Douglas kept turning his head towards Hector as they marched down the dropship's ramp into the bright light of Kraff's sun. "Why exactly are we doing this again?" he asked the captain on a private channel, even though he didn't doubt the rest of the men were thinking the same. Hector was open to their questions, but he wouldn't stand to have his decisions challenged openly.
"Honour, reknown. My namesake is a hero of the Imperium. His bravery broke our allies at the Great Bridge of Blodsburg, he took the Traitor's Gate from them, and was there during the debacle at Thraksos' palace. But he never crossed our path, and I would test his mettle." Hector scanned the field slowly as they reached the bottom of the ramp, yellow sand and rock stretching before them. The golden saint's mask of his helm caught the light off the barren land and scattered it all about him.
Douglas furrowed his brow and squinted as a stray reflection passed over his eyes, "It seems an unnecessary risk for little gain. We haven't survived ten millennia to throw it away on an Imperial upstart. If we prevail another will be along soon enough, and if we are defeated the price could be high."
"Perhaps, but perhaps not. This Hector of theirs is brave and bold in excess, and has carried the field whenever he has taken it. If we are victorious and he survives he will be chary of us in the future, where he has no cause to be now. If he should fall…" Hector flexed his power fist, and sparks crackled over its hard red shell.
Douglas knew the answer immediately, "He will trouble us no more."
"So we risk a small company for the potential for great gain." And a small company it was. Thirty brothers of the Son's of Man, many ancient veterans like Douglas, and Hector, the eldest of them all, leading. They strode away from the gunship towards the appointed location. It would be wrong to say they marched, as they were long past such acts of showmanship. But their skill and craft at war was plain to see. Every man was alert and ready. The Son's with heavy weapons were in positions to provide covering fire at a moment's notice, while the assault troops ranged ahead.
Though none could see, Hector smiled beneath his mask, "See, they are eager, and chafe to be at the enemy."
Douglas still couldn't shake his unease, "We may be hurrying to our graves."
Hector's response was quiet, and perhaps a bit sad to Douglas' ear, "They have stood ready for us through the millenia."
But then there was no more time for thought. From an oasis ahead could be seen flashes of red and white among the tall, shaggy trees. Almost immediately the heavy weapons teams took cover and began to pour heavy bolter and autocannon rounds into the figures in the trees. There was the wink of a lascannon beam stabbing forth, and the trunk of one of the trees exploded in a cloud of steam, its leafy top crashing down among the marines below.
He could hear Hector shouting over the roar of the guns, "Captain Hector of the Twelvers, I have come!"
The first response was a missile, which lashed out from the oasis, smashing one of the heavy weapons team behind the rocks on Douglas's right down. Another fell to a plasma bolt, and the team's position was peppered by the blasts of exploding bolter shells. But they held fast, and returned fire as a rank of Twelvers moved forward out of the woods. Around the edge of the oasis another squad in polished red armour advanced, and a figure bounded alongside.
"Hector McLuhan of the Son's of Man, you are brave. I come for you." sounded over an open channel. There was no doubting which figure was their Hector as he roared into the air on the wings of his jump pack, and the troops with him advanced.
Several of the Twelvers fell as they came, but with a cry the remainder charged, and were upon Hector, Douglas, and their small squad. The Twelver Captain, resplendent in ornate red and white armour sculpted like muscles sprang directly at Hector, lightning flickering about his power claws as he struck, rending Hector's armour in several places. But Hector stood, and with a mighty cry swung his powerfist towards his namesake. The fist smashed across the Twelver's chest, and there was a howl of electricity and metal, and he was flung back to the ground. Briefly Douglas's heart rose, then the Twelver rose up again, and the shock of it nearly felled Douglas.
Douglas heard Hector shout, "Impossible!", and no more, as his opponent was upon him.
The Twelver was shouting, "The Emperor shields his favoured son, traitor!" and his claws struck home again. Hector went down in a heap, and did not get back up.
Douglas shrieked, "NO!" and charged towards his leader. A Twelver sergeant leapt in his way, ducking under a blow from Douglas's powerfist, and with a cry of, "Imperator," struck a blow in return that sent Douglas flying back. He landed with a crash against a small outcropping, and struggled to rise, but could not.
Douglas saw what played out next with all the clarity of a dream. The Twelver Captain was howling silently, claws a flashing blur as nearby Sons of Man flung themselves at him and his men in an attempt to recover their leader's body. The Twelvers fell one by one under the assault, but they were not deterred. Their champion was with them, and he was like a thunderstorm in their midst. He loomed over Hector's body, which seemed tiny and shrunken compared to the blood splattered monster.
As the Twelvers fell so did the Sons of Man, shattered and broken by the Captain's claws. Soon only one was left standing, Brother Hern, about him his friends and leader lay dead or dying. He didn't have the nerve for it, and turned and ran. Douglas tried to stop him, but his voice would not answer his command, and he saw his comrade disappear from his view. The Twelver sergeant ran after, followed by one of his men, and Douglas knew Hern was dead.
