The Last Salute
The ambush was initiated by the iuratos bikalit, and Miles Marinus Elias saw death for the first time.
The explosion tore the Equites in front of Marinus’ almost perfectly in half, a plume of purple fire shooting up between the bisected frame. Marinus caught a brief glimpse of the gunner being tossed high into the air, wreathed in flames, before the heat forced him to throw up his hands and shield his face. The blast shook his vehicle, the daemonic inferno so intense he felt the skin on his face starting to blister. The word “contact!” died in his throat as he inhaled burning air, the scent of torched flesh and melting rubber scorching his nostrils.
The sound of lasgun rounds snapping overhead forced Marinus to duck down behind the plasteel armor plating of his gunner’s cupola. Several of the beams struck the armor of the Equites, burning smoking holes in the turret shielding, threatening to slice into the six-barreled multi-laser that protruded menacingly from the top of the vehicle. Without conscious thought, Marinus reached down to rotate the turret crank, spinning the entire cupola in the direction of enemy fire. The turret made no noise as it moved, its well-oiled gears rotating smoothly together as Marinus gripped the trigger with his free hand.
“Elias!” He realized that Vex Lonius had been shouting up to him for several moments from his passenger-side seat of the Equites a few feet below Marinus. “What the fuck do you have, miles?”
Marinus’ response was to fire the multi-laser. The barrels spun and a moment later a whickering curtain of fire streaked into the low hills surrounding the road the Squadron had been traveling. The rocky hills, a mere three hundred meters away and no more than fifty feet at their highest, erupted as the multi-laser vaporized rocks and set fire to what stunted shrubbery there was. Marinus fired again, and it seemed as though the fire directed at him diminished, enough for him to peek his head over the turret shielding to get a good look.
The entire convoy had ground to a halt. 1st of the 51st Equites Squadron had been caught in a textbook ambush, and the vice was rapidly tightening. The first, seventh and last vehicle had been destroyed or immobilized, the enemy utilizing their trademark of sorcery mixed with barbarian technology to great effect. The bomb-like devices, called iuratos bikalit by the Low Men of The Gospel, had already claimed the lives of thousands of Legionnaires. Impossible to detect with an auspex, near-impossible to detect with the naked eye, the iuratos wasrightly feared by the soldiers of the 5th Legion. A man was lucky if it merely killed him, setting him aflame and ripping him apart with shrapnel. Sometimes, the fire of the iuratos bikalit, the The Breath of the Gods, did much worse than that.
Carapace-armored dismounts were hurriedly getting out of their Equites, or leaping from the back of the larger troop-carrying Oxenius to take up firing positions behind their vehicles. Each was careful of their step, as to the three o’clock of the vehicles the road dropped off completely, down forty feet into the dry creek bed. All the turret weapons were oriented to the nine o’clock, the east, firing back at the hundreds of burning lights and muzzle flashes that signified the positions of the Low Men. They were strung out across the ridgeline, at least a company’s worth. Miles Marinus Elias was new to warfare, but he knew a bad situation when he saw it.
“Nine o’clock!” He yelled, stuffing his fear deep down inside and sending another laser burst at what looked like an enemy heavy stubber emplacement. “Three hundred metres, on the hillside! I got no fucking clue how many, vex! At least a company’s worth!”
He heard Vex Lanius curse, then bark an order to their driver. The vehicle lurched forward suddenly, its wheels crunching over hard over the debris flung from the wrecked Equites. The fire of iuratos burned hot, but it burned quickly; the vehicle that had been struck was nothing more than a smoldering skeleton. Marinus kept up a steady stream of suppressive fire as they moved into cover behind the wreck of the seventh vehicle, driving barely three feet away from the edge of the drop off. Marinus prayed that his multi-laser would be enough to force some enemy heads down. The Squadron would need every weapon firing at maximum efficiency if they were going to survive an ambush of such magnitude.
“Celestial 6, this is Celestial 2,” Vex Lanius spoke calmly into his voxbead. “Suggest we recall dismounts and push through, over.”
“Negative, Celestial 2.” The voxbox set in the center radio mount of the Equites was tinny, but couldn’t hide the edge of panic in the owner’s voice. Hearing Prefect Maximus Giliad talk like that sent an involuntary shiver down Marinus’ spine, even as he shucked the empty battery box from beneath the multi-laser and slammed a new one home. “Be advised, Celestial 1-1A vehicle has been destroyed, blocking passage. We’ve got to fight it out, over.”
