Thunderous explosions lit up the dawn as the charges placed by the combat engineers went off one after the other in quick succession. Throughout the night, the centre spans and supports built into the gorges of the Aquila, Owsen, Spur and Diacrian Bridges had been rigged for destruction, and as sunlight threw the defenders' shadows out before them, the word was given to destroy the crossings.
The bridges had stood for hundreds of years, though there was little sense of history to them. They had not the pedigree of the Imperator, and the lost secrets built into its structure that made it virtually indestructible had no part in the construction of those around it.
Rock blew out as gigantic stone corbels were destroyed, and the supports built deep into the walls of the gorges blasted free. Spars of metal that had not seen sunlight for centuries tumbled to the rivers far below, trailing tank-sized chunks of reinforced plascrete and rebars.
The Owsen Bridge was the first to fall, the eastern end giving way and tearing from the rock. The roadway crazed and buckled as the metal beneath snapped, and the immense weight of it all ripped the supports from its other end. Within moments, the entire span was tumbling into the river. The Aquila soon followed it, its structure twisted and blackened by the explosions. When the dust cleared, the engineers saw that the thoroughness of their labours had not been wasted. Nothing remained of either bridge, and the route across the gorges through Barrack Town had been obliterated.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the charges laid upon the Diacrian and Spur Bridges. As the echoes of the northern bridges' destruction faded, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong with the demolition of the southern bridges.
The correct rites of destruction were observed, the proper sequence of buttons pressed and levers pulled, but none of the charges positioned to destroy the crossings detonated. Frantic vox-traffic passed back and forth between the engineers and force commanders as each diagnostic test insisted that every charge was primed, the detonators were functional and the signal strength was optimal.
Even as the engineers and tech-priests struggled to divine what had gone wrong, the tau surged forwards and seized the western end of the Diacrian Bridge.
Followed by the warriors of squad Ventris, Uriel leapt from the assault ramp of Spear of Calth, the Land Raider that had carried Marneus Calgar into battle during the final storming of Corinth. Behind him, the smoke from the destruction of the northern bridges was blowing south, and a layer of dust coated everything from the roofs and sills of leaning hab-blocks to the roadway that led onto the Spur Bridge.
Shouting units of PDF scrambled to deploy from battered Chimeras as Colonel Loic positioned his men to hold the end of the bridge. Captain Gerber's Lavrentians were already in place, fire-teams setting up heavy weapons to repulse the assault that was sure to come.
Ultramarines debussed from their Rhinos, and moved into positions covering the approaches without needing any orders. Uriel climbed onto the parapet wall of the Imperator, and looked out over the gorge between the Midden and the southern edge of Tradetown. Information on the current state of battle was scarce, and the defenders needed to know what the tau were planning, although it wasn't hard to guess how the alien commander would exploit this shift in his army's favour.
The Midden was wreathed in flames and smoke, and the air crackled with what looked like miniature fireworks detonating every few seconds. Uriel had no idea what they were, but suspected the defenders would find out all too soon. From his vantage point on the parapet, he could see lancing beams of blue light stabbing out from the ruins at the northern edge of the Midden. Explosions rippled from Tradetown where those beams connected with targets.
From the location of the detonations, Uriel guessed the Imperial artillery positions were being attacked. Somehow, the tau had managed to deploy heavy weapons into the Midden without alerting the defenders, and the guns covering the approach to the Spur Bridge were being taken out.
Uriel dropped from the parapet and ran over to the PDF colonel. 'What have you got?'
Loic looked up, and the relief in his eyes at the sight of Uriel was plain.
'Tau tanks and infantry moving across the Diacrian Bridge. Lots of them.'
'How many?' pressed Uriel. 'And be more specific than ''lots''.'
'Hard to tell,' said Loic. 'Lots is the best I can do. Something's playing merry hell with our augurs and surveyor gear. The tech-priests say it's most likely some xenotech interference.'
'We don't have any eyes on the ground over there,' cursed Uriel. 'The Basilisks and Griffons are being taken out, so this will be an all-out assault.'
