“Does something feel unusual about this weather?” O’Shie pulled closer to the fire and averted her eyes from the pale sun. “I appreciate this planet is cold. I appreciate it is the depths of winter. Yet this cold bites at me in a way the winters of Era’ven never did. The sun burns my eyes far more harshly than I could have expected.”
“I think it’s just cold.” Ta’el was warming a prepared meal and the sound of its foil wrapping crackling in the heat of the flames reminded O’Shie she hadn’t eaten for some time. She stood up from the pile of boxes she had been sat on and reached inside for a pack of her own. The topmost crate was almost empty and she had to reach right into the back corner of the shelves within to find anything, but sure enough there was one left. Placing it on the coals next to Ta’el’s, she scanned the horizon again, unsure what she would see. The snowfield was dotted with chunks of a vast black stone wall on which were engraved the holy symbols of the humans, and fallen beams and what had once been benches filled the middle of the rough ring of walls. The building was the size of one of the cavernous hangars where the immense bombers of the Air Caste were maintained, and the idea that such an inefficient edifice would be used only for prayers seemed illogical. The skeleton of one of its immense towers lurched upwards and cut the sun’s disc with a checkerboard of beams, strangely unholy in its ruined state.
“Ta’el?” A strange smell had begun to come from the fire. “I think you-” She was about to say he had burned the food, but the packet seemed fine. Hers was barely beginning to cook yet there was certainly something strange.
He opened the packet and immediately dropped it, recoiling in horror. The rations were definitely inedible; not spoiled through age or impurity, simply replaced wholesale with a yellowish slime, thick and opaque like what might come from an infected wound.
“Is this some kind of joke? O’Shie?”
She snatched her own ration and opened it to reveal it, too had been adulterated. Not the septic yellow sludge that Ta’el had faced but blackish-red, lumpy stuff.
“We take this to the medics.”
From the medics it was taken to the research team. Fio’yr An’ia took one look and called Sunset in.
“The first round of tests on the unknown substances have been conclusive. Ta’el has come into possession of a packet full of, to be blunt, human pus. O’Shie’s sample contained human blood. Both were the same DNA, and contained high levels of-” he opened a document on his tablet. “Two hundred and thirty-eight commonly-occurring toxins, and evidence of symptoms of-” another document. “Fifty-nine diseases, twenty-four of which have been eradicated by inoculation on eighty percent of human and Tau colonised planets. At least eight of the pathogens were unknown to Tau science. I must insist all those who came into contact with the samples undergo a full chemical warfare decontamination process. I have identified only six percent of the diseases as directly communicable from human to Tau but I cannot take any chances.”
“And why am I here?” Sunset looked concerned.
“Because, sir, someone managed to effectively sabotage our supply chain and poison the food sent to the front line. I will need access to information about the food supplies, their sources and all those involved in supplies for this operation. It was a very carefully executed sabotage and I fear-” His communicator chimed. “Indeed it is as I feared. Over three-quarters of our rations have been sabotaged and are inedible. I will implement systematic decontamination protocols immediately.”
“Proceed.” Sunset noted the facts down on his own tablet and turned to leave. “I will contact the human commanders at Budo and see if they know anything.”
“Very good, sir. Ta’el, O’Shie, please report for decontamination.”
In his command centre, Sunset waited for Vogler to appear. The human had been increasingly distant, preoccupied with crushing Necron uprisings, and this time he did not even answer. Instead, probably the only creature that could summon fear in his heart, the shadowed glowing eye of the thing that gave Vogler orders, was visible.
“General.” The thing held a military rank, that much he knew. “Our supply chain has been sabotaged.”
“Over seventy-five percent of ration-packs have been contaminated with diseased biological matter. A crude attempt to spread disease among our ranks.” He remained coy about the nature of the contamination to see how the thing would respond. “We have initiated decontamination as is standard practice following a chemical attack but-”
“This strategy is known to me. Be prepared for an attack.”
“Obviously, sir. Will we receive new supplies?”
