In the eastern fringes of the galaxy there is a ship in the shape of a church, painted the purest black, its running lights extinguished to blend in the deep darkness of the space that normally surrounded it.
Inside, mounted on the walls of a dark hall faintly lit by candles made of synthetic wax and wicks laced with fuel, unmoving gargoyles stare down as two Grey Knights drag a barely conscious man by the arms. Their prisoner is clad only in chains, manacles, worn pants, and the wounds left by chaos-inflicted wounds, slowly giving way to the marks of the tender ministrations of the Inquisitors of the Ordo Malleus – the Daemon Hunters.
The cell door creaks open, and the prisoner is tossed inside. Briefly, the light from the hall lights his face. His hair is dark, long and unkempt, just like his beard. His face is haggard, and dirty, and lined with weariness. From that alone, no one could guess he had once led men into battle. Only his considerable size and the two studs on his forehead serve as clues to his true identity.
Once upon a time he was known as Valorius Titus, Captain of the Ultramarine's third company. Once he was a hero to an entire Forge World.
Once, he had been a Space Marine.
Once, he was one of the finest warriors of the Imperium of Man.
Now, he is just another heretic.
I watch him, and judge his worth...
Warhammer 40k is the property of Games Workshop
Warhammer 40 000:
ACT 1: The Gathering
Chapter 1: The heretic, part 1
"I believe that we will uncover many truths, Space Marine." Inquisitor Thrax's words echo in Titus' mind, a memory of Graia, the forge world where he had fought his fateful battle against an Ork horde and the heretical forces of Chaos, culminating with a free-falling duel with the Chaos Sorceror Nemeroth. As reward for his valour and victory, Titus had been branded a heretic and taken into custody by the Ordo Malleus.
After all, common wisdom dictated that no one touched by Chaos walked away uncorrupted, and after bathing in warp energies and doing just that, Titus had been accused of consorting with Ruinous Powers for protection.
"Liar," replies Titus, muttering, in his grim, dark prison cell. There had been no uncovering of the truth. Oh, there had been tests: tests of faith, tests of purity, tests of blood and even tests of lore. But in the end, Thrax had not cared one whit about the truth, only in keeping Titus here, on this damnable Black Ship, run by the Inquisition and its thralls of servitors.
His only company were other Space Marines, clad in silver armour. They were a silent bunch, not prone to idle chatter among themselves. These marines only spoke to him when it was time for an exam. Always, he complied with their demands: kneel, hands on head, make no sudden movements. The bolters – fully automatic mini-rocket launchers — were always trained on his head as they shackled his arms and legs together, a silent warning: disobey and your death will be immediate.
He always obeyed, always. Not out of fear for his life... but hope, hope that his compliance would play a part in his exoneration.
And then, one day, the tests had stopped. Gone was Titus' only distraction from the isolation of the cell. The only glimpses of life beyond this cramped space were the arms of servitors delivering him his meals and reclaiming the trays through a hatch in the door.
The meals. Emperor protects, the meals! Always consisting of a flavourless block of protein with a side of vitamin slop, and a tankard of water. It hadn't been so bad, at first, but before long Titus began to dream longingly for a single piece of fruit. Was this another form of torture? he once wondered. Now, after a hundred meals, he knows it is.
Titus believed that the myriad Inquisitors that had taken an interest in him had now switched tactics. Pain would not get them what they want. Madness borne of isolation and boredom, that just might do.
Say nothing, claim nothing, admit nothing," Thrax had once whispered to him. "No matter what they do to you. Your life depends on it." Truly enough, some of the other Inquisitors had often tried to trap him with trick questions, to draw out flimsy admissions of heresy — truth be damned! — to justify a prompt execution. To These ones, his only reply then had always been a cold, silent glare.
This will be my life now, Titus had thought, weeks after his isolation had begun. Eat the slop, perform the physical rites, Eat the slop, perform the Spiritual rites, Eat the slop, Pray to the Emperor, go to sleep. The same routine, every day.
How long have I been here? Titus wonders one day. He's just realized: he's lost count of the meals. They always gave him three square meals, every day. He's lost count of the times he went to sleep. Did he ever count? Did they even care if he was well-rested?
