Uriel stalked the length of the Thunderhawk, his metabolism moving into readiness for combat once more. His armour monitored his heart rate, blood flow and oxygen levels, ensuring his entire body was optimally primed for the business of killing. Learchus moved along the fuselage, checking that every warrior was equipped with a full load of ammunition and had observed the correct pre-battle rituals. His warriors had fought well against the kroot, but if Uriel's suspicions were correct, they would soon be in battle with more technologically advanced foes.
Chaplain Clausel stood by the assault ramp, feet planted firmly on the deck and his crozius arcanum held lightly at his side. The towering warrior-priest recited the catechisms of battle, his booming voice cutting cleanly through the roaring of the Thunderhawk's engines. Dried blood coated his skull-faced helmet, and, though rough thermals from the mountains caused the gunship to buck alarmingly, he neither held to the ready line nor the walls to keep steady.
They were ten minutes out from Lake Masura, flying low and keeping hard to the mountain's flanks. Flying like this cost precious fuel, but it was the only way to avoid detection by enemy countermeasures. As yet, there was no response from the governor or Lortuen Perjed, despite repeated attempts to reach them. Presumably, the jamming technology the tau employed at Deep Canyon Six was being used to keep the governor in the dark as to the presence of aliens on his world.
Uriel hoped he would not find out the hard way.
Lord Winterbourne's Aquila lander was already en route back to Brandon Gate, despite the colonel's bluster that he was fit enough to fly into battle with the Ultramarines. After a brief, but one-sided, discussion, Uriel had convinced him of the need to evacuate his wounded, and to return to his regiment and oversee its mobilisation. Harkus had been placed within the Aquila, and Winterbourne promised that the bloodied Techmarine would be taken to Fortress Idaeus as soon as they landed.
Uriel cleaned the congealed blood of the kroot he had slain from his sword, knowing that soon it would probably be coated in the vital fluids of another living being. Learchus marched down the length of the gunship, and took his seat opposite Uriel. The sergeant's face was serious and drawn, dried blood caking one side. He drew his weapon, a sword similar in design to Uriel's, and began reciting a prayer to honour its war-spirit.
Uriel let him finish before speaking. 'This will be a tough fight, sergeant.'
'I expect so,' agreed Learchus. 'Any word on support from Brandon Gate?'
'Ancient Peleus was all set to prep the other Thunderhawks, but he will need his warriors in place to defend the city if this is the first stage of an attack. In any case, they would not reach us in time.'
'So we are on our own for this one?'
'We are,' said Uriel, 'but we're not going in on a full engage and destroy mission.'
'We are not?' asked Learchus.
'No, we're going in to retrieve the governor and get out.'
Learchus rubbed a gauntlet over his chin. 'We are only a few squads and a gunship, potentially going up against an enemy of unknown strength and deployment that may be dug in at a fortified location. I hope you have a plan?'
'I do. We make a single pass in the Thunderhawk to ascertain what we can of any enemy presence in and around the Shonai dwelling. Then we execute a hot landing at the weakest point of their perimeter. If they have taken refuge within the building, we do a standard room by room clearance, killing any tau we find.'
'It is a sound plan, but if there are hostages, they may be caught in the crossfire.'
'Our priority is to retrieve the governor,' said Uriel, 'nothing more.'
'Understood,' said Learchus, checking their time to arrival. 'Five minutes out,' he said.
'Are the men ready?' asked Uriel.
'Yes,' said Learchus, sheathing his sword and laying his bolter across his lap. 'They were ready the moment they boarded the gunship.'
'Good. They are a credit to you, Learchus. The entire company is a credit to you.'
'Thank you, captain,' said Learchus, a familiar shadow passing over his features. 'I promised I would look after the men of the company while you were… away.'
'And you have done a grand job,' said Uriel. 'I could not have wished for finer recruits to be raised to the 4th. Captain Idaeus would have been proud.'
Learchus nodded stiffly, and Uriel leaned forward. 'We have a few minutes until Lake Masura, and we need to clear the air between us before we go into battle.'
'What do you mean?' asked Learchus, his blue eyes wary.
'The fact that I am here troubles you, that much is obvious,' said Uriel, 'as does the fact that I am captain again. Part of you wishes I had not returned.'
'That is ridiculous,' snapped Learchus. 'You completed your Death Oath and returned to Macragge with your honour restored. There is nothing else to say.'
'I think there is,' pressed Uriel. 'You feel no bitterness at my return?'
'Are you sure?'
'I am sure.'
Uriel leaned back in the shaped metal chair and paused before saying, 'I wish Pasanius were here.'
