The Rock, in high orbit above Midgardia
The bridge of the Rock was a scene of chaos, and the Changeling rejoiced. It had done its work well. Azrael was locked into a dead-end argument with Egil Iron Wolf, and his underlings were at his mercy. Or, more accuracy, the mercy of the bridge’s comms. chief, Vox Mendaxis.
The communications pits heaved with activity as vox serfs attempted to contact the crusade fleet, the channels overlaid with orders to cease fire and demands for clarification. The augur banks were still picking up the occasional lance strike as Navy Captains continued to respond to the Space Wolf barrage, in defiance of the confused messages emanating from the Rock. Amidst the disorder the Changeling sent out codes that further distorted what was happening – little blurts of static that cut up vital messages, contradictory targeting data-speech, new heading requests.
Through it all he listened to the conversation crackling back and forth between Azrael and Egil Iron Wolf. Each was demanding that the other stand down, the Dark Angel ordering the Wolves to withdraw to Fenris, while the Wolf was ordering the crusade fleet to disengage and leave the system. Neither appeared to be listening to the other. The Changeling cut and chopped the link at opportune moments, fighting furiously not to burst into laughter.
Such games amused it. They were a distraction, it was true, but for now the thing wearing Vox Seneschal Mendaxis’ flesh had nothing better to be doing. The plans were in motion, turning and changing within themselves. The actors necessary for the play to begin were on their way, but until they arrived the Changeling would have its idle fun. It sent fresh firing coordinates to a squadron of Navy Sword-class escorts, locking them onto their Wolf counterparts. A flurry of clarification requests came back. Grinning, it ignored them and broke the data-link.
The air around the figure of Mendaxis shimmered for a moment, the blemish on reality visible only to those with attuned warp-sight. The Changeling shuddered in its false skin, feeling the swirling skeins of Fate around it constricting. Of the thousandfold paths laid out by its master, more and more were slipping away, the few that remained yawning like the maws of hungry parasites as they sought latch onto the present and take their place as the future.
The air shuddered again. It was drawing nearer. On a distant world, a ritual the Changeling had first set in motion a century before was reaching its climax. The Rock was bound with powerful wards, but the Changeling had done its work well, breaking the necessary ones with the help of its master. The Fortress Monastery was still a difficult place to be, the sacred seals long ago woven by the Lion’s Librarians making the daemon’s borrowed flesh crawl, while the incense that filled the bridge’s air caught in the back of its throat. The games were a pleasing distraction from such discomforts. Soon, however, its patience would be rewarded. Soon they would be here – the Silver Fool, the Young King, the Angel Hunter – and then the real games could begin.
Svellgard’s oceans died, and its islands churned with battle. As the three Imperial strike forces forged towards the trio of warp rifts sucking away the moon’s seas, only one faltered. The Wolves were alone.
Sven’s jump pack carried him up onto one of the Soul Grinder’s segmented, arachnid-like limbs. His auto-stabilisers whirred as he cut the pack’s turbo, using its momentum to throw himself along the twisted warp-steel and up towards the daemon engine’s cockpit. The metal there was bent and deformed with growths of pulsing purple skin, sprouting at the top into a mouth-like cannon. The daemonic war machine’s fleshy upper arms snatched for him, one vast meat-fused mechanical claw carving overhead. Sven ducked the swing and then triggered Longleap again, bounding up onto the top of the machine’s pulsing turret.
His boots dug into skin as he landed, the thing’s pistons shrieking like tortured voices as it attempted to twist its bulk and throw him off. Face contorted with hatred, Sven began to hack at it with Frostfang. He started with the maw cannon, the axe’s ever-keen edge hewing through metal and the meat entwined around it. The engine emitted a machine roar, trying to reach him with its vast claws, but the Wolf made the angles impossible. He began to beat at the top of the turret itself, hacking through thick folds of muscle and chitin growths to reach the corrupt metal beneath.
The rest of his Sky Claws were assaulting the Soul Grinder simultaneously, chainswords striking sparks from its mechanical limbs. One of the young Wolves was snatched up in its claws, his scream cut brutally short as the huge blades scissored shut, bisecting him. Sven hacked harder, a howl building in the back of his throat.
