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Vandemarr number three here; again, a standalone. If you like trench warfare with a side-order of mystery, read on! As always, comments/criticisms welcomed and encouraged.



Synopsis

Concussed and plagued by memory loss, lauded hero of the Imperium Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr awakes to find himself in a pitch black chamber alongside his presumed-dead second in command, Captain Karl August.

Challenged by their captors, both men struggle to determine, through accounts of their separate experiences on the Chaos-held forge world of Carthage, how such a sequence of events has come to pass. However, it is soon evident that there is a lot more at stake than they originally anticipated, And when the chamber begins to slowly fill with water, it quickly becomes a race against time to decipher the mystery, before it costs them, and a great number of Imperial citizens, their lives.


LAST TESTAMENT​




PROLOGUE


‘Only the awkward question; only the foolish ask twice.’

- Imperial idiom


Unknown location
982 M41​

~Pipes~

For the second time that day, Captain Karl August found himself at the wrong end of a thorough kicking.

Booted feet landed well-aimed swings at his ribs, stomach and back, and true to form, he adopted a foetal position. Bruises were quick to well up under the onslaught, like blooming flowers, and old, filthy impact lacerations reopened, oozing blood like weeping sores. Above him, the grunting and gasping of at least three men sounded through the pitch black, echoing off the concrete walls that he had thus far seen only once – a glimpse when he was first thrown in.

‘Hai! Gasta ap kesh!’ one of the men snarled. The kicking abruptly stopped, though not so abruptly as to deprive him of one last punt in the bollocks. He cupped his wounded genitals – already dismayingly swollen from a prior beating – and gasped for air whilst a familiar feeling of pain and sickness permeated his guts.

After a few minutes of rolling back and forth on the spot, and catching his breath, he began to wonder why the beating had been over so quickly. By his reckoning they usually lasted a good twenty minutes, although it was difficult to tell anymore. Since being locked in the pitch darkness he no longer possessed any intelligent time-estimating ability. Only meals gave him any half decent idea, though they were intermittent and so derisory even in his starved state he often couldn’t bring himself to stomach them.

‘Golcak am kardir! Ba im dekan!’ the invisible man continued.

Grubby hands grabbed his smock – a threadbare rag smothered in blood and sweat – and dragged him by it further into the cell. He snatched at their forearms and intermittently took the weight off the smock before they tore it off him, and then felt the cold concrete wall slam into the side of his face. The smock, along with his torn trousers, were the only clothes he had left – and the chamber was very, very cold. He’d fought tooth and nail to keep just those scraps.

‘Hai! Gan ab sac ten!’

He adopted the foetal position once again, grimly concluding that this exercise was simply an intermission before they began kicking him half to death again; but to his relief he heard them moving back out the cell. Their footsteps and voices echoed in such a way as to give him a clue of how big the chamber was, since before then he had never moved from the spot for fear of what he might find in the extremities. But then the door opened anyway, searing his pupils with light so completely that he thought he had been permanently blinded.

‘Garla! Im shab het, heh?’

There was laughter, followed by the sound of something heavy thumping into the floor in the middle of the chamber. The heavy metal door slammed shut once again, plunging the room into pitch blackness and allowing August to open his eyes.

For a while, he dared not move, fearful of what the men had put in the room with him. It could have been anything, ranging from some kind of daemonic beast to a fellow captive. Clenching his fists, he tried to control his breathing so that it didn’t echo off the concrete walls, and readied himself for an imminent attack. If he was about to die, he would go out fighting.

‘August,’ came a familiar, though quiet and controlled voice, ‘it’s me.’

His heart felt as though it would punch straight through his sternum as an exalted shot of adrenaline fired through his chest.

‘Vandemarr?’ he breathed hopefully, then fell to coughing violently. The unknown figure waited patiently until it had stopped echoing around the chamber before he began again.

‘Yeah,’ Vandemarr replied grimly, ‘do you want to tell me what the hell’s going on?’

August scrambled to his hands and knees and shuffled towards the Commissar as quickly as he dared. Who knew what pits and traps lay in the darkness?

‘Where are you?’ he hissed, after his initial search earned him only more concrete. Blood was crashing around his ears, and he was so excited that the adrenaline was making him feel sick and shaky.

‘I’m here – ah!’ Vandemarr replied, gasping as he probed a bloody head wound. A few more shuffles and seconds later and he found himself grabbed into a rough bear hug by a stinking man.

‘Emperor man, how long have you been in here?’ he asked, returning a cursory embrace whilst invisibly and silently gagging. August let him go, and then sat back, gasping in pain as various injuries flared up with the action.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied, still ecstatic to see the Commissar. ‘I don’t know. Emperor I don’t know.’

His voice was choked and it was clear he was crying, though whether in joy or desperation Vandemarr didn’t know. He could already sense August had come close to a breakdown.

‘Is it always this dark?’ he pressed, trying to keep him talking.

‘Yeah,’ August replied, sniffing. ‘How did you know it was me?’

‘What?’

‘When you came in?’

‘I saw you, when they opened the door. Next to one of those big concrete pipes.’

August stopped crying and looked up.

‘What?’

‘I saw you,’ Vandemarr replied insistently, poking at the head wound once more. He looked as his fingers, centimetres from his face, but still couldn’t seem them in the blackness.

‘No,’ August said in an entirely worrying manner. ‘What did you see me next to?’

‘A big…concrete pipe,’ Vandemarr said slowly, unsure if he’d grasped the implications of it. The last thing he was concerned about was the layout of the cell he was in. A thousand questions were whirling round his head, and he wanted answers, quickly. How did he get here? Where was here? How long had he been unconscious for?

‘Forget the pipe,’ he said, ‘August, how did you get here?’

‘I don’t know,’ the agitated and distracted Captain replied, clearly some distance away now. His footsteps echoed around the chamber, having clearly thrown caution to the wind.

‘What are you doing?’ Vandemarr asked. His head was still swimming from concussion and the wound to his scalp was throbbing painfully.

There was a short silence whilst the hurried footsteps continued.

‘Vandemarr,’ August said, closer again. The Commissar jumped.

‘I’m he-’ he started, before the Captain tripped over him. He cried out in pain as he landed.

‘Throne Karl, what’s going on?’ Vandemarr murmured, moving towards August. Suddenly he found himself grasped by both shoulders.

‘I don’t know how long I’ve been here,’ August whispered feverishly. ‘The last thing I remember was an enemy assault on the trenches on Carthage. There was an explosion. Next thing I know, I end up here.’

‘Alright, calm down,’ Vandemarr distantly, frustrated that he couldn’t think clearly. ‘I need you to calm down and tell me what else you know.’

‘Nothing,’ August continued, though still seemingly distracted. ‘I don’t know. I think we might be in the enemy camp. I don’t know. They talk in a strange language, I can’t understand it.’

‘Archenemy, yes?’

‘Y-yes, I think so,’ August replied.

‘Why were you checking the chamber just then?’

‘Albrecht,’ the Captain said, moving closer, ‘there are four pipes in this room, big ones.’

‘I’m not really concerned with the pipes at the moment, Karl, I want to know how we got here and where this is,’ Vandemarr said irritably, trying desperately to remember. ‘I think…I think someone in the company betrayed me.’

‘What?’

‘Hoyle – Lieutenant Hoyle?’

‘Wait wait wait, start from the beginning,’ August said, confused.

‘No,’ Vandemarr said, trying to shake off his concussion. ‘You start. I can’t think at the moment.’


And then the pipes began filling the room with water.
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Thanks mate!
 

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PART 1

Chapter 1

“If the road is easy, the destination is worthless.”

~ Saint Sabbat


2 Distrikt, Centre-north line
Carthage
Ultima Segmentum
192 982 M41​

In the cold, half-light of the morning, a tired Captain August, recently-appointed second in command of the 427th Farraxian Dragoons’ 9th company, tasted dirt whilst enemy artillery crashed down into the mud around him. Piercing shrieks, followed by the familiar crack-boom of exploding shells, filled the air alongside plumes of toxic water and shrapnel, cutting down swathes of entrenched men in seconds. Bloodcurdling screams muffled by gas hoods were quick to add to the orchestra of death, followed by the late, drawling whine of Imperial raid sirens, and the quick, dismayingly familiar repeat of ‘INCOMING, BRACE! INCOMING, BRACE!’

He cursed after a series of deafening explosions and a sidelong glance told him the next dugout had been zeroed, sending heavy shockwaves through the ground and eviscerating the men sheltering inside. Those lucky enough to have survived were swiftly suffocated by the subsequent collapse of the flimsy mud and duckboard shack.

‘Throne,’ Lieutenant Auskar muttered next to him, a grim-faced and recently- commissioned officer following the untimely death of Lieutenant Bialy. ‘This is longer than last night’s. They’ll be attacking.’

August nodded into two inches of clammy earth, and fumbled to his left to check his lasrifle was still next to him.

Another shell battered the trench ten metres from the entrance to their own dugout, and whistling shrapnel punched arrow-lines through the mud wall above them. One of the men who had been sitting crouched on the bench was decapitated, and warm carotid blood fountained into the air, pattering down onto their backs like light rain.

‘Dammit I said DOWN!’ August shouted to the trembling Guardsmen, ‘faces in the dirt, Emperor’s teeth!’

Those who had remained sitting – an infuriatingly large number – immediately scrambled off the boards and onto the dugout floor, having evidently been fooled by the sturdy appearance of the walls. How they could have still made that assumption, after three months of twice-daily shelling, August did not know.

‘It’s stopping,’ one of the troopers to his right said after another agonising ten minutes, barely audible into the clunky mechanism of the hood’s rebreather.

‘Wait.’ August snapped irritably.

‘We’re not even on shift for another hour,’ Auskar said, snatching a glance at his chronometer. ‘Boys up front’ll be feeling it.’

‘They’ll be fine,’ August replied. He lifted his head out from the dirt, and hastily wiped the plastic eye pieces of the gas hood. He activated his comlink. ‘Get ready.’

As the last of the enemy shells smashed down amongst the entrenched Guard and the raid sirens died down, the harsh trill of whistles penetrated the sudden and eerie quiet. All down the centre-north line, hundreds more took up the call, rallying men to the front lines to repel another imminent assault.

‘Here we go,’ August breathed as the first las bolts snapped loudly in the morning air. Further north, the thick report of a heavy stubber emplacement could be heard. The enemy was coming in force.

‘On your feet, weapons ready!’ he shouted, pressing himself off the floor. He was already soaked head to toe in mud, and exhausted from sentry duty the night before; but he could hardly consider himself alone in his quandary. All around him, fatigued, freezing men scrambled to their feet, shivering uncontrollably and with no stomach for the coming battle.

