Magos Klute’s bid to escape succeeded, disabling the armor systems of all present for long enough for him to make good his retreat. When the members of Kill-team Talon regained control of their armor, he was gone.
At once, multiple concerns competed for the Kill-team’s attention, not the least of which was helping Brother Cassius, who was still beset by a Tyranid Lictor. They immediately split up. Brothers Lex, Mason, Draegor, and Sister Mina proceeded to the entranceway to the strategium in an attempt to stem the tide of Tyranid organisms. Brothers Elyas, Erzell, and Andromakles went to assist Brother Cassius, while Brothers Cohollo and Lucius searched the Magos’ personal study for any piece of equipment that might help them on their mission.
Lex’s team arrived at the strategium to find it a scene of carnage. Menials were being overrun and massacred by rampaging hormagaunts, while the last of the techpriests had been murdered. Working quickly, Lex, Mason, Draegor, and Mina drove forward against the horde with bolt, grenade, and flame. They made short work of them, but not without taking their fair share of wounds. Securing the strategium and reclaiming Lex’s combat bike, they made their way to rendezvous with the rest of the team.
Meanwhile, Elyas, Erzell, and Andromakles made haste to Brother Cassius, but their way was blocked by ferocious Tyranid Warriors. With Elyas providing fire support as Andromakles and Erzell closed against the beasts, they slew them with only some delay. Brother Cassius, for his part, managed to escape the strangling grip of the Lictor, using his plasma pistol to further frighten the beast away. Linking up with the rest, the four Astartes hastened to rendezvous with the rest of the squad.
Lucius and Cohollo found the Magos’ personal study. Though it was furnished more like a laboratory than any living space, the Marines found little of interest. As they concluded their fruitless search, they were ambushed by a Lictor and Warrior. Before they could react, Cohollo crashed into the Lictor, wrestling it to the ground. In the meantime, Lucius unleashed a great fury on the Warrior with his thunder hammer, each strike delivering doom, before finally turning his attentions to help Cohollo, caving in the skull of the Lictor that Cohollo had wrestled.
Quite soon, the Kill-team had linked up again, re-prioritizing objectives. At that point, Brother Erzell heard the voice of Astropath Xhenek in his mind, telling him of the Magos’ treachery, and his attempt to escape using the teleportarium. She communicated that she would rather not be party to such treachery, and stole away from the Magos’ entourage, taking with her the canister that contained the gene-coded virus that Klute had earlier asked the Kill-team to administer to the Tyranids. At the same time, Brother Draegor’s keen senses picked up the scent of ash and pyroclastic flow in the air. It was clear that whatever device had been keeping the base stable under the molten rock of Khnum had failed, and they would need to hurry. Lex retrieved a void suit in the armory for Xhenek’s use (as the surface would undoubtedly already have its atmosphere mostly consumed), while the rest met up with the astropath herself. Once they had retrieved her, they made to escape into the surface, a process not achieved without difficulty. It had expended some of their ammunition (notably, Dreagor’s fearsome Fang Storm heavy bolter had depleted its ammo supply), and they had taken some injuries, but they emerged once more into Khnum’s less-than-solid soil.
The surface was almost a completely different sight from last they saw it. The sky itself seemed split asunder, with one half containing Khnum’s rising star, the color of the sky plunged in eternal sunset. The other half had no sky at all, only a night sky filled with the twinkling lights of the star ocean, most all of the heavenly bodies visible due to the lack of ambient lighting and atmosphere. It would have made for a beautiful sight, had it not been born from such nightmarish circumstances. Immediately, the Kill-team, along with their VIP, advanced toward their objective: the digestion pools, where they could deliver the virus directly.
It took Kill-team Talon almost 4 hours in their tactical advance to battle. They found a world deadlier than the one they arrived in. Constant evasion of Tyranid creatures was a given, as they had few supplies with which to fight a protracted engagement, as well as walking wounded that would exacerbate any combat action. Mostly thanks to Brother Mason’s talent for concealment, they managed to avoid fighting many Tyranid strains that they would have otherwise have had to deal with, such as biotitans and swarms of smaller hormagaunts. As their tactical advance approached its last legs, they came upon something strange:
From almost a hundred meters away, they spotted a group of twenty primitive human warriors, armed and adorned similarly to the one they found dying earlier in the day, bravely fending off a group of six Tyranid Warriors. Armed with simple wooden spears and shields, it was a miracle that they had managed to stay alive in this dying world. Making a quick decision, Kill-team Talon decided to assist them. What was to be an obviously one-sided battle in favor of the Tyranids quickly turned into a hailstorm of bolt rounds and jump packs roaring to life. Most of Kill-team Talon worked at long range, electing to provide accurate fire support, while some closed in to keep the Tyranid Warriors busy, as well as providing the human primitives a terrifyingly close look of the awesome power of a Space Marine. In only a few minutes their grim work was done, leaving only the natives. To their credit, they cowered only a moment before rallying under their leader and reforming what was left of their ranks into a formation to defend against what they saw as a new threat.