Captain Gerber emerged from a knot of Lavrentian soldiers, his helmet jammed in the crook of his arm as he wiped a dirty rag over his forehead. Commissar Vogel came with him, his uniform jacket dirty and torn.
'Damn pioneers,' said Gerber by way of a greeting. 'Why the hell didn't the charges blow?'
'I don't know, captain,' said Uriel, 'I suspect the same xenotech blocking Colonel Loic's surveyors prevented the charges from blowing.'
'But why just here? Why not the Aquila and Owsen bridges too? Doesn't make sense.'
'Who knows,' said Uriel. 'Perhaps their technology could not prevent all the bridges from being destroyed? In any case, the southern bridges are the ones that really matter.'
'True,' noted Gerber. 'We won't hold them long if they make a push along both bridges.'
'We'll damn well hold them here,' promised Loic.
'No we won't,' snapped Gerber. 'With this force, we can hold the end of the Spur for a time, but now that we're forced to fight on two fronts, it will probably be a very short time.'
'There's that defeatism again, captain,' said Vogel. 'It is becoming a habit.'
'Call it defeatism if you like, Vogel, and just shoot me,' responded Gerber, 'but Captain Ventris knows I'm right, don't you?'
'I am afraid Captain Gerber is correct,' said Uriel. 'A determined enemy will soon force us back, and the tau have shown themselves to be very determined.'
'Then what do you suggest?' demanded Vogel.
'Pull your men further back down the Imperator,' said Uriel. 'The Ultramarines will hold the bridge approaches until you are in position.'
'I thought you had someplace else to be,' said Gerber.
'We do, but it will avail us nothing if Olzetyn falls now,' replied Uriel. 'We will push the tau back, and then pull back to join you. Then your artillery will execute Fire Plan Eversor.'
'Eversor?' said Gerber. 'You can't be serious?'
'Deadly serious,' said Uriel.
Flames licked at the clouds as Tradetown burned. Tau guns in the Midden pounded the Imperial positions, taking out any tank or artillery piece that dared unmask itself in a searing blast of blue fire. What had once been an unassailable position from which to rain down fire and ruin upon the tau was now a killing zone for alien gunners. Tau drones buzzed over the town, and Uriel just hoped the Lavrentian artillerymen were as good as Gerber claimed. There would be precious little room for error in the execution of Fire Plan Eversor.
The world was bathed in a hellish orange glow from the firestorm raging through the cratered eastern districts of Tradetown, and gritty ash blew in from the north.
Uriel felt as though Pavonis itself was ablaze.
He smiled grimly, hoping the tau were thinking the same.
The Ultramarines set off down the Spur Bridge at a rapid jog. The quicker they threw the enemy back the better.
The voice of Sergeant Aktis, leader of one of the 4th's Devastator squads, sounded in Uriel's helmet. 'Possible targets ahead. Two hundred metres from your position.'
Uriel acknowledged the warning, and his fighting squads fanned out.
Squads Theron, Lykon and Nestor swept out in an echelon to the left, with Dardanus, Sabas and Protus taking the right. Squad Ventris held the centre. Clausel stood with Sergeant Protus, and Uriel saw the pride in the posture of his squad at the Chaplain's presence.
The Ultramarines advanced with slow, steady strides. Bolters held before them, they marched in serried ranks of shimmering blue ceramite. The firelight glinted on the polished blue plates of their armour, and Uriel's green cloak billowed behind him in the hot air that swept over the bridge.
Uriel scanned the cratered and debris-choked length of the bridge. If Aktis was right, then the tau were almost on top of them.
'I don't see anything,' he said. 'Confirm enemy sighting, Aktis.'
'Possible false positive, captain,' said Aktis, an edge of self-reproach to his voice. 'The auspex picked up a reading, but I have no confirmation as yet.'
'But you think there is something there?'
Aktis hesitated. 'I believe so, but I can offer no corroboration, captain.'
'Understood,' said Uriel. Aktis was a good, steady leader of heavy gunners and if he suspected the enemy was close by, then that was good enough for Uriel. 'All squads, be advised of possible hostiles at close range to our front.'
