Blood swilled around his feet, and the stink of seared flesh filled the cramped transport compartment of the Aquila lander. Nathaniel Winterbourne took shallow breaths as he tried to focus on the streams of data flowing over the slates fitted around the circumference of the observation canopy's circular cupola. Alithea had outdone herself, and operational readiness icons were flashing to life for virtually all units of Sword Command.
He drew in a sharp breath as the pain of his wounded arm flared again. The kroot hunting beast had bitten deep and, now that the adrenaline of combat was draining from his system, his arm felt like it was on fire. He'd accepted a shot of morphia to dull the pain and had swabbed the wound with half a bottle of counterseptic. Hopefully, that would be enough to counteract any xenos toxins that the beast's bite might have carried.
Beneath him, in the passenger compartment, injured men groaned in pain, their wounds far more severe than his. Three of his soldiers were dead as well as his vox-servitor and scribe. Germaine too had been killed, and he grieved for her loss keenly. She would receive a commendation along with the soldiers who had fought so valiantly beside him. He stroked Fynlae with his uninjured hand, careful to avoid the gouges torn in the vorehound's flanks during his fight with the alien beast.
The wounded Ultramarines warrior lay unmoving. For all the life he displayed, he could have been dead. The man's wounds were horrific, and it was a source of amazement to Winterbourne that anyone, even a Space Marine, could suffer such hideous trauma and live. Truly, the Adeptus Astartes were a race apart, and Winterbourne gave a short prayer of thanks that they fought for the divine Emperor of Man.
The commander's seat of an Aquila was mounted above and behind the pilot's cockpit, and Winterbourne had a panoramic view of the moonlit landscape below him. Behind him, the dark wall of Tembra Ridge serrated the horizon, and the diffuse glow just ahead was the city of Brandon Gate. A ribbon of light stretched away from the city, curving in a concave arc as it made its way south-west towards Olzetyn before reaching Praxedes on the coast. Beyond Brandon Gate, the horizon was a glowing line of fire, the skies stained with light and fumes from the unceasing labours of the Adeptus Mechanicus within the Diacrian Belt.
The lander dipped its wings and began its descent to Camp Torum on the northern edge of the city. Winterbourne looked down into the passenger compartment once more, relieved beyond words that his men were soon to receive proper medical treatment. It had been foolish to travel to Tembra Ridge without a full medicae team, but he'd been so damned insistent about going with the Ultramarines that he hadn't prepared properly.
Without warning, the aircraft banked sharply to the right, and his wounded arm slammed against the sharp metal rim of the cupola. Hot pain lanced up his arm, and he roared in anger.
'Emperor's wounds, man!' he shouted at the pilot. 'Watch what you're doing or I'll have your damn wings!'
The man didn't answer, and Winterbourne was about to rebuke him when he saw the streams of fire blazing into the sky from below. Ribbons of light spat upwards, almost lazily, and painted the heavens with blooms of light. Nearby, explosions cracked and spat, the sound of them rolling over the aircraft seconds after the flash. The sky above Torum was thick with waving streams of tracer fire. Winterbourne recognised it as flak from Hydra tanks. His tanks.
And they had been on the verge of flying into it.
The pilot's quick reactions had undoubtedly saved their lives, and Winterbourne made a mental note to apologise for his stern rebuke once they were safely on the ground.
'What in the name of Torum's balls is going on down there?' he yelled.
'I don't know, my lord,' said the pilot, pulling the Aquila in a wide, anticlockwise circle around the southern reaches of the city. Winterbourne attempted to raise someone on the ground, but every channel either hissed static or binaric interrogation cants.
Winterbourne recognised them as Hydra targeting logisters checking to see if they were a friendly or a hostile contact. Glancing at the slate to his left, he was relieved to see that the transponder was broadcasting his personal ident-code. He reached out to touch the black and white cog symbol etched into the metal rim of the cupola, and whispered a quick prayer of thanks to the spirit of the Aquila.
Satisfied that he wasn't about to be blown out of the sky by his own flak tanks, Winterbourne peered through the darkness to try and make some sense of what was happening below. His practiced eye quartered the city, scanning back and forth to spot anything out of the ordinary.
