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Below lay the endless jungle of the planet Lepan, situated far to the East in the Imperius Dominatus, a vast green canopy stretching from horizon to horizon. In the night it held its breath. The pod, a nine by four foot matte black knife of a craft who's faceted plains, free of the gothic excess of the Adeptus Mechanicus, its exclusive manufacturer, allowed stealthy insertion, contained only one occupant. She lay prone with her arms crossed across her chest, hands resting on opposite shoulders, eyes closed. The hair was shaved clean from her skull and she wore only a small tight fitting black vest and leggings.
A silver cable lead from a small socket that nestled behind her ear and disappeared behind the moulded cushion that held her head. Her eyes were closed. To somebody who did not know whom or what she was (and they far, far outnumbered those who did) she would have appeared dead, as no external vital signs were visible. Behind her eyes however green runes and alpha numerics blinked across private darkness.
A small part of her consciousness registered their presence while the majority had already begun to stalk the jungle floor below. Sensing this, the small logic brain of the craft began, via the mind impulse link, to convert all of its topographical data on the planet below into crude wire frame graphics that began to assemble themselves in the non-space of the occupant's unconsciousness. From the ground up grew immensely tall trees with thick trunks and small umbrella like crowns that formed a near unbroken roof. In between these began to form crude but sturdy tree houses built on tall wooden stilts.
These were linked by a haphazard network of rope and wooden bridges that were equally as complex as the interlocking branches of the trees that surrounded them. It was all purely random, rather than an exact recreation of the dense jungle. But it was enough. The crafts occupant had tirelessly studied all information held by her employers on the jungle and its wildlife on being informed of the action and its vital importance to the Imperium.
A circular fan of landing rockets sprang out around the middle of the craft, timed to release at the last possible moment because of their visibility from the ground. This was the most dangerous stage of a secret insertion.
The crafts descent began to slow. Its occupant did not stir but the graphical representation of the jungle disappeared to be replaced by a series of runes and other technical data relating to the crafts descent angle and velocity. The craft broke through the jungles canopy and surrounded by falling leaves and branches penetrated the jungle floor. All of this was achieved with the minimum noise possible and if heard could easily have been mistaken for the sound of part of one of the ancient tree houses breaking away and crashing to the ground. The rockets retracted and the craft began to rotate. The sharp point of the crafts end already buried in the soil began to sink further until the entire craft had disappeared leaving its top barely visible amongst the leaves and mulch. In the darkness of its interior, Vindicare Assassin Naqeeqa's eyes snapped open.
Naqeeqa pulled herself free of the darkness and crouching over the craft leant inside and released the catches on the seat back. Opening it she revealed a matte black case nearly as tall as her that stood vertical, held in place with restraining clasps. She undid those, withdrew the case and placed it silently on the ground beside her, her movements practiced and fluid, emphasising the suppleness of her lightly muscled physique. She undid the case and withdrew its contents, a matte black body suit with boots attached, matte black Exitus Sniper Rifle, matte black sidearm with holster, cameoline cloak and spy mask. She stepped into the suit and placing the two folds together at her front watched as it slowly knitted itself together, stopping at the base of her slender throat. She placed the holstered sidearm at her hip and it to knitted itself in place.
The two-part barrel of the sniper rifle she slipped into adhesive loops on each muscled thigh and the ultra light stock she placed between her shoulder blades: it to knitted itself comfortably in place. Naqeeqa stood, stretched, and pulled the hooded cloak over her. Slowly, it began to fill with colour, greens, blues and browns leaching in to match the dense gloom of the jungle. The cloak reached her knees so that nothingness began to appear between them and the hard, flat plains of her face captured in the folds of the hood. She replaced the exit hatch of the craft and tapped out a sequence of runes on the keypad recessed in its surface. The craft sank out of sight. She used leaves and branches to render its entry point invisible.
She leant over and retrieved the last object.
When she placed the spy mask over her face and became one with the gloom of the jungle depths the ancient Shadow cat known to others of her species asTeeth of the jungle, instinctively stepped back into foliage as this new occupant of her domain unexpectedly winked out of existence. She was intrigued.
