The local star rose a deep crimson over the world that the Administratum clerks designated 40-410, and the Imperial Army 'the Red Pit'. The star was red enough intrinsically, but the dense atmosphere deepened the color further. It also prolonged dawn and dusk: the light, refracted over the horizon, was funneled across about half the planet before reaching an observer's eyes, and among each of the Red Pit's long days a full quarter was taken up by this dawn and dusk.
This ominous, hours-long sunrise was the source of several jests among the Vlka Fenryka, based on the epithet of their commander - 'Helsdawn'.
Varald Helsdawn, jarl of Elva, did not know what he made of this parallel. Sometimes it seemed to him that it was spoken in a half-mocking tone, and other times as an ironic honor. It was easiest to shrug and focus on the war.
The Red Pit had no native biosphere, but it had become a minor colony world for the xenos of the Vespid Empire. They had imported microbes and animals from whatever their own homeworld was, and built floating cities to extract the planet's mineral wealth. Leman Russ, fearing a major attack by the vespid that would threaten the Coalition's backs, had sent Elva to defend from the xenos' raids across northern Ultramar by launching raids of their own.
This one had gotten somewhat bogged down. If he looked up, Varald thought he could see the specks of light that represented ships battling in orbit, even now. Elva was hard-pressed, he had to admit. The aliens fought fiercely. And, perhaps, he had somewhat overextended.
Well, nothing to do about it but fight harder.
"Any news from Methran?" Vili's voice asked from behind him.
"His pack is gone," Varald said without turning, still looking at the helsdawn. "But they brought down the mining station."
"Was that really worth the blood?"
"No," Varald said, finally turning to face his subsidiary jarl. Vili's Terran features were twisted into something just short of a snarl. Varald knew already what his second would ask him.
Vili didn't disappoint. "Why are we still here?"
"Evacuation - "
"Is something we're going to have to do anyway." Vili spat. "Elva is dying for nothing, jarl. This place is a wasteland."
Varald thought carefully about his answer. On the one hand, Vili was right enough that they were caught in a trap, and it was better to get out while they still could, rather than escalating the conflict further. On the other, they were slowly winning the orbital battle, if at great cost, and if Shipmaster Quistallar kept this up, they could return to Ultramar having dealt the vespid a serious blow.
These tactical considerations would decide the success or failure of this war - but, alas, Varald could not allow himself to focus only on them. On the one hand, to stay the course risked a mutiny. On the other, changing it bared his weakness. Politics, of a style the Vlka Fenryka were usually mostly resistant to. But -
But though Varald Helsdawn was born of Fenris, the bulk of Elva were from the very Terra they were now at war with. And though Varald felt that his Great Company was mostly loyal, paranoia had deep roots.
It had to, in times like these. The Imperium was turned upon itself in the ouroboros of civil war. The Emperor had become a god-tyrant worse than the ones they'd fought in the Great Crusade, and so Russ had been one of ten Primarchs who had thrown down the gauntlet against their father. Unconditional trust, in such a season, could get a warrior killed.
But stubbornness could do that in any season.
"We might have to eventually," Varald ultimately accepted. "For now, I'd give Quistallar a few more days while we wreck some more fabs. He's been working miracles out there, and he just might keep it going."
"Fair," Vili agreed. "I just...."
"You just don't want to see many more threads cut for this worthless land," Varald said. "Neither do I."
That seemed to settle it, and so Varald went to give General Mosei Rivabar the news. He walked through the fortified camp, passing tired watches nearing the end of their shifts. The Rout's own camp was nearby, albeit a whole lot more rudimentary. The voidshields did most of the work, really.
The general was up already, or perhaps had never slept, wearily paging through a list of orders. "Battle Group Amaxes is gone," he was saying as Varald approached his tent. "Get an order to Lanet to pull back - I don't care what Osa has to do to the voxnet, we need them back here. And, ah, I have another uninvited - oh." Rivabar's eyes widened as he saw Varald enter his tent. "Jarl Helsdawn. My apologies." He immediately took another sip of what seemed to be recaf of some sort. To his credit, the general did not react in any other visible way, save for shrinking back a little in his seat, even if Varald could smell his fear.
"General Rivabar," Varald said. "How long will extraction of your forces take?"
"Two Terran days," Rivabar said, with a weary sigh that might have been relief. "Just give the order."
"Not yet. During the next dawn, perhaps." A Terran week.
"We'll lose - "
"A whole lot of warriors. But I'm giving the fleet more time."
"The vespid could have reinforcements."
"They don't want to die in this desert any more than we do. Else they'd have rushed in already."
"Who knows about that? They're xenos. Sometimes...." Rivabar shook his head. "But as per your orders, jarl. My men will just be happy to know there's an end coming."
Varald nodded, before his vox crackled. "Enemy force inbound," Thegn Bjalmaal said, giving the coordinates. "They're in Scum Valley."