Years, decades, perha—
The cell rumbles and shakes, snapping Titus out of his meandering thoughts. More blasts come, more rumbling... the sounds are unmistakable: the scream of klaxons, the roar of guns, the searing of lascannons... and the impact of boarding torpedoes. The Black Ship is under attack.
"All hands to battlestations! Repeat, all hands to battlestations!"
There's shouting outside, even as the captain's voice roars through the inter-vox system. Titus wants nothing more than to answer the call, a chance to prove his loyalty to the Imperium once again... or perhaps, an honourable death.
"Let me out!" he shouts and spits desperately through the barred window of the thick metal door that kept him trapped inside his cell. He grasps the bars, and shakes, but the door does not yield at all.
Two Space Marines in gleaming silver armour ignore him as they run by his cell door. A third one follows, but then, the hall's lights flicker and die, and a sickly green glow permeates the air, as a miasma spews from the vents and clings to the floor. Tendrils of green smoke fly up at the Space Marine's head, and penetrate his helmet's seal. The Marine drops his bolter, convulses, and his armour snap and break at the seams, revealing flesh.
"SOMEONE HELP!" Titus shouts, "A BROTHER NEEDS AID!" The only reply that comes is the distant noise of bolter fire echoing through the black steel halls, and the unearthly toll of a bell so powerful he attempts to shield his ears from the noise. In horror he watches as the Space Marine continues his metamorphosis: Hair grows on the exposed flesh, scraggly bristles, thicker than a boar. The glove's fingers tear, revealing yellowing claws, sharp enough to tear armor, and finally, the helmet is thrown off, revealing the creature's face.
That of a rat.
A sneering, vile rat, now twice the size of a Space Marine.
And it is looking straight at Titus. It snarls, hisses, and begins raking the door with his claws. Titus looks around, Astartes training kicking in, hoping to find any advantage – a weapon, a way out, anything – but all he has to work with is the metal tray his meal had been dumped on, and a toilet.
By the time the huge rat had torn off the door, Titus had been ready.
The oversized porcelain toilet smashes into the giant rat's face, shattering into a hundred pieces, stunning the creature long enough for Titus to charge in with the tray folded with his bare hands into a shiv. Titus went for the eye, guiding the sharp piece of metal into the beady mass of vitrous humor. The creature screams in agony, and took a swipe at the prisoner.
Titus ducks and rolls underneath the slashing swipe, and dives for the former Marine's bolter carbine. His aim is quick, and he looses a burst of three rocket-propelled munitions, two aimed at the chest and one to the face. The rounds find their mark, their mass-reactive fuses detonating the bolts' explosive charges deep in the monsters flesh.
Even wounded and torn apart, the giant ratman did not fall. Adrenaline surges in the monster's blood, augmented by corrupted bio-augmentations, keeping it alive despite the sheer damage done to its flesh. It swipes at Titus, grazing his arms and chest, smashing the bolter to pieces. Quickly, Titus finds himself wrestling with the creature, using its oversized upper mass against it, but he begins to lose, badly, until desperation and his own fury kicks in. With headbutt after headbutt into the creature's ruined face, Titus screams, louder and louder, until his own face is covered in blood and pieces of wet bone. The giant rat's fortitude is overcome, and it falls on its back from the onslaught, dead. Titus leaps on it and begins to stomp on its skull with his bare foot, just to make sure.
Now certain that the creature has been slain, Titus stops, and breathes a sigh of relief. But he has no time to feel elation at that victory, nor to take a moment to appreciate that he had just broken free of his cell, unchained and unescorted. Screams echo in the halls, mixed with weapons fire, which means there is still a battle to fight.
He begins recovering what wargear he can from the dead mutant, and finds a Phobos pattern Bolt Pistol with a ten inch barrel along with a spare mag, a combat knife, and three grenades. He leaves the spare magazines for the larger bolter as is – the Marine's belt had been ruined by the metamorphosis and the pockets of his own pants only have so much room.
All-in-all, a somewhat sub-standard loadout.
"I've started campaigns with less," Titus says out loud, before heading towards the screams.
