30/01/2009 in Warhammer 40K
The Dragon Tithe
The termagant leapt at him, hissing and snarling, its diamond-hard teeth snapping at his helmet, drawing long, thin gouges along the beak-like protrusion. Apothecary Messor batted the creature aside with his free arm, hurling it with as much force as he could at the nearest wall. It slammed into the brickwork and fell in a heap of limbs. For a second he thought he had killed it, but the alien monstrosity shook itself and leapt to its feet again rushing headlong at him.
This time Messor had his chainsword free and he caught the beast’s attack on the roaring blade. The monomolecular teeth bit into the carapace and tore through neck muscles, ripping the head from its torso in a wash of alien blood. The decapitated body tumbled to the ground at his feet.
Messor paused to draw breath, and looked around him. He was the last human standing-–all alone in a sea of alien corpses and dead marines. He saw pieces of ruined armour from his own Chapter’s marines scattered amongst those of the Silver Skulls. The two Chapters had fought this campaign together, and he would need to harvest the geneseed of each if he was to protect the future of both Chapters. His fellow Astartes lay around him in various states of disassembly, their limbs torn from their bodies or huge rents visited upon their armoured torsos.
He swept his gaze around them, the sensors in his suit easily able to read their vitals, but as he did so he realised that most, if not all were gone. Passed beyond to the Emperor’s embrace. At last he spotted one amongst them still clinging to life.
A young marine of his own Chapter, barely out of his novitiate, lay in a ruined heap at the foot of a statue of the planetary governor. His helmet was gone, lost in the fight with the Tyranids, and his skin was an ashen grey. The pallor of the dying. He bore a terrible gaping hole in his stomach, clearly the result of a disemboweling thrust from a Tyranid beast’s claw.
Blood had now ceased oozing from the wound in his stomach, and as Messor approached he noticed that the marine’s left arm was gone, just below his elbow. As he knelt beside him he saw that his armour was pockmarked with many other stabbing wounds where the Tyranid claws had pierced his armoured shell.
“Be still brother,” the Apothecary soothed as he stirred.
The wounded marine turned his gaze to him. Pain wracked his body.
“Are.. they gone? The beasts?” he asked.
Messor nodded. “Yes, every last one of them dead.”
The wounded marine seemed to sag inwardly, as if he could finally relax.
“I cannot feel my arm,” he said at last, trying weakly to raise the bloodied stump from the ground.
Messor rested a hand on the young marine’s chest. “You have suffered grievous wounds, brother; you must try to remain still. Let me administer the rites of healing.”
The young marine nodded and closed his eyes. His lips worked silently over the verses of a prayer, and Messor took a moment to study his face.
He had the dark skin of the tribesmen of Savenna, one of the oldest recruiting worlds of the Black Dragons, and he bore the tell-tale ridges on the edges of his forehead that marked him as a member of the Chapter. Messor knew that if he were to remove the marine’s armour he would find other stigmata of the Dragon across his body. It was a gift from the same geneseed that nestled within his own body.
Birthed during the Thirteenth Founding, the Dragons geneseed held a mutated gene sequence within it that afflicted many of the Chapter. The Ossmodula zygote, designed to strengthen a marine’s bones malfunctioned and caused an overstimulation during the ossification process. This resulted in bony crests on the skulls of some marines or in the most extreme cases long blade-like extensions of the bone on elbows and hands.
For many within the Chapter this was seen as a gift from the Emperor himself – the stigmata granted to his chosen to aid the Dragons in their work in His name. To others beyond the brotherhood it pushed at the very boundaries of acceptance, and on several occasions the Chapter had suffered the ignominy of an Inquisitorial investigation.
Apothecary Messor was of the former opinion. To him the ridges and protuberances set the Dragons aside from their fellow Astartes, raised them above their brothers and turned them into a vision of the superhuman warrior that was much closer to the ideal that he was sure the Emperor had intended.