“Yes. Increase your alert status to maximum. Inform your sentries to look for the following energy signatures.” The data the thing sent seemed impossible, high-energy readings that simply defied all known machinery’s limits. “This conversation does not leave this room, Sunset. What is your understanding of the word “demon.”?”
“A mythical beast that embodies what we call Mon’tau. A kind of manifestation of negative traits used as a cautionary tale for superstitious races.”
“I am a demon, Sunset. The superstitions of lesser races are very real. There are great powers that exist and control the lesser species and yours seems… discrete from them. Yet while the subtle powers of the demon world have no control over your kind, they can still influence the physical world directly.”
“And one of these demons has sabotaged our food?”
“You are in the sights of something. It will seek to destroy you.”
“How long have you known this?”
“The Panopticon became clouded two days ago, around the time you established a base of operations on the site of the corpse-god’s cathedral. I suspect that temple had already been profaned by some cult seeking the return of something they could not comprehend, and they have now completed the ritual.”
“Noted.” Sunset made to close the channel. “I will tell my forces to prepare for an attack.”
The master of the Cult of the Sore grinned to see the pitiful creatures that had been lined up to be sacrificed. With the typewriter-chatter of machine guns, a curious mockery of the crushing racket that had been his life as a clerk in the grindstone of the Imperium, he watched the civilians dance and crumple into the pit, falling onto the razor-wire and shards of glass his compatriots had lined it with. Blood mingled with the slushy melting snow and stained the trenches scored into the pit’s base, filling a symbol resembling three swollen boils and three rusty knives.
“From dying earth to rotten pulp, from death we rise and to death we lie, we give this blood and rotten flesh, accept this gift our foetid god.” The chant was clumsy and spat out past rotten teeth and cracked lips, lines interspersed with coughs and hawked clots of mucus.
The Cult of the Sore had emerged from desperate times in a dying town. The failure of the power supplies had caused a spiral of madness as first the environmental controls had plunged habitation units into lethal cold darkness, then the food had either frozen or spoiled.
Exhortations to prayer to the Emperor had done little to assuage the fears of hungry, dying people. When the first deaths from exposure and pneumonia had begun, and the weakened population began to succumb to malnutrition and a myriad other diseases exacerbated by their pathetic state and the permanent damp the fires of life wrung from the icicles hanging from the beams, so too had come the first hints of heresy. All it had taken was one priest, a resentful young firebrand stuck at the colony between stages of his pilgrimage, to suggest that the colony’s predicament was a trial from the Emperor, a test of perseverance and stoicism.
He had vanished that night, and the colony had mysteriously found meat for the stew that week.
The PDF Commissar who had pointed this coincidence out over dinner had vanished that night, and all of a sudden there was a surplus of supplies.
Perhaps even after two disappearences and the associated rumours there could have been hope for the colony had there not been rumours that an Inquisitor’s spy was among them. Nobody knew where the rumour had begun (save the vague knowledge perhaps the PDF might have had that Inquisitor Stahl had been in the sector) but that had been the final straw. Fearing retribution – for cannibalism, even in hard times, was a great heresy – the colony declared it would shut itself off from outsiders. Those who questioned that decision vanished.
A new faith – a new god to pray to, whose name remained always unknown so as to convince the people it was the Emperor – emerged. For where there is doubt, and the desperate man driven to heresy to survive, there is always Chaos lurking.
And now, in the ruins of the Cathedral to the Noble Saint Clyne, the Cult of the Sore did what it had been slowly tempted to do over time. It completed a ritual to bind the demon Yersinia to physical form.
Yet before the rite was properly concluded, the cult-master suddenly realised he was not alone. Figures his purblind eyes had taken for statues were in fact moving.
“The summoning is proceeding well, Apostle.”
“Use the warp rift to strengthen the tear in the veil.”
Boltgun fire sounded out and the capering, rotten cult-members followed their own sacrifices into the pit, a new chant beginning.
“Blood for the blood god! Skulls for the skull throne!”
Chaos, though, is a strange thing. Its embodiments, the Dark Gods, abhor the idea one of their number may profit ahead of the others, and to see the worshippers of the stagnant god usurped by those of the maniac one angered, for reasons perhaps unclear to everyone, a third party.
