by Chris Cook

Like an ocean, the void of interstellar space surrounds the tiny islands of light created by the scattered stars. At the edge of star systems, the shoreline between light and dark, it is difficult to believe that anything could survive here, or even that one look at the massive distance, the nothingness, of space would not send any intelligent being back to the comfort of its home, rather than face the implacable darkness. What planets exist this far from sunlight are dark, cold places, ice and rock that have never been home to anything deserving the name life. And yet the tiny creatures, whose lights sprinkle the night sides of planets closer to the stars, reach out into the dark, as if daring the universe that has provided this proof of their insignificance to stop them. So the lights spread across worlds, and eventually the galaxy, but on the shore between day and night it is always cold and lifeless, home only to desolate rocks and clouds of ice.

One such cloud, too far from its star to ever melt but just close enough that it would never escape the gravitational pull, found itself disturbed. First a ripple in space, then the ripple spread, becoming a pool of red light, reflecting off the tiny ice crystals, which were unused to any light but the distant glow of their star. Like thunder after lightning, a dark shape emerged from the light, a fortress of steel that ploughed through the ice cloud as if it were not there, the heat from its massive engines leaving a trail of short-lived liquid that froze again as it passed. Five more such creatures appeared in its wake, then the light was gone, and so to were the ships, already on their way towards the inner planets.

On the leader, and the largest, of the six starships, a light shone out from the top of the massive command tower. Silhouetted in it was a single figure, a brooding giant whose gaze fell upon the distant point of light that was, from here, all that could be seen of the single inhabited world of this system. For a long time he was still, then he turned away from the portal and looked back on the command deck of the battlebarge Titan, capital ship of the War Hawks chapter. His gaze fell on the Indagator, whose task it was to interpret the jumble of signals being given to him by the barge's sensor systems. He was not a marine, but his uniform bore the emblem of the chapter, and his forehead was marked with the ritual scars that showed his many years of service. Knowing that his report would be demanded, he had already begun making conclusions from the readings he was provided with. He looked up and met the stare of his commander.

"Possible contacts, Lord," he reported, "very weak."

"This system had three patrol cruisers assigned to the Defence Force," replied the Lord, "do you see them?"

"There is something," said the Indagator hesitantly, "it could be a distress beacon, or an automatic system."

"Divert course," said the Lord to the small group of pilots who, between them, controlled the engine systems of the barge, "take your bearing from the Indagator." The men set to work, and the deck tilted slightly as the fleet leader turned, its companions following. The blast door at the rear of the command deck rumbled, and an armoured man entered the chamber as soon as the opening doors provided enough room to pass. His armour carried many purity seals, and tokens of a dozen campaigns, but no sign of allegiance to the chapter. Instead, his armoured shoulder pad proclaimed him as an Inquisitor.

"Lord Cronus," he said, in a voice that made officiousness an artform, "I was not informed we had entered the system." The Lord shrugged and turned back to his portal, deliberately facing away from the Inquisitor.

"The lowest Servitus on the reactor decks can feel a warp jump," he replied, "I was not aware that your senses were dulled to them." The Inquisitor scowled, but controlled his anger, as it was evident he had done many times before.

"The Servitae are not responsible for the fate of this chapter," he said after a moment, "I am. Remember that, Lord. Regardless of your chapter's record of service, you exist at the pleasure of the Inquisition."

"And the Inquisition," interrupted Cronus, "is rarely pleased, Lord Kore. Well, we have arrived in-system, and we are currently locating the patrol cruisers that your office informed us would be here to greet us. It seems they have been delayed." Kore turned to look out of the portal.

"Our orders were quite specific," he said. "Exact time and place were specified. There is no reason for our escort not to be here."

"Lord," said the Indagator, "I read a navigation beacon, one of the cruisers." Cronus turned, with a quick glare at the Inquisitor beside him, and looked back down to the officer. "No strong power readings," he continued, "picking up mass readings. Bearing zero-two-four mark two-eight," he read off, directly from the ship's probe arrays.

"Intercept," said Kore, but a raised hand from Cronus stopped the pilots from reacting to the order. Kore glared back at the Lord, but was silent. The Indagator continued.

"Zero-two-four mark two-six, zero-two-three mark two-seven..." his voice trailed off as he studied his readings. "Debris, Lord," he finally said, "mass consistent with three Mars-alpha patrol cruisers."

"Shields," said Cronus, "battle alert." The command deck was suddenly bathed in red light, and the handful of stations that had not already been in use were quickly manned and activated. "Long-range scan of the planet," he said to the Indagator, who had transferred the charting of the debris field to an automatic system, "look for signs of attack." The Indagator went to work, as Cronus turned to the Inquisitor.

"It seems we will not be joining the Segmentum battlefleet for the moment," he said, "they will have to make do without our aid for a few days more."

"I expect this ship back in the warp the moment you have concluded this detour," Kore replied, but Cronus merely nodded and turned away half-way through the sentence. The Inquisitor let out an exasperated sigh, then followed the chapter master from the command deck.