No sooner was the warning articulated than a hail of shots ripped from the smoke and tore through Squad Theron. Two warriors went down, but both climbed to their feet as their squad-mates found cover. Chattering heavy bolter-fire from the covering Devastators slashed down the length of the bridge, which was closely followed by lascannon shots and missiles.
Uriel dived into the shelter of a smoking crater, rising to his knees at its forward lip. He scanned the ground before him, switching from one vision mode to the next as he tried to spot the tau. He saw nothing definite, just blurred disturbances in the smoke that seemed to bend the light around them.
'Stealth teams!' he shouted, raising his bolter to his shoulder. Even knowing what to look for, it was hard to draw a bead on the armoured tau. Just as he thought he had a fix on one, it would vanish or blur to the point where he might as well be firing blind.
Distance was the enemy in this engagement, and Uriel knew there was only one way to drive the tau from the bridge.
'All squads tactical assault!' he ordered. 'On me!'
The Devastators' covering fire ceased as Uriel scrambled from the crater and led his warriors forwards at battle pace. The Ultramarines' advance into combat was swift and sure, faster than a jog, yet slower than a run. It enabled a warrior to cover vast distances without tiring, and allowed him to close with enemy forces quickly while still shooting accurately. Where the Space Wolves charged with the fury of the berserker, and the Imperial Fists fought with a meticulously orchestrated precision, the Ultramarines took the fight to the enemy efficiently and directly.
As Uriel led his squads into battle, he heard the triggering of jump packs. Swooshing blurs of blue armour arced overhead as Squad Protus led the assault. At the forefront of Protus was Chaplain Clausel, a battle prayer bellowing from his helmet augmitters.
More gunfire snapped from the haze ahead, and Uriel saw more of the blurred silhouettes. He returned a hail of shots towards the closest, and one of the light-refracting shapes fell back, its armour punctured by the mass-reactive shells. As it fell, the concealing technology failed, and Uriel saw the tau warrior clearly.
Broader than a Space Marine, yet bulbous and with an insect-like carapace, the stealth battlesuits were unmistakably alien in their design. They carried long-barrelled rotary cannons on one arm and moved in almost complete silence.
The tau guns opened fire, a roaring burst of shots that tore into the ranks of the Ultramarines. An answering volley ripped into the tau, and for a few brief seconds the space between the two foes was filled with flying metal. A withering storm of gunfire shot back and forth, a no-man's-land where any but the most heavily armoured would perish in a second.
Uriel felt a trio of impacts, two on the chest and one on the shoulder. None penetrated the layered ceramite of his armour and he gave silent thanks to the soul of Brother Amadon for keeping him safe. The distance between the two forces was closing, and Uriel slung his bolter before drawing the sword of Idaeus. This was a chance to hone the skills he would need for the final part of his plan.
The Ultramarines fired a last volley, and the two forces clashed in a clatter of armour plates, short range gunfire and slashing blades. The assault warriors of Protus were first into the fight, dropping from above like a lightning strike. They hit like a hammer of the gods, unstoppable and invincible, their warriors fighting with the same implacable fervour of Chaplain Clausel.
A tau warrior stepped towards Uriel, its gun spinning up to fire. He dived forwards and rolled upright, slashing his sword in a sweeping arc as he rose to his feet. The blade clove through the bulbous carapace of a tau warrior, and Uriel relished the powerful surge of strength-enhancing stimms injected into his bloodstream. The enemy warrior dropped, and Uriel spun on his heel to hack the legs from another. This close, the tau stealth technology was useless, and Uriel pushed deeper into their ranks, his sword a blur of silver and gold.
As unequal a struggle as it was, the tau were warriors of courage and strength, and several Ultramarines were shredded by close-range cannon fire or clubbed to the ground by augmented limbs. Another tau fell before Uriel's blade, and the noose of the Ultramarines closed in on the surviving stealth warriors.
