“Are you the Emperor?”
To say the voice startled the Space Marine would be an exaggeration, but Sabbaoth Romanus certainly has not anticipated it. He turns at the small sound, the autosenses of his armour scanning for threats even as his enhanced mind processes the inquiry. He determines the voice to be that of a child, faint but full of awe and wonder. He pinpoints the human instantly; a tiny thing he could have taken up in one fist like a doll, and broken just as easily.
The child, a boy, might appear so small because he is very young. The Angel Sanguine has a knack, unusual among his kind, for reading the hints of age on unenhanced human bodies. He calculates the boy to be no older than six, perhaps as young as four Terran years; scrawny, slightly malnourished, grubby, with tousled brown hair and grey eyes. He wears a ragged, overlarge, homespun tunic, and ripped trousers over scuffed, cracked boots which fit well, but have obviously been handed down many times before they came to him. He isn’t crying now, but the grime on his face is streaked with silvery tear lines.
The boy is trembling slightly, though he doesn’t seem aware of it. All his attention is fixated on Romanus. He stares open-mouthed, eyes wide, his bony arms hanging limp by his sides, unabashedly enthralled. There is no threat here.
“What is your name, boy?” Romanus asks. His voice is cultured and sonorous, even distorted slightly by the helmet augmitter.
The child sighs aloud, and seems to struggle to find his voice again. “Luka,” he whispers. And then, louder, “M-my name is Luka, Great Lord.”
The Space Marine might well deserve the honorific. He towers over the mortal child, a giant clad in magnificent red and black wargear. His breastplate is emblazoned with the sigil of a winged skull. Prayer scrolls and oath papers trail from bold purity seals stamped to his armour. In his right hand he weilds a heavy bolt pistol, ancient but immaculately kept. Its mate rides in a maglock holster on his left hip, and a wicked combat blade is sheathed at his belt. Martial prowess fairly radiates from him, and he appears the very avatar of war.
Romanus holsters his bolt pistol with praticed grace. The servos and synthetic muscles of his power armour mutter and sigh as he moves, sinking smoothly to one knee, to be more on a level with the child. “I am no great lord, child Luka,” he says at last. “And I am not the holy God-Emperor, beloved by all. I am but a humble battle-brother of the Angels Sanguine.”
“Angels?” the boy says.
“Aye. Of the second founding of the Blood Angels. We are instruments of the Emperor’s will.”
“Vigilaret super nos,” the boy sings. “Mitte nos angelos tuos.”
Romanus understands the words, of course; but more than that, he recognizes the passage from an old, old memory. Less than a memory. It is an emotional impression, more like a dream. His enhanced mind grants him near-perfect eidetic recall, yet he cannot place this fragment, so it must be an artifact from before his transformation to Astartes. “‘Watch over us,’” he translates, “‘Send us your angels.’” And he feels the full weight of that entreaty settle over him.
“Are you here to save us?” Luka says in a very small voice.
The daemons attack in that moment.
Whether he hears or merely senses the enemy’s approach Romanus can’t say, but abruptly he knows something is coming for them. He explodes to his feet, turning into the attack, whipping his combat blade from its sheath with his left hand, while filling his right fist with the bolt pistol once more. He shoulders aside the first creature as it pounces, gifting it a passing slash with the blade and clubbing it down with the pistol, before swinging the weapon up towards the other two. A single step forward brings his weight down on the monster’s twisted skull, crushing it.
With cool precision he tracks his targets and squeezes the trigger, once, twice, again. The first bolt round takes a beast in its open jaws and blows out its skull, neck, and shoulder as it detonates. The second clips a limb from a fiend mid-stride. The third punches through into its distended ribcage before blossoming in a welter of shredded flesh and contaminated blood.
The last hell beast careens into him from his right, battering the pistol from his grip, and forcing him to stumble sideways to keep his balance. The monstrosity is all sinewy limbs, claws and dripping jaws. The wrongness of it is like a physical force. It bellows at him, it’s stinking breath washing over his helmet, and seizes his armored forearm in its primary mouth.
His knife-hand immobilized, and his bolt pistol gone, Romanus punches the thing, ceramite thumping into meat with a sickening thud and the wet crunch of bone breaking. The atrocity grinds its teeth on his armor, grappling the Space Marine with multiple thick, wrong-jointed limbs. The weight of it is staggering. He can’t bring the knife to bear or switch it to his free hand. He punches again, putting his incredible strength into the blow. More bones break.