Below he was dimly aware of the arrival of the Deathwolves, Harald’s ichor-soaked warriors pitching into the melee alongside his own. A second Soul Grinder took a Vindicator’s demolisher shell to its turret, blowing out in a blizzard of twisted wreckage. Below Sven Frostclaw finally bit into metal, scarring the black steel. He swung again, with all his strength, fangs gritted. The frame shattered beneath him, and an ear-splitting shriek, like steel scraping along steel, rushed from the machine’s wound. Sven smelt rotting meat and burning copper. He triggered Longleap.
The Soul Grinder stumbled and finally collapsed, its infernal bulk crushing a Sky Claw too slow to leap backwards. The air above the rent in the machine shimmered as the daemon possessing it escaped, vanishing back into the immaterium with one last piercing shriek.
Sven touched down beside the twitching wreckage, shaking and panting. The daemons had recoiled at the engine’s death, massing their strength near the foot of the dune the Firehowlers were battling across. Harald pulled Icetooth to a stop beside the staring young Wolf Lord.
‘We need to consolidate,’ the Deathwolf said. ‘Our losses have been too heavy.’
Sven said nothing, still staring into the distance, jump pack idling, streams of black gore slipping down his armour.
‘Take up position on the brow of this dune,’ Harald said. ‘Let the Wulfen and the Claws hold them back long enough to reform the packs.’
‘You yourself said we can’t hold then,’ Sven said. ‘If we stop going forward, we die. All of us.’
‘But we can buy time,’ Harald said. ‘And right now, no matter how hard you fight pup, time is our only true hope.’
Holmgang, in high orbit above Midgardia
The bridge of the Holmgang was hushed and tense. It was immediately apparent, the moment vox contact with established with the ships above Midgardia, that Ragnar’s fleet was too late. Amidst the total breakdown in communications discipline, one thing was made clear by the fleets anchored in high orbit – Midgardia was burning.
Ragnar said nothing. Madox’s vision had been true – before him, beyond the crystalflex ports, the death world was smeared with great whorls of black ash, its once purple surface now a barren grey shot through with the flickers of fires so vast they could be viewed from orbit. More flames flared nearer, in the void between the ships already clustered above the planet. The crusade fleet and the Wolves defending Midgardia had turned on each other. The realisation made the Young King sick to the pits of his stomachs. He had failed.
‘Lord Egil Iron Wolf is hailing us from his flagship, Wolftide,’ Ragnar’s Vox Huscarl said quietly. He motioned for the Chapter serf to accept the link, not taking his eyes off Midgardia.
’Lord Blackmane, well met.’ Egil’s voice came through choppy and distorted, the range still extreme for ship to ship uplink communication.
‘Lord Iron Wolf,’ Ragnar said. ‘Tell me my eyes deceive me.’
’They do not, Blackmane. The Lion has burned Midgardia.’
‘And now you burn the Lion?’
’They must be stopped.’
‘And they will be,’ Ragnar growled. ‘I swear it to you. But this may not all be their doing. There is dark maleficarum at work here, Iron Wolf. I have seen it.’
’I have no doubt, Blackmane. There are wyrdspawn everywhere.’
‘And closer than we may think. I have enlisted the help of the Grey Knights. They will put a stop to all this.’
’You would trust the daemonhunters?’ Egil asked. ’What of our Wulfen? Recall they sought us out on Absolom not so long ago in order to persecute us.’
‘Krom saved their lives above the Wolf Moon, and I fought alongside them on Mjalnar to purge the wyrdtaint that had taken root there. They have had the chance to condemn us, but they have not.’
’Not yet. Perhaps they are not strong enough to right now.’
‘They could have joined the crusader fleet against us. They know more than just the Wulfen are at stake here.’
’And how can they be of any help to us?’
‘They will lend weight to our cause when I enter the Lion’s den,’ said Ragnar. ‘Even the Angels cannot ignore the sons of Titan.’