Surprised at Uriel's change of tack, Learchus nodded slowly. 'His strength would be of great value in the coming fight.'
'It would, but that is not what I mean,' said Uriel.
'Then what do you mean?' asked Learchus, clearly exasperated.
'I mean that I wish he were here, but I understand that it is right he is not.'
'He broke the Codes of Rectitude and is being punished for that.'
'He broke those codes by lying, Learchus,' said Uriel, 'as you are lying to me now.'
Learchus's face flushed. Uriel saw his jaw tighten as anger rose within him, only to be swiftly quelled.
'What am I lying about, captain?' demanded Learchus.
'About your ambitions.'
Uriel leaned forwards, resting his forearms on his knees. 'I know you led the 4th Company to Espandor in my absence. I know of the battles you fought there, the victory of Corinth Bridge and the defence of Herapolis. You destroyed a gargant, a war machine with the power to level cities, and you saved that world from the orks. You led our company to Espandor a sergeant, but in your heart you returned as a captain. Tell me I'm wrong.'
'You are not wrong,' snarled Learchus. 'Am I to be dishonoured now for having ambition?'
'Of course not. A warrior must always test himself, seeking new foes and new challenges against which to fight. Without ambition, we would never achieve anything of greatness. A Space Marine needs ambition, it is what drives him to be the very best he can be. You have been a loyal sergeant and a proud warrior of the 4th, but this company is mine to lead.'
Learchus looked down at the deck, and to Uriel, he seemed to shrink a little in his armour.
'You were gone so long,' said Learchus eventually. 'Everyone believed you were dead. Even I had begun to lose hope that you would ever return to the Chapter.'
'But I did,' said Uriel. 'I am captain once more, and you must accept that.'
'I rebuilt the 4th, I trained it and I fought as its commander,' said Learchus. 'I grieved for the dead and carved their names on the wall of the Temple of Correction. I earned the right to lead it.'
'And in time you will receive a captaincy, of that I am certain.'
'But not now, and not the 4th?'
'No,' said Uriel with a wry smile, holding his hand out to Learchus. 'But who knows, I might die in this coming war. If that is to be my fate, then I could imagine no finer warrior to take my place. I need you with me, Learchus. The 4th Company needs you. Are you with me?'
Learchus stared at Uriel's hand for a long moment, but, at last, he nodded and took it. 'I am with you,' he said.
Though Koudelkar felt much calmer now that his aunt had explained her motives in inviting the tau delegation to Galtrigil, a nagging sense of unease gnawed at his veneer of calm. Try as he might, he couldn't quite identify its source, even though he felt it should have been obvious to a man of his insight and perspicacity.
'I think we might be able to do business,' he said, smiling at the grey-skinned tau.
Aun'rai took his hand from Koudelkar's shoulder and bowed.
'That is a wise decision, Governor Shonai,' said the tau. 'You will not regret it.'
'Damn you,' hissed Lortuen Perjed, pushing between Koudelkar and Aun'rai.
The old man had his stick raised, and was poised to strike the alien when one of the giant fighting machines took a step forwards. Standing apart from the others, Koudelkar now saw that it was etched with different markings. Its head unit was pale blue with a striped pattern on its left side, and there was a flaming sphere painted in the centre of its chest panel and upon one shoulder guard.
The machine raised its weapons, one a huge cannon with multiple barrels, the other a thick tubular gun with a hemispherical muzzle. Naked fear rose in Koudelkar as the lenses on the battle machine's head whirred and a thin beam of targeting light reflected from Lortuen Perjed's glistening pate.
Lortuen slashed his walking cane at Aun'rai, but the alien's batons flashed into its hands, and the cane was knocked from the adept's hand.
Koudelkar was impressed. The tau envoy was faster and more skilled than he looked. The battle machine leaned down. 'Step back or die, Gue'la,' it told Perjed.
The voice was mechanically rendered, though it still carried the resonance of the speaker's voice superbly. Even though he was deathly afraid of the machine, Koudelkar wondered why the Adeptus Mechanicus could not develop something similar. Surely, if these aliens could invent such technology, the priests of the Machine-God could as well.
Koudelkar took hold of Lortuen's arm and held the adept tightly.
Aun'rai waved the battle machine back, and Koudelkar thought he saw a trace of anger in the envoy's features.
'My apologies, Governor Shonai,' said Aun'rai. 'The noble El'esaven is very protective of me and sometimes forgets himself.' The alien then turned its amber eyes on Lortuen Perjed and said. 'And you should know that the silent alarm signal in your cane is being jammed.'