Like the wounded marine before him, Messor himself possessed only minor stigmata of the Emperor’s Grace – a small cluster of ridges on his neck and forearms – but some of his brothers were truly blessed. The Chapter set aside those blessed marines, forming them into the ferocious Dragons Claws, the most fearsome warriors the Black Dragons could field in the name of the Imperium.
As Messor regarded the wounded marine he looked upon the ridges on the marine’s head, fascinated for a moment by shape of the bone beneath the tough and leathery skin. Before he could get lost in his reverie his suit’s sensors gave a warning chime. The marine was going into shock, the pain and suffering too much even for his superhuman body to cope with. He quickly began to administer coagulants and pain suppressors, but even as he battled with the wounds, the marine grew visibly weaker.
“I see Him,” muttered the marine, deliriously, writhing in pain.
“Who do you see brother?”
Messor’s eyebrows raised, and his ministrations quickened. For him to have a vision of the Holy Lord of Terra was a sign of the marine’s deteriorating condition.
“Hold on brother,” he said ignoring the young marine’s increasingly vague ramblings.
“He is calling my name…”
“Stay focused on my voice, brother. You have work yet to do for the glory of the Dragons.”
The wounded marine coughed, spewing dark, crusted blood from his mouth. His body began to convulse, and his face screwed up in pain.
Messor paused in his work, coming at last to the realisation that he had already lost the battle for this marine’s life. Now all that remained was for him to protect the future of his Chapter.
He grasped the marine’s face and stared into the wild eyes. “Do you wish me to administer the Emperor’s Peace, brother, and send you into his waiting embrace?”
The young marine nodded weakly, clarity coming into his eyes for a second, before he fell back into mists of pain.
Messor nodded, releasing the marine and bringing up his Narthecium to the place the tip of the reductor to the agonised marine’s temple.
“May He take you into His embrace and find a place for you in the Warrior’s Hall.”
The reductor bolt slammed through the marine’s temple, pulping the brain beyond and killing the marine outright. The body arched once then was still.
“Now, my brother,” said Messor sombrely, removing the marine’s chest armour, “you will continue to serve the Chapter, even in death. Your sacrifice will not be in vain. Your legacy will pass on.”
The marines’ encampment lay within the vast circular structure that formed the city’s main starport. Messor picked his way through the debris of countless Tyranid assaults and made his way to the rest of the defenders. As he approached a marine in the shimmering armour of the Silver Skulls stepped out to challenge him, bolter drawn and aimed at his head. The Skulls marine lowered it immediately, recognising him and stepped aside to let him pass. Messor acknowledged him with a nod of his head.
The Skulls had joined the Dragons not long after they had deployed to the world, and had been involved in much of the fighting with them. It was a cooperative, if somewhat awkward union. The pious Skulls were not entirely comfortable fighting alongside a Chapter about which many tales and rumours were spoken. They had maintained an air of civility in the majority of the engagements they had fought, but they had kept their distance when it was possible.
When the Tyranid invasion had taken a turn for the worst the two companies had worked in unison to withdraw to the starport, guarding the retreat of the Guard units and civilians as best they could. The losses had been considerable amongst the civilians, and only a tiny fraction of the populace had survived to begin boarding the transports. The guardsmen too were a mere handful compared to the countless numbers that had set foot on the world over a year before.
Even the marines had suffered at the claws and teeth of their implacable foe and they were reduced to roughly thirty or so individuals. The Silver Skulls had suffered greatest at the hands of the beasts and they were now no more than ten in number.
As he entered the main complex he began passing the wounded; marines who were survivors of the wave after wave of Tyranid onslaughts, all being tended to by the other surviving Apothecary from the Dragons. He acknowledged several of the survivors then passed beyond the threshold of the central control room and into the presence of his commanding officer.
Brother Captain Jocura looked up from the strategic display as the Apothecary approached. Beside him were several of the company’s more senior officers, including the forbidding presence of Chaplain Zeruul, who for once was unmasked.