The hiveworld Sentinel, ashen grey and little more inviting than the cold space that cradled it, was visible through the dark-tinted steelglass windows of the gathering hall by the time Cronus entered. He looked around the hall, finding the faces of those he had come to trust as his own blood throughout the decades. Koeus, the master of the siege company, his battle-worn armour so modified from its original form that he bore more resemblance to a steel Ogryn than a marine. His single remaining eye caught his Lord's glance, the other - a glaring red bionic - glittered slightly as it changed focus. Krios, the youngest of the company captains at barely over two hundred years, gave a quick salute, turning for a moment from discussion with his lieutenant. Oceanus, his face expressionless as always, the sensors mounted on his armoured shoulders following his eyes around the hall. Hyperion, his long mane of hair falling over his face as he polished his sword, out of habit rather than necessity. Finally Iapetus, master of the scouts, his face already obscured by camouflage - obviously expecting battle. The captains, and their lieutenants, retinues and assorted specialists, ceased their discussions as Cronus stood before them, placing himself between the claws of the giant stone eagle that dominated the front of the hall. The Inquisitor kept talking to one of his adept, but the Lord ignored him and addressed his men.

"This is the situation," he began. "Three patrol cruisers have been destroyed. No wreckage of their enemies was found, so we must assume they were attacked by a superior force, and quickly defeated. We have had no communication with the planet below. Evidence suggests that several hives have been attacked." At this point a hologram faded into life, showing a rough map of the surface of the planet. Several areas were highlighted. "These seven hives are lifeless. Our scans show their outer hulls have been breached. Administratum records indicate the atmosphere of this world is highly toxic, and combined with the lack of any activity we assume the populations are dead. Of the three primary hive cities, one remains unbreached." A single red marker appeared on the hologram, showing a location at the junction between the planet's two northern continents. "This is Planetfall hive, this world's largest, estimated population forty billion. Scans confirm that they have functioning power systems, and the atmosphere has not been compromised. If the attackers are still in this system, they are there. There are signs of surface battle around the hive, but no indication that fighting is still in progress."

Cronus turned away from the hologram, which faded away after a moment. "We will initiate a full landing. All companies. Records indicate that the Defence Force was ready to provide a regiment for the Imperial Guard, armour and troops. They were a strong force, and they were defending their home. Whoever defeated them possessed a stronger force, which may still be in Planetfall hive. We will encircle the hive and ascertain who holds it. If they are hostile, we will destroy them. Order of deployment and specific objectives will be transmitted to your ships by the time we reach orbit. Emperor's speed to you all." With that the meeting ended, and each captain left to return to his own ship and company. Cronus stayed for a moment, looking thoughtfully at the planet that his chapter was nearing. He heard footsteps approach him from behind.

"The entire chapter?" asked Inquisitor Kore. "Do you feel that is necessary?"

"You tell me," replied the Lord without otherwise acknowledging the Inquisitor's presence. "This system is not so far from the Eye that it could not be attacked. No greenskins or Eldar are known to inhabit that part of space, and this is a long way for pirates to come, from the trade sectors. Someone destroyed three cruisers here, so efficiently that they did not have time to get a distress call out before they died. Perhaps I am wrong. But," he added, finally turning to face Kore, "if chaos has come to this world, every fighting man in this chapter will do his duty. Every warrior that follows me will lessen the hours of life left to the traitors." He looked at the Inquisitor for a moment, then turned back to his contemplation of the planet. "Despite our differences," he continued, "I know you are not without faith in the Emperor. I sense His work must be done here, and He has chosen us to do it. You understand this." The last was not a question, merely a statement of fact. Kore stood silent for a moment, then turned and left the hall.

It was not until he boarded his personal Thunderhawk transport that Lord Cronus saw the Inquisitor again. He sat in his usual position, among the warriors who made up the chapter master's personal guard. Cronus took his place silently, bowing his head as, now that the transport was full, the black-armoured Chaplain on his left side began to chant. Brother-chaplain Senetas was not so large as his companions, being short by the standards of marines in that he was the same height as the Inquisitor who sat on his other side. As a scout he had excelled at infiltration, both because of his size and his uncanny ability to move without making a sound, even in difficult, noisy terrain. Even in terminator armour, which he and the rest of the guard now wore, it was rumoured that he could do the work of a sniper given only a knife and five minutes to approach his target. Like every member of the Lord's guard he had served in countless campaigns with distinction, but unlike his companions his armour bore no purity seals, for no seals could have shown his faith more surely than the black armour, and the Rosarius hanging from his neck. His low chant continued as the engines of the Thunderhawk rose to a deafening roar. So familiar were the words that every marine present heard them in his mind, from the sight of the chaplain's lips moving.

On Cronus's other side was Inceptus, the lieutenant of the first company. The veteran company had no captain, the task of leading them falling to the master of the chapter, so Inceptus was most often left to organise the company on a day-to-day basis. His work had given him a worried frown that only ever seemed to disappear in the heat of battle. Cronus had learned to read his face well, so that he could tell now that the lieutenant actually was worried. The chaplain had fallen silent, so Cronus turned to his second-in-command.

"Something concerns you?" he said over the noise of the engines, which was receding somewhat as the vehicle left the confines of Titan's docking bay.

"Lack of information," answered the lieutenant, his eyes fixed on the weapons locker opposite him. "Everything we know points to a large force on the ground, yet we know nothing of them. It would be preferable to know our enemy before we come to do battle."

"We will know our enemy soon enough," replied Cronus. Inwardly he frowned, knowing the lieutenant was right. Half a battle could be won or lost before the first marine set foot on firm ground. His thoughts were interrupted by a siren echoing from the cockpit of the Thunderhawk, quickly followed by a change in the pitch of the engines. Cronus, who had served as a pilot in his days as a member of the rank and file, recognised the particular whine made by the magnetic ramjets set to combat speed.