The hateful thing embraces him, wrapping itself around him, grasping at the plates of his power armour with clever fingers. The heavy serpentine tail winds itself about his leg. Like some obscene parody of a lover, it searches his helmet visor and breather grille with purple tongues which issue from its secondary mouths. It’s corosive saliva patters and sizzles on Romanus’ armour.
The warrior seizes his enemy by whatever handhold he can find. Grasping one of the serrated spikes protruding from the back, he breaks it off with a savage twist. The thing repsonds by convulsing against him, giving a whining pleasure-pain sound. Romanus’ entire being is repulsed by its touch. He reverses the spike in his grip and uses it to stab the beast. Purple-black fluid bubbles from the punctures, reeking of corruption. The monstrosity thrashes and gnaws at the Space Marine with all the talons and toothsome mouths it can bring to bear. Romanus hacks and digs with the shard of its own armour.
His left vambrace finally cracks under the assault. He feels dagger-long fangs sink into the meat of his arm and where they pierce his flesh burns, seared by hellish toxins. He stabs with his improvised weapon one last time, digging it deep into his foe’s body. Then he lets it go and reachs up to take hold of one of its grotesque, recurved black horns. Voicing a feral growl, he wrenches the head back. The jagged fangs tear across his arm with the motion and his potent blood splashes forth. He snarls at the pain, but rips his arm free. Now his knife is unhindered and he freely employs it against his enemy, opening the daemon from its throat to the junction of the third pair of limbs.
The daemon spasms, distorted limbs and mouths clashing against Romanus’ armour. He throws it down and finishes it with a few brutally efficient blows. Poised over his kill, he controls his breathing, steadies his heartsbeat. The bite wound in his arm is already clotting, his enhanced physiology glanding new enzymes to counteract the venom. He makes a fast visual check and his armour’s autosenses confirm that all four daemons are indeed neutralized. No further threats present. He turns to retrieve his bolt pistol.
It no longer lies where it fell.
His innate battle sense piqued, he scans his surroundings again with renewed scrutiny.
The boy Luka is crouched in a hollow among the shattered brickwork, having taken cover when the daemons attacked. The child has recovered his weapon. It is a massive thing for his tiny frame to support, but he cradles it in his arms like a pet. Now he looks out fearfully from his shelter and, seeing the Space Marine watching him, ventures forward. He offers the weapon back to the huge warrior, presenting it across his forearms. He can lift it no higher than his chest.
Romanus leans down and reclaims the weapon solemnly. “My thanks, Luka.” With smooth economy of motion he takes stock of the ammo load, and returns the weapon to its holster.
Luka shuffles back a step and stares up at the Astartes.
Sergeant Hebron’s voice cuts in on Romanus’ helmet vox; “Squad Hebron, Report.”
Romanus takes a moment to clean his blade and sheathe it while two others of the squad identify and report their relative positions and findings. Then it is his turn, “Brother Romanus; main viaduct, west side, residential stack nine-five, northeast corner, ground level. Four hostiles neutralized.” He pauses before adding “I have found a survivor.” The hesitation measures in microseconds.
Hebron, ever the professional, listens to the rest of the squad to finish their reports, before asking, “Romanus, status of your survivor?”
“Civilian, child, uninjured.
“Squad regroup, my position, ten minutes.” When Hebron speaks again Romanus knows the sergeant is contacting him on a private channel. “We do not have allowances in place for refugees, Romanus.”
“He is an Imperial citizen, Brother Sergeant,” Romanus says. “I cannot abandon him on a hostile field. I cannot leave him undefended.”
There is only a momentary delay before Hebron replies, “Escort the survivor to the nearest Imperial Guard medicae station. Then, regroup with the squad.”
“As you command.”
“Keep me apprised, Brother.”
“Of course, Sergeant.” Romanus ends the transmission and turns to his young charge.
The boy has waited through this exchange, watching the Space Marine with rapt attention. “Luka,” Romanus begins, “we cannot remain here or more daemons may find us. I am going to take you to a safe place, but you must stay close to me and do exactly as I tell you. Do you understand?”
Romanus takes a split-moment to check his bearings against the positioning systems of his armour and plot the best route to the medicae station. Then he swings into motion, “Follow.”