He didn't have to look for long.
Something was burning in the southern wedge of the city, a large structure with tall, metallic spires and iron flanks. The rippling glow of the flames illuminated the structure, and Winterbourne's eyes widened as he realised that the Templum Fabricae was ablaze.
'Merciful heavens,' he hissed. 'Are we too late already?'
He quickly scanned the rest of the city, but could see nothing else amiss.
'Get us on the ground,' he said. 'Now.'
'Where, my lord?' asked the pilot.
'Camp Torum, where do you think?' snapped Winterbourne. 'And make it fast. Men will die if you don't get us down quickly.'
'Yes, my lord,' replied the pilot. 'The sky's too hot for a normal descent, so we're going to have to come in from the city side. We'll be low and fast, so hold onto something.'
The pilot immediately pulled the Aquila into a sharp downward arc, angling the nose to the north-west and losing altitude rapidly as he flew over Brandon Gate. The aircraft shot over the ruins of the Arbites precinct, and across the open expanse of Liberation Square, before pulling into a screamingly tight turn over the Commercia Gate. The wings of the aircraft spread, and the nose came up alarmingly, as the pilot threw the aircraft into its landing mode and rapidly bled off the last of its forward momentum.
Winterbourne was hurled forwards; only his restraining harness and a firm grip prevented him from smashing his skull against the toughened glass of the observation dome. Even so, the rapid deceleration was blindingly painful on his torn up arm. Fynlae yelped as he was thrown around, and cries of alarm came from the passenger compartment.
The Aquila levelled out, and Winterbourne saw that it wasn't just the Hydras that were firing into the sky. Tank commanders were shooting their turret-mounted guns upwards, and even Guardsmen on the ground were aiming their lasguns towards the heavens. A few even turned their guns on the Aquila as it roared into view, but held their fire as they saw their regiment's heraldry on its wings and fuselage.
The lights of Camp Torum were blazingly bright, and Winterbourne saw no evidence of damage or signs of attack as the lander skimmed over its vast hangars and barrack buildings. Just what the hell had happened here, and why was the sky above the camp awash with exploding flak?
'Set us down over there,' ordered Winterbourne, spotting a knot of Guardsmen in the centre of the parade ground, clustered around a horseman holding the emerald and gold banner of the 44th aloft.
The pilot brought the Aquila in low, and set it down hard in a billowing cloud of engine smoke. Even before the forward skid was down, Winterbourne slammed his palm against his harness release, and pulled the lever to lower his command chair from the observation dome. Fynlae jumped down, and Winterbourne slid from his seat as the passenger compartment descended.
Guardsmen with raised rifles awaited him as he stepped onto the parade ground, and their expressions told him that something serious was afoot. Medicae staff ran towards him, but he waved them away.
'There are men in there need help more than me,' he said. 'See to them first.'
Winterbourne pushed through the scrum of soldiers surrounding him, and stalked towards the horseman with the banner. Any senior officer would be there. Heated voices were raised and he sensed panic.
'Can someone please inform me why I was almost shot out of the sky above my own damn base?' he shouted, the years of authority in his voice cutting through the babble.
Heads turned to face him.
'Make a hole!' he bellowed, and the soldiers parted before him to reveal a scene of carnage. Dead men and dying horses lay in spreading pools of blood as medicae in red-spattered uniforms fought to save the wounded.
'Oh no,' he said, and his heart sank as he saw Captain Mederic cradling the body of Major Alithea Ornella. Her uniform coat was sticky with blood, and black where it had been burned by weapons fire. He dropped to his knees beside her, and reached out to touch her cheek. It was still warm.
'Mederic? What happened?' he asked.
'We were attacked,' said his captain of scouts, 'by those.'
Winterbourne looked over to where Mederic was pointing, and saw a host of dead creatures with leathery skin of mottled blue chitin and wide wings of what looked like textured silk. They were repulsive beasts, hybrid by-blows of reptiles and insects, and they leaked a viscous yellow sap-like blood from scores of las-wounds. Strange-looking weapons with oddly-angled grips lay beside them, and dead, multi-faceted eyes stared glassily out over the parade ground.
