Only a few streamers of light trickled down through the thick canopy to reach the scouts as they gathered by their fires. They were still human enough to nearly blind outside of the circles of light projected by their fires, but that would change. The darkness did not concern them. They were busy.
Stones smacked flakes from stones, forming edges on knives and axe heads. Heavy egg shaped stones were mated to the heads of stout shafts of wood, forming war clubs that could crack a man's head. The tips of wooden spears were thrust into the embers of dying fires to harden them. The newest members of the Blood Tigers were arming for war. They did this without instruction or command or knowing what challenges they would be commanded to face. It was enough that they were warriors and they were without weapons. That would not last.
"They aren't bad," said Kadessen Raise. The Astartes were watching the scouts from a distance. They had lit no fire and thus were almost invisible in the darkness. His aquiline nose, fine, angular features, and almost black skin marked him as hailing from the city-states of the Berezaid. "For a bunch of peasant savages."
"Our brother's noble blood is showing," said Ardruth Haas. He was bronze skinned and blond, with heavy features, grey eyes, and three service studs in his forehead. Twice he had been made a sergeant and twice he had been demoted back into the ranks.
"Some of us come from lines of educated and noble warriors," replied Raise, "you filthy, blubber eating, arctic savage."
"Indeed brother," said Sergeant Saiad Nardrune. Aside from the two service studs, each marking a century of service in the chapter, he could have been Raise's brother. "The lower orders should respect their natural masters."
"You haven't even been busted back into the ranks once brother," said Haas. He wagged a finger at Nardrune. "You have far to go before you can match my accomplishments."
"Indeed," said Nardrune. "Not even the exalted chapter master has twice been broken to the ranks."
"At last," said Haas, "acknowledgement of my elite status. But I must concur with my noble southern brothers. For soft warmlanders they aren't too bad."
"The real testing has not yet begun," said Toth Arianocus.
"Truly said," replied Nardrune. "More than one promising initiate has turned out to be unworthy of being Astartes."
"Too bad women cannot be made Astartes," replied Ardruth Haas. "The Valyoka alone would yield so many warriors that Charybdis would fall to the Imperium within a decade. You warmlanders could sleep in your soft beds and drink your fancy wines while we exterminated all the xenos in the galaxy."
"It is a tragedy that the galaxy will not be saved by legions of wide hipped cows who have never heard of a comb," said Kadassen Raise. "If you knew any of the civilized arts you could make an epic work lamenting the future that is not to be, but alas you are a ignorant, whale *******, northern savage."
"Walrus *******," said Haas. "It's walrus ******* northern savage. Don't forget it."
"My sincere apologies brothers," said Raise with the solemn air of a respectful child before a beloved tutor. "I will not."
"What do you have planned for them Toth?" Nardrune asked. "Cadril will test them on stealth, hunting and survival skills. All very well, that is his role as Master of Scouts. What does the Chief Librarian intend?"
"A fair question," said Arianocus. "Full kit for us is in case the psychic disturbance turns out to be serious threat. As for the rest, Cadril will test them. They will feel fear, stress. Dormant powers may stir, especially ones that have been strengthened by the implantation of our gene seed."
"You feel the need to swiftly bring up the ranks of the Librarians," said Nardrune.
"We are understrength in everything," said Toth. "This is the one area I where I can change that."
"With respect Chief Librarian, not all the men are comfortable with increasing the number of psykers in our ranks. You are a double edged sword and the Sword Bearers managed fine with only a few. That you are pushing so hard to gain so many so quickly does not reassure those with doubts. Some of us believe you court disaster."
"I know," said Toth. "And what is more I know that such a disaster could occur. What you do not see is the danger we are in. The Reach contains far greater threats than Orks or Tau or Chaos Renegades. Rogue psykers can and have been dealt with."
"You mean the Gaun" said Nardrune.
"Among other things," said Arianocus.
"Deathwatch secrets," said Haas. "Bah. Specialist alien killers. What use is that? Every Astartes alive knows how to deal with Orks and their ilk."
"Alien killers. Is that what you believe the Deathwatch is?" asked Toth. "Tell me brother, do you believe that when an Inquisitor finds a threat to the Imperium he decides whether or not to destroy it based only upon whether or not it falls within his area of specialty? No, of course not. The Deathwatch are not Ork killers. They do a job no one else can, being both Marine and Inquisitor. Some targets are best slain with an army, some by an assassin, and some by a kill team of battle-brothers. There are things that need doing brothers, things that require the strength of the Astartes but not the numbers of an army. There are things that must be watched by trustworthy eyes and crises that cannot be resolved by a conventional clash of arms. For those things there is the Deathwatch. Are the lion's share of their foes aliens? Yes, but rarely creatures as simple to deal with as Orks. The Deathwatch has eyes on the Charybdis Reach brothers and that is not because they believe it safe."
