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03. Ben Counter = Crimson Tears

By Bertha Hart,2014-07-30 06:56
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03. Ben Counter = Crimson Tears

++Priority Transmission:

    Coding/Delta/Rouge++

    ++Recipient: Loyal Imperial

    Commanders as designated by Commissariat, The Librarius Staff,

    Inquisitor Baptiste & Canoness

    Arrea.++

    ++Subject: Traitors and

    Executions++

    ++Author: Andrei Viktorov

    Scrivenor-in-attendance to

    Inquisitor Nikolay Vinogradov++

    ++Thought for the Day: To cheat is

    both cowardly and dishonourable++

     Attention all loyal citizens of the

    Imperium!!! Scanning of sacred books is a

    mortal sin!

    ********* Whispered by Tzeentch, Lord of

    Hidden Knowledge.

    Inspired by Slaanesh, Master of

    Forbidden Pleasures.

    Resist foul machinations of the

    Dark Gods and buy books from

    the Black Library.

    *********** Thought of the Day: All traitors

    will be executed without mercy

    and compassion! Inquisition is watching YOU!

ENTYMION IV WAS quiet.

    Colonel Sathis couldn't even hear the insects here. The indistinct rumbling of his Chimera APCs, following some way behind his command vehicle squadron, all but drowned out the faint wind. Even the hoofbeats of the Rough Riders' mounts were louder than the sounds of the planet itself. Sathis could see the Rough Riders scattered up the sides of the valley through which his force was travelling, men from the 97th Urgrathi Lancers, whose supposedly obsolete methods of cavalry warfare made them excellently suited to scouting out unknown territory. And everything about Entymion IV was unknown.

    Sathis took a practiced look at the terrain. He had good all-round visibility here, but further ahead that became less and less likely. 'Stop us here,' he ordered to the driver of his command-pattern Salamander.

    The vehicle ground to a halt and the silence was almost total. Sathis climbed down from the Salamander as the engine's vibrations ceased. He took a breath of the air - every planet smelled different and he thought the air of Entymion IV was clean, quiet, as if it was old and proud and resented the marks of pollution that human habitation always left. The purplish sky overhead, the dark ragged ribbons of mountains before them, the thinly grassed valley slopes - it was easy to imagine that this was an unspoilt world. Of course, Entymion IV was nothing of the sort - Gravenhold was a large and populous Imperial city and large sections of the planet's surface were given over to the intensive agriculture that gave it such importance. But at that moment, Colonel Sathis imagined that

    there were perhaps some places the Imperium would never completely tame.

    And always, the silence.

    Sathis tried to imagine what was so damned important about this planet. The truth was hidden somewhere in segmentum-level economics.

    Entymion IV was a major agri-world and if the crop here failed it would have a knock-on effect across scores of other worlds. But a failure was a distinct possibility because the planet had fallen silent - completely silent, both to long-range astropathic communications and short-range vox and radio transmissions. If that meant something grave had happened to the planet's population then Sathis was to reach the capital, Gravenhold, find

out what was wrong and report back. Entymion IV was certainly

    important, but Sathis couldn't imagine why such a bluster seemed to have

    blown up amongst the Administratum when the planet fell off the map. For the moment, the world was quiet.Beneath the darkening dusk sky the tops of the valley slopes were

    knife-hard silhouettes. Ahead the terrain changed gradually, first

    becoming foothills and then great rearing slabs of rock. Colonel Sathis's

    immediate objective was to make his way through the Cynos Pass to the

    other side, where the way would be clear for a drive on Gravenhold. To do

    it he had the Steel Hammer detachment of the 2nd Seleucaian Defence

    Force, a formation of Chimera APCs teeming with almost a thousand

    battle-toughened and well-disciplined Guardsmen assisted by an artillery

    and anti-tank section, and enough bloody-mindedness to get them

    through anything. The Urgrathi cavalry were his scout force, and he was

    supported by tanks from the Jaxus Prime Siege Regiment. It was a fine

    force, compact and highly mobile. It was fortunate the right troops had

    been available, because the force had been assembled in a damned hurry

    by Guard standards.

    'Everything alright, sir?' asked Sathis's driver.

    'It's fine, Skarn/ replied Sathis. 'I don't want us hitting the pass at night.

    We should corral here and move on it at dawn. Get me comms.'

