Learchus pressed his body into the dry soil of the undergrowth, pulling the camo-cape over his bulky shoulders. The urge to look up was almost overwhelming, but he knew that to expose any part of his armour to the tau drones would only invite discovery.
He and his scouts sheltered in an undulant dip filled with the umber gorse that hugged the coastline southwards from Lake Masura towards Crater Bay. The ground between here and the Shonai estates was rugged and spectacular, easily the equal of many of the worlds of Ultramar. Where those worlds had a wildness to their geography, this landscape was clearly managed, the trees growing in regimented lines that appealed to Learchus's sense of precision, but seemed at odds with the natural order of things.
They had made good time in their pursuit of Koudelkar Shonai, easily able to follow the trail left by the two battlesuits as they moved south to the coast with their captives. Moving with the jet packs on their armour, the tau warriors had followed the coastline, making little effort to conceal their route. That spoke of arrogance, and Learchus was pleased to know that their foes had at least one weakness that might be exploited.
Learchus had set a punishing pace, marching his scouts hard through the sweeping terrain of the western coastline, through sprawling forests, over high ridges of granite and along sheer cliffs that plunged thousands of metres towards the dark waters of the ocean.
In the first few days of their pursuit, they had met no sign of the tau, but in the hours following the mighty burst of light that had exploded over the southern horizon the day before, that had begun to change. Learchus's scout sergeant, Issam, sent the team to ground when he spotted a number of small vehicles, like bulkier versions of the skimmer-bikes used by the eldar, darting across the landscape in pairs.
'Reconnaissance vehicles,' said Learchus, watching the light craft flit over the landscape in over watching bounds, 'working in pairs.'
'Do we ambush them?' asked Issam as the vehicles drew closer.
Learchus hesitated before answering. His every instinct and every tenet of the Codex Astartes was to order his warriors to attack the aliens, but to do so would effectively end their pursuit of Koudelkar. As much as he knew he should engage the enemy, the mission came first. It was the first and most important lesson learned by any initiate of the Ultramarines.
'No,' said Learchus, and the tau skimmers turned east and vanished over the horizon.
As he watched them go, Learchus felt a knot in the pit of his stomach, and he had a glimmering of how Uriel had come to choose the path that led to his expulsion.
For the next two days, they had evaded detection by yet more of the tau light skimmers, seeing that there appeared to be two versions. The first occupied a similar role to the Astartes Land Speeder as a light attack vehicle with a minimal weapon load, while the second appeared to be a purely scout vehicle.
None of the tau vehicles detected the presence of the warriors in their midst, for Ultramarines scouts were second to none in their abilities. The punishing landscape and unimaginably harsh training regime of Macragge schooled them in the lore of virtually any terrain, and Issam had a preternatural sense for danger that gave them plenty of time to take cover and deploy their camo-capes.
But now, sheltering in the dip of landscape with nothing but patches of wiry, rust-coloured gorse and their camo-capes to conceal them, learchus felt acutely vulnerable as a flight of silver-skinned drones flew lazy spirals in the air above them. The drones had appeared out of nowhere, and only Issam's last minute warning had given them time to conceal themselves.
Learchus could feel the ripple in the grass nearby from the drone's anti-grav generators, and, though he told himself it was ridiculous, he swore he could feel the crawling sensation of their augurs hunting him. If the drones found them, they would have no choice but to fight. Such a fight would be short and easy, but it would undoubtedly alert the tau to their presence.
As much as it irked Learchus to allow the alien devices to remain unmolested, he knew it was the right thing to do. Not for the first time since they had left the Shonai estates, Learchus wished that his fellow battle-brothers were alongside him, for he felt adrift without them. Such were the bonds of brotherhood between the warriors of the Adeptus Astartes, that to be deprived of them felt like a piece of his soul was missing. Uriel and Pasanius had travelled to far distant worlds and fought the enemies of mankind with such a void within them, and Learchus knew then that to have done so made them true heroes of the Chapter.
He held still as he felt one the drones fly over him, the gentle pressure of its propulsion mechanism flattening the camo-cape across his wide back. His finger tensed on the trigger of his boltgun, but he fought the urge to roll over and send a shell into the drone's underside.
