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The first attack came at Praxedes in a blaze of light, and the first warning the port city's defenders had was the booming metallic cough of shells detonating above them. Sentries turned their gazes upwards, Hydra flak tanks swivelled their quad-mounted cannons to the heavens, and, a moment later, the warm glow of the sun was eclipsed by a sky-wide explosion of incandescent fire. Targeting auspex fused and shorted out, retinas were irreparably damaged, and delicate surveyor gear was instantly obliterated.

Where some enemies of the Imperium attacked under the cover of darkness, the tau came in the searing glare of a thousand stars.

A host of wedge-shaped craft flew in from the western ocean in the wake of the blinding detonation. Launched from floating platforms, brought to the surface in secret and concealed with alien technologies, they had awaited the execute order from El'esaven for many months. Caught unawares and blinded by the blazing skies, the air defences of the coastal city had no time to engage the attacking aircraft. The first wave began their attack runs as alert sirens roused the majority of Lance Command's Guardsmen from their bunks.

Twenty-five Barracuda air-superiority fighters of the Burning Star Hunter Coalition screamed over the airfields of Praxedes with their chin-mounted cannons blazing. It was the largest port facility on Pavonis, and the majority of its structures were built on the slopes of an ancient crater that was now open on its western edge to the vast expanse of the cold black ocean. Its sprawling landing fields and jib-platforms jutted out to sea like branches of a silver tree stripped of its leaves.

Some of these jibs were laden with freighter craft and bulk-lifters used to ferry cargo to orbiting mass conveyors, but many more were empty. Precious few of the city's flyers were combat aircraft, and those few that were able to get airborne were blown out of the sky within minutes of the first warning.

Explosions mushroomed skywards as fuel bays were hit, and stuttering pulses of light stitched across the vast hangars and container lines of the port. Panic gripped the city. Lance Command was based in a fortified enclosure on the side of the docks, and interceptor guns began opening fire as the Barracuda came in for another pass. Blazing tracer fire lit the sky, and a few tau aircraft tumbled downwards, torn in two, or their engines blown off by the barrage from below. No sooner had the tanks opened fire than invisible beams of laser light from teams of spotters concealed on the bluffs overlooking the city were painting their flanks.

Shoals of missiles detached from the wings of the surviving aircraft, and, like hunting hounds with the scent of blood, they roared towards the Imperial guns. Within moments, Lance Command was a scene of carnage as no fewer than four missiles slammed into the topside of each of its six anti-aircraft batteries.

Percussive detonations rolled over the base as each flak tank was silenced, and blazing plumes of thick, tarry smoke boiled skyward from the wrecks. Flames and explosions lit the night with a hellish orange glow as the Barracuda circled overhead like carrion birds.

With the city's air-cover stripped, four enormous aircraft with wide wings, like those of a great undersea monster that had forsaken the depths for the air, flew in low from the ocean. Flaring bow waves of frothing dark water travelled before them, rocking the platform jibs and throwing out great breaths of hot, magnetised air.

These giant aircraft were known and feared by Imperial forces as Mantas, monstrously powerful carrier aircraft that bristled with weaponry, and which could transport the equivalent of a battle company. Streaking bursts of explosive shells swept across the landing platforms, clearing them of any last defenders.

Each of the alien craft swooped in low over an empty platform and rotated on its axis before smoothly setting down amid sprays of ionised water and debris. A lower deck opened up, and each carrier disgorged four graceful skimmer tanks that moved on rippling cushions of anti-grav energy. The tanks were a mix of lightly armoured Devilfish, more heavily armed Hammerheads and missile-laden Sky Rays. No sooner were the armoured vehicles disgorged than ranks of battlesuits marched behind them. Each hulking war machine was heavily armed and followed the tanks as they swiftly pushed into the landing facility.

With their heavy payloads deployed, telescoping ramps slid down from upper decks, and squad after squad of armoured warriors hustled from the enormous bays. A handful of drones flew above the soldiers, hardened fighters from the world of Sa'cea, who called themselves Fire Warriors. The sensor spines of the drones tracked left and right, relaying their findings to each squad leader.