“Then push through the wreckage!” Vex Lanius roared, though he wasn’t transmitting over the net anymore. He knew better then that; even without a Commissar present, insulting a superior officer carried the death penalty. It could be exacted by any of the other vexs or prefects in the squadron; it WOULD be exacted by any of the vexs or prefects in the squadron. The Celestial’s perfect honor demanded it. “Push through the wreckage and get us the fuck out of here!” He struck the thick glass of his window in frustration. “Miles!” He shouted up. “We’ll be here for a moment, so pick your targets and talk your weapon with the other gun-spirits!”
“Aye, vex!” Marinus replied heartily. His blood was up; he was finally earning his pay. His father would be proud. His whole family would be proud. He let loose another well-aimed burst, lasfire stitching up the ridgeline. He waited a moment, hearing the tell-tale thunder of the autocannons mounted aboard the Equites to his twelve and six; when they fell silent, he fired again, keeping up a steady stream of unrelenting firepower that forced the Low Men to keep their heads down. “Ave Imperator!” He bellowed, no longer afraid of the rounds cracking down around his head. Though he could see no more than brown outlines of the enemy, scurrying behind cover, he could see the effects of his onslaught every time his lasbolts carved into an ammo hopper or grenade cache, resulting in a spectacular explosion. The momentary fear he had felt was replaced with a kind of mad joy, a feverish excitement. He was fighting. He was killing. His entire world had boiled down to those two simple facts.
A brilliant flash suddenly lit up on the ridgeline. At almost the exact same moment, the beam from the lascannon melted through the wreck and into the engine block of Marinus’ Equites. It killed the driver instantly, shrapnel from the exploding engine shearing through his neck, cutting through soft tissue and bone, neatly decapitating him. Marinus heard the tremendous detonation, and then nothing but a high pitched ringing. He noticed, curiously, that he was suddenly staring up at the sky; then a second later, the grey dust of Suri’khal VI, slammed so violently to the ground he was sure his carapace armor had cracked. Blasted clean out of the turret, he lay on the ground, chest heaving, feet dangling over the drop off. His chest heaved for air, and his vision swam in and out. The Equites was on fire; not the purple-witchfire that the Legionnaires had come to fear, but the roaring yellow-black billow of burning fuel and oil.
Vex Lanius tumbled out of the commander’s seat, the armored door falling heavily off its hinges. His helmet had been blasted off, and his face was black with soot. He yelled something; Marinus shook his head, unable to hear anything but the ringing. He pushed himself up off the ground, determined to stand tall like a son of Elias should when in the presence of his Vex Maximus. The older man gripped him by the wrist, helping him to his feet and into the cover of the burning Equites.
“Take cover, boy!” Lanius roared, his voice barely audible in Marinus ears. Marinus nodded, and unsnapped his las-carbine from its place on his thigh. “They’ll be rushing us any second now, so be ready for it! Our Imperator protects!”
“Aye, vex!” Marinus responded, though the words sounded slow and sluggish to him. He unsnapped his carbine from its place on his thigh, and snapped the bayonet into the lug attachment as quickly as he could. The polished steel blade glinted in the dirty yellow light of the burning Equites. Tracer rounds and laser beams smacked into both his vehicle, peppering the ground around him. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Marinus aimed over the back of the Equites, keeping as low as possible.
Now he could see the enemy, more than just vague outlines and muzzle flashes. The 4x scope on his lascarbine showed him what he was fighting, and unsurprisingly, they looked exactly like the pictures he had been shown as a child growing up on Europa Prime. Gaunt and tall, wearing tattered brown robes and carrying lasguns and stubbers. At their hip, each carried a small hand-scythe, symbolic of their allegiance to the Lord of Death. On their face, each wore a grim leather mask that covered their eyes and cheeks. No mask was the same, as each was made by the Low Man that wore it; each was made from the face of one of their victims, flayed from their skull on the battlefield.
Marinus pulled the trigger, and watched in satisfaction as one of those mask-wearing faces evaporated in a shower of blood and bone. He fired again, watching his rounds stitch up the hillside until they cut down a Low Man carrying a flamer, rupturing the tank and killing the cultists around him. Marinus heard Vex Lanius roar his approval, dimly pleased that his hearing was slowly returning. The old sergeant fired off a few rounds with his hellgun, the heavier weapon spitting red light at the enemy positions on the hill.