Learchus waited, the seconds stretching out before him, until he heard the buzz of the drones moving away. He let out a breath and eased his head up, watching as the pack of drones skimmed over the ground and vanished into the forested landscape further east.
Satisfied that they were in no danger of discovery, Learchus stood and shook the leaves from his camo-cape. The scouts gathered around him, and he could feel their frustration. Infiltration and destruction wreaked behind the lines was part of the scouts' purpose, and to have come this far and inflicted no damage upon the tau was anathema to these warriors.
'My lord,' said Issam, 'how much longer must we hold our force in check?'
'As long as it takes,' said Learchus.
'We could have taken those drones out in seconds,' pressed Daxian, one of Issam's youngest scouts. 'There would have been no warning sent back.'
'And when they are noted as being missing?' demanded Learchus. 'What then? This region would be flooded with tau scouts looking for what killed them. You are all fine scouts, and I have no doubt you would have the tau chasing their tails, but this is not a normal scouting mission.'
The scouts nodded, though Learchus could see the disappointment in their eyes as they gathered around him. Was this how Uriel felt when Learchus had called him to account for his actions?
'The Codex Astartes tells us that wherever possible we must discomfit the enemy,' said a scout by the name of Parmian.
'Our mission is to rescue Koudelkar Shonai,' said Learchus. 'Nothing must distract us from that purpose. Is that understood?'
'Yes, my lord,' said Parmian, 'but while we hide from the enemy, our brothers earn glory on the field of honour.'
'There is glory in all things, Parmian,' said Learchus, 'and not all of it is earned facing the enemy guns. Each of us must play our part in this drama, be it standing in the battle lines with bolter and chainsword in hand or behind the lines serving the greater good of the war.'
Learchus turned on his heel and began marching south once more. 'Fear not, my young brothers,' he said, 'you'll have your chance for glory soon enough.'
Screams of pain echoed from the filthy walls of the corridors, and Jenna Sharben felt each one as a knife to the chest as she made her way towards the Intelligence Room. The screams were alien and should have been music to her ears, but the sheer misery and horror in the sound tore at the essence of her soul that sought justice and craved nobility of spirit.
Every step was an effort, for there had been precious little sleep in the days since the tau attack on Brandon Gate. Flocks of the tau's winged auxiliary troops infested the city, and sniping attacks from above were a daily occurrence at the Glasshouse. Nerves were stretched taut and resentment towards the invaders was high. Added to that, resupply was late, and the enforcers stationed at the prison were deemed of lower importance than the soldiers fighting across Pavonis.
Jenna couldn't fault the logic, but it made it no easier to explain to her enforcers why they were going to have to continue on ration packs and recycled water. Forced to exist in the squalid barracks of the Glasshouse on a diet of freeze-dried food and brackish water that had passed through who knew how many digestive tracts wasn't a situation likely to ease tempers any time soon.
Tensions were high, but the enforcers had the perfect targets in their grasp to vent many of those frustrations. Since the prisoners had been deposited in the Glasshouse by the Ultramarines, the enforcers had found new and ever more inventive ways to harass, torture and discomfit them.
Each tau prisoner had their topknot cut, and any other identifying apparel or pieces of jewellery removed, before being hosed down with high-pressure water blessed by Prelate Culla. Dressed in identical smocks, they were herded like beasts into their overcrowded cells, forced to wear fetters that chafed their legs raw, and deprived of food and sleep for days on end.
And the net gain of actionable intelligence from this?
Pretty much all any of the prisoners had said since they had been brought here was their name and what was presumed to be a serial number, not that Jenna had expected much. A prisoner subjected to physical torture would say anything to have his ordeal end, and any intelligence gained from such torture would have to be treated as suspect.
Jenna had come to this realisation after her first, fruitless interrogation of La'tyen, feeling strangely shamed by the level of violence she'd employed. After all, she had confined her interrogations to strictly verbal encounters.