The entire deployment had taken less than a minute, and, as the first Manta pulled away, another four flew in to set down yet more troops. Within ten minutes, over thirty armoured vehicles, sixty battlesuits and four hundred infantry were pushing out through the buildings and command structures of the port.

Support tanks showered the interior of Lance Command's fortifications with barrage after barrage of lethally accurate missiles, each one guided to its target by the unseen observers on the cliffs. Barracks buildings were reduced to rubble, defence emplacements flattened and vehicle hangars set ablaze as underground fuel bunkers were breached by perfectly coordinated strikes.

Hundreds of Lavrentian Guardsmen died in the opening moments of the attack, shredded by shrapnel from the exploding missiles or crushed to death as their base collapsed around them. Hundreds more were killed as a wave of olive-coloured battlesuits dropped from the sky on streaking plumes of jet fire. Cycling cannons strafed the esplanades and eye-wateringly bright bolts of blue fire exploded among knots of panicked soldiers.

Shouting captains tried to organise a coherent defence, but engaging the battlesuits at close quarters was like trying to grip smoke. Heavy weapon teams set up and opened fire, but their targets were like flitting inserts, darting through the air on precisely controlled bursts of jets. Weapons fire blazed through the interior of the Lavrentians' compound, criss-crossing in webs of light. A number of battlesuits were brought down, but casualties amongst the Guardsmen were far more numerous, and panic began to turn to terror.

Of the armoured strength of Lance Command, barely a handful of Leman Russ Conquerors rolled out from the hellish firestorm of the camp. They emerged from the roiling clouds of acrid smoke to take the fight to the enemy, with Chimera transports following in their wake. Such defiance was noble and courageous, but the Imperial forces were pitifully few compared to the full strength that had been deployed to Pavonis months before.

In the battle that followed, the hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned Imperial tanks were blown to pieces by hyper-velocity slugs that ripped their guts out and reduced them to smouldering piles of twisted metal.

Within the hour, the tau had secured their hold on Praxedes, and the coastal spaceport was now a bridgehead for invasion. In addition, over a thousand Lavrentian Guardsmen were taken prisoner, making the city's fall the worst defeat the regiment had suffered in its long and illustrious history.

The fall of Praxedes, however, was just the beginning of a night of bloodshed.

With their bridgehead secure, the forward elements of the tau army moved out from the coast in a swift advance. Yet more armed forces were ferried to the docking jibs of Praxedes by the giant Mantas, and every hour brought hundreds of Fire Warriors, battlesuits and armoured vehicles to the surface of Pavonis.

Under a thin curtain of Barracuda fighters, tau recon forces pushed along Highway 236, the arterial expressway that followed the line of the river towards Olzetyn. Second only to Brandon Gate, Olzetyn was a magnificent city, built upon a host of mighty bridges spanning great chasms carved in the earth by the confluence of three mighty rivers that merged into one mighty watercourse that flowed west to Praxedes. Its structures were clustered like miniature hives upon the bridges, the largest and most ornate of which was the gold and marble majesty of the Imperator Bridge.

Colonel Loic commanded the PDF forces stationed at the mighty city of bridges, bolstered by nearly three thousand Guardsmen of Shield Command. Alerted to the danger facing them, Colonel Loic and Captain Gerber of the 44th rallied their soldiers to face the tau with commendable speed, and the first attacks were beaten back with only minor losses.

The rest of the night was spent in hard-fought skirmishes as tau scout teams probed the outer defences of the city, but the assault on Olzetyn was only one of the tau offensives.

The slum-city of Jotusburg eternally sweltered beneath a hot roof of rank smog. The teeming slums and wretched hives were home to the millions of Mechanicus labourers that toiled in the forges and weapon shops of the Diacrian Belt. Hundreds of miles of silos, ore barns, milling hangars, generator stations and smelteries covered the foothills of the Sudinal Mountains, a vertiginous barrier that kept the cities safe from the howling, polluted winds of the southern wastes.

