Learchus shot a Fire Warrior through the chest, and then ran from the wreckage of the burning guard tower towards a low structure that might have been a power generator. Its sides were cream coloured and marked with a number of tau symbols. Issam covered him with a series of well-aimed bolter shots into a knot of assembling Fire Warriors, and they scattered, leaving two dead in their wake.
Learchus hammered into the structure, and leaned out to fire into the tau warriors reacting to the sudden invasion of the prison. He put one down with a snap shot and blew the leg off another who was too slow to find cover.
Daxian fanned out to the other side of the smashed gate as Parmian fired his bolt pistol from behind the second skimmer. The remains of the first skimmer burned just beyond the gateway in the midst of a pile of tau corpses.
The opening moments of their assault had been more devastating than Learchus could have hoped, and he knew they had to maintain their momentum and keep the tau off-balance. The shock and awe of their sudden assault was forcing the tau to dance to their tune, but as soon as they realised just how few in number were their attackers and fought back…
Using the scout skimmers to speed through the streets of Praxedes, they had swiftly made their way to the landing jibs, and Learchus had felt his fingers moving across the vehicle's armaments panel of their own volition. He had no idea what he was doing, yet a targeting matrix had projected onto the canopy of the skimmer and seemed to acquire targets one after another. He expected the front-mounted rifles to shoot, and had been disappointed when they stubbornly refused to open fire at their targets. That disappointment had been short-lived as he heard rapid whoosh, whoosh, whoosh sounds from behind, and a series of streaking missiles leapt from a tall sentry turret.
The missiles impacted on the guard towers on either side of the prison entrance and they exploded in blistering fireballs. Both collapsed into piles of twisted metal, taking out the tau guards and a number of the humming pylons surrounding the camp. Bolts of jade lightning arced between the pylons, and a thunderclap of electrical discharge boomed like an enormous whip-crack.
The skimmers plunged through the smoke of the destroyed gateway, but the tau were quick to recover from their surprise, and a hail of gunfire shot out of the skimmer carrying Learchus and Daxian. Both warriors leapt from the stricken vehicle as it tumbled end over end and exploded, showering the Fire Warriors who had shot it down with whickering fragments of red-hot metal.
Issam and Parmian skidded their vehicle to a halt, azure bolts of energy spitting from their skimmer's weapons. Before the prison guards could react, Issam leapt from the pilot's seat, and began firing his bolter as he ran towards cover. Parmian clambered from the vehicle, and took up position behind it, sniping at enemy soldiers from behind the hovering skimmer. 'Issam!' shouted Learchus. 'We need to keep pushing on!'
'Understood,' replied the scout sergeant. 'Going to be tough though.'
That was an understatement. The structure Learchus was sheltering behind was rapidly disintegrating under repeated impacts, and, despite Parmian's covering fire, there was no way Learchus could move without being cut down. A firing line of Fire Warriors was systematically destroying his cover, and there was nothing he could do to stop them.
Then Learchus heard a roaring howl of rage, and the fire pounding his cover slackened. He risked a glance around the structure, and saw something that filled him with exultation. Unarmed prisoners were swarming from their barrack buildings to attack their guards, dragging them down with their sheer weight of numbers and fury. Dozens were dead, for they had no weapons save their fists, but these men were hungry to expunge the stain of their earlier humiliation, and nothing was going to keep them from their vengeance.
All across the camp, the Imperial prisoners were rising up and attacking their captors. Mobs of imprisoned Guardsmen hurled themselves at the tau, tearing them apart with their bare hands or clubbing them to death with whatever blunt objects came to hand. Others tore the weapons from the dead Fire Warriors and turned them on their captors with savage glee.
Learchus had seldom seen a more inspiring sight, and, though he wanted to punch the air in triumph, the very gaucheness of the gesture restrained him. He spun from cover, and surged forwards into the melee, seeing Issam break from cover at the same instant.
Daxian moved out to join his sergeant, and the three Space Marines were a wedge of fighting fury that plunged deep into the tau. Learchus felt a savage sense of release as he shot another Fire Warrior in the chest. After so long avoiding contact with the enemy, to release the controlled aggression of the Astartes in close-quarters battle was as cathartic as it was exhilarating.
He turned to wave Parmian forwards with them, to join in the slaughter, but the joy of battle drained from him as he saw that the tau forces beyond the camp were finally reacting to the enemy in their midst.
