The red-quilled kroot lunged at Mederic with its knife outstretched, the Mortifex's blood whipping from the blade as it slashed for his neck. Instinctively, he threw up his rifle to block the blow. The knife, a sword more like, smashed into the stock of Mederic's weapon, and he fought to hold the creature at bay. The kroot's strength was incredible, and, with a savage twist of the blade, it wrenched the rifle from Mederic's grip.
He slid to one side, and the kroot's fist slammed down on Father Time's battle-scarred topside. He wondered if anyone inside knew of the life and death struggle being played out above them.
Mederic kicked out at the kroot, his boot connecting solidly with its shin. The beast went down on one knee, and Mederic seized the opportunity to push himself backwards along the upper deck of the Baneblade.
Father Time's main guns fired, and the crash of displaced air plunged Mederic into a world of silence as the deafening sound of the Baneblade's cannons reverberated in his skull.
He scrabbled for his knife, knowing it would probably do him no good, but finding reassurance in having the edged steel in his hand. A las-bolt flashed past the kroot, but the clouds of acrid propellant smoke obscured his Hound's aim.
Mederic got his feet beneath him, still dazed by the violence of the Baneblade's firing. The kroot loped towards him with its oddly spring-like gait. Its milky, pupilless eyes bored into him with an expression that Mederic couldn't read, but which looked like feral hunger.
The beast stood to its full height, which was at least a head higher than him, and the bulging cables of its muscles were taut and sharply defined. A bandolier, hung with all manner of grotesque trophies, was looped diagonally across its chest, and Mederic saw that human ears and eyes hung there on thin metal hooks. Its bright red crest seemed to pulse with an inner blood-beat, and a loathsomely moist tongue licked the toothy edge of its beaked maw.
The kroot took a step forwards, its quills flaring in challenge as it cocked its head to one side. It hammered the hilt of its knife against its chest, and said, 'Radkwaal.'
Mederic thought the sound was simply animal noise, but, as the creature repeated the word, he realised it was saying its name.
The creature nodded and screeched its name once again. 'Radkwaal!'
'Come on then, Redquill!' yelled Mederic, brandishing his combat knife. 'Come and get me if you want me!'
Redquill sprang forwards without apparent effort, and Mederic was almost gutted before he even knew he was under attack. More by luck than skill, he threw up his knife and deflected the kroot's blade. Sparks scraped from the knives, and Mederic doubled up as the kroot's fist slammed into his stomach. Knowing a killing stroke wouldn't be far behind, Mederic threw himself to the side. He landed on the Baneblade's co-axial mounted autocannon and spilled over it onto the track-guard beside the heavy bolter.
Heavy calibre shells pumped from the stubby barrels, each noise a harsh bang followed by the whoosh of a tiny rocket motor. Redquill vaulted the turret guns and landed lightly beside him, its blade slashing for his head.
Mederic deflected the blow, and twisted his knife around Redquill's, slicing the blade down the kroot's arm. The beast snapped back in pain, and Mederic didn't give it a second chance. He rolled over the bucking heavy bolter and slashed his blade at Redquill's guts. It was a poor strike, and it left him off-balance, but he was out of options.
Redquill's clawed hand snapped down on his wrist, Mederic's blade a hair's-breadth from burying itself in the kroot's belly. Redquill's knife stabbed towards him, and Mederic knew he couldn't block it. Instead, he gripped Redquill's bandolier and hauled the kroot towards him. Off-balance and perched precariously on the track-guard, the two fighters rolled over the heavy bolter's housing, and landed on the buckled metal of the enormous tank's leading edge.
Mederic hit hard, the weight of the kroot driving the breath from him and sending the combat knife tumbling away. Redquill reared up, holding its knife in two hands, ready to drive it down into Mederic's heart. And there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop it.
Then the heavy bolter fired again, and the top half of Redquill's body disintegrated.
Mederic was drenched in blood, spitting and coughing mouthfuls of the stuff as the shredded remains of the kroot war leader fell across him before slipping from the Baneblade.
He lay unmoving for some moments until he realised that the battle tank was no longer firing any of its guns. Slowly, he rolled onto his front, keeping clear of any of Father Time's myriad weapons systems and wiping as much of Redquill's blood from his face as he could.