"Alert..." drones the the servitor hooked up to the ship's loudspeaker system. His voice barely cuts over the alarm. "Cell block 0451 has been breached. All available Marines converge and secure. Repeat: Alert..."
Nobody answers the call.
Leaving the prison block had been a bit difficult – a long, dizzying quest of fetching the right keycard for the right door — but Titus eventually emerges into the common halls of the ship, greeted by the red glow of the emergency lighting that turned the blood on the corroded titanium walls a gleaming black. Graffiti had been scratched on the walls, punctuated with a triangle symbol.
As he strides through the hall of the nameless black ship, Titus' hopes of linking up with his fellow marines diminish. Wherever he goes, all he finds are the corpses. Corpses of his jailers, corpses of Imperial Guardsmen at their side, and the corpses of their killers.
Titus took quick glances at the Marines' corpses as he strode on, their unpainted suits of ceramite armour had been rended, pierced and even torn, exposing the organs of their wearers.
The fallen marines had been picked clean of their wargear – no grenades, no bolters, no magazines are left. "Even Orks wait until the battle is over before looting," Titus says out loud, then sighs. "Blast, nothing to salvage." Not even lasguns.
But the hundreds of xeno corpses are certainly not Orks: more like rat-people, in fact, but much smaller than Titus' first encounter with the creatures. These are the size of mere men and women, but hunched over, making them seem more diminutive. Ratlings? Titus wonders. No, even those mutants are more men that rats. These are more rat than men. Man-Rats.
Titus examined their gear. They are clad in makeshift armour that could provide the barest protection from Lasguns, and armed with spears cobbled together from metal pipes, nuts, bolts, and even duct tape... but whether it was a pick, a spear, or even a knife, the rat-men's arms each had mounted on them a single glowing green shard of varying sizes, but of undeniable sharpness... and a wrongness that repels Titus so much he can't bear the thought of touching them.
Titus gets a real close look at the edge of a shard when one of the man-rats, playing dead, attempts to behead him with a crystal hatchet. Titus proves quicker, and buries his combat knife into his insidious attacker's brains.
Titus moves on, now more wary than ever.
"The ship is almost oursss!" he hears someone hiss around a corner. Titus' barefooted steps are quiet – Scout training, it never really goes away — as he stalks towards the sound. Peering around the corner, he sees a group of live man-rats, six of them, looting the corpses of Imperial Guard MPs. A couple of them aren't clad in the cobbled-together armour of their comrades. Instead, torn Imperial Navy uniforms hang from their hunched forms. They aren't even armed the same – one had a guardsman's riot shotgun, the other a length of metal pipe. The rest of the man-rats snicker and sneer at these two, as if they are nobles looking down on mere peasants.
"Ssstupid Convertsss," a man-rat hisses. This one is lugging an auto-gun. "Look at them, jussst look at them! Still clad in their manling trappings!"
Titus checks his pistol's mag. Eight bolts. He would have to be frugal with his shots, for now.
"I know!" screeches another. That one wore a cloak and kept a pair of large glowing punch daggers at the ready. "Can barely talk!"
"C-c-can talk!" stutters one of the Navy man-rats. "F-f-flesh... still re-re-rebelling!"
The autogun-wielding rat laughs mockingly in response. The 'convert' tosses an empty mag at him, and misses, prompting more laughter.
"We don't neeeeds them!" says the one with with a crystal-tipped spear. "I sssay we k-kill them and split the loot four ways instead of sssix!"
"I'm not splitting anything with you sorry lot!" That one wields a large crystal pick, and seems to be the most intimidating of the bunch. "I take from what the man-things I kill – from all that I kill," his lowers, as if he's getting ready to impale his brethren, "You understand?"
There is a tense moment when it seems like they would kill one another, saving Titus the trouble of having to kill them all, until...
"Wait... S-s-s-mmeeeeeelll-see... ssssomething," says the other 'convert', getting the rest of the group's attention. "Sssmellsss like... MANFLESH! Sweat-stinkin' man-thing's MANFLESH!"