At least two-dozen battlesuits were jetting through the air towards the prison, closely followed by three Hammerheads, moving swiftly towards the burning gateway. Learchus's assault was pushing deep into the camp, and the inmates were rising up, but a rabble of prisoners with a handful of rifles and four Space Marines could not hope to face such a force and live.
Seeing the tau reaction force, Parmian tried to find cover, but he was spotted by the lead battlesuit team and had nowhere to run. The first battlesuit landed just behind Parmian and unleashed a searing blast of fiery plasma at point-blank range. The wounded scout had no time to scream as he was instantly incinerated, leaving nothing but the blackened shreds of a corpse.
Learchus and his fellow warriors ducked into the cover of one of the barrack buildings. A flurry of shells shredded the ground where they had been standing.
'Come on, Uriel,' he hissed. 'Where are you?'
At the sound of the first explosion, Jenna Sharben leapt into action. Her burst of movement caught Koudelkar's eye, and he watched in horror as she spun her crutch around and stabbed it into the belly of one of Aun'rai's bodyguards. Only then did he notice that the bottom of each crutch had been sharpened to a lethal point.
The Fire Warrior screamed foully and collapsed, blood pouring down his legs from the terrible wound. Clearly the chief of enforcers was not as debilitated by her wounds as she had led the tau to believe.
Sharben swung her other crutch around in a short, brutal arc, the heavy end hammering into another bodyguard's helmet with a solid crunch. The warrior went down heavily as Sharben turned to face the last of Aun'rai's protectors.
Koudelkar made to go to Aun'rai's aid, but his mother gripped his tunic tightly. Her eyes pleaded with him not to go, but, for better or worse, Koudelkar had made his choice, and he had to live up to his end of the bargain.
He threw off her grip, though it broke his heart to hear her despairing cry.
'Koudelkar, no!' shouted Perjed. 'Don't.'
Though Sharben had fooled them with her display of weakness, the element of surprise could only see her so far, and La'tyen leapt on her with an anguished cry of hatred. Arbites Judge and Fire Warrior rolled on the ground, punching and clawing at one another.
The chief enforcer's elbow slammed into La'tyen's midriff, but the Fire Warrior's flexible body armour bore the brunt of the blow. La'tyen hooked her arm around Sharben's throat and dug her fingers into her neck. Sharben slammed her head backwards into La'tyen's face, and Koudelkar heard the crack of a cheekbone breaking. Sharben rolled from her opponent with a grunt of pain, scrabbling for a weapon as La'tyen drew a glittering knife from her belt.
Koudelkar had heard that they were called honour blades, and were ceremonial weapons used to symbolise fraternity amongst the tau, though there was nothing ceremonial about its viciously sharp edge.
The blade slashed towards Sharben, who leapt back to avoid being gutted. She cried out in pain as her weight came down on her injured leg. The Arbites Judge was not as badly hurt as she had made out, but she was still hurt.
Koudelkar wanted to intervene, but knew La'tyen would as likely gut him as Sharben. The bleeding Fire Warrior continued to cry out in pain as his blood spilled from his wound, but his dazed compatriot was rising unsteadily to his feet with a rifle held before him.
La'tyen feinted with her honour blade, and Sharben fell to one knee as her wounded leg gave out beneath her. It was the opening that La'tyen needed, and she plunged the blade of her knife into Sharben's chest.
The combatants crashed to the floor, and La'tyen stabbed the mortally wounded enforcer again and again in a frenzy of grief, anger and hatred. Blood spurted, and sprayed the walls in spattering arcs as La'tyen let the horror of her torture in the Glasshouse pour from her in a frenzy of savage violence.
Koudelkar recoiled from the awfulness of Sharben's death, horrified at the animal savagery of the killing. La'tyen looked up, and through the mask of blood coating her twisted features, Koudelkar saw the true nature of the tau race, the darkness they kept hidden behind their veneer of civilisation and fantastical notions of the Greater Good.
Lortuen Perjed ran forwards as Sharben died, desperation lending his aged limbs strength. He bent to retrieve the short-barrelled weapon dropped by the Fire Warrior Sharben had first attacked, and fumbled with the firing mechanism.