Shasla Tau Sa'cea stared at the jungle surrounding him and thought about the legends such places spawned. He flexed his gauntleted fingers, adjusting his grip on his Pulse Carbine, and looked around at the ten other fire warriors equally spaced around him as they disappeared into the foliage, lead by their Shas'ui team leader. It was there job to patrol the north perimeter of the object while three other teams simultaneously covered the other points of the compass. He looked up at the few spears of sunlight lancing down through the canopy of the jungle but his attention quickly snapped back when the light blue un-helmeted head of his Shas'ui paused and raised his right fist, indicating that everybody else in his team should stop. He did so and breathed, but did not move. As he stood he became aware of the armour and helmet that encased him. A voice did not appear in his helmet and as he watched his team leader lowered his right arm, indicating there continued progress. The Ta'lissera ritual of bonding had only served to augment what was already an unconscious form of communication that existed between the veteran team and as they advanced into unmapped territory they appeared from above as a single organism, briefly breaking apart for obstacles and then reforming, not unlike the Tau race itself.
Naqeeqa climbed a crude ladder and when she reached the top pulled herself onto a wooden platform from which radiated four walkways ending in four two story flat roofed houses that rested on poles made from trunks of the jungles trees. She examined the walkway directly in front of her and it appeared sturdy enough. Despite this she darted across its length stopping when she arrived on the lower deck of the crude house. It smelt musty, of soil and age. Her cameoline cloak adjusted to the gloom.
She looked for some form of access to the floor above and as her augmented sight quickly adjusted to the lack of light she began to make out crude drawings carved into the surfaces around her. In them small groups of humanoid figures danced around the base of impossibly tall trees, hands raised, no doubt observing some long dead heretical ritual. Some of the trees appeared to be leaning slightly downwards as if curiously examining their worshippers. In others, the same figures appeared to be using a variety of crude weapons to stalk four legged creatures with oversized jaws and tails. In others, the creatures appeared to be stalking the figures. The Shadowcats. She knew of them, of course, predatory creatures rumoured to have chameleon like properties, now hunted to extinction by those who occupied the higher tiers of the hierarchy of the adepts of Terra though a few were rumoured to still prowl the deepest parts of the jungle. What had happened to the indigenous population was the stuff of rumour only. Naqeeqa saw a trapdoor in the roof and flipping it upwards pulled herself up into the next floor and from there onto the roof above. Here she crouched and letting her weight rest on her left knee reached upwards and removed her spy mask. She placed it on the roof next to her. Then she pulled back the hood of her cloak so that her shaven head seemed to appear from nowhere to float disembodied in the still air.
She slid the two parts of the long barrel of her rifle from the loops on her thighs and reaching around behind her removed the rest of it from between her shoulder blades. With quick, economical movements, her hands darting like the small birds she had seen moving between the lower branches of the jungles trees she assembled the rifle. It was fashioned from a design millennia old. Crucial corners in the sprawling history of the Imperium had been turned as a result of this rifle and its deadly synergy with Naqeeqa.
She had experienced no relationship with any human being as deep or satisfying as she had with this weapon. She lifted it to her shoulder and looked through the scope at the jungle around her.
She moved it across the tops of some of the lower trees and then examined the underside of the taller ones. Lowering the rifle and lying face down she pulled herself to the edge of the roof. In truth she could have stood at her full height and walked to its very edge and their stood gripping it with her toes with no danger of falling. Agility and balance had been a key part of her training in the Temple and it was an area in which she excelled. She remembered the vast underground caves where she had trained, leaping from one unimaginably thin poll to another in virtual darkness, some barely allowing her to stand on two feet as great scything blades hung on pendulums swung back and forth between them.