She, however, was the only enforcer to do so…
She rubbed a hand across her face, feeling the dryness of her skin and the hollows of her cheeks from a diet of dried food sachets. Her blonde hair was dirty and unkempt, and she knew she looked nothing like the clean cut Arbites Judge who had come to Pavonis full of idealism and fiery thoughts of justice.
Where was justice in this hellhole?
She passed cells where mirror-masked enforcers beat tau prisoners with their shock mauls, held them in stress positions for hours at a time or forced them into degrading positions with their cellmates. Worse even than the screams were the sounds of laughter that came from her enforcers. Despite the tension and food shortages, and the threat from the alien invaders, the enforcers she had tried to train as a cadre of honourable upholders of Imperial Law were actually enjoying their work.
The notion of it sickened her, but since the arrival of Prelate Culla there was little she could do to stop it.
The man had rolled through the prison gates in a glorious fanfare of hymnals, booming from the augmitters on his ridiculously ostentatious Rhino. Choking clouds of incense churned in the vehicle's wake, and half a dozen golden-skinned cherubs floated overhead, perusing the interior of the Glasshouse with doll-eyed expressions of distaste.
'I am here to interrogate the traitor!' Culla had declared upon climbing down from his fire-wreathed pulpit, a red-bladed sword of enormous proportions sheathed across his shoulders. The man towered above Jenna, his powerful physique muscular and intimidating. Culla's beard was waxed into two forks, one jet black, the other silver.
'Interrogating prisoners is our job,' Jenna had replied. 'You have no authority here.'
Culla drew the vast chainblade from across his shoulders and planted it in the hard ground before him. Resting both hands upon the skull pommel, he leaned forwards.
'I have the authority of the Emperor, girl,' boomed Culla. 'No traitor dares stand before me, and only traitors seek to bar me from my holy work. To know that one who has betrayed the Emperor still breathes within these walls is a sin, Judge Sharben, a sin that will not go unpunished.'
A sizeable crowd of enforcers had gathered, and, as distasteful as it was to allow the zealot within her walls, she did not relish a scene between her and the 44th's predicant. Reluctantly, she stood aside and allowed Culla into the prison, and for days he had been a fiery presence within its walls. When not washing the blood of prisoners from his muscular frame, Culla preached his credo of persecution to the enforcers, filling their hearts with fresh hatred for the tau and traitors.
Jenna absented herself from his sermons, trying in vain to catch up on her sleep or attempting to re-establish her command of the Glasshouse. Ever since Culla's arrival, the enforcers of Brandon Gate had turned to him for guidance, and her authority had eroded like sand before the sea.
She turned into the corridor that led towards the Intelligence Room, hearing Culla's shouts from beyond the iron door at the far end. Enforcers Dion and Apollonia stood to either side of the door, the mirrored visors of their helmets pulled down to cover their faces. Jenna didn't need to see their faces to know it was them, months of training had rendered their physiques and postures as familiar as her own.
'Open up,' she said when she reached the door.
'Prelate Culla doesn't like to be disturbed when he's questioning the traitor,' said Dion.
Jenna looked into his visor, seeing her own haggard reflection looking back.
'I don't give a crap what Culla wants,' she said. 'Open the door. This is still my prison, and you're still my damned enforcer, Dion. Now do as you're damn well told!'
Dion looked over at Apollonia, and Jenna said, 'Don't look at her. I'm your commanding officer, not her. Now open the door.'
'Yes, ma'am,' said Dion, standing aside to let Jenna past. She pushed open the door and entered a small room of bare concrete. A plain table sat in the centre, and a large window of one-way glass looked into an interrogation cell entered through a featureless steel door in the wall next to it. A bronze eagle was set high on the far wall, a symbol of the Imperium for the condemned to gaze upon as they contemplated their fate.
Jenna saw Culla through the glass, standing in the centre of the room, stripped to the waist with his fists balled before him. He was shouting, but this was the one area of the prison with soundproofing, and she could not hear his words. Jenna punched the code into the door keypad and entered the room. The reek of blood, human waste and terror hit her like a blow.
Culla turned to face Jenna, and his face was a mask of righteous fury. Given what she had seen of him, it was impossible to tell whether it was at her interruption or simply his normal state of being. Blood dripped from his knuckles, his body gleamed with sweat, and his chest heaved with exertion.