Cursing the lack of showers in the prison, Titus shoots the autogun rat first, right in the head. The explosive bolt explodes deep inside its skull, sending bone shrapnel into the nearest man-rat, the one with the spear. The cloaked one dove for cover just as Titus shot the shotgun rat, and proceeds to charge the rest with his knife. They are nowhere near as tough as the mutated marine from earlier, and a few swipes chopped them into pieces.
The cloaked rat drops a tiny glass globe at its feet, and vanishes in a cloud of black smoke. Titus knew better to try and wade into that cloud of smoke to find him, and waits for it to clear, hoping to spot that telltale glow of its blades.
Titus strains his senses... and it appears the cloaked rat is gone.
More on-site procurement: the autogun's had been ruined by the bolt's shrapnel, but the shotgun is made of sterner stuff, and it even comes with a strap, allowing Titus to sling it over his shoulder. There is also an intact riot shield with a stun club holstered on the inside. Titus takes it, reasoning that as far as protection went, it is a lot better than bare skin.
That's when the cloaked rat comes back, bringing friends.
Lots of friends.
Too many friends.
Titus attempts to hold the swarm at bay with the shotgun. The pellet spread is fairly wide, allowing him to build a barricade of dead rats that the rest have to stumble over to get to him. A sound tactic, but it is no use: the digitigrade legs on these man-rats are quick and powerful, and their owners lack any qualms about stampeding over their wounded, nevermind their dead. Titus retreats, dropping a live grenade behind him as he sprints towards more defensible ground. The blast buys him time, just enough to find a smaller, tighter corridor to make his stand.
"KILL THE ONE!" screeches the cloaked assassin from behind the mob of man-rats. "KILL HIM IN THE NAME OF THE BELL RINGER!"
They funnel themselves as they charge at him, and with a raised riot shield he meets them, stabbing their digusting faces with the combat knife, over and over again, one after the other. Those that manage to flank him get shield bashed down, and are promptly trampled over by their brethren, who are all too eager to be the one to land the killing blow.
More man-rats come out of the of air vents, attempting to attack him from behind. A shield bash bowls away dozens amidst the attacking mob in a spectacular kinetic chain reaction, giving him time to deal with the would-be backstabbers.
Adrenaline surges through Titus' body, triggering his long dormant Larraman's organ into sustaining his body, preventing his death by blood loss due to the handful of lucky cuts scored by his attackers. Years of malnourishment begin to take their toll Titus' body: every powerful shield bash taxes him, depleting his stamina. Unconsciously, his breath becomes ragged, and that's the moment the assassin rat had been waiting for to pounce.
Titus' eyes catch the glow of the crystal-bladed punch daggers in the periphery of his vision, blurring towards him, and his reflexes galvanize him into bringing up his shield for another slam. The cloaked rat's leap, however, proves more powerful than expected, and Titus falls on his back, the shield the only barrier between the assassin's blades and himself. The blades pierce the shield easily, and it begins to be torn by the flurry of stabs aimed at Titus' chest.
Before he can even think to counter attack, Titus hears the roar of long guns, spitting buckshot and autogun rounds into the mob.
"Get off him you vermin!" he hears someone yell in Low Gothic. "Keep shooting!" Survivors! He exclaims in his thoughts. Titus pushes the assassin away, hoping its body would catch a few rounds of gunfire. Instead, it performs its disappearing trick once again, leaving its fellow rat-men to die to the combined gunfire of a Guardsman fireteam and the cold knife of an angry Space Marine.
"We are victorious..." says Titus, wiping sweat and blood from his brow, looking at hundred or so fresh corpses that surround him. He turns to his saviours. "Thank you."
"Enjoy it while it lasts," says their leader, his voice rough like gravel. The Imperial Guard — a sergeant, judging by the chevrons on his uniform — is old, well past retirement age, if the lines on his face and his grey hair are anything to go by. His physique, however, is lean and muscular. He, along with his two Guardsman, is clad in white fatigues, and dark red carapace armour. "Are you good to go?" He nods slightly at Titus's bare chest, covered in blood and cuts. "Do you need patching up?"
"Most of the blood is not mine," answers Titus mattter-of-factly. "I will be fine."
