The grav-tank shattered as though made of crystal and sank to the ground, graceful even in ruinous death.
“Tempest down, I repeat, Tempest is down,” the stormtrooper reported, already dropping his magnoculars and unslinging his long-las.
The Land Raiders rumbled from the cover of ruins and surrounding woodland, ten black-painted tanks heading toward the Alaitoc lines, nine Land Raiders bearing the heraldry of a distinct Chapter of Astartes along with the scars of battle-damage, a single tank bearing the stylised I of the Imperial Inquisition. This tank was the oldest of them all. Its twin-barrelled lascannon sponsons still glowed with the heat of discharge from its kill shot.
Human soldiers advanced between them; two hundred mechanised Guard infantry marching beside their Chimeras, the fighter-transports dwarfed by the Astartes battle tanks.
Inquisitor Drayke leaned forward to peer into the servitor’s driving compartment of his personal Land Raider, Bulwark of Scorn. His power armour hissed and whirred as it adapted to the Bulwark’s rolling motion. The holo-viewers in the driving compartment revealed a shimmering, bucking image of the Imperial city ahead: the tithe buildings were occupied by Eldar snipers, grav-tanks and weapons platforms rose from behind the buildings in so-called pop-up attacks, each of which killed Imperial vehicles and drove human troopers into cover.
“Gonna kick xenos ass,” trooper Dornis muttered from his seat in the troop compartment. The Bulwark‘s engine roared as if in agreement. Drayke grinned to himself. He was leading a contingent of battle-hardened Imperial Guard, every man and woman among them full of hatred for the fickle Eldar, sick of the xenos’ relentless attacks across this system.
The Alaitoc. The betrayers, allies of convenience, murderers of human beings and defilers of the Emperor’s domain when it suited them. What did those fragile, mincing bastards even want? To think, only two years ago Drayke had even fought alongside the treacherous scum – reluctantly, and purely at the request of the misguided Chapter Master Blenthis of the Firedogs Chapter – to repulse those strange metallic beings who had almost wiped out the colony of Nova III.
Now the Alaitoc were here on this civilised world, disrupting the collection of tithes and killing civilians.
More than this, Drayke was leading the Deathwatch, one hundred Space Marines from across the Imperium
“Save some for the rest of us, Dornis,” the Inquisitor said. His voice was startlingly deep. It was a voice that carried, that made people listen.
“It’s a good day to die,” a deeper voice rumbled.
Dornis turned. Brother Svenjar was a towering presence, his black Terminator plate decorated with feral-looking runes. One of the Space Wolf’s immense shoulder pauldrons displayed his Chapter heritage – a black wolf against a yellow background – while the other displayed his Terminator honours, in this case fashioned into the ornate emblem of the Deathwatch.
“Predicting a negative future again, my friend?” Drayke said with a smirk.
“I’ll be right one of these days.” The Wolf Priest chuckled. Drayke had never met another Astartes with a self-deprecating sense of humour. It shouldn’t have instilled confidence but Svenjar radiated assurance. All Space Wolves seemed to. The Inquisitor would never admit this, even to himself, but the Wolves were his preferred battle companions. Even the men, who were somewhat intimidated by the Wolves’ brutal charisma, exchanged pleased looks when they knew they’d be fighting alongside warriors of that Chapter. The Wolves seemed to remember what it meant to be human. Few other Astartes did.
“Any activity from their witches?”
“The Eldar have a powerful coven of psykers directing their formations from somewhere behind the city. There are other psykers spread thinly among their lines, directing ghost warriors and Titans.”
“Have they attempted contact?”
“No,” Svenjar said, stroking his beard. His massive bulk seemed immune to the Bulwark’s rolling motion. “They know I’m here, they just haven’t bothered to show me love.”
“Remind me to send them a stern missive,” said Drayke. “Ignoring Brother Svenjar, eh? One more thing to add to their list of crimes.”
The Land Raider column rumbled into the open space between the Imperial position and the Eldar-occupied city. Grey rockrete buildings towered. The Eldar invasion had done minimal damage to the planet’s infrastructure; most of the shell holes and battle damage in the unattractive hab-buildings had been inflicted by the Imperial Guard.
Guard troopers boarded their Chimeras while the transports were still moving at walking pace. They’d been drilled to perfection. Not a single soldier tripped, broke an ankle or found themselves left behind. The Chimeras fanned out, dropping slightly back from the more survivable Land Raiders. Bulwark remained in the lead, the irascible tank practically daring the Eldar to waste more shots against it.
A detachment of Deathwatch Rhinos emerged from the forests far to Drayke’s west, appearing as if from nowhere and gunning at full speed towards a distant building. Eldar las-fire flashed, either narrowly missing the speeding vehicles or impacting worthlessly against reinforced armour. Five Land Speeders raced past the Rhinos, circling and strafing one of the Eldar-held buildings.
Drayke and Svenjar watched in silence as the Bulwark’s holo-displays showed the tactical overlays. The Alaitoc had deployed atypically, hiding themselves within and between the buildings ahead of the human advance and waiting for the Imperials to come to them. Swarms of jetbike riders swept forth to attack specific Imperial detachments before suddenly changing direction and fleeing; they were like shoals of predatory fish, charging, swarming, then exploding into retreat.
The Bulwark lurched and gears whined in protest as incoming fire began to pelt the Land Raider company.
“Come on, old friend,” Drayke said, rapping a sidewall as encouragement, “we’ll avenge your wounds a hundredfold. Just please get us there.”