August didn’t care. He didn’t have time to care.

‘Let’s go, double time!’ he barked, thumbing off the safety catch on his lasgun and ducking out the low dugout entrance. He checked over his shoulder to see if the platoon was following, and satisfied that it was, turned immediately left towards the centre-north line.

All around him was death and destruction. Greasy black promethium smoke billowed into the ruddy atmosphere above from burning tanks and vehicles dotting the surrounding land. The sky was already so thick with a maelstrom of enemy gas and toxic thunderheads that it was a miracle the sun even filtered through at all. At ground level, a ruined, pocked mudscape stretched as far as the eye could see, in several places stained luminescent yellow where gas clouds had reacted with the groundwater, topping it with a skin of frothy scum.

Ahead of him, in no man’s land, the skeletons of gigantic manufactories jutted into the skyline like the remains of some planet-spanning citadel, the only visible proof of the planet’s status as an Imperial forge world. Now the only purpose it served was to form a deadly latticework of rubble and girders that made an armoured assault – much to the dismay of the Kormandolt 3rd armour division – impossible.

‘Faster!’ he snarled as the platoon lagged. He turned at another bulwark, past a rusty slab of corrugated adamantium, and then onto the arterial access trench towards the front line. It was a grim corridor of wounded and dead – made all the more dismal by the dreary surroundings. The trench network was a tangled quagmire of rotting duckboards, flak boarding, sheets of corrugated adamantium and mould-smothered sandbags, peppered with dugouts and rockcrete bunkers that offered about as much protection from the enemy artillery as a tent. In fact, it was not until one travelled two kilometres to the west, where the Imperial gun pits lay, along with the medical tents, GHQ, and vox and orbital relays, that conditions improved – those based there even privy to such luxuries as running water and functioning latrines.

But here, in this poisonous morass of flesh and armour plagued by vermin, there was no such respite – and wouldn’t be for at least another two weeks. And he was all too conscious of this fact as his slowly rotting feet squelched against the duck boards below, past the ranks of bloodied, limbless, miserable wretches that made up the valiant Imperial defenders of Carthage.

‘Captain!’ shouted a mud-drenched figure twenty metres ahead. It was the Lieutenant of second platoon, Aleksi Kasparkova – only identifiable, like the rest of them, from his name badge printed in fading letters on his flak breastplate. The gas hoods –mandatory for survival – created an unavoidable anonymity.

‘What’s happening?’ August asked, his breath rasping loudly inside the gas hood.

‘Assaulting apparently, in force,’ Aleksi said, falling into step next to him. Ahead, his platoon was making swift progress over the never-ending tide of injured flowing back from the centre-north line.

‘Eyes on?’

‘Not yet, we’ve got a south-westerly that’s blowing promethium fog towards us. We’ll be blind in ten minutes, says dispatch. They’re using it as cover.’

‘Great,’ August muttered. ‘What’s the tally?’

‘Company’s down to two hundred. We lost twenty more this morning. Lieutenant Machek was killed ten minutes ago, with Sergeant Cada. Fifth platoon's down
To ten men.’

‘Merge them with fourth,’ August said, stepping over a dismembered leg. ‘How’s everyone else?’

‘Fine sir. Most of the men were in cover when the artillery started, apart from fifth. Third company took a battering, they were on line patrol. Rumour has it there’s none left. Colonel’s not happy.’

‘I’m not surprised.’

Both men ducked as the whoosh of a tube-launched rocket tore overhead and slammed into an embankment thirty metres behind, showering the nearest batch of wounded with mud. Above, the snap and flash of hard rounds and las bolts hissed through the sky. August saw they had only a few hundred metres to go before the last twists of the trench took them to the centre north – currently a sandbagged horizon blocking both men’s view of the ground beyond. A reinforced embankment meant that although the elevated line was more vulnerable to shell fire, it made it nigh on impossible for the enemy to launch a successful offensive.

August was not sure which he preferred.

They made quick progress as the corpse train thinned, turned up the sloping wooden shelves to their left and past coils of rusty barbed wire, until they reached the centre north line – the five kilometre frontline trench of Two Distrikt. It was wide, well-drained, supported by flak-boarding and adamantium buttresses and was grounded with a lattice of duck boards and corrugated iron. Every hundred metres there was a dugout and observation point, and at every fifty was a fortified emplacement, containing a heavy stubber or autocannon. Chunks of earth had been dug away to allow for some armour compliment – the proud forms of Kormandolt Leman Russes, Hellhounds and Medusas.

‘Schtan,’ he muttered again as he took in the kilometres of no man’s land. The huge manufactories were being slowly swallowed by a haze of thick black promethium fog – a frequent blight from the burning refineries north east of their position, away in Seventeen Distrikt. The enemy often used it as cover for an attack, though the wind had never been in their favour to do likewise.

‘See?’ Aleksi said, indicating the constant hail of tracer, las bolts and rockets emitting from the fog. The Imperial lines were firing only intermittently, and August soon realised that the firing he had heard earlier was the enemy. They would wait until the enemy was drawn closer. There was only so much ammunition to go around, and no-one was about to waste it on firing at ghosts.

‘Has anyone called this in?’ August asked, stepping off the firing shelf and back onto the duck boards. Aleksi shrugged. ‘Hm.’ August opened a new channel on his comlink. ‘Korbel, let’s see if we can get some artillery,’ he said to his vox officer.

‘Aye sir,’ came the fuzzy reply, ‘it’s already been called in. Dispatch says they’re not firing without line of sight.’

‘Ask them again. Tell them we have line of sight. 300-316-070. Tell them I confirmed it.’

‘Aye sir. They’re not going to believe you.’

‘Then we’ve got nothing to lose, have we?’ August said, and terminated the link.

‘Sir, what are your orders?’ came a voice from behind him. He turned to see first platoon assembled in a muddy, ragged group, lasguns ready.

‘Spread out,’ August said, motioning north. ‘Bayonets. Ten minutes, heavy assault.’

They did so, moving away from him whilst sliding their rusty bayonets into place. He turned back to Aleksi.

‘How many space cells have you got?’

‘Two, maybe three.’

‘This is going to be interesting.’

Ahead of them, the first rolling booms of Imperial artillery detonated in no man’s land.


* * *

Ten minutes later, and the promethium fog was on them. What little sun had remained was blotted out by the thick billows of black smoke, reducing effective visibility to twenty metres. The artillery barrage had stopped long before, and now an eerie silence hung in the air, stifling and unwelcome, penetrated only by distant gunfire.

Spread out in both directions, crude promethium-blackened Guardsmen lined the firing shelf, constantly wiping the lenses of their gas hoods and muttering various prayers. The droplets in the fog, though not dense or oxygenated enough to set the whole cloud alight, quickly settled, transforming mud-soaked men into oil-slicked shadows, barely visible against the hazy backdrop.

‘They’d be mad to attack in this,’ Aleksi whispered.

August grunted, remembering the few occasions when they had massacred droves of promethium-soaked cultists bogged down on the approach. ‘Wouldn’t be the first time.’

Ahead, the outward facing slope of the centre north line – a cratered, scarred mire – was fast turning from a greyish brown to a slippery, greasy black. They would have to burn it off when the threat passed, and hose out the base of the trench. Thankfully, it had outflows down the embankment.

‘They’re not coming,’ Aleksi whispered again.

‘Wait until the fog has cleared,’ August snapped, not taking his eyes off the approach. Every part of him was soaked in something – mud or oil. He was freezing, hungry, on line duty all day, and his feet were turning numb with trench foot. Soon they would start rotting, and then turn gangrenous, and then require amputation. The thought soured him beyond measure.

They all flinched as the roaring of Imperial Marauder bombers thundered overhead, low enough to see through the fog, in tight V formation. A second formation followed, and then a third. The morning bombing runs. A few minutes later, the sound of distant explosions echoed from the rubble of the manufactories in no man’s land.

‘You’re right,’ August conceded. ‘They’re not coming.’

They waited another forty minutes for the fog to clear, then started on breakfast.
 

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Chapter 2


‘Know thine enemy. You are known to him already.’

- Sermon Primaris, the Ordo Xenos


Unknown location
982 M41​


~A Voice in the Dark ~

‘Great. This is just great,’ Vandemarr said as the water began pooling about their feet. He was going to be drowned with a headache on what was fast becoming the worst day of his life.

‘What the hell are we supposed to do now?’ August asked from next to him. He’d calmed down considerably since Vandemarr had first arrived, though not so much so as to assure the Commissar he wouldn’t snap with the slightest provocation. Unfortunately for both of them, Vandemarr had neither the time nor the inclination for subtlety.

‘Shut up,’ he muttered, trying to think. His head felt like it was being slowly compressed in a vice, and thinking was like swimming through treacle; horribly difficult.

‘August,’ he said slowly, his brow screwing up in concentration, ‘go to the nearest pipe, stand on it, and tell me if you can touch the ceiling.’

‘What?’

Vandemarr sighed.

‘I want you to see how high the wall is,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘so just stand on the damn pipe!’

‘Emperor, alright,’ August said, splashing off indignantly, ‘there’s no need to be a complete arsehole about it.’

Vandemarr fell onto his back, feeling the rising water soak into his fatigues, and groaned, already regretting his sharp tone. But then, the faster they took stock of the situation, the faster they could decipher just what the hell was going on. Some comfort, he supposed, before they were drowned.

‘Well?’ he asked after listening to August struggle onto the pipe. He probed his head wound further, then began checking the rest of his body for further injury.

‘Just,’ August shouted back above the roar of the torrent, splashing back down onto the floor.

‘How high’s the pipe off the ground?’ Vandemarr pressed.

‘It’s about…a metre and a half. The pipe’s a metre wide, I’d guess.’

‘So the wall’s what, four metres high?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Alright,’ Vandemarr said, massaging his temples. ‘Find out the length of the far wall.’

‘How?’

‘Use your imagination.’

He waited another five minutes, again trying desperately to think how he’d ended up in the chamber; but his train of thought was broken when August called out from the far corner of the room.

‘Ten metres.’

‘Now do the same for the next wall,’ Vandemarr said, frustrated that August hadn’t yet caught on to what he was trying to do, yet too annoyed to explain it without being asked.

‘About seven.’

He did a quick mental calculation.

‘Two hundred and eighty,’ he said. ‘Metres squared. That’s how big the room is.’

August made his way back to the centre of the chamber.

