The Hunting Raven

chapter 6

The Creeping Venom

Michael looked slowly up toward the blood red sky. Smoke covered much of it. The terrific stench of the xenos plague abounded through what little remained of the Tau city.

As usual, Michael was working alone. He holstered his bolt pistols, smiling at the satisfying clink that they made when the armored pockets touched the chainsword on his back. His gauntleted fingers closed gently around the hilt as he drew one of the most feared (for good reason) weapons in the Astartes' arsenal, though it wasn't the most powerful.

The chainsword.

He squeezed the handle, starting the weapon. Its gray teeth spun for a moment, flinging off flakes of dried blood, before Michael shut it off, reassured that it was still in working order.

Suddenly he froze as his instincts kicked in. He did not move his head, but his eyes were fixed on the small dwelling on the side of the road, the cybernetic optics zooming in on the spot. He had seen something move. He began inspecting his sword as though he had frozen due to an odd sound in it. But though he moved his head as though he was looking at it, the Space Marine never took his eyes away from the house.

A second later, something flickered by the moderately large hole blown into the side of the house. Michael smiled, xenos. Whether it was a soldier or civilian, they were dead either way.

Though Michael knew that he would most likely be able to overwhelm and kill whatever was inside, Space Marines took nothing for granted. He made a diagonal line off of the road, on the same side as the house, but curved to the north of it. Then he doubled back once he reached the grass, which covered his clunking footsteps much better than pavement.

Michael crept up to the door of the building. He waited for a moment, then broke it down with his fist. A scream filled the air as he searched the room. Almost instantaneously he found the source.

Two figures huddled at the center of the main room, a pile of apparently scavenged supplies lay at their feet. The Tau woman clutched a child close to her, the latter looked no older than ten or twelve human years.

A bloody grin appeared on Michael's helmeted face. The red chainsword revved as he raised it above his head.

Abruptly, the scene changed. The house became familiar, the skies blue, and the Tau…human?

Michael tried to lower his arms, but they wouldn't move. He looked up to them, only to receive a shock. His gauntlets and armor had turned black, black as the night.

Black as Chaos.

"No!" Michael tried to yell, but his voice caught. His hands raised higher for the blow. The human mother lifted her hand as a futile shield, her face tear stained.

"NO!" Michael screamed as his hands fell. Pain exploded through his head, a crimson wash spread accross his vision.

Michael blinked. It took him a moment to notice the red carpet in front of his face. His head felt like someone had hit him with a Thunder Hammer.

Slowly he got up off the floor, which was when he noticed the pajama clad Rathbane in his room. The room itself was torn apart, with several holes in the walls, the expensive Barioth curtains rent to shreds, and the many ornaments around the room smashed. It looked like a gorilla had torn through the room.

Or a sleepwalking Astartes.

As he got up, Michael noticed that Cydni had a rather large, blue hammer with iron studs on the back of it slung over her shoulder. After a moment, he remembered that it was an Iron Impact, a weapon that both he and Thardus had in their arsenals.

She handed the weapon to Thardus, who looked rather nonplussed.

"Y'see," she said mildly. "I told you that would wake him up."

Michael removed his helmet, rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head. Not a Thunder Hammer, but by the Throne, it was close enough! Cydni seemed to have quite the arm as well...

A hand slapped against the lower part of his shoulder, hard enough that he could feel the hint of a vibration through the armor. "You gonna be a'right, kid?" Thardus asked. "That must'a been quite the nightmare you were havin' there."

"Astartes do not have nightmares," he said uselessly. Even to him the words sounded hollow, and he knew that they were false. Many things had been thrown into doubt lately...

Thardus just gave a grunt and walked back toward the door, stretching while doing so. His corded muscles bulged against the red t-shirt that he wore. "Well," he grunted. "It's morning anyway, planning in two hours everybody."

As Cydni and the others filed out of the room, a woman stopped Thardus. Michael sat down on his bed and closed his eyes, but he kept his eyes tuned.