Thus it was that Sunset, taking part in one of the routine patrols, met the Bird.
A cacophony of squawking filled the S’inkiro’s sensors, and Sunset double-checked the feed. There was indeed a fleshy, pink, plucked bird – a little like a Kroot, he supposed, were a Kroot bright salmon-pink – gibbering and dancing in front of him.
“Halt!” The thing seemed to listen, which was reassuring. “I was not aware we had a Kroot contingent present. Take me to your Shaper.”
A mocking chattering of squawks. “Kroot? The blue man is stupid indeed! We are not his slave-race, he is ours.”
“Identify yourself!” Ru’luc thumbed the shot selector and picked the heavy anti-tank slugs, letting the crosshair and the red dots of markerlights settle on the creature’s body.
“I am Timewalker! You are Sunset! You will die, you will die if you do not listen to Timewalker! Yes, it is foreseen that Sunset will, ahahahaha, meet his night-time if he does not listen to Timewalker!”
“Alien he calls Timewalker! Well if it suits, Timewalker will be an alien! Know you of demons, blue man?
“Well then know that, oh look, they’re here!” The thing stabbed out a hook-clawed hand and Sunset saw the sky darkened with winged beasts. “Fight well, blue man!”
The thing disappeared, and Tzeentch laughed.
O’Shie crouched behind a low fence, feeling as if she would be sick any minute. The air was eye-wateringly foul, a general smell of death of the sort usually encountered weeks after a battle when those bodies that had not been recovered began to rejoin the earth. There was something looking over her shoulder, a kind of fizzing, evanescent outline of Kroot-like bird-creatures that were horrifying as they danced just in the corner of the eye. She tried to ignore their capering closeness and looked to the skies, where a silhouette of some giant animal floated against the sun. Markerlights played over its body, and as that data passed on to Ru’luc’s battlesuit she saw beams lance upwards from his gun sending the thing into an evasive dive.
As it closed in she saw it was an albino, over-muscled, undercooked beast that looked as if it had been ripped from the womb unready and force-fed to growth. It dived, and then suddenly it was plummeting down; micro-missiles were exploding around its fleshy form and one of its wings was torn off by Kai’la’s main gun. Unable to recover from its dive in the face of suppressive fire from Ta’el, it thudded heavily into the ground, apparently dead.
A shattered arm, bone jutting from the milky white flesh and leaving trails of blood that boiled against the snow, signalled it was not.
Then the silhouettes, the dancing ghosts around her cadre, became flesh.
“Do not be scared, short-lived young ones. I am Worldspinner! I am your guide in this interesting time!”
She was left wondering what was going on, trying to parse the impossible biology of these aliens that could step between worlds, when a whip of fire engulfed the wounded beast and burned it to ash.
“The world!” The creature called Worldspinner did a backflip and made a perverse gesture at O’Shie.
Kai’la had been so focused on bringing down the creature that now was simply chalky ash before him that he had not noticed an anti-aircraft gun activate; a hail of missiles and laser fire shattered his XV104’s shoulder-mounted turret and sent the left arm offline.
Ignoring the damage, he surveyed the battlefield. Two blobs of the gibbering pink aliens had appeared at opposite ends of the Tau battle-line, and they seemed to be assisting. Assisting, indeed, by bounding about like apes and occasionally, lazily, flicking fire at enemies. But that fire burned as hot as an ion beam and melted enemies as easily.
Another massive beast, this one oozing sludge and bloated with sickness, swooped overhead and doused the Riptide in corrosive slime that scarred the armour. It threw as it passed a blob of rotten meat that sizzled into the snow and melted a horrifying whirlpool into the rock below from which bull-headed creatures of bronze and dark red muscled flesh crawled. They immediately turned towards the pink aliens, and Kai’la was glad of it.
Ru’luc could see the thing that had called itself Timewalker capering at the head of a motley host, and felt almost reassured by its presence.