As the fighting continued, a towering mushroom cloud of fire and smoke suddenly erupted at the western edge of the Imperator. Seconds later, a thunderous booming explosion rolled over the landscape, and Uriel knew the bombs in the armoury of the western bastions had finally blown. While Uriel and the Ultramarines had advanced down the Spur Bridge, Lavrentian combat pioneers had been setting powerful explosives in the magazines of the Aquila and Imperator bastions.
Even from a distance of several kilometres, the collapse of the bastions was a spectacular sight, the cyclopean blocks of masonry tumbling down as though in slow motion. Anything unfortunate enough to be in the immediate vicinity of the bastions would be utterly destroyed, and though Uriel regretted their destruction, he knew there had been no choice. As though in reverence for the demise of so mighty a fortification, both forces paused in the struggle to watch their spectacular ending.
In the moment's respite, Uriel looked down the bridge, and he knew that this fight was over.
The tau were pushing out from the Midden and onto the Spur Bridge in force. A picket line of scout skimmers darted ahead of a wedge of Devilfish that were closely followed by a host of Hammerheads and Sky Rays.
'Chaplain!' called Uriel.
'I see them,' confirmed Clausel. 'Time to go?'
Uriel looked back at the smouldering ruins of the two bastions, and nodded. 'Time to go,' he said.
Captain Mederic and his six-strong squad of Hounds dropped into a crater and pressed their backs against the forward slope. Lavrentian tanks in staggered formation boomed and roared to either side of them, firing into the hills where the sleek forms of tau armoured vehicles pressed home their assault.
This latest engagement was fought in the ruins of what must have once been an impressive estate. Ruined marble walls and stubs of fluted columns were all that remained, and soon even they would be crushed or blown apart by shellfire. Hundreds of hastily dug-in Guardsmen fired from the ruins in a bid to stall the latest tau attack. Somewhere behind him, a Lavrentian tank exploded, but Mederic couldn't see which one or what had killed it.
'Kaynon, watch our backs!' shouted Mederic over the din of battle cannon and heavy bolter-fire. 'I don't want to get rolled over by our own bloody vehicles!'
'Aye, sir,' called back the youngster. The fighting retreat through the Owsen Hills had made a man of Kaynon, and if they survived this battle, Mederic would see to it that the boy's courage was recognised.
'Reload!' he shouted. 'They're all over us, and I don't want anyone with an empty mag.'
The order was unnecessary, for the Hounds knew their trade and were already refreshing their power cartridges. Mederic slammed his power cell home, checking he had a full load before crawling to the lip of the crater.
The fight to halt the left hook of the tau advance was amongst the bloodiest and yet most clinical actions the 44th had fought in recent memory. Such was the strength of the tau forces that halting them was impossible, but the 44th were leaving nothing but ashes and blasted wasteland in their wake. Day after day, the tau pushed forwards, their advance relentless and coldly efficient in the face of the 44th's guns. Without the savagery of the greenskin or the terror of the devourer swarms, it gave the Lavrentians nothing to latch onto emotionally.
All Mederic saw in the faces around him was sterile dread, the fear that at any moment an unseen missile might end dreams of glory and service. The tau made war with such precision that it left precious little room for notions of honour or courage. To the tau, war was a science like any other: precise, empirical and a matter of cause and effect.
Mederic knew that was the fatal flaw in their reasoning, because war was never predictable. Unknown variables and random chance all played their part, and it was a foolish commander who fought with the belief he could foresee every eventuality.
A vast shadow eclipsed Mederic, and he looked up to see the skirts of an enormous armoured vehicle grind past their fragile cover. He smiled as he saw Meat Grinder crudely scrawled on the vehicle's skirts, and knew it was Lord Winterbourne and Father Time.
A searing beam of energy slammed into the scarred glacis of the Baneblade, but so thick was the super-heavy tank's armour that it left barely a mark. Father Time's cannons roared in reply and an enemy tank exploded, pulverised by the mass of the enormous shell as much as the explosives.