She remembered the first time she had had the opportunity to use the skill, running and leaping silently the crude crenellations of the Mountain Hideaway of notorious Ork Warlord Hatchet Harry and his lieutenant Fifteen Bellies. Far off she heard the hollow crump crump of explosions and their distant light captured her silhouetted and hooded form in mid flight. She had safely ensconced herself in the shadows opposite the glass double doors of his feasting room and watched as he gorged himself along side and casually murdered with his cutlery a small number of his elite Warband. Time passed with the peculiarly liquid quality it did when she practiced the breathing techniques mastered in the Temple. Eventually his gross form had exited the double doors on to the balcony so he could relieve himself. He still clenched a haunch of meat in his teeth. She had waited until he began and shot him through the haunch. So much ordnance spent, so many lives lost and here a single silent subsonic bullet had achieved a greater hammer blow than all of it combined. She lifted the rifle again and followed the trunk of a particularly large tree all the way to the - a blur of green moved quickly across the front of its thick base.
Tau Sa'cea was returning, their team one down. This had never happened before. They had reached the beginning of the tree houses that filled the central area of this part of the jungle and without warning the Fire Warrior had simply disappeared. He maintained discipline and did not cry out and though he was the closest man to him Sa'cea did not fire though he was ashamed to admit to himself that it had been a close thing, his finger instinctively tensing on the trigger of his Pulse Carbine. His fellow Fire Warrior would probably have survived had he not removed his helmet, due to some kind of earlier comm. malfunction. Sa'cea made his slow way towards the spot where only a second before his battle brother had stood, feeling the rest of the team close behind him. He was the first to see the hole. He stepped slowly closer, barely making a sound. The rest of his team joined him as he looked down. What they saw was the ragged maw of a very deep and very old hole.
The hardwood spikes at the bottom had retained their deadly sharpness, as illustrated by the one that had at least partially penetrated the skull of his fellow Fire Warrior who lay twisted at an odd angle, a single eye staring up from the darkness. He could not speak and yet both his hands and feet twitched, as if trying to remove himself from the spike. Sa'cea had trained and fought with this brother, was bonded to him and here he lay dying, felled by a trap whose design was nearly as old as the planet itself. The harsh clipped tones of his team leader sounded in his helmet comm.
'Ok, on our return I want total awareness from everybody. Before you take a step I want you to check every aspect of your surroundings, ground, trees, everything. This jungle has teeth.'
The three-man stealth team made its near invisible way through the jungle, ahead of Fire team north. Their holographic disruption fields did a reasonable job of imitating the surrounding jungle so that it would have taken a very well trained eye indeed to spot the disturbance in the humid air of the jungle that they created. They didn't know exactly what they were looking for and only knew that they were to move into the jungle ahead of the main Fire team, recording their progress. They were also required to record any significant change in their surroundings, anything that stood out from the usual jungle terrain. Like the large pool of stagnant water that currently stood in front of them. Shas'vre Tau Sa'cea ensured that he was filming. The two other members of his stealth team stood still behind him, adopting their usual triangle formation. They were invisible veterans of over fifty major conflicts decisively altering the course of many of them with the combined fire of their Burst Cannon.
Sa'cea liked the jungle. He liked its private spaces, its impenetrable nature though so far it had been low on…a single chime sounded in his helmet, indicating an incoming communication.
'Team north' the voice in his head said. 'This is Shas'ui Tau Sa'cea. We are one down, I repeat one down.'
This was interesting.
'Tell me more' he said, simultaneously patching in the other two members of his team.
'It was the jungle' the voice continued. It just opened up underneath and took him. A trap…a spiked pit. Have you encountered anything similar?'
'Negative' he responded 'we…'
He stopped as a disturbance appeared in the surface of the stagnant water of the pool, sending out a small series of ripples. Then another. Without thinking he cut the comm. link with the team leader and instead spoke to the two other members of his team.
'Can anybody else see that?'
Teeth of the jungle had temporarily lost her quarry. She had disappeared into the above andTeeth of the jungles age had made her reluctant to climb even the lower branches and trunks of the trees that had surrounded her all her life, though she was still capable of it. Instead she had made her slow way through the jungle and was now entering an old and familiar clearing, one of her favourite places now that those that had hunted and pursued her no longer visited the planet.
She had done her fair share of hunting of course, and when the tree people lived here she had hunted those, but they were long gone. She came here to sharpen her claws on the base of the trees or to just sit and relax, or drink from the pool, though it was rapidly disappearing and she faced a far longer journey to find water now. The jungle canopy being particularly dense here it was cool as she stepped into the edge of the pool. Something was not right; tens of thousands of years of evolution and hundreds of years of predation told her so.
