The wave of charging cultists struck the stalwart rock of Astartes, and broke. Each Space Marine held his own ground, performing heroic deeds that no one would see. Though they were injured and exhausted from the fighting, they gave no quarter, and not an inch of ground. Israfel, who had been splitting his time between fighting on the line and caring for the injured up to this point, was forced to abandon his charges for the moment and take his place among his brothers.
A hundred cultists' bodies were joined by a hundred more, each Astartes drawing on his last reserves of strength in defense of the man to his left and right. Captain Frakes' shoulders burned with fatigue, yet still he grabbed a cultist, who had been about to shoot Sergeant Hamilton in the side, by the throat and threw him nearly twenty yards to crash against a lasround-riddled tree. The captain turned towards the next foe, cleanly slicing the man's head in two with a backhanded swipe and kicking the still warm body into the next two pushing their way up the hill. Despite his stiff leg, he managed to keep his feet among the growing mound of corpses, but only barely so. His injuries slowed him enough to allow a lucky shot or cut from a cultist to draw more blood in the joints of his armor. If he was to die this day, the Astartes Captain thought, then it would be in a sea of his enemies' blood, lying next to the greatest heroes he could hope to serve with.
After half an hour of constant struggle for supremacy of the hill, Sergeant Nestor noticed that the the attack was abating some. He finished off the cultist he was facing with a downward stroke of his chainsword and had to search for the next. The momentary pause allowed him to hear a sound that was music to his ears. The whine of a jet engine that signaled the approach of a thunderhawk gunship.
“Commander,” he panted into the vox, searching the skies for the sound. “Do you hear it?”
“I do,” came the captain's voice, “And such a sweet sound it is. Men, hold fast, for victory approaches on the wings of a raven.”
Captain Frakes switched channels to communicate with the gunship and direct its fire so they could break the siege around them. The number of injured they had forced the pilot to minimize the amount of ammunition they brought, but he was able to cut a large swath of them down so he could land. The gunship lowered itself unsteadily into the valley, forced to land delicately among the bodies of the cultists, and lowered its ramp. A brace of Astartes leaped out and took up position guarding the portal and directing the loading of the bay, firing at any cultist who came within range.
“Brothers,” called the captain over the vox to all who could still hear him. “We leave no man behind. Get the injured into the thunderhawk. I go for our fallen comrades.”
“I go with you,” said Israfel, the weight of his office bearing heavily on his heart. “They are fallen Astartes. It is my duty to see them safely returned.”
“They were my men,” said Sergeant Nestor. “I will go, but we will need a fourth, unencumbered, to ensure we are not, ourselves, struck down.
“Very well,” said the commander, “One more and we shall be all.”
“My sword still swings true,” chimed in Sergeant Hamilton. “Let us end this right.”
The four made their way as quickly as possible to where the three battle brothers had fallen. They met small resistance until they reached the bodies, and even then only faced a brief struggle to collect their fallen. By the time they returned, the remaining Astartes had all been loaded into the thunderhawk. Captain Frakes, despite carrying a fully armored Astartes and being injured, drew upon astounding reserves of willpower and ran ahead of the others, releasing the body into the waiting arms of a fellow marine and turning back.
“Make haste,” he called to the others. “They are not yet defeated.”
The intensity of fire coming at them had begun to increase once more, and so the chatter of an autogun could be heard over the din of the engines. Sergeant Hamilton turned back to aid Sergeant Nestor, who was lagging behind from his injuries. The two carried the body of Brother Horvath between them to the ship, which was now hovering above the ground in preparation for departure. A stray lasround caught Sergeant Hamilton in the side before they reached the ship and the three went down in a pile.
Israfel, having handed off his charge into the arms of the waiting captain, ran back to the trio. Sergeant Nestor rose to his feet and lifted brother Horvath's body to his shoulder.
“See to him,” he said to Israfel. “I can bear this burden alone.”
Israfel did a quick glance at Sergeant Hamilton and saw that it was a blow to the head from falling on a rock that incapacitated him. He would live, but must get back to the ship soon, for his other injuries were more severe. The Apothecary lifted the veteran sergeant into his arms and staggered back towards the ship, the injury to his hip, sustained more than a day ago, sending a dagger of fire up his side with each step. He reached it at last and handed his burden off to the Astartes at the door.
Time slowed to a crawl as Israfel felt the sting of several solid rounds impact his lower back through his armor. A warmth spread over his body as the pain he had fought through for over a day finally eased. The end had come at last, he thought, slowly falling to his knees. His last charge had been seen to, and his last debt had been paid. The Apothecary saw hands reach for him, but heard only the beating of his twin hearts as they slowed in his chest.
Looking off into the pale morning sky, lit by a bright, warm sun, Israfel noticed that the hilltop afforded a beautiful view of the surrounding forest. Treetops swayed slightly in the breeze, and movement caught his dwindling attention. A large black raven was watching him from a branch in the middle distance. When he caught its eye, the raven seemed to nod in acknowledgment, then it spread its wings and took flight.
Seeing the majesty of the raven, as the sun reflected off of its slick black feathers, brought a tear to his eye in a way that no amount of pain could ever do. The relief of setting down one’s cares and taking flight one more, free of all worry and fear. He had seen to what must be done, and was ready to be brought up to the Emperor’s side.
A memory returned to him of something he had heard in training, but could not understand the full extent of until now. The Chapter’s senior Apothecary had looked each of them in the eye and said “At the end of the day, an Astartes does not need fame to know he has done his duty. He does not need the adulation of the masses to feel complete. Nor does he desire these things. All an Astartes wants to know is that his life has made a difference; his tasks have been fulfilled. Let this be the last thought written on your hearts and in your mind as you breathe your last. Caught in the fires of battle, no greater glory hath a Marine than to pay the cost of another's life in his own blood.”
With the last echoes of that thought fading in his mind, and the spark of sunlight shining off of the raven's wings fading in his eyes, Israfel slept.