'Support fire!' shouted Mederic, and his scouts joined him on the lip of the crater. Lethally accurate sniper-fire picked off tau squad leaders darting through the smoke, while Duken's missiles lanced out to disable enemy vehicles with relentless precision. It was risky, staying to shoot from one location, but settling smoke from the Baneblade's guns was helping to conceal their exact location. In any case, displacing in the middle of a tank battle was a sure-fire way to get crushed beneath sixty tonnes of metal.
Lord Winterbourne's command vehicle continued to wreak havoc amongst the tau armour, reaping a fearsome number of kills, while withstanding countless impacts that would have reduced most tanks to molten slag. Wherever Father Time fought, the tau advance would falter, and this latest engagement looked like being no exception.
Then Mederic heard a sound that chilled him to the bone, a high, ululating, squawking sound that could mean only one thing.
He looked up to see a host of the pink-skinned creatures crawling over Father Time. The kroot carried a device that Mederic knew was a bomb even before they bent to fix it to the honour-inscribed turret ring of Lord Winterbourne's Baneblade.
'Targets right!' he yelled, swinging his rifle to bear. His first shot punched one of the kroot from Father Time's upper deck, his second blew the arm off the creature attempting to affix the explosive charge.
Las-bolts whickered around the huge tank as the Hounds turned their fire upon it. A pair of kroot fell from the vehicle, though Mederic saw others taking cover behind the enormous turret. It felt unnatural and faintly heretical to be shooting at an Imperial tank, but Mederic knew they could not possibly do any damage to it.
'Unless we hit the charge…' he whispered, seeing a shot ricochet from the turret ring, no more than a few inches from the explosive device. Without thinking, Mederic pushed himself to his feet and ran towards Father Time, clambering up the rear crew ladder inset on the cliff-like sides of the Baneblade.
The Baneblade's turret was in motion, the autocannon blazing a stream of large-calibre shells at the enemy. Heavy bolter shells streamed from the guns mounted on the tank's frontal section, and Mederic tried not to think of how insanely dangerous it was to climb onto a moving, fighting tank.
A solid round spanked the metal beside him, and he threw himself onto the deck of the Baneblade. Something moved beside him and he rolled onto his back, firing his rifle. A kroot warrior fell back with its chest blown out, and Mederic scrambled to his feet as another alien fighter reared over him. A las-bolt from his right blew out the back of the kroot's head.
His Hounds were watching over him.
Keeping low, Mederic made his way towards the tau device, keeping clear of the discharging flares of actinic energy crackling around the one remaining lascannon sponson. He knelt by the turret, a hundred battles and campaign honours inscribed there in gold lettering. Mederic slung his rifle over his shoulder, and examined the device the kroot had fastened to the turret. The bomb was oblong, about the size of a fully-loaded Guardsman's pack, and Mederic had no doubt it would end Father Time's contribution to this battle. With no time for anything sophisticated, Mederic simply took hold of the device and hauled with all his might.
It didn't move so much as a millimetre.
Whatever technology held the bomb to the Baneblade was beyond his strength to defeat. 'Step away from the bomb, captain,' said a voice behind him.
Mederic turned to see a tall, hideously disfigured preacher in the black robes of a Mortifex standing above him on Father Time's rear deck. The man's face was burned, blackened and scarred with embedded fragments of coloured glass. Mederic had heard of the wounded preacher that had joined the fighting men of the 44th after the battle of Brandon Gate, but he had never laid eyes on him until now.
Campfire scuttlebutt had it that it was Gaetan Baltazar, the former Clericus Fabricae, but such was the horror of his injuries and permanent grimace of agony that it was impossible to tell who this wild-eyed preacher had once been. How could anyone have survived such dreadful wounds?
The Mortifex bore a giant eviscerator, the roaring blade throwing off smoke and sparks.
'Oh hell,' hissed Mederic as he realised what the Mortifex was about to do.
He rolled aside as the blade came down. Flaring light spilled from the device, but to Mederic's amazement it didn't explode. The tearing teeth of the eviscerator easily ripped through the metal and ceramic of the device until it fell from the turret ring in two halves.
He let out a shuddering breath as the Mortifex lowered his smoking blade.