The south-eastern haunches of the continent were sprawling anthills of iron-sheathed forges and stone chimneys that produced much of the energy and raw materials for the manufactorum of Pavonis. But those anthills had been roused to swift action. As alert bells chimed through the squalid alleys and rat-runs of the reeking city, flickering ether-lamps were lit, and grimy units of dirt-stained PDF hurried to their muster stations. Units of tech-guard and skitarii efficiently mobilised and took up their posts, yet they were a small fraction of the defences. Guardsmen of Banner Command went to high alert as word came from Lord Winterbourne that they were to stand ready for combat operations.

The first warning that the enemy were inbound came, once again, from the Hydra flak tanks. The combat-logisters of each vehicle swiftly registered multiple solid returns from high-altitude flyers moving in from the west. With a weapons free order from their commander in chief, the flak tanks opened fire, and bright streams of shells and explosions burst within the smog above Jotusburg in diffuse yellow flares of igniting gasses.

The defenders of Jotusburg watched the strobing skies as ominous shapes twitched the fog above them, waiting with fear-taut nerves for the high-pitched shriek of descending bombs or screaming drop-ships on attack runs. The tension was unbearable, but as minute after minute passed, it seemed the tau craft might simply be flying on a reconnaissance mission.

That hope was cruelly dashed when the smog was split by hundreds of glittering discs falling from the sky like a rain of silver coins dropped from a giant's hand. The sky was thick with the falling shapes as nearly a thousand gun drones dropped en-masse from converted Tiger Shark bombers.

The drones slashed downwards, weapon pods slung beneath the upper disc sections firing indiscriminately at whatever targets presented themselves. The drones split into roaming hunter-killer squads, zipping through the warren of twisting streets, arched processionals and darkened hubs with their weapons blazing.

They moved without pause, strafing assembling tech-guard, ambushing running PDF units before vanishing into the fume-laced shadows. Power relays, vox-masts and transit hubs were attacked, as well as anything else that could be destroyed to hamper Imperial response.

The streets of Jotusburg echoed with screams and bellows of confusion as the drones infested the city like a virus, never stopping, always hunting, and the mobilisation that had begun with such speed ground to a virtual halt as the city's defenders turned inwards to purge the enemy from their midst.

All he had known since waking was pain, excruciating, maddening pain that threatened to send his mind screaming into a dark corner of madness to escape it. Even with the morphia, his body was one seething mass of agony. No corner of his flesh was exempt, and he wept bitter tears from lidless eyes.

Gaetan Baltazar stared unflinchingly at the ruin of his body. His chest, torso and limbs were wrapped in swathes of burn dressing, his hands little more than fused claws of bone enclosed in sterile gel packs. Any semblance of humanity had been burned away in the fires that had destroyed the Templum Fabricae.

Though he couldn't see his reflection, he knew his head too was a scarred mess of blackened tissue, one eye a dribbling, glutinous mess. Through the fog of pain and medication, he knew he was lying supine on a soft bed within a vaulted chamber of pale stone.

Devotional banners depicting armoured warrior-women protecting a shining candle hung above him. The air reeked of incense, counter-septic and death.

The Hospice of the Eternal Candle

How had he come to this place?

His memory was like a fractured pane of glass, each shard reflecting a different aspect of the horror that saw him confined to a bed within the hospice and tended by white-robed Sisters Hospitaller with expressions that alternated between horror and pity.

Gaetan remembered the flames and the screams. He remembered the shimmering invisible forms of the daemons that ran riot through the Templum Fabricae.

Most of all, he remembered the fire of the terrible weapons mounted on their arms.

No sooner had he seen them gathering, than they dropped from the iron girders of the chancel. Slivers of refracted light gave them a semblance of form: broad, hunched and heavy enough to smash the marble slabs of the nave as they landed. Gaetan had blinked furiously until their shapes finally resolved, and he saw the armoured daemons as they opened fire.