Beside the Dragons were three of the Silver Skulls officers. Leading the contingent was Captain Tarentian, a powerfully built veteran marine with a mass of black hair that haloed his pockmarked and scarred face. His left eye was gone, replaced by a twinkling red bionic orb – the result of a previous encounter with the Hive Fleets.
As Messor stepped forward, all eyes turned to him.
“The assault was repulsed, brother?” asked Captain Jocura.
Messor nodded, his expression turning grim as he approached his commanding officer. “It was, Brother Captain, but at considerable loss. I alone survived the encounter.”
The Skulls commander Tarentian shook his head sadly. “So much loss. The beasts must pay for every life they extinguish.”
The Dragons Chaplain Zeruul spoke next, his dark eyes boring into Messor’s as he did. “You recovered the legacy of our brothers?”
Messor nodded. “I did. They will continue to serve, even in death.”
“And you also recovered the geneseed of our brethren?” asked Tarentian glancing at his men.
Messor nodded. “I did, Brother Captain.”
“We thank you for your diligence, Apothecary. Please hand over the seed of my brothers to Sergeant Gethin here, and he will make sure that it is passed to our own Apothecaries. The seed of my Brothers should be held by members of our own Chapter.” At that he returned to staring at the display.
For a moment Messor was silent, irritated by the Captain’s comment. He had performed the Skulls a service by removing the progenoid glands of their marines as well as those of the Dragons. Something in Tarentian’s tone angered him. It was as if the Captain was disdainful of the two geneseeds coming into contact. That he was looking down upon the Dragon’s genetic heritage.
When Messor did not reply Tarentian looked up again from the display.
“Did you misunderstand me Brother Messor?” he asked with a frown.
Messor shook his head slightly, “No, Brother Captain. I will ensure it.”
The Apothecary looked to his own commander for support, but Jocura had also returned to staring at the display.
Messor turned and withdrew a large sealed container from his pouches. He handed it to Sergeant Gethin.
“The legacy of your Chapter,” he said as he did so. Gethin simply stared at him disdainfully for a second and then turned back to the display.
Messor left the room, his anger barely held in check.
Once he was safely in his own billet he took out the other two containers. In these were the progenoid glands of his fellow marines. He stared at them for a moment, when the noise of someone approaching startled him.
“Is it done, Brother?” asked Chaplain Zeruul quietly, his expression intense. “Do you have the sample?”
Messor nodded. “It is done, Brother. But we will require more if we are to fulfill the edict.”
“The battle is far from over,” the Chaplain said turning to leave. “The opportunity will no doubt present itself again.”
The borer beetle shots spattered the wall beside him, splattering his armour with lurid green matter. Messor ignored it and stepped out of cover to fire his bolt pistol at the cluster of Termagants at the end of the room. One of them crumpled as the explosive shells punched into its skull and shattered it.
He ducked back to avoid the return fire.
Across from his position he could see one of his fellow Dragons wrestling with a hissing, writhing beast that was trying to skewer him with its huge claws. He made to get up and go to the embattled marine’s assistance, but before he could step out of cover one of the Silver Skulls marines was already there.
Messor recognised the battered armour of Brother Sergeant Gethin, as he swung his chainsword into the side of the beast, cleaving it in two and freeing the Dragon from combat. The marine acknowledged his rescuer and taking up his bolter he moved forward to engage the rest of the Tyranid creatures.
Sergeant Gethin took cover behind the same collapsed wall that sheltered Messor. He nodded to him by way of acknowledgement and then stood up and fired a burst of bolter fire into the Tyranids.
The aliens returned fire, and Gethin was punched from his feet by a length of chitin that pierced his shoulder pad, shattering the ceramite and emerging out of the rear. The Skulls marine roared in indignation and clambered to his feet, snapping the chitinous spike and dragging the front half out of his arm. He fired again over the barricade.
Another spike slammed into his chest, punching through and out of the rear of his armour with a spray of dark blood. A third became lodged in his stomach.
The marine screamed in rage.
