by Chris Cook

"Secure for launch."

"All systems green."

And it began with a roar.

In the shadow of the desert world Aequitas only the flashes of igniting thrusters lit the hull of the heavy cruiser Artemis. Eight landing pods fell away from the ship, disappearing into bright flames as they encountered the upper atmosphere. Inside each pod the Furies prepared, shielded from the heat and acceleration as best they could be. Even so, the decks of the pods shook, and the noise of the thrusters was drowned out by the howl of the capsules' descent through the dry air of the planet. Automatic systems fired tiny stabiliser thrusters, keeping the pods in formation as they fell towards their target. Beneath them, the planet's single giant continent seemed peaceful.

With a rush of sound the outer surfaces of the pods broke away, spreading out around them. The pods themselves began braking, letting the debris of their heat shields fall beyond them. Laserfire flashed through the cloud of metal, vaporising a handful of fragments. As they dropped into optimum firing range for the laser cannons the pods fired their own defenses, hundreds of tiny resonators, each one amplifying and returning the signals that were guiding the cannons. This time they were lucky, and none of the eight pods was among the targets that the ground-based gunners chose from the hundreds suddenly available.

The landing in the remains of the spaceport was, as always, violent and sudden. Before the dust from their impacts had settled the pods opened, like massive steel flowers, and their cargo disembarked. As planned, they surrounded their enemies, and the still desert night was suddenly alive with gunfire and screams.

Barely thirty metres from where the first pod had landed, a pair of glowing red eyes turned to stare at the figures leaping forward from it, their red armour glowing deeper red in the flashes of their weapons. The watcher stood, discarding the skull he had been carefully working on. It fell to the ground unheeded, a string of strange symbols half-written across its barren face. A weapon was drawn, and power flowed along its heavy blade - not the power of technology, but hatred and rage given form. Silently, the death of a hundred worlds, Invisus charged. On his heels followed the creatures of his dreams, their skin red as fire, their eyes black as space. Each one raised, in clawed hands stained with blood, a sword of pure stone. Invisus ignored the troops that turned to fire at him, the shells of their weapons failing to slow him, their bodies offering little more resistance as he charged through the squad. They scrambled behind him, suddenly facing the daemons in his wake. Ahead was the leader...

Terminator squad Vance had landed on one side of the enemy force, their firepower easily clearing the immediate area of the landing. Black-armoured traitor marines lay where they had fallen as the terminators slowly moved forward, weapons blazing at more distant targets. For a moment the situation seemed stable, then there was a crash from behind the squad, as something surged from the shadowy ruin of a building. Outlined against the almost-light of the pre-dawn, a massive steel monster rose from hiding, its engine roaring as it showered stone and metal debris over the terminators. A pair of heavy bolters swivelled to face the squad, and it fired, lighting the battlefield with explosions as the shells impacted against their targets. Three terminators were blasted from their feet, one remained motionless where he fell. A lone missile, from the squad's cyclone, streaked through the dark, burying itself in the side of the dreadnought and exploding, throwing the war machine sideways, almost toppling it. As if enraged, the machine began firing wildly, its weapons carving blazing trenches through the ground before it, until they rose to aim again at the squad...

Ozeki, leading the Devastators, leapt to one side as a squad of bikers roared towards him. Two of his squad had to do likewise to avoid the flashing scythes mounted on the chaos machines, but the remaining two stood their ground. One fired his heavy bolter into the bikes as they went past, knocking one rider from his seat and sending another to his death as the fuel tank of his bike exploded beneath him. The other Devastator, wielding a bulky lascannon, waited until the last moment before firing at the biker charging towards her. The vehicle exploded brilliantly, showering debris across the immobile marine, its rider torn to pieces by the force of the blast. Ozeki swung his axe in a wide arc as the remaining bikers passed the squad, cleanly decapitating the one who, he assumed from the amount of trophies adorning the bike, was their leader. The sergeant managed to turn sideways, presenting his heavily-armoured shoulder, as a hail of bolter shells from the leaderless bikers knocked him to his knees. Ignoring the protesting whine of his armour's servo motors, he raised his axe for another swing...

Almost on the edge of their landing pod, a line of marines stood ready, boltguns at their shoulders. For a moment it seemed that they had no target, then with a roar appeared a transport, spikes and skulls covering its surface. The marines held their fire, waiting as the steel beast rumbled towards them. At a word from their sergeant they took careful aim, as a missile flew above their heads. One track of the Rhino disintegrated under the blast, fragments of tread leaping up beneath the vehicle to tear at its engines. As it ground to a halt figures emerged from its hatches, dark-armoured creatures whose almost-familiar forms had been twisted from within, a maelstrom of horns, bloody skins, trophies of battle and razor-sharp spikes. As they charged some in the marine line made to lower their weapons, as if to prepare for combat, but returned their boltguns to their shoulders as their sergeant steadied them. Ignoring the lack of fire the chaos marines lunged forwards, barely metres from their target. Softly, the sergeant gave the order and the marine line erupted as their boltguns fired as one. As if struck by an angry god the front-runners of the chaos pack fell, their armour shattered, their warped bodies torn open. Again the boltguns fired, tearing down another line of chaos marines, and the few remaining on their feet staggered forward, suddenly alone in the darkness. At a word from the marine sergeant, they died...

