The heat is intense.
The market is packed with patrons involved in the hustle and bustle of day to day life. There is a hubbub of different voices merged into a constant thrum, like the buzz of an insect hive: the occasional shout for sale breaks the monotone of the white noise.
In comparison the air is still, like the weight of the heat is too much for it to move through. The sun washes out everything in a bright, almost unnatural filter. The sweat trickles down the foreheads of the waiting soldiers, running into already sore eyes squinting into the heat haze.
Strang surveys the busy square, cold grey eyes tracking every nuance of movement. He alights on one of the careful disguised troops standing guard across the throng. He watches the slight facial tick as the man grimaces, shifting from left to right foot, recognising the discomfort of moving within sweat drenched clothing.
The voice in his vox receiver crackles into life, crashing in on his thoughts.
‘Target position?’ He answers curtly.
‘Approaching from the south’ comes the reply.
He snaps his gaze right and sees the approaching truck, a pick up with a driver, passenger up front and three armed militia looking types riding uncomfortably on the bumpy, dusty bed.
‘Target confirmed. Eyes on rendezvous point. Wait for my command.’
Tactical strategies began to form in his mind, altering and shifting with each new variable introduced to the market environment.
The truck pulls up in front of the beaten up and unassuming vehicle where the black market trader they had tracked for weeks was readying for the exchange.
Lazarus Hastus was a small time trickster who had struck lucky, a jackal who had fallen upon a fatted calf. As part of what was intended to be a long con he had inserted himself into a salvage crew whose excursions into The Eye of Terror often yielded exotic and high profit rewards. On one particularly long trip they had stumbled across the wreckage of a derelict. Unidentifiable to the crew and fear of Heresy or raiders, their search was cursory but revealed an ancient map. The consensus of the crew was that the map leads to some ancient treasure of great value. They vowed to return to terra and find a cartographer who would help them discern its hidden meaning. At this point Hastus fell upon them in their sleep and condemned them to a cold and silent grave. Once slipping back onto Gudrun he set about finding information from the shadier elements of the pilots and navigators hang outs. His enquiries altered several interested and poweful parties in the Hive world and eventually word of his questions reached the ears of the Inquisition.
The fear in the cartographer’s voice told him more than he needed to know about its content. If he was lucky enough to be found without it on his person he might just live.
Strang’s team had been on the planet a week. Despite Lazarus’s caution they had tracked him and learned of his intention from dealers and murky murmurings in darkened corners of salubrious taverns.
Once they had learned of the hand off they were ordered to identify the buyer, his intentions and eliminate if necessary but preferably captured, the map recovered and the thief held for questioning.
Now in the midday heat was the moment.
The passenger door of the truck was thrown open. The men on the back of the truck vaulted over the sides pulling rifles from their back and glancing hurriedly about.
The assassin from his position on the roof of a stall cracks his neck from side to side and looks down the telescopic sight of his sniper rifle.
‘Green 1 – Capture seller.
Green 2 – On the driver.
Green 3 – Suppress the buyer.
Heavies are mine, Copy.’
The confirmation rings in his ear from three distinct voices.
‘On my mark’, the passenger exit’s the car.
‘Three’ Strang calculates the position of the bodyguards.
‘Two’ Hastus leaves the car.
‘One’, the two men leave the cover of their vehicles and step towards each other.
The world slows…
Strang removes the sunglasses from the first bodyguard as he shoots him dead through the temple. Breathing he ratchets the slide on the rifle, scope switching to the startled second guard who is just beginning to react. Green 2 from his position low and across from the truck catches the driver through the throat, drenching the windscreen with blood. Strang shoots the second bodyguard, rolling into position for the third. He once more cocks the rifle.
Caught in no man’s land the two conspirators are like frightened rabbits. Their gaze meets; they hesitate and turn to run, unsure of the direction for their salvation. As they turn to flee Green 1 and 3 spring from cover. Using their exceptional hand to hand skills they easily take down the two men. The third bodyguard has barely had time to notice this as he has spotted Strang up on the stall roof, placing him between the triangle of his sight in time for the assassin’s third bullet to tear off his cheekbone and send him spinning to the floor.
‘Affirmative. Watch your positions and group for extraction. Good work.’
Strang switches channels, ‘Alpha Team this is Harbinger. Target acquired, requesting extraction’.
The answer comes back almost immediately.
‘Affirmative Harbinger, extraction ETA 5 minutes’.
Strang springs down from the hard wood stall and moves cautiously across the square.
He reaches the captives and searches Hastas. Removing the map he stashes it carefully in his leathers,
‘You have made an extremely bad choice my friend.’
