Rated M for violence and distressing themes.
Potential strong language and drug references
The night-time hive was a billion points of light, arranged in rows and rings and spires. It almost mesmerised Kim as she plummeted towards it, the wind roaring in her ears and snatching at her clothes and pleated hair. Somehow, without daylight to reveal the ugly truth, even the corrupt, suffering city of Vaxanhive conspired to be beautiful.
The daemon wears an angel's face. The warning came back to her in her father's voice; the calm, confident tone that had originally convinced her of the rightness of the Imperial Creed and inspired her to join the missionarius galaxia. Back when life was simple, and right and wrong were more clearly defined.
The hive city twinkled, but above and around her everything was inky black. The agents of fire-team Aegia had disappeared into the night, and she was only vaguely aware of the rest of Kronis team tumbling through the darkness alongside her. The positioning tracker on Kim's wrist shrilled as it detected her reaching deployment height, and she dropped one arm from beside her head to yank on the activation toggle flapping around her chest webbing. A dull hum vibrated through her as the anti-grav plate strapped to her back thrummed into life. Grav chutes were faster, safer and more reliable than traditional parachutes - or so the electro-priest Burakgazi had assured her, in his usual condescending manner. Kim couldn't be sure if it was her alignment with a parallel, "lesser" faith that prompted the electro-priest's patronising response, or the fact that she was a woman. Burakgazi originally hailed from Vostroya, and that planet's near-religious veneration of their firstborn sons did not give many of its scions a favourable opinion of the female gender - unless they were at home breeding up said firstborn, or else staying far away from the men's world of front-line combat.
Whatever his personal views, Burakgazi's faith in the grav-chute packs seemed to be justified. Kim felt herself gradually slowing down, and then being pulled upright as the pack's gyroscope orientated itself. The Emperor protects, she thought gratefully, although Burakgazi would no doubt have ascribed it to the accuracy and timing of a machine that none of the rest of them understood.
Hanging from her harness, she wrapped one hand round the grip of her lasgun and turned her other wrist to look at her position tracker. The crosshairs on the screen were drifting away from the central dot, and she tapped a button on the control pad attached to her grav-chute harness. A small thruster behind her left shoulder flared, and the jet of compressed air pushed her right, away from one of the towering hive spires and towards the murky darkness of the city's eastern docklands.
"Chute deployed." she reported into the microphone stalk curving round her jaw, and checked her position tracker again. "Sixty seconds."
As fire-team Kronis activated their packs and began to drift silently downwards, fire-team Aegia were already approaching their objective. Following the wide arc of the river that cut through the centre of Vaxanhive, they descended towards an abandoned industrial estate. It was a wide concrete plaza, littered with stripped-out workshops and stacks of industrial scrap, and nestled between a run-down hab block and one of the shanty camps that grew up like weeds around the riverside water-treatment plants.
Abner Able thought he could feel his teeth itching as he picked up on a latent psychic presence below them, and he knew that they were running out of time. As the fire-team dropped, thrusters flaring to compensate for the buffeting wind, a blue light flashed near the shell of a gatehouse. It was swiftly followed by another, and then a third which cut across the blue lights with a thread of green. Abner realised that he was looking at the strobe of lasfire. He saw people moving in the gloom, sprinting between piles of old scaffolding and lifter rigs that had rusted to death years before. The darting figures were punching shots into a boarded-up warehouse, while men in dark clothes were returning fire through gaps in the flak-board. The defenders seemed organised, and well-equipped by the standards of a slum-level gang - Abner saw them snapping hand signals and barking into vox-radios strapped to their shoulders as they deployed to meet the assault. The psychic pulse he had sensed was stronger now, and it was coming from inside the warehouse.
Sarna was the first to touch the ground, landing lightly as a cat, and the attacker in front of her was the first to die. Crouched behind a pile of corrugated iron, his eyes fixed along the barrel of his battered lasgun, he didn't even see the Moritat as she dropped down behind him and ended his life with a single cut of her shimmering power sabre. Swiftly kicking the corpse over, Sarna saw a cross tattooed in white and blue on the palm of the man's limp hand. It was a cross she had seen before; scribbled on a scrap of parchment by astropath D'Lane, in the middle of one of his fevered visions. The poor astropath was pushing 70 and ailing fast, Sarna knew - small wonder then that Lucullis had recruited the precog Mai to replace him - but his vision on this matter had been clear enough. The tattoo was a heretical sign. It was the mark of the Slaaneshi cult that called itself the Refuge.