Guardsmen were emerging from foxholes and ad-hoc dugouts, their faces bloody and grimy with las-burns. They were elated at having survived the latest engagement. The hillsides were thick with smoke from burning vehicles and tau corpses. Mederic smiled in weary triumph. Once again, Father Time had steadied the line and held the tau at bay. Would that they had an army of Baneblades!
He heard the sound of a hatch opening behind him, and climbed to his feet, using the warm barrel of the demolisher cannon to pull his battered frame upright. Mederic turned and saluted a bemused Nathaniel Winterbourne, who stood tall in the turret.
'Is there some reason you're on my tank, captain?' asked Winterbourne.
Mederic laughed, an edge of hysteria to the sound. 'You'd never believe me,' he said.
The coastal city of Praxedes was laid out before them, and Learchus could barely credit that they had reached their destination. To have come so far through enemy territory was nothing short of miraculous, tau territory even more so, but Learchus knew of no finer scouts in the Imperium than those of the Ultramarines.
Taking care to expose only a fraction of his head, Learchus scanned the enemy activity in the city below. He and his fellow warriors were concealed in a warehouse perched on the cliffs above the landing platforms, and, while Issam changed a field dressing on Parmian's arm, Daxian kept watch on the building's only entrance.
The cavernous structure was stacked high with crates stamped with tau markings, and the Ultramarines had been thorough in searching for anything of use. Most of the crates were filled with tau ration packs, none of which the Space Marines deigned to eat, though Issam found fresh dressings and sterile counterseptic to treat Parmian's wound.
The two skimmers they had taken from the Pathfinders lay in one corner, and Learchus tried to block the memory of how they had come to make use of them. Impossible, he knew, for the genetic imprint of the xenos warrior that had crewed it was now part of him.
Even after armour-administered emetics and purgatives, he could still feel nebulous alien emotions and thoughts scratching in his mind. The rank, oily taste and rubbery texture of the tau's brain was repulsive, but it held the information they needed to safely negotiate the drone sentry towers scattered around Praxedes. Learchus had been able to access that information, thanks to a highly specialised organ, implanted between the cervical and thoracic vertebrae, known as the omophagea.
Though situated within the spinal cord, the omophagea eventually meshed with a Space Marine's brain and effectively allowed him to learn by eating. Nerve sheaths implanted between the spine and the preomnoral stomach wall allowed the omophagea to absorb genetic material generated in animal tissue as a function of memory, experience or innate ability.
Few Chapters of Space Marines could still successfully culture such a rarefied piece of biological hardware, but the Apothecaries of the Ultramarines maintained their battle-brothers' gene-seed legacy with the utmost care and purity. Mutations had crept into other Chapters' genetic repositories, resulting in unwholesome appetites and myriad flesh-eating and blood-drinking rituals. To think that he had indulged in flesh eating in the manner of barbarous Chapters like the Flesh Tearers and Blood Drinkers was abhorrent to Learchus, and he had confessed his fears to Issam as the moon rose on the night they reached Praxedes.
'We had no choice,' said Issam.
'I know,' said Learchus. 'That does not make it any easier to stomach.'
'When we get back to Macragge the Apothecaries will swap your blood out and cleanse it of any taint. You'll be yourself soon enough, don't worry.'
'I will not be tainted,' said Learchus angrily. 'I will not stand for it. Look what happened to Pasanius, stripped of rank and disbarred from the company for a hundred days!'
'Pasanius kept his… affliction from his superior officer,' said Issam. 'That is why he was punished. Listen to me, you need to be calm, brother.'
'Calm? How can I be calm?' cried Learchus. 'You are not the one who ate an alien brain.'
At first, he had thought the tau brain too alien, too far removed from humanity to allow him to absorb anything of value, but, within moments of swallowing his first bite of the moist chewy meat, Learchus had felt the first stirrings of the alien's thoughts. Not memories as such, but impressions and inherited understanding, as though he had always known the abhorrent things that crowded his mind.
Though he could not read the symbols on the control panel of the scout skimmers, Learchus had known their function and instinctively accessed the inner workings of their cogitators. The others had watched as he tentatively piloted the tau skimmer around the rocks, taking note of how to control it without crashing or activating unknown systems.