Hastus spits at his feet, ‘You should have just killed me, I’m a dead man now anyway’.
‘I have killed you,’ Strang replies, ‘but your death rattle may yet prove sweet music to my ears’.
He turns to the would be buyer, there is a glimmer of recognition between them. He pauses, frustrated like an echo of something skittering across his mind fleetingly before dancing out of reach.
In the distance there is the whine of approaching engines.
‘Who are you?’ He asks.
‘Do you think it’s that easy assassin? That I’m just going to tell you what you want to know?
‘If you don’t either he’ll give you up’, he nods to the seller, ‘Or I’ll ensure the Inquisition carves it out of you’.
The buyer smirks seemingly cool under this pressure, ‘You’ll never take me alive Severas’.
The assassin flinches at the use of his name, the troops exchange glances. This is not what they were expecting.
The dust around them picks up; the tents start to flap, voices are raised angrily as fruit and merchandise start to roll off the table tops. There is a merciful moment as the drop ship passes in front of the relentless sun, bathing the square in shade. This distraction breaks the moment and Strang shoves the buyer into Green 3.
‘Watch him and get him into the drop ship’.
He steps back to survey the square, unsettled by the turn of events, still trying to grasp at the memory of where he has seen the man.
The drop ship lands 30 meters away – motioning he signals to his men to get on the craft. Green 1 as the closest moves Hastus onto the vehicle, Green 2 and 3 start to force the buyer through the open side hatch.
Across from the Valkyrie Strang turns, he almost senses something is wrong. His heightened hearing picks up a noise above the crowd, a whooshing sound.
‘RPG!’ He screams ducking for cover, the shout is lost as the propelled rocket whips across the space, through Green 3 by the door of the craft and into the wing mounted engine. There is a crumpled explosion of wet flesh into metal and the Valkyrie tips throwing the crew from the back.
As they tumble out there is a hail of bullets, peppering the ship and the surrounding area. The pilot and the seller get clipped, not fatally, but seriously. As the craft hits the floor there is a second explosion in the wing, shards of metal erupt from the mess and as Green 1 helps the former seller to his feet they are cut to ribbons.
‘Get down’, Strang dives towards the buyer, dragging him towards a wooden stall. Green 2 helps the Pilot, who has tied a tourniquet around his leg, out of the main shooting alley.
Snapping his head round the side of the stall the assassin surveys the area. More bullets rattle the ship and the stall.
‘Four man team. Two left, one elevated centrally and one approaching from the right.’
He turns to the buyer, ‘Who the hell is out there? They want you dead as much as us.’
The buyer shakes his head, ‘I was dead the moment they knew you were coming for me. There is nothing you can do now to make me tell you what you want to know.’
Wood splinters above them.
‘They have betrayed you and yet you remain loyal?’
‘They are not my people, but others with similar interest. This was why I came armed. Whoever put you in this place either hates you or has no idea of the shitstorm you have just walked into – those men. ‘he nods beyond the stall,’will not allow the map to fall into Inquisitional hands’.
‘It already is’ Strang relies. He rolls to the right and snaps off two rounds, the lone figure approaching on foot rifle held out in front of him is cut down, a shot to the chest knocking them teetering backwards and the shot to the top of the right leg punching him off his feet.
‘Green 2, for fucks sake take them out’.
Jolted into action the trooper swivels to return fire on the two on the left. The shift in movement causes the elevated sniper to switch target allowing Strang the moment to get a bead on him and take him out.
Green 2 hits one of the men and he goes down. The second men shoots him dead instantly, his body falling on the injured pilot.
‘We’re getting out of this’ Strang mutters under his breath and pulling his power blade from his belt he crouches waiting for the man to get closer. As he draws next to the wooden stall, the pilot fires at him with his Las Pistol. The shot is ineffectual and bounces off his armour but the distraction is long enough to allow the assassin time to leap over the stall, he lands gracefully in front of the trooper, poised. The attacker swings his gun round.
In an almost poetic movement Strang rotates from the hips, swaying his body round like a ballerina and leaning backwards, the shots rippling harmlessly over his head. He straightens in time to see the disbelief in the man’s eyes. Launching from the ball of his foot he leaps, twisting in the air, blade arching in the sunlight. The first blow carves the arm that was rising to block the attack rendering it useless, the second blow rakes across his back as Strangs momentum takes him passed and the final strike severs the base of the neck as the blade is jammed into the weak spot in the attackers defenses.
As the assassin pulls the weapon clear the body slumps to the ground.
