Check the bottom of the chapter for notes.
It had been three years since the Crimson King had shattered humanity's future as united race. Three years since their beloved leader had been condemned to a purgatorial existence, holding back the tide of the Chaos spawn seeking to overtake the Golden Palace. Three years since the Ten Thousand had been thrown as martyrs to the meat grinder of the gods.
The Legio Custodes. Greatest among the Emperor's creations, sans only the Primarchs themselves. Each warrior a perfect embodiment of war, a unique work of martial art never to be replicated. Yet in these dark days, all that that was worth was being incredibly short in terms of numbers and difficult to replace.
The War within the Webway had taken it's toll even on mankind's greatest. Even with all their weapons, perhaps the deadliest within Imperial space, and the help of another, nigh-equally elite organization handpicked by the Emperor himself, the Sisters of Silence, they were barely enough to hold back the horde of horrors swarming like so many locusts from the Warp. Even the Loyal Mechanicus, contributing a significant portion of forces into the Web, had not proved capable of such a task.
The glorious host of the Emperor's personal entourage had been reduced to a mere half of their eponymous Ten Thousand. And their numbers declined still. At this point, it seemed as if death by war of attrition was to be their ultimate fate.
Their liege was far too concentrated on keeping the daemon infestation from assaulting the very beating heart of the Imperium, while the Sigillite along with the Praetorian were consumed with keeping the order of a galactic empire torn in twain by the traitorous actions of the legions of Chaos.
Reinforcements were not coming any time soon. All of the Custodes were grimly aware. Yet they were not designed to fall to the follies of lesser men, such as fear or anguish. They would fight on, to the last man if need be. Until the last drop of Custodian blood was spilled, they would hold the line.
Guardsman Kronos of the 41st Shield Company felt more uneasy than usual.
Of course, their minds were never supposed to be at ease in this wretched place, as at any point a daemon could pop it's ugly head, usually closely followed by tens, hundreds or even thousands of their equally despicable brethren. However, this particular section of the Webway was one among the hardest hit by the Red Cyclops' psychic assault. It was so unstable that even the wretched Warp spawn usually left it alone in fear of it's eventual total dimensional collapse.
This had earned his Shield-Company, the one most commonly assigned to the region, the affectionate nickname of "Death Seekers". The irony of such a name for a Company that rarely did more than provide auxiliary support to the others nowadays was not lost on them.
In spite of it's relative ease to maintain however, Kronos despised being stationed here. Perhaps it was the whispers of the Warp, leaking their way through the shattered mishmash of dimensional walls that were barely holding. The presence of Chaos drove them, like their gene-sire, to wretch instinctively. Perhaps it was the geometry of the place itself, a nearly ungraspable hive of tunnels, seemingly ever shifting in texture, that could easily be miscalculated even by the superhuman mind of the Custodes, rendering them lost forever.
And most of all, perhaps it was the knowledge that it could very well fold in of itself at any moment and damn whatever soul unlucky enough to find himself there at that instant to an eternity of hellfire. The sheer fact that the daemons themselves considered the place so unstable so as to never properly assault it certainly did not help matters of morale.
Thankfully enough, Kronos found himself distracted from his contemplation by a beeping coming from his vox-caster.
"Kronos, report." Shield-Captain Phobos. His voice was raspy, perhaps even ragged. No visual of him projected into his helm either.
Another daemon assault assistance action, most likely.
"Webway secure. No incursions within the last 37 hours. Continuing to monitor," he paused. "Phobos, what is the situation down there?"
A pause similarly followed from the other end. "It's best if we do not speak of that at this moment. We are still recovering and have not the time."
"Phobos, why not have me recalled down there? I have not had an engagement in weeks. The auxiliary forces you provide are already operating at maximum strain, while I am fresh with rest and in optimal condition."
"Which is precisely why you must remain where you are, Kronos. If any sudden daemon infestations were to spring up in, we would have at least one Guardsman in full condition to contain it long enough for reinforcements to be dispatched."
"Can you even afford reinforcements should they be needed?" Kronos knew he was most likely treading a line, but it had been far too long since he had spoken up of his own doubts. "You are already being torn asunder, as much as you might not want to admit it. Why can we not just abandon this particular section and fall back? Then at the very least I could ass-"
"We do NOT lose any more ground!" there were few times when the commanding presence of Phobos gave way to anger, however slight, and Kronos feared those moments, as much as a Custodian could fear anything. "Far too many of us already have fallen to even maintain what little we have. The Tribunes will not accept further surrendering to the enemy forces, and neither will I. That includes the section you consider so worthless, no matter how supposedly safe it may be."
Tension was thick in the air as Kronos was not quite sure on whether to retort or not, but Phobos ultimately broke it by releasing a sigh, obviously no longer angered.