‘Well so what?’ he asked, his voice closer. He found Vandemarr and sat down again, out of breath.

‘Well, now we can work out how long we’ve got left to live,’ Vandemarr said, mockingly cheerful.

‘You have three hours left to live,’ came a new voice from above them.

There was an interminable silence.

‘Tell me you just heard that,’ August whispered.

‘I heard it,’ Vandemarr replied, standing. ‘Who the hell are you?’ he snarled upwards, ‘and why have you brought us here?’

‘There are fifteen hundred litres of water entering this chamber every minute,’ the voice continued. It was distorted and gravelly, though whether a product of Chaos or simply some voice-altering augmetic, Vandemarr didn’t know.

‘You are not in any position to be making demands, Company-Commissar Vandemarr.’

‘Where are we?’ August called out, his voice threatening the complete breakdown that had thus far evaded him.

‘It’s not yet important who I am, or what I am. What is important is that you do exactly as I say, when I say it. If you want to live.’

‘We’re not doing anything,’ Vandemarr growled half-heartedly, though in truth he was uneasy, and unwilling to drown simply for the sake of pride.

‘Yes, Commissar, you are,’ the voice sniggered, quickly seeing through his audacious façade. ‘The first thing you must do is guess the date. There are many ways you can do this. I will give you all the time you need, but I warn you the second task is a much longer one and will require more of your very limited time. That will be all for now.’

The voice cut out.

‘Guess the date?’ August said, on the verge of insanity.

‘Get a hold on yourself man,’ Vandemarr snapped. ‘I don’t know why he wants us to find out the date.’

‘Do you think he’s some kind of Chaos Lord?’ he pressed, in an almost comically spookily.

Vandemarr pulled a sarcastic face, lost in the blackness.

‘I think a Chaos Lord has better things to do with his time than torment the two of us,’ he said.

‘Then who is it?’

Vandemarr exploded.

‘Emperor wept, I haven’t a clue have I?’ he shouted.

He sat back down again, audibly calming himself. The pitch darkness was already getting to him, gnawing at his sanity and patience.

‘What was the last date you can remember?’ he asked, as if nothing had happened. One of the many skills he’d acquired as a Commissar.

‘I don’t know,’ August replied, only a little gloomily. ‘When did we make planetfall? On Carthage?’

‘The…hundred and fifth,’ Vandemarr said, almost pained by the thought process.

‘And we were there for how long?’

‘We assaulted Coradion on...two-two-five.’

‘You assaulted the capital?’ August suddenly asked, and in the same instant Vandemarr realised that getting the somewhat temperamental Captain to remember Carthage was the key to reinstating his sanity.

‘Yeah…actually now I think about it, that was only a couple of days after you were pronounced KIA.’

‘You mean…everyone thought I was dead?’

‘Well who wouldn’t after that artillery? Auskar – was that his name? Lieutenant Auskar?’

‘Yeah.’

‘He was given brevet command of ninth company.’

The water was already lapping at their ankles, frothy and stinking.

‘So what was the last thing you remember? Clearly?’ August pressed, all too aware of the rising water level.

Vandemarr racked his brain, searching for his most lucid memory.

‘I was back on the ship,’ he said slowly. ‘It was around the 98th…’
 

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All comments/criticisms welcome! :read:


Chapter 3


‘We are at war with forces too terrible to comprehend. We cannot afford mercy for any of its victims too weak to take the morally correct course. Mercy destroys us, it weakens us and our saps our resolve. Put aside all such thoughts they are not worthy of Inqusitors in the service of our Emperor. Praise his name for in our resolve we only reflect his purpose of will.’

- Book of Exorcisms, The verses of Inquisitor Enoch


INS Blue Bolt
Ultima Segmentum
98 982 M41​

~ A Quiet Read ~

Vandemarr awoke with a start, a single sheet of paper stuck to his cheek. He clawed it off irritably – though not so irritably to tear the classified deployment docket – and then strained to hear.

There was a knock at the door – louder, he guessed, than the first had been – and then a muffled ‘Commissar?’

‘Enter,’ he said, clasping and then unclasping his hands on the desk in front of him. The metal door creaked open on its un-oiled hinges, brown from rust, and in stepped a man Vandemarr recognised as Colonel Hasek – the commanding officer of the 427th Farraxian Dragoons. A good man, as far as he’d heard.

‘I’m not disturbing anything, am I?’ he asked. He was late middle age, maybe ten years older than Vandemarr, with a clean-shaven, scarred face and a mop of greying brown hair. He was well built, tall, though not in any way imposing except when he wanted to be. Vandemarr had only seen him once from a distance, at the regimental dinner twenty days ago; an occasion specifically to welcome the influx of new Guardsmen bulking out the ranks.

‘No sir, not at all,’ Vandemarr said, and hastily stood up. ‘Please, have a seat.’

The room was small; a desk, a bunk and a locker making up the vast majority of furnishings. All that remained were Vandemarr’s personal effects, and those were few. Some picts of his parents and himself as a boy, hidden away on a dataslate; a few battered old medals he’d kept over the years from past engagements; a worn, inscribed tankard and a sword, presented to him as a gift on the departure from his first line regiment. Nothing from his time on Gortlémund or the Black Manticore.

‘I just thought I’d come and meet you, face to face,’ Hasek said as he sat down. It was only then Vandemarr realised the man had an augmetic leg. ‘A Commissar as a CO is…something of a rarity.’

For the first time that day Vandemarr became horribly aware of his appearance. His undercoat was unbuttoned revealing a grey smock below, his hair was uncombed and his face was covered in a dishevelled layer of stubble. His boots, unpolished, lay in an untidy pile next to his bunk, and his socks were both holed at the toe.

‘A drink, sir?’ he asked, trying to take the focus off his shabby appearance.

‘Please,’ Hasek replied. Vandemarr grabbed the two tumblers – one dirty from previous use – at the side of the desk, along with a leather-bound flask of ethanec, and poured two measures. He offered Hasek the clean one, who took a sip.

‘Hm,’ he said, smelling the amber liquid. ‘Spicier than I’m used to. But good. Where’s it from?’

‘Gortlémund, sir,’ Vandemarr replied.

‘Ah okay,’ Hasek said. ‘I’ve been once or twice. Kalen Primo, the capital?’

‘I know it,’ Vandemarr said.

‘I seem to recall there being some kind of upset there earlier this year, now I think about it,’ Hasek said, casting his eyes upwards as if searching his brain. ‘A series of trials, or raids maybe?’ He looked back to Vandemarr, raising his eyebrows. ‘Lodges of Guardsmen pledging allegiance to the Tau? Something like that. Rumours, probably.’

‘Trials, sir, yes,’ Vandemarr said, surprised at the notoriety it had achieved. ‘Courts martial. I was on the prosecution counsel for one of them, with Lieutenant Codey. 15th Vargonroth?’

‘Oh really?’ Hasek said, smiling briefly. ‘I don’t know Vargonroth. Did you win?’

‘In a way,’ Vandemarr replied, remembering all too well the look on his junior’s face as he blew his brains out the back of his skull.

The Colonel nodded, evidently satisfied. ‘So you’ve presumably fought line combat before? I mean, Inquisitor MkCormack gave us some details but I haven’t had much time to review them. I thought I’d come and get it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.’

Vandemarr could tell the Colonel was already wary of him – worried that he might screw up and get an entire company killed.

‘It was a request, on my part, sir, to be given a company of men as a gift,’ Vandemarr explained. ‘The Inquisitor was good enough to organise it for me. The Farraxian Dragoons seemed an ideal choice. They had taken casualties, and needed bolstering. They were heading for Carthage to combat the Archenemy, and I have, to answer your question, had extensive experience on the front lines. In fact I spent the first twenty-two years of my career in combat, sir.’

‘A gift, you say?’ Hasek said, trying nonchalantly to sip the ethanec.

‘Yes sir,’ Vandemarr continued. ‘Myself and Captain August, and a few others, were able to frustrate a Tyranid insurrection on board the Black Manticore. It was heading for Terra, sir.’

‘Good lord,’ Hasek started, Vandemarr guessed involuntarily, for he soon recomposed himself. ‘No mean feat, I take it?’

‘Indeed.’ Vandemarr said. He could forgive the Colonel for prying, but he was irritated that the man so blatantly doubted his abilities. ‘I am a soldier first, and a Commissar second, sir,’ he said, hoping to ease Hasek’s suspicions. ‘I know combat, and I know men.’

Hasek waved a finger at him, draining the last of the ethanec.

‘You Commissars always were straight talkers,’ he said, trying to grin off his embarrassment. His face soon faded to an emotionless blank. ‘Forgive me. The last thing I wanted to do was offend. You must understand that my men come first. So many Commissars are…sticklers for glory,’ he was choosing his words carefully. ‘I have no doubts that they perform an invaluable service for frontline morale, but to see one in command is…

‘Something of a rarity.’ Vandemarr concluded for him, repeating the Colonel’s earlier assertion.

‘Certainly in this regiment,’ Hasek said darkly.

Vandemarr nodded, pretending he’d mistaken the Colonel’s tone.

‘Of course, there is Captain August as well, formerly of the…141st Hussars. He’s your second in command, yes?’ Hasek said, quickly moving on.

‘Yes sir,’ Vandemarr said.

‘A good man? You say you’ve worked with him before?’

‘One of the best,’ Vandemarr said. ‘I met him on Illythia – an agri world in the western Mordant Zone –’

‘I know it,’ Hasek interjected testily.

Vandemarr looked at him in a second of uncomfortable silence, and then continued.

‘He was my guide whilst I was conducting my investigations. As I said, he accompanied me to the Manticore.’

‘Where you destroyed this…Tyranid insurrection?’ Hasek finished for him.

‘Correct.’

The Colonel regarded him with freshly-narrowed eyes.

‘Quite an illustrious career you’ve had,’ he said, with barely concealed cynicism. There was clearly some contempt gnawing inside him. Or was it resentment?

‘Indeed,’ Vandemarr said again, unwilling to be in the presence of this man any longer. ‘Will that be all?’

Hasek slammed the tumbler down onto the desk and leant forward.

‘Enough with these pleasantries,’ he hissed venomously. ‘I don’t like you, Commissar. I don’t like frag-handed pissants accepting companies of my men as ‘gifts’. I don’t give a crap if you’ve got the sponsorship of some Inquisitor, if you so much as – ’

‘That’s enough!’ Vandemarr said, launching to his feet and knocking over both tumblers and the flask. ‘I am an Imperial Commissar, Colonel! If you value your command and your life, I suggest we end this meeting here, before someone says something they’re going to regret.’