Invisus felt the death of each warrior, but paid it no attention, his mind elsewhere. As his daemons fought the marines behind him he felt the presence of his enemy, even before the ghostly-white beam of his armour's searchlight found her, picking the red and gold armoured leader from the night.

"Ill met by starlight," he rumbled as he raised his sword, the tip almost touching the end of the staff that the marine commander held. For a moment the two were still, and the noise of battle died away, replaced only by the crackling as the power weapon and daemon blade touched. Then Invisus swung his sword, and Warfield sidestepped and spun her staff, the crackling turning into a howl as the two weapons clashed. The two leaders danced around each other, striking and dodging, becoming a mirror of the armies that surrounded them. Invisus swung upwards, knocking away the point of the energy-coated staff that spun towards him.

"No mortal can defeat a child of Horus," he roared, summoning the powers that had served him for ten thousand years. A cloud of darkness surrounded him, shielding him from the first rays of light that began to reach over the horizon. He struck out with his blade, the darkness flowing along it, rushing forward like some predatory beast finding its prey. At the last moment Warfield blocked the blow, the stream of dark sorcery passing harmlessly over her shoulder. The tip of her staff whirled beneath the daemon blade, carving a jagged path across Invisus's ancient armour. The warlord stepped back in surprise, glancing down at the fiery red Eye of Horus that adorned his chestplate, now broken in two by the blow it had taken. Beneath, a black liquid oozed out of the torn metal. A fraction of the chaos lord's powers sealed his wound, and he raised his sword again, meeting the challenge.

"I have better claim to that title than you," Warfield said with a humourless smile. She pressed forward again, and Invisus found himself having to swing his blade wildly just to block the strikes aimed at him. No sooner had he struck away one end of the weapon than the other was whirling towards him, allowing no time to plan, to think. Again he called on the gods that sustained him, letting their power flow through him, feeling, as always, a part of his soul being eaten away in return for the strength he was given. He had long since given up caring about such things. Time blurred around him, and his sword moved so fast it seemed to become a single massive arc of metal, sweeping out above the commander's staff and slashing at her head. There was no time for Warfield to counter the strike - all she could manage was to raise a hand against it. Her fingers closed around the daemon weapon, and for a second, everything stopped.

The blade had passed, with no effort at all, through the armoured palm of her gauntlet, but no further. Invisus felt the rage of the creature trapped inside the weapon, trying to tear apart anything it touched, but there was another force against it, so unlike the daemon's power that it blinded the ancient creature. Warfield drew the sword close, dragging the warlord behind it.

"No more living for you," she hissed, then her arm straightened, pushing the sword back towards its master. The daemon blade tore open the warlord's helmet, allowing a sickly red light to spill from within, embedding itself in the ancient warrior's skull. Warfield let go of the blade and returned both hands to her staff, driving it with all her strength at the staggering lord's chest. The tip of the staff crackled as the power field discharged, passing through Invisus's already weakened chestplate and emerging from among the rusted heat vents on his backpack. He screamed one last time as the daemon consumed him, then he fell back to the ground, his armour breaking into fragments as if it were made of ice. The echoes of his final scream mixes with the howls of the daemons nearby, their skins cracking, oily black blood flowing from their eyes and mouths, their stone swords dropping from their hands. The last of them fell as the dawn light swept across the battlefield.

Commander Warfield wandered slowly through the wrecked spaceport. Some distance behind her the last of a series of heavy transport was landing, in preparation for the retrieval of the last of the landing pods and the survivors of the battle. Also being loaded into the transport's cavernous cargo bay were the bodies of seventeen marines, which troubled the commander as always. During battle it never impaired her judgement, a matter of sacrifice and gain, there was no time for more. Now, with no pressing demands, it was unavoidable that she think of the empty spaces in the passenger deck of the returning transport, and of the rows of tiny silver eagles that lined the inside of the hall of memory on Artemis. Now, seventeen more eagles, to join their ranks. Her meandering path brought her to the scorched ground where the warlord had fallen. Invisus, once lieutenant of the fourteenth company of the Sons of Horus - for a moment her mind conjured up the image of the twisted warrior, and she saw a young man, barely more than a boy, proud to be chosen to serve the Emperor, staring in wonder at the stars. Her eyes lifted to the drifting smoke, from the fire that had consumed the bodies of the followers of chaos. She added their number to the seventeen of her own that had died, all victims of chaos one way or the other.

Sergeant Vance appeared on the shallow hill in front of the last transport and signalled its readiness to leave. Warfield nodded, and left the battlefield to its dead as the sun reached its peak above.

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