He advances with confidence, but not without caution, leaving the cover of the ruined hab stack for the street. He is nearly to the broad intersection at the end of the next block before he realizes the boy is no longer beside him. He pauses, instinctively stepping into the cover of a doorway, and looks back the way he came. He sees Luka immediately, running to catch up. A smallish hunter-killer daemon slithers from a heap of rubble and makes after the boy. Romanus raises and fires his bolt pistol in a smooth, sure action, killing the thing first shot. To his credit, Luka does not flinch at the report, nor the secondary detonation as the round explodes inside the daemon’s body, rendering it into a rancid stain on the pavement. He keeps running, eyes fixed on Romanus.
No other threats present, and the Space Marine waits until the child draws level and stumbles to a halt in the doorway beside him. Luka is panting for breath, his face pinched and red with exertion. The Astartes realizes he will have to slow his pace considerably to accomodate the boy. And while this attack has been thwarted simply, if he needs to cover the boy through any more serious engagements the matter might not be settled so easily. He will never make the rendezvous on time at this rate. They must find another way.
He gives the youth a moment to catch his breath as he ponders solutions. He meant what he told Sergeant Hebron, he will not abandon Luka. The Adeptus Astartes exist to serve the Imperium of Man and protect its citizens. He will not betray that sacred trust.
“Luka, can you go on?” he asks, holstering the pistol.
The boy nods, but his expression is strained, and he has not yet regained his breath enough to speak.
“I shall have to carry you.” Without hesitation he catches a handful of the boy’s loose homespun in his right gauntlet and lifts him up into the crook of his left arm. The boy looks about to panic, surprised and amazed. “Do not be afraid,” Romanus tells him. “We will travel much faster, and I can better protect you this way.”
Their progress is vastly improved. Luka clings to the Space Marine’s arm and Romanus navigates the streets at a dog-trot staying pace, eating up the distance without wearing himself out, while still giving himself time to asses the ground ahead for any threat. A few minutes later they are nearly to the Medicae station – represented by a pale blue icon that flashes slowly on Romanus’ visor overlay. He rounds a corner, leading with the bolt pistol and sees the way blocked by a tangle of rubble. A building has come down across the intersection and the shattered stonework and twisted reinforcing steel skeleton form an unstable sloping wall almost five meters high. Without a jump pack, Romanus does not like the odds of clearing the barrier. If he tries to climb it, his considerable weight is likely to cause the debris to shift and collapse.
He checks his location against the city plan and plots an alternate route without stopping. Then he keys the vox. “Brother Sergeant Hebron, this is Romanus.”
A pause and then Hebron’s voice, “Romanus, report.”
“Advise, I will be late to rendezvous. There is a building collapsed at my location, intersection seven three nine is blocked.”
“Noted. Link up with Brother Lykeus, if you are able. There are still hostiles active in your area.”
“Yes, Brother Sergeant.” He verifies Lykeus’ relative position, and switches to the general squad frequency; “Lykeus.”
“Romanus,” the reply comes back in clipped tones. “Ware the daemons.”
Romanus takes the warning to heart and increases his pace, powering toward the intersect point of his route with Lykeus’ projected line of advance. “Are they many, brother?”
“Unknown number.” The sound of a bolter firing filters through over the vox. Romanus hears it live as well, his enhanced hearing picking out the direction, compensating for the distortion of echoes off the surrounding buildings. He adjusts his route accordingly.
“Hold where you are, I will link up and support you momentarily.”
“Luka,” Romanus speaks now to his human cargo. “I must help my brother against the daemons. I will protect you, but you must do all that I tell you. Understand?”
“Yes, lord,” the boy says, clinging tighter.
There is a building in the way. Romanus assesses the damaged brickwork and underlying support structure of the near wall on the run. He does not break stride, but raises his right arm to shield his passenger as he rushes the wall. The construction gives way before his awesome mass and momentum, shedding dust and fragments from armour plating. He runs on, through the shadowed interior of the ground level. Most of the structure is open, or sectioned off between support pillars by decorative screens and false walls. His progress is unimpeded. Luka coughs at the dust but is unhurt.
Lykeus is in the street ahead, diagonal to Romanus’ point of entry. Romanus can hear the crash of a bolter firing strictly controlled single shots. This is typical of Lykeus’ fighting style, he is a superlative marksman.