    Sathis waited for a few moments while his Salamander crew raised the

    force's officers on the vox-net. Sathis had been on the planet for two days

    and one night, and he still didn't entirely trust it. The valley pass would be

    the best place by far for an ambush and at night the chances of such a

    thing happening increased drastically. Sathis had been in a similar

    position at the Hellblade Mountains years ago, when as an infantry

    lieutenant with the Balurians he had been pinned down for eighteen hours

    by a smattering of eldar troops who had the higher ground. He didn't want

    to end up in the same situation again - it

    could take just a few secessionists or rebels to force his advance to a halt

    and that wasn't in his battle plan. He worked out the standard pattern in his head. The Seleucaians would

    form a formidable APC laager in which the men would spend the night,

    with the tanks and Sathis's command post in the centre while the Urgrathi

    rode patrols throughout the night. The few hours lost would be repaid

    with reduced risk to his force. Soon he could report back that all was well

    on Entymion IV, and he could go back to some real war or other.

    'Marshal Locathan,' said Skarn, passing Sathis the vox handset.

    'Locathan,' said Sathis brightly, knowing the grizzled old Jaxan tank

    commander would want to press on through the night.

'Commander?'

    'We're going to wait out the night here. Go in with fresh men and daylight

    at dawn. Bring your tanks up past the Hammers and make sure your men

    get some sleep.'

    Locathan was preparing to argue the point with Sathis when the first shot

    rang out.

    THREE MONTHS BEFORE Sathis's force landed, all communication had been lost with Entymion IV. Long-range communication, which was transmitted by psychic astropaths

    through the warp, died out without warning. Astropaths described a

    sudden dark blanket of silence falling, often in mid-sentence, which

    remained resolutely impervious to any attempt to penetrate it.

    Entymion IV, and the whole Entymion system, was well-known in the

    sector for the vagaries of the warp space that lay just beneath its realspace,

    and so patchy communications were nothing new. Greater attention was

    paid when in-system communications dropped out as well, rendering the

    planet both deaf and dumb. Entymion's star was likewise prone to

    electrical disturbances and short-range comms had failed before, but a

    total silence was something new. The Administratum, wary of losing whole agri-crops as transport ships

    could not organise landings on the planet, sent in a team to find out what

    was going on. The twelve-man surveyor team, which included an Arbites

    liaison to ensure punishment for whoever was to blame, entered the

    atmosphere of Entymion IV and was never heard of again.

    The possibilities of rebellion, natural disaster or self-imposed quarantine

    had been raised and hopefully ignored. The Administratum could not risk

    ignoring them any longer. If Entymion IV stayed silent then billions of

    credits worth of food would never be harvested and

    delivered. Every scenario they created suggested resulting famines in the

    nearby worlds that relied on Entymion IV for sustenance. The Entymion

    Expeditionary Force was assembled rapidly and Colonel Sathis was given

    overall command, with orders to land on the planet, make his way to the

    capital Gravenhold, and bring back the news that all was well.

    The consuls of the Administratum crossed their fingers.

    Two days after making landfall on the relative safety of the great rolling

    plains beyond the mountains, the Entymion Expeditionary Force finally

    made contact.

    ANOTHER BULLET SMACKED into the side of the Salamander before Sathis reacted.

    'Taking fire!' he shouted and vaulted over the side of the Salamander as

    the rest of the crew took cover behind its high armoured sides.

He dropped the vox handset and scrabbled for it as shots whipped through

    the air above him and slammed into the vehicle's armour.

    '...repeat? Colonel, repeat!' Locathan's voice was sharp and businesslike.

    'We're taking fire/ said Sathis. 'Small arms, sounds close. Stand by.' Sathis

    reached over and switched the frequency to that of the commanding

    officer of the Steel Hammers. 'Commandant Praen. Commandant, do you

    have any men ahead of us?'

    Praen's voice sounded surprised. 'Colonel? No, none of our lads.'

    'Then who the hell is shooting? Get your forward platoon up here and give

    us some support!'

    The gunfire suddenly thudded down heavier, chains of automatic fire

    juddering through the air and ripping up plumes of dirt where they

    stitched along the ground.

    'Get us back. Now, into cover.'

    The driver, still hunkered down, ripped the Salamander into reverse and

    the vehicle lurched backwards. Sathis could see the fire now, streaking

    down above him from the top of the valley. A thick bolt of energy fizzed

    past and Sathis was sure he could make out the roar as it vaporised a

    chunk of the opposite slope. Heavy weapons, weight of fire - who was it?