"Do you believe me now?" she asked. Her voice had a heavy, asian-like accent. "You just saw that he is extremely unstable among other things. And you heard what Cydni has already said about him. He would kill us all without a moment of hesitation!"

"Let me get this straight, Marina," he said dangerously, a tone that Michael had never heard him use before. "You think that we should alienate the one man in the entire world who could singlehandedly wreck this entire city if he wanted to?"

Marina could be heard shifting uncomfortably. After a moment, Thardus spoke again, "I wasn't born yesterday. I know full well what he's capable of. But he might just hold the one thing that this world is missing. An explanation."

There was a moment of silence, then a ventured, "An explanation for what?"

"Why are we here?" Thardus said simply. Then he walked away.

That left Michael a little confused. "Why are we here?" What did he mean by that? Though the Astartes knew himself to be far from unstable, Marina must simply be one of the distrusting type.

He opened his eyes a crack, looking out the yawning window, past what was left of the curtains. The Loc Lac Lake (or simply "triple L", as Thardus called it) glistened in the early morning sun. Fog covered the landscape, but the heat of the day would soon make it disappear.

He sighed, resigning himself to the two hours until the quest planning…

"Good, now everyone's here," Thardus announced as Michael squeezed himself in through the door. He nodded toward the group of "newbies," some of them were in the hunting group that Michael had met on the day of his arrival. They all wore weaker armor than the senior or intermediate members of the Rathbane, but from what he had heard about them in the Tavern, they were a force to be reckoned with.

As they left (Michael noticed a not too happy Marina with them), Max, Cydni, and Jazz gathered around the map of the region on the table. Cydni gave the Space Marine a significant look through her helm. Though Michael's helmet faced her, he did not meet her gaze beneath the eyepieces.

"Right, so," Thardus continued, not noticing this. "Just got a request from a good friend o' mine. Seems there's some trouble up'n the Tundra. A Gigginox has been spotted in th' caves near th' preserve."

"Shouldn't be too hard," Cydni said. "We've been there a few times before."

Thardus blinked. "I don' think ya understand here, Cyd. This is way up in the Tundra.

She blanched slightly. "You don't mean…"

"I mean it, I'm talking booger freezing here." Max nodded in agreement, then winced. It seemed that he hadn't entirely recovered from last night. Cydni shivered, her armor clinking together.

Michael could understand why she wouldn't want to go to a tundra. Her armor looked powerful and had an excellent hydrodynamic design, but it left much to be desired with cold.

At the same time though, Thardus' armor was thick, light, and flexible, but wouldn't fare any better, why didn't he mind? No temperature was a worry for the Astartes due to his powered armor.

He thought back to the guide that he had read about many of the monsters on this world. The Gigginox was an unholy combination of creatures. It had the general body of a leech, the arms and legs of a frog, and the wings of a bat. Though it usually dwelled in the frigid caves of the Tundra, its legless offspring lived wherever there was either water or a cave.

Thardus gave a wry smile. "Better bring sum hot cocoa then, Cyd. 'Cause it's gonna be a cold one."

A loud crunch sounded as Michael's armored boot touched the ground. His head swiveled as he took stock of his surroundings.

The base camp was covered in ice, as was the airship loading crane. Not only that, but Max had quite the hell of a time trying to maneuver the airship into position. Unlike the camps on the plains and other areas, this one was not situated on a cliff (which made docking ships easier), but placed by a glacial river instead.

The other three hunters stepped off after him. Thardus and Jazz had both changed their armor to adjust to the area.

Thardus wore dark green armor, spikes protruded from the shoulders and the chin of the helm. On the waist was a golden plate that almost resembled a wrestler's belt. The silver jewel on the chestplate seemed to be the Vangis armor's crowning piece. It seemed highly effective at keeping out the cold, and it looked strong enough to repel a lascannon blast.