She froze and the pupils of her eyes enlarged.
A special layer of mutated cells at the back of her retinas began to reflect light back at her retinas so that she was immediately able to take advantage of every photon available in the gloom.
As this happened her chameleon coat almost exactly mimicked her surroundings so that she very quickly became almost completely invisible, only her twin emerald eyes betraying her presence. Her muscles tensed. She began to see three nearly identical outlines in front of her.
They did not move.
Tau Sa'cea took a few raik'ans to work out that he was staring at two glinting emerald eyes that appeared to float disembodied in the air in front of him.
He glanced down at the disturbance patterns in the surface of the water and realised that he was staring at the front legs of some creature. He was already beginning to marvel at the things deadly beauty when he was pushed back with incredible force on to the Jungle floor.
Teeth of the jungle leapt.
As she did so she opened her mouth wide and released the five three-inch long razor sharp claws of her front paws. She impacted with the first shape but her claws raked harmlessly across a hard outer skin. She bit down with her equally as sharp teeth, used to scissoring through flesh with very little effort. They had no effect.
The holographic disruption field of the Stealth Suit flickered momentarily in confusion. An unexpected weight bore down on Sa'cea.
Something was scratching frenziedly at the front of his suit. Two rows of immense teeth bit down on him and as they did so he caught a flash of the gaping pink maw that contained them.
'Hold your fire' he shouted at his battle brothers as he landed on his back on the jungle floor. Twin paws pinned the shoulders of his suit with real strength and as he stared upwards the mouth of the creature opened wide as it hissed at him.
He had never seen anything like this vast pink mouth apparently opening in the air in front of him, with its ranks of yellowed razor sharp teeth. He fired his Burst Cannon at the tree line ahead. Its roar filled the clearing.
Almost immediately the tree trunks began to disintegrate, debris flying through the air. The creature leapt from his body and darting between the two other members of his team with lightning speed disappeared into the jungle behind them. His fellow battle brothers turned and fired, the combined power of their burst cannons ripping huge holes in the tree line behind them, effortlessly tearing through the hardwood trees that had stood for hundreds of years. But they were firing blind.
Teeth of the jungle ran. Such was her speed that her chameleon fur was unable to replicate the blur of the passing jungle, instead cycling through a multitude of shades of green. Her head resounded with the sound and fury of the burst cannon.
Naqeeqa froze when she heard the gunfire somewhere behind her. A burst cannon, probably more than one. She was moving across a rope bridge slung between two of the old tree houses, the jungle floor not to far away. A burst cannon must mean that somewhere out there moved a small stealth team of some kind, at least three, maybe more.
The Magos of the Adeptus Mechanicus held some information on such things and she had anticipated their presence. They did not concern her, focused as she was on her single objective. Killing anybody else would alert the Tau forces to her presence and they would instantly increase the protection around her objective, if not remove him from the planet entirely. Some time ago she had felt the beginnings of both hunger and thirst and soon their nagging presence would be too much for even her ultra disciplined constitution to ignore. In a small pocket of her cameoline cloak was a pouch that contained four small tubers of a plant called Blue Umbrella. Consuming just one of these was enough to stave off hunger and thirst for up to four or five days. Because they weighed virtually nothing they were perfect for insertion missions such as these where the mission duration was unknown.
Naqeeqa had been making her way towards her objective all day and the sky above the jungle canopy was beginning to darken. Soon she would find the nearest high point and sleep through the few hours of darkness. Even her body, at the absolute peak of physical fitness as it was, required rest.
Suddenly she heard the sounds of something moving extremely quickly through the foliage below her and she froze just in time to see a green blur shoot past below her. Plant life trembled in its wake. It was to quick for her to make out any detail. She would have to up her level of awareness even further. Clearly the heart of the jungle held a few surprises.