Within the hour, they had been on their way, travelling across the rocks towards Praxedes on the scout skimmers, and no sooner had they dropped down into a rocky canyon than a pair of the slender remote sentry towers confronted them. The drones telescoped upwards upon detecting them, but without thinking, Learchus pressed a series of buttons on a side panel and the domed tops of the towers sank back into their housings.
The skimmers were swift, and the Ultramarines had soon reached the outskirts of the coastal city. The towers were more thickly gathered around Praxedes, but, armed with the correct access codes, the Ultramarines penetrated the screen of remote sentries and secreted themselves within the warehouse without alerting their enemies to their presence.
Issam joined him at the window, and Learchus acknowledged the sergeant with a curt nod of the head. Since eating the tau's brain, he had found himself needlessly prickly and prone to a sharpness of tongue. More so than usual, he reflected with uncharacteristic honesty.
'You should rest,' said the scout sergeant. 'You've been staring out of that window for nearly ten hours. Daxian or I can watch for enemy activity.'
'I cannot rest. Not now. Captain Ventris is depending on us.'
'I know, but he asks a lot of us,' said Issam. 'Perhaps more than we can give.'
'Do not say that. We are Ultramarines. Nothing is beyond us.'
'We are four warriors, Learchus,' pointed out Issam, 'and one of us is badly wounded.'
'With four warriors, Chapter Master Dacian took the pass at Gorgen against five hundred.'
'Aye, that he did,' agreed Issam. 'All 1st Company veterans in Terminator armour.'
'You do not think we can do it?'
Issam shrugged. 'As you say, we are Ultramarines. Anything is possible.'
Learchus grunted and turned his attention back to surveying the city below. He had seen little activity to suggest that Praxedes was anything other than a garrison town, which meant that most of the tau's strength was probably deployed in theatre. The presence of so many remote sensor towers around Praxedes seemed to support that conclusion. No matter the sophistication of automated surveyor gear, nothing could surpass eyes-on intelligence from a living being.
Learchus estimated the tau presence in Praxedes to be around five hundred infantry, with perhaps fifty battlesuits. He had seen a few Hammerheads parked in the shadow of the loader derricks clustered at the water's edge, but few other armoured vehicles. More importantly, a thousand or so Lavrentian Guardsmen were being held prisoner on one of the vacant landing platforms jutting out to sea.
That was the key, and if Uriel's plan was to work, Learchus and his warriors had to prepare the way by sowing confusion and mayhem. During a brief communications window, Uriel had outlined his plan to Learchus in Battle Cant, impressing upon Learchus the importance of his part in its success. This was all or nothing, and though Uriel's plan was incredibly risky, Learchus could find no fault in his captain's reasoning in regards to the Codex Astartes.
Learchus and the scouts were in position, but with zero hour for the assault into Praxedes imminent, they could not report their readiness for fear of giving away their position once more.
'Look,' said Issam, nodding towards the prison facility. 'Is that who I think it is?'
Learchus followed the direction of Issam's nod, and smiled. 'Indeed it is. We might get to fulfil our original mission brief after all.'
His enhanced eyes easily picked out Governor Shonai, strolling through the prison in the company of a tau, robed in cream and red and gold. Learchus's expression darkened the more he watched the tau and Koudelkar Shonai. Their body language spoke of an easy rapport, like two old friends out for a morning constitutional.
'Who's the governor's companion?' asked Issam.
The tau all looked the same to Learchus, but this one had a hint of familiarity to his features.
'Guilliman's blood,' exclaimed Learchus as he realised the tau's identity. 'That's the bastard we captured at Lake Masura. How in the name of the warp did he get here? We stuck him in the Glasshouse with the enforcers!'
'However he did it, he must be important, judging by the number of guards he has.'
'Captain Ventris said he was one of their leader caste, a noble or something.'
'Most likely,' said Issam. 'What do you suppose he and the governor have to talk about?'
'I'll be sure to ask him before I break his damned neck,' said Learchus.