'Filthy creature!' shouted Lortuen, shrugging off Koudelkar's grip. Aun'rai stepped back to avoid his outburst. 'How dare you?'
'There's someone inside that?' asked Koudelkar, indicating the tall machine, though Aun'rai had as good as confirmed his earlier suspicion that each one was crewed by a living pilot. The notion that the tau were jamming an alert signal registered as strange, but the thought vanished as Aun'rai spoke again.
'There is indeed a pilot within,' said Aun'rai. 'El'esaven is a commander of great repute and skill.'
'And that machine is his… armour?'
'In a way, yes, but it is so much more than merely armour. In your language, the best translation of its name would be ''battlesuit''.'
'Stop talking to it!' demanded Perjed. 'Don't you see what's happening here?'
'Adept Perjed, control yourself!' shouted his aunt. 'Your behaviour is unconscionable.'
Perjed spun on his heel, rage lending his aged limbs strength. 'My behaviour? You have made pacts with xenos creatures, you stupid, stupid woman! They are not here to negotiate; they are here to take over! Open your eyes, damn you!'
Koudelkar felt Lortuen's words tugging at his mind, and he turned back to Aun'rai. 'My military advisors tell me you have other soldiers on Pavonis, is this true?'
The tau smiled, or at least that was what Koudelkar assumed the movement of its features signified. 'We do have some… lightly armed reconnaissance troops on Pavonis, yes. Purely as a precaution, you understand? Given your society's intolerance of other species, I felt it was prudent to ensure that Pavonis was ready for my arrival.'
'I am not sure I am comfortable with your armed forces on my world,' said Koudelkar as a powerful feeling of revulsion and anger began taking shape within him.
Aun'rai stepped towards him once more, but his mother put herself in his way.
'Don't you touch my son,' she said. 'Don't you lay a finger on him, I'm warning you.'
'Mother!' hissed Koudelkar, but the implications of what Aun'rai had said were worming their way through the haze surrounding his thoughts with ever greater force. The nagging sensation of something being horribly wrong was growing in strength, and he looked up at the threatening bulk of the battlesuit warrior that threatened Adept Perjed.
This was an alien soldier, one of high rank if he was a noble, and businessmen did not bring armed men to a negotiation. His anger rose in a tide, and Koudelkar felt the desire to talk with these aliens fade like a half-remembered dream. He shook his head. What had he been thinking? Dealing with xenos creatures? The very idea was ludicrous.
With that thought, the last of whatever subtle manipulation had been worked upon him vanished and he saw the truth of Lortuen's words.
'In fact,' he continued, 'I find the notion of your troops on Pavonis a gross insult. This is an Imperial world of the Emperor, and your presence here constitutes an act of war.'
'Koudelkar!' cried his aunt. 'No! Think of what you're saying. Think of Pavonis!'
'Oh, I am, Mykola,' he said. 'I'm saying what you should have said long ago and what I would have said had this bastard not influenced me with some form of xenos mind control!'
Koudelkar drew himself up to his full height and pushed out his thin chest. 'Aun'rai, you are an enemy of the human race, and you are in violation of the Emperor's will, by whose glory and beneficence is the galaxy ruled. You must leave this planet and never return, or else face the full might of the Imperium's wrath.'
Aun'rai sighed. 'This is most regrettable. I was led to believe you would be willing to enter into a partnership with us for the greater good of all.'
'Then I am happy to disappoint you,' said Koudelkar, shooting a poisonous glance towards his aunt.
'I have come to expect such narrowness of vision from your species, but I hoped this time would be different,' said the alien envoy. 'But make no mistake; Pavonis will be part of the Tau Empire. It would have been better if you had embraced the idea and become part of this planet's future, but I see now that you are just as blinkered and hate-filled as the rest of your selfish race.'
'You see, Mykola?' hissed Lortuen Perjed. 'See now the true face of these xenos! They come not with co-operation in mind, but conquest.'
'You are wrong about us, Adept Perjed,' said Aun'rai, with a faint trace of regret, 'but it is too late for a peaceful resolution.'
As if to confirm that statement, one of the circling tau aircraft exploded, tumbling from the sky in a flaming cartwheel until it slammed into the lake with an almighty splash.
The sudden violence of the explosion acted like a flamer to a drum of promethium.
Koudelkar looked up to see a thundering blue craft, boxy and ungainly, scream overhead. Its guns blazed with light and noise, and he knew he'd never seen a more welcome sight.