"Stay here," he said to his companions as he left his seat and fought the suddenly uneven deck on his way forward. The vehicle lurched sideways as he came to the door of the cockpit. He pushed the tiny door open and looked past the frantically active pilot to see the reason for the sudden change in the flight. The space between his flight of gunships and the battlebarges they had just left was alive with lance fire, the brilliant beams slashing across the path of the tiny ships as they tried to find their targets. One beam passed so close to the Thunderhawk that Cronus had to shield his eyes from the glare, then it impacted on Titan's shields with a flare of blue energy.

"Lord," began a voice in Cronus's earpiece. Despite the static, he recognised the master of the vessel, who commanded it in the chapter master's absence.

"I see it," the Lord answered quickly, "status?"

"Shields holding, but we have damage to the weapons batteries and docking bays. We read eight incoming cruisers, Slaughter and Acheron class. They were in the planet's magnetic pole," the voice broke up for a second as another lance struck Titan's shields, "further contact, possibly a Desolator. We have communications with the other barges, we can attack now." Cronus looked down from the battle, which seemed to be confined to the large ships for now, and focused his attention on the instruments before the pilot. They were already skimming the atmosphere, and would be beginning their descent at any moment.

"Attack the renegades," he said, making his way back to the transport bay, "ensure they have no orbital power in the assault. We will continue as planned. Emperor guide you." He cut the link, which had begun to degrade due to the interference from their descent through the thin upper atmosphere, and resumed his place, giving a brief summary of events to the assembled troops.

"They have shown their hand then," said Inceptus, leaning back. "If they were waiting for us, the surface must be under their control."

"Then our path is clear," said Senetas, "we have our enemy, and we know our duty."

Planetfall hive, once the site of the first human landing on Sentinel, had been built and rebuilt until it seemed older than the surrounding landscape. Stone and steel twisted upwards through the thick, poisonous air, defying the corrupted elements of the world that attacked it with acid rain and toxic ash. At its top it was three miles above ground level, and the extent of its underground reach was known only to the savage tribes that lived in the lowest levels. Winds brutal enough to flay skin from bone hammered at the hive's airlocks, but the steel held them at bay. All over the surface of the hive tiny points of light glittered in the false darkness of the pollution-shrouded day, showing the positions of banks of weapons, some scanning the horizon, some immobile.

A missile burst from one of the lower clouds that drifted across the ash plains surrounding the hive, weaving towards the primary airlock, a massive structure with doors the size of a building. The weapons batteries came alive, carving trails of fire through the air. The missile detonated two hundred metres from the airlock, but already the next had appeared, followed by another, and another. In moments the sunwards side of the hive was a storm of firepower, and on the horizon a cloud had detached itself from the shifting pollution, marking where, on the edge of visibility, vehicles were advancing.

Somewhat more than a mile below the rapidly-escalating firefight, scout Dankan made his way as silently as possible through a cramped service conduit. He had been moving forward, on hands and knees for lack of space, for almost five hundred metres now, and the dim glow of the conduit's end was closing rapidly. Dropping down to lie on his front, Dankan edged forward and looked through the grille that separated him from the room beyond. Seeing no sign of movement he reached to one of the pouches on his belt, and used the laser cutter he retrieved to slice through the bolts holding the grille in place. Holding it to prevent it noisily falling to the floor, he pushed himself free of the conduit and rolled to the ground. After carefully lowering the grille to the ground he removed his pistol from its padded holster, and unsheathed the long blade that had been strapped to his back. With one last check of his respirator, which, although functioning adequately, did nothing to disguise the foul air of the hive, Dankan moved to the door and stole a glance outside. The corridor was empty, but something was moving around a distant corner. He glanced back in the other direction, and a tiny pinpoint of red light told him that his counterpart from Squad Kanar had arrived without problems. He held up his hand, palm facing the other scout's position, and pressed a button on the back of his gauntlet, sending an answering blue light. He then turned back to the direction from which the noise was coming, and waited for the signal to move.

On the shadow side of the hive, away from the firefight and separated by a mile or so of ash from the city itself, the dim outline of what had once been shoreline separated ash from sludge. Vague stirrings in the sea of toxins were settling back, all traces of disturbance vanishing as the polluted waste slowly oozed back into its uniform flatness. Fifty metres below the surface, at the end of one of the hive's many outlet pipes, the sludge was cut by searchlights. Even though the beams only penetrated a few metres into the toxic ocean, each terminator could see the back of the one in front as the squads moved silently into the massive pipe, the servo-motors in their armour fighting the sluggish flow of the outlet. In this steady, careful manner sixty armoured warriors made their way towards the hive.

Cronus watched from the open hatch of his Razorback as the main airlock of Planetfall hive loomed out of the clouds of pollution, which had mixed with the scrambler smoke laid down by the Thunderhawks to cut visibility to below a hundred metres. The thunder of the hive's defences still echoed down from the towering walls above, but few of the cannons could see their targets, and the only danger now was the occasional lucky shot that clipped a Rhino. Whirlwinds and siege engines held back and bombarded the walls of the hive, keeping the enemy's attention fixed on the firefight and away from the advancing column of troop transports. The rangefinder in Cronus's helmet flickered from red to green.