As she entered the room, Jenna saw the object of Culla's violent attention secured to a chair bolted securely to the floor.
Jenna was no stranger to the harm that could be wrought upon a human body, but even she blanched to see the violence done to this pitiful wreck of a person. Matted wisps of hair clung to a partially shaven scalp, and blood caked the side of a face blackened with bruises and ruptured with impacts.
One of the wretch's eyes was filled with blood, the other virtually closed over with swollen flesh. Both locked with Jenna, and despite everything she knew of this prisoner, Jenna felt nothing but pity.
Mykola Shonai whispered, 'Help me.'
Culla slammed the door shut behind him as he joined Jenna in the anteroom, giving the broken and bleeding Mykola Shonai a moment's respite. He lifted a long cloth from his belt and wiped his forehead of sweat.
'Why do you interrupt me?' he demanded. 'I have work to do.'
'What kind of work demands that kind of abuse?' demanded Jenna, pointing through the one-way glass.
'The Emperor's work,' said Culla. 'You have sympathy with a traitor, Judge Sharben? It would be unfortunate if I had to bolt a second chair to the floor.'
'Of course I don't have sympathy with traitors.'
'Then why do you object to my right and proper treatment of this filthy collaborator?'
'She was once governor of this world,' said Jenna.
'And she betrayed her people the moment she consorted with xenos creatures,' pointed out Culla. 'What kind of craven wretch would do such a thing? Only a degenerate creature unworthy of inclusion in the human race. Only a disgusting, filthy xenos-loving animal.'
Jenna pointed towards the glass. 'Just what are you hoping to gain from this? If she knew anything of value don't you think she would have told you?'
'The ways of the xenos-lover are cunning,' said Culla, massaging his knuckles. 'Only through the purification of pain will they give up all their secrets.'
'Not if you kill her first.'
'Then I will have learned everything I wish to know,' said Culla, 'and the galaxy will be better for her death.'
'You are treating her worse than any of the tau prisoners.'
'The tau are xenos and do not know any better,' said Culla dismissively. 'They are simply ignorant beasts, responding to base desires and needs. They are vermin who should be hated and feared as imperfect creations. It is humanity's right and duty to cleanse such creatures from existence with fire and sword. Shonai should have known better.'
'I agree the tau need to be fought,' said Jenna, 'but like this? If we behave like this we'll lose our humanity, our honour.'
'That thing in there doesn't deserve to be called human.'
'Is that how you do it?' asked Jenna, leaning forwards over the table.
'You don't even think of Mykola Shonai as human, do you? That's how you're able to do these things to her, isn't it?'
'Choose your words carefully, Sharben,' warned Culla. 'My army of the righteous does not tolerate dissenters in their midst. They know that the work they do is necessary.'
'Your army?' hissed Jenna. 'Last I checked I was still in command here. I am in charge of the Brandon Gate Enforcers, not you.'
'Cross me and you will find out if that is still true,' said Culla with a smile.
From his position in the command hatch of his personal half-track, Colonel Loic watched the people of Olzetyn moving steadily eastwards across the Imperator Bridge as his driver slowly eased the rumbling vehicle through the crowds towards the western end of the bridge. Night was several hours old, but the span was still thronged with frightened people making their way from 'Stratum to Tradetown.
They travelled in ancient trucks, in wagons or on foot, carrying what possessions could be borne with them to safety. Or, at least, what they hoped was safety. The western reaches of Olzetyn on the far side of the gorges were considered too dangerous for civilians, which was a fair assessment, thought Colonel Loic.
Though a great host of people were on the move, the main thoroughfare over Imperator Bridge was by no means clogged. As colonel of the Pavonis PDF, Loic had imposed strict controls to guide and direct the flood of civilians crossing the river gorges. Some were diverted onto the Aquila Bridge to Barrack Town and then funnelled over the Owsen Bridge to Tradetown. Others were diverted across the Diacrian Bridge further south into the Midden and onwards east. Once across the bridges, some optimistic souls were remaining in Tradetown, but most continued onwards along Highway 236 to Brandon Gate.
