There were about forty of them, a mix of armoured soldiers in olive-coloured plates of armour with long, rectangular-barrelled weapons, and others dressed in the heavy-duty coveralls of engineers or labourers. A pack of fierce-looking creatures with wiry physiques and glossy pink skin stood apart from the soldiers. Flexing crests of spines sprouted from the backs of their beaked skulls, and they carried long rifles that looked almost primitive.
The glow Diman had seen from the gully shone from a handful of flattened discs hovering above the aliens, but he was more concerned by the boxy devices the alien engineers were carefully wiring between the generator relays.
A trio of vehicles with curving sides and enormous engine nacelles hovered behind the group, blurring the air, and turning the rainwater to hissing spray with anti-grav fields. The soldiers were helmeted, but the flat, grey and utterly alien faces of the engineers were clearly visible. They worked with swift precision, and Diman saw that whatever they were doing, they were almost finished.
None of the aliens had noticed them. The warriors were too intent on the progress of the engineers and the heavy rain helped to obscure the two Mechanicus techs, but such luck couldn't hold forever.
Diman immediately recognised the significance of what this act of sabotage could mean to Pavonis, and began backing slowly towards the pack servitor and the all-weather vox.
'Come on,' hissed Diman, 'we need to get out of here.'
Gerran stood, open-mouthed, at the entrance to Deep Canyon Six, transfixed by the sight of the aliens.
'What are they,' he asked, 'and what are they doing?'
'I don't know, but it's sabotage of some kind,' replied Diman urgently. 'You want to stick around and find out? Come on, let's go.'
'Sabotage?' said Gerran, horrified. 'Why?'
'Why the hell do you think?' snapped Diman, trying to keep his voice low, even though their words were spoken over their helmet-mics. That, combined with the noise of the wind and rain, would mean it was next to impossible for the aliens to hear them. 'If they take out the DC6 generators and masts, overload traffic will clog the rest of the network in a few hours.'
Diman reached the pack servitor, and hurried to slip the lascarbine from its waterproof holster with fumbling fingers. He slung the weapon over his shoulder and unbuckled the snap fixings of the pannier, hauling on the aerial of the vox-set.
Gerran joined him and lifted the second lascarbine from its holster before setting off up the foaming, water-slick steps out of the gully. He'd climbed six metres before realising that Diman wasn't following him.
'What the hell are you doing?' asked Gerran. 'You said we had to go!'
'We do, but we need to call this in.'
'Do it when we're away, for crying out loud.'
'Shut up, Gerran.'
Diman flicked the toggle to transmit, and an angry burst of feedback squealed from the handset, deafeningly loud in the confines of the gully.
'Shit!' he cried. 'The volume!'
He mashed the power switch to the off position, but the damage had been done. 'You bloody idiot!' shouted Diman. 'Run!'
Almost immediately, the diffuse glow from the end of the canyon surged in brightness, and spots of light blazed down into the gully. Diman looked up through the rain to see a pair of the floating discs bobbing in the air above him. Lights flickered around their circumferences, and Diman knew their luck had run out.
'Sweet Capilene, mother of mercy!' cried Diman, turning and sprinting as fast as he could up the steps after Gerran, leaving the hulking pack servitor behind.
The lights followed them up the gully, and Diman felt his heart hammer like a rapid drumbeat in his chest as he fought his way through the foaming waterfall pouring down the gully. His work boots felt as though they had weights attached to them, and he fell to his knees as a blistering pulse of light flashed above him and impacted on the wall of the gully.
A blizzard of light and noise washed over him, momentarily blurring his vision, and sending a spasm of nausea through him. Diman stumbled as glowing splinters of rock showered him like grenade fragments. The wind snatched his hood away, and cold darts of air stabbed the skin of his face through the cracked plastic of his visor.
Diman threw a panicked glance over his shoulder in time to see the pack servitor brought down by a pulsing volley of blue-hot beams of light. Smoking holes were blasted clean through its meaty bulk, and Diman didn't want to think about the kinds of weapons that could inflict such damage on a pack servitor or what they would do to his body. Scrambling forms darted into the gully, but the rain and mist of blood obscured them from clear sight.