"Commence fire," he growled, already beginning to see the signs of the last attack on the airlock. The massive doors had been reinforced and sealed, but the scars from cannon and laserfire could still be seen among the newly-welded plates. Here and there a wrecked vehicle loomed out of the fog, half-buried in the ash even though it had not been more than a matter of days since it had last moved. A crash echoed from behind Cronus, a wall of sound that caused him to sway forwards slightly, despite the fast that he had known it was coming. The outer door of the airlock exploded in a firestorm, throwing debris and smoke through the stale air. As the Razorback swerved sideways, to avoid the inferno ahead without becoming a stationary target, the Lord saw a squadron of Vindicators rumble to a halt on his left, their cannons firing as one as soon as their ground clamps had bored into the ash sufficiently to stabilise them. The weakened airlock door began to buckle under the explosive assault, and with some satisfaction Cronus saw movement from the smaller personnel airlocks. He dropped back inside his vehicle and picked up his ancient thunder hammer in one armoured fist.

"It is time," he said simply to his guard. They each prepared their weapons as the rear hatch of the Razorback swung down, throwing up a small cloud of ash as it hit the ground. Cronus stepped into the dim sunlight, turning to face the hive with the shadowy forms of an army at his back. He raised his hammer and pressed the energy trigger, letting the crackling blue power field shine like a beacon through the toxic fog.

"For the Emperor!" he bellowed, his eyes burning hatred at the black-armoured creatures that were advancing from the hive. "Bring death in His name!" The War Hawks charged.

Dankan peered through the sight of his pistol and fired. Thirty metres away another cultist's head exploded in a spray of blood and brain, the body and the heavy bolter it had been carrying falling to the ground. The scouts had reached a junction, and their enemy were now caught in crossfire, being cut down almost as soon as they emerged from one of the connecting corridors. Whichever direction they turned there was a scout in front of them aiming, and another behind them already firing. The robed bodies were beginning to pile up, and Dankan's sergeant had just signalled that the squad would again move forward, further into the hive. The scouts emerged from their positions, reloading pistols as their companion squad kept the doorways in front of them covered. Dankan was on the left side of one of the main connecting corridors, one that lead directly to one of the centre domes. Following his training without needing to think, he tossed a frag grenade down the corridor, flattening himself against the wall as it exploded, then turning back and firing through the clouds of smoke - impossible to aim, but it would cause anyone on the other side to keep their heads down for a moment, and that was long enough. Dankan ran forward through the smoke, hearing the footfalls of another scout behind him. He saw a dim shape through the gloom, and fired automatically. His vision clarified just in time for him to see a cultist, still shielding his head from the frag blast, get knocked back by the bolt shell impacting on his chest. Behind him another shot rang out, and a cultist on the other side of the corridor, standing awkwardly on a wounded leg, fell backwards, his autopistol firing uselessly into the ceiling. More shots echoed through the corridors as the scouts moved forward, efficiently killing everything that stood in their way.

In one of the lowest habitable levels of the hive cultists were herding civilian prisoners, the former inhabitants of Planetfall, into a makeshift prison building, its windows covered with hastily-welded steel plates, the single door guarded by two bulky men armed with bolters. In the distance, obscured slightly by the barely-breathable atmosphere, teams of prisoners were being directed from place to place, some being given mining equipment, others hauling rock and metal from the domes where they had been put to work. The prisoners who had been put into the prison building huddled away from the cultists at the door, trying to avoid more of the abuse they had already been subjected to. Some prayed to the Emperor for help.

To one side of the building's courtyard a fireball leapt sideways from the wall, incinerating a handful of cultists who had been standing too close. A tidal wave of toxic sludge followed, pouring in an endless tide from a gaping hole in the side of one of the massive conduits that stretched the entire height of the hive. The cultists were still torn between trying to repair the damage and simply abandoning their slaves when a stream of bolter shells flew from the conduit, blasting apart half a dozen of them. Terminators began to emerge, wading through the knee-deep toxin as if it were as thin as mist. One of them aimed an assault cannon at a distant slave train and fired, the shrill whine of the weapon's motor drowning out even the rattle of the storm bolters. Cultists and prisoners alike were simply cut in half as the cannon scythed through the group at waist height. A Terminator armed with a heavy flamer swung it around to the prison building, turning it into an inferno in an instant. Barely twenty seconds after the attack had begun, everything but the Terminators was dead or dying. Ignoring the screams and cries of the wounded prisoners, the squads moved quickly towards the hive's access elevator cores.

Cronus brought his thunder hammer around in a wide arc, aiming directly at the bulky autocannon held in one arm of the traitor Terminator striding through the ash towards him. The cannon fired once, the shot bouncing harmlessly off Cronus's stone-coloured chestplate, then the hammer struck the cannon's casing. The weapon, along with the better part of the renegade's arm, exploded, throwing what was left of its owner into another of the Terminators. The mass of the armoured corpse sent the living traitor sprawling in the ash, fighting to bring itself upright in the unstable terrain. Cronus brought his hammer down on its head before it had righted itself, ending its struggles in an explosion of metal and flesh.

Behind him, obscured by the layers of smoke and fog, the Vindicators fired again. The shells impacted on the main airlock in a single fiery blast, and this time the massive doors began to creak as supports gave way to the bombardment. Seeing the doors weakened, the War Hawks turned their full attention to breaching the airlock. Missiles, grenades and energy bolts hammered into the thick metal, until with a crash the left door collapsed inwards, throwing up a cloud of ash that temporarily brought the fighting to a halt. After a second shots again rang out through the haze as the marines' autosenses compensated for the lack of vision. Cronus stared at the hazy grey image his helmet provided of the shattered airlock, noting the clouds of toxic fog rushing into the low pressure of the hive interior.