Shasv're Tau Sac'ea had already begun to view the incident with the shadow cat as amusing, while being glad that he had been safely encased in his stealth armour. He had made the others in the expeditionary force aware of the incident, even sending them a copy of the recording of the creature leaping at him and attempting to rip through his suit. They had informed him that he had managed to stumble across what must have been one of the very few remaining examples of the species left alive on the planet. It did not surprise him that the Gue'la had managed to hunt them to the edge of extinction, the mind of a species such as theirs, handicapped as it was with its obsession with the selfish pursuit of power and expansion for its own sake could not hope to recognise the rare beauty of such a creature and obviously viewed it instead as an affront to their crumbling Empire. He pitied them.
Now he and his fellow team members were making their way back to the object itself as soon night would be coming and the famous council historian and thinker whom they had accompanied to this planet would be emerging to continue his studies into the night.
Shasla Tau Sa'cea tried to make out stars in the few gaps in the jungle canopy but could not.
As he looked up the four circular silhouettes of a small Gun Drone squadron darted past. He looked over his left shoulder at the twin XV8 'Crisis' Battlesuits that stood one either side of the entrance to the object. They were now essentially on guard duty with him and the rest of the team until dawn. Not even the sight of them and their plasma rifles and missile pods did anything to detract from the unease he felt whenever he came close to the entrance of the object.
It seemed to radiate waves of insidious cold. He had not shared this feeling with any of his fellow Fire Warriors but he had detected a certain hesitancy in the movements of some of them when they to were in close proximity. It was virtually impossible for a team as close as his not to betray such things to each other. Only the Ethereal seemed impervious to it. Sa'cea did not envy those teams who had to accompany him in and out of that terrible hole. Nobody knew what they did or where they went because they were patrolling the perimeters established on a daily basis by their team leaders. Some had seen them emerge but they were unable to talk to them because they camped some distance from the object, in an entirely separate area to Sa'cea's own. There were rumours of some warriors carrying unidentifiable objects that glinted silver in the dusk as they emerged.
Nobody knew where they were being carried to. Even the object itself was being examined and the incredibly stubborn outer layer of foliage being gradually torn away. Sa'cea had glimpsed what appeared to be runes underneath the centuries of growth. He had confidently faced hordes of rampaging Orks, and fought off wave after wave of Tyranid Hormagaunts and felt nothing that really approached true fear as he did so, bolstered as he was by his fellow squad members and the knowledge that what they did they did for the greater good. By the same token any notion of real evil was alien to him. Despite this, and the fact that he was surrounded by the decisive firepower of a full squad of Fire Warriors and the twin Battlesuits, inside his own armour, where the inner layer met his skin, he felt the light fingered touch of an insistent chill as it passed up and down his spine.
Under countless stars, her rifle fully assembled and lying beside her like a lover, Naqeeqa slept.
Naqeeqa had awoken as a lapis moon faded and the jungle came alive around her.
Now she was again making her way across the very tops of the treehouses but would soon decrease her height as the houses were becoming increasingly scarce, indicating to her that she was nearing her objective. As she ducked and jumped her way through the roof of the jungle she reviewed what little she knew of her mission. As usual it was a case of one bullet one victim and then escape.
Her maximum distance from the target was one mile which would aid her in this but she knew of the Tau, she knew of their hardware and while her cameoline cloak kept her near invisible it would offer absolutely no protection from a combined volley of fire from Pulse Carbines or the heavy assault weapons of a small squad of Battlesuits. She had faced similar situations in the past however and the best option was simply to make for the pod as quickly as possible while doing her best to dodge whatever was thrown at her.
She would be able to gain some insight into their level of hardware when she made her initial target observation and the tracker in her mask would help her find the quickest route back to the pod. Once she was airborne, of course and heading for pick up, so that she could be returned to the Mechanicus cruiser Constancy of Numbers she was completely vulnerable to any attack. This was her least favourite part of every mission.
She was musing on this when the two circular shapes paused in mid air about thirty feet in front of her.
Gun drones, with twin pulse carbines slung underneath them. She was impressed with their camouflage. It told her that the squads she would be moving through were veterans of this kind of environment.