The Imperial commanders of Olzetyn gathered beneath the great triumphal arch at the eastern end of the Imperator Bridge. The destruction of the Spur Bridge had bought the Lavrentian Pioneers time to construct the eastern defences thoroughly, and they had not wasted the time the Ultramarines had bought them. Coils of razor wire, stoutly-walled redoubts and armoured bunkers were efficiently and cunningly constructed before the archway, a defence in depth that would exact a fearsome toll in attackers' blood.
A cold wind whipped along the length of the bridge and over the defences. In the bunker serving as the Imperial command post, Colonel Loic shivered in his cream greatcoat as he poured himself a measure of Uskavar from a silver flask. The flask was emblazoned with the white rose of Pavonis, and had been a gift from the men under his command.
Emperor alone knew where they'd sourced such a thing in the midst of all this fighting, but wherever they had found it the gesture had touched him deeply.
'Chilly today,' he noted, offering the flask to Lieutenant Poldara.
Poldara was gracious enough to accept, and took a polite sip of the potent liquor. 'Thank you, colonel. If you are cold I can fetch you a cloak.'
'No need,' replied Loic. 'I expect the tau will make it hot enough for us in due course.'
The first time he had met Gerber's lieutenant, he remembered thinking that he looked absurdly young to be a soldier. The fighting at Olzetyn had changed that. Poldara now looked as weathered as any seasoned infantryman.
'War ages us,' said Loic, wondering how worn out he must look to the young lieutenant.
'Nothing, don't mind me,' said Loic, realising he'd spoken aloud.
He was so tired he couldn't tell what he was saying.
He took a deep breath to gather his thoughts. The defence of Olzetyn was in its final stages, that much was obvious to everyone. All stratagems were exhausted, and all war-tricks had been employed. The Ultramarines were gone, and all that stood between the tau and Brandon Gate were the courageous soldiers of the Pavonis PDF and the Lavrentian Imperial Guard.
Watching the Space Marines embarking on their gunships, Loic had felt a dreadful sense of loss. He knew Uriel and his warriors had a vital, potentially war-winning mission to attempt, but he couldn't shake the feeling that, with their departure, something fundamental had been lost from the hearts of the defenders of Olzetyn.
He'd heard that a single Astartes warrior was worth a hundred mortal soldiers, but Loic knew their real worth could not be measured by simple arithmetic. Space Marines were inspirational figures, warriors that every man dug deep into his soul to emulate. Their courage and honour was immeasurable, and to fight with them was to fight with the gods of battle themselves.
It would be a shame to die without such companions at his side.
Loic shook off gloomy thoughts of death and returned his attention to the present. Captain Gerber and Commissar Vogel pored over a series of consoles embedded in the forward wall of the bunker, the screens illuminating them with a soft green glow. Both men were examining schematics of the defences, pointing at various features along the length of the ruined bridge.
Loic joined Gerber and Vogel at the sandbagged loopholes of the bunker.
'You're wasting your time,' he said. 'Everything that needs to be done is already done. Supplies are in place throughout our position. Caches of ammunition, food and water are set up, medicae triage stations are ready to receive wounded. All that's left to do now is wait.'
'There's always something left to do,' said Gerber, 'something we should anticipate.'
'Maybe so, but if there is I don't think it will make much of a difference.'
Loic took out the silver flask and offered it to his fellow officers. 'Uskavar? It's a good blend, nice and smooth, and I think we deserve it, eh?'
Gerber nodded. 'Might as well. We're on our own now, so where's the harm?'
Vogel accepted the flask and took a hit, his eyes widening at the strength of the drink.
'Told you it was a good blend,' said Loic, taking the flask back.
The three officers shared a companionable silence as they looked over the bridge. Many of the teetering structures were gone and the bridge was carpeted with ruins of hab-blocks and temples, battered down by tau missiles or pulverised by Imperial shelling.
'Any word from Captain Luzaine and Banner Command?'
'They're on the march from Jotusburg, but they won't get here for at least another six hours,' said Gerber.
'Too late for us then?'
'Except to avenge us,' said Gerber, and this time Vogel said nothing.
'Look!' said Gerber, pointing down the bridge. 'Here they come.'
At the far end of the bridge, Loic saw the sleek shapes of tau vehicles moving through the ruins. Devilfish and Hammerheads slid over the rubble of the destroyed habs, and Loic blanched at the sight of so many armoured vehicles. Battlesuits and darting Stingwings arced through the air above the host.