The far outer wall comes into view across a broad open space – a dining hall, or ballroom perhaps. Romanus chooses his point of egress and surges forward into a full sprint. He hurdles through the window, taking out the few remaining panes and a scatter of muntins and lands in the street amid a running skirmish.
Lykeus is walking backwards up the center of the roadway snapping away with his bolter at a roiling mass of warp spawn. The creatures surge around him, massing together in a tight pack before breaking away in all directions, and congregating again at another point. They are a demented assembly of mucus-wet skinless anatomy, elongated skulls, glossy horns and black talons, and bone-crushing jaws packed with teeth. They look very similar to the four Romanus killed in the hab stack. For now they seem content to come at Lykeus in ones and pairs, allowing him to pick them off before they close to lethal proximity. But the sudden arrival of a second Astartes throws them into a frenzy.
The lot of them come together and lunge toward the Space Marines in a wave. Romanus continues his charge until he is shoulder to shoulder with his battle brother and lends his bolt pistol to the exchange. With his left hand he lowers Luka to the ground. “Stay behind us, or between us,” he commands. As soon as his hand is free he draws the second bolt pistol and opens fire with the pair.
“Playing nursemaid?” Lykeus queries.
“Merely fulfilling my duty as a protector of the Imperium,” Romanus says, never taking his attention from the battle at hand.
His companion snorts, but makes no further comment. The daemons continue to circle, but do not press the attack, soaking up bolter rounds en masse while sacrificing only a few of their number. “What are they waiting for?” Romanus wonders aloud.
“Delaying us,” Lykeus speculates. “Likely they have support moving up. I’ve already alerted the sergeant.”
“Piss on their name,” Lykeus says with feeling. “Bounding withdrawal.”
“Your lead,” Romanus says.
Lykeus fires several well-placed shots with the bolter and then turns and charges up the street to new cover in a shattered doorway while Romanus keeps the daemons engaged. This street is much narrower than the main viaduct Romanus had been traveling. It is perhaps eight meters across, with high buildings either side. Most of the windows are shattered, and there is some superficial destruction, but the majority of structures remain standing. When he hears the bolter resume firing, Romanus takes his opportunity. He holsters the pistol in his left hand as he turns and sweeps up Luka in his massive grip as he begins to run. The daemons charge, spreading out to cover the breadth of the street. Lykeus meets them with his signature precision shooting. Several die as bolt rounds punch into their warped flesh and explode. Romanus feels their hateful presence at his heels pull back a space. He uses the temporary reprieve to lunge into cover behind an abandoned cargo trolley. He sets Luka down gently, but swiftly, draws the second pistol and lays down suppressive fire on the oncoming daemons once more.
The boy watches the firefight with undisguised awe written across his features. Eyes wide, he seems to be trying to watch everything at once, struggling to process the turmoil. Romanus’ own genhanced senses filter stimuli and react so quickly, it is easy for the Astartes to forget how mortal humans might be overwhelmed by such circumstances.
Lykeus is displacing, dropping back, while Romanus covers him.
A horrendous roar blasts down the street toward them. A massive armoured vehicle batters down a wall and surges over the rubble, slewing onto the level roadway behind the daemons. “New contact,” Romanus calls, even as his autosenses identify the threat. The thing is huge, almost filling the street wall to wall. The upper armour and track guards of the tank are bristling with rusted spikes and tangled razor wire – and bones. Some of the bones still have meat on them. Some of them still have faces. Nonsense runes and obscene symbols have been splashed across it’s hull. Romanus knows many of them are written in human blood. To look upon the signs makes his gut twist in revulsion.
He notes all this in the instant it takes for him to recognize the vehicle’s basic cross-section; “Land Raider!”
The daemons set up a chilling shriek-howl and take the pace, flanking the corrupted tank as it advances, like porpoises escorting an ancient seafaring vessel. As Romanus dreaded, the hell machine wears the colours of the hated Word Bearers’ legion; a dark, unsavory crimson and bare gunmetal.
Space Marines do not feel fear, but there is a difference between courage and stupidity. Both Angels Sanguine know they have nothing that will stop a tank. To attack the thing would be to court a swift and painful death, to little purpose.