Winterbourne's lip curled in distaste.
'Stingwings,' he hissed.
'They came out of nowhere,' said Mederic. 'One minute we were supervising the mobilisation, the next we were under fire. Two dozen of them dropped out of the sky and tore into us. We got them all, but not before…'
His words trailed off as he indicated the dead body of the 44th's second in command.
'Alithea will be avenged, captain,' said Winterbourne. 'Make no mistake about that.'
'I believe you, my lord,' said Mederic.
Winterbourne stood and drew himself up to his full height and addressed the Guardsmen around him with the full weight of his authority.
'Right, let's get this army ready to fight,' said Winterbourne. 'I want us ready to roll out of here and fit to fight within the hour. Is that understood? Now go!'
Mederic saluted as the Guardsmen of the Lavrentians rushed to obey Winterbourne's orders.
'What about the Administratum?' Mederic asked. 'We're still awaiting their authorisation.'
'To hell with that, son,' said Winterbourne. 'We're at war, and I'm not waiting for some damn pencil pusher to tell me I can march out with my soldiers. Now make it happen!'
The fight, as it turned out, was brief. Chaplain Clausel's warriors had been thorough in their destruction, and only a handful of the flying discs and a single battlesuit had still been functional by the time Uriel and Learchus led their squad into the battle. With the last of the tau machines brought down, a curious silence fell over the battlefield.
Glass and bullet casings crunched underfoot, and the moans of wounded tau were the only other sounds to disturb the quiet. As Uriel's scouts secured the few alien prisoners, the assault troops gathered up their fallen brothers. Three Space Marines were dead, and Uriel stood aside to allow Clausel's warriors past as they were borne towards the Thunderhawk.
Uriel approached Clausel. The Chaplain's face was a mask of blood, red droplets falling from the eye sockets of his death mask like ruby tears.
'Well met, Chaplain,' said Uriel, gripping Clausel's wrist. 'Who did you lose?'
'Brother Phaetus, Brother Ixios and Brother Ephor,' said Clausel. 'They will be remembered.'
'That they shall,' Uriel assured him. 'I will carve their names myself.'
Clausel moved away, and Uriel turned his attention to the aftermath of the fighting, angered at the deaths of the three warriors. Stepping carefully through the detritus of battle, he saw half a dozen of the automated flying drones the tau employed lying scattered like dented silver mirrors. The drones lay amid the bloodied remains of a handful of Lavrentian Guardsmen, and, such was the destruction wreaked upon their corpses that Uriel found it next to impossible to tell exactly how many had died.
His anger built at the sight of their bodies. It was obscene that the lives of warriors should be ended by an enemy without feelings, emotions or a spirit. Machines that killed were anathema to the Imperium, and even the death-dealing technology fabricated by the priests of Mars was imbued with a fragment of the machine-spirit or crewed by a living, breathing human being.
Two skitarii, the ones Uriel had seen during the audience with Koudelkar Shonai, were also dead, their heavily augmented bodies burned and cratered by multiple gunshot wounds. Brutal and animalistic killers they might be, but they had died in defence of their master.
Uriel counted four destroyed battlesuits, their armoured casings broken open and leaking hydraulic fluids onto the bloodied stone of the terrace. Through the cracked plating, Uriel could see torn grey flesh, and he could smell the strange, musky odour of alien blood. He walked through the scene of slaughter, coming at last to the splintered doors and smashed glazing of a botanical hothouse.
'Looks like it was quite a fight before we got here,' said Learchus, appearing at his side.
'Aye, that it does,' said Uriel, 'but I do not see the body of the governor anywhere.'
'Maybe he got inside,' suggested Learchus. 'I think these doors were open before they were shot out.'
'Possibly,' said Uriel, his eyes narrowing as he spotted something out of place beneath one of the battlesuits. He stepped over a pool of congealing blood, and knelt beside the blackened shell of one of the tau armoured fighting suits.
'Over here,' he said. 'Help me with this.'
Learchus joined him, and together they heaved the wrecked battlesuit onto its side. The machine was startlingly heavy, a solid, immobile hunk of metal now that whatever power source drove it was inactive.