There was fear, but little panic. The tau invaders were reported to have captured Praxedes, but had so far confined themselves to skirmishes and probes against the defenders of Olzetyn. Such caution was only natural, given the fearsome strength of the great bastions that protected the western approaches to the bridge city.
Imperator Bridge itself was the creation of engineering genius, a wondrously ornate suspension bridge spanning the gorges that marked the confluence of the main rivers of Pavonis. Marvellously tall towers of marble, adamantium and gold pierced the clouds at either end of the bridge, and cables wrought from some ingenious material supported the five kilometre span of the bridge in an elegant latticework arrangement that was immensely strong, yet also graceful and airy.
For centuries, it had been the wonder of the world, a single elegant structure that stood in splendid isolation upon the gorges, but over the last thousand years, the four main conurbations that made up Olzetyn, 'Stratum, Midden, Tradetown and Barrack Town had grown to the point where other, more prosaically designed bridges were required.
The Aquila and Owsen Bridges connected east and west via Barrack Town on the northern spur, while the Diacrian Bridge crossed the southern gorge into the sprawling slums of the Midden. The aptly named Spur Bridge jutted from the tip of the Midden to link with the Imperator Bridge in the middle of its span, and what was once a graceful demonstration of ingenuity was soon little more than a monument to necessity.
But the final degradation of the Imperator was yet to come. As the city grew in importance, the once elegant structure of the bridge became home to the city's ever-expanding population. Sprawling habs, little better than garrulous shantytowns, began springing up along its length like fungal growths, faster than they could be removed, and tens of thousands now called the bridge home.
Despite such colonisation, it was still possible to see the towering bastions constructed on the western side of the bridge through the tangle of suspension walkways and drifting banks of smog.
Constructed from titanic blocks of glassy black stone hewn from the Sudinal Mountains by the great mining machines of the Mechanicus, each bastion was a magnificent structure, fully six hundred metres high and twice again as wide. To the left of the bridge stood the Aquila Bastion, its upper ramparts fashioned to resemble a pair of mighty pinions, while on the right was the might of the Imperator Bastion.
The wind whipped over the bridge, but with his cream uniform jacket pulled around him and a heavily padded fur chapka pulled down tightly over his head, he didn't feel the cold. Instead, he felt exhilarated at this chance to prove his mettle as a fighting soldier, for though he had trained as hard as any Guardsman, Adren Loic had never fired a shot in anger.
Few of the soldiers of the PDF had fought in actual combat since the de Valtos rebellion, and any of the men who had experience, kept quiet about it. No one who wanted a quiet life boasted of their actions during that shameful part of the planet's history.
He knew his appointment to the post of senior PDF officer was a political decision. Adren Loic was a man few could object to, since few had heard of him. All his life he had been undistinguished in his military endeavours, yet he had a sharp mind that made him uniquely appealing to the Administratum adepts who approved his appointment, for he was one of them.
In the years before his service in the PDF, Colonel Loic had served as a senior adept on the PDF Logistical Corps, and his understanding of the administration of a military force was faultless. He had never been tested as a warrior, but he knew how to organise and run a planet-wide force of armed soldiers better than anyone on Pavonis.
While Pavonis had been at peace, that had been enough.
Now he would be tested in war, and the thought of proving his worth galvanised him like nothing else in his career ever had.
The half-track emerged from the busy thoroughfares of the bridge into the wide, statue-lined esplanade between the two western bastions. Just being in the shadow of such colossal structures gave Loic a sense of calm, for who could imagine that two such powerful redoubts could ever be cast down?
Ahead, he saw Captain Gerber of the 44th Lavrentians, poring over a map unfolded on the front glacis of a green and gold Chimera. A number of junior officers and a commissar in a long black greatcoat clustered around him, and they bantered back and forth with the ease of professional soldiers who had fought together for many years.
Gerber was a rough type, brusque and to the point with his assessments and decisions. Had they met in the draughty chambers of.
'Stratum's Tower of Adepts, Loic had no doubt they would have been at loggerheads, but as fellow warriors, they had unexpectedly (to both of them, he suspected) found a mutual respect for one another.
