The attack on Olzetyn began in earnest as dawn painted the sky with the first smudges of light in the east. Forward augers detected the presence of numerous aerial targets, yet none of the gunners in the Imperial interceptor guns switched their targeters to acquisition mode. Alert klaxons blared, and tired soldiers pulled themselves from their bedrolls, but none turned their gaze upwards.
Forewarned by those few units that had escaped the fall of Praxedes, the defenders of Olzetyn kept their heads down as a blaze of pyrotechnics scorched the sky with blinding, searing light.
As the heavens burned with deadly radiance, a host of tau armoured vehicles surged forwards. Scores of Devilfish and Hammerheads pushed towards the bridges, while packs of Stingwings swooped and dived overhead. If the tau hoped to catch the defenders of the bridge city with the same ploy as had worked at Praxedes, they were to be sorely disappointed.
The terrible illumination faded from the sky, and the order to open fire was given.
Flak tanks and static interceptor guns filled the skies above Olzetyn with explosive ordnance, and brought down dozens of tau aircraft. Shattered Barracuda and enormous Tiger Sharks were blown out of the air, their sleek and graceful hulls torn apart by the churning maelstrom of whickering shrapnel and fire.
Nor was the carnage restricted to the tau aerial forces. Expecting the Imperial defenders to be blinded and disoriented, the tau vehicles were advancing without caution. A withering salvo of heavy weapons fire and precisely directed artillery hammered the advancing foe without mercy. Tau transports were shattered, the warriors they carried immolated without firing a shot, and tanks were destroyed without their guns ever having found a target.
Within moments, the thrust of the tau attack had been blunted, the shock value of the Imperial response like a sucker punch to the guts of an overconfident boxer. Scores of armoured vehicles were destroyed, and hundreds of Fire Warriors slain before the battle had even begun, and what was hoped to be a decisive blow turned out to be anything but.
Without panic, the tau commander reacted to the changing circumstances of battle with frightening speed. Tanks peeled away in formation, using the contours of the ground and local cover to advance in bounding leaps, one group shooting while another darted forwards.
The Stingwings dropped from the sky en-masse to hamper the efforts of the defenders, and a glittering host of drones zipped around their flanks. Within moments, salvos of missiles were raining down, exploding with pinpoint accuracy and killing dozens of Guardsmen and PDF troopers with every blast.
With battle well and truly joined, the shape of the tau attack became clear, and while every portion of the Imperial lines came under attack, it was the trenches, redoubts and pillboxes protecting the approach to the Diacrian Bridge that bore the brunt of the assault.
The booming reports of massed Thunderfire cannons were deafening, echoing from the far sides of the gorge. Some shells arced downwards and detonated among the tau, while others burrowed through the earth to explode beneath the delicate grav plates that kept the tau skimmer tanks in the air.
Armour cracked open and bodies were burned, but still the xenos force advanced. This close to the bridges, there was precious little cover to be had, and the enemy were forced to come at them head-on. Missiles streaked overhead and slammed into the raised bulwark protecting the Imperial troops, but without guidance, they were simply blasting earth.
Pushing into the teeth of guns manned by a prepared and determined enemy was the least desirable tactical situation for a commander to find himself in, and Uriel hoped to make the tau pay for their overconfidence. The majority of the 4th Company's squads protected the southern bridge of Olzetyn, for it was clearly the weakest part of the defence. Knowing the tau would come at it in force, Uriel had deployed his warriors here to bolster the ranks of the 44th and potentially drive the tau onto the western bastions, where Chaplain Clausel and his assault squads awaited them.
Uriel climbed onto the firing step of the raised earthen berm behind which he and the defenders sheltered. He raised his bolter high for all to see, and shouted, 'Stand to! For Pavonis with courage and honour!'
The hundreds of soldiers within earshot echoed his cry as they rushed from their dugouts to join him. That Space Marines from such an illustrious Chapter stood with these men was a potent symbol of their determination to resist the enemy at all costs, and Uriel knew that his very presence would be inspirational to them. Not a man among the 44th or the PDF wanted to be seen as weak before the Emperor's finest warriors, and they would fight to their last breath to prove their courage.
Uriel swung his bolter over the lip of the earthwork, his practiced eye taking in the details of the tau assault in the time it took to rack the slide. His Space Marines took up positions next to him as the hundreds of Guardsmen stationed to defend the Diacrian Bridge deployed with a clatter of boots on duck-boards. Banners waved, and the shouts of sergeants and officers cut through the crash of explosions and the crack of tau weapons' fire.