She froze in the middle of the crude rope bridge she was crossing, gripping its sides. As she watched both of the gun drones dipped slightly forwards and began to move slowly towards her. Two more appeared from the gloom of the dense branches behind them, similarly camouflaged. Her knowledge of their technology was extremely limited. Could they see her? Did they think? She was uncertain.
Clearly something had given them reason to pause. Now was not the time for questions. She glanced below her and saw the roof of a tree house. As slowly and carefully as she could she crouched as the bridge swayed underneath her. She moved forward to the nearest gap and carefully slipped her legs through it so that she sat with her legs dangling below her, aware that for as long as she sat like this they would be completely visible. With this in mind she let the rest of her body slip through and hung from the bridge with both hands gripping its rough rope. From here she let herself fall to the roof of the house about fourteen feet below. When she landed she did so perfectly and with the minimum amount of noise possible. She slipped from there to the floor below and looked up. The gun drones had maintained their position.
As she watched they slowly drifted way. Two more also appeared and followed them. She descended a crude ladder and for the first time in a long time advanced along the forest floor. Yes, the landscape was changing.
The tree houses were thinning considerably but the number of the tallest and oldest trees was increasing. The ground was also becoming increasingly uneven and in some points was bulging upwards in large rectangular shapes covered in dense foliage. Others were more uneven, some smaller. She began an even jog between them.
Teeth of the jungle was near deaf in her left ear and it affected her progress as she again pursued her quarry.
She rarely visited this part of the jungle anymore and very rarely or never ventured beyond it. Her species had known of it forever though those who had hunted and pursued them had not. This was why they had lead them there. Some of them had not returned and those who did had never returned to the area. Already, on its fringes its atmosphere was leaching into her nervous system. Did her quarry not feel it also? If it did, it did not show it. It was brave indeed. Admirable prey. Perhaps it knew where it was going and this was precisely why it was going in this direction, perhaps it was aware of her presence. She did not know how long she could continue butTeeth of the jungle continued to follow her elusive quarry into the land of the silver creatures.
Drone 2/6 was aware only in a very limited sense, when alone even less so. It moved slightly to the right so that its modified drone mate could record the anomaly. All six had cross referenced what the adapted drones 3 and 4/6 were seeing with the data they had been provided with in order to speed things up slightly and had decided after some deliberation that what they were seeing was indeed not native to these surroundings and as a result constituted a possible threat/anomaly. This must be relayed to their controller immediately and the search for further anomalies continued.
The drone also had the option, along with 1, 5 and 6/6 to fire on the anomaly. They took some more time to ponder this matter and when they had decided that yes, controlled bursts of their twin linked Pulse Carbines were required the anomaly had disappeared.
They took some more time to consider the time/ammunition wastage/undue alarm factors with the likelihood of hitting the sighted or further anomalies by firing randomly into the tree line and decided it would be needlessly wasteful, messy and time consuming. The modified reconnaissance/shield drone 3/6 squirted the relevant footage back to HQ and they continued their painstaking search.
Naqeeqa froze as she heard the barest sounds of movement close ahead. She looked around at the massive trunks of the trees. The tree houses had dwindled to nothing some time ago. She was caught out in the open and stared frantically around. She glimpsed a blue face in the foliage ahead, a braided topknot sprouting from the crown of its baldhead. She crouched near the end of the nearest of the foliage covered oblong objects spread out across the jungle floor in front of her and gathered the folds of her hood around her head. She pulled the cloak as far down past her legs as she could and froze. She pressed her head against the foliage and felt something hard and unyielding beneath it, like stone. She turned her head just slightly to examine it and glimpsed faded hieroglyphics beneath.
The Fire team had been patrolling their perimeter zone all day without casualties but two old and hidden traps had been triggered. A large rope net had scooped up one Fire warrior but had disintegrated once it had taken his full weight and he suffered only extremely minor injuries when he had thudded back to the jungle floor in a rain of foliage. Some had even found it amusing. The second near miss could have had far more deadly consequences when without warning a tree trunk bristling with numerous three-foot long stakes had swooped down from above the fire team. Three of them had almost instantly crashed to the ground, lying prone as it whistled past harmlessly above them. They had been commended for their quick reactions, dusted themselves off and continued their patrol. Now they were making there way through a number of the foliage-covered objects.