Then, with a head-splitting crash, lightning arced around his suit and one of his drones fell to the ground inactive. There had been no forecast storm, but the skies were nevertheless burning with northern lights and rent with lightning.
The anti-aircraft gun blew stabilising fins off Remora DX6a, sending it into an emergency escape course. Its companion, DX6b, avoided the incoming fire, identified an aerial threat, and shot the wings off the nascent Yersinia, punching through the cloud of flies around it and sending it falling with an utter lack of grace.
The demon burst like a water-balloon of filth, excreta and bile spraying Ta’el’s cadre. As it struggled to right its obese form, fusion and plasma fire enveloped it, burning the natural gas roiling from its split gut off with secondary detonations. A beam from Kai’la’s suit tore an arm from the creature, yet it carried on moving.
Ru’luc looked away from the horrors and arced two shots from the S’inkiro over the enemy fortifications, markerlights picking out the correct firing-line. As the crystal refractor shell burst into a deadly flower of beams, two of the traitor marines manning the gun were bisected and the others’ resolve wavered.
Timewalker and his alien friends, meanwhile, had shifted their attention to the buzzing, heavily unaerodynamic bodies of plague flies the size of Broadside armours. Ru’luc had chosen to ignore them for the moment, intent as they were on fighting his unusual ally. Two of the things exploded under the fiery whip into a mist of acid, blood and venom. A second lash erased the beasts that had crawled from the portal from existence.
Yersinia’s herald, Bile, emerged from the warp to the infernal sound of plague-horns, rusted snail-like instruments painful for mortals to hear. Raising a sludge-exuding hand of gnarled fingers, it made to vomit its payload of stomach-acid over the buffooning horde of the sorcerer-god’s minions.
Yet Tzeentch is easily amused, and what amused the Lord of Change at that moment was for the lesser demon to choke on its own vile vomit and explode like an over-filled balloon as the fluid suddenly had nowhere to escape. It also amused the god to have Kai’la’s carefully-aimed interception fire be misdirected by an illusion and the concussive impacts of ineffectual fire from the Chaos Marines and burn into the surviving plague-flies.
Ta’el emerged from the sea of gross, reeking sewage that the crashing demon had engulfed his cadre in, and saw it rounding on him, still oozing the waste that passed for blood from its myriad wounds. With its surviving arm it popped his head like a ripe boil, and continued this methodical slaughter on two more of the Fire Warriors. Yet Yersinia was slow and doubly so as it was wounded, and the cadre retreated from its clumsy advance under suppressive supporting fire.
Opening fire on the wounded demon had been an act of desperation, a hope to check its advance by the survivors of Ta’el’s cadre.
Instead, a pulse-shot punctured its yellowed, bloodshot cyclopean eye and it collapsed to the ground, its tiny brain mulch.
Buoyed by this success, Ru’luc continued to pour fire on the Marines, watching as they broke and ran. Whistling fire from the pink things burned away the surviving members of the ragged human cult while their dancing flames provided perfect firing solutions for DX6b as its own high-calibre guns chewed through Bile’s retinue of bloated Plaguebearers. The flies were by now locked in a gory melee with many of the pink things that had surrounded Timewalker, but Ru’luc found it hard to care.
Lightning struck again, melting away three more of the late Ta’el’s depleted unit. Finally, the fly finished its feeding frenzy on the pink creatures, and turned to attack Timewalker himself.
Yet something was wrong, so much was clear. DX6b had, identifying an energy reading, launched two seeker missiles into the wormhole boiling in the snow and it seemed to have had some strange effect on the enemy. They wavered, flickered a moment, and then vanished as mysteriously as they had arrived, followed shortly afterwards by the pink things.
“The demonic threat is dealt with. Exceptional work, Sunset.”
“Not a foe I have any desire to repeatedly tangle with.” He ran his eye over the reports again. “I do not understand why this thing Timewalker assisted me.”
“Do not try to comprehend powers you do not understand. You were blessed with good fortune today, Ru’luc O’Virana. The Dark Gods smiled on the Tau Empire. I am sure, in time, they will demand payment. But until then know you likely lived only because of them.”