"I appreciate your spirit Kronos. But right now the best possible way you can help us by staying exactly where you are," a momentary pause as he collected himself to an official voice again. "Continue to monitor and report back in 30 minutes, should nothing happen. Phobos out."
The vox-caster made a clicking sound as it tuned out, leaving Kronos with naught but his own doubts and frustrations as company.
The fear was never in the bang, but in the anticipation of it. And while Kronos could not exactly be accused of harboring such an emotion, he had never quite appreciated the ancient Terran saying more than now. The Webway was entirely silent, even the quiet turbulence of it's breach seemingly having died down. It had gotten so silent he could practically hear his own heartbeat. It was moments like these that he found the greatest strain, even greater than the few times he found himself in battle; left alone in his own thoughts about the future.
No Custodian wanted to admit it, but all of them had thought about it. Their numbers were dwindling, with at least one of the Legion being taken each day. The had neither the resources nor the time to recuperate the losses to anything approaching an even balance, and so they continued their decline.
What more can we even do at this point? Our days are numbered, while the Arch-heretic and all his traitorous forces make haste to Terra, to an Emperor unable to protect.
Thankfully, Kronos found himself taken back to the world of the factual once more by the sound of several heavy thuds that were getting increasingly louder. Something was approaching. Holding up his Guardian Spear, Kronos moved from the position he had to have been keeping for at least several hours at this point, had his internal clock not malfunctioned. Stiff muscles jumped to full capacity in matter of moments, and the golden warrior directed his mighty weapon towards the source of the noise, ready to blast whatever was coming back to deepest pits of whatever hell it had crawled out of it.
However, he immediately lowered it and nearly smacked himself in the face when he realized that those thuds were footsteps and said footsteps were entirely familiar to him. His muscles relaxed, his combat stance devolved into his usual posture, and the thrum of his mighty Spear died down.
A shadow was finally seen along the darkened tunnels of the Webway, a massive shade showing off an impressively large figure that could be made out to be armed to the teeth. Eventually the shadow rested just above Kronos' head, and it's owner made it's presence truly known at last by jumping off the elevated tunnel entrance and right before Kronos himself. The sheer mass of the impactor seemed to make the entire room vibrate, even though such a thing should have been impossible.
With their heavy losses, and the need for more warriors on the battlefield that could provide support, it was understandable that the Legio Custodes had deployed an unusually large amount of Dreadnoughts. With the many fallen in battle, and all of the Legion trained to serve the Emperor's will until their true, final breath, the number of potential inductees was one of the few things they were not running short on.
However, previous Shield-Captain Damocles Cain had not been one of those recently interned. He had been serving the Emperor dutifully even beyond the limits of his true physical body for several centuries now, since the time of the Wars of Unification on Terra.
Among the Legions, the old war machine was also one of the only few Kronos considered a friend. The Legio Custodes were designed to be bodyguards, best among all of humanity certainly, but ultimately not an army like the Legio Astartes. They were all individual warriors unmatched, and although they were capable of working in teams, it was only in the most basic of military senses.
A sense of companionship or brotherhood was never cultivated in them like the Space Marines. Their existence was supposed to be one of silent camaraderie of the most basic type. So it was incredibly difficult to find among the other Custodians actual friendly relationships.
And I of all things end up with the half-dead walking sarcophagus with guns attached. He allowed himself the tiniest of smiles underneath his armor.
As usual, the Achillus Dreadnought's walking betrayed nothing of his current mood. Neither did his "face" nor any other part of his being. It was as if trying to grasp the emotional state of a man inside of a tank with legs. Even for the observational skills of another Custodes, it was still practically impossible.
I suppose I'm contemplating over nothing. Kronos mused. As per usual.
"Damocles, I see you have returned. Find anything of note during your journey?"
It took a moment for the massive war machine to respond, no doubt Damocles reconfiguring his Vox-caster. "Negative. Not even a single breach of Chaos spawn of any kind from section 4567B to 3456A," he lowered his Dreadspear. "In short, incredibly underwhelming. How does guard duty go here?"
"Much of the same fortunately. Or unfortunately, in my own personal case. I do not understand why we are still not allowed to assist with the fighting when our forces are being cut down every day. The premise of reserve personnel is lost to me in light of all that has happened."
The Dreadnought pivoted his spear in a circular motion, a telltale sign that he was thinking. "I'm sure they have their reasons for it."
Kronos stared slightly incredulously at the towering Contemptor "You used to be a Shield-Captain. I struggle to grasp that you would be so accepting of such of a policy without some reasoning behind it."
The Dreadspear was pointed at the ground now, slightly denting the floor with it's mono-molecular blade. "Hmm, I suppose I may simply be going senile. I sure feel as if my mental faculties are not what they used to be. Must be all the embalming fluid."