Committing a Land Raider to deal with two Space Marines is a gross missuse of it’s formidable combat prowess. They will hardly make an appetizer to it’s battle lust. However the agents of the Ruinous Powers have never been known for their reason or tendancy to follow logical strategy.
Romanus voxes his sergeant. “Advise; enemy Land Raider, advancing at speed.” As he relayes the exact position, Lykeus reacts in a straightforward, if unadvisable manner. The marksman drops into cover, turning and raising his bolter smoothly to his shoulder in the same motion. Taking only a microsecond to aim, he fires. The traitor Space Marine manning the storm bolter mounted in the vehicle’s dorsal hatch loses his head in a mist of crimson as Lykeus’ bolt round punches through the eye-slit of his visor and detonates inside his skull.
“Fool!” Romanus barks, even as the shot echoes through the street.
The headless corpse flops over and slides partway down inside the tank. Simultaneously several things happen. All the daemons in the street howl and sprint toward the two Angels Sanguine. Hebron sends a terse “Acknowledged.” Luka squeezes his eyes tightly shut, his whole face contorted with the effort, and covers his face with his hands, as if by will alone he could deny the abominations bearing down on them.
The same instant, the Land Raider guns forward, tracks clattering, it’s belching powerplant shrieking bloodlust as it increases speed. It fires both sponson-mounted lascannons, the port side weapon toward Lykeus and the starbord seemingly at random. Lykeus is already on the move. Stonework and metal scorch and sizzle under the onslaught and superheated air displaces with a thunderous crack, but the Space Marine is untouched.
A Thunderhawk barrels past overhead, flying so close to the roofline a few window panes which had survived the devestation thus far blow out now with high, crisp reports. It is headed in the same direction as the Land Raider, the same direction Romanus and Lykeus had been going; toward the nearest established Imperial Guard forward base. It is moving so low and fast even Romanus doesn't have a chance to identify the colours or livery.
Without holstering his pistol Romanus catches Luka around the waist with his left arm and cradles him close. For all his enormous size, armour, brute strength, and the urgency of the move, he is surprisingly gentle. Luka huffs out his breath in surprise and reflexively scrambles to hold on, but the Space Marine has him securely. Romanus is already kicking forward into a sprint.
A daemon leaps at him, and he tilts his shoulders to shelter his human charge. He ducks the attack, and keeps running. The daemons are only trying to pin him in place so the Chaos tank can target him properly. The Land Raider spews death through the street with both the lascannons and then additionally with it’s twin-linked heavy bolter. The pintle-mount storm bolter remains unmanned for the time being.
The Thunderhawk comes back. Dust and smoke at the street level is sucked into its wake and the air trembles to the thrust of its mighty engines. It is too vast to get down between the buildings so it makes a pass as close as is feasible, its immense wingspan almost clipping roofs to either side. Eye-searing bolts of destructive energy surge out of the lascannons slung under its wings towards the oncoming Chaos tank.
A solid hit or two would cripple and perhaps kill the Land Raider, but the tight urban terrain makes it impossible for the Thunderhawk to get a good angle on its target. Buildings to either side are holed and blackened in the barrage. Fire dances around the hateful tank, immolating trophy corpses, vaporizing razorwire, scorching away paint, but doing no practical damage.
However the Land Raider does slow down considerably. Perhaps its driver is disoriented by the blazing light show of the attack. The daemon machine rams a pile of rubble and tilts up as it crawls forward over the pitiful obstruction. Debris shifts and splinters under its awesome weight. As its center of gravity clears the pile its front end slams down with bone-jarring force.
In Romanus’ arms, Luka is whimpering. “Close your eyes,” the Space Marine says, still running. “Pray to our Emperor.”
A daemon catches at his legs, staggering him. He clips a lamp post with his armoured shoulder. He swings round, brings his right hand up and fires his pistol into the beast’s open maw. He is moving again before the bolt round explodes. Lascannon fire from the Land Raider narrowly misses him to either side, rendering the air utterly dry and hot as the sun-blasted radiation deserts of Baal. Mass-reactive rounds from the heavy bolter chew into the building to his right, obliterating facing stones in a blizzard of dust and fragments. The weapon tracks toward him, seeking like a hunter. Even through his helmet filters he can taste ozone, smell the fyceline smoke and stone dust. He can sense the Chaos tank’s feral cunning, and it’s murderous intent. He pushes himself to greater speed.