There was a deadly silence whilst both men eyed each other, punctuated only by the deep vibrations of the ship’s engines and the tricking of ethanec as it hit the floor below the desk.

‘Hm,’ Hasek snorted, standing up. ‘I think we understand one another, Commissar.’

He let himself out.

* * *

Clean-shaven, washed and dressed, Vandemarr knocked back another measure of ethanec, then made his way from his quarters towards the ship’s library. It was not the quiet, calming walk he sought – everywhere various people bustled through the cramped passageways. There were three Farraxian regiments on board, the Kareshian Dragoons and Light Auxiliary, and the Kormandolt 3rd armour division – many replete in full war gear and gas hoods, fresh from the training decks. All were moving back to the barracks levels or the various municipal mess halls, for food, five card las and contraband.

Neither hungry nor in the mood to bond with his new company – the 9th, Vandemarr moved through the hordes of unruly Guardsmen and ship hands, using the schematics bolted onto the walls for guidance. It took him fifteen minutes to reach the library, through the most populous parts of the ship. The corridor leading to it was wide, maybe ten metres, and ran through the exact centre of the Blue Bolt. Had he wanted to continue through the library, he would eventually reach the chapel, and beyond that the stairs leading to the officer’s quarters, embarkation level, and the bridge.

But he didn’t. A few hours of solitude and quiet reading would calm his nerves.

He continued down the corridor, pushing open the two large wooden doors that constituted the library’s entrance at the end, and was greeted by a vast chamber, stretching, he guessed, all the way up to the embarkation deck a hundred metres above. All around, thousands of books and dataslates were ranked in colossal cases, each one lined by a score of ladders and servitors. Ahead was a set of stairs leading to a gallery, which contained glass cases and statues exhibiting trophies of war and artefacts millennia old, and high above, a myriad of flags were draped, each one representing an Imperial Guard regiment billeted on board.

‘Whoa,’ Vandemarr gasped. Such a wealth of knowledge – uncountable tomes of history, accounts of great victories and crushing defeats, and the minds of some of the most brilliant men and women in the Imperium poured onto paper and slate. One couldn’t hope to get through it all in a hundred lifetimes.

After half an hour of searching, he’d found an appropriate volume, and settled down at a wooden desk slowly succumbing to centuries of dry rot. But mere minutes after he’d sat, a slow creaking issued from the other side of the bookcase, rhythmic like footsteps, and incredibly annoying.

‘Hello?’ he called out slowly, his voice startlingly loud against the silence of the library. Even the ever-present rumbling of the engines was absent.

The creaking abruptly stopped. Instantly, Vandemarr brought a hand to his side and slowly unbuttoned the holster there, leather-gloved fingers tracing the grip of his compact autopistol.

‘My name is Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr,’ he said, lifting the pistol from its holster and bringing it into a two-handed grip. ‘If you’re trying to surprise me, you’d better have a very good reason.’

He trained it on the corner of the bookshelf, and slowly advanced, feeling his pulse rate increase.

‘Come out, slowly, and you will not come to harm,’ he lied.

Seconds later, the pistol was knocked from his grip, and strong, gloved hands grabbed him from behind. Two more men appeared from round the corner – gas-masked, wearing the dull brown uniform of the Kormandolt 3rd division, and crashed into him, pinning both of his arms to the desk.

‘Damn you men!’ Vandemarr roared, lashing out with his feet. He hit one of his attackers in the groin, and then again in the face as he fell to the floor, feeling the rebreather smash into the man’s nose and mouth through the cap of his boot. And then a knife was produced, and pressed against his neck.

‘I know who you are, Albrecht Vandemarr,’ one of the men above him snarled, his voice muffled and unrecognisable from the gas hood. ‘I know all about your little excursions.’

‘Let me go now,’ Vandemarr growled, ‘and you may die quickly.’

‘Shut up,’ the talker said, though the man next to him briefly hesitated with the coercion in the Commissar’s trained voice. Vandemarr took the opportunity, freeing his right hand and punching away the knife in one quick movement. Then, throwing off the punches of the talker, he struggled up from the desk and brought his foot down on the man’s instep. The knife wielder, still clutching his forearm where the Commissar had fractured it, was punched in the stomach for good measure.

‘Kill him!’ the talker shouted frantically as Vandemarr dove to recover the pistol from the base of the bookcase, and the knife wielder moved to grab the blade; but Vandemarr was quicker, and turning on his heel, fired a healthy burst into the man’s torso. His eyes widened behind the lenses of the gas hood, and he let out a strangled cry as the bullets tore into him, spraying the surrounding books with blood.

As he collapsed, Vandemarr rounded on the talker; but he had already gone.

‘Schtan,’ Vandemarr muttered, jogging to the central aisle of the library. There was no sign of him anywhere, and a twenty minute search of the area only confirmed this.

Whoever he was, he had effectively vanished.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Chapter 4


‘Knowledge is power; hide it well.’

- Imperial Idiom

Unknown location
982 M41​


~The Date~

‘You were attacked?’ August asked, shouting above the roaring water. ‘By Hasek’s men?’

Vandemarr shook his head, more in frustration than denial as his thoughts dissolved.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied, ‘maybe.’

They were sitting in thirty centimetres of water, still in pitch blackness. Their open wounds stung with the cold, frothy fluid – August’s in particular, whose body was covered in scratches and open cuts.

‘I think we might be in a sewage outfall,’ Vandemarr said as some of the vile fluid touched his lips. He spat at retched violently, wiping his mouth on the only dry part of his smock.

August nodded invisibly.

‘What are we going to do about the date?’ he asked worriedly. ‘How do we work it out?’

Vandemarr once again massaged his temples, as if it would coax coherent thoughts from his brain. It didn’t.

‘I don’t know,’ he muttered. ‘If we assaulted Coradion on two-two-five, then it has to be after that. But we could be anywhere.’

‘You think we’re still on Carthage?’ August asked, more a statement than a question, as if seeking confirmation rather than a potentially horrifying answer.

‘Yeah,’ Vandemarr said, offhand. ‘I just…I can’t think how long I’ve been unconscious for.’

There was a silence, broken only by the gushing of water, as both men struggled to think.

‘He said there would be a way to tell,’ Vandemarr hissed, frustrated. ‘There has to be something we can gauge it by! If you went missing the day before the assault on Coradion that means that you’ve been here since two-two-four!’

‘No,’ August said, ‘I was knocked unconscious before they put me in here. They might have kept me like that for weeks.’

‘How do you know? In this darkness it wouldn’t take long to lose track of time! A day even! In could be two-two-six for all we know!’

‘I haven’t been in here for two days!’ August snarled, spittle flying from his mouth. ‘Have you any idea what I’ve been through? Beatings! Meals a dog would turn its nose up at! More beatings! They pulled off my damn fingernails, Albrecht!’

He lurched forward and grabbed the Commissar, thrusting his fingers into the man’s face.

‘Look at me! Look at me damn you!’ he raged. Vandemarr couldn’t see a thing, and thrashed around in the water trying to find purchase on both the manic Captain and the floor, to stop himself being drowned. After a brief struggle, his hand found August’s hair, and he yanked him off.

August splashed back into the water, sobbing. Vandemarr sat back, breathing heavily from the sudden and unexpected exertion, his head throbbing in agony where more of the sewage water had found its way into the scalp wound.

‘Emperor,’ Vandemarr panted, more stunned than anything else.

‘I’m sorry,’ August was snivelling, his voice choked, ‘I’m so -’

‘Karl,’ Vandemarr cut in, feeling the stringy clump of unwashed hair between his fingers. ‘Your hair. How long is it?’

August abruptly stopped sobbing, and then slowly felt his hair and face.

‘It’s long,’ he breathed. ‘I…I hadn’t even thought about it,’

‘Neither had I,’ Vandemarr growled, instantly angry with himself for not picking up on it earlier. He moved through the water towards August and grabbed his head once more. His hair was noticeably longer, and a fine half-inch of stubble was coating the Captain’s face. Then he felt his own hair and face – both in a similar vein of ragged unkemptness to August’s.

‘When was the last time you shaved?’ Vandemarr asked.

‘The-the morning I was knocked out,’ August said. ‘We had to.’

Vandemarr nodded, remembering the mandatory shaving for every man not on line duty, every morning, to maintain the airtight seal between the skin and the gas masks they wore like second faces.

‘How long would it take you to grow a beard like that?’ he asked.

‘About a month?’ August said, not yet grasping its implications.

‘And I. That would make it two-five-four.’ Vandemarr concluded sourly. ‘It’s going to have been at least two days between when you were captured and when I was. So, what, two-five-six?’

‘I’ve been in here for a month?’ August asked, his voice breaking.

‘I don’t know,’ Vandemarr said. ‘I don’t know how long you were unconscious for before they put you in here. As I said earlier, you might have only been in here for two – that is, for a relatively short time, and unconscious for the rest.’

There was a silence whilst both men checked and re-checked their hair and faces. From a lifetime of service in the Guard, it was the longest it had ever been on both of them.

‘But…if you went missing the day after I did, and you’ve only just been put in here now…’ August continued through his probing, desperately trying to grasp the elusive solution to the mystery, ‘it has to be more than two days! It has to be! It feels like a lifetime!’

Vandemarr sat back in the water, then quickly sat forward again, remembering it was sewage.

‘I don’t know. I can’t explain in,’ he said resignedly. ‘I’m sure we’ll find out from this frag-head what’s going on, eventually.’

He stood up and cupped his hands around his mouth, looking directly upwards.

‘Two-five-six,’ he shouted above the cascading water. ‘That’s the date.’

There was a brief pause.

‘No,’ said the distorted voice, ‘it is not. But you are close. Seeing as you are running out of time, and I am eager for you to complete the second of your three tasks, I shall tell you.’

There was another pause, whilst both August and Vandemarr held their breath.

‘It is the two hundred and sixty-second day of nine-eight-one. Two-six-two. I want you to know this because it should help you decide where you are, which in turn will be of paramount importance in deciding how you arrived in this place. I want you to find out who I am. I want you to find out why I have brought you here. And I want you to do all of this before your time runs out. Then you will be given the third and final task. If you complete it, you will be freed.’

Vandemarr clenched his fists.

‘Damn you to hell!’ he roared to the ceiling.

‘Your time is running out, Commissar Vandemarr. I suggest you get to thinking.’

The voice cut out, and Vandemarr splashed back down into the water, angry. To be played on such a level was infuriating. He’d experienced it once before, at the hands of Inquisitor Brochs during the auxiliary trials. To be manipulated in such a way riled him beyond measure, and the anger was clouding his thoughts.