"You are only 300 years or so my senior. That does not make sense."
"Perhaps. But much of logic in general has stopped having an effect recently in case you have not noticed, courtesy of this place being essentially a more stable version of the Warp."
They stood silent for a time.
"How are you so calm?" Kronos was the first to break said silence.
The Dreadnought looked at him with closest thing it could give to an inquiring stare. "Care to elaborate?"
"In the face of our immediate extinction, you've never once doubted the words of our commanders, despite the fact that you have the full authority to rebut them and that they have led countless more to death than necessary."
The Spear was now carving small indentations into the floor. Whether the markings had any meaning behind dribble to pass the time Kronos cared not to know. "I had the authority mind you. I teach and advise now. Not lead. And our superiors clearly consult with the Emperor himself. Doubting them is paramount to doubting him. Would you doubt him, Kronos?"
Kronos didn't reply to that. He hadn't thought as much of such an implication, even though it had certainly crossed his mind. He had considered himself simply a reasonable skeptic.
"Besides," the Dreadnought pipped up again. "the Tech-priests are laboring even as we speak. Sooner or later, we will be free from this abyss. And then we will strike down whatever traitorous scum brave or foolish enough to evoke the wrath of the Imperium. The Emperor has a plan, and he will come through for us. He always has."
"I never intended for my query to be taken that way."
"I understood that," the Dreadspear was repositioned tip-up again. "You must merely be careful whom you direct these questions at. Very easily could one interpret them as potential treachery, especially in times of turmoil such as this."
"I would die a million times before I stopped following the Emperor's path," Kronos spoke with a hint of anger now. "Every one of us would, and any who does not know as such is a fool."
"I would never doubt your loyalty Kronos. Neither would any of our brothers do so either, I would imagine," Damocles was now looking straight into his armor's eyes. It felt as if his stare alone could pierce the mighty protective suit better than any weapon. "But you must be somewhat self-conscious on how you you make yourself sound. Even our cadres need the skeptical in them, but one must not overstep his bounds in being that individual."
At last, a sigh escaped from Kronos' lips, likely barely audible through the thick armor plating. "Duly noted, Damocles."
It looked as if there was to be a return to the silence of the not-so-far past. Despite considering the Dreadnought a friend, Kronos always knew their conversations had to be short. Not simply because of their duty, but also because every waking moment of an interned brother's life was wracked with pain, albeit more psychological than psychical, though no less agonizing.
Kronos could never imagine himself in such a position. He would lay down his life in but a moment for the Emperor and mankind, but when the topic of becoming confined into a walking coffin was involved, he would rather opt for Finis Rerum. He'd imagine that even talking would be uncomfortable, as would any other single action, mental or physical.
Which was part of the reason why he respected the interned brothers all the more. It took a will of steel beyond even that of any average Custodian to continue living as such. Which was why he was content with the void of sound around them. He wanted not to strain Damocles any further than absolutely necessary.
Alas, whatever false gods of fate there may, they seemed to be in the mood this day.
"Detecting movement in section 4546C," the Dreadnought spoke a second before Kronos' own display lit up with identical information. "Approximate ETA: 1 minute 32 seconds."
Both warriors raised their weapons and took on a combat stance. Damocles' wrist mounted Storm Bolters whirred to life as well. The wait was tense, and neither Custodian said a word to each-other. At last, they saw a shadowed figure emerge from one of the tunnels. However, Kronos allowed himself to lose some of his composure when he saw a familiar pattern of armor.
Thanatos, a member of the Sentinel Guard stationed in vaguely overlapping territory with his own unit, Kronos had not had much interaction with him. The Golden Legion's territory was so large to cover, some of them would never meet one-another and only be briefed on the bare necessities. However, from what he had heard on the vox-casters, he was a commendable member of the Guard, having taken place in over 30 different daemon sieges, surviving each one with respectable kill counts.
What went unexplained was his presence here. They occupied vaguely similar areas, but the fact that his patrolling patterns had never led to them encountering each-other before led to suspicion. What alarmed the both of them more was the fact that his armor's optics were turned off.
A Custodian's optics were not simply peeping holes through the armor, they were a complex camera as well as visual display positioned directly onto the eyeball. Having their familiar crimson sheen turned off suggested that Thanatos was for whatever reason walking completely blind, which even with a Custodian's immensely improved senses, was a terrible idea.
"Thanatos, you have never been assigned to this sector. Care to explain what brings you here?" Kronos said. The other Custodian simply kept walking toward them. Kronos frowned underneath his armor, as his grip on his Spear tightened. Is he even listening to me?
"Thanatos, this is former Shield-Captain Damocles Cain talking: I would advise of ceasing your advance and informing us of your presence here immediately," he simply kept walking, seemingly entirely oblivious. Any ease Kronos might've felt was now completely obliterated. Thanatos' steps began to look more surreal than one could imagine a humanoid creature being capable of.