Blazing tongues of fire ripped through the templum, and screams of panic and pain soon followed them. The unrelenting echoes of gunfire formed a brutal hymnal of death as the hundreds gathered in the Templum Fabricae sought to escape the deadly salvoes, running for the wide doors at the end of the nave or hurling themselves beneath the splintering pews.

Escape was impossible as the invisible daemons moved through the templum with methodical remorselessness, walking streams of explosive shells through the panicked mass of fleeing worshippers. Braziers, lamps and candles were overturned in his congregation's desperation to escape, and flames licked at the walls. The statue of the Emperor rocked under a series of impacts, and shards of burning anthracite fell from His splintering form.

Furious rage built within Gaetan, and he swept his eviscerator from the altar. He could not tell how many daemons there were, but he had to fight them, and he hurled himself at the nearest blurred outline.

'In the Emperor's name, I smite thee hip and thigh!' he screamed, bringing the monstrous eviscerator down on the daemon's head. Adamantine teeth ripped into the daemon in a flaring shower of sparks, hydraulic fluids and spraying blood. It fell to the ground, and, as it did so, the veil of illusion that kept its repulsive form concealed was dispelled.

Its cloven body was armoured in olive-green plates, its bulbous, elongated head like the carapace of some hideous insect. This was no daemon; this was some form of tau warrior, a trespasser and defiler of this holy place. Captain Ventris had been right after all, the warriors of the tau were on Pavonis, and they sought to tear the heart of its faith from its people.

Blood poured from the beast, and Gaetan looked up to see sheets of flames ripping through the templum, consuming worshippers, pews and the silken banners with equal hunger. Gaetan dragged his eviscerator from the corpse of the tau warrior, and set off towards the nearest blurred outline of his enemies as hot chips of stone fell around him in a black rain.

The aliens saw him coming and turned their guns upon him, but Gaetan had no thought for his survival. All that mattered was that the vile xenos be made to pay for what they had done. Time compressed, and Gaetan knew he would never reach the alien warriors before they cut him down.

Then, the head of the Emperor's statue fell from its shoulders and exploded into shards of hard, hot coals as it struck the altar. The alien warriors were swept away in the explosion of razor-sharp fragments. The impact hurled Gaetan from his feet, and he landed on the soft and yielding flesh of dead bodies. He rolled from them in horror as flames bloomed around him, the heat of them scorching his skin and burning the hair from his scalp. He surged to his feet, the fabric of his robes ablaze and the pain unimaginable.

In moments, he was a living torch, a burning fury of insensate agony. He ran, his limbs obeying the instinctual urge for self-preservation as they carried him along the nave towards the golden doors that led to the cold night beyond. Gaetan felt the skin slough from his shins, the fabric of his robes searing to his flesh and the skin of his face peeling back under the awful, intolerable heat of the merciless flames. His temple burned behind him, but he had no thought but survival now, and even that seemed certain to be denied.

He knew not how long he had run for, but he remembered screams of fear and horror, blessed cool air on what remained of his skin, and the twin joy and pain of fire suppressants bathing his body. Then he knew darkness, agonising pain beyond imagining and almost beyond sanity. He knew shouts, lights and stinging needles, faces peering at him, and voices calling his name.

Hymns. He remembered hymns.

He woke to pain, and wept as it bathed his entire body, knowing that, beneath the counterseptic-soaked bandages that wrapped him he was barely alive, that his life hung by the thinnest of threads. Pain balms allowed his mind to wrench itself free of physical sensation, retreating into the furthest corners of his mind, but, as the agony overcame each dose, he would be dragged back to his misery.

Rows of beds stretched out either side of him, their wretched, miserable occupants filling the echoing chamber with their cries. The Sisters of the Eternal Candle that tended to his ruined flesh mouthed banal platitudes, but he had long since stopped listening to them, repulsed by the pity in their eyes. All they saw was a ruined preacher, a man destined to spend the last breaths of his life in terrible, unendurable agony. They sought to ease him into his death, thinking they did him a mercy.

Only one visitor to his bedside had come without pity in his heart.