There is an intersection ahead where five roadways come together in a large rotary. A modest, well-tended park occupies the circle in the center, almost untouched by the destruction evident in the rest of the city. Brick-paved footpaths wander between neat beds of flowering ground cover and cultured waterways. Ornamental trees and hedges cast dappled sun-shadows. It is a restful place. Even through the fog of war and his blunt martial practicality Romanus can appreciate that. It is about to become fundamentally less so.
Romanus plunges into the street, up the paved apron inside the circle, and bounds over the decorative iron railing into the garden. He ignores the routes presented by the pathways and forges his own through the raw vegitation. As soon as he is sure there is a decent screen of foliage between him and the seeking Land Raider he cuts to one side, well out of his previous line of avance, and goes to ground, stopping and waiting, utterly still. “Silence,” he admonishes his passenger firmly. Still cradled gently but securely on Romanus’ arm, Luka has been praying as the Space Marine had told him; praying fervently to the God-Emperor, his eyes tightly closed. At the command he stops.
Romanus can hear the hellish baying of the daemon hounds, and the cacophonal racket of the Land Raider itself. It has stopped firing for the moment but continues to grind forward, crushing pavement and rubble and anything else under its awesome bulk. Romanus tracks it by sound alone, calculating it’s progress and proximity.
He can’t stop it. He can’t even hurt it without a missile launcher or a melta bomb to his disposal. He can’t out run it. His only chance is to evade it, to be in places where it can’t shoot at him, to survive. Tactical withdrawal is his only viable option.
He sets Luka down again. The boy opens his eyes and looks up at his Astartes protector. Romanus holsters his pistols. He holds up a finger before his helmet breather grille. Luka nods his understanding.
The daemon which has been stalking them since they entered the park springs at Romanus. In the instant before it lands, the Sanguine draws his combat knife and rams it into the monster’s chest. On any rational animal, there ought to be a breastbone, with a heart and lungs behind. Instead there is a rudimentary face, with extra eyes and lipless mouth. Fangs ring the mouth and also sprout across the skin. The mouth spasms, gulping air like a fish. Romanus slams the sinewy body onto the lawn and plunges the knife in twice more. The thing gurgles and dies. It’s form goes soft, like melting wax as the forces sustaining it bleed back into the warp. The greenery around it blackens and shrivels, smoking as the corruption kills it.
Romanus waits, listening. He has made his kill quietly, but more than ears are attuned to their presence. He can hear the Land Raider rumbling and banging around. It has reached the intersection and is looking for him. Him or Lykeus.
He studies his helmet display, noting his own location and checking for any friendly forces nearby. They are close to the Imperial Guard forward base. If he can get Luka there, satisfy that duty, he would be content to play tag with the enemy Land Raider if need be.
“Brother Lykeus,” he voxes, hoping his battle brother is still in proximity.
“Romanus,” comes the clipped reply.
“I am going to try to get Luka to safety,” Romanus says.
“You are mad,” Lykeus tells him.
Romanus ignores the rebuke. “If I can make it to the Guard strongpoint, I may be able to bring up support to eliminate the Land Raider.”
“That is a better plan.”
“I need you to draw its attention.”
Lykeus makes a rude sound. “You can stay there and dance with death, and I’ll get us support.”
Romanus is taken aback. “Brother.”
“I’ll not get myself killed for some sink-ganger’s bastard whelp.”
“He is a citizen of the Imperium.” Romanus says. “We are sworn to protect them. With our lives if need be.”
The vox is silent. The Land Raider grumbles, clatters, lets off a desultory salvo with the heavy bolter which echoes back from the surrounding buildings. Romanus waits, hoping. After a full minute he understands he is alone.
Lascannon fire rips through the trees overhead. Romanus takes a step forward and shelters Luka with his armoured form. Superheated sap explodes, showering him with wood shrapnel and a wash of sweet steam. Burned leaves and branches patter down around them.
The daemon tank mounts the curb and enters the park. It folds the landscape before it, toppling trees, crushing brick walks, churning the brooks and leafy plantings to mud and mulch. It methodically destroys Romanus’ flimsy cover. The Space Marine is already moving, keeping his armoured back to the hell machine, cradling a fragile human life in his arms.
The Land Raider lunges forward as it glimpses him. The smoking engine growls with cunning malice. It has his scent. It will not be disuaded from this hunt until he is a bloody mass of broken armour and meat beneath its massive treads. Both lascannons and the heavy bolter track for him.