Whatever they were, they were fast.
Diman scrambled to his feet, and snapped off a couple of shots down into the gully before pushing onwards. He didn't think he'd hit anything, but perhaps his fire might keep their heads down for a while.
The flying discs still floated above the gully, and Diman fired wildly into the air, hoping to bring one down, but the damned things seemed to anticipate his aim, and flew erratic, zigzagging patterns in the air.
'Move yourself!' shouted Gerran from the entrance to the gully, and Diman almost laughed with relief. He slipped and scrambled upwards as he heard a strange sound, a clicking, scratching noise like flint on stone.
He was no more than three metres from Gerran when a blurred creature of pale pink flesh, like a giant flightless bird stretched out into the semblance of a humanoid form, rose up behind the other man. Its limbs were lean and sinewy, and its monstrous head was crested with a mass of rigid spines. The creature's arms whipped up, almost too fast to follow, and Diman saw a jagged blade erupt from Gerran's stomach.
A screeching, squawking war cry ululated from the creature's beaked maw, and it wrenched the blade from Gerran's body with a brutal twist of its wrists. Gerran collapsed, his spine severed by the blow, and the water pouring down the gully was turned red with his blood.
Twin bandoliers crossed the creature's chest, and its patterned loincloth put Diman in mind of the pictures he'd seen of feral world predators. It carried a long barrelled rifle with a cruelly curved blade fitted to either end.
Long ago training from his days in the Tertiary Reserve kicked in, and Diman dropped to one knee with his lascarbine pulled in tight to his shoulder. The creature let loose another screeching cry, and spun its rifle to a firing position.
Diman fired first, and Gerran's killer was punched from its feet, a ragged, smoking hole blasted in its chest. The ancient lascarbine hissed in the rain as it fired, and Diman hurriedly cycled the firing mechanism as he heard the strange clicking, scratching sound once more.
Beams of light swept over him from above, but he ignored them and carried on, the breath heaving in his lungs at this rapid exertion. A stuttering volley of solid rounds blasted into the rock beside him, and he ran crouched over, emerging from the gully as a shot creased his shoulder and sent him sprawling.
Diman lost his grip on the lascarbine as he was spun around by the impact. He hit the ground hard and rolled, feeling the sharp rocks tear up his overalls. His helmet was smashed from his head, and the impact left him dazed as the cold hit him like a blow.
Bright lights danced before his eyes, and Diman lifted his head, feeling blood pouring from a gash on his forehead. He tried to push himself from the ground, but his limbs were leaden and uncooperative. Screaming pain in his thigh told him he'd broken his femur.
A pack of the skinned-looking creatures emerged from the gully, and gathered around the creature Diman had shot, their movements inhumanly quick and bird-like. Their quills stood on end, with colours rippling down their lengths. One of the creatures was of greater stature than the others, with powerful muscles and a crest of bright red quills. It carried a weapon of obvious sophistication, with a short-barrelled, under-slung launcher of some kind.
At its side was a hideous trio of quadrupeds that must surely have escaped from a realm of nightmares. They resembled nothing so much as skinned wolves. Their pink flesh glistened in the rain, and manes of spines stood erect on their powerfully muscled shoulders. Diman whimpered in fear as he saw that they shared evolutionary roots with their masters, having the same spine of rigid quills and jagged, beak-like jaws.
The red-quilled leader emitted a series of high-pitched squawks and whistles.
In response, two of its pack knelt by the body of the dead beast, and began attacking it with long-bladed knives, carving off strips of flesh and gulping them down. Within moments, they had efficiently butchered the body, and passed out dripping chunks of their former comrade's flesh to each member of the pack.
Diman felt his gorge rise at the sight, the blood of the slain beast drooling from their beaked jaws as they threw back their heads and screeched to the sky. He sobbed as the alien hounds joined the macabre chorus.
Redquill barked something in his vile alien language, and the three hounds sprinted over the rocks towards Diman.
He tried to pull away, but knew it was hopeless as his leg flared in unbelievable agony. The monstrous hounds screeched at him as they bounded over the rocks, their jaws frothing with thick saliva.