'Truly you endure the price of peace and forgiveness,' said Prelate Culla, standing above Gaetan with a copy of the Imperial Creed held close to his chest. The predicant of the Lavrentian regiment was a towering presence, an emerald-robed warrior priest with a red chainsword sheathed over his shoulder.

Culla's shaven head reflected the weak light of the hospice chamber, and his beard had been braided into two forks, one silver and one black. Golden flecks in his eyes glittered with faith, and Gaetan winced as he pictured the fire that had crippled him.

His blistered tongue licked the lipless gash in his face that was all that remained of his mouth, and he heard the hiss of the atomiser as it puffed a mist of sterile moisture over his eyes.

'Culla,' he said, his voice cracked and little more than a rasping hiss, 'if you have come to gloat, leave me be. I am dying.'

'Aye,' agreed Culla, 'you are, and I come to you as a fellow keeper of the flame.'

Gaetan searched Culla's face for mockery, but finding none said, 'What do you want?'

'You are a defender of the faith, Gaetan Baltazar,' said Culla. 'Though ye walk through the fires of the iniquitous, ye shall rise again to smite the blasphemer, the heretic. Aye, and the alien too. Truly, I envy you, Clericus Fabricae.'

'Then you are a fool. I am dying,' hissed Gaetan. 'Why would you envy me?'

Culla reached down and placed his hand on Gaetan's chest. He winced at the pain as Culla said, 'Suffering brings us closer to the Emperor. We are clothed in His image, yet we walk freely beneath the sun while He suffers in our name upon the Golden Throne. In pain, we draw closer to Him and know a measure of his sacrifice. All men of faith should rejoice in such a fate. You will live to fight again, my friend.'

'We are not friends, Culla,' gasped Gaetan. 'All you preach is death and hatred.'

'That is all there is, Gaetan,' pressed Culla: 'Can you not see that? Hatred is what keeps us strong, what gives us the strength to defeat our enemies. Surely you now see the deception of tolerance? The evil of acceptance? There must be no peace amongst the stars, Gaetan, not while unclean xenos species and unbelievers are allowed to exist. Rejoice, for an eternity of carnage and battle awaits us. Embrace your hatred, for it is necessary. Hatred is good. You cannot tell me that you do not hate the tau for what they have done to you.'

Culla's words were like whips of fire on his soul, for he felt the pain of them even beyond that of his burned flesh. He did hate the tau. He hated them for the agony he suffered with every last shred of his life. He tried to hold onto his belief in redemption, forgiveness and brotherhood amongst the stars, but a tidal wave of bile and venom washed it away.

Gaetan wept at the ease with which his convictions crumbled before this hatred, and Culla smiled as it took shape in his heart. The Lavrentian preacher bent and lifted something heavy from beside the bed, placing it next to his hand.

'You understand at last, my friend,' said Culla.

'Yes,' said Gaetan, curling his clawed, burned hand around the blackened grip of his eviscerator, 'I do, and it breaks my heart.'

'Olzetyn is sure to be next,' said Lord Winterbourne, cradling his wounded arm in a sling as he stared at the gloomy projection on the hololithic table. The Lavrentian colonel had changed out of his bloodied shirt and uniform jacket, but was otherwise as Uriel had last seen him in the mountains. 'Jotusburg is infested with those damn drones, and Praxedes is well, it's just gone. Damned if I thought I'd see the day a Command of the Lavrentians would be taken so easily.'

Uriel sympathised with Winterbourne, having learned of the death of Major Ornella and the night of fighting on the west of the continent. The morning had brought little respite for the Imperial forces. The 4th Company were ready to go to war, and the remaining Commands of Lavrentians had assumed a defensive posture in response to the tau invasion, but there was no doubting they were still reeling from the speed of the attack.

Winterbourne, Uriel and Clausel gathered in the command centre of Fortress Idaeus, watching as hazy icons flickered on the surface of the projection table. The wounded vorehound sat at its master's feet, gnawing on a bone that didn't look as though it came from any livestock Uriel knew.