'We're slaughtering them!' cried Colonel Loic, clambering to the firing step beside Uriel.
'For now,' agreed Uriel, 'but they'll adapt soon enough and try something different.'
'They'll try to pin us in place with expendable troops while they advance.'
Uriel was surprised at Loic's insight and nodded. 'Any moment now I suspect.'
'I think you might be right,' said Loic, looking up.
Uriel followed the colonel's gaze as he heard a flapping, tearing noise, like a swarm of bats erupting from a cave mouth. High above, the sky was filled with a host of chitinous blue creatures with narrow wings and hideous insect like features. They dropped hard and fast, lightly armoured assault troops set to disrupt the Imperial defences long enough for their tau masters to reach the lines.
'Stingwings!' shouted Uriel. 'Reserve squads, drop them!'
Fire support groups stationed further back from the front lines opened fire, their weapons aimed at the sky for just such an eventuality. Las-bolts streaked upwards, and the cries of the wounded xenos creatures could be heard over the volleys, until the interceptor guns and the heavy stubbers mounted on the cupolas of PDF Chimeras joined in.
'That won't stop them all,' said Loic.
'Probably not, but it should stop enough of them.'
Uriel was pleased to see a lack of fear on Loic's face. Political appointment he might be, but the man had courage. He returned his attention to his front as the Imperial guns continued to wreak havoc amongst the tau vehicles. Realising their transports were death traps, most of the tau squad commanders debussed their troops to advance on foot. Uriel saw darting tau warriors moving forwards in the cover of craters and wrecked tanks. Rolling banks of propellant smoke drifted across the battlefield, twitched by solid rounds and burned away by tau gunfire.
Behind the Fire Warriors, the bulkier forms of battlesuits moved through the smoke, the blue glow of their jet packs flaring and marking their passage. It was impossible to count them, but Uriel saw a worrying amount drawing close.
'Battlesuits coming in behind them,' he said, passing the word to the Ultramarines over the vox. 'Take out the heavier units where possible.'
Acknowledgements came through from his warriors, and the hard noise of bolters erupted as contact was made further down the lines. As the gap between the two forces shrank, withering storms of gunfire and explosions erupted along the Imperial defences. Tau shots fused the earth of the berm and punched Imperial soldiers backwards with the impacts, their armour offering no protection against the powerful energies.
Screams punctuated the din of battle, the dreadful pain of human beings and the welcome agony of their alien foes. Both Ultramarine Dreadnoughts, Brother Zethus and Brother Speritas, stalked the length of the redoubts, lending their incredible firepower to sections where the tau pressed hardest. The noise of their weapons' fire was like the thunder of the gods, their lascannons like bolts of lightning from the heavens.
Corpses littered the ground before the defences, and flames ripped through the battlefield from ignited fuel lines and cooking ammunition. Uriel fired streams of explosive shells into the ranks of the tau, each volley dropping a handful of enemy warriors, though many more forged on towards the defences.
This was what he was crafted for, this righteous slaughter of the foes of mankind, and Uriel felt a savage pride in his ability to deal death. He spared a glance to either side, seeing Space Marines firing with grim, remorseless accuracy into the tau. They fought like heroes, each one a warrior worthy of being immortalised in song and verse. Yet none looked for glory for its own sake, only for the Emperor and for the Chapter.
Amongst them, the soldiers of the 44th Lavrentians and the Pavonis PDF were fighting with equal fervour. As Colonel Loic had predicted, the fire of the reserve squads and interceptor guns had not been enough to prevent the Stingwing assault from hitting home, and a brutal, short-range firefight spilled out from the rear of the Imperial defences.
Even as he saw the spreading battle, so too did Colonel Loic. The PDF commander fired his pistol into the blue-winged xenos species, and led a savage countercharge into the midst of the aliens. Contrary to Uriel's earlier assessment, Loic was indeed proficient with his power sabre, and the energised blade clove a bloody path through his enemies. Loic caught sight of Uriel and raised his sword in salute to him before pressing onwards into the bloody melee.
What Space Marines brought to any fight was not just their awesome skill at arms; it was the idea of what they represented in the minds of those that fought with them and against them that made them so formidable. The Adeptus Astartes were symbolic of Imperial might, symbolism with the means to enforce the will of the Imperium wherever the Emperor demanded it.
That was what made the Space Marines a force beyond anything their numbers might represent. A man could be defeated, but a Space Marine was invincible, indomitable and unstoppable. The tau had learned this in the Zeist campaign, and they were about to learn it once again on Pavonis.