The Rock, in high orbit above Midgardia
Azrael glared down at the holochart auspex from his command throne. For hours the runes representing the crusader fleet assets and those of the Wolves had remained largely static, overlaid with intermittent trajectory paths. Now however the Rock’s augur ports, already busy trying to track the spluttering half-engagement playing out with the Iron Wolf’s fleet, were blinked red with warning lights. New sigils were appearing within the chart’s sphere, multiplying with each static-wash update. Another Space Wolf fleet was approaching combat-effective range. The initial scans said it belong to the Great Company of Ragnar Blackmane.
Azrael knew the name. The impetuous young Wolf Lord had encountered the Unforgiven on a number of occasions in the past century. Few of those occasions had been positive in nature. Azrael had read the reports.
Nor was Ragnar’s fleet alone. Azrael saw the sigil representing Allsaint’s Herald blink into existence, and had to suppress a surge of rage. Of course de Mornay would return, with a pack of tamed hounds to do his bidding.
‘The meddling fool has brought pups for his dirty work,’ Asmodai hissed from beside Azrael’s throne, reading his Chapter Master’s thoughts.
‘I should have know he would. It makes no difference. We shall break from orbit and make for Fenris. That should sharpen the minds of these animals.’
’Lord, we are being hailed by Allsaint’s Herald,’ said Vox Seneschal Mendaxis, cutting in. ’Shall I accept?’
‘Negative,’ Azrael said. ‘We have no time for -’
’Greetings, Supreme Grand Master,’ crackled de Mornay’s voice before he could finish.
‘Mendaxis, I said -’
’Before you break the link, you should be aware I have members of the Ordo Malleus’ Chamber Militant onboard this vessel. Just in case you were considering firing on us as well as the Wolves.’
‘We are not the traitors here, de Mornay. You are the one parlaying with mutants.’
’Enough of your thunder, Azrael. Even you can’t deny this situation has gotten far out of hand. You have lost control of your own fleet. Let us speak, face to face, and resolve all this before it degenerates any further.’
‘I do not see how you can help. You will simply seek to further your own misguided agenda, as ever.’
’You will receive us aboard the Rock, Azrael. I have the power to declare you excomunicate traitoris, you and your whole Chapter. Don’t believe I won’t use my Inquisitorial edict.’
‘Your threats are as ridiculous as they are ill conceived, de Mornay. But we have come to expect that.’
’Lord Azrael.’ The voice on the other end of the vox was suddenly different – heavy and leaden with grim, restrained power.
‘Who is this?’
’I am Captain Arvann Stern of the Grey Knights Third Brotherhood. I am here on the business of my Chamber Militant. I would speak with you in person, Supreme Grand Master.’
For the first time since entering the Fenris system, Azrael felt a flash of uncertainty.
‘You are accompanying de Mornay?’
‘We are with the Lord Inquisitor, yes. He has our protection, naturally.’
‘You may come aboard, but he may not.’
’If we are to resolve this situation without shedding the blood of any more of the Emperor’s servants, I strongly suggest he comes as well. As does a representative of the Wolves. This madness has gone on for long enough.’
‘They will try and intimidate us,’ Asmodai muttered. ‘It is ever their way.’
’We will come alone,’ Stern said. ’No retinues. We seek only to discuss what has happened here.’
‘If there is any attempt to censure my Chapter -’
’There won’t be. The destruction wrought here has been the work of the Archenemy. Together we shall root out their taint and banish it back to where it belongs.’
Azrael was silent, watching the markers blinking on the holochart below him, and the occulus viewscreens scattered across the bridge’s expanse. Even with Ragnar Blackmane’s arrival, the Wolves above Midgarida were still heavily outgunned by the crusade fleet. The Rock alone would have been a match for them. But the presence of the Grey Knights had pierced the fug of confusion and recrimination that seemed to be shrouding Midgardia’s orbit as thoroughly as the ash clouds now choking its atmosphere. Azrael could not deny that since unleashing the firestorm, matters had been spiralling out of control. The freefall had to be arrested, even if that meant having to court the Wolves and rebuff de Mornay’s latest misguided accusations in person. He keyed the transmission rune in his throne’s arm rest.
‘I shall expect you within the hour,’ he said, and cut the link.
Below, Mendaxis-thing smiled.