Diman expected the searing pain of their bites, but, instead, they circled him with their heads low and their jaws wide, hissing and spitting. Their breath was hot, and reeked of dead flesh and rancid milk. He closed his eyes and curled himself into a tiny ball, prayers he'd learned as child spilling from his lips.
'Emperor, who act with me in all things, protect your humble servant…'
A powerful hand flipped him over onto his back and seized him by his neck. The reek of alien flesh caught in the back of Diman's throat, and he gagged at the pungent, oily sweat of the creature.
He opened his eyes and found himself staring into a pair of milky white eyes without pupils, set deep in an alien skull topped with spines that had deepened from red to crimson. Fear like nothing he had known seized him.
'Redquill,' he said.
The creature cocked its head to one side, a thin membrane nictitating across its eye. Its jaw worked, and a grating, clicking sound emerged from its beak. It repeated the sound several more times until Diman realised that it was trying to repeat what he had said.
He nodded and smiled through the pain, hoping and praying that this moment of connection might save his life. At last, the monster seemed to have mastered the vowel sounds, and it croaked, 'Radkwaal…'
'Yes,' nodded Diman. 'You. Redquill.'
'Radkwaal,' said the creature again.
It turned its head towards its fellows, and squawked the name Diman had given it, followed by a further series of clicks and whistles.
Any hope that Diman's fleeting communication might have saved his life was snatched away as the creatures drew their butcher knives.
Brandon Gate Correctional Facility covered a square kilometre and had a total of twenty guard towers encircling its perimeter. Within its boundaries, it was a small city, partitioned into five walled enclosures, each designed to hold a particular kind of prisoner, but which presently served as vehicle pools and firing ranges.
Only a thousand prisoners were held here, although the facility had once held close to twenty thousand unfortunates within its hellish interior. Though much had changed since the rebellion, the prison was no less horrendous a place to be sent, either as a guard or as a prisoner.
A circular tower stood in the centre of its open yard, ringed with mosaics and bas-reliefs of uplifting scripture and religious imagery intended to inspire the rehabilitation of its inmates, but which only served to give them a focal point for their hatred. Atop this tower was a polarised glass dome, from which the enforcers could command a panoramic view of the city, and which gave the facility its more usual name of the Glasshouse.
Stuck on the edge of Brandon Gate beyond the Commercia Gate like an afterthought, the facility had an unsavoury reputation, even before the de Valtos rebellion, as a place of torture and execution. It had been a favourite dumping ground for undesirables rounded up by the cartel's enforcers for any activity deemed a crime by their paymasters.
Those unwise enough to demand rights for workers injured in the line of duty, or to voice any opinions on the cartels deemed subversive, would soon find their doors smashed down in the middle of the night. Squads of enforcers would drag them from their beds and toss them into the hellish confines of the Correctional Facility.
In the wake of the rebellion, many of its former inmates had escaped when vengeful relatives and friends attacked the prison complex, and looted it of anything of value. The prison had been brought back to operational use by Jenna Sharben's newly established enforcers in lieu of any other facility capable of handling criminals. Conditions within its mouldering cells and debris-strewn enclosures made it resemble something from an active warzone instead of a functioning centre of law enforcement.
The corridor Jenna Sharben walked along was dim and thick with dust, the sputtering lumen strips set into glass blocks in the wall barely providing enough illumination to avoid the tangled piles of inert cabling and debris. Water pooled on the floor, and the stench of mould and a thousand filthy cells hung like a miasma upon the air.
Enforcer Dion walked alongside her. Jenna suspected that, in time, he would make an enforcer of which Brandon Gate could be proud. He was cut from a rugged cloth, his manner powerful yet fair and even-handed. Like her, he carried his helmet in the crook of his arm and had his shock maul strapped across his back. Dion and Apollonia were the best she had trained, and, by their example, the tarnished reputation of the enforcers would be restored to one of honesty, integrity and justice.
