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The alien hound's eyes were like cloudy pearls, and they locked with Nathaniel Winterbourne's as it bit through the heavy fabric of his uniform jacket. Blood streamed down his sleeve, and he felt its fangs close on the bones of his forearm. He kicked out at the vile beast through the haze of agony as he fumbled for his pistol.

The weapon had fallen from his grip when the creature bore him to the ground and might as well have been a hundred kilometres away. His sword was buried in the chest of another alien and just as far out of reach. He kicked and punched, but the beast was oblivious to his attacks. Winterbourne cried out as he saw another two alien hunting beasts barrelling through the smoke and dust of battle towards him, their jaws wide and ready to tear him apart.

They never reached him.

Two black and gold bullet-like forms intercepted them in a flurry of snapping fangs and tearing claws. Winterbourne's heart swelled as his faithful vorehounds, creatures he'd acquired during a deployment to Vastian's World, leapt to his defence. Germaine rolled in the dust with one of the hounds, while Fynlae, scrapper Fynlae who'd lost his leg in the storm of an artillery strike on Boranis, faced off against the other.

Fresh agony coursed down Winterbourne's arm, and he reached up with his free hand to jab his fingers into the eyes of the attacking beast. It yelped in pain, and relaxed its grip a fraction. He tore his limb from its jaws in a welter of blood, and scrabbled over the rock towards his fallen laspistol. His hand closed on its grip as an immense weight landed on him, pinning him to the ground.

He smelled the hot, rank breath of the creature on his back. Saliva sprayed from its jaws and spattered the back of his head. He tried to roll the beast off, but it was too heavy. Before it fastened its jaws on his neck, the weight was suddenly gone, and he felt a growling, howling scrum of fur and flesh thrashing behind him. Winterbourne propped himself up on his good arm, seeing Fynlae locked in a battle of fang and claw with the alien beast.

His vorehound's missing leg had not dimmed its ferocity, and it fought in a frenzy to protect him. Bared teeth flashed, and blood sprayed into the air. The alien hound gave a screeching yelp of pain, and Winterbourne let out a wordless shout of pride as Fynlae ripped its throat out.

Winterbourne glanced over his shoulder, and his heart sank.

Germaine was dead, her belly torn open and her eyes staring glassily at the sky, but so too was her killer, the vorehound's jaws locked around its throat. The beast that Fynlae had faced earlier was dead, its face a mask of blood where the old, war-scarred hound had crushed its skull in his jaws.

Behind the dead animals, Captain Ventris was on his knees, struggling with a pair of kroot fighters. One circled the combat, darting in to stab at Uriel's armour with a long-bladed knife, while a brute of a monster with a crest of flaming red spines attempted to drive its rifle-blade into Uriel's neck.

Uriel's bulk was so much greater than the kroot's, that it should have been a mockery of a competition, but the alien's powerful physique was proving to be a match for that of the Space Marine.

Winterbourne raised his pistol, fighting to hold it steady as the creature forced its long blade towards Uriel's throat.

Mykola Shonai had aged in the years since Pavonis had been saved from the insurrection of Kasimir de Valtos. Her grey hair had turned white, and, though the sharpness of her green eyes was undimmed, a genetic defect in her retinal structure meant that she was an unsuitable candidate for ophthalmic surgery, and was now forced to wear eyeglasses to see much beyond her immediate surroundings.

In her long cream robes, she looked like a matronly famulus, but Koudelkar knew her well enough not to let her appearance fool him into underestimating her intelligence. She had once ruled a planet of the Emperor and such an achievement was not to be taken lightly.

His aunt was pacing along a marble flagged path in the south arboretum when he found her. She claimed she did her best thinking when she paced, and when she turned to face him, the excitement that radiated from her was palpable. The air in the arboretum was hot and humid, and Koudelkar could see his bodyguards sweating in their heavy armour, though the skitarii seemed unaffected. He wondered if they could alter their metabolism to better cope with changing environments.

Evening sunlight shone through the treated glass walls and ceiling, creating a sweltering environment better suited to raise the plants cultivated from the few stems recovered from the wasteland of the Gresha Forest.