"They got that close and we didn't notice?!"
"Not much heavy weaponry," Bjalmaal said apologetically. "Sensors from orbit were worthless, apparently. Or the ships are busy shooting each other. My patrol's two ridges over, we'll shadow them."
By the time he got back to the Wolves' camp, Varald could see them himself. They were hovering, as vespid did, one of them carrying what seemed to be a massive banner. No heavy weapons, and some of them seemed entirely unarmed.
Varald Helsdawn knew better than to trust appearances with the vespid. Especially ever since a single shot from a handheld blaster of theirs, seemingly the same ones that could barely penetrate power armor, had somehow brought down two Rhinos.
"Bjalmaal, move in from the back. Jorus, Ingodan, Krinid, Ve - with me. Vili, protect the camp. Thos, take the right flank, Rindim the left - flanks silent for now. I'll stop them head-on, once the artillery gets one volley in."
The volley fell without much effect - in air this dense, its range was as good as halved. Thos got spotted, his squad subject to a barrage from the vespid before cutting it back. And Varald Helsdawn charged forwards, at the head of a hundred and twenty warriors of the Rout, howling to the oppressive sky.
They were the distant wild, the wrath of the frontiers. They were the Vlka Fenryka, defenders of mankind, and they would beat back this attack like the dozen before it.
The vox crackled without effect. As Varald ran, it seemed to be mumbling increasingly loud, but incoherent, nonsense. Enemy interference, perhaps, though they hadn't shown that ability before. Expect the unexpected with the vespid, though....
It was growing louder, whatever it was. Comms were as good as down. Well, no matter. Varald shouted to the pack to form up on him, and led the charge as it struck the vespid lines. Blasts staggered him, one drawing red from his shoulder, though; he fell back among his warriors, shouting orders. The vox was growing in strength, white noise. Varald tried turning it off, but to no effect; he would have smashed it against the ground, but there was no time.
They were among the enemy.
Varald swung the axe at a vespid warrior above him, who fluttered upwards, neatly dodging another blow from Krinid in the process. His next blow, though, struck true, felling a lighter-carapace vespid warrior. Another strike, a parry, even as the vox noise grew ever louder -
And then, just as the enemy felt back (in good order), a signal amidst that noise.
"We offer a truce," it said in metallic Gothic. "Coordinates attached. We offer a truce. Coordinates attached. We offer a truce."
Varald growled, calling his warriors back. The vespid had been repelled, and they were getting spread out; no use fighting when he needed to think. Scattered, Elva was still effective, but the blood-price was not worth paying this time.
The coordinates were played again. Temporal and spatial, in the standard Imperial pattern. Half a Terran day away. As Varald mulled the offer, the vox interference died down, gradually reverting to white noise and then permeable silence.
"You were right, jarl," Vili said. "They must be getting desperate."
"Vili," Varald said, "use your brain. They just hijacked our voxnet like it was nothing."
"They have all our communications," Vili realized. "No wonder the Army's been torn apart."
Varald nodded. There was no telling if the Rout's comms had also been intercepted, but Varald found it plausible. Their climb had been steep enough, that was for sure. How much of that had been down to the enemy knowing everything about them, while they knew nothing about the vespid?
A solution did present himself, to all his problems. It was unorthodox, perhaps, but continuing to wildly smash into an irrelevant wall was no better.
"I'll take their offer," he said. "Come to the coordinates."
"They could try an ambush," retorted Vili.
"They're welcome to try
"Yes," Vili said, "but - why?" He paused, to try and express the instinctive distaste at Varald's suggestion that the jarl also felt. "They're xenos. We're supposed to bring them low, not argue with them. And we're the Vlka Fenryka. No other Legion would treat with xenos, but for us
to do so...."
Horus, according to rumor, had cut deals with the eldar; but that was something entirely distinct. The vespid were of no use. But then, they were also a much lesser threat.
"We need intel, above all," Varald said. "So that's the first strike. And the kill strike is that we'd be fine with leaving under truce. Objective completely achieved, done and dusted, without further losses."
Vili's face was a mask of outrage. He wheeled around to face Varald, almost snarling, in the center of their camp. Onlookers from across Elva stopped whatever they were doing to stare at them.
"This is ludicrous!" Vili growled.
"It is my decision," Varald said. "Do you challenge it?"
He could hear the sharp intake of breath by a dozen of the Astartes around them. If Vili escalated -
But he'd judged it correctly, in the end. Vili backed down. "You speak strangely, jarl," he said. "But, perhaps, wisely. Something's happened to the vespid - they weren't this clever before. Better to find out what, and come back later to burn them out."
Varald nodded, and yelled to the disappointed bystanders to get back to work. He walked to check on the rest of Elva as he did so, mulling Vili's words and actions.
Either way, he supposed as he glanced up at the sky, soon he'd know for sure.
And one way or another, they'd be off 40-410 before the dawn.