The bloodshed simmering just beneath the surface of this encounter erupted in a crescendo of violence. Koudelkar's skitarii, who had been itching to wreak harm on the tau, finally gave in to their warlike urges, and a number of things seemed to happen at once.
The battlesuits cycled their weapons up to fire, and the bronze-armoured skitarii with an implanted cannon and grenade launcher opened fire. One of the Lavrentian soldiers barrelled Koudelkar and his mother to the ground, and a hurricane of gunfire erupted all around him.
Koudelkar jammed his palms over his ears at the deafening, terrifying volume of it. One of the battlesuits collapsed, its upper half a smoking ruin where a series of grenades had blown it apart. Both skitarii were firing, howling and exultant, their guns roaring as they unleashed the full fury of their maker's lethal skills.
Koudelkar rolled as barking hellguns opened up and squalling bolts of las-fire flashed overhead. His mother screamed in fear, and Koudelkar saw Mykola throw herself to the ground and crawl in panic towards the house. Lortuen Perjed was curled into a tight ball, covering his ears and keeping as low to the ground as possible.
Then the battlesuits opened fire.
Three of the Lavrentians were immediately slain, shredded in a blitzing storm of fire. Their bodies literally ceased to exist as limbs were torn from bodies and torsos were vaporised in the relentless hail of shells. The survivors scattered, but, to their credit, they were still fighting, snapping off shots at their attackers as they ran for cover. Another battlesuit was brought down by their fire, its chest punctured and cratered with las-burns.
'Come on!' screamed the soldier that had borne him to the ground. 'Move it!'
'What?' cried Koudelkar. 'I can't hear you!'
The man dragged the collar of his frock-coat and pointed. 'Get to the house! Go!'
'Get Lortuen,' shouted Koudelkar over the din of firing. The soldier looked set to disobey him, but nodded and crawled over to the venerable adept.
Koudelkar put an arm across his mother's back, and together they began crawling towards the house. The walls of the arboretum blew out and fell to the ground in crashing panes of glass as the trees within splintered under the storm of fire. Shards of glass sliced Koudelkar's palms as he crawled, and he gritted his teeth against the pain.
One skitarii dropped to its knees with a smoking, fist-sized hole blasted in its chest. Even as it died, it sent a string of grenades sailing into the troop compartment of Aun'rai's drop-ship. Flames and smoke erupted from within the aircraft, and Koudelkar heard horrifying screams of pain from the tau soldiers within. Flaming bodies tumbled from the craft, which sagged on its skids as secondary explosions blew out its sides and an engine.
Screams and smoke filled the air, and Koudelkar felt sure the shot that was going to kill him would come at any second. He heard another explosion, but couldn't tell where it had come from. All was chaos: las-bolts, alien weapons' fire and cries of pain. It was impossible to tell what was happening. Koudelkar's terror rose to new heights at the thought of dying like this.
'They'll think I'm a traitor,' he said. 'If I die here, they'll think I'm a traitor.'
'What?' cried his mother, her face streaked with tears. He shook his head. They were almost there. Ignoring the pain of his gashed hands, Koudelkar reached the door to the arboretum and almost wept with relief. Fresh shots echoed from the walls of the house, some high-pitched and whining, others booming like distant artillery fire.
A huge shadow enveloped him, and Koudelkar looked up to see the battlesuit with the flaming sphere device worked onto its chest.
It towered over him, and he cried out as it reached for him with mechanised gauntlets.
Uriel dropped from the assault ramp of the Thunderhawk. The howling gale of its engines as it hovered behind the tau craft was like a fiery hurricane blast, the grass flattened and burning beneath the gunship. Smoke boiled from the stricken tau vehicle, some kind of drop-ship by the look of it, and enemies poured from its interior. Some were ablaze and dying, others were burned, but fighting.
Learchus and a squad of Ultramarines dropped to the ground and began shooting. Behind them came Chaplain Clausel's assault troops as the scouts fanned out behind the battle squads, positioning themselves to deliver covering fire.
'Are we too late?' shouted Learchus.
'I think we arrived at exactly the right moment,' answered Uriel. 'Let's go!'
As the Thunderhawk had passed overhead, Uriel scanned the dynamics of the firefight, mapping out the shape of the battle in a second. A furious exchange of fire was underway on a stone-flagged terrace. Tau infantrymen, flying discs with under-slung weapons, and tall battle machines like elongated Dreadnoughts traded shots with a few Guardsmen and what looked like one of Governor Shonai's skitarii.