    And how could they have hidden? Something was shrieking down at them with a sound like a thousand

    voices screeching at once, the sound of metal carving through the air,

    layered beneath a dark stuttering of gunfire. A force like a huge invisible hand slammed Sathis so hard against the side

    of the Salamander that his head cracked back and forth and he felt sure he

    would pass out. The purple sky whirled above him and

    for a moment it was beneath him, swinging down so he thought he would

    fall into it, tumbling forever.

    The Salamander came to a rest on its side, gouging a deep furrow of earth

    as it slid to a halt. Sathis's vision swam back just in time to seen Skarn

    crushed beneath the lip of the armoured compartment and the hull.

    Another body fell brokenly past him - Lrenn, the gunner.

    Sathis scrambled out, leaving his officer's cap behind in the wreckage.

    The ringing in his ears died down to be replaced with the sinister sound of

    bullets and las-fire thumping into the earth around him like rain, reports

    of gunfire and shouting filtering through from further away. He heard the

    whining of engines and looked up to see the craft that had strafed the

    Salamander - it was a sharp crescent shape, bladed and savage, that

    twirled upwards on twin white flames from its engines.

    Rebels normally used obsolete marks of Imperial aircraft. This wasn't one

    of those.

The vox was still in the wreckage. The rest of Sathis's command squadron

    - a Chimera with a veteran squad from the Seleucaians and two more

    Salamanders - were retreating rapidly as volleys of enemy fire ripped

    down at them in white-hot ribbons.

    Sathis's mind was in a whirl. He had been under fire dozens of times

    before, of course. He wasn't scared. He had been shot at, bombed, burned,

    betrayed and stranded. He had shrapnel in his leg from a rebel artillery

    barrage on Cothelin Saar, he had nearly died from a bayonet wound when

    the greenskins stormed his bunker at the Croivan Gap. He had joined the

    Planetary Defence Force at fourteen, been drafted into the Guard two

    years later, and killed and fought and eventually led for his Imperium, and

    he had earned every stripe on his sleeve. But he had never seen a silent

    planet become a battleground so quickly.

    He had never fought an enemy that could get so close, so silently. He

    didn't think he could lead his men to fight an enemy they couldn't see.

    He could see Rough Riders wheeling on the valley slopes, scattering as

    fire criss-crossed between them. There were silhouettes at the top of the

    nearest slope, but Sathis couldn't see if they were dismounted riders or the

    enemy.

    Sathis began to run for the closest Salamander but a bolt of liquid fire tore

    down and bored right through the vehicle, turning its crewmen into

    guttering figures of flame, blowing its tracks out and sending a blue

    burning pool of promethium belching out beneath it. The sound and heat

    hit Sathis like a wall and he fell back onto the smoking earth, the flash of

    the explosion burned red against his retinas.

    Sathis scrambled back towards the wreckage behind him, his nostrils

    clogged with the stink of burning grass and cannon smoke, his skin raw

    hot from the plasma flash.

    This was worse than the Hellblade Mountains, worse than Cothelin Saar.

    Hell, it was the worst yet. It wasn't just pain, or fear, or the sight of his

    men dying, it was the humiliation. He had been caught cold, surrounded,

    beaten by an enemy that could pick its shots, that could wait to strike

    instead of being forced into battle against the superior Guard numbers and

    discipline.

    For a moment he was back to his first actions, a boy soldier hearing

    hostile fire for the first time, seeing the first bloody bodies being dragged

    back from the battlements and seeing the look in his comrades' eyes that

    said: / don't think we're going to make it out of this one. Sathis had left the

    boy behind a long time ago but now he was back and with him the doubt,

    the fear.

    A hand grabbed at him and Sathis knew he was dead.

He looked up at the aristocratic face of Hunt Leader Grym Thasool,

    commanding officer of the 97th Urgrathi Lancers, just before Thasool

    hauled him up off the ground and onto the back of his Urgrathi charger.

    Sathis grabbed on tight to the elaborate tack that kept Thasool strapped to

    the back of the heavy, muscular charger. Thasool dug his heels in and the

    charger, bulkier and surlier than a Terran standard horse, shot forward,

    slaloming between the bolts of falling fire.