“Emergency!” one of the servitors shouted, something close to emotion in its voice. “Enemy Titan unscrambling ahead. Phantom-class. Primary armaments: thermal cannon, power fist. Secondary armaments unknown. Detecting buildup in thermal cannon.”
“Where the hell did that come from?” trooper Yann yelled.
“Open fire!” Drayke ordered the servitor crew.
The Titan was majestic, a living sculpture of bone and gemstones, the embodiment of the Eldar form escalated to colossal scale. It seemed to coalesce into existence before them, where previously there had been little more than motes of light dancing in the morning air.
It opened fire moments before the Land Raiders. The beam of focused heat punched straight through the frontal armour of a Raider wearing heraldry of the Crimson Fists. The tank exploded from the inside out. A devastating loss, for a Chapter accustomed to devastating losses.
“Unable to hit target,” one of the Bulwark’s gunnery servitors said. It showed no feelings at all. It might have been reporting from a training ground, rather than under live fire from a hostile Titan.
The Phantom danced around the lattice of laser beams sent against it. The Chimeras joined in: multilasers, autocannon, heavy bolters, even a heavy flamer from one over-enthusiastic gunner. Hunter-killer missiles flared against the Titan but were unable to lock on, their simplistic machine spirits foxed by some daemonry. Those few shots which found a mark against the Titan’s legs did no damage.
“Incoming firepower,” intoned the driver.
The Phantom Titan’s most distinctive feature were its arching wing-flues. These flues contained secondary weapon systems. Missiles, little golden stars, streaked down to burst among the approaching Imperial armour. Two Chimeras swerved, melting and in flames, and two of the Land Raider company were wreathed in plasma fire.
“Left lascannon sponson overheating. Increasing coolant flow. Right lascannon sponson overheating. Increasing coolant flow. Coolant flow unable to compensate. Reducing firing rate. Blessed in the Emperor and steady is our aim.”
A second shot from the Titan blew the left-side tracks from a Headhunters Land Raider. Six Stormtroopers emerged, coughing and shouting, leaving four men dead and burning inside. The wounded Land Raider continued firing with its single remaining lascannon, barrels glowing as they overheated, until a second wave of plasma missiles consuming it and its fleeing passengers.
“Primary armament offline: weapon temperature critical in both sponsons. Advancing to combat speed, collision course plotted. Brace for impact.”
“What the hell’s it think it’s doing?” trooper Folk said. “Inquisitor –”
“Hold your place, whelp,” Svenjar said, somehow sounding reassuring rather than insulting, another little trick that kept Guard-Wolf relations healthy.
“This bloody tank,” Drayke murmured, wondering what the Land Raider had planned. Had its ancient spirit finally succumbed to senility, preferring death rather than servitude-in-madness?
“Trust it, Inquisitor,” Svenjar rumbled. “We old-timers know what we’re doing, especially when it seems like we don’t.”
“We are attracting enemy fire,” a servitor said. “Brace.”
The Phantom Titan looked down at the Bulwark of Scorn, its Eldar crew – if crew there were, you never knew with these alien scum – paying scant attention to its own movements as it evaded Imperial firepower with an ease that bordered on ridiculous. It levelled its heat lance, the weapon locked rigidly on target despite the war machine’s capering dance, and discharged, the shot tearing the Bulwark’s dormant assault cannon free.
Drayke and the Wolf Priest remained on their feet but the stormtroopers were bucked in their seats, saved from further injury only by their restraints, though Sergeant Polens managed to knock himself unconscious.
Smoke filled the passenger compartments and the low lighting was replaced by red emergency lumens. A siren wailed.
“Armour penetrated: secondary weapon destroyed. Flashback to engine reactor… stabilising… beyond my ability to stabilise. Invoking blessed machine-spirit to self-repair. Oh Bulwark of Scorn, long-serving hero of the Imperium, survive that you may fight for the Emperor and Omnissiah, live so that your precious human cargo may live, endure that the Imperial Truth may endure…”
Drayke murmured prayers himself. The Bulwark was an old bastard, but it was brave and, so far as Drayke knew, the Land Raider had never allowed one of its passengers or crew to die in transit, no matter what hit them. It was thrice-blessed by the Saint of Agamemnon, it survived the barrage of no less than two Mega-Gargants when almost an entire Imperial army had been lain waste in the Valley of Carnage and rumours persisted that it had fought in defence of Terra during the forgotten horrors of the Great Heresy.
Its insane charge distracted the hostile Titan just enough for the Imperial Fists Land Raider, Meet Dorn’s Gaze, to land a penetrating shot that blew the Titan’s left knee joint out. Caught in a manoeuvre impossible for an Imperial Titan to emulate, the Phantom fell sideways, landing on its power fist. Wraithbone shards flew as the Titan’s weight forced it into the dirt.
Lascannon fire carved chunks from the fallen Titan’s body even as a shockwave rippled out from its point of impact. This time Inquisitor Drayke was thrown backwards by the unbelievable force and even the Wolf Priest shot an arm out to brace himself.
The Phantom Titan managed one final shot, evaporating Meet Dorn’s Gaze and bringing eight thousand years of heroism to an end. The Titan’s head loomed large before the Bulwark of Scorn; the Land Raider crunched, then jolted sharply, as its tracks bit into the Titan’s featureless face.
“Grind the bastard into the dirt,” Drayke ordered as he tried to clamber to his feet.
Today was a good day to die, but only for the Eldar.