'Emperor's mercy,' whispered Vogel. 'There are so many.'
'Now who's being defeatist?' chuckled Gerber.
A line of light lit up the horizon as a hundred streaking missile launches painted the sky with bright contrails. Loic watched them arc upwards, as though on a ballistic trajectory.
'Incoming!' shouted Gerber as the missiles streaked down towards the defences.
Loic finished the last of the Uskavar.
'To victory,' he said.
Uriel and Chaplain Clausel stepped from the Thunderhawk and onto the steel-grille embarkation deck of the Vae Victus. Beside them, a long line of gunships growled as servitors and crew chained them to locking spars while ordnance officers rearmed them. Fuel lines were connected and lifter cranes swung out with fresh loads of missiles and shells for their guns. Flashing lights spun above recently closed airlocks, and the air was redolent with the actinic charge of integrity fields and void chill.
Admiral Tiberius was waiting for them, and clasped Uriel's hand in the warrior's grip.
The commander of the Vae Victus was a giant Space Marine of nearly four hundred years with skin the colour of dark leather. A golden laurel encircled a shaven scalp that bore scars earned during the Battle of Circe, and the moulded breastplate of his blue armour was adorned with a host of bronze honour badges.
'Uriel, Clausel,' said Tiberius, 'by the primarch, it's good to see you both.'
'And you, admiral, but we have no time to waste,' said Uriel, jogging towards the far end of the embarkation deck. 'Is everything prepared?'
'Of course,' said Tiberius, though Uriel already knew that the venerable admiral would not let him down. 'Now get your men locked in so we can launch. Those tau vessels are closing fast, and, if you're not gone inside of five minutes, you'll be looking for a new battle-barge for the 4th Company!'
'Understood,' said Uriel.
Ultramarines moved rapidly through the embarkation deck to their assigned rally points, where armoury serfs passed out fresh bolter ammunition and powercells for chainswords. Uriel and Clausel made their way along the deck, ensuring that their warriors were ready for the fight of their lives.
Chaplain Clausel stood beside him and said, 'You are once more on the path of the Codex Astartes, Captain Ventris. It is good to see.'
'Thank you, Brother-Chaplain,' he said. 'It means a lot to hear you say that.'
Clausel nodded curtly, and made his way to his designated position without another word.
A series of green lights lit up along the embarkation deck. They were ready.
With no time for inspiring words or the proper rites of battle, Uriel simply raised the sword of Idaeus for every warrior to see. 'Courage and honour!' he roared.
Koudelkar Shonai stood in the doorway of his quarters, looking out over the dark waters of Crater Bay and sipping his tisane. The morning sunlight glinted from the dark expanse of ocean, and a bitter wind whipped cold salt spray into the prison facility. Koudelkar had thought it beautiful, but today it seemed like a thing of menace.
He looked over his shoulder to where Aun'rai sat inside, accompanied by three armed Fire Warriors. Mostly, they ignored him, but a female tau with a scarred face and the beginnings of a white topknot glared with undisguised hatred. He didn't know what he'd done to offend her, and didn't feel much like asking for fear of what the answer might be.
'Will I ever see Pavonis again?' he asked.
'Perhaps in time,' answered Aun'rai. 'Though given your past association with this world, it might be better if you did not. Will that be a problem for you?'
Koudelkar thought about that question for a moment, looking at the hostile faces of the soldiers milling around the prison compound.
'No. I thought it would, but the notion of seeing new horizons, new seas and new worlds appeals to me immensely.'
'Good,' said Aun'rai, sounding genuinely pleased.
'Of course there will be things I'll miss,' he said, 'but I expect I'll get over that.'
'You will,' promised Aun'rai. 'You will want for nothing in your new life as a valued citizen of the Tau Empire. With everyone working towards the Greater Good, no one goes hungry, no one lacks shelter and everyone is afforded the opportunity to contribute.'
'It almost sounds too good to be true,' said Koudelkar, only half joking.
'It is not,' said Aun'rai. 'You will be welcomed into our empire, valued for the skills you possess and honoured for your contribution to the Greater Good.'
Koudelkar took one last look at the bay before heading back into his quarters. He set down his glass on the plain oval table next to his bed and sat on the chair opposite Aun'rai.