Uriel bent to swap out his bolter's magazine, the process completed with a practiced economy of motion. A bright bolt of superheated plasma exploded further along the line, showering him with glassy fragments of fused earth. Two Space Marines fell from the firing step, hurled back by the powerful blast, and a war-scarred battlesuit forced its way through the ruined parapet, its weapons trailing a glowing fuzz of smoke as they recharged.
A wedge of battlesuits followed behind it, blazing cannons clearing whole swathes of the berm of defenders as they began to spread out. Fire Warriors gathered around them, and Uriel saw the danger immediately. He slung his bolter, looking around to see what aid he could call upon. Drawing his sword, he charged along the firing step towards the battlesuits.
'Squad Ventris, with me!' he yelled. 'Brother Speritas, I need you at my location!'
Learchus hugged the ground as the convoy of tau tanks passed so close to his position that he could have run forwards and planted a melta charge on the nearest vehicle before its pilot would have a chance to react. The wake of the skimmers' anti-grav engines sent a warm ripple of air over his camo-cape as well as an unpleasantly alien reek of burnt metal. The proximity of the aliens threatened to get the better of him, but he viciously quelled his rising anger and disgust.
He knew they had a mission, but the further he and his scouts pressed south, the slimmer it seemed their chances of completing it became. They could travel barely a kilometre without a warning burst on the vox from Sergeant Issam sending them to ground. It had been many years since Learchus had been a scout, and with every enemy unit they concealed themselves from, he remembered why he had been so glad to be elevated to full Astartes status.
The tanks passed out of sight, and Learchus once again threw off his cape and pushed himself to his feet. His armour was filthy, and he brushed leaves and mud from the burnished plates with a grimace of distaste. Was this Uriel's way of punishing him for his ambitions?
Learchus immediately discarded that thought as unworthy, and took a deep, calming breath, silently reciting the catechisms of devotion to soothe his ragged temper as Issam ghosted through the long ferns towards the assembling scouts.
Learchus looked up at the sky. Clouds were drawing in from the ocean. A stiff breeze was building, and Learchus could taste the promise of lightning on the air.
'Stay down,' hissed Issam, running, crouched over.
Learchus dropped to his belly and pulled the cloak back over his armoured body. Issam dropped to the wet earth next to him, squinting out to sea and tugging Learchus's cloak to fully cover his body.
'Don't worry,' said Learchus, 'they're gone.'
'Storm coming in,' said Issam, ignoring Learchus's words. 'A big one by the looks of it.'
'I think so,' agreed Learchus sourly. 'Yet more joyful news.'
'It will help us move forward undetected.'
'There is that I suppose,' said Learchus. 'Then let us continue.'
Issam pressed his hand over Learchus's forearm and shook his head. 'No, we wait here in this hollow for a few minutes before pressing on.'
Learchus rounded on Issam angrily. 'We have a mission, Issam, and we cannot afford to spend time resting. We need to complete our mission and return to our battle-brothers.'
'We're not resting,' said Issam. 'We're waiting in case there's a rearguard.'
Learchus cursed softly, but said nothing, waiting in silence as a soft rain began to fall. At length, another Hammerhead tank, escorted by a pair of the nimble scout vehicles, slipped past their hiding place on the same route as the heavier convoy.
Once Issam was satisfied there were no more tau forces, he issued orders to his scouts with a series of chopping hand motions. Learchus rose and squatted on his haunches, wringing his hands as he looked towards the south.
Learchus looked up at Issam, angry with himself for not thinking of a rearguard and angry at his exclusion from the fighting.
'How far to Praxedes do you think?' he asked without apology.
Issam drew a folded map from a pouch at his waist. The map was laminated and printed with contours, colours and symbols that Learchus knew he should recognise, but the meaning of which eluded him. Issam pointed to Praxedes and traced his finger northwards.
'Based on how far I believe we've come, I'd say another two days, but maybe longer if we have to keep taking refuge from the tau.'
'Three days,' said Learchus. 'The war might be lost by then!'
'Nevertheless, that's how long it will take.'
'That is too long,' said Learchus. 'We must be there quicker.'
The scout sergeant squared his shoulders. 'How long has it been since your elevation to full Astartes?'
'Ninety years, give or take,' answered Learchus. 'Why?'
'Some warriors relish the game of stealth, matching their wits against a foe in shadow games behind the lines, but not you. Scouting doesn't suit you, not any more.'