‘Two-six-two,’ August said distantly, snapping the Commissar’s focus back into the chamber. ‘Thirty eight days since I last saw Carthage.’ He snorted. ‘The hell hole that it was.’

‘Thirty seven,’ Vandemarr said. ‘For me.’

There was a silence, and the name, Lieutenant Hoyle, came to him again. It had been with him this whole time, gnawing away at the back of his mind. There had been something about him, something…odd.

‘Do you remember Lieutenant Hoyle?’ he suddenly asked August.

‘Yeah,’ the Captain replied. ‘He was a strange one wasn’t he? Following you around like that.’

‘Hm,’ Vandemarr said, trying desperately to remember.

‘Why do you think knowing the date is going to help us work out where we are?’ the Captain pressed.

‘Why do you think he wants us to work out who he is?’ Vandemarr replied vaguely, still preoccupied with Hoyle.

There was another silence.

‘You think Hoyle’s the reason you’re here?’ August asked, startling Vandemarr from his thoughts.

‘I do,’ Vandemarr replied grimly. ‘It was on Carthage, around two-two-two…’
 

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Discussion Starter #8
Chapter 5

“A good soldier obeys without question. A good officer commands without doubt.”

~ Imperial Guard maxim


2 Distrikt, Centre-north line
Carthage
Ultima Segmentum
222 982 M41​


~ Lieutenant Hoyle ~

‘DRIVE THEM BACK!’ Vandemarr roared, driving his sword through the thick sinew of the plaguebearer’s neck. The obese, wretched creature gurgled violently, spewing toxic effluents from its mouth as it writhed and snatched at his, by comparison, slight form. Vandemarr grunted as he yanked his sword free with both hands, and kicked it in the stomach. It burst, and a host of slippery, rotting guts exited, landing on the firing shelf of the centre-north line.

‘Die, damn you!’ Vandemarr snarled, pulling his bolt pistol from its holster and firing three shots into the plaguebearer’s head. It quickly and explosively disintegrated, and the hideous wretch collapsed, rolling back down the embankment.

He stepped back to take stock of the situation – almost impossible to do efficiently in the gas hood– and then instinctively ducked as a trio of Marauder bombers thundered overhead, releasing promethium bombs into the horde of advancing Chaos. Igniting, they streaked the approach with great barriers of flame, coating the advance in promethium and burning hundreds to an agonising death.

And still they came. Thousands of cultists, plaguebearers, mutants and Defilers crashed against all five kilometres of the centre-north line like a tide of fetid water, barely held at bay by the beleaguered Imperial defenders. Nurglings and other Chaos vermin covered the duckboards, worrying at corpses and gnawing on feet, whilst scores of diseased cultists charged and overran weapons emplacements. From the embankment, lethal volleys of las fire and solid shot hissed overhead, pitting the sandbags lining the firing shelf and tearing up chunks of earth from the back wall of the trench.

All around him, hundreds of mud-soaked, gas-hooded Guardsmen, dragged from every available dugout, billet and bunker, fired back.

‘You are soldiers of the Emperor!’ Vandemarr bellowed as more cultists poured over the trench wall. ‘Know no fear! Have no mercy!’

He batted aside a crude iron blade, and eviscerated its wielder.

‘You will hold the line, in His name! He is watching you, now in this hour of darkness! Fear not! He will see you through! I will see you through! Courage, men of Farrax! Courage for the Emperor!’

He stabbed his sword into the ground and lifted his lasgun, and fired a healthy burst on full auto into a group of plaguebearers lumbering up the embankment. Then he let it fall back onto its strap and lifted his sword.

‘Get up!’ he snarled at a cowering Farraxian next to him, then turned as another cultist braved the Imperial fire and dropped into the trench. Vandemarr ducked past a clumsy bayonet swing, then brought his sword up into the attacker’s groin.

‘Fear the Emperor’s wrath, scum!’ he spat, rage drunk, and heaved his sword upwards. Blackened intestines splattered onto the duckboards, and an un-filterable stink erupted from the horrendous wound. The cultist collapsed into the blood-soaked trench.

‘Get up!’ Vandemarr snarled as he turned back to see the weeping Farraxian still crouched. He was beginning to draw the attention of his comrades.

‘Get up and fight!’ Vandemarr shouted again, lashing out with a boot. ‘Damn you man! Fight!’

He pulled his bolt pistol from its holster and aimed it at his head.

‘INCOMING!’ someone screamed, and the man and a good deal of the surrounding trench explosively disappeared in a ball of flame. Vandemarr was propelled backwards into the next Farraxian, and both fell onto the bloody duckboards.

‘Schtan,’ he grunted, pressing himself up. And then the ever-present Nurglings surrounded him, scrabbling over his armour and fatigues. Horribly aware of the taint and disease they each carried, he launched himself off the duckboarding and swatted them off rabidly, stamping on their small, bloated forms and crushing them underfoot.

The Farraxian he had landed on was not so fortunate. With a boot stuck in the rut between the duckboards and the trench sump, the Chaos vermin were quick to tear into his skin and rummage around in the warm organs inside.

Vandemarr put a bolt through his skull.

‘Sir!’ came a voice in his earpiece, ‘enemy armour moving up the western flank!’

Vandemarr turned in cold horror to see two Defilers spidering up the embankment through the smoke, blasting great chunks out of the centre north with their chest-mounted cannons. They were huge lumbering hulks of iron, draped in flesh, covered in impaled heads and oozing corruption like bloated corpses. Maggots and putrefying vermin slithered and crawled over their contaminated surfaces, writhing through bulging armour plates and feasting on the fleshy tumours swelling at the joints. For once, Vandemarr was thankful for the gas hood.

‘Carver! Get the Kormandolt on those Defilers!’ he shouted to his vox officer.

‘They’ve got no shells left, sir!’ the man replied over the comlink. ‘I’ve already sent a message to dispatch!’

‘Then call in the air!’ Vandemarr shouted back, turning to see the Farraxian next to him suddenly dissolved in a stream of corrosive vomit. He charged forwards and decapitated the plaguebearer, then stumbled as another blast rocked the trench, hurling duckboards, sandbags and sheets of adamantium down the embankment. Swarms of cultists and diseased mutants rushed to fill the breach, cramming into the maw with an insatiable bloodlust.

‘Now, Carver!’ Vandemarr cried. If they did not stem the tide soon, the whole centre-north would be lost.

Seconds later, a deep rumble filled the sky. As the Defilers prepared to unleash another barrage on the trench, a squadron of fleet-arm Thunderbolts tore through the toxic maelstrom of gas clouds above, and in attack formation, strafed the two wretched Chaos machines with salvos of rockets. The Defilers were slammed sideways with the tide of munitions, flayed of armour and limbs under the unrelenting hail of rockets, explosively stripped of rotting viscera and Nurgling symbionts. Craters of earth were torn up around them as the Thunderbolts shot past, a blur of Imperial air power in the bright cerulean livery of the Blue Bolt in orbit above, before the aircraft banked and pulled back up into the maelstrom.

‘Now men!’ Vandemarr roared, exhausted and drenched in mud and blood. ‘Deny them! Now is the time!’

He unleashed a full salvo with his bolt pistol, and tossed it aside when it clacked empty. If they did not retake the advantage now, they would not retake the advantage.

‘Onwards! Drive them back! Death or glory!’

He drew his sword once more, and led the 9th company out of the trench.


* * *

The dugout was a low one, a large pit excavated out the bottom of the trench a kilometre back from the centre north line, built specifically as a gas-free cavity. Lining the walls were opened sacks of caustic soda and ammonium bicarbonate, absorbing any of the gas unfiltered by the fans above, and cages of vermin and canara, a local bird, hung from the ceiling to detect any leaks. It was one of the only gas-free dugouts that hadn’t taken a direct hit from the enemy artillery, and as such it was crowded with mud-encrusted Guardsmen from all three regiments manning the centre north line.

Vandemarr relished in removing his gas hood, breathing in the musty, stale air of Carthage for the firth time that week. Although it reeked of sweat, blood and filth, it was a hundred times better than the close confines of the hood and rebreather – an apparatus one never accustomed to.

He made his way down the wooden shelves and into the base of the dugout – some sixty metres long and decked out with benches, tables and a recaff and fresh water station at the far end. The noise of hundreds of shouting Guardsmen – most gambling or watching vermin fight in small pits – filled the air. It was almost claustrophobic, enclosed by the ranks of Farraxian, Kormandolt and Kareshian Guardsmen, all mask-less, all trying to shout above each other.

Most parted for him as he made his way through the masses, and a pair of Kormandolt, in their distinctive, stiff brown jackets, shuffled over to allow him access to a bench. He sat down, slumping against the rusty adamantium sheet behind him, and then began the task of removing his boots.

‘Commissar, sir?’ came a familiar voice. Vandemarr looked up and saw Lieutenant Hoyle from third platoon standing over him.

And sighed.

Hoyle was a commander’s worst nightmare, the kind of man who meant well but ended up being incredibly annoying. Hoyle had followed Vandemarr like a shadow, offering him everything from his extra rations to shining his boots for the officer’s dinner at GHQ. If Vandemarr led an attack, Hoyle would be there at his side, screaming for all he was worth; whenever Vandemarr was carrying out a punishment, Hoyle would be there, praising his efforts and denouncing the punishee. Vandemarr’s dealings with Hoyle had ranged from bemused tolerance to outright contempt, though he had never found – irritatingly – an excuse to relieve him of the command of third platoon, who he was sure had no respect for the man.

And here he was again, a young man with a crop of damp brown hair and piercing blue eyes, standing in front of him, smiling.

Vandemarr grunted as he managed to free his left boot, and turned his nose up at the smell his swollen, clammy feet exuded. They were white, puckered and mouldy, not unlike a drowned corpse, and about two days from gangrene. The Kormandolt mumbled something about the smell, and Vandemarr rounded on them.

‘Have you men checked your feet today?’ he asked, narrowing his eyes.

‘No, sir,’ they both said uncomfortably.

‘Failure to do so is punishable by summary execution,’ Vandemarr said darkly. ‘I trust you read your Primers before planetfall?’

‘I’ve checked mine, sir,’ Hoyle said hopefully.

‘Thank you Lieutenant,’ Vandemarr replied, not turning away. Both Kormandolt men began hastily unlacing their boots.

‘That’s better,’ he growled, turning back to his own. He pulled out a damp rag from his webbing and began towelling them off, removing the mould and excess moisture.

