Shades of diluted crimson flashed in the pod's hull to signal its imminent impact. The red flooded Gerad's vision, bringing him back to his senses. His eyes wandered around the pod's interior, investigating each device and panel in his view. He shot a glance over to Zalthen, who stood stalwartly in place with his standard planted on the metal grating at his feet. Zalthen returned his glance, bowing a deep nod in reassurance. Gerad replied with a similar gesture. He sheathed his power axe, sliding it onto a strap above his holstered pistol, which he replaced in his hand. He rested his head on the pylon behind him, shifting his gaze to the ceiling. I must have Courage, he thought. Courage and Honour. Courage and Honour.
A servo skull planted in the pylons core was triggered when the pod's altitude was low enough to the planet's surface. The servant's voice was accented with robotic croaks and blurts.
"Landing protocols initiated. Please stand by."
The pod broke the sound barrier, the crackling of the air rung through the interior. The screaming wind deepened in tone until it was dwarfed by the boom of broken earth. The marines inside shivered in their steel callipers. Beyond the pod's bulwark, a shower of dirt and rock pittered down its azure plate. The 7th company sowed titanic seeds onto the boreal wastes in a thunderous ensemble. The LEDs flared a harsh jade as the palisades descended into ramps that dug into the shallow snow. Their safety belts busted open and were sucked and secured back into their retractors. The marines exited in ironclad blossoms into the field at exceptional speed, establishing their landing sites clear of threats. Their reports fed back into the captain's helmet feed. The all-clear was given to advance.
Gerad evacuated the pod behind Zalthen. The gleam of Macragge's sun coated the milky sediment that twirled in the polar gusts. Gerad's ocular implants rapidly readjusted themselves to the star's brilliance. The sky was a cerulean gradient that dimmed toward the south pole of the planet. His view was painted in pastel blues and oranges. Zalthen's standard flailed violently, clattering the chains and ornaments hanging from its peak. Tides of paper-thin snow layered his power armour which swayed him gently. Ice fell between the gaps of his armour and melted, staining the textile insulators in his elbows and knees. The blue armour of the Ultramarines was glazed a freckled white in quick exposure. He gathered snow around his boots as he waded toward Zalthen.
"Let's commence our march to our destination. Full stride, if you will."
"Aye, sir. We march at once." Zalthen responded stoutly.
On his orders, the men of the 7th rallied at the Ancient's position. Zalthen shoved the snow at his feet as he pivoted to give his address. Gerad looked away, scanning the hillsides in his own mental bubble. Behind him, Zalthen herded the marines into columns, bellowing commands into the vox. Zalthen was a skilled orator, being the son of an accomplished imperial poet and academic on the cardinal world of Espandor, located light-minutes away from Ultramar's borders. His father's works influenced him to dedicate his life to the preservation of mankind and its spirit. Thus his efforts to sustain morale in the direst of conditions rivalled no other in his company, and in some instances, surpassed Captain Ixion himself.
At once the company mobilised, printing their unified tread in crystal murals that decorated the plains. Zalthen planted the standard's pommel on every left step, conducting the percussion of the company's lonely parade. Gerad sauntered along side him botheringly off-tempo. His captain's stressful mood soured his own. He used his off-hand to switch his vox-grille to a private channel between just him and Gerad.
"What bothers you Captain? I've never seen you so..." He trailed off to choose his words. "Frightened." Zalthen's body language gave no impression he was speaking to anyone outside the channel.
Gerad swivelled his head to peer at the Ancient, betraying any secrecy he attempted to have between them.
"You believe that to be an impossibility?" He blended anger into his inflection. Zalthen made his confliction clear with his silent response.
"I'll admit something. I have not a clue what we are fighting. This is something beyond all of us, beyond our company and our chapter. This spectre of death has unbeknownst to us crept its way all the way here. Not even the forces of chaos- the damned neverborn couldn't take one step onto Macragge. And yet-" He interrupted his rambling as to not concern Zalthen any further than he already had. He trekked ahead of his retinue without address, scaling the white dunes beyond. Zalthen struggled to digest the meaning of his captain's confession as he led the march to their objective.
Gerad had wandered far from his company for the past while. He noticed the path his pageant was following begun to descend into a distant valley of shattered ice and freezing lakes. He switched his vox back to the Rex Aeterna to confide in his brother Techmarine.
"Brother Machellus, my battalion is approaching a deep valley far to the east of our landing site. Could you confirm our directions toward our current objective?"
"Right away Captain."
Machellus stood defiantly on the strike cruiser's command bridge, surveying the ships undertakings at the top of the ladder. The deck sat beneath a ceiling of reinforced glass with layered steel sheets that folded over each other in case the roof was vulnerable to debris or penetration of any kind. The glitter of distant stars accompanied the harsh teal lighting of the ships ceiling fixtures. The bridge was as busy as the primary hangar just hours earlier. Mechanicus adepts and servitor technomats plugged themselves into panels and displays to manage information coming in and out of the ship, while Imperial Navy and Ultramar Auxilia volunteers examined maps and ran gauntlets across grated bridges to deliver orders by word of mouth. He sat above the mayhem, fastened to a screen that emulated the frigid geography of the arctic landscape. He briskly cross-referenced their approximate location to authenticate their trail. He reported back immediately.
"All clear captain, you are in the right direction. A little further into that valley you'll find the downed titans."
"That would be a sight, wouldn't it? The God-Machines themselves..." Gerad broke a phlegmy chuckle.
"I would know, I've seen it." Machellus retorted abruptly before returning to his other duties.
The captain watched over the dunes as a sentinel, awaiting the return of his men. Soon enough, the coarse grind of dirtied greaves reached his ears. Zalthen ordered a halt, silencing the metallic blare. Gerad looked back enough to notice him, yet he continued to look at the ground even whilst he spoke.
"I've been informed we are close to the surviving princeps. Stay in formation until we reach their garrison." He ended his address curtly before motioning Zalthen to arrange his troops. Gerad had no more time left to contemplate his foe's capabilities. He had to discover for himself the true strength of the grimly-titled Great Devourer.