    Sathis choked down the fear and confusion. He was an officer. This was

    where he earned that status. 'Get to a vox. Bring up the Hammers, get the... get the armour to pin the

    enemy down and counter-attack...' 'Bloody xenos, sir!' said Thasool, wrenching on the reins to haul his

    mount around the burning Salamander wreckage. He was heading

    towards the rear of the formation, where the Steel Hammers in their

    Chimeras would mount a massive counter-charge if someone could get

    there in time to give the order. 'Seen 'em before. The shadows, you see?

    They had to wait for the dusk. It's the shadows they hide in.' Thasool,

    Sathis knew, was utterly fearless, from a long line of aristocratic

    warrior-officers who had had all the cowardice bred out of them. He

    might have been recounting an anecdote over a glass of devilberry liqueur,

    were it not for the way he had to raise his voice over die gunfire.

    A charger galloped by with a headless rider. Thasool charged on past a

    tangled knot of bodies, three or four men who had been caught by the

    same energy bolt and burned into a red-black mass in an instant. A horse

    lay sheared clean open by las-fire, shredded entrails smoking.

    Men were yelling. Rough Riders wheeled in confusion through a savage

    latticework of fire.

    The sound of men dying was everywhere.

    'Company wheel twelve left!' bellowed Thasool. 'Close and give them the

    blade!' Sathis realised Thasool was giving orders through his unit's

    vox-net, trying to bring the scattered Rough Riders together so they could

    use the speed and strength of their charges to batter back at the enemy.

    Riders in the green-and-gold Urgrathi uniforms were galloping heads

    down through the storm of fire, converging on their leader. They were as

    fearless as Thasool himself. Sathis didn't think he had ever felt greater

    respect for fellow soldiers than he did for the Urgrathi Lancers in that

    moment.

    A figure coalesced from the dusk shadows at the foot of the valley slope.

    It was humanoid but its skin drank the light, so it seemed to be pure liquid

    blackness spilling through from another reality. As the weak sunlight hit,

    the features emerged - corded muscles, hands encased in sickle-like

blades, the face hidden by straps and buckles as if it was trying to hold

    something in. It was tall and slim but powerful, moving quickly and smoothly as its skin shimmered between sickly pallor and pure blackness.The thing made of shadow dropped and rolled between the stamping feet

    of the charger that rode at it. One curved blade flashed out and the charger

    pitched nose-first into the ground, throwing its rider. The figure seemed

    to flow over the ground to plant its blade between the rider's shoulder

    blades before melting back into the shadows.

    Sathis let go of the charger's tack with one hand and took out his sidearm,

    a standard pattern autopistol. He could see more of the enemy. Figures

    flowed blackly along the lengthening shadows, blades cutting through the

    riders and their chargers as they swept down towards the valley floor.

    The fire kept coming. The shadows further up the slope hid an army, and

    Sathis picked out a curve of glossy, beetle-black personal armour lit by

    muzzle fire. Enemy infantry with body armour - aliens if Thasool was

    right. Sathis spotted something flitting through the air out of the corner of

    his eye, something that left a glittering crescent of glowing black energy

    bolts as it passed. The enemy were everywhere, barely visible against the

    gathering darkness, just a suggestion of movement all over the valley

    slopes.

    Thasool had his power sword drawn, a heavy thrusting blade encased in

    elaborate gold decoration.

    A shadow congealed around the charger's feet - Sathis fired twice at die

    face that shimmered into view beneath him, its eyes sewn shut, a

    bloodied metal bar between its teeth. The shots went wide but Thasool

    swivelled in the saddle before spearing the thing through its throat. The

    sword's power field flashed and Sathis saw limbs broken beneath the

    charger's hooves in a wash of blood. 'Mandrakes/ spat Thasool. 'Scouts. We never forgot 'em, disgusting xenos

    assassins.'

    'Xenos? You mean... Hrud? Tau?' 'Eldar/ replied Thasool grimly, slashing down at the black shape flowing

    towards them. 'The pirate kind.' The charger rounded a bend in the valley and Sathis saw two forward

    Chimeras of the Seleucaian Steel Hammers, their veteran Guardsmen

    dismounted and firing disciplined volleys up the sides of the valley. Their

    officer - a Lieutenant Aeokas - saluted hurriedly as Thasool slewed the

    charger round to a halt in the cover of the nearest Chimera.

    We've got two hundred plus!' shouted Aeokas over the volley of las-fire.

    'Hostiles on both sides. They've got us surrounded!'

    'Comms,' said Sathis as he slid down off the charger. There was a body at

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