"As you say," said Haas skeptically.
"I will remind you of your words one day," said Toth. "Pray to the Throne that is while we are standing victoriously over the bodies of our foes."
The jungle yielded before the would be Marines, but not without cost. There were rashes and infections spreading among the initiates, some of which would have felled an ordinary man. Food was not a problem. There was not a boy in the group who was not a skilled hunter and those who knew what foods were safe to eat shared their knowledge with their fellows whose people were not of the jungle. The boys ate well, but they needed to. The needs of adolescence were as nothing to those whose bodies were transforming into post human giants and ferocious hunger was held at bay although his shadow walked with them.
Always there were tests. Hand to hand combat, one on one and team against team. Foraging contests, hunting contests, stealth challenges, every day a different contest. Zarien Cadril knew everyone of his charges by name and seemed to forgot nothing, but he was an Astartes and more than mortal. He wore the same tunic and sandals as his charges, but carried his boltgun slung across his back. Today he was pushing his charges to run and prowling around the rear of the column.
The grey haired Marine periodically ran up and down the line, worldlessly surveying his charges and mentally cataloging their positions, but he spent most of the time near the rear. These were the ones he needed to watch the most, the ones who might not be Astartes material. Around noon he slid back even further, to the Toth and his demisquad.
"Anything of note, Chief Librarian?"
"Nothing," said Toth Arianocus. "Odds are that if any of them had any kind of talent, he would have started using it by now. It's not surprising. It almost always shows up during the early foraging or the fire making. If it doesn't there then the interesting rashes bring it out. It looks like these boys are all normal."
"In one way that makes my job easier," said Cadril. "On the other hand, that means I can't dump any of these rock skulls on you and I have to deal with all of them so I guess I'll call it even. How close are we getting to the thing?"
"It's hard to say," said Toth. "I may have made a mistake in not taking a faster form of transportation, but I think it's still within the jungle so perhaps I did make the right choice."
"Finding anything by overhead scan isn't going to work with this canopy," said Cadril. "Not unless its putting out a lot of heat or some other emissions."
"Perhaps," said Toth. "It's a psychic signal, but not one attuned to human minds."
"Yes, or a warp entity," said Toth. "Something strong enough that I noticed it, but too alien to track easily."
"No," said Toth. "Those are far too attuned to human minds. But something that could be dangerous."
"How confident are you that you can kill it?"
"Very," said Toth Arianocus. "But to be sure of it, I didn't come alone."
"Warp disturbance," said the officer standing by the auger array. "Magnitude four and rising."
Navaros Rasteen turned his command throne towards the niches that housed the auger stations. Unlike many ships, the bridge of the Spatha contained few embellishments. An air of stark functionality was maintained, much to the approval of the Master of the Fleet. He didn't need to turn to address the human crew, but it was helped morale to make it clear that he acknowledged them personally. "Display location."
A hololithic display flickered to life in mid air. A blazing red star with a very large orange corona marked the warp disturbance.
"Jump Point Three," said the Chief of the Deck. "Perhaps the Martian vessel, my lord?"
"Perhaps," said Rasteen, "perhaps not."
"Emergence," said the auger officer. The hololithic display spawned dots. "One, two, four, six vessels sir. Disturbance magnitude six and rising."
"A whole bloody fleet," said the Chief of the Deck.
"Lightspeed lag of three minutes, forty-six seconds," reported one of the auger crew.
"Another signal, a big one," said the auger officer. "At least cruiser class."
"Signal the squadron," said Rasteen as he sent a serious of coordinate into the ship's navigation system with his MIU. "This course. And signal Mount Dorn that an invasion fleet has arrived."
"Sir," asked Jelna Vyrgan. "What are they?"
"We'll know soon enough," said Rasteen, "but friendlies wouldn't show up in this strength unannounced and Gaun don't transition so sloppily, so probably Orks or renegades. A lot of Orks or renegades."
"Two more vessels," said the auger officer. "And second cruiser. Disturbance magnitude eight. Still rising."
"Throne," said Vyrgan. "Still rising."
"It's not how many vessels there are at the start of the battle," said Rasteen, "but how many you have left at the end."