Jazz wore a combination of armor. His helm and vest were dark blue. The vest curved sharply upward at the shoulders. The helmet possessed a small, curved horn on either side. Apparently, though, he violently refused to wear any Dober armor but the vest and helm. Michael had never seen the rest of the armor, so he did not know why. But the rest of his armor was Qurupeco. It wasn't as effective in the freezing temperatures of the tundra as Dober armor, but it was far from weak due to the armor spheres that had been melted over it.

Unfortunately, Cydni only had one set of armor…and what she had certainly wasn't suited for these subfreezing temperatures. She stood shivering nearby, arms wrapped around herself. Max, on the other hand, merely looked mildly uncomfortable. His Rathian armor was relatively insulated against the cold.

Thardus gave a luxurious stretch, then said, "A'right, everybody ready?" Everyone but Cydni nodded. After looking at her for a moment, Thardus walked over to a blue crate near the base camp's tent. He took out a small, red bottle and tossed it to the other hunter.

Ripping off her helm, Cydni popped the top off of the steaming drink and chugged it.


"Better," she said.

"Good, a'right people, let's roll," Thardus announced. With that, everyone walked to the north, toward the depths of the mountainous tundra…

"Somebody light up," a deep, disembodied voice said off to the right.

"Aw, come on bro, you know I don't smoke!" said another. A smack followed afterward, followed by the voice yelling, "Ow!"

Michael shook his head with a sigh. To find the Gigginox, the group had to search through the tundra's numerous caves. Through the entire journey, Jazz's sarcasm hadn't ceased. It was quickly becoming a grating annoyance.

There was the faint tinkling of armor, then Cydni said, "Alright, I found my torch." More tinkling. "Ah, shit! Where'd I put those matches?"

"Well hurry up!" Max chimed. "I swear I'm gonna run into so-" ithunk/I "Ow, damnit!"

Everyone stopped walking. "Are you alright, Max?" Michael asked.

"Mmf, ow…Yeah…yeah, I'm good…Ow, sheesh, dang stalagmite got my nose…Just hurry up with that torch, Cydni."

"I can't find the damn matches!" she exclaimed. "Hey Michael, you got a light?"

"I do," he answered, turning toward her voice. "Hold it out in front of you."

He waited a moment, then reached to his waist holster and pulled out a device that resembled a crudely put together bolt pistol. Of course, it really wasn't. But matches were simply too small for him to hold.

With a press of the trigger, the device belched forth a gigantic plume of flame, lighting up the entire cave for a few moments. Everyone looked exactly as they did a second before, not having enough time to react to the sudden gout of fire. It looked almost comical.

Then, as suddenly as it came, the flame disappeared.

It was silent for a few moments; even Jazz didn't make a joke.

"Eh…thanks," Cydni finally said in a slightly shaky voice, her armor glinting brilliant azure in the torch's newborn flame.

"You are welcome," Michael said coolly as he put the flame pistol away. He made a mental note to tone down the incendiary power when they got back to Loc Lac.

Then, just at the edge of the artificial twilight, an icicle fell. Michael instantly snapped the blazing orange axe off of his back and unfolded it; the Flame Tempest, as he searched around. Slowly, he tilted his head toward the ceiling. Seeing this, the other four hunters did they same.

Above them were glowing, purple lines and symbols.

"Move…MOVE NOW!" Thardus roared. Instantly, everyone dove outward. Just in time, as the blue/red shape of the twisted leech flopped where they had been just a second before.

The Gigginox wasted no time on a prelude. It immediately turned toward Michael, his armor's reactor no doubt blazingly bright to its thermal senses.

Its maw jutted forward, stretching like a rubber-band. The Astartes quickly dropped his axe and caught the head. He gave a mighty heave.

But this thing wasn't a Great Jaggi. Its mouth stretched this way and that, but didn't show the slightest bit of strain. Rancid breath flowed onto his helm, quickly making Michael thank the Throne that he had atmosphere scrubbers in his cover.

Suddenly, the overgrown leech-frog took a deep breath and exhaled. The air around them took on a purplish hue as noxious gases permeated it. A sudden crackling sound filled Michael's ears. Horrified, he realized that the armor over his hands was blackening, even the armor further from the beast's maw began losing its crimson luster.