'Don't be an idiot, Lortuen! Put the gun down!' shouted Koudelkar, having no wish to see Lortuen killed in this terrible folly. The adept was not to be dissuaded from his course, however, and he and the dazed Fire Warrior pulled the triggers in the same moment. Koudelkar flinched as volleys of searing blue energy beams sprayed the room.
The Fire Warrior went down in a crumpled heap, his chest a cratered ruin, but he had taken his killer with him. Lortuen Perjed was punched from his feet, his fragile body torn virtually in two by the flurry of high energy bolts.
As terrible as was Lortuen's fate, the true horror was behind the murdered adept.
Koudelkar's mother slid down the pristine walls of his quarters, leaving a bloody smear behind her. Pawluk Shonai's eyes were wide with pain, and her prison-issue tunic was soaked with an expanding red stain.
'No!' cried Koudelkar, running over to his mother. He gathered her up in his arms as tears blurred his vision. He put his hand on her stomach, trying in vain to stem the flow of blood from her body.
'Emperor save her, please, oh please no!' wailed Koudelkar, desperately pleading with the only god he knew to save his mother. 'Oh God-Emperor, no, don't let this happen!'
Koudelkar watched the life drain from his mother's eyes, and gave a terrible, aching cry of loss. His eyes filled with tears, and he sobbed as he held her lifeless body tight.
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' he wept. 'It's all my fault. I betrayed you, oh Emperor forgive me, please forgive me…'
Koudelkar felt a presence near him, and looked up from his grief to see Aun'rai standing over him, his expression one of profound disappointment.
'You call to your Emperor for aid?' asked Aun'rai. 'After all we have discussed, you still turn to your distant Emperor for solace? No matter what your intellect might say, you look to gods and spirits in times of trouble. How pathetically human of you.'
'She's dead!' wailed Koudelkar. 'Don't you understand? She's dead.'
'I understand all too well,' said Aun'rai coldly, as La'tyen appeared at his side, her face and armour drenched in Sharben's blood.
Koudelkar fought to cling onto his sanity in the face of this horrific bloodshed. In a matter of seconds, his bright future of importance and luxury had turned to horror and grief. He shook his head, and gently laid his mother down on the cold, hard floor of his quarters.
He stood and faced the two tau. One desperately wanted to kill him, the other to enslave him, and Koudelkar wasn't sure which fate he dreaded more.
'It does not have to end here,' said Aun'rai. 'You can still be part of the Greater Good.'
'I think not,' replied Koudelkar, backing out of the doorway, through which the crack of gunfire and the boom of explosions could be heard. 'I want nothing from you or your race. If I am to die, then I will die among my own kind.'
Koudelkar turned and walked down the steps to the landing platform. He could taste the smoke in the air and the crackling electric charge of the downed security fences. Shouting soldiers and the bark of weapons' fire surrounded him, but Koudelkar had never felt more at ease with himself.
He remembered a conversation he'd had with Lortuen Perjed not long after they had arrived at the prison camp.
'We are prisoners of war,' Koudelkar had said. 'What honour do we have?'
'Only what we bring with us,' was Perjed's reply, and only now did Koudelkar understand what the adept had meant. He lifted his head and looked into the achingly blue sky, taking a deep breath of the ocean-scented air.
Koudelkar frowned, and raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun as he saw a number of falling objects that looked out of place in the heavens. He smiled as he recognised them for what they were.
Aun'rai appeared in the doorway of his quarters, seemingly unconcerned with the fighting that raged through the prison complex.
'This foolish uprising will be quashed,' spat the tau. 'And nothing will have changed.'
'You know, I think you're wrong about that,' said Koudelkar, pointing towards the sky where a host of Space Marine drop-pods streaked towards the ground on blazing lines of fire.
Uriel's drop-pod hammered down in a blazing flare of rockets and pulverised metal decking. Explosive bolts blew out the heat-shielded doors, and the locking harnesses securing the Space Marines within snapped upright. What had been a hermetically sealed environment for travel through the cold of space and the heat of re-entry was now open to the elements and the reek of propellant and scorched metal filled the air.
'Go! Everyone out!' shouted Uriel, and the warriors who had endured the thunderous ride from the embarkation deck of the Vae Victus with him leapt instantly to obey. Uriel led them from the drop-pod, taking in the ebb and flow of the battle in a moment.
Learchus had done his work well.