'Guilliman's oath,' hissed Learchus at the sight of what was revealed.
Beneath the battlesuit lay the body of another tau, but one that was clearly not a warrior. Its robes were stained with blood, though none appeared to be its own. Its robes were white and gold, embroidered with a shimmering multi-coloured thread. A high collar of polished gems and enamelled chips was crushed beneath its head and its eyes flickered with life.
'Looks like someone important,' said Learchus.
'Yes,' agreed Uriel, 'one of their leader caste. A diplomat or some kind of noble perhaps.'
The fallen alien groaned, and his chest rose and fell with breath now that the pinning weight of the battlesuit had been removed. Learchus took hold of the alien, his massive gauntlet easily able to encircle its neck. 'Do you think he's the one in charge of them?'
'Given that he's here at the governor's residence, that seems possible.'
'Then his death will greatly hinder them,' said Learchus, tightening his grip. The tau reached up with thin arms and weakly pulled at the sergeant's wrists.
'No, do not kill him,' ordered Uriel. 'Secure him and get him onto the gunship. If he is a senior commander, we could learn a lot from him.'
Learchus nodded and hauled the tau to his feet. 'I will personally keep this one secure. What do you want to do now?'
'Search the grounds and the house,' ordered Uriel. 'Find any survivors.'
In the end, the search of the house revealed fifteen servants, who had gone to ground when the fighting had started, but Governor Shonai was not amongst them. Of the survivors, none were of especial note save for Mykola Shonai, the governor's aunt, whom Uriel had previously seen on his last expedition to Pavonis at Ario Barzano's grave. The scouts had found her hiding in the shredded ruin of the arboretum, curled under a stone bench with her eyes closed and her hands pressed firmly against her ears.
Uriel was pleased Mykola was alive, but this pleasure soured as he saw the guilty fear in her eyes as she was brought before him. If Uriel had been shocked by the change in Pavonis, it was nothing compared to the change he saw in Mykola Shonai.
Gone was the confident, strong-willed Planetary Governor, who had faced down an Imperial inquisitor over the fate of her world, and in her place was a weeping, mud-stained woman with thinning grey hair and a deeply lined face. Tears and snot mingled on her face, and Uriel felt a stab of sadness that she could have fallen to such a level.
'Uriel…? Oh, Emperor protect me,' she whispered. 'Oh, no… I'm sorry. No, no, no.'
Mykola looked away, and dropped to her knees as she saw the bodies strewn across the bloodstained terrace. Uriel shot Learchus a confused look as she covered her eyes and wept.
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry… I never meant for this to happen,' she cried. 'I didn't know they'd take them, I swear.'
Uriel dropped to one knee before her. Gently, he raised her head. 'What happened here, Mykola? Where is Koudelkar?'
Mykola shook her head. 'No, I can't. It's too much.'
'You have to tell me everything,' pressed Uriel, 'and you have to do it now.'
'They said they came to negotiate,' cried Mykola, 'to do business. They said they could help bring prosperity back to Pavonis, and that's what I wanted. That's all I've ever wanted.'
The implications of her words were clear, and Uriel's heart sank. 'You invited the tau here, didn't you? They approached you with offers of trade and you listened to them. That's what happened, isn't it?'
Mykola nodded. 'You don't understand, Uriel. We'd won our world back from the brink of damnation. We were saved, but it was being taken away from us piece by piece by bureaucrats who had never even heard of Pavonis, let alone knew how bad things had gotten. The tau offered us a way out.'
'That is not what the tau offer, Mykola,' said Uriel. 'They offer you slavery and call it freedom, a prison you do not know you are in until it is too late. They offer a choice that is no choice at all.'
Something Mykola had said earlier now registered, and Uriel gripped her shoulder tightly. 'Koudelkar, they took him. The tau have your nephew, don't they? Is that what you meant when you said, ''I didn't know they'd take them''?'
Mykola didn't answer at first, but she nodded between sobs. 'Yes. One of the battle machines took him and my sister. Another took Lortuen… I mean Adept Perjed.'
Uriel looked over his shoulder at the smouldering wreckage of the tau drop-ship, matching its shape and features with the knowledge he'd assimilated from the myriad briefing files and after-action reports collated by the Ultramarines in the wake of their battles against the tau.