'No, it does not,' stated Learchus. 'I am a far more straightforward warrior. I desire only to meet my foes face-to-face and blade-to-blade where courage can be tested and honour satisfied. This mission flies in the face of everything that makes me who I am.'
'You are forgetting your earlier lesson about the mission,' said Issam. 'You long to take the fight to the tau.'
'I do, with every fibre of my being,' said Learchus. 'The desire to attack those tanks was almost overpowering, but if Uriel's exile and return has taught me anything, it is the folly of abandoning the teachings of the Codex Astartes.'
'It reminded you of that, Learchus,' said Issam, 'but you never forget that lesson as an Astartes Scout. Abandoning the Codex when you're cut off from your brothers is a sure-fire way to end up dead. Had you attacked those tanks or moved out we would all be corpses by now.'
'I know that,' snapped Learchus. 'I am not an initiate, fresh from the recruitment auxilia.'
'A fact of which I am acutely aware,' said Issam. 'If you were, you would listen to me and show me a bit of damn respect. I think you forget that I too am a sergeant.'
Learchus felt his already frayed temper threaten to get the better of him, but once again his iron control clamped down on it. He was being ridiculous. Issam was right.
'I am sorry, brother,' said Learchus. 'You are, of course, right. I apologise.'
'Accepted,' said Issam graciously, 'but I think our getting to Praxedes to rescue to the good governor is the least of our worries.'
'Those tanks that passed,' said Learchus.
'How many did you make it this time?'
'Including the rearguard, thirteen vehicles,' replied Issam, 'four Hammerheads, three Sky Rays and six Devilfish. The formations are getting larger each time.'
'Aye,' agreed Learchus, 'and heavier. What do you make of it?'
'Too many for a scouting or harrying force,' said Issam. 'This is a full flanking thrust.'
'That is what I was afraid of. We have to send word to Uriel.'
'The Codex states that to remain undetected Scouts should maintain vox-silence when behind enemy lines,' Issam reminded him.
'I know that too, but if we do nothing our brothers will be outflanked and surrounded. They will be destroyed, and this war will be over whether we get the governor back or not.'
Issam nodded. 'The tau will almost certainly pick up such a signal.'
'That is a chance we have to take,' said Learchus, feeling the certainties that underpinned his life melting away one by one.
The lead battlesuit stepped down from the firing step, and a Chimera exploded as a plasma bolt punched through its hull just beneath the turret ring. Colonel Loic and men of the 44th were reacting to the threat, but they would not be able to plug the gap. Only the Space Marines could do that. Uriel and his warriors fought their way through the fury of battle towards the breach as Fire Warriors clambered up the earthen bulwark.
The battlesuits had seen them and were turning to face them. All it would take would be for them to hold the Space Marines for a moment and it would be too late to seal the breach.
A voice laden with ancient wisdom and clinical detachment came over the vox. 'I am with you, Captain Ventris. Commencing hostile engagement.'
A searing blast of light came from behind Uriel, and the upper section of the first battlesuit exploded as though struck by a bolt of horizontal lightning. Its smoking shell remained upright for a few seconds before toppling over the parapet. Another flashing shot blew the head and shoulder mount from a second battlesuit, and yet another punched a ragged hole through the chest of a third.
Uriel's sword tore through the chest carapace of the nearest battlesuit, and he ducked below the slashing fist of its neighbour. A heavy calibre round nicked his hip and spun him around. He dropped to one knee as his attacker was slammed back against the berm by a ferocious impact that caved in its chest.
'Careful, Captain Ventris,' said Brother Speritas, his voice booming from his sarcophagus-mounted augmitters. 'You have not the armour to match mine.'
Brother Speritas, whose mortal flesh was all but destroyed on the daemon-haunted world of Thrax, towered over Uriel, the Dreadnought's armoured frame like a great slab of iron given shape and form to make war.
Tau weapons fire spattered from Speritas's hull without effect, and his monstrous, crackling fist smote another battlesuit to destruction as he waded into the tau armoured suits. Too close for weapons fire, the tau were no match for the up-close and personal fury of an Astartes Dreadnought.
Uriel ducked and wove his way through the combat, using the massive form of Speritas to weave a deadly path through the wedge of battlesuits. His warriors fanned out around him, shooting into the breach, and driving back the Fire Warriors using the battlesuits' assault to force their way in. Close-range bolter-fire turned the breach into a blitzing hurricane of explosions and ricochets through which nothing could live. Tau screams and the wet smacks of solid rounds on flesh punctuated the staccato barks of gunfire.