Gunfire fizzed past Uriel, streaking darts of light that hissed and spat as they struck the armoured hull of the Thunderhawk. Tau warriors, around a dozen of them, were forming up in the shadow of the wrecked drop-ship. An enemy soldier in a pale red helmet was directing their fire, and two of the battlesuits turned from the firefight on the terrace to add their support.
'Chaplain, the terrace!' bellowed Uriel. 'Learchus, your squad with me. We take those tau at the drop-ship, and then hit them in the flank!'
Clausel and his warriors powered away on columns of fire, the roar of their jump packs cutting through the stuttering cacophony of gunfire. Uriel set off towards the downed drop-ship, his Space Marines following behind him through the torrents of fire, their bolters locked before them.
Searing beams of pulsing weapons fire slashed the air as Uriel and his warriors charged towards the slumped drop-ship. He heard impacts of hard energy against ceramite plates as several shots struck home. One pulse hit the curve of his shoulder-guard and ricocheted past his helmet, another struck his greave. Neither was powerful enough to stop him.
His bolter bucked in his hand as he fired. One of the tau pitched backwards, his chest and shoulder blown out by the mass-reactive bolt. Another volley flashed, and Uriel felt one tear through the weaker joint at his waist. Even as the pain registered, balms dulled it, and medicae systems began treating the wound.
A volcanic blizzard of fire streaked above Uriel, and the tau drop-ship bucked and heaved as the frontal guns of the Thunderhawk tore it apart. Uriel emptied the last of his magazine before slinging his bolter as the gunship's suppressing fire was shut off.
He reached the blazing drop-ship's perforated remains, and slammed his back against it.
'Frags!' he shouted, unsnapping a pair of textured discs from his belt harness.
Uriel lobbed the grenades over the drop-ship and counted three seconds as he drew his sword. Other grenades followed his, and a series of dull bangs rocked the drop-ship. Uriel heard the ringing impacts of razored fragments pinging from its hull.
Uriel swung around the drop-ship with his blade raised at his right shoulder. Behind the drop-ship, a dozen or so tau warriors picked themselves up from the horror of the grenades' detonations. Their fatigues were torn and bloodied, but, more importantly, the blasts had broken their readiness to fight.
Uriel's golden blade leapt with azure fire, and he drove it through the chest of the nearest tau warrior. His victim fell without a sound as Uriel stepped over his body and took the fight to his foes. The aliens were bloodied and disorientated, but Uriel gave them no chance to recover their wits, cleaving his blade through another warrior's armour, and tearing it free in a wash of blood.
The tau rose to meet his charge, and, though full-enclosing helmets obscured their faces, Uriel saw the panic in them. They had come here expecting an easy mission, but were now in a fight for their lives. A few snap shots flashed past him. Uriel's squad followed him into the fight, but this moment was his and his alone.
He hammered his boot into the chest of the next tau, and smashed his sword through the armour of the warrior behind him. More tau turned their weapons on him, but he was already among them, and it was too late for guns. This was a close-quarters fight that required the brutal skills of a killer, and there were no finer killers than the Space Marines. Uriel fought with total economy of motion as he struck the tau like a thunderbolt. No blow was wasted, and, each time his sword or fist connected, an enemy fell.
The tau were helpless against him, for he was a warrior of the Adeptus Astartes and he was fighting for more than just victory, he was fighting for the glory of his Chapter. For too long, Uriel had fought for redemption or simply for survival.
This fight was for the honour of the Ultramarines.
Learchus stood next to him, his sword cleaving a bloody path through the tau. Side by side, they fought like the mighty gods of battle they were. Uriel was always on the move, slaying his foes without mercy or fear. He swayed aside from knives and rifle butts, smashing skulls and slicing open armour with every blow. Decades of training and a century of war had moulded him into a warrior without peer. He was a killing machine that had never tasted defeat, and he fought with all the skill encoded into his flesh by the most fearsome training regime imaginable.
Shots banged around him, blades tore flesh, and blood flowed in rivers. Within moments the tau were dead. Nearly a score of enemy warriors lay scattered on the ground, scorched black by fire, cut to pieces by blades or blown apart by explosive bolts. Uriel registered the deaths without emotion, and drew close to the drop-ship.
'Precious little glory in this,' sneered Learchus. 'They have no stomach for a real fight.'
Uriel nodded, kicking one of the tau rifles. 'They rely too much on their weapons and not enough on blade-work.'
'How does our Chaplain fare?'
Uriel looked over towards the terrace where Clausel's assault warriors fought. Smoke and flames obscured much of the battle, but the sound of shooting and the clash of blades told him that there was still a fight to be won.
'Let's go and find out,' he said, hefting his bloodied sword once more.