At long last he hears the pintle-mount storm bolter join in as well. One of the Word Bearers has manned the turret weapon. He expects to die, cut apart by the combined storm of ordnance. He keeps running, weaving between the few remaining trees as they are systematically chewed to splinters around him. He is out of the park, sprinting through the street again. The dameon pack surges at his heels, howling their torture-lust and clattering toothsome jaws.
He sees the figures from the corner of his eye. Hateful deep red, adorned with spikes and horns, their armour seems to have fused with their bodies. He glimpses monstrous faces and ghoulish helmets which cannot be differentiated. They open fire upon him with lighter, man-portable weapons. While he was hiding in the garden, the Land Raider deployed its contingent of Chaos Space Marines.
A bolter round clips his power pack, another screams past his shoulder guard in a splash of spalled ceramite. Another glances off his helmet. It is only a matter of time – seconds – until he is hit squarely and a miniature warhead detonates in his flesh.
He has almost reached the mouth of the roadway headed east. He realizes that the tank is still shooting, just not at him.
There are other armoured figures in the street, their colours red and black, their forms clean-lined and noble. Angels Sanguine.
With them are a platoon-sized element of Imperial Guard infantry, firing lasguns and crew-served weapons into the Word Bearers’ squad. Venerable Dyomek opens fire with his twin-linked lascannon. The daemons are banished back to the warp by bolts of red lightning – there is a Librarian on the field. Romanus does not stop, does not slow. Salvation is at hand, but he is not clear yet.
The Thunderhawk screams overhead. A missile streaks up at it from the enemy formation, but misses. The Land Raider’s storm bolter tracks skyward. The Sanguine gunship punches a brace of shots into the bulk of the daemon tank. The massive thing shudders. Romanus thinks he can hear a note of pain and anguish in the tone of the straining engine.
The stricken tank labors forward, slowing to a crawl, shaking like a palsy victim. The whole district vibrates with its death throes. It perishes slowly, coughing and snorting. Crumpled plating drags from its punctured hull. Broken track sections slough away. One sponson is folded in on itself, the other is simply, completely, gone. It spits at the Angels Sanguine formation with its remaining heavy bolter. Dyomek ends it, putting the fatal lascannon shot down its throat.
Its magazine punctured, the monstrous vehicle explodes, blowing out its back end. The wreck sags on its ruined tracks, dark and silent, fuming poisonous smoke.
With the principal threat neutralized, Dyomek turns his lethal attentions to the Word Bearers infantry. Romanus surges past the Venerable Dreadnought and keeps running until he is through the forward battle line and among the Imperial Guardsmen. “Medicae!” he demands.
An earnest-looking older man with spectacles jogs over to him. He seems awed by the mere proximity of the Space Marine, but determined to do his job. “Medicae Hammet, Lord. At your service.”
Romanus deposits Luka gently on his feet. The boy looks exhausted, emotionally and physically drained, but he appears to be miraculously unhurt. “See to the boy,” Romanus says.
Hammet nervously pushes his spectacles up his nose to conceal his surprise. “Of-of course, Lord.” The medicae takes a knee to examine the young survivor.
To Luka Romanus says, “Stay with Medicae Hammet. He will keep you safe.” He turns back toward the skirmish line, drawing his pistols as he strides away.
Hammet watches the Astartes go then shakes himself and turns his attentions to the boy. “Well, young man,” he says, “you’ve had quite an adventure.”
“Yes sir,” Luka agrees.
“You’ll have to tell me all about it sometime.” A cursory examination revels no serious injury, but there is no time for the medicae to be thorough. They are still in a combat theater. “Stay close to me, lad,” Hammet admonishes his charge as they move up with the rest of the unit. “If we come through this, I’ll see you get on a transport to a rear guard camp. Much safer there.”
“We will, sir,” Luka says.
“Will what?” Hammet says, adjusting his specatcles again.
“Come through this, sir.”
The medicae chuckles wryly. “I wish I could be so certain.”
Luka looks up at him with an expression of the utmost conviction. “The Angels will protect us,” he says.
Hammet looks to their Space Marine allies, and again suffers that odd sensation part apprehension, part thrill. “Yes,” he says. “You’re right, my boy, I rather think they will.”