A sudden burst of particularly heavy enemy fire forced both of them to duck down behind the Equites. Looking up the convoy line, Marinus saw that the entire Squadron had dismounted, save those that were in the turrets, blazing away at the enemy. It looked as though most of the dismounts were pinned in place, the enemy’s sudden fire superiority forcing them to keep their heads in cover.
He looked to Vex Lanius, squatting a few feet away on one of the Equites tires, calmly reloading his rifle. “Get ready, miles!” He said over the roar of the firefight. “They’re pinning us down so they can move on us. That’s how the always do it. They’re gonna try to push us over this cliff and mow us down in the creek. We have to beat them back.”
“Where’s our air support, vex?” Marinus asked, surprised at how quickly his fear had passed. “We’re traveling with Celestial 6 for Remus’ sake. You’d think they’d be all over them by now!”
Vex Maximus Lanius just grinned. “They’ll be here eventually. We just have to hold on until they show up and bomb these fuckers back to the Warp. Until then, we’ll show these bastards what the Celestials are made of!” He stood up, peeking just over the edge of the Equites to see what the enemy was doing. His head snapped back to look at Marinus, eyes wild. “Alright, here they come! First wave will-“ The back of his head exploded, spraying out pinkish mist down into the creek bed. His body collapsed, stumbling backwards, and disappeared over the edge of the drop off.
Marinus stared at where his Vex Maximus had been only a split second ago. Then a heartbeat later he was lunging forward, burying his bayonet in the gut of the Low Man who had stepped out from around the Equites. He jerked the bayonet, worrying the wound before quickly sliding it out, the back-swept hook at the tip of the blade pulling out most of the Low Man’s guts with it. The Low Man squealed, letting its filthy lasgun clatter to the blood-soaked dust as it fell, trying to push its guts back in. Marinus stomped on its neck, snapping it beneath pteardon-leather sandals.
He brought his carbine up without even thinking, barely in enough time to block the rusted blade of a hand-scythe. The Low Man hooted behind its mask, guttural vowel sounds that offended Marinus’ ears. He pushed his carbine against its chest, the scythe hooked around the body of the weapon. Marinus slammed it against the Equites, struck it hard with his elbow, felt its face give way beneath uncompromising bone. It gargled, spitting out broken yellow teeth. Marinus reared back just enough to plunge his bayonet into its neck and slice horizontally, ripping out its throat in a single practiced motion.
Like killing slaves, he thought grimly, the thought intruding suddenly into his feverishly silent mind. As a noble-born son of Elias, Marinus had killed more than his share of those in his family’s arena. This was much the same, really; assault quickly, overpower the enemy, force them into a position where they yield to the bayonet. In a way it was easier. The slaves had quite often pleaded for mercy before the end. He’d killed hundreds of slaves by the time he was seventeen, but he never got over the sound of a grown man begging for life.
The Low Men didn’t beg. They just died, gargling and choking. As two more rounded the Equites wreck, Marinus raised his lascarbine and fired four quick shots in succession. Two beams cracked explosively into the torso of each of them, sending them tumbling to the ground and setting fire to one’s clothes. The realization that his position was no longer defensible hit home; it was only a matter of time before he was overwhelmed. Praying to the Imperator that these two were the last for the moment, Marinus put his head down and hurled himself towards the nearest Equites fifty metres away. Enemy projectiles and lasrounds smacked down on the ground all around him, but none struck home.
He finally dove into cover, landing heavily before being hauled to his feet. “Alright there, Marinus?” Miles Atony Wiess shouted above the din, clapping his friend on the shoulder before passing a lasgun battery to one of the two other Legionnaires hunkered down behind the Equites. “Saw you in a spot of trouble over there!”
“Not too bad, Atony!” Marinus replied, his words nearly drowned out by the ear-splitting roar of the autocannon. “The Imperator protects!”
“Ave Imperator,” Atony replied solemnly. “That being said, we’re not long off from the Last Salute. This next charge will make sure of that.”
The gunner in the turret suddenly exploded, showering them with blood and gristle and abruptly cutting off any response Marinus might have had. He barely had a chance to curse before the Equites shuddered, rocking on its tires, and a line of rippling explosions tore through the entire convoy.