She rushed over to him and looked him up and down. 'You'll be changing into your dress uniform, won't you?'

The words were phrased as a question, but Koudelkar knew his aunt's mannerisms well enough to know that it was actually a statement. Mykola brushed at his shoulders and shook her head.

'Yes, I think so. You'll want to make a good impression,' she said.

'A good impression on whom?' asked Koudelkar, stepping away from her fussing.

'The representative, who else?' she said, as if he were being obtuse, and began straightening his hair with a moistened palm.

Koudelkar threw Lortuen Perjed a confused glance. 'Adept Perjed told me he was just about to arrive.'

'Hmm… oh, yes, of course,' said Mykola, straightening his jacket. 'Oh well, this will serve, I suppose.'

'You want me to make a good impression on a man I don't even know,' said Koudelkar, prising away her hands. Aunt Mykola always fussed over him, more than his mother ever did, but this was extreme, even for her. 'Does he even have a name?'

'Of course he does.'

'Then what is it?'

Mykola hesitated, looking away for the briefest moment, but Koudelkar read the unease in her body language. 'He's called Aun.'

'Aun?' asked Perjed, with a sharp intake of breath. 'What manner of name is that?'

Mykola shrugged, as though the nature of the representative's name was a matter of supreme indifference to her. 'It's an off-world name, Adept Perjed. It's strange, I know, but no stranger than ours are to him, I expect.'

Koudelkar decided he'd had enough of his aunt's evasive answers and looked her straight in the eye.

'Well, does he have a last name? And who or what does he represent? You know, you've told me next to nothing about this person or how you know him. You've spun me a grand tale of how he can offer Pavonis great things, but unless you tell me who he is and what organisation he represents, then I am leaving right now.'

Mykola folded her arms and turned away from him. 'You're just like your grandfather, do you know that?'

'If you mean I'm not about to put up with vague answers to specific questions, then I suppose I am. Don't change the subject or try and make me feel guilty. If I am going to do business with this person then I need to know more about him. I cannot negotiate from a position of ignorance.'

Mykola turned to face him, and he almost backed away from the steely resolve he saw in her eyes.

'Very well, you want to know the truth?'

'I do.'

'You'll see it's for the best,' said Mykola, glancing over at his bodyguards and Lortuen Perjed, 'but you're not going to like it at first.'

'I assure you, Aunt, I like lies even less.'

She nodded and said, 'I've never lied to you, Koudelkar, but I've deliberately shielded you from some knowledge until the time was right.'

'That sounds like more evasion,' said Koudelkar. 'The right time is now, so get to the point.'

'I'm getting there if you'd let me,' snapped Mykola, walking towards him. 'Aun represents a collective from the Dal'yth sept.'

'Dal'yth?' hissed Adept Perjed. 'Emperor's tears, what have you done, woman?'

'Be quiet, you insolent little man,' snapped Mykola.

'Never heard of them,' said Koudelkar, alarmed by Perjed's exclamation.

'That shouldn't surprise you,' said a voice behind him, and Koudelkar recognised his mother's caustic tones.

'Keep out of this, Pawluk,' said his aunt.

Koudelkar sighed in exasperation. His mother and aunt sharing the same room was like putting two hungry tigers in a cage. Why they insisted on living in the same house, even one large enough for them to avoid each other, was a constant puzzle to Koudelkar.

Pawluk Shonai's face was as pinched and hostile as ever, her lifeless grey hair pulled back in a tight bun. He felt the tension ratchet up a notch. Despite the warmth of the arboretum, a distinct chill entered with his mother.

For an amused moment, Koudelkar wondered if the plants would suffer from the chill. 'Hello, Mother,' he said. 'Won't you join us?'

His mother linked her arm with his and glared at his aunt. 'Well?' she asked.

'Well what?' asked Mykola.

'Aren't you going to tell him? About this Aun?'

'Tell me what?' asked Koudelkar.

His aunt pursed her lips, and Koudelkar could see her anger threatening to boil over. 'I was just about to tell him, Pawluk.'