The data-slates embedded in the command centre's walls streamed with what information the surveyor gear on the roof could gather, and Chapter serfs passed it to the Techmarine hard-plugged into the throne at the end of the command centre. Harkus was fighting for his life in the Apothecarion, and Techmarine Achamen had taken his place. Binary code whispered from his lips as he sifted through the data being fed to him, and relayed it to the hololithic table.

'None of us expected it. That was our first mistake. Let us make sure it is our last,' said Uriel. 'But Praxedes did fall, and we need to get our forces moving to meet the tau advance. The xenos fight a rapid war, and, unless we act now, we will be too late to stop them.'

Clausel said, 'Then we must take the fight to them, immediately.'

'And we will, but not without first planning that fight,' said Uriel, indicating the table. 'These are the last plots we received from the Vae Victus, before Admiral Tiberius had to pull back to the Caernus asteroid belt.'

'Pull back?' said Winterbourne. 'Damn, but I was counting on your vessel to pull our backsides from the fire, Uriel. Why the devil has she pulled back?'

'The tau have a number of ships in orbit more powerful than the Vae Victus, at least two carriers, a warship and a number of escorts.'

'A small fleet for a planetary invasion,' noted Clausel. 'Even a system patrol fleet could defeat that. Would that we had one!'

'Agreed,' said Uriel. 'Admiral Tiberius postulates that this is an explorator expedition, not a full invasion fleet, perhaps a probe to test the defences of this arc of the Eastern Fringe in preparation for a renewed assault.'

'Then it is even more imperative we defeat it,' said Clausel.

'How recent are these images?' asked Winterbourne, looking down at the host of red and blue icons on and around the representations of the cities.

'They are around three hours old,' said Uriel.

'Then they are as good as useless,' snapped Winterbourne. 'The tau move at speed, and this will bear no resemblance to the situation on the ground.'

The vorehound's head snapped up at Winterbourne's angry tone, a low growl building in its throat.

'True enough,' said Uriel, 'but it is all we have, and, if nothing else, it may give us an indication of our own dispositions and plans.'

'Plans? How can we plan to fight without knowing the disposition of the enemy?' shouted Winterbourne. 'We should be hammering that tau you captured at Koudelkar's estate for intelligence. He'll know what their game is. Him and that traitor, Mykola Shonai, they'll have information we can use, I'll warrant.'

'I have faith that Jenna Sharben will get them to talk,' said Uriel.

'Pah! Sharben is an amateur,' said Winterbourne. 'I've sent Culla to get the truth. He'll break them, and then we'll learn something of value.'

'Perhaps,' said Uriel, but Winterbourne wasn't finished yet.

'The tau have us on the back foot, Uriel. The initiative lies with them, how do you propose we get it back?'

'We fight,' said Uriel, leaning over the plotting table. 'We meet the invaders head-on, and we wrest the initiative from them at the end of bolter and the edge of a chainsword. The loss of Major Ornella was a blow, but you need to control your grief, Nathaniel.'

Winterbourne looked set to retort angrily, before realising that Uriel had called him by his first name. He took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

'Yes, of course, of course, you're right, Uriel,' sighed Winterbourne. 'I'm sorry, I'm just a bit shaken up, you understand. Alithea dying, Praxedes falling it's a lot to take in.'

'That is no excuse,' said Clausel, towering over the colonel. 'You command a regiment of the Emperor's soldiers. You do not have the luxury of grief while there is a war yet to fight. Mourn the dead after the songs of victory are sung.'

Uriel locked his gaze with Winterbourne's. 'Now that we understand one another, let us look at what we have available to fight.'

For the next hour, Uriel, Winterbourne and Clausel discussed the strategic situation as best they could. Communication was the key to any response, and with the Kaliz Array down Lavrentian techs had rigged a linked series of encrypted master vox-units to allow coordination of the various commands.

Convoys of armoured vehicles were, even now, en route to Olzetyn, Jotusburg, Madorn and Altemaxa to deliver the cryptographic codes to allow coordination of forces. A few had already reached their destinations, and information was slowly beginning to flow between Imperial forces on the status of the defences.