'So, what's the word from on high?' asked Dion as they drew near the cell where the alien captive was being held. The Ultramarines had deposited the prisoner a couple of days ago, and a xenolexicon servitor the day after, though it hadn't helped with getting any actionable intelligence from the prisoner. 'The word is that it's time to get tough,' said Jenna. 'What does that mean, exactly?' asked Dion. That was the big question, thought Jenna.
'It means that Governor Koudelkar wants information from the prisoner,' she said, leaving out the part where she felt that the governor wasn't too interested in how that information was obtained. That didn't seem like a message that ought to be literally carried down the chain of command.
'So what sort of information are we after?' asked Dion.
'Anything we can get,' said Jenna. 'If the Ultramarines are right, and the tau are on the verge of invasion, then we need to bring the governor some hard evidence of that.'
'And you know how we do that?' asked Dion. 'I suppose you had training in interrogation techniques in the Adeptus Arbites.'
'I did,' agreed Jenna, 'but those techniques require time and the eventual co-operation of a prisoner. One we don't have, and the other, we're not likely to get any time soon.'
'Then what's our game plan?'
'We go in hard and see what we get,' said Jenna, turning a corner and halting before a steel door fitted with a mag-lock that was obviously new. Two enforcers stood outside, and both snapped to attention when they saw Jenna.
She pulled on her helm and said, 'Put your helmet on, and slide the mirror visor down.'
'Just do it,' said Jenna. 'It makes it easier.'
'For the prisoner?'
'No,' said Jenna, 'for us. And once we're inside, no names.' She turned to the guards at the door. 'Open it up,' she said.
The door was opened, and Jenna and Dion stepped through into a windowless room that reeked of stale sweat and a pungent, alien smell that was deeply unpleasant for its very unfamiliarity. The cell was bare rockcrete, the walls scratched and defaced by the hundreds of lost souls held there over the years. Incense burners sat in each of the cell's four corners, emitting aromatic smoke inimical to xenos creatures, though they did little to counter the noxious odour of the room's occupant.
Enforcer Apollonia stood at the back of the cell with her hands behind her, the mirrored visor of her helmet pulled down. The tau sat on a stool with her strange, four-fingered hands laced before her in her lap.
Sitting opposite, its hands laced in front of it in imitation of the prisoner's posture, was the xenolexicon servitor the Ultramarines had provided. Robed in a pale blue chiton with gleaming implants and a well-maintained flesh tone, the bio-mechanical hybrid was a fine example of the Mechanicus's skill.
Its ears had been replaced by broad-spectrum receptors, and the lower half of its face was a nightmarish melange of moving parts formed from brass and silver. Designed to mimic the mouth shapes of a dozen different alien races, its jaw was a bulbous mass of constantly rotating, shifting metal with artificial mandibles, teeth and a multitude of artificial tongues that could adapt its structure to match that of the subject.
Jenna stood beside the xenolexicon servitor and addressed the prisoner. 'I am going to ask you some questions. It would be better for you if you were to answer them truthfully. Do you understand me?'
The servitor's mouth clicked and whirred as it formed the internal anatomy of a tau mouth and repeated the words she had said in the alien's language, a language that was strange, and bore little resemblance to any human tongue. Briefly, Jenna wondered how the builders of the servitor had known what structure to construct in order to form the word groups and syllables of the tau language.
Study and dissection of tau skulls, she supposed, untroubled by the thought.
Although the flat features and lack of a nose made it difficult to read the tau female's facial expression, Jenna thought she detected a faint revulsion on her face. Was the servitor's rendition of its language so bad?
The prisoner said the phrase she had been saying since they'd put her in the cell, the words rendered tonelessly by the servitor.
'My name equals La'tyen Ossenia. Shas'la of Vior'la Fire Warrior team Kais.'
Jenna circled the prisoner, drawing her shock maul from the sheath on her back. 'I see. You think you're being a good soldier, but all you're doing is making this harder for yourself. You're going to tell us what we want to know, and, the sooner you do, the easier this is going to be for you.'
Once again, the servitor relayed her words, and once again it repeated the phrase the prisoner had said countless times before.
'My name equals La'tyen Ossenia. Shas'la of Vior'la Fire Warrior team Kais.'