He walks over to the buyer and the pilot. He helps the injured man to his feet and turns to face the buyer. As he looks up to meet the man’s eyes the world turns red, reeling back he shakes his head, droplets of warm, thick red liquid falls on the hot sand, staining it an almost copper colour, looking up once more he realises he cannot see the buyer’s head, the stump where he neck should be is gouting blood. Shocked the assassin gazes round.
There in the middle of the market stands a solitary cloaked figure. His hood is up and only his eyes glint in the shadows; he holds a twisted staff and a sleeking looking pistol which wasn’t smoking like it had been fired.
‘The map if you please.’ His voice is soft but raspy like it had been damaged or under used for many years. He tilts the staff towards the assassin in a gesture which could be taken as a command or a threat.
Strang levels his rifle at the man’s chest stepping back again.
‘I am a member of the Emperor’s Inquisi-’
‘I know who you are. Your position is of no interest to me. Give me the map and maybe I’ll kill you quickly’
Voices whisper in Strang’s head, a growing mad cacophony in the back of his mind. He shakes his head from side to side trying to clear it. Looking up he can see a smile dance on the lips of the stranger. Speaking over his shoulder he asks the pilot if he can move. The answer is positive.
Turning back to the caped man he primes the rifle.
‘I suggest you walk away with your life now’.
‘You are not placed to make threats little man. Give me the map or you will endure horrors you could not even imagine were possible’, and with a gesture the noise grows inside Strang’s head.
‘Thank you’, it is the assassin’s turn to smile, 10 yards, point blank range to the unamoured chest of the stranger. His finger pumps the trigger, once, twice, three times. The gun is silent except for a clicking sound as the weapon fails to fire. The smile turns to a snarl.
The stranger laughs at this and turns up the noises in Strang’s head. Hard.
He staggers, the voices shrieking deep in his subconscious.
‘What are you doing?’ the pilot screams.
‘Get to the car!’ Strang replies galvanised back into the real world by a real person speaking to him. It is taking all his will power to resist the crippling effects. He lunges forward, flailing with his rifle; he strikes the stranger on the knee cap with the stock of the weapon. The internal noise recedes slightly as the man cries out. Strang moves on the attack, swinging with the rifle again, catching the man off balance and knocking him backwards. He reels before regaining his footing, just as Strang steps in to close range combat. In a wild series of fluid movements the assassin unleashes his devastating attack, the stranger keeping perfect pace, parrying every strike. Strang has never known another human outside of the Assassinorum to be able to match his training.
The stranger begins his attack. He is fast; worthy of any opponent Strang has fought. He slips, losing his footing in the stand, and the last move becomes a desperate block.
Prone he sweeps the strangers legs and rolls to land a blow as the man crashes to the ground next to him. The blade goes deep into the man’s shoulder and as he pulls himself almost face to face he twists the weapon opening the wound. The stranger laughs again, a horrid alien sound that chills Strang to the bone, then pain as his opponent slides his own blade into the assassin’s side.
Screaming as the same thing happens in turn to him Strang crashes his forehead into the man’s nose splattering both their faces with his blood. Once more the stranger smiles and tilts his head.
The noise erupts deep in Strang’s mind again, almost paralysing and agonizing.
‘You shall die here today Severas’ the man intones, ‘I swear this by-’
He is cut off as the pilots boot comes down on his face smashing his teeth. Again and again he brings his heel down. The noise cuts off in Strang’s mind and it is like he can breathe once more.
He rolls away and stands, the pain in his side is excruciating. He pulls the pilot off the stranger, dragging him backwards towards the vehicle Hastas arrived in.
‘We have to leave NOW’ he yells.
‘But what about him?’
‘He’s too fucking strong, let’s go!’
The pilot turns to protest at the fallen man, but even as he looks back the Stranger is propping himself up on his elbows, spitting small yellowed tombstones, his face now a mask of blood frame a look of fury. The pilot turns ashen. Strang grabs him by the shoulders and hauls him away from the ruined figure who is now beginning to mutter in his low voice. The wind starts to pick up; Strang pulls his bolt gun and snaps off a round. He doesn’t hit the stranger but the shot is enough to break his incantation.
It buys them enough time to pile into the vehicle. The pilot guns the engine as Strang peppers the area with shots to keep the stranger pinned down and they roar off in a cloud of dust.
From his vantage point Strang can see the man stand and operate a vox communicator.
‘He has more back up.’
‘What do we do?’ the pilot asks his eyes still on the road ahead.
‘We have to get to the space port quickly. We have to run.’