Hadrak and Burakgazi touched down together, behind the shelter offered by the rusting skeleton of an amenities block. As he crouched to lean round the corner of the wall, Hadrak saw X's and crude skulls spray-painted onto the rear wall of the warehouse. He felt a twinge in his stomach, feeling physically sick. Something within the building was lending unholy power to the otherwise mundane sigils.
As he watched, Hadrak saw a trio of the attackers break cover and rush the rear side of the building. One of them was fumbling with what looked like a pipe bomb. The warehouse door in front of the three burst open and a figure darted out, a figure clad in a black jumpsuit whose loose sleeves were secured by tightly-wound strips of dark leather. A long, single-edged blade in the figure's hand flashed in a horizontal arc, and the man carrying the pipe bomb reeled aside as his severed head went spinning away across the concrete. One of the bomber's companions, a gangly young man, dropped his lasgun with a yelp of terror and dived for cover amongst a stack of rusting pipes. The third tried to shoot back at the charging swordsman, but shot wide in his panic, the blue threads of his lasbolts punching a row of holes in the warehouse concrete. The swordsman made another cut and the man staggered back, dropping his lasgun to clutch at his throat as blood jetted between his fingers. There were more shouts of alarm from the attackers, and a flurry of las-fire. The shots punched the ground and sent geysers of burnt concrete erupting into the air, but they all missed the swordsman as he came weaving and leaping through the industrial detritus towards the shooters. Green lasers still blitzed from the front side of the warehouse, but as the attackers focused on the rampaging swordsman, Hadrak saw that the door to the warehouse was now unguarded.
+ + + + + +
Fire-team Kronis dropped, descending in close formation. Loading cranes reared up towards Kim like pointing fingers, and steel boat sheds were painted orange by the phosphor glow of lamp posts. Kim's vox-radio was full of whispering static as she dropped into the warren of narrow streets that surrounded the dock. The daemon was close, picking at the airwaves as it tried to tear through the fabric of their reality, and they were running out of time. For a moment, she thought she heard someone whisper her name through the static.
She tore the microphone hook away from her ear and flung it as far as she could. The communicator tumbled away and landed somewhere in the street below, taking the unholy whispering with it. Still ten metres above the ground, Kim suddenly spotted a pair of young men standing sentinel at the roadside. The yellow street-lights washed the colour from their clothes, and splashed their shadows against the flank of a cargo hauler that was parked behind them. The shadows showed the jagged outlines of the las-rifles in their hands.
One of the men suddenly looked up, straight at the descending agents. He shouted, pointing upwards to his companion as he raised his lasgun. A thread of light sizzled into the air, narrowly missing Kim's team-mate Anais.
"Shit, they're onto us!" Kim shouted, not even sure if her fellow agents could still hear her without her vox-radio. "Drop, drop, drop!"
She braced her Volpone lasgun awkwardly against her chest and fired a volley of red las-beams down at the two men. She missed them both but the shots had the desired effect, sending the men ducking aside as flashes of melted steel bloomed off the side of the cargo hauler. Kim mashed the control panel of her grav-chute, rapidly dialing down the anti-grav plate. She went into freefall and landed hard a second later, the impact forcing her to drop and roll to avoid breaking an ankle.
The two reeling guards began to recover as Anais dropped to the ground next to Kim. They snarled as they re-aimed their guns at the tall warrior woman.
Mai landed on one hand, feeling the potential of imminent futures shiver up through the tarmac into her fingertips. The daemon tearing at the thin veil of reality was scattering and stretching the images she saw, filling the usually chipper psyker with a sense of foreboding. Alexi Holt hit the ground beside her a half-second later. Casting his gaze past the smoking cargo hauler, he saw a purple light flickering in the distance. Of greater concern, however, were the five gun-toting underhivers running down the road towards him, responding to the shouts of their two comrades.