‘Was there something you wanted, Lieutenant?’ he asked, starting on his right boot. It was encrusted with three inches of mud, and in the small alcove under the heel, a preserved Nurgling eyeball was embedded in the wet, clay-like earth. He flicked it out with his bayonet, and resumed unlacing.

‘No, sir, just…seeing how you were. Can I get you anything?’

‘I’m fine for the moment,’ Vandemarr said grimly, as his second stinking foot was freed from its cold, wet prison.

‘Do you need any socks? I have spare,’ Hoyle continued.

‘I’ve got some,’ Vandemarr said, rubbing the swollen, pallid flesh. ‘You’ll need them more than me.’

There was an uncomfortable pause, in which Vandemarr pretended to be preoccupied with his feet.

‘Sir?’ Hoyle said, slowly.

‘Yes Lieutenant?’

‘That attack you led today…out from the trenches. That was amazing.’

‘All in the service of the Emperor,’ Vandemarr said, gasping slightly as he removed an inch long needle of wood from his heel.

‘You sensed the advantage really well…I’ve never seen such inspired battlefield tactics, sir,’ Hoyle continued, evidently oblivious to how obsequious he sounded.

‘Thank you, Lieutenant,’ Vandemarr said, still not looking up. Satisfied with his feet, he tucked the rag back into his webbing and pulled out a fresh pair of socks. All around him, he noticed Guardsmen doing the same.

‘Just thought I’d say,’ Hoyle finished. ‘Sir.’

‘Duly noted,’ Vandemarr said, sensing the man’s concluding tone. ‘I’ll see you on line duty,’ he said.

‘Yes, sir.’ Hoyle replied, then snapped to attention, pivoted, and marched off.

Vandemarr bunched his old socks together and tucked them into his webbing, then noticed the two Kormandolt men looking at him with quizzically bemused faces.

‘Don’t ask,’ he growled, and began re-lacing his boots.
 

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Discussion Starter #9
Chapter 6


‘Blessed is the mind too small for doubt.’

- Inquisitorial maxim


Unknown location
982 M41​


~ Schtan ~

‘He was strange,’ August shouted above the frothy torrent, ‘he followed me around for a bit as well, though nowhere near as much as he did you. Though I can’t understand why you think his weird love was a reason to betray you.’

‘There’s more to it than that!’ Vandemarr snapped, trying desperately to remember. ‘When we assaulted Coradion…there was…’ flashbacks flickered through his head – the explosions, the screams, the sound of his own breath in the rebreather.

‘I can’t think with all this damnable water!’ he snarled, dashing it with his fist. It was up to the top of their chests sitting down, and was starting to make breathing difficult; but it was, perhaps worryingly, warm – certainly warmer than the air above it, and both Vandemarr and August were willing to sacrifice a few more minutes of easy breathing if it meant keeping temperatures at an acceptable level.

Vandemarr sighed as his memory failed him. Without August to constantly prompt him, he doubted he’d have been able to remember anything at all. Perhaps that was the reason why the thing behind the voice had put them in the chamber together.

‘Any more thoughts on why we’re here?’ August asked dejectedly, having long given up on his own theories.

Vandemarr paused, unsure whether to voice his opinions. He had indeed been giving it thought, though August hadn’t exactly had a history of taking bad news well.

‘Yes,’ he said hesitantly. ‘But if you don’t think you can handle it, I’m not going to tell you.’

Throwing all tolerance and diplomacy to the wind, he leant back and awaited August’s response.

‘Alright,’ the Captain said tightly. ‘I’m not insane, Vandemarr. Just shaken.’

Vandemarr smiled. August’s anger had been the most encouraging emotion he’d displayed so far.

‘Good,’ he said, quickly, riding on the Captain’s indignance, ‘because I don’t think we’re on Carthage anymore.’

There was a silence.

‘That’s…not good,’ August said eventually.

‘No,’ Vandemarr conceded. ‘It isn’t.’

He waited for August to talk again.

‘So where do you think we are?’ the Captain asked slowly, annoyed. His voice betrayed no signs of any emotional breakdown – no imminent collapse of sanity, no quiver. Vandemarr silently thanked the Emperor, and took a deep breath.

‘I think we’re on a Chaos-held world,’ he said. ‘I think it explains the month we’ve lost. I think that’s a month’s worth of transit. I also think that if we were still on Carthage, given our huge advantage by the time we assaulted Coradion, we would have been liberated right now. And it also might explain away the difference between how long we’ve both been in here. If we were brought here on two separate ships, one might have been delayed. It explains why we’ve both been missing for roughly the same amount of days but haven’t spent the same time in this cell.’

He finished the monologue, stood up, and inhaled deeply, unable to take the pressure of water on his ribcage anymore. ‘That’s what I think.’

He waded through the water towards the closest wall, and leant against it, waiting for August’s response.

‘Wow,’ the Captain said from the middle of the chamber. ‘That’s…really not good.’

Vandemarr shook his head.

‘No,’ he said again, ‘it isn’t.’

They both waited in silence for the other to speak, listening to the cascading water. Vandemarr knew, since his entire career had been devoted to inspiring men, that he should be the one to offer a word of comfort; but he was too wrapped up in his own thoughts, or lack thereof. It was difficult to grasp the fact that the water – thus far reasonably harmless – would eventually cause his death. He didn’t believe for a second that guessing who their tormentor was would cause him to shut it off. He was simply playing mind games with them. The only reason Vandemarr persevered was for his own satisfaction, in the hope that he may yet escape and throttle the whoreson himself.

‘You mentioned that Hoyle followed you around for a bit,’ he prompted eventually. Not exactly comforting, but they were on a time limit, and August was a grown man.

‘Yeah,’ August said distantly. ‘He did. As I said, not as much as he followed you. Maybe he was just the following type.’

Vandemarr snorted.

‘Maybe,’ he replied grimly. ‘I think there was something about him, though. Some men are good actors. Maybe Hoyle was just a very patient man with a grudge. In the auxiliary trial – the one I was telling you about?’

‘The one where you blew your partner’s head off after you found out he was a Tau sympathiser?’ August said, sneering.

Vandemarr nodded, then remembered they were in pitch blackness.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Codey.’ He paused as he remembered it; the crowded bar, the music, the look on his junior’s face as the back of his head exploded. It was currently the only memory he had no wish to keep.

‘The point is,’ he continued, relegating it to the back of his mind, ‘the man we were defending, a Captain called John Garrick, had me believe – very convincingly – that he was innocent. Not once did I doubt him. So strong was my conviction I was willing to kill to defend him, to defy Inquisitors and the whole of Kalen Primo if necessary. To find out that I had made such a terrible error in judgement was…’

‘Schtan?’ August offered.

‘Schtan.’ Vandemarr agreed, sighing. ‘Evil men can be excellent actors, August. Never forget that.’

There was a brief pause.

‘Why on earth would Hoyle have a grudge against you, though? August asked, evidently unconvinced. ‘You only met him on Farrax-Carthage port!’

‘I’m a Commissar,’ Vandemarr said. ‘A Captain-Commissar, now. I don’t need to have done anything to make enemies.’

For what seemed like the thousandth time, the roaring water took up the cessation in dialogue.

‘When did he follow you around, then?’ Vandemarr asked. He was sure there was something wrong with Hoyle, he just needed to remember what it was.

‘You remember that conversation we had in the bunker? It must have been around…two-two-three?’ August said.

‘I remember it,’ Vandemarr said, barely remembering it.

‘Well it started then…’
 

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Thanks Kale, I really appreciate it :grin:


Chapter 7

“One man can start a landslide with the casting of a single pebble.”

~ Imperial Proverb


2 Distrikt, Centre-north line
Carthage
Ultima Segmentum
223 982 M41​


~ A Conversation ~

There were some stray shots, but for the most part, the assault was over. For the third time that week, the embankment of the centre north line was strewn with corpses; diseased plaguebearers, rotting cultists, bloated walkers. A score of Farraxians were amongst them, their mud-drenched fatigues making them almost invisible against the clay-like earth. All around, the stink of death pervaded – or would, if the defenders had been able to remove their gas hoods.

Above, the scudding clouds of gas soared through the sky like toxic corsairs. Even further up, grey thunderheads loomed, promising rain. Plumes of promethium smoke marred the horizon, amongst the skeletal remains of bombed manufactoriums and the distant towers of Coradion. Kilometres north, swarms of aircraft clashed, filling the atmosphere with chattering munitions.

August trudged across the top of the firing shelf, exhausted and freezing, and kicked enemy corpses. Those that stirred were shot, and then torched by the flamer teams behind him. It wouldn’t do to have such vast pockets of taint so close to the lines. All around him, men were performing the mind-numbing post-battle cleanup; stretchering away the corpses of the Guard, giving the last rites to the dying, bulldozing the enemy dead into bonfires.

He looked up as a strong breeze washed over him, chilling his already soaked fatigues and drying the inch of mud that had become an inaugural part of his uniform. The sky was darkening already, as the first hints of winter began to set in. All around him, foul moods prevailed. A pair of Kormandolt argued atop a Conqueror. To his left, a Farraxian was bayoneting a cultist in frustration over a lost comrade. It was not a good time to be on Carthage.

He carried on down the firing shelf, and reached a flat-topped rockcrete bunker, covered in netting and mud, and sandbagged round the edges.

‘I’m going to check down here,’ he called back to the flamer teams. It was a lie, but he was cold and wet, and he needed to check his feet.

‘Hn,’ one of the gas masked men grunted, setting a rotting plaguebearer alight. Green flames wreathed the corpse, and the pungent, un-filterable stink of Chaos erupted from the flaming cadaver.

August put one hand on the sandbags, and jumped down into the trench.

‘Emperor!’ a gas-hooded Commissar shouted, pulling his sword on August.

‘Schtan!’ August cried out, recoiling, then slowly lowered his hands. ‘Vandemarr you scared the shi-’

‘Commissar,’ Vandemarr interrupted sharply, sheathing his sword, ‘when we’re not alone. You wouldn’t believe how strict the Primer is.’

August grinned under his rebreather.

‘It’s good to see you, Commissar,’ he said, walking forward and clasping Vandemarr’s hand. Mud squelched in between the cracks in their gloves.

‘And you,’ Vandemarr replied. ‘All in one piece too. An increasing rarity with these enemy attacks.’

August grunted, grabbing a wooden stool and sitting down. He took the opportunity and started unlacing his boots. ‘Anyone would think they were desperate,’ he said, a little hopefully.