Jenna slammed her shock maul against the prisoner's lower back, and she fell to the floor with a wordless cry of pain. Another couple of swift strikes to the shoulder and hip had the tau prisoner curled up in a tight ball of pain.
Jenna rolled the tau female onto her back with her boot, and planted the tip of her shock maul against her throat. She took no pleasure from such violence, but such was the role in which she had been cast, and she would play it to the best of her ability.
'That's a taste of how bad things are going to get for you if you don't co-operate.'
She heard the servitor translating her words, and pressed down harder on the captive's chest. 'That was without the shock field activated. Imagine how much pain you'll be in when I turn it on.'
Three times more, Jenna asked the tau questions, and each time received the same answer.
'My name equals La'tyen Ossenia. Shas'la of Vior'la Fire Warrior team Kais.'
Each obstinate refusal to answer only infuriated Jenna more. Didn't the creature realise that she was trying to spare it pain? She delivered stinging blows to the captives knees, stomach and ribs, each carefully weighted to cause extreme pain but no long term damage.
After half an hour of beatings, Jenna hauled the prisoner to her knees, and thumbed the activation stud on her shock maul. She held the humming weapon in front of the prisoner's face, and was gratified to see a trace of fear enter her amber eyes.
'Still won't talk, eh?' said Jenna, nodding to Dion and Apollonia. Then it's time for the gloves to come off.
The screams of the tau prisoner echoed throughout the Glasshouse long into the night.
The two aircraft banked around a jutting headland of rock, hugging the mountainside, and flying high across the craggy landscape in a roar of engine noise. Nap of the earth flight was impossible so close to the Kaliz Array, for vox-masts appeared over the horizon without warning, and could easily tear a wing from an unwary aircraft.
One of the flyers was a bulky gunship, its wings bristling with missiles, and a multitude of guns studding its frontal sections and upper deck. This was a Thunderhawk, the workhorse of the Adeptus Astartes, and an aerial chariot without equal. Its armoured skin was a vivid blue, the glacis beneath the pilot's compartment emblazoned with a brilliant white inverse omega symbol of the Ultramarines with a golden eagle set upon it.
The second aircraft was a smaller Aquila-class lander, its swept forwards, eagle-wing design giving rise to its honourable name. Its wings and side panels bore the golden horse heraldry of the 44th Lavrentian Hussars, and its pilot was careful to keep close to the larger Astartes gunship.
Both bled speed as they drew near a wide canyon cut in the rock, and set down in a wash of flaring retros and rock dust. The landings were difficult, the aircraft buffeted by high winds blowing over the mountains from the north, but these pilots were the best, and within moments, both gunship and lander were safely down.
The assault ramp on the front of the gunship dropped, and a host of Space Marines emerged, dispersing swiftly from the troop compartment, and assuming defensive positions around the aircraft. Nearly thirty warriors of the Ultramarines fanned out from the gunship, forming up in a Codex deployment pattern.
Uriel jogged down the ramp of the Thunderhawk, his bolter held loosely at his side, and his sword a reassuring presence at his hip. A light rain pattered his armour, but he didn't feel the cold or wet.
'Looks quiet,' said Learchus at his side.
'It does indeed,' replied Uriel, scanning the ground before him and forming a mental map in his head, 'but I'd expect that.'
Learchus nodded, and set off to join the scout squad forming up on the western edge of their deployment zone without another word. Uriel stepped from the ramp of the Thunderhawk onto the Tembra Ridge Mountains, his enhanced faculties for spatial awareness identifying the best positions to occupy; from where an effective assault could be launched or defence mounted.
Without orders needing to be issued, each squad of Ultramarines was already positioning itself correctly, and Uriel felt proud to be part of such an awesomely effective fighting machine.
Chaplain Clausel took up position with his assault squad, warriors who went into battle with bulky jump packs fitted to their armour. These allowed them to take the fight to the enemy and descend upon them from the skies on wings of fire. They were Astartes of the highest calibre, warriors who excelled in the brutal whirlwind of close-quarters fighting. As ferocious as they were, assault troops were not mindless killers, but carefully chosen fighters with an innate understanding of the ebb and flow of battle.