Loic dropped from his vehicle and marched over to Gerber's Chimera.
'Gentlemen,' he said as he reached the ring of officers. He received nods of acknowledgement from them all, but the earlier familiarity he'd seen amongst them vanished in an instant. The commissar, a quiet man named Vogel, shook his hand. Loic wondered, as he did every time he met Vogel, how many Guardsmen he had shot for cowardice. Having served with the Lavrentians for some time, Loic suspected that the number was very low.
'Busy night?' he asked.
Gerber looked up as Loic joined him. He shook his head. 'No, just the usual harassing attacks on the forward outposts, nothing my lads couldn't handle.'
'Where?' asked Loic, pointing at the map. 'Show me.'
Scribe logisters with telescoping arms held the ancient plans of the city, drawn by hand on wax paper, steady as quill-callipers sketched out what Gerber was saying.
'They're probing the defences at these points south of the river,' said Gerber as the logisters indicated a number of points on the map. 'Fire Warrior squads in Devilfish mainly, with skirmish screens of recon skimmers. Some of those bloody kroot are trying to get behind us, and there's always a flock of Stingwings overhead somewhere.'
'No heavy armour?'
'Not yet, but it's only a matter of time,' said Poldara, Gerber's lieutenant. The sandy-haired young man seemed absurdly youthful to be a soldier, let alone an officer. Upon first meeting Poldara, Loic had suspected nepotism or a bought commission, but he had quickly learned that the young man's rank was a reflection of his ability as a soldier. 'The attack at Brandon Gate shows they can move armour quickly, and it's Lord Winterbourne's belief that the tau are going to come against us in force, sooner rather than later.'
Loic nodded. 'That makes sense. Well, my lads are itching to get their hands bloody.'
He saw the doubt in their faces, recognising it as the Guardsman's instinctive mistrust of soldiers who never left their home world and who were tarred with the brush of treachery from the de Valtos rebellion. Indignation stirred in his heart, and he steeled his spine.
'Need I remind you that my men are fighting to defend their home-world?' asked Loic. 'I know you think of us as less capable soldiers, but I assure you we won't let you down, gentlemen.'
Gerber searched his face for bravado and said, 'You'd better not, Adren. Your men are green and they've never been at the sharp end of a fight before. At least, not enough of them have. My men can't do this on their own, your PDF units are going to have to do their part too.'
'I assure you, we have been training harder than ever,' said Loic.
'That's all well and good, but it's no substitute for the real thing. I've fought the tau before and when they come at us it'll be with everything they've got. I still don't rate our chances better than one in four that we can hold them without reinforcements.'
'One in four?' asked Vogel. 'That sounds like defeatism, Captain Gerber.'
'It's not. It's realism,' said Gerber. 'Oh, we'll fight like the tough sons of bitches we are, but the numbers aren't on our side.'
'Surely these tau are no match for us?' said Loic. 'I've heard they're quite weak in fact.'
'Then you haven't fought the tau or seen how they make war,' replied Gerber. 'The most successful armies are the ones that coordinate their forces the best, the ones that know what force to apply where and for how long. Some might say it's also the force that makes the least mistakes. The tau don't make mistakes. Every soldier in their army is utterly dedicated to their goal and fights for his commander because he knows, knows, with utter certainty that he's fighting towards something greater than himself.'
'They sound almost like us,' joked Loic, then wished he hadn't when no one laughed.
'Without reinforcements, we don't have a prayer of holding for any significant length of time,' said Gerber. 'It's that simple.'
'Then I think those prayers have just been answered,' said Poldara, pointing back down the length of the bridge.
Loic turned and saw a convoy of blue armoured vehicles rumbling along the bridge: APCs, battle tanks and a host of Space Marines, who marched beneath an azure banner of a mailed fist. A pair of towering Dreadnoughts flanked the armoured giants, and darting blue speeders flashed overhead. A warrior in a billowing green cloak, secured with a pin in the shape of a white rose, marched over to them, one hand gripping the handle of a sheathed sword.
The Space Marine captain reached up and removed his helmet.
Uriel Ventris said, 'The 4th Company stands ready to defend Olzetyn.'