All Uriel could hear were explosions and the furious clang of metal on metal. He hacked the legs from another battlesuit, and spun his sword around before stabbing it down through its chest. Experience had taught him that the head section of these suits did not actually contain the wearer's cranium, and as he twisted his sword clear, its blade was stained red with tau blood.
As last there were no more foes, and Uriel swiftly scanned the battlefield. Colonel Loic and his men had taken up position on the firing step and poured volley after volley into the tau. A green and gold banner flew proudly above the fighting and Uriel nodded to the PDF colonel as Brother Speritas crushed the life from the last of the battlesuits.
Space Marines secured the breach as earth-moving dozers moved to seal it once more.
Uriel switched back to his bolter, and checked the load as he climbed back to the firing step. Loic greeted him with a wide grin, his bald head streaked with sweat and blood. The man's chest heaved with excitement, and he slapped a gloved hand on Uriel's arm.
'By the Emperor, we did it!' he cried. 'I didn't think we could do it, but damn me if we didn't just give them a bloody nose they won't soon forget.'
Looking out over the battlefield, Uriel had to agree. Dawn's light was spreading across the wreck and corpse-choked wasteland, though drifting clouds of smoke obscured the full scale of the fighting. The first battle for the Diacrian Bridge had been won, but the cost had been high. Hundreds of the defenders were dead, but the tau had suffered the worst of the fight. Uriel estimated nearly fifty tanks were burning and that at least a thousand or more tau had been killed.
Colonel Loic wiped the blade of his sword clean on the tunic of a fallen tau soldier before sheathing the blade. He followed Uriel's gaze over the battlefield.
'They'll come at us again soon, won't they?'
'Yes,' said Uriel.
'Then we need to be ready for the next attack,' said Loic, waving over a vox-operator. 'I'll get extra ammunition distributed and have food and water brought.'
'That will take too long,' said Uriel. 'We need to make do with what we have.'
'No, I had supply stations set up just behind our lines,' explained Loic, between issuing orders over the vox. 'They're manned by PDF non-combatants, and they can have supplies to us inside of five minutes.'
'That was perceptive of you,' said Uriel, impressed at Loic's thoroughness.
'Simple logistics, really,' said Loic modestly. 'Even the bravest soldier can't fight if he's got no ammo or he's dehydrated, now can he?'
Uriel nodded. 'I underestimated you, Colonel Loic, and for that I apologise.'
Loic waved away his words, though Uriel saw that he was inordinately pleased with them.
'So how do you think they'll come at us this time, Captain Ventris?
'Cautiously,' said Uriel. 'They were over-confident before, and they won't make that mistake again.'
'Captain Gerber said the tau don't make mistakes,' said Loic.
'They do,' said Uriel, 'but they don't make the same one twice.'
Jenna watched as Mykola Shonai was dragged from the cells, her bare and broken feet leaving glistening trails of blood on the wet floor. The woman's body was no more than a whipped and beaten mass of dead meat, and whatever secrets remained within her skull were going with her to the grave.
Two enforcers with their mirrored visors drawn down over their faces took her away, and Jenna felt a leaden weight settle in her stomach at the sight of the former governor's corpse, knowing that she bore a share of responsibility for Mykola Shonai's death.
She saw Culla through the door of the cell, naked to the waist and dousing his sweating torso with water from a battered copper ewer. Anger overtook her, and she stormed into the cell, her hands itching to reach for the predicant's throat.
Culla smiled as she entered the cell, his face serene and beatific in its sense of accomplishment. His beard was matted with dried blood and his fists were smeared with the stuff.
'You killed her,' said Jenna. 'You beat her to death.'
'I did,' said Culla, 'and the warp will devour her filthy soul forever. Rejoice, Judge Sharben, for one less heretic besets the Imperium. By such deeds are we made safe.'
'Safe are we?' hissed Jenna. 'Did you learn anything from her? Anything that will help us fight the tau armies?'
'Nothing she did not confess upon her arrest,' admitted the preacher, towelling himself dry with a linen cloth, 'but such wickedness ensured her a long and painful ending. Would that it had been longer and more agonising. Do you not agree?'
Jenna saw Culla's face transform from serenity to something loathsome and reptilian. His eyes glittered with a predatory hunger, aching for Jenna to say something foolish that would see her taking Mykola Shonai's place upon the chair bolted to the floor.
'She deserved death, that much we agree on,' said Jenna, choosing her words carefully, 'but a death decreed by Imperial justice. She should have been declared guilty by a conclave of Judges and executed by the proper authorities.'