The Praxedes detention camp was in uproar, with desperate Fire Warriors in combat with hordes of equally desperate prisoners. The fighting was ferocious, but it was clear that the tau had the upper hand. Though considerably outnumbered by their captives, the Fire Warriors were highly-trained and had no give in them.
Numbers and courage could carry any assault far, but against disciplined soldiers armed with powerful weapons, it was never going to be enough, and the Lavrentian prisoners were being slaughtered. Uriel saw Learchus and two scouts firing on a battlesuit squad from the cover of a barrack building. While the weight of fire kept Learchus pinned in place, two other battlesuits were moving to encircle him.
Chaplain Clausel's voice sounded in his helmet. 'Our arrival is most timely.'
'So it would appear,' said Uriel, quickly identifying the key points of resistance. 'Secure the gate. I will link with Learchus.'
The tau forces were reacting swiftly to the arrival of the Astartes, turning their guns on the new threat in their midst. Flurries of blue energy beams slashed towards the Space Marines, but they were answered by a weight of fire greater than isolated bands of infantry could hope to muster.
Landing seconds before the main assault, drop-pods equipped with automated heavy weapon systems instead of troops unleashed furious barrages of missiles upon the tau. Following preset logic parameters, they engaged targets with merciless precision, and explosions ripped through the greatest concentrations of Fire Warriors.
The tau reeled from the shock of the sudden violence of the assault, but Uriel knew from past experience that they would recover quickly. To win this fight, the Ultramarines would need to keep the tau on the back foot, never allowing them to regain the initiative.
Two further drop-pods slammed down, buckling the metal of the landing jib's deck and scorching it black with the fire of their retros. Sequential bangs sounded like a string of firecrackers, and the wider doors of these drop-pods fell open to reveal the ancient and revered Dreadnoughts of the 4th Company.
Brother Speritas stepped into the battle with his assault cannon roaring, and a string of missiles leaping from the armoured rack mounted at his shoulder. Zethus followed his brother Dreadnought's example, opening fire on the tau the instant his fiery chariot's doors were opened. Twin beams of incandescent laser energy blew the turret from a Hammerhead as it turned to face the Dreadnoughts, and a tongue of blazing promethium jetted from beneath his monstrous crackling fist.
The tau fell back from the two Dreadnoughts in disarray, leaving dozens afire behind them. Powerful though the Fire Warriors' guns were, they could not hope to defeat the armour of such mighty war engines.
Clausel's squads arced on fiery jump packs towards the entrance of the prison complex, gunning down those Fire Warriors that had disembarked from their Devilfish transports. Hammerhead battle tanks floated gracefully through the fires of battle, their enormous guns tracking around to unleash their fury upon the Space Marines.
Chattering cannons and blisteringly bright spears of high energy tore into the Space Marines alongside Clausel, and Uriel saw that not all would be getting to their feet. He grieved for the fallen, but the assault had always carried the risk that many of the 4th Company would be returning to Macragge as honoured dead.
A drop-pod exploded behind Uriel, the Ultramarines it had carried swatted to the deck by the blast. Most climbed swiftly to their feet, but three remained on the ground. Barely seconds had passed since the thunderous arrival of the Ultramarines, yet the tau had already realigned their defences to meet the threat.
A warrior in brilliant blue armour emblazoned with a glittering golden eagle, and who wore a white-winged helmet, stood next to Uriel. His cloak billowed in the thermals of the drop-pods' descent, and he carried a long pole of black adamantium topped with a crimson crosspiece.
Ancient Peleus unfurled the banner of the 4th Company, and the power of its magnificence was akin to the sight of a hundred other Space Marines. The gold leaf and silver threading of the clenched gauntlet glittered in the sun, and its sacred fabric was a beacon to every warrior of courage and honour who beheld it.
'The banner of the 4th flies above us!' shouted Uriel. 'Let no warrior falter in his duty to the Chapter!'
His warriors answered with a cheer of pride and love, their devotion and faith in the power of the banner pushing them to new heights of courage. To fight beneath the company standard was an honour, and every warrior knew that the heroes of the past were watching them, standing in judgement of their courage. The Lavrentian prisoners had been on the verge of breaking when the tide had turned against them, but, with the arrival of the Ultramarines, they surged from their bolt-holes to once again attack the tau. Though the standard of the 4th was not their own, it represented centuries of courage that spoke to the heart of every warrior who beheld it.