“Heavy bolter!” Atony yelled. The Legionnaires lay flat in the dirt as the terrifying weapon fired again, strafing the entire convoy, pausing on a single target only to silence the crew-served weapons that were still firing. The fist-sized projectiles exploded immediately after penetrating their target, the armor of the Celestials providing scant protection. The Equites were being destroyed, one by one, and the Celestial’s ability to produce effective counter-fires went with them.
Marinus lay nearly prostrate on the ground, the entire world around him exploding in fire and noise. Each round seemed aimed directly at him, seeking to punch through the feeble armor of the Equites and the pathetic carapace that he wore. His teeth chattered together, each thunderous impact making his skull rattle. He pushed himself hard into the grey dust, as if he could somehow burrow in deeper, build a covered fighting position by the will of his own mind. He heard one of the others cry out, their voice raised in an almost wordless prayer, that ancient hymn of protection drowned out by the brutality of the enemy’s assault.
And then as suddenly as it had started, the thunder of the enemy guns ceased. It was replaced by the sound of hundreds of voices raised in an unholy chant, mixed with the dull roar of hundreds of bodies hurling themselves down the hills.
"Iuratos iyaliz! Sheggoth marats abyzou NURGA!"
Marinus saw them coming now, the Low Men he had killed nothing more than a probing action to test the Celestial’s preparation. The main wave was coming down the ridgeline, a whole company of them, rushing en masse down the hill. A Legionnaire squadron would never commit to so foolish an action; they would advance by bounding, team covering team, platoon covering platoon, until they had overwhelmed the enemy by their superior firepower and training. In a mad dash like this, the Low Men had no way of keeping the Celestial’s heads down; in the thirty seconds it would take to reach the Squadron, they were entirely exposed and undefended.
Marinus rose instantly to his feet. He could hear the commands being issued through the somehow still intact voxbox inside the Equites. Form ranks. Take cover. Fire on them until they’re within grenade range. Utilize grenades, then repel in hand to hand. Then the prayer, the prayer that each of them was silently offering up at that very moment, the last salute they would ever have the honor to give. Ave Imperator, morturi te salutant.
He thumbed the selector switch on his carbine to fully auto and strafed the hillside. It seemed as though the entire mountain was coming down at them; a mountain made of rotting robes and rusted scythes, of sonorously chanting men behind masks of flesh. Marinus realized he hated them in that moment, every stinking one. He hated their blasphemous ‘gospel,’ their filthy words, and more than anything else, that they had denied him the opportunity to shed their thin blood on more than one occasion. He would never win the eternal glory the name of Elias so richly deserved.
Two hundred metres away. Marinus was down to his last battery; he fired it off, watched two Low Men die, then chucked it away. “Not a bad way to die, eh Atony?” He asked his childhood friend. “What do you say?” He glanced over his right shoulder; Atony lay on the ground, eyes staring wide, a smoking hole in his forehead.
One hundred metres. The two Legionnaires that were still with him suddenly flung down their lascarbines. They crawled to the edge of the drop off and scampered away, sliding quickly down the embankment and into the dry creek bed. Marinus casually stripped a battery pack from one of the discarded weapons, and shot both of them in the back as they ran.
Fifty metres. Marinus primed two hand grenades and hurled them over the front of the Equites, one after the other. He didn’t wait to see the effects; instead he simply threw two more, knowing that at such close range the enemy had no hope of resisting the thousands of ball bearings that were
packed inside each fragmentation grenade.
Twenty five metres. Miles Marinus Elias, first-born son of Prefect Maximus Augustus Elias and a combat virgin until a mere fifteen minutes ago, stepped out from the cover of the vehicle. He fired from the shoulder, none of the undisciplined spray-and-pray that marked the tactics of lower-class Guard regiments. With the last twelve shots in the battery pack, he accounted for nine enemy cultists, sending them back to whatever Warp-spawned pagan deity they worshipped.
“Hail, Emperor!” He yelled as he dropped the empty battery, letting it fall uselessly in the dirt. “I am who am about to die, salute Thee!”
Zero metres. Marinus looked into the masks of a dozen Low Men, saw his own death reflected in them, and charged.
"In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war, an eternity of slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods. I'm telling you man, this is a really shitty time to be alive." -Primarch Stan Wolkowski, Sons of Stan