?” demanded the captain.
“Just off the port bow! They just appeared from nowhere, sir. I swear they weren’t there a second ago. Attack logister is running identification survey now.”
Rameia hurried to the surveyor station, watching in horror as four shapes ghosted across the slate. From their size, he could see they must at least be battleships and with their arrival, he knew their fate was sealed. Proximity alarms flashed as a vast spread of torpedoes fired from the new contacts.
“All hands, brace for impact!” shouted Riza Pernn.
“Attack logister confirms now contacts are Eldar vessels; Shadow class cruisers.”
Rameia chewed his lip as he watched the torpedoes on the surveyor slate close with his vessel…
Then went limp with relief as they slid past the Wrath to close on their pursuers. Another volley launched from the Eldar vessels as the Chaos ships attempted to scatter, but it was already too late, and the alien torpedoes hammered into their hulls and exploded deep inside them. Within minutes it was all over, the Chaos craft reduced to little more than burning hulks. Rameia sagged against his captain’s chair, drenched in sweat and incredulous that they were still alive. He dropped to his knees and leaned down to kiss the buckled oaken floor of his command deck.
“Thank you, old friend,” he whispered.
“Captain, vox-contact from the Eldar vessels.”
“Let’s hear it,” ordered Rameia.
A wash of white noise drifted from the brass-rimmed speaker horns, followed by a lilting, alien voice saying, “Imperial vessel, this is Craftmaster Kaelisar of Ulthwe, captain of the Isha’ra. It would appear that you require our assistance.”
Ursarkar Creed licked his lips, trying not to communicate his unease to his subordinates who clustered around him with a frantic Brownian motion. A dozen of his most able sanctioned psykers fretted over the imminent arrival of this xeno-witch, uncertain of their ability to protect their commander if things went wrong. Only the disciplined Kasrkin soldiers who surrounded him were immobile, faces obscured by their lowered visors and their guns held at the ready. The wind whipped off the plains before Kasr Partox and cut through him, but he was damned if he’d allow a xeno creature within the walls of his Kasr. He wore the dress uniform of the Lord Castellsn of Cadia, his long storm cloak fixed in place with polished medals and battle honours. His pistols were loaded and the safeties off. He was taking no chances. Jarran Kell, his friend and bodyguard, stood behind him, the colour sergeant’s face grim and full of promised threat.
“I don’t like this,” growled Kell, “Dealing with xenos filth.”
“Nor I,” agreed Creed, “but we have little choice, sergeant. Troops along the Viklas are falling back even as we speak and those along the Cadus will not hold much longer. The enemy will be in sight of Kasr Partox with the dawn.”
Even as he spoke, the air before them rippled and shimmered, refracting the weak sunlight and the image behind it as though in powerful heat haze. The Kasrkin trained their guns upon the disturbance as a trio of figures slid from the shimmering light, tall, elegant warriors in form-fitting armour and high-crested helms. They carried porcelain-white guns with flared breeches and as they spread out, Creed was struck by the liquid way they moved.
“Stand to, Kasrkin!” bellowed Kell. Creed could feel the tension in the air and knew that one misstep could end this fragile alliance before it began.
Another figure appeared from the alien gateway, similarly tall, but without the warrior’s grace the others possessed. The Eldar seer wore a long, flowing robe decorated with strange, alien markings and carried an elaborate staff and rune-etched sword. Several of the sanctioned psykers fainted and others gasped in pain at the powerful psychic presence of the alien witch.
“You are Eldrad Ulthran?” asked Creed, detecting a flutter of annoyance pass through the xeno at his mangling of the name.
“I am indeed. Thank you for agreeing to this parley,” said the Eldar, his gothic speech flawless and unaccented.
“Your communiqué spoke of allying your warriors to mine, does that still hold true?”
“It does, though we fight the Despoiler for our own reasons.”
“So long as you kill Chaos scum, I don’t care about your reasons,” stated Creed bluntly.
“Quite so,” nodded Eldrad. “One of the ancient Talismans of Vaul, those structures you know as Blackstone Fortresses, approaches, and without our aid, it will destroy this world.”
“I have Admiral Quarren assembling every ship in the fleet to face it.”
“They will fail,” said Eldrad. “You do not understand the full power of the Talisman. It will consume this world in fire and only we possess the means to stop it.”
“But you need our help to do it,” sneered Jarran Kell.
“Just as you need ours to live through the next day,” pointed out Eldrad.
“I don’t think we have much choice,” said Creed, extending his hand to the Eldar.
Eldrad looked warily at Creed’s proffered hand and shook it distastefully.
“No,” he agreed. “None of us has a choice any more.”
Admiral Quarren clasped his hands behind his back, resisting the urge to pace the length of his command bridge. It would not do to communicate any lack of faith in this course of action to his bridge staff, despite his grim reservations about allying with xeno creatures of such notorious pedigree. But the Lord Castellan’s orders were specific; the Eldar were to be counted as allies until hostilities were over. After that, well, time would tell how the two forces would react to one another once the common foe was defeated. The surveyor panels displayed the approaching Chaos fleet and the massive form of the corrupted Blackstone Fortress. The four Eldar capital ships sailed alongside his battle line and he offered a prayer to the Emperor that Creed knew what he was doing.
Eldrad watched the ghostly dance of colour and form across the wraithbone viewing bay of the Isha’ra, seeing the crude Mon-Keigh vessels lumber into position alongside his own craft in preparation for the coming battle. He noted their captains kept their distance from his own ships and allowed himself a tight smile. Trust, it seemed, was anathema to these primitive beings, even in the face of so monstrous a foe.
“Craftmaster Kaelisar, do you detect any signs of Necrontyr vessels?”
“No, Lord Ulthran, I do not.”
Eldrad did not reply, wondering if the Jackal God had managed to outwit him.
For the first time in his long life, Eldrad Ulthran knew doubt.
On the bridge of the Harbinger of Doom, the Despoiler watched the enemy ships move into position before his own vessels. He know that even without the might of the ancient starfort, his ships could easily best the fleet arrayed before Cadia, and felt a surge of triumph. A misshapen creature, mostly hidden within the folds of a long black robe slithered across the bridge, genuflecting as it went, to stand behind its armoured lord.
“Massster…” it said, its voice a tortured gurgle.
The Despoiler raised the Talon of Horus and the creature whimpered in fear.
“Speak,” commanded Abaddon.
“Massster, the sorcerers say there are Eldar shipsss ahead of us…”
“Eldar…” whispered the Despoiler, experiencing a moment’s déjà vu as he remembered the long war that had raged in the Gothic sector. He pushed such doubts aside and pointed at the enemy fleet on the viewing domes.
“Issue the order to attack. All ships.”
Abaddon the Despoiler smiled to himself, a lipless shark’s smile. His fleet would triumph and Cadia would burn.