Uriel led squad Ventris and the standard towards the barrack building where Learchus and his warriors fought. He fired as he ran, for there was no shortage of targets. Fire Warriors dropped with every volley, as shots flashed past Uriel's head and skidded from the deck around him. Running battles between prisoners and Fire Warriors filled the compound, and Uriel was forced to weave a path through the struggling combatants.
Hot air blasted downwards, and Uriel looked up to see a tau aircraft roar overhead. Bulky and oblong, he recognised it as an Orca, and he knew exactly why its pilot dared risk flying over such a hostile environment.
The craft was soon lost to sight, and Uriel pounded onwards through the warzone of the camp. Learchus looked up as Squad Ventris drew close, and Uriel saw the swell of pride in his sergeant as he caught sight of the banner they carried.
'Squad Ventris!' shouted Uriel. 'Combat squads. Hold and engage left!'
His warriors smoothly split into two units, one bracing and opening fire on the Battlesuits pinning Learchus and the scouts in place. Rippling volleys of bolter-fire hammered the battlesuits, a pumping barrage of shells that detonated within the armoured chest cavity of the first enemy warrior and sent the other into cover.
The second combat squad followed Uriel to join Learchus and his ragtag scouts, but there was no time for greetings, for the two flanking battlesuits roared over the roof of the barrack building. They landed in a flurry of exhaust gasses and gunfire. One of the scouts screamed and went down, his kneecap a pulped mess. Another, a sergeant, dropped as a shell clipped his shoulder and spun him around.
A white-hot lance of plasma bored through the chest of an Ultramarine, and the warrior fell, dead before he hit the ground. Uriel and Learchus charged the battlesuits as the second unleashed a seething torrent of fire from its weapons. Uriel felt the heat of the fire wash over his armour, and red warning icons flashed up on his visor. Coolant gasses vented from his armour's backpack as it fought to counteract the heat, and Uriel heard cries of pain behind him as the lightly armoured scouts scrambled back from the killing flames.
Uriel emerged from the inferno, his cloak a blazing ruin, and the eagle of his armour blackened as tiny flames guttered and died on his chest. The battlesuits braced to meet their charge as bolter shells sparked and ricocheted from their armoured hulls.
Learchus ducked beneath a roaring cannon and shoulder-charged the nearest battlesuit. Its legs crumpled under the sheer mass of Learchus's frame, and it fell backwards into a crumpled, helpless heap. Uriel swung the sword of Idaeus at a descending fist the size of his head, and hacked the limb from the battlesuit facing him. Hydraulic fluids sprayed from the neatly severed machinery, and the battlesuit reared away from his deadly blade.
Uriel leapt forwards, and took hold of the battlesuit's armoured carapace as it activated its jets and powered upwards. The ground spun away, but Uriel wasn't about to let his foe escape so easily. He rammed his sword through the battlesuit's chest, and its jets cut out almost immediately. The battlesuit dropped through the roof of the barrack building, and Uriel kicked himself away from the dying Fire Warrior.
He twisted in the air as he fell to land on his feet with a slamming thud.
Learchus stood with one boot resting on the chest of the downed battlesuit as he ripped his chainsword from its body. Torn metal and blood came with it, and the armoured suit convulsed as its occupant died. Learchus spun his sword and brought the blade down across the battlesuit's neck like an executioner's axe.
'Nicely done,' commented Uriel. 'A bit over the top though, don't you think?'
'Says the man who killed his foe in midair,' grunted Learchus, though Uriel heard the amusement behind the seargeant's brusqueness.
'It is good to see you, my friend,' said Uriel.
'Aye, good indeed,' agreed Learchus, 'but save your heartfelt gratitude for later, we're on the hunt!'
'He is here?'
'He is here,' confirmed Learchus, pointing through the maze of barrack buildings.
Uriel ducked his head around the corner of the building in time to see Koudelkar Shonai being dragged towards the Orca drop-ship he had seen earlier. A bloody-faced Fire Warrior held a knife to the governor's throat, and hurrying alongside him was a figure Uriel recognised immediately. The tau noble they had captured after the battle at the Shonai.
The tau leader whose Orca drop-ship the Vae Victus had tracked to Praxedes after his escape from the Glasshouse. 'Let's go,' said Uriel.