"A Hopeless Duty", By Intrepid

The Ork Nob sniffed the night air. “Humies! In dat ravine!” The mob howled with bloodlust as they leaped forward eagerly, when suddenly three went down in a burst of gunfire. To the right, a lone Space Marine stepped out from behind a boulder, emptying bolter fire into their ranks. The mob pivoted to face the new threat, closing in like an ocean wave crashing against a rock.

“Barnes, Phipps, frags NOW!” a voice rang out. “Get moving, people!” Guardsmen jumped up the edge of the ravine. A fragmentation missile streaked into the midst of the Orks, followed by hails of lasgun fire. Caught in a perfectly executed crossfire, the greenskins bellowed in frustration as they were cut down.

“Woohoo!” “We blitzed their sorry carcasses!” “Sir…sir, are you okay?” The IG squad’s exuberance was cut short as the Marine staggered to his knees, bolter falling as he clumsily yanked his helmet off. He shook as he gulped in the cold night air, face twisted with pain. The Guardsmen had never seen his face before; the Marine was bald and albino, combat scars crisscrossing his face. Copper-colored lines had been tattooed on hin recently, making strange patterns on his body. Wards, maybe?

“Quit skylarking!” Corporal Turnow boomed. “Phipps, set up a perimeter! Howard, see if we’ve drawn the main force’s attention!” He glared at his squad as they quickly resumed their duties, and then turned his attention back to the Marine. The Marine spoke first. “A fine ambush, corporal,” he said in a shaky voice. “Our work here should open a weakness in their lines.”

“You look pale, sir.” Turnow knew Marines were immune to mortal threats, but this one was acting like he had appendicitis.

“Yes, well, I don’t get out much,” the Marine grunted as he picked up his bat-winged helmet and fitted it into place.

For the first time in a month, Commissar McLellan was humming. He was in the regiment’s command center and the tactical display was showing the first good news he’d seen in a long time. The feint led by Space Marine Calvin Zug had lured seemingly all of the greenskins away from the bunker-riddled hillside that had been giving him fits. How typical of Orks, McLellan mused, that they would make the effort to prepare an ideal fixed position and then abandon it to kill a couple men. Well, those bunkers were the Waaagh’s main bulwark against counterattack, and here was a chance for the 23rd Kronecker Regiment to seize them intact! As he watched, Imperial units were speeding to take full advantage of the breach.

McLellan voxed Marine Zug. “Good show out there,” McLellan said. “They are behaving exactly as you had expected. We’re already moving in to take the position.”

Zug’s grim voice responded. “Our orders are to hold the line, not advance, Commissar. Loot the bunkers if you must but do not occupy them.”

“Nonsense,” McLellan scoffed. “Our actions are well within Imperial rules of engagement. Besides, we need this victory for morale; the men have had little hope for weeks.”

“Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment, Commissar,” the Marine rumbled. “I advise you again to cancel the assault.”

McLellan glanced at the tactical map. “The K9 Corps have already engaged the defenses, Marine. I am not going to order a withdrawal without good reason.” Pause. “Can you give me one?”

Zug’s voice flowed even thicker with anger. “The word of a Space Marine should suffice, Commissar. Regardless, I will handle the Colonel’s error myself.”

Exasperated, McLellan rolled his eyes. “Zug, while His Divine Majesty’s Imperial Guard is grateful to the Night Lords Chapter for providing us with your assistance, may I remind you (again) that you do not have operational command of this regiment?”

His only answer was static.

“Cry havoc!” buzzed the Techpriest, “and let slip the dogs of war!” He nodded to the K9 handlers who, now that the dogs’ bomb vests had been sanctified, whistled out the charge orders. Leashes snapped off and thirty massive canines lunged towards the understaffed bunkers. Volleys of lasgun and heavy bolter fire lit the air, covering the K9 Corps’ charge across the kill zone. The defenders returned fire but didn’t notice the new threat until the dogs of war were upon them.

The first dog in was Kilo, named for his sizeable, hormone-fed bulk. He jumped four feet over sandbags covered in razor-sharp junk and landed on a screaming grot. Kilo’s jaws snapped down on the pathetic creature and its cry suddenly ceased. As he made the kill, Kilo felt two sharp thuds in his flanks as his bomb vest detonated, the directional charges on his sides exploding as their machine-spirits detected nearby hostiles. Padfoot and Tigger leaped over the wall to join him, and together the pack began to hunt.

The greenskins reacted quickly. With most of the Nobs drawn away by Turnow’s distraction, they opted for a defensive strategy, falling back and barricading themselves in the crude rockrete of the bunkers. Angry dogs circled them, searching for weaknesses as Guardsmen began storming the complex with meltaguns and missile launchers. The 23rd was a siege regiment and bunker assaults were a standard tactic for them.

Kilo tried to poke his snout under the entry door to one of the bunkers, scrabbling in frustration. He sensed someone behind and looked up; the Techpriest who had blessed his vest ran up, gripped the door with a servoarm and ripped it open for him. Kilo squeezed inside as soon as he could fit and died, an Orky bolt ripping through his vest. Tigger jumped inside even as Kilo fell, grabbing the crude bolter with his teeth and shaking it out of the Ork’s hands. That cleared the path for Padfoot. The greenskin shrank back to a hasty pile of grenades and autocannon shells, a primed meltabomb lying on top. “For da glory of Gork!” he bellowed and lunged for the bomb, missing the trigger by an inch as Padfoot slammed into him, teeth gripping its neck. The Techpriest priest strode into the bunker. “Techpriest Thelonius to Command, Bunker Charlie-4 is secure,” he hummed just before a bolt sped past him into the munitions pile.