Borer beetle shots spattered across the sergeant’s shoulder, immediately gouging ragged holes into his armour. Another glancing blow tore the helmet from his head, but he remained standing, howling in rage at the foe. Messor grasped the Sergeant and pulled him down into cover.
Gethin raged indignantly at him. “Why did you do that?” he demanded clearly in pain, but not wanting to show it.
Messor regarded him for a moment unsure how to respond. “You are grievously wounded, Brother Sergeant. And we need all the marines we can get if we are to fulfil our mission here. I thought it wiser to tend to your wounds than let you pass into the Emperor’s embrace.”
Gethin shook him off and staggered to his feet, eyes wide with pious zeal.
“I will make my own decisions about how I spend my life in the Emperor’s name!” He fired off another few shots before his head suddenly snapped back and he collapsed in a heap beside Messor.
The Apothecary pulled his body into cover and then realised he was already to late.
Nothing remained of the Sergeant’s face. A borer beetle shot had impacted across the bridge of his nose, and the hideous beast had already gnawed its way into his skull, pulping the interior.
He severed the head with his chainsword, to make sure the alien contamination remained where it was, then began to remove the armour to allow him access to the marine’s progenoid gland. Once he had completed the bloody work he placed the precious gland into the container at his side. Another sample for the Mechanicum’s tithe.
This was the key to the survival of the Dragons Chapter. By Imperial Law each marine Chapter was required to submit regular samples for genetic deviancy testing by the Adeptus Mechanicus to protect against geneseed degradation and mutation. This was a problem for Messor’s own Chapter. The Dragon’s possessed a mutated geneseed, one that had shown signs of further devolution from the original geneplan as each new intake of marines joined the Chapter. If this fact were to be discovered by the Mechanicus, the Black Dragons would face annihilation. The Imperium was not tolerant of mutation and would respond with fire and fury.
For millennia, the Apothecaries of the Dragons had performed a key secondary role within the Chapter after that of tending to their brethren’s wounds – to gather specimens for the tithes from loyalist Chapters whenever the opportunity arose. It was a dangerous task, each time threatening to expose the practice and draw the ire of their fellow Astartes and by default the Imperium as a whole. Each opportunity taken by a Dragon Apothecary put the entire Chapter at risk of being exposed and with that the threat of excommunication and destruction. However, to hand over deviant samples to the Mechanicum, would equally threaten the Chapter’s existence.
For Messor and his brethren there was simply no choice.
The Tyranids were pulling back now and Messor took the opportunity to move amongst the dead marines and gather the precious glands of his fellow Dragons. The final one he came to was a Skulls marine. He carefully removed the progenoid and for a moment regarded the fleshy mass in his hand. It was a darker colour than those of his own Chapter – a genetic quirk he was sure – but it had made his role on this battlefield easier. He could tell which glands were for the tithe just by looking at them.
It was this small piece of flesh that made a marine what he was; that placed him above the rest of humanity and that much closer to the Emperor.
He opened the container at his side, the same one he had filled with the progenoids of his brother Dragons, and dropped the precious gland in with the rest.
His task complete, Messor turned and headed back towards the command centre.
From the shadows another marine watched him leave, a cold knot of anger in his gut. Scout Sergeant Loren had seen the Dragon harvesting the progenoid glands of his fellow Skulls, and the mixing of the two Chapter’s legacies. He had been tasked with shadowing the Apothecary by Captain Tarentian, who had grown suspicious of his motives over the period of the two Chapter’s alliance against the Tyranids. This final act had proven his commander correct in his concerns.
Messor knelt at prayer within his room, his mind free from the present, the lines of the verse tumbling across his consciousness. He would normally be divested of his armour during his rituals, but with the threat from the Tyranids growing rapidly, he now simply knelt in his armour and bowed his head. He longed for the cool, simple cell he called his own on the Chapter’s battle barge, as the strange scents of this alien world intruded into his calm.