"The hive is open!" he roared to the nearby warriors, "Move in!" The Lord turned back from the airlock, seeing his Razorback looming through the fog, his squad converging on it. He swung himself through the rear hatch and counted heads, finding that none of his guard were lost. He passed through them and pushed open the hatch above his seat, looking through as the vehicle accelerated towards the hive, following a pair of Rhinos that had already passed through the airlock. All around him vehicles were moving in, with the exception of the land speeders. They, along with those of the assault company chosen for this task, were disappearing upwards, the troops jumping from ledge to ledge on the jagged outer wall of the hive, the speeders veering from one platform to another, using their turbojets to balance against the walls, gaining whatever lift they could from their gravitic turbines. Cronus dropped back down to find the Inquisitor standing before him.

"Shouldn't you be in your seat?" he said, his voice dripping sarcasm. He had not seen Kore leave the transport vehicle at all during the fighting.

"I must note my disapproval of your methods," the Inquisitor replied. "Planetfall was a valuable hive. To breach the environment, when repairs will be impossible, effectively destroys the city."

"Correct," said Cronus, "the cultists inside will die. Anything not in armour will shortly be choking to death, that was the intent."

"The worker resources should have also been considered," began Kore, but the Lord interrupted.

"Anyone captured by chaos was dead before we set foot on this world. We have given them the kindness of the Emperor's judgement. Would you have condemned them to live with the knowledge of chaos?" Kore was silent, so Cronus went on. "Let me be clear, Inquisitor, I intend to kill every follower of chaos on this world. That is the only goal of this mission. The Administratum may salvage what is left with my blessings. Now, unless you plan to keep us under your watchful eye from in here, I advise you to prepare for combat. My guard will lead the attack."

High above, a group of cultists led by a chaos marine were firing a quad lascannon towards the distant Thunderhawks that continued to rain missiles down on the hive's defences. The renegade stepped closer to the dirt-encrusted viewport, peering through it to try to find a target in the hazy gloom beyond. Behind him the cultists steered the gun around, the isolation shield creaking as it shifted against the hive's outer wall. The chaos marine glanced at the barrels of the gun, where they disappeared into the inner surface of the shield to emerge outside the hive wall, then turned back to the viewport. He was just in time to see a helmet rise into view, followed by the barrel of a plasma pistol. The shot burned straight through the viewport, the renegade's helmet, head, and the leg of an unfortunate cultist standing nearby.

A heavily-armoured gauntlet tore into the isolation shield and peeled it back, tearing the metal along one of its poorly-welded seams until there was enough room for the marines to enter. By the time they had done so the cultists were already dying, gasping their last breaths of the toxic air spilling into the chamber. The assault squad's sergeant peered at the static-filled picture of his auspex. Despite the interference, he could make out the signals of the other squads, and confirmed that a dozen defence platforms had been disabled. He pressed a button on the scanner and left it on the chamber's floor, broadcasting a beacon to the Thunderhawks outside. With a hand signal he led his squad forward into the hive, as outside the distant droning of the gunships' engines began to draw nearer.

The fighting had become fierce around the central dome, which contained the only access point to the higher levels of the hive. Outlying areas, which had been defended only by cultists and a handful of renegades, had presented little delay to the War Hawks, but when their Vindicators tore down the blast doors to the central dome they found a true army standing in their way. Cronus and his guard led the charge, cutting through the front ranks of the traitor marines, ignoring the rattle of bolters and the jets of flame that lashed out towards them.

In the cramped confines of the dome there was no use for heavy weapons or artillery vehicles. The battle was being decided by brute force alone, the chainswords and power fists of the War Hawks against the claws and axes of the renegades. After the first charge Cronus had found himself surrounded by a blood-red mass of Berzerkers, and was grimly crushing the life out of one after another, looking between the press of bodies whenever he had the chance, trying to locate the squad's champion.

A roar cut through the din of battle, drowning out the crash of bolt pistols and the whirring of chain weapons. Cronus turned and smashed the head from a Berzerker behind him, to see a massive Terminator-armoured champion crashing through the lines of marines, swinging a pair of chain-axes around him. The champion's helmet was off, his face obscured only by his breather, and the madness in his eyes was plain for all to see. Cronus made to intercept him, but yet another Berzerker appeared in front of him, its axe rebounding off his armour as it tried to sever his arm. The thunder hammer swung again, and the Lord pressed all three of the tiny buttons built into its grip, releasing the full power of the weapon in a single blow. The Berzerker's head exploded as the hammer crushed its skull, then the power field reached its armoured torso, and that too exploded, throwing shards of shrapnel into its comrades.

Cronus leapt through the gap thus cleared in the squad, but before he could close with the champion of chaos a flash erupted from the dark shadow of a building to his left. Cronus smiled grimly as a heavy plasma bolt caught the renegade on the chest, throwing him back ten metres into a wall. He regretted not having the chance to kill it personally, but so long as it died the method of execution was of little consequence. His brief pause gave the Berzerkers time to catch up with him, and he turned again to meet them, smashing the head from the first one. As he turned to the next opponent, he caught a glimpse of the champion's corpse. It was moving.

