The Catachans were scared of the jungle. Seven words which threatened the entire Jautjex campaign. The Rolling Iron tankers of Sherman’s world, where cribs were fitted with toy promethium motors so that infants learned to sleep through the rumble and stink, flinched at every noise. The 7th Cuchulains — masters of city clearance despite a tendency to treat bars as primary targets — sang no victory songs and only muttered into their drinks. Sure, it was only in the jungle, went the stories, but anything which could kill a Catachan in the jungle could kill anyone else anywhere. The Death Corps of Krieg 544th company said nothing. They marched into the jungle and were never heard from again.
The Imperium’s relentless advance slowed, and stalled. Even minor operations bogged down and ballooned into costly engagements. The Astra Militarum’s mailed fist weakened as the blood of morale was drained by rumor. And all the while Catachans continued to die in the green. Their new fear should have made them cautious, but the resulting shame made them suicidal. Squads tore into the undergrowth desperate to prove their valor, only to find the still-dripping chunks of their predecessors and one sobbing soldier babbling tales of the jungle itself rising to kill them all.
Karn-Tor hung from the branches thirty meters above the trail. The hunt was beginning to bore her. The prey were plentiful and loud, but had become embarrassingly easy to kill. She’d already proven everything she intended, challenging herself on the hunting ground of a planetary conflict, and had to admit to herself that continuing bordered on gluttony. She’d hoped to draw out the elite of this species and was saddened to imagine that she seemed to have found it. It was probably time to move on.
Movement. Herd approaching through the undergrowth on either side of the trail. Thermal lenses revealed eight, no, ten figures. Much larger before. She smiled behind her mask. Maybe this world would offer one last indulgence. She flexed her hands, rolled her neck, waking the muscles in preparation of flensing to come. Perhaps even a trophy. As they came into view she saw some kind of black armor…
Everything exploded. The world disappeared in fire and concussion.
Thermal lenses overloaded, sheer reflex kicked her off the branch. But hot shrapnel tearing through vines and mosses meant her foot slipped through the mulched vegetation to send her plummeting to the ground. Even as she twisted to catch a vine she saw her intended destination disappear in a blaze of fire.
The thought cut her like a poisoned blade leaving a wound which would never heal. Accident. She had survived by accident. These filthy prey would scream to give her atonement before night fell. They would fail, but that is what prey were for.
Her invisibility shroud rippled green and brown to hide her from sight as she vaulted across the canopy. But the explosions followed. She lengthened her leaps, aiming further, faster, but she saw more massive black figures emerging from the trees to her right. She zagged through the massive trees, increasing to sinew-tearing speed, but then the trunks to her left erupted with craters. Yet more of the hard-shelled prey emerging on the right. She cut low, sacrificing vantage for sheer speed, dropping to the ground into a full sprint. How big was this herd?
The explosions never stopped. She outran death with every footfall. Only now did her echolocator compensate for the cacophony to pick out distinctive prey signatures. The waterfall of static along the left of her mask display resolved into distinct detections, triangular glyphs scrolling across the bottom.
Close range: low frequency: machinery/combustion — crude transport rockets. Ten signatures. Ten signatures. These were all the same ten prey, flanking her.
Sheer suicidal rage almost killed her on the spot, sacrificing her escape and her self to stand and spit on such an affront. Karn-Tor was a hunter. The greatest in her clan. Possibly the greatest in her tribe. She had collected trophies from all this galaxy’s most dangerous prey. An Ork skull so large it was now her trophy cabinet, containing the heads of Necron and Dark Eldar alphas, embellished with carved shards of Zoanthrope scale. Her soul held no doubt she was the greatest hunter alive.
But she was no warrior.
A mere hunter operates on their own terms. They understand that they might die, but they never willingly offer themselves for death. Faced with unexpected reversals their first instinct is to flee, to lick their wounds. Then return to base re-arm and restore the total advantage over their targets they enjoy so much.
Karn-Tor angled towards the preparations she’d made only as a matter of excellent hunting technique, with no thought to actually using them. She dove into a gully cut in the jungle by one of countless waterways, through false netting of expertly cut vine and fronds. As she crawled down the narrow channel, far too small for the bulky giants behind her, the plasma cannon on her shoulder rotated to spit an actinic globe backwards, collapsing the entrance.
Karn-Tor’s ship was buried deep in a narrow ravine in the rock with snares set on the only approach. She ducked through the hatch, sealing it behind her, and swung across to the pilot console. She settled into the single pilot throne. She would take fine trophies from these new prey to slake her shame. And if they were still alive as the flayed them, well, that would only…
Cold metal at her throat.
Shadow Captain Kyre appeared behind her. There was no other word for it. The heavy gauntlet which was suddenly holding the knife was painted black. Another slowly turned her chair, that she might see him. No. That he might inspect his catch. The same hand raised and tore the tribal mask for her face, revealing her blotched skin and fanged mandibles. She could feel disgust pulsing even through the glowing lenses of his armor. Harsh blare thundered through a crude vox-grille.
“It is right that you hide your vileness from the Emperor’s sight. But none can hide from His justice. Even the darkest shadow cannot save you.”
The blade did not cut sideways but pushed forwards, servos shoving pushing the metal blade clean through flesh and bone.
“For the Raven Guard are already there.”
More glory to the Space Marines in