The door to the room suddenly slammed open, wrenching him from his reverie. As he looked up the armoured bulk of Captain Tarentian entered the room. The Captain’s expression was dark and he rushed forwards, grasping the Apothecary and lifting him to his feet. He pushed him back against the wall, and stared into his eyes with rage.
“Where are the legacies of my brothers, Apothecary?” he snarled.
Messor frowned, “I gave them to your sergeant, as instructed.”
“You lie!” hissed Tarentian, his expression growing dangerous. “They are gone. I want to know what you have done with them, Dragon.”
Messor shook his head. “I do not know what you are talking about, Brother Captain. I passed on the container to Gethin, at your instruction.”
Tarentian released him and edged backwards, the rage boiling through him.
“Gethin fell in the last contact with the beasts. As you well know. You were seen harvesting his legacy. And now the container you handed him is also gone.”
Messor shook his head. “You are mistaken, Brother Captain.”
Tarentian roared in anger and launched himself at the Apothecary. “Liar!”
He slammed the marine back against the wall with enough force to crack one of the bricks.
“Tarentian, you demean yourself with this display,” said another voice from behind them.
The Skulls Captain turned to look at the new arrival, but did not release Messor from his grasp.
Chaplain Zeruul stood in the doorway, his black armour and skull mask making him seem like a spirit of death in the shadows.
“This… this brother of ours, has wronged my Chapter, Zeruul,” he spat out the words. “I should tear his head from his shoulders.”
“We are all brothers under the stars, Captain,” said Zeruul. “I am sure Brother Messor would never do anything that would threaten our alliance. It would be madness to do so in the face of the threat we are facing with the Great Devourer.”
Tarentian muttered a curse, and released Messor. He turned his back on the Apothecary and headed for the door. “Keep this one away from me, Zeruul,” he muttered as he reached the exit.
As he went through the door he looked back once and stared into the Apothecary’s eyes. “I will be watching your every move, brother.”
The final word was a snarl of contempt, and then he was gone.
Another explosion rocked the control centre and the distant alien shrieks echoed along the corridors beyond.
“They are coming,” said Captain Jocura, looking up from the cogitator display. “Prepare yourselves.” The thirteen surviving marines gathered in the command centre grasped their weapons, and muttered a final prayer to the Emperor.
Messor knelt behind a console, his bolt pistol trained on the sealed blast doors that marked the main entrance to the room. Beside him Chaplain Zeruul, pressed in the power pack of his plasma pistol and thumbed the activation stud of his crozius. The relic began to emit a low hum and a brief spark crackled along its winged edges.
Messor glanced across the room, spotting Captain Tarentian and his lone surviving brother marine. These two were all that remained of the Skulls contingent.
“How long until your gunships arrive?” demanded Tarentian. His voice was strained – the relations between the two Chapters had soured since his confrontation with Messor three days before. In the time since they Skulls had retreated from contact with their brother marines unless in the heat of combat against the Tyranids.
“They estimate two hours,” replied Jocura, as if he had not noticed the tone. “If we can hold the beasts at bay for that long we will be clear of the threat and you can return to your Chapter.”
“That cannot happen soon enough,” muttered the Skulls Captain.
Jocura ignored him and drew his powersword.
“They have broken through the perimeter.” This report came from one of the Dragons still monitoring the Tyranid advance in the corridors.
The comms link crackled into life. “Brother Captain Jocura?”
The voice faded in and out with static and the noise of bolter fire intermingled with the shrieks of Tyranid beasts dying.
“…I hope you can hear me. We are unable to hold them …longer. Brother Lystian …fallen. I am all that remains. I will try to take some …them with me.”
It was Chaplain Zeruul who responded, “We hear you Krastus, your sacrifice will not be in vain.”
“I commend my life to the Emperor… I…” A roar of bolter fire and the hideous alien bellow of a Tyranid warrior were the final transmissions from Krastus.
Moments later a massive boom echoed through the command centre as something slammed against the blastdoor. A second concussive impact echoed out and the door buckled inwards a little.