In response, Kill-team Talon’s mission leader, Brother Lex, unsealed his helmet to show the natives that they were human, and were allies. Most of the rest of the Kill-team followed suit. Once their helmets were released, they found the air in the planet already tight, constricted, and dangerously thin. Sister Mina felt the full extent of it, realizing what extraneous effort it must have taken for the primitives to fight as they did. Brother Lex retrieved the token that the dying warrior gave them, and held it aloft for the natives to see. This prompted a response from their leader, as he broke from their formation to meet with Brother Lex. However, the Astartes’ eyes were not on him, but on the youngest of their number, a mere boy, who stood at the front of their formation. To him did Brother Lex approach and give the token. In response, the native youth took the token, and gazed upon the terrifying sight before him, touching the Imperial Aquila upon Lex’s armor in reverence. He then turned back to his companions, and holding his hands up high, he gave a yell, a primal shout that spoke of victory and honor. His companions responded in kind.
Cassius was marginally successful in communicating with the natives, and he got them to lead them to the digestion pools, a region they seemed to call the “Sea of Death” in their vulgar tongue. Allowing the warriors to lead the way, the Kill-team was mobile once again. Their journey was briefly interrupted when gigantic feeder tendrils from a Tyranid grazer ship orbiting in what would have been Khnum’s lower thermosphere. The gigantic feeder tendrils descended at speeds that would cause ground ruptures if not avoided. With very little time to dodge, Kill-team Talon and the group of natives did the best they could. Some managed to avoid the tendrils burrowing into the ground, while others were not so lucky. In particular, it was Brother Lex that was severely wounded from the shock and impact of one of these tendrils. Already severely wounded, he nevertheless stood up and proceeded to lead the squad into the Sea of Death.
Upon their arrival at the Sea of Death, they saw that it lived up to the name. Past the gentle rise of a hill, and twenty meters downward, they beheld it. It was, as far as human conceptions are able to perceive, a vast sea, stretching across the horizon and from sight to sight, disappearing into the distance, and seeming to meld with the sea of stars that had become Khnum’s new sky. It was a mysterious ichor, obviously acidic, viscous in some places, yet almost clumping and solid in others, its liquid gently lapping onto the desolate shores of what only the most gracious would call a beachfront. The entire sea itself smoked and steamed, betraying the vital life activity within. Before the Kill-team made to deploy the virus, they looked back from whence they came. What they saw was a sight even more disturbing than anything they had yet seen.
It was a sea unto itself. But where the Sea of Death was almost gentle, this was a roiling mass. For it was a sea of Tyranid organisms, all nail and tooth and claw, massing in the faraway horizon, and rushing headlong into Kill-team Talon. It was a hopeless sight: strains far too many to count, and varying from small Rippers to massive Carnifexes. As Kill-team Talon prepared defensive positions in what they expected would be their last stand, Erzell recollected something that he had learned from Arc Knights lore from fighting the Tyranids. It was rumored that in the last stage of consuming a planet, the Tyranid organisms that were used to kill and clean up opposition were directed by the Hive Mind to allow themselves to jump into digestion pools, themselves becoming digested, their biomass returning to the Hive Fleet to be reused again on subsequent invasions. This meant that, if Erzell was correct, the sea of Tyranids heading toward them might not even be seeing them at all, instead going to the Sea of Death to be subsumed once more. Upon telling the Kill-team this, Erzell told them to hold fast their weapons, for a single misstep could spell their doom. Finally, the swarm passes them by, chitin and carapace deftly avoiding the obstacle that Kill-team Talon presented. The spectacle was nothing short of horiffic. The lead creatures threw themselves into the digestive juices, the chitin and flesh sloughing from them as they are reabsorbed by the oozing ichor. In minutes, the entire shore was a vast, boiling vat of thrashing claws, deafening screeches, and fountaining geysers of acid. Soon, it was all over, the entire swarm having pitched itself into the digestion pool, leaving nothing but a stinking yellow-green smog creeping over the blasted landscape. It is then that the light of Khnum’s star begins to fade, eclipsed by an immense hive ship that begins to lower its feeder tendrils from the exosphere to the Sea of Death at the planet’s surface. The feeding would commence. It was time to deliver the virus.