"Good," says the Sergeant. "Follow my lead, and keep your eyes peeled. We're not out of the woods yet."
"Clear," says Titus, scanning the cabin down the sights of his shotgun, and he beckons the three guardsmen accompanying him to come in.
Imperial cruisers are vast, and the Inquisitorial Black Ship Titus had been imprisoned in is no exception – at almost three kilometers in length, it is a small city unto itself, and even small cities need rapid transit systems to get around. Thus, all Imperial capital ships had tram systems built across their considerable length.
Making their way to the nearest one had cost them a great deal of ammo, and Titus' riot shield, but thankfully, no casualties.
"Where to, sir?" asks a Guardsman. He istall, and fair-skinned under his helmet. Couldn't be much older than thirty standard. He carries an a scoped autogun.
"Station 4," replies the sergeant.
The guardsman give him a look. "We're really doing this, sir?"
The guardsman works the tram's controls, and the cabin closes as its motors came to life, running on auxiliary power. The lights come on, a bright white from neon tubes mounted the ceilings that lit its occupants harshly. The Sergeant finally takes a good look at Titus.
"Who the hell are you, anyways?" he demands, not caring one bit that Titus was easily thrice his size.
"I am Captain Valorius Titus, of the Ultramarines, Second Company."
The sergeant cocks his eyebrow. "Huh. You hardly ever see a Space Marine without his armour," he comments. "But you're definitely military." He sniffs. "I'm Sergeant Miles Warrick, 55th Kaladan Fusilliers, first company." He points his thumb over his shoulder. "The young fella behind me is Private Maxson..."
"Sir," salutes the Private.
The sergeant continues: "And that there is Specialist Merril." He points at the other guardsman. "Squad Medic."
"H-hello," the red-haired woman is definitely younger than Maxson, but she has a haunted look that told Titus she had seen too many horrors much too quickly. A medic's armband was loosely wrapped around her left bicep. She carries a submachine gun, the pattern of which Titus doesn't recognize, and a large medkit is slung over her shoulder. "Do you need any aid? You look hurt."
"Think nothing of it, save your supplies," Titus says, his tone reassuring.
"Nice of ya," says Warrick. "Mind explaining why a half-naked Ultramarine is doing on this boat? You're obviously not friends with the Grey ones."
Titus hesitates to reply for a moment, then: "The Inquisition believes me to be a heretic. The grey marines were my jailors."
Merrill's eyes widen. "This... this is an Inquisition prison ship?!"
"You... had no idea?" says Titus. Once again, the Inquisition wants its absolute secrecy as well as its due in manpower, he thinks.
Merrill shakes her head in response.
"Makes sense," says Warrick. "Our assignment on this ship was suspect. Even the sailors had been freshly assigned."
"Is that all that remains of your squad?" asks Titus.
"Pretty much," replies Warrick. "We just came from Engineering, the ratmen have overrun it. It's only a matter of time before they take the bridge, or set the reactor to blow."
"You aim to escape, then?"
The Sergeant nods. "This ship's done for. Station 4 gets us close to one of the main shuttle bays. There should be a small transport there, capable of limited warp travel." He gives Titus a look. "There's room for you, if you help us get to it."
"I shall aid you," says Titus, nodding.
"Oh, thank the Emperor," Merrill sighs with relief. "I thought you'd drag us into a glorious last stand, or something."
"We're here, sir," says Maxson. Truly enough, the tram begins to slow down as it arrives at station 4.
"Get up, Merrill," orders Warrick. "While you're at it, give Titus a Stimpack."
Titus frowns. "I told you..."
"It's for us, mostly," interrupts Merrill, giving him a sturdy-looking hypo. "If any one of us goes down, inject this anywhere on our bodies, just press the silver tip against the skin and push the red button."
"Well get right back up," says Maxson, smiling. "All piss and vinegar and with a steel boner to boot."
Titus pockets the Stimpack, and readies his stun club and combat knife as Warrick and Maxson stack up on the on sliding doors, expecting another swarm of rat men to greet them as soon as they stepped out.
They are not disappointed.
End of Part 1
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