‘Or recently reinforced,’ Vandemarr remarked, looking out through the bunker’s vision slit.

‘Ever the pessimist.’

‘Wouldn’t be much of a Commissar if I wasn’t,’ Vandemarr said, not taking his eyes off no man’s land.

A brief, comfortable silence settled between the two men.

‘How’s the company treating you?’ Vandemarr asked. Since August had been transferred from his parent regiment after the incident on the Black Manticore – the 141st Imperial Hussars – it remained a pertinent query.

‘Good,’ August said, ‘first platoon particularly. Lieutenant Auskar is a good man. Used to be a Sergeant, until Bialy was killed. Did I tell you?’

‘Someone certainly mentioned it,’ Vandemarr said, lifting his magnoculars from their strap. Over no man’s land, the evening bombing runs started, and the distant grumbling of Marauder engines and the echoing boom of explosions reached the bunker. ‘Not a bad bunch, the Farraxians.’

August winced as he peeled back his sodden socks, to reveal a foot green with mould.

‘I spoke to Colonel Hasek the other day,’ he said, pulling out his foot rag. ‘He seemed impressed with your Captaining skills.’

‘Did he?’ Vandemarr said, watching as a manufactorium wall crumpled. ‘I’m surprised.’

‘Why?’ August asked quickly.

There was a pause.

‘No reason,’ Vandemarr muttered, shaking his head. ‘How many have you lost then? Since I last saw you, anyway.’

‘In the last month? About twenty. We’ll be looking at three platoons soon,’ August said, spitting on his feet and scrubbing at the mould. To his relief, it came off. ‘I managed to bulk out second platoon with some men from the 430th, their fifth company. They were the ones on line duty last Thursday.’

‘Poor sods,’ Vandemarr said, remembering the forty body bags piled up in the arterial access trench now affectionately known as ‘death alley’.

‘What have you been doing, anyway?’ August asked, pulling out a dry, but not clean, pair of socks.

‘The usual,’ Vandemarr replied, turning away from the vision slit and letting the magnoculars fall back onto their strap. ‘Inspiring, punishing. Moving around the company, making sure everyone’s alright. Tallying KIAs, signing death certificates, finding replacement troops from anywhere and everywhere.’

‘Haven’t seen you round first platoon much,’ August said, starting on his other boot.

‘I don’t need to, I’ve got you,’ Vandemarr said, grinning. ‘You’re the man on the ground, Karl; I just do the admin.’

August knew it was a joke, but the sight of his left foot quickly robbed him of his humour. The toes, long numb, were blackening at the end.

‘Ah,’ Vandemarr said, leaning forward. ‘Frostbite. Where did I leave that pistol?’

‘Schtan,’ August said in horror.

‘Schtan,’ Vandemarr agreed. ‘Better get those warmed up soldier, or I’ll have to kill you.’

August looked up, the look of horror on his face concealed by the gas hood.

‘You wouldn’t…’ he said eventually, unsure whether the Commissar was joking.

‘The Emperor’s justice has no regard for rank or friendship, Karl,’ Vandemarr said sternly, thankful the gas hood masked his own smile. ‘In the last two months I’ve shot three men for trench foot.’

A second, much more uncomfortable silence filled the bunker. August shook his head, perplexed.

‘After all we’ve been through?’ he asked, incredulous yet at the same time genuinely afraid. ‘On Illythia? On the Manticore? Here on Carthage? You’d shoot me?’

Vandemarr burst out laughing, making no effort to draw the joke out any longer.

‘Emperor, Karl, lighten up!’ he said, slapping the Captain on the shoulder. ‘I’m not going to kill you for frostbite!’

August scowled under the rebreather. He was unaccustomed to Vandemarr’s seldom-expressed sense of humour, and now that he had been at the butt-end of it, he had no wish to be privy to it again.

‘I think I preferred you when you were a miserable sod,’ he growled, massaging his numb toes.

Vandemarr was still laughing. It seemed strange to hear it in the midst of such grim and miserable conditions, surrounded by gas and death.

And then a figure appeared in the entrance to the bunker – a man with a Lieutenant’s stripes, and the Commissar abruptly stopped.

‘Hoyle,’ he nodded grimly.

‘Commissar Vandemarr, Captain August,’ Hoyle said, snapping to attention and saluting smartly.

‘Lieutenant,’ August said, half-heartedly saluting back.

‘Was there something you wanted?’ Vandemarr asked, after an uncomfortable silence. Hoyle was looking back and forth between them, though his expression was unreadable behind the gas hood.

‘No, sir, just passing through,’ he said, moving between Vandemarr and August and towards the opposite exit. He turned and looked one last time around the bunker, then turned on his heel and quickly left.

‘Odd,’ August remarked.

‘You don’t know the half of it,’ Vandemarr said, bringing the magnoculars back up to his eyes.

* * *

His feet dry and clear of mould, August trudged back across the duckboards and headed south. He was not on line duty, and the beleaguered Kareshians, tall, ebony-skinned men, populated the trench, some watching the Marauders finish strafing no man’s land, most huddled in groups, conversing in a planetary dialect of gothic. They paid him no attention as he walked past. With his mud-encrusted fatigues, it would be difficult, without close scrutiny, to tell him apart.

The sky above was darkening, and a cold wind was setting in. Sodium lamps hanging on spools of wire swung back and forth in the breeze, sending dim shadows flitting across the duckboards. Kormandolt engines grumbled in the biting air, steaming as they vented heat, carefully monitored by their brown-jacketed operators.

A word from his vox officer, Korbel, told him first platoon were a kilometre behind lines, holed-up in a couple of dugouts and sleeping, and most of the rest of the 9th were doing likewise. Satisfied, August cancelled the link and stopped, moving up to the sandbagged firing shelf.

Out across no man’s land, the last of the day’s sun faded, withdrawing its blood-red fingers to the horizon. The last of the Marauders growled into the clouds above, returning to the Blue Bolt in orbit, and silence, save the occasional muttered word from the Kareshians, took hold.

‘Captain,’ came a depressingly familiar voice at his shoulder.

‘Lieutenant,’ August replied, managing to stop the contempt he was feeling seep into his voice. ‘You should be back with third platoon, sleeping. We’re on line duty at dawn.’

‘How long have you known the Commissar, sir?’ Hoyle asked, ignoring him.

August didn’t take his eyes off the horizon.

‘Five months?’ he said vaguely, wrong-footed by the question.

‘Where did you meet him?’

‘Uh…Illythia,’ August said, mildly unsettled by the Lieutenant’s questions. ‘Tyranids. He was investigating some murders on the Black Manticore. Needed someone to show him around.’

‘That’s what I thought,’ Hoyle whispered. It was quiet, but even over the rebreather August heard it.

‘What?’ he asked, his attention engaged.

‘I’ve heard about him. And you, before. And Fleet Admiral Hyrgen. You stopped that genestealer cult on the Black Manticore, didn’t you?’

August wheeled round to face him.

‘If you already knew, why did you ask?’ he asked, ill at ease in the Lieutenant’s presence. ‘And how did you know that, anyway?’

The Lieutenant paused incredulously.

‘Is that a joke, sir?’ Hoyle asked in a breathy, awed voice. ‘Everyone knows it! We knew it before you both arrived at Farrax-Carthage.’ He paused, searching for the words. ‘I didn’t want to ask the Commissar…I didn’t want to pry.’

‘You’re the first person to bring it up, actually,’ August said, softening, deciding they were harmless questions. He turned back to the firing shelf, suddenly uncomfortable with his newly-discovered reputation. ‘I didn’t know it was so well known. Word travels quickly.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Hoyle said. ‘It does.’

August pretended to look out over no man’s land again, but found he couldn’t with Hoyle standing next to him. He quickly gave up, and feigned a yawn – difficult in a rebreather.

‘I’m going to head back,’ he said. ‘Get some sleep.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ Hoyle said quickly, with what August assumed was a hopeful smile. Finding no plausible reason to deny him, he quickly acquiesced.

‘Alright,’ he said simply, and stepped down off the firing shelf.

‘You walk quickly,’ Hoyle said after about ten seconds of brisk striding.

‘Do I?’ August replied, and quickened his pace.
 

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Chapter 8

‘You are not free whose liberty is won by the rigour of other, more righteous souls. You are merely protected. Your freedom is parasitic; you suck the honourable man dry and offer nothing in return. You who have enjoyed freedom, who have done nothing to earn it, your time has come. This time you will stand alone and fight for yourselves. Now you will pay for your freedom in the currency of honest toil and human blood.’

- Inquisitor Czevak Address to the Council of Ryanti


2 Distrikt, Centre-north line
Carthage
Ultima Segmentum
224 982 M41​



~ A Traitor in the Midst ~


‘UP UP UP! TO THE LINE! THEY’VE –’

The soon-to-be-unidentified Sergeant never finished the sentence. Less than a second later, he suddenly disappeared in a huge concussive blast that seemed to shake the planet to its very core. Smoke, mud, rockcrete, splinters of duckboarding and slices of adamantium fired through the entrance like some colossal frag grenade and tore an entire platoon of sleeping Farraxians to shreds. Blood and pulped human flayed the inside of the dugout, followed by an expanding ball of purple flame that wreathed the remaining billets and burnt any surviving men to death. Its oxygen eaten and its supports destroyed, the dugout collapsed in a landslide of wet mud and sandbags, and entombed the forty men inside so quickly it was as if they never were.

Fortunately for Captain August, he was not in that dugout.

‘Schtan!’ he shouted as he watched in horror from the next dugout. ‘Up up up!’

All around him, those who had not been awoken by the blasts soon were. Lieutenant Auskar leapt from his billet like a man possessed, and along with Sergeant Drakov, threatened to bring down their own dugout with rabid shouting that would put off an Ork WAAAGH!.

‘Sir!’ Korbel shouted breathlessly, appearing in the entrance, ‘orders from dispatch! Every man to the front! Enemy assaulting in force!’

‘Dammit,’ August hissed as he jumped down from his billet, feeling ribbons of pain shoot across his feet as his thawing toes hit the ground. ‘Go go go! Everyone! Now!’ he barked.

They went. The platoon, caked in an inch of dried mud, clamoured for lasguns and scrambled for the dugout exit. There was no time for rousing speeches, no time for an orderly fall-in. Outside, more explosions boomed in the cold, half light of the early morning, and the dismayingly familiar whine of warning sirens filled the air.