Thus he was left alone to see what followed. The Twelver Captain stood in the midst of the destruction he had wrought. Gone was the polished white of the greaves and forearms, all was red now. His bare head dripped with sweat, black hair raised in spikes and tufts. His lips and face were trembling and arms sagged down to his sides. Surrendering to gravity he sank to his knees and caught Hector up. The Twelver removed Hector's helm. Douglas would have sworn that they spoke, his leader in ragged gasps, the Twelver the same, but from fatigue rather than pain. Then the Twelver said something, and an angelic, mournful, almost terrifying smile came to his visage. Hector said something in response, and shook his head weakly.
Douglas could see his fear, and he shook his head shouting, "No." He rose feebly and stumbled forward.
The Twelver caught Douglas's eye and fixed him with the smile. Douglas ground to a halt, and the Twelver said to him, "Now he will live forever," and dropped his head, biting swiftly and fiercely into Hector's throat.
Blood surged around the Twelver's mouth, and Hector's head lolled towards Douglas. His eyes looked sad, and he mouthed something. "Go." Douglas could have sworn that he wanted to say something more, but the light in his eyes flickered out.
Douglas' own eyes stung, and he turned and ran. From behind there were shouts, and some desultory fire, but none drew near. He ran and ran, eating up the desert in increasingly strong strides, till he returned to the dropship. Clustered there he found the survivors of the battle. Battered and worn, barely half their number remained, and as Douglas approached all eyes were upon him.
The question didn't need to be spoken, and he merely shook his head. A great cry went up from the men. Several crossed themselves and wept openly, and not all who needed help to board were wounded.
First Sergeant Brutus raised his fist and called out, "Halt!" The pursuit was over, their surviving enemies were gathered under the guns of a Thunderhawk gunship that stood out green and red against the desert sand. "It's over brothers, Emperor love us, for there's no other way it would have gone so well." There were some nods of and calls of agreement. Brutus briefly watched his opponents board. They had fought bravely, throwing themselves into the fray when all hope was lost.
He watched until one final figure remained on the sand. Brutus frowned, cursed, "Damn the Inquisition", and raised a fist in salute. There was a pause, and across the sands the lone figure raised his hand too, and was gone.
The dropship was taking off when Brutus' commlink crackled to life, "Brutus, Cornelius here, come quickly, something's wrong with the Captain." The radio link did not hide the panic in Cornelius' voice, but it mattered little, Brutus was off at a run, his men following his brusque command to move.
He heard the Captain before he saw him. Shrieks and howls heralded his location, and Brutus rounded a rock to find Captain Hector on the ground convulsing. Four marines were attempting to hold him down, and as Brutus closed one was sent flying from a kick from a powerful leg.
Brutus leapt in and seized the leg in his hands, barely able to hold on despite the assistance of his power fist. Hector's eyes were rolled back so you couldn't see the iris, and blood and foam were mixed about his mouth. When Brutus could spare a glance up at Cornelius he saw the second sergeant's face was pale, and his jaw was sagging open. Brutus caught his eye and shook his head, "I don't know," he said, then turned his attention back to the Captain. "Captain, it's me, Brutus, its over. By the Emperor's Hand we have won Captain!" Still Hector struggled and kicked wildly, his head lashing back and forth, up and down. "Come on sir…" He looked to his brothers who held the captain down, but there was no more in their eyes than he had seen in Cornelius'.
The convulsions continued and finally Brutus shouted, "Eye and damnation, get a sedative, now! Cornelius, hold his head!"
Cornelius knelt and caught the flailing head in his gauntleted hands. Brutus could hear the servos of their armour straining as the Captain struggled mindlessly against them. Then Brother Haine, the apothecary's aide knelt and administered a hypo to the captain's neck. He gave one dose, and nothing changed. Haine was pausing, but Brutus said, "Again!" and a second, then third shot were administered. Slowly the captain's convulsions receded, until he lay almost still, trembling and sweating. "Its over now sir, everything will be all right," Brutus said, wiping the sweat from his brow. He had never seen the Captain like this, and said it as much to reassure himself and the men as anything else.
Hector drew himself up slowly, pausing for the help of Cornelius in standing. He stood and weaved, eyes pale and distant, and breathing heavily through the mouth, "Yes brother, everything will be all right."
The bridge of the Iscariot seemed empty and barren without Hector, who had trod her decks since the Emperor's fall. But now he was gone forever, finally defeated by the servants of the broken husk of a man they too had once served. Douglas sat uneasily in the command chair as the ship moved out, and no one on the bridge said anything more than was necessary.
Then Sykes came up to him quietly, "You had better see this Douglas." Gesturing to his comm station, Douglas went over. A few eyes followed, but only briefly, mindful of their own grief.
There was an incoming message on the terminal, sent to his Douglas' eye's only. "Why me?" he wondered as he keyed his access code and selected a hard-copy and delete. He tore the message flimsy off the auto-scribe and scanned the header. His eyes widened and he gasped as he saw Hector's codes. Every eye, drawn again by his outburst, watched as he read the flimsy…
Korvus 20:52, 8 February 2008 (UTC) Nicholas Cioran