Teeth of the jungle watched as the large group of green creatures approached. There sheer number disturbed her, despite the fact that it was extremely unlikely that they would spot her. Two urges warred with each other at an instinctual level within her. The first to leap at her prey, to whom she was closer than she had ever been before, the second to bolt in the face of overwhelming numbers.
Naqeeqa watched the legs of the Tau warriors pass her but did not turn to watch them disappear into the jungle behind her. Only when there was no further noise did she begin to walk away. Clearly she was closer than she thought. Very soon she would have to scale one of the trees and make her way via the network of interlocking branches above.
Shas'el Tau Sa'cea was finding it difficult to comprehend what he was seeing, along with the fact that it had taken so long to get to him. Those damn drones. Ensconced in his XV8 suit at the mouth of the largest object the looping image of a pair of legs dangling and then dropping from a rope bridge was being projected on to his retina along with the time and position of the sighting. It was close, to damn close. He attempted to contact the exploration cadre but got no response. They were obviously too deep. Very quickly he contacted everybody else instead.
Shasla Tau Sa'cea got the call and they had already passed the position of the sighting. They were therefore ordered to double time it back to the main object watching for anything unusual. Apparently a lone someone or something had managed to get past them. They swept quickly back they way they had come.
Teeth of the jungle trotted at a safe and unseen distance behind them.
'…sighte…do yo…c…if s……p…res…'
Shas'ui Tau Sa'cea, the exploration team leader could not make out the full message on the Comm. but the tone of voice in the snatches he could hear were sufficient to tell him that something was wrong. Staying in the vast jungle network was not an option, however, as today had been a particularly bad day and there was an implicit desire to leave as quickly as possible, coupled with a general belief that what may lay in waiting couldn't be any worse than what they were leaving behind.
Au'nel Tau Bork'an was running as quickly through the tight tunnel as his robes would allow, with an advisor in front and behind him. They were being lead by five Fire Warriors and their commander. Six followed him. The smell of the tunnel was all around him. Today had been a particularly interesting day. He had always speculated that the Gue'la concealed some dark heritage but he wondered as he ran if even they were fully aware of the dark chasms that yawned beneath the rotting foundations of their existence.
Naqeeqa was ready.
She had found a tree almost directly in front of the mouth of the object and quickly scaling it had shimmied out on to a particularly thick branch, her rifle already constructed. It was obvious that something had happened, the Tau forces might even be aware of her presence, as everywhere there was activity.
The two Battle Suits either side of the object entrance were swivelling from left to right and back again.
She was so close that she could hear them whine as they did so. The number of Fire warriors who had assumed a fan formation around the object entrance indicated that her target would be emerging soon. She concentrated on her breathing and scanned the object. It had been stripped of foliage and now resembled a large rectangular sepulchre covered in fading hieroglyphics made up of lines and circles. So this was the knowledge that the Ordos Xenos or the Adeptus Mechanicus or both wanted to prevent falling into the wrong Tau hands. She sighted on the black mouth of the entrance and something happened that had never happened before. Briefly, the rifle trembled.
Au'nel Tau Bork'an was close to emerging into the light at the end of the tunnel with his knowledge of the dark heart of the Gue'la but he was tired.
He was a man of letters, not a man of action. Using his hands he braced himself on the tunnel walls and his advisor behind crashed into him in the lightening gloom. From the walls a lancing cold shot up his arms. He snatched them away and thought only of escape. He was feeling something he had always denied existed.
Shas'el Tau Sa'cea and his bodyguard on the other side of the entrance were quickly scanning the tree line but could see nothing. He was also watching live feeds from the drones as they made their way back to the main camp but they to were picking up nothing.
What was wrong with her? This had never happened before. There was something about the tomb entrance, the sheer depth of its blackness. This was where she knew her target would emerge from and yet she could not focus on it for more than a second without her hands shaking. A Fire warrior without his helmet emerged from the dark. He glanced around and then turned to face the tunnel. More emerged.