“Here they come!” exclaimed one of the other marines.
The door exploded inwards, shards of metal whickering past the marines as the bio-plasma blast receded. A second later a mass of termagants bounded into the room. Messor put a bolt round through the nearest, shattering its head in a spray of ichor and chitin.
The marines fired as one, scything down the first wave, but there were hundreds more behind them. A larger, Tyranid warrior emerged from the doorway and pointed a hideous looking weapon at one of the marines. The deathspitter screeched and its corrosive payload erupted from the weapon’s barrel, splattering against the Dragon and sending him tumbling backwards to writhe in agony as the acids scorched through his armour, flesh and bones.
Zeruul stepped out of cover and fired a plasma shot directly at the massive beast.
The boiling orb of plasma fire slammed into the deathspitter, vaporising the terrifying weapon and most of the creature’s chest cavity. The massive beast tumbled backwards into the seething mass of lesser beasts.
In response the Tyranids seemed to surge forward even more. A mass of chitinous death swarmed over another of the Dragons, bearing him down as teeth and claws tore through his armour and flesh within.
Messor began to retreat towards the rear of the room with the rest of the marines, firing into the seething mass of teeth and claws as he did. Ducking under a protruding bulkhead, he glanced back in time to see a hormagaunt propel itself out of the pack directly at him.
He hurled himself aside at the last moment, but the Tyranid’s claws scraped across his shoulderpad and side, gouging through the surface, but not penetrating to the flesh beyond. He scrambled to his feet, and fired a series of shots into the beast, blowing off its deadly claws with explosive bolts.
One of his fellow Dragons pushed him back towards an exit, firing back at the surging tide of aliens as he did so. “We must retreat, Brother!” the marine yelled. “There! See if the way ahead is clear. You must protect the legacy!”
Messor nodded in agreement, taking one last glance at the mass of Tyranids now clambering over their dead to enter the room. To remain behind was hopeless. He had to get out and at least attempt to reach the dropships.
He slammed a foot into the door and rushed through to the corridor beyond. The marine made to follow him, but a massive scything talon burst through his chest and he was carried away and back beyond the doorway.
Messor ran, his power-armoured legs pumping like the pistons of a freight lifter, but he could hear the aliens gaining on him. He charged through a door, splintering it into shards as he rushed headlong away from them. Borer-beetles splattered across the walls of the corridor, spraying him with a fine mist of ichor, but he ignored it.
There suddenly ahead of him he saw the entrance to one of the hangars. He risked a glance behind him, and his hearts raced as he realised just how fast the pursuing creatures were. In that moment he realised he needed to do something drastic or be overwhelmed. Grasping several of the frag grenades hanging from his belt he fingered the detonators on them and let them fall.
He leapt for the safety of the hangar doors as they detonated. A boiling cloud of fire and debris scythed through the pursuing beasts, and with a rumble the entire ceiling of the corridor collapsed, cutting off the rest and effectively blocking him off from his fellow marines.
If any still survived, he thought darkly.
He picked himself up from the floor and looked around him. At one end of the hangar was a wrecked Imperial lander, and scattered about him opened and emptied ammunition crates. Here and there were bodies too. Guardsmen and civilians in various states of decay. He quickly took his bearings and made for the access corridor that would take him to the landing pads and the potential of rescue from the horrors of this world.
As he crossed towards the opening, he suddenly spotted a cluster of marine corpses. Three Silver Skulls devastator marines, their heavy weapons shattered or discarded at their sides, lay amongst a cluster of dead genestealers. It was probably a valiant last stand.
For a moment he intended to ignore them and continue on his way, then Zeruul’s words came into his mind.
The opportunity will no doubt present itself again.
There before him was just such an opportunity. Three more progenoid glands to add to the Tithe.
He quickly assessed the immediate area and could spot no further threats from the Tyranids. If he was quick enough he could gather the legacy of these marines and make his way to the pad with time to spare.