'And so the workings of the foes of mankind shall be rendered unto dust and memory,' said the preacher.
'Holy crap,' hissed Mederic, staring at the pile of inert material that was all that remained of the bomb. 'How the hell did you know it wasn't going to go off when you did that?'
'I did not,' said the Mortifex through a mouth burned lipless. 'In truth I did not care.'
'Well I bloody care, and I won't have some madman taking me with him,' said Mederic. 'So just keep the hell away from—'
Mederic's words were cut off as a hand-span of serrated steel erupted from the Mortifex's chest. Blood squirted, and, as the long blade tore out the preacher's heart in a flood of crimson, Mederic saw the man's expression change from one of agony to one of peace.
'My life is a prison and death shall be my release,' said the Mortifex as he toppled from Father Time's deck. Mederic didn't watch the Mortifex fall.
His attention was fixed on the monstrous kroot with vivid red quills that had killed him.
Energy blasts hissed past Uriel's head as he backed onto the ruined thoroughfare of the Imperator towards the collapsed buildings where their transport vehicles awaited them. His bolter kicked in his grip, and as each magazine clicked empty, he smoothly replaced it without taking his eyes from the approaching tau. Flames licked at the plates of his armour from fires the debris from the flaming bastions had touched off. Once again he gave thanks to the ancient builders of the bridge that they had thought to make it so strong.
The Ultramarines retreated in good order from the Spur Bridge, falling back by combat squads, firing into the tau as they went. Missiles streaked from launch tubes and lascannons pulverised anything that might serve the enemy as cover. The Space Marines were retreating, but they were leaving nothing but destruction behind them.
Missiles from the Lavrentian support teams further down the bridge slashed overhead, punching spiral contrails through the smoke. The blooms of their detonations echoed distantly down the span of the bridge.
Fire Warriors and battlesuits darted through the flames and smoke, firing at the retreating Ultramarines as they abandoned the crossing to the Midden, but their pursuit was half-hearted, and Uriel could sense their dismay at the devastation.
'This world will burn before we let you have it,' whispered Uriel as he looked around to ensure that all his warriors had escaped. Chaplain Clausel was to his right, his Crozius Arcanum held high while he bellowed the Battle Prayer of the Righteous.
More rockets and gunfire filled the air above them, and Uriel heard the furious revving of engines over the destruction raging all around him. Brothers Speritas and Zethus, the company's Dreadnoughts, marched backwards along with their battle-brothers, the boom of their weapons punctuating the din of battle.
Uriel looked over his shoulder, seeing plumes of exhaust smoke billowing over the escarpment of a fallen hab structure.
'Fall back by squads to transports!' he ordered. 'Withdrawal pattern Sigma Evens.'
The Ultramarines moved smoothly into formation, Squads Theron, Lykon and Nestor taking up covering positions, while Dardanus, Sabas and Protus turned and ran for their previously designated lines of retreat. Punishing volleys of bolter-fire filled the ground before the Ultramarines with explosive death as more missiles arced overhead, curving up into the air before slashing down like hunting raptors to explode amongst their prey.
'Aktis, Boros, suppressive fire!'
As the order was given, the covering squads pulled back from their positions as a deafening crescendo of fire bloomed from the Devastator squads behind.
'Captain Gerber,' said Uriel, walking backwards alongside his warriors, 'commence Fire Plan Eversor.'
'Understood, Captain Ventris,' replied Gerber. 'Sending rounds down now.'
Uriel heard the solitary boom of a basilisk artillery piece, which was quickly followed by another and then another. Soon, the sound of the guns was a continuous, thudding drumbeat.
'Everyone back, now!' shouted Uriel, turning and running to where the 4th Company's vehicles awaited them. He leapt broken spars of adamantium and ducked down through a gap torn in an angled slab of rockcrete. Ahead, he could see four Rhinos and a pair of Land Raiders, their engines coughing exhaust smoke and their assault doors open. Space Marines clambered on board while the vehicles' auto-systems fired their machine-guided weapons down the length of the bridge.