They were wobbly, uncoordinated and at more than one point it seemed as if his very legs were stretching. Kronos found himself clutching his Guardian Spear even tighter, as instincts and training kicked in, leading him into his combat stance once again.
Damocles was doing similarly, as he pointed the massive Dreadspear towards the approaching Custodian, blazing energies already being built up in it's Las-Pulser. "I warn you one final time, Thanatos. Stand down now."
The Custodian at last stopped in his tracks. Yet the feeling of offness did not go away. On the contrary, it only increased. Thanatos simply remained where he was, head pointed slightly downward. The atmosphere was thick and heavy with charge, as neither Kronos nor Damocles had any intention of lowering their weapons without the intruder, peaceful or not, explaining himself.
Then, with terrifying speed and an unnatural crunch, Thanatos' head shot up to stare at them with glowing eyes. Yet even though they were crimson befitting the helm of a Custodian, the sheer intensity radiated from them made both orbs seem more like tongues of flame being shot at them. It was only when "Thanatos" spoke that both realized what was about to happen:
"I WAS HOPING I COULD KILL YOU SWIFTLY IN THIS FORM. IT SEEMS I WAS WRONG. YOU CERTAINLY ARE VERY PERCEPTIVE. YET IN A WAY, I AM HAPPY FOR THIS," the armor started to bulge and crack in spots, bits of flesh seemingly ballooning outward to dent it beyond recognition. "FOR YOU SEE, STEALTH WAS NEVER TRULY MY STRONG SUIT. I AM FAR MORE INCLINED TO SIMPLY TEAR AWAY UNTIL THE JOB IS DONE."
The entire upper portion of the body suddenly burst upwards, a sea of blood, guts and ruined metal showering the Webway tunnel, coating some of their armor as well. From the bisected lower portion, a stream of red not of any corporeal realm began manifesting into a humanoid form. "BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GO-"
The creature's boast was cut short by cacophony of noise. Damocles' Storm Bolters were already tearing their way through the bloody mist, peppering what remained of Thanatos with large holes, as Bolt rounds tore through flesh material and immaterial alike. At last, a massive burst of the Dreadspear's Las-Pulser reduced whatever was left of the foul thing and the Custodian it had used as skin into ionized basic matter, a distinctive crack and searing flash of light being it's final burial rite.
Kronos could not help but feel a tinge of grief as he saw the last of the mist disperse. Another gone.
Yet, he could not afford himself even another moment of consideration. There could be a potential infestation on their hands, and their Shield-Company was simply not prepared to deal with such at this time, if Phobos' condition had been anything to go by. Kronos made haste to the site of the wrecked body, swiping a sample of the bloody mess that was left not obliterated with his fingers.
Utilizing the built-in optic scanner, Kronos was fed an array of different information, but the one most important to him now was composition. Custodian blood mixed with an unidentified substance possessing immense innate psychic potential.
Damocles approached him, his weapons now disengaged, but his stance no less wary. "Theories?"
"Unidentified substance, reeking of the Warp. Daemon blood. Coupled with what the thing said, one of Khorne's," Kronos took less than a second to connect the dots. "Far too easily killed to be a Prince or Greater Daemon. Yet still too resilient to be mere Chaos spawn. Most likely a Bloodletter."
"One Bloodletter cannot bring down one of us without assistance. Several of them would struggle with an Astartes. This only leaves one logical conclusion."
A short pause left Kronos to voice that conclusion.
"There are more of them. Many more. And they're most likely coming this way."
As if on queue, more thumping noises came from the tunnels. Rasps and moans and screeching unmistakable by the hardened warriors. Both Guardians raised their weapons in preparation, as a massive shadowed horde could be seen emerging with fervor.
Author's notes: Wew, my first ever fic and it's about a couple o' golden bananas. I'm gonna be honest with ya, I never expected that I was ever going to write a thing. So yeah, this is going to be a bit of an experiment as it goes on. I do have a general outline of it planned of course, but I'll mostly make it up as I go along.
Of course, I have done my fair share of research on 40K, however as I'm going to make a habit of mentioning in every chapter, I am not an expert and am completely open to corrections.
On the subject of that, reviews and the like are all welcomed and very much appreciated. Just you know, preferably constructive criticism rather than tearing me a new asshole, yeah? (Although you can totally do that as well)
As a side note, try to get all the references I've put throughout this thing. Hint: There's a bunch.
Otherwise, that's kind of it for now. If anyone is actually interested, the fic should be updated fairly frequently (maybe once every several days/once a week is what I'm aiming), though I make absolutely no promises. The schedule should be taken as semi-consistent at the very best. This is your resident bonehead signing off now.