Abruptly, a monster's head slammed into the Gigginox's neck, accompanied by a gout of fire. No…not a head…a hammer!

The creature's head snapped backward with an audible crack and a pained gurgle. It tore out of Michael's hands with enough force to knock him over. Max immediately followed up with a blow from his weapon, the Iron Striker, which was followed by a strike from Cydni. Curved hooks erupted from her massive silver blade just before it hit. The sword mutilated the beast's side, eliciting a scream and an unholy deluge of monster blood. Small lights flew through the air, revealing themselves as miniature drill equipped rockets just before hitting.

Thardus, however, simply stood above Michael, panting heavily, his palms opening and closing. His face was hidden beneath his helmet, so the Space Marine knew not what his expression was.

Abruptly, he gave a mighty uppercut with his Haracrun hammer, knocking Michael back onto the ground. Without a word, he turned to the beast and entered the battle with a warrior's roar.

Michael's soul erupted into absolute, unequalled rage. For now, he would focus on the battle. But Thardus would have the Warp to pay afterward.

Gripping his axe, he literally leapt into battle, fueled by a berserker rage. With a single slash, the outside fourth of the Gigginox's wing was lopped off. The thing whined pitifully, but it still had fight left. It flung the injured wing backward. Both Cydni and Michael, expecting to be thrown back, braced themselves. But instead, they stuck to the underside like Velcro. The monster then jerked forward, sending both of them flying twenty feet, sliding through the ice and fetching up against a wall.

Michael, immediately rose, but gave Cydni a concerned look when she did not.

"Are you alright, Cydni?" he asked.

She slowly got up. "Hrm…yeah, but boy am I gonna feel that one in the morning." With a degree of difficulty, she picked up her Ravager Blade and walked back toward the battle. Michael had no need to, he held his Tempest with an iron grip.

Over in the thick of the fight, it was a losing battle for the 'Nox. Injuries began taking their toll, and more came with every second. It apparently knew this. It crouched and jumped, briefly spreading its wings before sticking to the cave's ceiling, attempting to make a retreat. Jazz took careful aim with his bowgun, the needle-like barrel tracking its movement.

But before he could fire, Michael threw his switch axe. It caught just below the beast's collar bone, or whatever equivalent it had. With an almost human scream, it fell back to the floor back first. Before it could right itself, Thardus slammed down in a godlike smash with his hammer.

The Gigginox's head exploded. Glowing purple pieces and chunks of red pulp flew in every direction.

A few moments later, the Rathbane stood around the body, their weapons sheathed and helms removed, and caught their breath.

Thardus walked over toward Michael, his face twisted in anger. The other matched his expression.

"You arrogant son…of…a…bitch," he said quietly and deliberately. Michael snarled, trying to decide what was the best way to beat Thardus into a bloody pulp.

"You should be mindful of what you say to a Space Marine," he said warningly.

"I'll be mindful of what I DAMN well wanna be mindful of!" Thardus roared. "You may not realize it, but you aren't the only one here! Did you really think that little stunt was a good idea? You think you were the only one affected? That the Gigginox could only hurt one person at a time?"

At that, Michael stopped. He had noticed that Max seemed to be standing lopsided, like one leg was injured. Cydni's once blue armor was almost completely black with acid burns. Even Thardus had multiple scratches on his armor, and seemed to be favoring one shoulder.

In the heat of it, Michael had not forgotten that he was alone. What he did forget, however, is that these hunters were not Space Marines. He said nothing.

Incidentally, neither did Thardus. He merely stomped away. As he passed the dead monster's body, he paused just long enough to snap off a small vestigial spike off of the foot of it. It was normally englobed in flesh, but the foot had been torn open by a hammer blow. The talon would be needed for proof of completion.

Not knowing what to say, the other hunters filed silently after him. Leaving Michael standing there, his massive hands clenching and unclenching…