'Governor,' said Lortuen Perjed urgently, 'we must get you out of here.'

'Why, what's going on?'

Before Perjed could answer, Koudelkar heard the approaching thrum of engines from outside the house. He looked up and saw three aircraft swoop over the glass roof of the arboretum. Waving fronds, leaves and climbing flowers obscured the details of them, but it was clear that they were of a design he had never seen before.

'What manner of craft are these?' he asked. 'I don't recognise the pattern.'

'Governor,' repeated Perjed. 'We have to go. Now.'

The aircraft were a drab olive colour and striped with camouflage patterns, but Koudelkar could make out little else of their shapes. Two appeared to be smaller, wedge-shaped fighters and the third was a four-engine transport craft of some sort. Each was gracefully proportioned and flew with a grace and an agility that was quite out of keeping with any Imperial aircraft in which Koudelkar had flown.

As the smaller fighters circled overhead, the transport craft rotated on its axis and descended through the growing dusk towards the stone terrace beyond the arboretum on a rippling column of distorted air. Mykola threw open the large doors leading to the terrace and beckoned him to follow her.

His aunt's evasive answers, and Adept Perjed's insistence that he leave, gnawed at his resolve. He looked down at his mother, alarmed at the panic he saw there.

'I didn't know until today, I swear,' she said. 'She made me promise not to tell you.'

Deciding that it was time he find out what was going on, Koudelkar walked out onto the terrace, warm gusts from the aircraft's descent billowing his coat and hair. Perjed, the Lavrentians and skitarii followed him, and he spotted that they carried their weapons to the fore with the safeties off. He shielded his eyes from flying grit as a wide ramp lowered from the transport craft's rear and an armoured machine stepped from its brightly lit interior.

It was humanoid, standing at least twice the height of a man and was a thing of beauty. Fashioned from plates of what looked like olive green ceramics, it was constructed with a fine sense of craftsmanship as well as aesthetics. Its rectangular head mount turned towards him, and, though it resembled nothing so much as a remote picter, Koudelkar felt sure there was intelligence lurking behind the blinking red light of its lens.

Was this a machine at all, or was it crewed by a living creature? It was certainly large enough for someone to pilot. At first glance, the machine looked like an automated loader servitor, but the lethal-looking weapons mounted on each arm told Koudelkar that this creation was not designed for labour, but for battle.

His appreciation of the machine's construction evaporated, and his mother's grip on his arm tightened. Koudelkar felt some of her fear transfer to him as he saw that the Lavrentians had their hellguns aimed squarely at the machine's chest, and that the implanted rotary cannons of the skitarii were spooling up.

Koudelkar realised that the situation could turn ugly very quickly, and struggled to project an air of calm authority. Two identical machines followed the first, each moving with a smooth grace and autonomy not normally found in mechanised creations, finally convincing Koudelkar that the fighting machines were crewed by living pilots.

His mouth was dry with tension, but he turned to his bodyguards and said, 'Hold your fire, but be ready.'

The three machines stepped to the right of the aircraft and another three emerged from its interior, taking up position to the left. Koudelkar knew nothing of their capabilities, but felt sure that, in a firefight, he and his men would come off worst.

'Mykola,' he hissed, 'what have you done?'

'What needed to be done to save our world from being taken from us by outsiders,' said his aunt, sending a withering glance towards Adept Perjed as she strode towards the aircraft. Its rear engine nacelles rotated into a lateral position in line with the running lines of the hull, and his aunt halted at the bottom of the ramp as a slender figure appeared at the top.

The figure was clad in long robes of white and gold with a shimmering crimson weave, and its head was framed by a high collar of enamelled silver and crimson. It carried a short, caramel-coloured baton topped with a glinting gem in each hand, holding them crossed over its chest. Its face was grey, the colour of a winter sky at dusk, and its flat, alien features were devoid of expression.

His aunt bowed to the figure, and then turned towards him.

'Koudelkar, allow me to introduce Aun'rai of the Dal'yth sept and envoy of the Tau Empire,' she said.

* * * | Ultramarines 5. Courage and Honour | EIGHT