Arcing streaks of dazzling light flashed overhead, and Uriel felt the first of the artillery shells detonate on the bridge behind him. Pounding hammer-blows struck the structure again and again, the percussive impacts shaking the very foundations of the bridge, until if felt as though the heavens themselves had fallen.
'Emperor bless you, Gerber!' cried Uriel as he saw that virtually every shell was landing exactly where it was needed. The Lavrentian gunners were justifying their captain's faith in them.
Uriel stumbled and fell to his knees as the titanic forces pounded the Spur Bridge to ruins. The noise was deafening, even through the protective dampening of his armour's auto-senses. Those hab-blocks that had not already been destroyed in the fighting vanished in the searing detonations, whole districts wiped out in an instant as hundreds of shells landed on target. Nothing could live under such a thunderous bombardment, and the tau pursuit was annihilated in moments.
High explosives and incendiaries bathed the entire span of the bridge in a living typhoon of flames and debris. The point where the Spur and Imperator were joined suffered worst under the sustained bombardment, the steel connections of the newer bridge obliterated and tearing loose. Shells with armour piercing warheads penetrated deep into the roadway junction of the Imperator and Spur Bridges, before exploding with unimaginable force to leave thirty metre craters in their wake.
Following shells impacted in those craters, burrowing ever deeper and further weakening the connection, until the weight of the Spur Bridge completed the job begun by the barrage of explosives. Buckling and shearing under loads it was never built to endure, the Spur tore from the Imperator, falling away and twisting like wet paper.
Thousands of tonnes of stone and steel dropped into the gorge, and those few Fire Warriors that had survived the bombardment fell with it. Infantry and armour tumbled downwards, and, although a few skimmer tanks were able to control their descent, they were smashed to ruins by the crushing torrent of debris.
The route from the Midden onto the Imperator was utterly destroyed, and, as the last shells fell, little remained to indicate that there had ever been a bridge between them. Billowing clouds of dust and smoke rolled towards the Ultramarines position, and Uriel picked himself up as the cataclysmic echoes of the massed artillery bombardment faded.
Clausel awaited him by the forward ramp of the nearest Land Raider and waved him over. Uriel ran towards the Chaplain and hammered the door closing mechanism once he was inside.
The red-lit interior of the battle tank reeked of oils and incense smoke, and Uriel pressed a fist to the black and white cog symbol of the Adeptus Mechanicus etched into the wall beside him.
'And the Emperor shall smite the iniquitous and the xenos from his sight,' said Clausel, slapping a palm on Uriel's shoulder-guard. The destruction of the Spur and the tau pursuit force had put the Chaplain in good spirits.
'With a little help from the hammer of the Imperial Guard,' said Uriel.
He opened a channel to Gerber once more. 'Captain, the Spur is down. Pass your compliments to your gunners, their fire was dead on.'
'Will do,' answered Gerber. 'We ran through damn near our entire stockpile of shells to lay down that barrage.'
'It will be worth it, I assure you, captain,' promised Uriel.
'It had better be,' said Gerber. 'When they come at us again, all we've got left to throw at them are rocks.'
'Understood,' said Uriel, 'but I do not believe it will come to that.'
Uriel shut of the vox and turned to Clausel. 'What news from Tiberius and the Vae Victus, admiral?'
'He can do as you ask,' said the Chaplain, his skull-faced helmet the very image of death, 'though it will be very dangerous. If we are delayed so much as a minute, we will miss our launch window.'
'Then we had best not be late,' said Uriel.
'And Learchus?' asked Clausel. 'Has he responded to your communication?'
'No,' said Uriel, 'but he might not be able to.'
'He might be dead.'
'That is possible, but if anyone can do what must be done, then it is Learchus.'
'There's truth in that,' agreed Clausel. 'You are sure this is the only way?'
'I am,' said Uriel. 'You said it yourself, Chaplain, this isn't our kind of fight.'
Clausel nodded, and Uriel saw that the prospect of taking the fight to the enemy appealed to the venerable warrior.
'We will show the tau exactly what kind of fight we were built for,' promised Uriel.