'I already told you, Sharben, I have the authority of the Emperor,' said Culla, pushing past her and leaving the cell. 'What higher authority is there?'
Jenna let him go and sank to her haunches, letting her finger trace spirals in the blood on the floor. It was sticky and still warm. A human being had died here, a woman she had respected and admired. Mykola Shonai's actions had damned her, and there was no doubt in Jenna's mind that her crime not only warranted, but demanded, a death sentence.
Had she deserved to die like this, beaten to the bone by a madman who claimed a highly dubious direct connection to the Emperor? Imperial law was mercilessly harsh, but with good reason. Without such control, humanity would soon fall prey to the myriad creatures and dangers that pressed in from every side. Such harshness was necessary and vital, but Jenna had always believed that the law could also be just.
The blood on her fingertips gave the lie to that notion, and she felt her anger at Culla scale new heights. The preacher had violated the core of her beliefs and notions of the world, but that wasn't the worst part.
The worst part was that she had let him.
She hated Culla, but she hated her complicity in his actions more. He had dragged her into his barbarity, and she had stood by and done nothing, even when she had known it was wrong.
Jenna took her fingers from the floor, rubbing the sticky blood between her fingertips. She lifted her head and looked up at the bronze eagle set high in the far wall of the cell. The symbol was supposed to remind the condemned what they had forsaken and who stood in judgement of them.
It served to remind Jenna who and what she served.
Culla claimed he worked with a higher authority, well, so too did Jenna.
She stood and turned in one motion, marching from the cell with a hard, jagged anger crystallising within her. Jenna slid her shock maul from its sheath on her shoulder, and strode through the dank corridors of the Glasshouse towards the sound of Culla's booming voice. He was in the section occupied by the tau prisoners, and Jenna felt a curious calm descend as the sound of his voice grew louder.
At last, Jenna emerged into the wide chamber that served as the holding pen for the tau, where a group of eleven of the dejected aliens were kept locked in cells two metres by three that were illuminated every hour of every day. The prisoners' effects, such as they were, were kept in the guardroom opposite the cells, as were the guards' myriad devices of torment.
Standing before the cells, Culla was being robed in his emerald chasuble by Enforcer Dion, while Enforcer Apollonia brought a number of items of excruciation from the guardroom. Knives, saws, pliers, devices of scarification and implements of burning were laid out on a long metal tray attached to a surgical table fixed to the floor. Culla's eviscerator sword was propped against the table like a favourite walking stick, and Jenna was struck by the random nature of her observation.
A third enforcer, rendered anonymous by his mirrored visor, held one of the prisoners. The remains of a shorn white topknot told Jenna that it was the tau female named La'tyen, the first captive brought to the Glasshouse. The tau's hands were bound before her, and Jenna saw that her defiance and hatred were undimmed. In the corner of the chamber, the xenolexicon servitor the Ultramarines had provided stood as an unmoving witness to events.
Culla sighed as he saw Jenna enter. 'Unless you have come to aid me in delivering the Emperor's wrath upon these degenerate animals, you have no place here. Be gone, woman.'
'I'm here to stop you, Culla,' said Jenna, her voice calm and controlled.
'Stop me?' laughed Culla. 'Why in the world would you want to do that? These are a filthy xenos species. You can't tell me you believe the likes of them deserve mercy.'
'You're right, I don't, but you violated Imperial Law with what you did to Mykola Shonai, and I am here to see justice done.'
'Justice?' sneered Culla. 'A meaningless concept in the face of the enemies our species faces. What does the xenos or the heretic know of justice? Save your petty notions of justice for children and simpletons, Sharben. I deal in harsh realities, and I have work to do.'
'Not any more,' said Jenna, moving to stand between the preacher and the cells. 'Dion, Apollonia, step away from Prelate Culla.'
Both enforcers hesitated, torn between loyalty to their commander and their recently engendered fear and awe of Culla. Jenna felt the moment stretch, her thumb hovering over the activation stud of her shock maul. Part of her recoiled at facing down an Imperial preacher with a weapon in her hand, but the core of what had driven her to become a Judge in the Adeptus Arbites knew that this was the right and just course of action.
Neither Dion nor Apollonia moved, and Culla's lip twisted in a sneer.
'The enforcers are mine now,' he said. 'I warned you not to cross me.'
'And I told you I was the commander here.'
Jenna's thumb pressed down, and she slammed the crackling shock maul into Culla's face.