Slowly, the shattered frame of the chaos warrior staggered to its feet. The chestplate of its blood-soaked Terminator armour was gone completely, along with much of the body beneath. Fragments of its ribcage poked out of the remains of its internal organs, a good deal of which tore themselves free as the thing stood and fell at its feet. Blood and torn flesh poured from the top of the wound, but something was replacing the lost muscle and skin, a black oil that seemed to flow out of every crack in the ancient warped armour. It covered the champion's body completely and dripped over its armour and weapons, even as the dead body began to swell. It drew up to its full height, and Cronus could now make out the bestial face of a daemon beneath the blackness. The armour ripped open, leaving shards of ceramite and plasteel hanging from the huge limbs of the creature. It raised its arms above its head, holding high the massive axes that had grown out of the champion's weapons, and let out a deafening roar that would have silenced a Vindicator. The black oil leapt away from it, spraying out across the struggling figures around it, tearing through them like acid. Loyal and renegade marines fell in a circle of blood, their armour and flesh blasted apart like leaves in a gale. Cronus cursed the Berzerkers that hacked at him, smashing them aside in a desperate effort to close with the now fully-grown Bloodthirster.

"Abomination!" The voice rang out clear above the battle, and Cronus looked through the press of bodies to see a single black-armoured marine charging through the lake of blood and flesh that surrounded the daemon. The daemon too had seen the Chaplain, and brought its axes back, ready for a massive double-swing. Senetas closed the distance between himself and his massive adversary with deceptive speed. He was small for a marine - never was it more apparent than against the giant creature he faced now - but he made up for his size with speed and agility. He ducked out of the path of the first axe, leapt over the swing of the second, rolled on the ground and struck out with his Crozius at the Bloodthirster's leg as he passed it. The creature bellowed in rage and turned to face him again, its footsteps shaking the hive floor like the impact of a Demolisher shell.

"I am of the Emperor," Senetas roared as he struck, two-handed, at the daemon's chest, "his blood flows through me," he ducked another swing of the massive axes and smashed the Crozius into its hip, trying to knock it off-balance, "His sword is my sword," the daemon kicked out at him, forcing him back, "His shield is my shield," Senetas charged in again, striking again at the massive creature, "His life is my life," the daemon, unable to use its axes at such close range, rammed forward with its shoulder, knocking the Chaplain to the ground. He rolled to one side as the first axe fell towards him, burying itself in the ground, then barely had time to reverse direction as the second came down on his other side. Cronus saw the daemon let go of its weapon as soon as it hit the ground, and it punched downwards between the embedded axes with one massive claw, impaling the fallen marine.

It raised its arm high above its head, displaying the broken Chaplain for all to see. Then time seemed to slow, and the tiny body moved, its head rising to look into the eyes of the creature.

"I am the hand of the Emperor," it croaked, so quietly that it should have been inaudible among the noises of battle. The daemon roared and lashed out with its other claw at the Chaplain's head, sending a spray of blood to the ground metres below. Still he refused to die, glaring hatred from the one eye that remained in his shattered face.

"And," he rasped, through the blood that dripped from his torn lips, "through me," his broken arm lifted, clutching the red-stained Crozius, "He will strike you down!" The weapon swung down, its flight powered only by the torn remains of muscles, but it struck the daemon's head and kept going, tearing through its skull, ripping its terrible face apart, opening its neck and finally burying itself in the creature's thick chest. The daemon fell forward to its knees, then toppled sideways, landing with a crash that threatened to break through the hive floor into the deck below. It came to rest with one arm still held upwards, its claws still protruding from the back of the Chaplain's black armour.

Even the blood-crazed Berzerkers had watched its fall, and perhaps some part of their savage minds had cause to reconsider the path they had chosen. They never got the chance, for the War Hawks had also seen the daemon fall, and now attacked with a fury that matched the Khornate renegades. Cronus led his troops as they tore through the remaining Berzerkers, his hammer spraying blood and shrapnel around him, his storm shield shattering armour and crushing bone as he struck with it, his armoured feet grinding the skulls of his enemies to dust. Under this new assault the renegades broke, leaving the Berzerkers to be torn to pieces by the enraged marines.

Having personally seen the last of the Khornates fall, Cronus made his way back to the daemon's body. It had already begun to lose its form, leaving the remains of Brother-chaplain Senetas lying atop a pile of blood-soaked flesh. Hyperion was there as well, the captain's sword still gleaming through its coating of traitor gore. So was Inquisitor Kore. Cronus would never have voiced the thought, but he was of the opinion that Kore failed to die in battle simply to spite him. He ignored the Inquisitor and looked to the squad standing behind Hyperion, readying their flamers.

"Burn it," he said simply. Kore stepped forward.

"What of his gene-seed," the Inquisitor demanded, "there is no reason for it not to be recovered!"

"He will need it," said Cronus as the flames consumed the bodies, "he guards that thing now. His spirit is with the Emperor, but his blood will stand watch over the hell-spawn. You will not see that creature again, Inquisitor." Cronus watched the flames for a moment, until the light was too great for him to make out the black figure inside them, then he turned to Hyperion.

"What of the other domes?" he asked.

"All central domes are cleansed," the captain replied, "the lower levels have been sealed. The renegades still hold fifty levels, including the hive control complex. We have disabled the exterior defences, but we lack the means to breach the shield walls of the complex directly from the outside."

"And between us and the lord of these creatures?"

"We estimate another nine hundred traitors. The concentration of their beasts is unknown." Cronus nodded.

"And the spearhead?" he said after a moment.

"Estimated within five levels of the control complex."

"Emperor be with them," said Cronus.

Dankan dropped silently to the floor, timing his movements to coincide with the distant roars of gunfire from the lower levels where the rest of the War Hawks were fighting. He no longer knew where the rest of his squad was. The sergeant was dead, he had seen that, and then there had been no sign of the others in the last three levels. Dankan had been prepared for this - his mission had been clearly explained, and the best he could hope for would be that he would accomplish it before dying.