An Assault Marine knew when to smash the enemy with force, and when to withdraw.
Clausel had said little to Uriel since his return from his Death Oath, and every now and then he would catch the Chaplain's stern, uncompromising glare upon him. Which, he supposed, was entirely fair. After all, this mission was as much to test Uriel's ability to command his warriors as it was to ensure that the hard-won peace was holding.
Techmarine Harkus, detached from the command centre and incongruous in his red armour and hissing servo harness, ministered to the Thunderhawk, ensuring that the rough landing had not offended the aircraft's spirit. The black and white of the Icon Mechanicus stood out on Harkus's right shoulder guard, while the blue of the Ultramarines remained on his left. The sight of an Ultramarines warrior in armour that bore another's heraldry sat ill with Uriel, but the union of the Adeptus Astartes and the Mechanicus of Mars was an ancient one.
Uriel set off towards the canyon ahead of him, as the Aquila lander lowered its internal compartment to the ground and Lord Winterbourne emerged, resplendent in his green frock coat, high boots, golden helmet and ebony walking cane. Growling and pulling urgently on their leashes were the two hound creatures that accompanied the colonel everywhere he went. Uriel had learned that they were called vorehounds, and their noses darted from side to side as they sniffed the wet rocks.
Four Lavrentian storm-troopers, in gleaming golden breastplates and carrying bulky hellguns, shadowed their colonel, followed by a robed scribe with clicking quill-armatures and a glassy-eyed vox-servitor.
'Uriel,' said Winterbourne, 'good of you to help out. My lads were itching for some action, but it would take us quite some time to get up here, what? You and your fancy gunship are a real boon.'
'Happy to help, Lord Winterbourne.'
'Nathaniel,' said Winterbourne automatically. 'Damned unusual business this.'
'Yes,' agreed Uriel, enhancing the thermal imaging display of his visor to better penetrate the shadows of the mountain. 'Unusual and conspicuous.'
'Seems to support your suspicions, does it not?'
Uriel nodded. 'If you're going to attack someone, first knock out their communications.'
Reports had come to the Ultramarines command centre of a system-wide failure in a great many of the planetary vox-networks. Such glitches in the system were common enough not to raise immediate suspicion, but the timing of such a failure immediately raised a red flag in Uriel's mind.
The Kaliz Array was hundreds of years old, and the Adeptus Mechanicus and local technicians had their hands full maintaining its venerable generators and relays. It would take days for PDF units or Guard forces to reach Deep Canyon Six, the location the Adeptus Mechanicus had identified as the source of the initial system failures. Uriel had immediately offered the services of the Ultramarines.
'So, how do you want to do this?' asked Winterbourne.
'We go in expecting a fight,' said Uriel. 'We will take one approach down, you and your men will take the other. If there are any enemy units there, we destroy them and see what damage they have done.'
'Simple. I like it,' said Winterbourne, fighting to hold the vorehounds at his side. 'Damn it! Germaine! Fynlae! Heel!'
The beasts paid their master no heed, and continued to tug at their leashes, foam gathering at the corners of their mouths and their desperate barking echoing from the mountainside.
'What is the matter with them?' asked Uriel.
'Damned if I know,' cursed Winterbourne. 'Heel! Heel, I say!'
With a final surge, the vorehounds broke free of Winterbourne's grip, and bounded across the rocks towards the nearest gully leading down into Deep Canyon Six. Uriel and Winterbourne set off after them, with the storm-troopers hot on their heels.
It didn't take long to catch up to the hounds, one of which sniffed the ground and growled at the entrance to the gully. The three-legged beast circled a patch of rocks downhill, eagerly barking with feral hunger. Winterbourne caught up to his pets, and struck at their flanks with his walking cane.
'Damned unruly beasts!' he shouted, gathering up their leashes and hauling their choke chains tight. 'No discipline, that's your problem. I ought to have you shot.'