He quickly knelt and began to remove the armour of the first marine. Working with swift and precise strokes he excised the progenoid of the marine and stowed it reverently in his storage container.
He turned to the next marine and repeated the process.
As he approached the final one and began removing the marine’s chest plate a noise drew his gaze to his left.
A dark shape suddenly surged towards him and he scrambled for his bolt pistol, raising it to meet the charging foe. As he brought the muzzle round to fire the first round a foot kicked it from his grasp and it span away across the hanger bay floor.
“Treacherous thief!” bellowed Captain Tarentian, punching him aside and drawing his powersword. “I knew you could not be trusted, chirurgeon! Get your filthy mutant hands away from my brothers!”
He lunged at Messor with the power weapon, and the Apothecary was barely able to raise his chainsword to block the blow. Sparks cascaded away from the two blades, as well as several of the teeth of his blade.
Tarentian roared indignantly and lunged again.
The force behind the blow drove Messor to his knees, and threatened to wrench the chainsword out of his grasp.
“You are mistaken, Brother Captain..” he began, but the Skulls officer rushed forward and delivered a powerful head-butt inside his defence, sending the Apothecary sprawling and momentarily dazed.
“There is no mistake, Dragon,” Tarentian spat as he stalked forwards. “You are stealing the legacy of my Chapter for some dark purpose and I do not care what that purpose is! I mean to put an end to it right now. Now hand over what you have stolen from my brethren and I or Emperor help me I will cut your lying tongue from your mouth.”
Messor nodded slowly and made to reach for the cylindrical container at his side. Even as he did so, he suddenly launched himself forwards, feet connecting with the Captain’s legs, and sending him tumbling off balance.
Messor took the opportunity and swung after him with the chainsword, but Tarentian was no novice fresh out of the scout squads. He was a Company Captain with centuries of experience, and his powersword snaked out to meet the Apothecary’s blade.
There was a flash of light, and the actinic stench of ozone as the power weapon sheered through the chain blade, disarming Messor in one perfectly timed swing.
The Apothecary tumbled forwards, off balance and unarmed.
A booted foot kicked him over onto his back, and the powersword blade punched down through his shoulder, pinning him to the ground. Pain surged through the Apothecary and he writhed against the fire in his shoulder.
“I am weary of you and your games, Apothecary. I give you one last chance. I do not wish to kill a fellow Astartes, especially when we face the innumerable hordes of the Great Devourer, but you leave me little choice. Hand over the geneseed you have so basely harvested from my brothers. Or I will kill you where you lay.” Messor looked up into the Captain’s eyes and saw the certainty of his death within them.
“I cannot,” he said simply.
Tarentian frowned. “So be it, chirurgeon. Your traitorous actions have condemned you.”
He tore the powersword from Messor’s shoulder and raised it over his head.
A shot rang out, brutally loud in the vast open space of the hangar.
A crimson flower blossomed on the Captain’s chest. A second sprouted beside it.
For a moment the powersword hung motionless, and a frown creased the Skulls officer’s brow.
A third shot slammed through the marine’s neck, spraying blood out across one of the empty crates and the sword tumbled from nerveless fingers. Tarentian fell backwards, like a mighty oak felled by a woodsman, slamming into the ground with enough force to cause a geyser of blood to spray out of his mouth.
Messor looked up, shock warring with relief on his face.
Out of the shadows stepped Chaplain Zeruul.
He approached Tarentian, and stared down at him.
The Skulls Captain was still alive.
Zeruul raised the bolter he had scavenged when his plasma pistol had run dry and pointed it at the marine’s head.
“Traitor,” accused Tarentian, blood foaming at his mouth.
Zeruul shook his head. “Guardian.”
The word hung for a second in the still air and then the final bolter shot rang out.
The Mechanicum vessel squatted on the hangar deck of the Dracon’s Wrath wreathed in steam expelled from its rapidly cooling engines. Lined up in an honour guard were the men of the third company of the Black Dragons, their armour polished and shimmering like the scales of the beast they were named for.