He set off towards yet another ventilation system, pausing briefly as he heard footsteps from a room ahead. He waited for a moment, trying to locate the sound within the room, then he kicked in the door and fired his pistol before he had even seen what was inside. A single renegade took the blast on his armoured shoulder pad, but it knocked him off balance, allowing Dankan the time to unload the rest of his clip into the chaos marine. He let the empty clip fall from his pistol as his sword hacked through the thin metal plate covering the vent. There was a noise from outside - something had heard the weapon firing. The scout ducked into the vent and tossed a frag grenade back into the room. He was a metre above the opening when it exploded, protected from the tongue of fire that scorched the opposite wall of the vent shaft. He scrambled upwards, knowing that it was now speed, not stealth, that would decide if he lived or died here.

He used the butt of his pistol to knock in the covering on a maintenance shaft running across the vertical vent, and pulled himself into it just as he caught a glimpse, from the corner of his eye, or something moving below. He set the fuse on a frag grenade for one second and dropped it, just as shells began to crash up the shaft. His last view was of an armoured head ducking back as the grenade fell towards it, then he was away, crawling as fast as he could down the narrow tunnel.

His sword bit through the corroded lock on an access hatch, and he half-slid half-fell out of the tunnel. Immediately he was on his feet and moving, his mind placing him in the maps he had been shown under hypno-trance while his hands loaded his last remaining clip into the bolt pistol. He saw a shape moving in a side corridor, and he fired without stopping, not even bothering to see if the shot wounded. There was a yell, and then the sound of pursuit. A shell blew a panel off the wall beside his head as he skidded around a corner. Ahead was another of the renegades, seemingly caught unprepared, its bolter lowered. Dankan didn't even slow down, firing his pistol as he charged the warrior. It fell as he reached it, still alive but wounded, and he leapt over its chain-axe as it swung wildly. The blade caught his boot, tearing a layer of padding away, and he had to brace himself with one arm and as he hit the ground off-balance, rolling back to his feet without waiting for the next blow. He heard the axe's blade bite into the wall behind him as he sprinted forward, but he was around the next corner by the time the bolter fired.

He knew his time was running out. The pursuit behind him was gaining, every time he ducked or weaved to avoid a shot. Every corridor he crossed seemed to contain an enemy, which he had to waste time ducking or firing blind towards. He let fly with his last bolt at a surprised traitor that he almost ran into, feeling with satisfaction its blood splatter on his face as he passed. He dropped the pistol behind him and opened another pouch, his hand closing around the single plasma grenade he had been given. Now or never, he thought grimly as his mind supplied directions for his forward flight.

He emerged suddenly into a cavernous chamber that seemed filled with armoured figures. Before him was a great mass of machinery, on either side were rows of control stations, their whirring and beeping providing a constant background noise. He slashed at the nearest renegade and ran forward, veering sideways to put himself on one of the walkways that connected the outer balconies to the central platform. He felt a blade cut into the armour on his back, saw the flash of red on his status display that indicated his life-support had been compromised. He turned, slashing again with his sword at the mass of warriors that had piled up behind him. A chain wrapped around his sword, trying to pull the weapon from his hand, but he yanked it back, pulling one chaos marine into the back of another. It was too late, though, a third was already swinging, and Dankan clamped his jaws together to suppress a scream as a chainblade bit into his side. He staggered back, whirling his sword free of the chain, and tossed the grenade into the mass of warriors. He turned his back just in time, but still he was picked up off his feet and thrown forwards as the grenade detonated. He landed, bone-jarringly hard, on the edge of the central platform, his back seemingly on fire. One arm reached forward - the armour on its back had been burned away, and the skin was red and blistered, bleeding slowly from several places. The dying scout pulled himself forwards, then realised that something was in front of him.

He looked up into the glowing red eyes of the Lord, who looked back down at him as if he were an insect. The giant chaos warrior raised a glowing mace above his head. With the last of his strength, Dankan spat weakly at it, then the weapon fell, pulverising his head in a single blow. The chaos lord turned from the bleeding body of the scout, the mace losing its glow. None of the renegades saw the tiny red light that blinked on and off on the scout's blood-stained belt.

Cronus watched as his thunder hammer blasted a hold through the chest of a renegade champion, then paused. A rune glowed faintly on the display inside his helmet, one which he had been waiting for. He curled the fingers of the hand that held his storm shield inwards, pressing a button on the inside of his gauntlet. A second rune told him that his command channel was broadcasting.

"Spearhead is in place," he yelled over the din of battle, "Thunderhawk one engage!"

Outside the hive, perched on the remains of one of the defence platforms, the crew of a single modified Thunderhawk heard his order. Their craft had not carried any troops into battle, and so far its only involvement had been to fire its missiles during the initial assault. Now the crew prepared to launch their final weapon, and the teleport generators in the cargo bay hummed into life.

There was a brief moment when light and sound ceased to exist, a fraction of a second of cold, and then Cronus was standing in the control complex. Before him was the chaos lord, equally massive as the War Hawks master, turning slightly in surprise, or possibly amusement. It was hard to tell from his expression. His eyes blazed red.

"So," he hissed, "you are the one who challenges me." He raised the mace, which again glowed with barely-restrained power. Cronus drew back his hammer.

"No," he answered, "I am the one who will kill you!" The hammer swung forward, meeting the mace half-way between the two giants. Both weapons were deflected away from their targets, carving jagged holes in the machinery that surrounded them. Behind him Cronus could hear the sounds of battle, the distant noise of the war and suddenly the immediate noise of the clash of his guard and the chaos lord's retinue. Bolt shells whirred through the air above the two lords as they struck at each other.