Uriel knelt by the ground the vorehounds had been sniffing, and ran his fingers over the slick rocks. His enhanced vision and auto-senses could already detect the lingering residue and aroma of an all too familiar substance.
'Blood,' he said.
'Human?' asked Winterbourne, and Uriel nodded. 'Yes, and no more than a day or so old.'
'How do you know that?'
'The smell's too fresh. Any longer and the rain would have washed away all traces of it. Your hounds aren't the only ones with sharp senses, Lord Winterbourne.'
'That bodes ill,' said Winterbourne, handing the reins of his vorehounds to the vox-servitor, and drawing his sword, a magnificently fashioned sabre with a curved blade and a network of crystalline filaments worked along its length that crackled with fire.
Uriel passed the word of what the hounds had discovered to his warriors, and there was a noticeable shift in the posture of the Ultramarines, each warrior now expecting battle instead of merely anticipating it.
'I suggest you join your soldiers, Lord Winterbourne,' said Uriel. 'It is time to move out.'
'Just so,' said Winterbourne, unsnapping the catch on the holster at his hip. The colonel of the Lavrentians drew his sidearm, a simple laspistol with a matt black finish. The weapon was standard issue and old, very old, but clearly well cared for. Uriel was surprised at the lack of ornamentation on the weapon, having seen many a colonel seek to impress with the ostentation of their battle gear.
Winterbourne saw his look and smiled.
'It was my father's pistol,' he explained. 'Got me through a few damned tight scrapes, let me tell you. I look after it, and it looks after me.'
Uriel nodded to Winterbourne's storm-troopers and left the colonel to their care. He jogged over to his squad, and quickly ran through the pre-battle ritual of preparedness. Each warrior inspected the battle gear of one of his brothers, checking armour and weapons that had been checked thrice already, but which were checked again because that was the Ultramarines way.
When the icons for each of his squad members flashed green on his visor, Uriel broadened his scope of view, seeing icons flashing to life for every warrior under his command. All were ready.
Chaplain Clausel approached, and Uriel offered his hand.
'Courage and honour, Chaplain Clausel,' he said.
'Courage and honour, Captain Ventris,' replied Clausel, leaving Uriel's hand unshaken.
'My warriors will go in through the gully,' said Uriel, masking his irritation at Clausel's manner. 'Your assault troops will await my signal to manoeuvre.'
'Remember the teachings of the Codex,' said Clausel. 'It will guide you in all things.'
'I will, Chaplain,' promised Uriel. 'You do not need to worry about me. Librarian Tigurius reminded me of my duty to the teachings of our primarch.'
'Aye,' agreed Clausel. 'I'm sure he did, but Tigurius cannot see everything.'
'What does that mean?'
'It means he wanted you back within the ranks of the Ultramarines,' said Clausel, 'for his own reasons as much as for the good of the Chapter.'
'You doubt me, Chaplain?' asked Uriel. 'My honour is intact, my loyalty undoubted. The senior masters of the Chapter agreed on it.'
'Not all of them,' said Clausel, turning away. 'Just know that I remain to be convinced that your return is a good thing. Fight well and you may yet persuade me that one who fights within the Great Eye can come back unchanged.'
'I am not unchanged, Chaplain,' whispered Uriel as Clausel rejoined his warriors.
Uriel put the grim Chaplain's words from his mind, and issued his orders. The Scouts would remain with the Thunderhawk while Uriel would lead one squad through the southern gully towards the base of the canyon. Lord Winterbourne and his storm-troopers would take the northern approach. Chaplain Clausel and his assault troops would climb to the top of the cliffs that overlooked the base of the canyon and await Uriel's order to deploy.
Uriel drew his warriors close, Learchus at his side, and stared into the darkness of the gully that led down through a narrow cleft in the rocks to shadow. He remembered the last time he had travelled into these mountains with war in his heart.
He and his warriors had dropped thousands of metres into a deep core mine, and had faced the Bringer of Darkness in a forgotten tomb built when the galaxy was young. Ario Barzano had died there, and Pasanius had lost his arm, a grievous wound that had brought him nothing but pain and punishment.
A punishment that had seen Uriel go to war without his dearest friend.