Such drop-ships were designated Orcas by Imperial Lexicographers, and Uriel quickly ran its troop capacity against the number of tau corpses he'd seen. The numbers didn't add up.
'Learchus, count the number of enemy dead,' he ordered. 'All of them: warriors, battlesuits and drones.'
'Just do it,' snapped Uriel, although he feared he already knew the answer. Learchus turned to the task with alacrity, and within the space of a minute, he had returned.
'Well?' asked Uriel.
'Four destroyed battlesuits, twenty-four dead soldiers and eight drones accounted for. Looks like three crew on the drop-ship that were killed when the Thunderhawk opened up.'
Uriel swore. 'An Orca can carry six battlesuits. Are you sure there are only four here?'
'Absolutely,' said Learchus. 'I'd stake my honour on it.'
'Damn it, Mykola, where have they taken him?' asked Uriel.
'I don't know, I swear on my life! Once the shooting started, I didn't see much of anything. I saw one of the battlesuits, the one Aun'rai called El'esaven, lift Koudelkar and Pawluk. Then another one picked up Lortuen, but then I got inside the arboretum, and I didn't see anything after that!'
'Aun'rai and El'esaven?' said Uriel. 'Who are they?'
'Aun'rai was the envoy,' said Mykola, wiping her face with the hem of her robe, 'the lying bastard who set this all up.'
'A tau in robes, not armour?' asked Uriel.
'Yes, uh… creamy white robes and no armour,' agreed Mykola.
'And El'esaven?' said Learchus. 'Is he a warrior?'
'I think so,' said Mykola between heaving gulps of air. 'He was wearing a battlesuit. I never heard of him before today, but I got the feeling he wasn't happy about what was happening, like he wanted to just open up on us instead of talk.'
'Did you see where they took the governor?' demanded Learchus. 'It is imperative that we retrieve your nephew. The fighting forces of Pavonis need a figurehead.'
Mykola shook her head.
'I didn't see,' she said with complete and utter self-loathing. 'I was too busy keeping my head down.'
Uriel sighed, saddened to see a once-noble servant of the Emperor brought low by her own flawed character. Though Mykola Shonai was now a traitor in the eyes of the Imperium, Uriel could well understand how she had come to this place, having walked a similar path not so long ago. Any censure heaped upon her would be nothing compared to the crushing anguish she would be lavishing on herself, though that fact would carry no weight with those who decided her punishment.
Uriel wanted to hate Mykola Shonai for what she had done, but found he could not. All he felt towards her was pity. He nodded to the scouts. 'Take her onto the Thunderhawk and secure her with the rest of the prisoners for transfer to the Glasshouse.'
The two scouts lifted the distraught Mykola and dragged her away.
'We're not taking her to Fortress Idaeus?' asked Learchus. 'She needs to be interrogated.'
'Fortress Idaeus is now our base of operations for war,' said Uriel, 'and that is no place for prisoners. Judge Sharben's enforcers will undertake the interrogation.'
Learchus nodded. 'Very well. And the governor? What do we do about Koudelkar?'
'You are going to get him back,' said Uriel.
'Me?' said Learchus. 'Surely we should follow their trail in the Thunderhawk.'
'No. With the prisoners and survivors of this attack aboard, we don't have enough fuel to mount an aerial pursuit and get back to Brandon Gate. I need you to take the scouts and find the trail of this El'esaven. Machines that big should be simple enough to track. Follow them, find them and kill them. Then bring the governor back.'
'Very well,' said Learchus, slamming a fresh magazine into his bolter. 'What are you going to do?'
'I'm going back to Brandon Gate,' said Uriel. 'The fighting is only going to escalate, and the warriors of the 4th Company need their captain to lead them.'
Learchus smiled and said, 'Perhaps you did learn something on your Death Oath after all.'
'So it would seem,' agreed Uriel, gripping his sergeant's wrist.
'Courage and honour, captain.'
'I want the governor back,' he said. 'Find him for me.'
'We will find him,' vowed Learchus. 'On my honour, we will find him.'