The ground heaved as an enormous explosion tore apart Bunker Charlie-4. As the shell-shocked troops picked themselves up, they saw the Space Marine running towards them. “Fall back! It’s a trap! The entire complex has been rigged with explosives! Fall back!”
Lieutenants took up the call and the assault, for all practical purposes, was over.

Calvin Zug was summoned to the Colonel’s office the next evening. Edmund Grahvess was seated at the far end behind a massive oak desk; behind him on the wall hung a large golden aquilae, and the regimental standard stood in the corner. An honor guard of four soldiers stood at attention along a wall. Zug walked into the middle of the room and crossed his arms; a clock ticked in the silence.

Grahvess spoke first. “Techpriest Thelonius survived, briefly. His counterpart was able to take a sworn statement and download his memory. You set off the explosion yesterday.” He glanced at a dataslate on his desk; Zug was motionless. “When you arrived, you saved Second Company unaided. Then you did nothing when First Company was ambushed. Now you gave us a needed diversion and then sabotaged our efforts to take advantage of it. Lastly, the Commissar is quite put out with your killing some of my men.” Grahvess looked up. “Given your strange behavior, Calvin Zug of the Night Lords, I contacted your superiors for advice…only to discover that the Night Lord Legion has been Excommunicate since Horus! I suppose the Munitorum keeps us ignorant about some of the finer points of the Heresy, no doubt to protect us from the taint of your kind.”

Zug finally spoke. “My deception worked, Colonel, because you were desperate. I came and you didn’t ask questions.” He chuckled dryly. “Do you intend to order my execution?”

“No,” Grahvess lifted up the dataslate. “Because Commissar McLellan already has. He is waiting for you in the Chimera maintenance yard.” Grahvess nodded to the honor guard; Zug allowed himself to be escorted out.

Commissar Wilford McLellan was going to die. Challenging a Space Marine to a duel was suicide but he had no alternative. Rumors were already flying about the Traitor Marine co-opting the regiment, sabotaging victories and picking off trusting Guardsmen. Even worse was what the Inquisition was likely to do in response. The only solution was the Traitor’s head on a plate, and a sniper in the shadows would not suffice.

McLellan stood in the center of the large maintenance bay; Second Company was lined up along a wall to witness the duel. Traitor Zug stepped in at the far end to the jeers of the men. “Zug!” McLellan yelled, unfastening his cape and greatcoat. “Betrayer! Murderer! Today you shall answer for your crimes!”

The crowd fell silent as Zug began removing his own armor. His entire body was albino-pale and the copper tattooing covered him from scalp to toe. “Commissar,” Zug said, “In my gratitude…”

Enough talk!” McLellan screamed, and charged. Zug calmly inhaled, then spat into the Commisar’s face. The charge faltered as McLellan frantically tried to rub the caustic spittle out, but it was too late; Zug’s fist smashed into his face with a loud crack and knocking him onto his knees. Zug smiled. “Your blindness is temporary, Commissar. Submit to me and I will spare you.”

“Never,” McLellan gasped though a broken nose. This was the end; he could only inspire the men to continue the fight without him. “Only in death,” he said as he stood unsteadily, “does my duty end, Traitor!”

The copper lines on Zug’s body suddenly blazed with light. Zug suppressed a scream of pain as his body began to twist and stretch out of proportion for any humanoid. The Guardsmen fell silent as Zug began to grow rapidly, dropping to ground as scales and wings emerged from his warping body. Hands became talons and the face, a snout as Calvin Zug transformed into a gigantic dragon.

There was a moment of shocked silence, the glowing tattoos dissolving off Zug’s new body. Then the dragon took a deep breath and rose up on its four legs. “Much better,” Zug said, looking around as if for the first time. He had grown larger than a Leman Russ, with scales of gray and an iridescent purple. “Relax, Commissar, the duel is over…and in gratitude for your regiment’s help, I shall explain myself to you.”

The great wyrm sat down on its rear haunches. “A long time ago, the Night Lords were loyal to the Emperor,” Zug began. “Our tactics of terror were unpleasant but necessary, and we succeeded in battles that could not have been won by other means. However, just before the Heresy the Emperor turned on us, our actions having become politically inconvenient,” he sneered. “We knew the evils of Chaos, but the alternative to joining Horus was certain death. And so we left the Imperium.

“Chaos is driven by emotion, so we Night Lords prevented corruption by suppressing our feelings. I was not so good at that, and through the millennia I was saturated with duty towards my Legion and the hopelessness of our cause. Finally, the corruption could no longer be contained. Our...Librarian believed he could control my imminent mass mutation by inscribing wards on me like psychic circuits and exposing me to as much ‘hopeless duty’ as possible to accelerate the rate of change. This regiment was the best source of hopeless duty we could find, and I did what I could to encourage it. And here I am,” the dragon said, “a Prince of Daemons instead of a Spawn.”

Zug the dragon strode over to his discarded helmet and spoke into it. “Lord Grimstone, this is Zug. I’m on the other side…come for me.”