'But what exactly will I do?'
'You will work with others of your kind to spread the word of the Greater Good,' said Aun'rai. 'You will be a shining example of what we can offer your people, a bridge to cross the gulf of misunderstanding that exists between your race and mine.'
'You mean I'd be an ambassador?' asked Koudelkar.
'Of sorts, yes,' agreed Aun'rai. 'With your help, we can avoid bloodshed when the Third Expansion reaches other human worlds. If humanity will accept the teachings of the Ethereals and become part of our empire, there is no limit to what we might achieve.'
'You know, before talking with you I would have been repulsed by thoughts of working with an alien race,' said Koudelkar.
'Now I look forward to it, though I wonder if the same can be said for your followers.'
Aun'rai followed his gaze and nodded in understanding.
'La'tyen was taken prisoner and suffered greatly at the hands of her captors. She was tortured and beaten, as I would have been had we not escaped.'
'I'm sorry to hear that,' said Koudelkar, hiding his sudden fear of the warrior, knowing that she had been tortured on his orders. He looked away from her scars to hide the guilt that he felt sure was written all over his face.
'It is of no consequence,' said Aun'rai, and Koudelkar wondered if La'tyen felt the same. Somehow he doubted it.
He saw a sudden stiffening in the posture of Aun'rai's guards, and turned his chair to see Lortuen Perjed standing in the doorway. Koudelkar's mother stood beside him, and an ashen-faced Jenna Sharben supported herself on a set of metal crutches. Koudelkar felt a rush of unease at the sight of the Chief of Enforcers, suddenly remembering that she was, first and foremost, a judge of the Adeptus Arbites.
'Adept Perjed,' said Aun'rai smoothly, 'would you care to join us? There is enough tisane to go around. I am told it is quite pleasant to human tastes.'
'I have nothing to say to you, xenos,' said Perjed.
'What are you doing here, Lortuen?' demanded Koudelkar. 'I have nothing to say to you.'
'Then listen,' snapped Sharben, her voice a mix of controlled fury and pain as she awkwardly limped on her crutches into the centre of the room. 'Koudelkar Shonai, by the authority of the Immortal God-Emperor, I hereby relieve you of Imperial command of Pavonis and all its domains. This I do with the full support of this world's senior Administratum adept. From this moment onwards, you pass from the protection of the Imperium, and are numbered amongst its enemies.'
Koudelkar shrank before Sharben's steely glare, her words like a knife in his guts, until he remembered that he had already forsaken this world for a new life amongst the tau.
'You think I care about that?' he asked, rising to his feet as a simmering anger swelled within him. 'The Imperium gave up on Pavonis long ago and I welcome your censure. It only proves I have made the right decision.'
'Oh, Koudelkar,' said his mother, tears running freely down her cheeks. 'What have they done to you to make you say these things?'
Koudelkar pushed past Sharben and embraced his mother.
'Don't cry,' he said, 'please. You need to trust me, Mother. I know what I am doing.'
'No,' she said, 'you don't. They've used some sort of mind control on you or something.'
'That's absurd,' he said.
'Please,' she begged, holding him tightly to her. 'You have to come with us. Now.'
'What are you talking about?'
'You know what she's talking about,' said Perjed, and Koudelkar looked over his mother's shoulder to see a group of Lavrentian soldiers gathering outside. It was impossible to miss the threat of violence they wore, and Koudelkar felt a hot flush of fear as he realised that Adept Perjed's threatened uprising was at hand.
'It is time to fight,' said Perjed, 'and you had your chance to stand with us.'
Koudelkar turned to shout a warning to Aun'rai, but before the words could leave his mouth, the noise of an explosion sounded from somewhere nearby. From his position at the door, Koudelkar saw pillars of flame and smoke rising from the towers on either side of the prison gates. A deafening boom sounded an instant later as crackling lightning ripped around the circumference of the camp and fizzing sparks fountained from the pylons of the perimeter force barrier.
Alarm klaxons sounded, and Koudelkar heard the bark of gunfire. He rounded on Perjed. 'What have you done? You have killed us all!'
But as the sounds of fighting grew more intense, Koudelkar saw that Adept Perjed was just as surprised.