They formed a corridor down which three marines now moved.
At their head was Captain Jocura, and beside him on his left was Chaplain Zeruul and on his right Apothecary Messor. Each wore ceremonial weaponry at their sides, and each bore new honours on their armour, a reminder of their recent encounter with the Tyranid hordes.
Brother Captain Jocura bore in his hands a large gilded box, bearing the rearing dragon’s head of the Chapter’s crest. As the trio reached the end of the corridor of marines, the Dragons turned as one to face the Mechanicum shuttle. The stamp of their feet echoed in the hangar bay.
Jocura halted and his companions took positions at his side.
For a moment there was silence in the bay, broken only by the hissing of the venting steam, then with a loud click the front half of the shuttle began to rise, revealing a ramp beneath.
After a few seconds the rhythmic sound of footfalls echoed from within and a trio of robed individuals emerged from the shuttle. Each bore the skull and cog symbol of the Adeptus Mechanicus on his robes, and each approached the marines with bowed heads.
A swarm of servo skulls emerged in their wake, dispersing out around the trio like a flock of obscene birds. They hummed and clicked as they moved, before finally coming to a halt in a rough semi-circle around the techpriests.
Jocura took a step forwards. He regarded the three priests of Mars and said, “Welcome to the Dracon’s Wrath.”
The lead techpriest pushed back his cowl to reveal a face barely recognisable as human. Great green orb-like lenses replaced his eyes, and a dark grille his mouth. Instead of hair, the tiniest of mechadendrites danced and writhed like snakes, before at last growing still.
“We accept your welcome in the name of the Omnissiah, the Imperium and the High Lords.”
The voice was unsurprisingly mechanically generated, and possessed little of the emotion or inflexions of a normal human voice.
Jocura nodded in acknowledgement.
“I greet you in the name of the Black Dragons, and we offer up this Tithe, readily and without compulsion.”
The gilded box was held up to the priest and a pair of larger mechadendritic arms reached out from below the robes and grasped it.
“We accept this Tithe, readily, in His Name. It will be submitted for testing and the purity of the Chapter confirmed for all to see. In the Emperor’s Name.”
Jocura bowed. “In the Emperor’s Name.”
The lead techpriest handed the box to one of his fellow priests and the two priests walked back up the ramp and into the shuttle.
The end of the ceremony acted as a signal to the servo-skulls and they swarmed back into the shuttle behind the two priests.
The lead priest however remained where he was standing.
Jocura looked up, fixing him with a steely gaze.
“Might I assist you, Magos Kelamatos?” he asked when the priest did not speak.
The mechadendritic hair on the priests scalp writhed momentarily and then he spoke.
“I understand your recent operations on Galedan Secundus did not go as planned.”
It was a statement, not a question and Jocura frowned.
“That is not a matter for you or your Priesthood, Magos.” His tone had an edge to it, but the techpriest either did not pick up on it or chose to ignore it.
“There were two companies on the planet. Your own and Captain Tarentian’s Silver Skulls.”
Jocura remained silent, beginning to feel like the conversation was more the techpriest’s musings than a conversation at all.
“I understand none of the Silver Skulls survived the Tyranid assault. The loss of an entire company is a grave matter for the Chapter.”
Messor stepped forwards, irritated by the priest. “They died bravely defending Imperial citizens and troops. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
The Magos turned his head to regard the Apothecary, his emotionless face staring blankly at him.
For second the techpriest remained silent, then at last he spoke. “Then the Imperium is very fortunate that you were able to survive this assault. To remember their sacrifice and pass on their legacy to their brethren. The loss of so much geneseed would have been a grievous loss to them.”
“The Emperor watches over His own, Magos,” said Jocura, drawing the priest’s attention back to him.
“Indeed he does, Captain,” replied the priest.
With those words and one final glance at Messor he turned and moved back up the ramp. A moment later the shuttle lifted from the deck and departed.
Another Dragon Tithe had been fulfilled.