Praxedes was clearly in enemy hands and was no doubt acting as a bridgehead from which the tau carriers could freely drop fresh troops and supplies to the planet's surface. If the invasion were to be defeated, Praxedes would need to be taken, but before any such assault could be launched, the tau had to be contained. Initial attacks against the redoubts at Olzetyn had been beaten back, but it was unlikely the tau could be held there for long without support.

'What about your forces at Jotusburg?' asked Uriel.

Winterbourne flipped through a plastek binder. 'There's still fighting in the streets, but it's a warren down there. It's pretty confused, but I'm getting reports of sporadic ambushes and power disruptions. Banner Command is under Captain Luzaine, and he has three thousand men and six hundred armoured vehicles. Factor in some six thousand PDF and maybe a skitarii legion and you're looking at close to ten thousand soldiers at full alert. Aside from the kill teams hunting drone infiltrators, Luzaine hasn't yet reported any significant contact with the enemy.'

'And what of the Mechanicus facilities?' asked Clausel.

'They've suffered damage,' said Winterbourne, 'but Magos Vaal assures me that supplies of ammunition and weapons will be unaffected once the Hundred Rituals of Reparation are complete.'

'The war could be won or lost by then,' protested Clausel.

'I thought you of all people would understand the importance of ritual, Chaplain.'

Clausel did not reply, but Uriel sensed his grudging acceptance of Winterbourne's words.

'Then we will plan our fight accordingly,' said Uriel. 'What is the strength of Shield Command, Nathaniel?'

'Captain Gerber has two and a half thousand soldiers and four hundred tanks,' replied Winterbourne. 'Colonel Loic is there too, with perhaps five thousand PDF. They're good lads, but I can't vouch for them in a fight. Only a few of them saw action during the rebellion, the rest are boys and old men who've never fired a rifle in anger.'

'Then we need to reinforce Olzetyn,' stated Uriel. 'It is the main route to Brandon Gate, and the tau appreciate the symbolism of capturing a planetary capital as well as any foe. I think you are right, colonel, they will seek to smash through Olzetyn and seize it as soon as possible, hoping that its capture will break the will of Pavonis to win.'

'They might be right,' said Clausel. 'The fighting spirit of this world is lacking. Its people are more concerned with making money than doing battle, but why would the tau bother to fight their way through Olzetyn? Surely with their skimmer tanks they don't need to capture the bridge city? They can cross the rivers anywhere.'

'To attack on such a wide front will take time and numbers,' said Winterbourne. 'It means spreading their forces, and, if your Admiral Tiberius is correct, and this is an explorator fleet, they probably don't have the numbers to mount such an offensive.'

Uriel nodded. 'And if they can break through quickly they will split our forces in two.'

'We can't allow that to happen,' said Winterbourne. 'If it does we are lost.'

'I will lead the bulk of the 4th to Olzetyn,' said Uriel. 'It is imperative the city holds. The tau need to win quickly, and we need to hold them for long enough for reinforcements to arrive.'

'And how long will that be?'

'I am not sure,' admitted Uriel. 'Admiral Tiberius will have sent word to Macragge and sector command. Help will be on the way. We just have to hold on long enough for it to get here.'

'What do you require of me, Uriel?' asked Winterbourne, standing to attention.

'Guard our flanks. I believe the tau will seek to make a decisive thrust through Olzetyn, but it is also likely they will try to encircle us and trap us in a pocket. If they succeed, this war is over.'

Winterbourne saluted with his good arm. 'You can count on the 44th.'

'I know I can, Nathaniel,' said Uriel.

At that moment, Techmarine Achamen emitted a blurt of binary code that cut across their words. The augmitters fitted within the hololithic table crackled to life as they translated the binary into Imperial Gothic. The artificially rendered voice was devoid of any sense of urgency, but the words galvanised everyone who heard them.

'Incoming enemy aircraft,' said the voice. 'Multiple target tracks inbound on this location. Assessment: altitude, bearing and formation consistent with airborne assault patterns.'

| Ultramarines 5. Courage and Honour | TWELVE