Naqqeeqa's finger applied the slightest pressure to the trigger.
She had come close to making the first mistake of her life.
Obviously some kind of advisor.
Naqeeqa squeezed the trigger.
Teeth of the jungle leapt.
A crushing weight rammed into Naqeea from behind and her shot went wide. She fell from the branch.
A burning sensation erupted up and down her back and she realised simultaneously that something was tearing through her cape, her suit, her flesh. She realised this a split second before she crashed into and snapped a large branch, shattering four ribs. The pain was instantaneous and indescribable. She attempted a futile lunge for her sidearm with her right arm and watched it snap at the elbow as she collided with another branch, the bones of her forearm tearing through flesh, blood spurting. Fire lanced across her chest and it felt as though her lungs were filling with broken glass. Three-inch claws tore through her cloak, her suit and began to rip through her back. Blood flew as her flesh was parted. She knew she was falling but the pain forced her to focus on nothing else.
Teeth of the jungle realised she was in danger of her losing her prey so she closed her jaws around the back of its throat. She was pleased she had attempted to climb the tree even though her old body had protested. Now the hot, intoxicating scent of the kill filled her nostrils. It had been a long time. She did what she could to hold on as both hunters crashed through the branches of the trees.
Tau Sa'cea and his fellow Fire warriors could not comprehend what they were seeing.
Something was crashing through the lower branches of the tree ahead. It appeared to be a ball of rapidly flickering colour. Then it hit the ground in a rain of blood and he heard the frenzied hissing and spitting and growling and realised what he was seeing. One of the Shadow cats had found a victim. The victim managed to turn half over as if in an attempt to look at its killer but its right arm was shattered. The cat leapt.
Naqeeqa saw a vast mouth and ten razor sharp claws flash at her face and saw no more.
Tau Sa'cea and his team, lead by their Shas'ui, closed on the Shadow Cat. Its outline was now easily visible, covered as the creature was in the blood of its victim. Their team leader spoke.
'Nobody fire and back off. Now.'
As Tau Sa'cea and his fellow Fire warriors did so he saw his team leader throw his Pulse Carbine to the ground. Immediately the team raised there's and trained them on the Shadow cat. A few helmets glanced at each other.
A voice again filled his head.
'I repeat. Nobody fire and back off. Now.'
The Shas'ui slowly reached for the blade at his back. He carefully removed the sword from its ornamental scabbard. The shadow cat began to pace back and forth opening its bloodied muzzle to hiss and then growl low in its throat. As other Fire warriors emerged from the foliage behind it was effectively surrounded.
The Shas'ui did not move, holding the swords ornate grip in his right hand away from his body, at a 45-degree angle to the ground. All was still. The Shadow cat leapt. He waited until the final moment and the Shas'ui sidestepped, topknot spinning lazily through the air he swivelled and two handed drew the sword across the Shadow cats back, opening a deep wound.
Red muscle revealed, ancient blood fountained into the air to rain down in the clearing. The cat turned lightening quick and driven into a frenzy by the wound opened in its back slashed at the Shas'ui with its claws. They were a flurry of motion. Its coat was a blur of greens, browns and reds.
The Shas'ui parried the frenzied slashes two handed with the blade. Right. Left. Right. Right. Again and again. Unbalanced, he tripped over one of Naqeeqa's legs and fell, slipping on to his back on the blood slick ground. The shadow cat leapt and he rolled. Tau Sa'cea applied pressure to the trigger of his carbine. Around thirty weapons were currently trained on the combatants
The cat leapt and the Shas'ui rolled again, this time a fraction to the right. Tau Sa'cea did not exactly see what happened next but in an instant the Shas'ui had flipped back on to his feet and swinging the blade of the sword around in a wide glittering arc he cleanly severed the hind legs of the creature. The jungle held its breath.
The Shas'ui held his final position, bloodied sword blade extended as the blood began to spray from the remains of the creatures legs. Slowly he lowered the blade and face impassive planted a leg firmly either side of the creature as it attempted to crawl away.
Two handed he raised the blade.
Before Sa'cea could exhale, it fell.