As Andromakles and Erzell approached the pool, and the rest of the Kill-team, the astropath, and the group of primitive warriors stood guard at the height of the small hill, they heard a small rumble that quickly became louder. Standing at the edge of the digestive pool, Erzell heard it first, and then it emerged right after: a Mawloc, a great wyrm-like Tyranid creature. The Hive Fleet had sensed their presence, and reacted. In the distance, the rest of the Kill-team saw a swarm of hormagaunts and termagants heading toward them, led by a Hive Tyrant and flanked by Tyrant Guard. They had to hurry. Erzell and Andromakles fought the Mawlock, the great maw of its mouth hoping to devour one of them whole. Yet the Mawloc was also in pain, half of its form buried in the acidic ichor, and so long as they kept it there, its very life would continue to be expunged. To this end, Lucius jumped to the monstrous creature’s head, pounding on it with the thunder hammer with the hope of stunning it into continued unconsciousness. Meanwhile, the rest of the Kill-team opened fire on the swarm, hoping to thin its numbers before it reached them.
Finally, when Brother Erzell managed to activate the canister and heft it into the pool, the Kill-team began to fall back to the south, toward their extraction point. Already, much of the Kill-team was at grips with the horde of hormagaunts, which made extracting much more complicated. What was already an extremely delicate situation was exacerbated when the Hive Tyrant launched a psychic attack on the Kill-team. Worst of all affected was Brother Lex, the Kill-team leader, already heavily wounded. His mind was filled with the screeching and tearing voices of a hundred million lives, and the great weight of the psychic attack laid him low, making the venerable Space Marine unconscious. Andromakles was the first to notice his vital signs going critical, and when he reached Lex’s position, he observed that he was gravely wounded, but still alive. Reminded of the grim memory of the death of his sergeant in the service of the Iron Snakes chapter, he made the call to not extract his gene-seed, and that he would see Lex safely out of the planet. Elyas collected the astropath, while Lucius, Mason, and Erzell covered the rout.
The journey back to the Valkyrie and Stormraven was arduous, and so was the journey out, as they were harried by flying Tyranid strains. Yet their mission was technically accomplished, although perhaps at too grievous a cost. When Brother Andromakles unsealed Lex’s armor, the blood flowed out. Brother Lex’s every orifice had bled, and though his Larraman’s Organ had staunched the bleeding, he had bled enough to make his armor and the floor of the Valkyrie caked in blood. He had gone into suspended animation, and he would not awake for five more days.
Kill-team Talon’s retreat had left marks on all of them, if not physically then surely mentally. This was their first true encounter with the Tyranids as a complete team, and they had almost failed. A Battle-Brother had almost died. They had retreated, not as heroes, but cowering in the face of the swarm. They vowed to atone. But their minds had already been affected by the cold, inhuman fury of the swarm. They would not soon forget it.
There was no sign of Magos Klute, or any ship he may have used to escape. Long-range auspex picked up nothing. Inquisitor Victoria surmised that he had successfully escaped, but this would not be the last time they would see him. Given the Magos’ secrecy and the details of his projects, Victoria has suspicions about Klute’s true loyalty and motives, and he earmarks the renegade Magos for an Inquisitorial task force. As of now, he was wanted throughout the Reach.
As for the Tyranids, the Darkest Before Dawn continued to track the fleet as both the Imperial ship and the fleet progressed out of the system in opposite paths. To the surprise of everyone present, another more massive hive fleet jumped into the system. At first it seemed like they were here to augment the other, but in only a few hours, the larger fleet began to annihilate the smaller one. Through the delay of long-range auspex, they watched as the smaller fleet winked out of existence, its biomass not even being harvested. It seems the Hive Fleet was smarter than they had given it credit for. It had seen the infected hive fleet, and erased it out of existence, a necessary amputation to stem the effects of a poison that could kill them. It was bittersweet. On one hand, they knew the virus worked, with enough efficacy that the Hive Mind would consider it a threat enough to destroy its own organisms. On the other hand, the Hive Mind was not an unthinking mechanism, and it was, like the Imperium itself, ready to sacrifice the few to save the many; ready to conduct genocide on its own race in order to save it. It was troubling news. But perhaps the virus could be remade again, and different uses found for it. Either way, Inquisitor Victoria considered this a net victory (despite Brother Lex almost dying), and they proceeded to move on, twoard the Fortress world of Hethgard.