"Who are you to fight me," bellowed the renegade as his mace tore through a column Cronus had stepped behind, "do you know who you face?"

"I face a traitor," returned Cronus, parrying the weapon's next strike, sending its spiked head smashing into the floor, "that is all I need to know."

"I am Vaul!" roared the renegade lord, bringing the mace up in an arc that forced Cronus back for a moment, "I fought alongside the Warmaster himself! I bring his vengeance to the false emperor!" Cronus swung his hammer and charged, feeling the thud as his shield impacted on the renegade's armour.

"You will meet the Emperor soon enough," he said through gritted teeth as he pushed against the renegade's arms. Their gauntlets closed around each others shoulders, and the fight became a test of sheer strength. "I will send you to receive his holy judgement!" Cronus saw cracks appearing in the armour beneath his hands, and felt the clawed hands of his enemy tearing similarly into his Terminator suit. He redoubled his efforts, and slowly pushed the renegade back, until they emerged from the towering machines and stood on the edge of the chasm between the central platform and the distant perimeter of the chamber. Vaul turned his head slightly, looking down at the darkened pit below him, then smiled.

He opened his mouth, and something leapt out at Cronus, tearing through the armour of his helmet, ripping open the delicate auto-sense units, forcing him back. He saw, through the static that suddenly blurred his vision, the chaos lord stride forward, a fanged tentacle extending from his jaws, its surface covered in serrated blades. The mace swung, too quickly for Cronus to parry, and he felt its blow on his chest, digging into the Imperial eagle that had been carved into the armour when it had been fashioned eight thousand years ago. He fell back, the thunder hammer almost falling from his grip as he landed. The renegade raised his weapon in one hand, ready to deliver the final killing blow.

"Tell your Emperor," he hissed, "I will come for him soon." His arm tensed, the shifting in the armour plates showing the bunching of the muscles beneath, then it began to move, swinging down with deceptive speed. For a moment the head of the mace flashed with power, blocking out all other light, then there was a crack and the sickening thud of steel embedding itself in flesh. Cronus blinked as he realised he had felt nothing, then looked up to see the renegade still standing above him. The mace, and the arm that held it, was held aloft by a power sword buried in the armour and flesh to the hilt, its metre-long blade glistening as it speared up through the arm and emerged covered in blood. Cronus looked to see Inquisitor Kore gripping the handle of the weapon, hatred burning in his eyes brighter than the daemon-power in his enemy.

"You will see the Emperor sooner than you think," he growled. Vaul tore his arm back, jerking the sword from the Inquisitor's hand. His other gauntlet swung out towards the small figure, catching him in the chest, spilling blood and gore across the deck. Kore stumbled back, and Vaul let his razor-tipped tongue fly, burying itself in the man's neck. The Inquisitor fell to the deck and lay motionless. Vaul nodded to himself and turned back to Cronus, just in time to see the head of a thunder hammer swinging towards his face. His tentacle-tongue wrapped itself around Cronus's arm, but there was nothing he could do to stop the path of the hammer as it cut through the air and crashed through his head, finally coming to rest embedded in the raised back of Vaul's Terminator armour. Cronus wasted no time in pulling the weapon free and swinging it again, both hands bringing the ancient weapon around in an arc that caught the body of the renegade lord on the chest, lifted it through the air and sent it spinning down into the pit below.

Captain Koeus crossed the nearest bridge to stand beside Lord Cronus on the central platform. His armour, which had begun the day in the colours of the chapter, was now so scarred by impacts that it barely had any colour left to it. Cronus looked up into the half-metal face of his old friend.

"It is over," he said quietly.

"Yes, Lord," replied the captain. "the renegades are routed, and we have destroyed the hive spaceport. None will escape." He paused for a moment. "Captain Hyperion fell during the last assault."

"Among the bodies of his enemies, no doubt," said Cronus grimly.

"As always. We lost nearly half a company, spread out across the chapter. Traitor losses are in the region of fifteen hundred, not including cultists. The dead are honoured." Cronus nodded, then turned to the body of the Inquisitor lying several metres away.

"Make preparations to return him to Terra," he said. Koeus nodded. "With the seal of the chapter," added Cronus, "his hatred of the traitors earned him that honour." The captain of the siege company nodded again, then left. Cronus stood silent for a long time, then took a step back from the edge of the platform and looked at the dead Inquisitor.

"It seems I misjudged you, Talis Kore," he said, "you were one of us after all. Emperor watch your soul." This done, he turned and left the body to be collected by the chapter's apothecaries. As he was about to step onto the bridge leading off the platform, he caught sight of a dark shape nestled among the machines a few metres away. He approached it, and reached out to pick up a dark-coloured Terminator helmet, its surface covered with tiny spikes, the eyes a dim red in the light that reflected through them. The renegade's mask.

He weighed it in hid hand for a moment, then threw it in the air and drew back his thunder hammer. As he swung, and the helmet began to fall back down, he activated all of the weapon's power cells, leaving a crackling blue cloud of energy in the air as he brought the hammer around in a glittering arc, connecting with the falling helmet just as it reached head height. The discharge of energy rang out across the chamber, a massive crack, as the helmet was vaporised. Not even the smallest fragment of shrapnel remained to fall to the floor. Content that his mission was complete, Lord Cronus headed out of the control chamber.

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