August grabbed his lasgun once the last man had gone, and followed, falling into step behind Lieutenant Auskar. A light rain drizzled down from the gunmetal grey sky, and sheeted the duckboards in a fine layer of toxic water. All around him, hundreds of soaking Guardsmen splashed across mud and puddles, along with rats and other vermin escaping the flooded trench sump. Ahead, the darkened sky was under-lit by bright flashes, and the growling of Marauder and Thunderbolt engines rumbled through the clouds.

‘To hell with this,’ Auskar murmured as the trench widened and August was able to run next to him. Either side of them, scores of Farraxians barged and shuffled against each other, like cattle being penned in for the slaughter. The comparison was not an encouraging one, and August quickly put it from his mind.

‘I just saw third platoon wiped out,’ he said grimly. ‘Dugout took a direct hit.’

‘Aye, I saw it too,’ Auskar replied, wiping away the rainwater from the lenses of his gas hood. ‘Poor bastards. Hoyle’s lot.’

A sudden shot of adrenaline fired through August’s stomach. He hadn’t even considered Hoyle, who he’d only managed to get rid of the night before after his conversation with Vandemarr. Now he felt guilty he hadn’t shown the man more tolerance.

A series of shrieks and explosions quickly robbed him of such thoughts, however. Not a hundred metres ahead, a string of blasts rocked the trench, hurling men and mud into the air. Oaths, gasps and prayers cluttered the comlink.

‘Focus!’ August snapped, as they blindly trampled the dead and dying. Some screamed out for mercy, and found it at the barrel of a hastily aimed lasgun. Others screamed for their mothers, and were left uncomforted. A few medicae stayed, hastily unstrapping field kits and pulling stretchers from their backs, only to find themselves pulled back into the crush by snarling NCOs.

Ahead, the centre north line spanned the horizon, wreathed in smoke and flame. Lines of tracer cluttered the skyline, and the gas clouds floating overhead were illuminated by sporadic explosions like flashes of lightning. All around them shells screamed through the air, detonating amongst thousands of Guardsmen and kilometres of trench line. The air battle, half lost in the clouds above, was almost forgotten over the sounds of the artillery bombardment; but as August looked up he saw Imperial and Chaos aircraft diving and chasing through the thunderheads amidst bursts of las fire and rockets.

‘Schtan,’ he whispered to himself. He recalled his conversation with Vandemarr the night before, and hoped that he had been right, and the enemy were desperate. With a large-scale coordinated offensive like this, however, it was difficult thing to believe with any conviction.

More explosions rocked the ground, breaking him from his musings. To the south, the Imperial gun pits opened up, and suddenly the sky was thick with shells and the air was filled with an artillery exchange of deafening proportions.

The platoon ran on. They reached the arterial access trench – the aptly named ‘death alley’ – to find it living up to its title. There, hundreds of wounded were being pulled back from the centre-north line and dumped by the side of the trench. The sump was awash with blood, and the air was filled with agonised screaming as men clutched wounds desperately or found themselves at the butt end of emergency amputations. The Farraxians looked on them with anxious faces, though their expressions were hidden from the bellowing commissars lining the tops of the trench walls. August briefly wondered if one of them was Vandemarr.

‘You ready?’ he asked Auskar next to him through gritted teeth.

‘Ready as I’ll ever be, Captain,’ the Lieutenant replied. August nodded, and then instinctively ducked as an enemy aircraft burst from the bottom of the gas clouds and strafed the column, tearing the duckboards to splinters and ripping the injured and medicae to pieces. Seconds later, an Imperial Valkyrie screamed overhead in pursuit, and with a healthy burst from its underslung hellfire rocket pods brought the Chaos abomination down two hundred metres away. It exploded in a green fireball, and somewhere inside, something screamed.

‘Keep moving,’ August said across the comlink in as confident a voice as he could muster. He hastily wiped the rainwater from his gas hood lenses, and kept his head down. Fighting was the easy part; it was the build-up that was weighing on his mind.

He didn’t have long to think about it. Within five minutes they had reached the wooden shelving and coils of barbed wire that led up the embankment and to the centre north line. Overhead, munitions hissed and spat, and the roaring of daemonspawn filled their ears. The warp presence was so strong that many suffered instant ear and nosebleeds, and succumbed to dark whispers and ungodly laughter.

‘Keep moving!’ August shouted, wishing he could think of something more inspiring to say. ‘The Emperor is with you!’

Except that the Emperor wasn’t. At least, not with the first rank of Farraxians to crest the top of the centre-north. With a deafening burst of automatic fire, and what sounded like someone chopping into a bovine corpse with an axe, twelve men twisted back down the shelves in sprays of blood. Headless, limbless, generally devoid of flesh, the corpses slumped against the trench wall, and destroyed any last vestige of morale the ensuing first platoon may have held.

And then Vandemarr was amongst them.

‘Onwards!’ he roared, his sword held aloft, soaked in Chaos blood and filth. ‘Hold them here! Fight them here! They dare to invade our worlds! They dare to stand before the Imperium! Punish them for it! Make them rue the day they ever stepped foot on this land! Never was there a more worthy and noble cause than this! They wish a battle this day, then by the God-Emperor men, let’s give them a battle! I will see you through it! I will see you home! For Carthage! For Farrax! FOR THE EMPEROR!’

Roused beyond what August would have thought possible and screaming their defiance into stifling rebreathers, they charged forward into the trench like only the most fearless of men could. Ahead, diseased plaguebearers, rotting cultists and bloated mutants all swarmed up the embankment and over the firing shelf, with enough terror-filled imagery to last two lifetimes of nightmares; yet they were stirred to such righteous fury that the enemy advance soon turned to an enemy slaughter. August watched Vandemarr in the thick of it, hacking with his sword, blasting wildly with his bolt pistol, whipped into a fervour so strong it was like watching one of the great Imperial saints in the midst of a holy crusade.

And then he roared his own defiance and charged into the maw, driving his bayonet deep into the skull of a cultist and blowing half its head off with a las blast. He turned to find another target, and watched as Sergeant Drakov was engulfed in a stream of stinking brown acid-vomit; but only hatred burned within him, and he barrelled forward, firing from the hip. The plaguebearer recoiled under the onslaught, flayed of flesh and organs under the hail of phosphorescent las shot, until one found its head, bursting its maggot-infested skull open.

‘Come, traitor, and die on my blade!’ Vandemarr roared from atop the firing shelf, cutting another cultist in half, then blasting open a mutant’s ribcage with his bolt pistol. August snarled his zeal and leapt onto the firing shelf, amidst the hail of munitions.

‘Drive them back!’ he bellowed, blowing open another plaguebearer’s head. The men of first platoon were soon with them, leaving behind only corpses in the trench. Down the centre-north line, hundreds more Guardsmen, inspired, did likewise, scrambling up the trench ladders and clashing with the furious onslaught on the embankment itself. Overhead, formations of Blue Bolt Marauder bombers strafed the enemy advance, adding to the thick layer of destruction wrought by the Imperial gun pits and the entrenched Kormandolt tanks.

In the midst of such ferocious and chaotic fighting, no-one noticed the lone Kormandolt Guardsman moving through the mêlée. As the deafening artillery explosions rocked the earth and the snarling of dying heretics filled the air, no-one saw the figure approach Captain August from behind.

And as the Chaos defiler crawled up the embankment and opened fire on the trench, no-one noticed the man club August across the back of the skull, and drag him back into the trench.
 

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Chapter 9


‘Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.’

- Inquisitorial Maxim


Unknown location
982 M41​


~ Closer ~

‘But Hoyle can’t be dead!” Vandemarr shouted. ‘He’s the one who got me here! He has to have been!’

‘Why?’ August asked. ‘His whole platoon was obliterated! I watched it happen!’

Vandemarr snarled his frustration. ‘And why didn’t you tell me he was asking about us? About the Manticore?’

‘Maybe because I was knocked out and dumped in this piss hole!’ August shouted back.

‘That –’ Vandemarr stopped himself. The argument was getting them nowhere. The water was up to their chests standing up, and had covered the tops of the pipes, causing strong undercurrents. They needed to think quickly.

‘We’re going to drown in the next forty minutes if we don’t start thinking,’ he said.

August snorted. ‘No,’ he mocked. Vandemarr fixed him – or his vague position in the pitch black chamber – a withering look.

‘I don’t think Hoyle is dead,’ he said. ‘You’re wrong.’

‘Well did you tally him on the KIA list after the attack?’ August asked, his voice unpleasant.

Flashbacks assaulted Vandemarr’s mind. The dataslate, the stylus, the dugout, signing death certificates…

‘MIA,’ he said slowly. ‘He was MIA.’

‘Yeah, along with the whole of third platoon I bet,’ August sneered. ‘Buried under five metres of mud?’

‘Shut up,’ Vandemarr snapped. ‘Last time I checked ‘M’ stood for ‘Missing’.’

‘Yes, missing under a collapsed bunker!’ August pressed, swiping at the water angrily.

There was an interminable pause.

‘Let’s just concentrate on what we think we know,’ Vandemarr growled eventually. He was not in a forgiving mood, and August was trying his patience.

‘You think we’re on a Chaos-held world. In which case we are dead any-.’

‘Wait,’ Vandemarr interjected. ‘What about Colonel Hasek?’

‘What about him?’

‘What if he had something to do with this?’

Another pause.

‘Well like what? You think he and Hoyle are in league together?’ August asked, his scorn quickly replaced by intrigue.

Vandemarr thought – a process rapidly becoming less and less difficult.

‘I was attacked by Kormandolt,’ he said slowly, ‘On the Blue Bolt. Did you see who attacked you?’

‘No,’ August said bitterly. ‘Son of a bitch hit me from behind.’

Vandemarr vented his frustration on the surrounding water. When he spoke again, he shouted.

‘I have an argument with Hasek. Half an hour later I’m nearly assassinated in the ship’s library. Four months later I end up on here with you. Why you? What has he got against both of us?’

‘I was a bit of an arse to Hoyle,’ August admitted. ‘He was…annoying.’

‘Not enough, unless he’s totally lost the plot. In which case, we are dead anyway.’

‘Wait,’ August said, wading towards Vandemarr. ‘You think that the voice is…Hoyle?’ he whispered.

‘I don’t know,’ Vandemarr replied, though making no attempt to whisper. ‘But I think it’s someone who’s taken a disliking to us both.’

‘We’ve only known each other since Illythia. Since the Manticore. Everyone from the cult was killed!’ August protested. Vandemarr was starting to think the Captain simply didn’t want to believe what he was hearing. It was an annoying hindrance, and given August’s normal demeanour, probably a hangover from his near-breakdown.

‘Look,’ Vandemarr said, wishing for the thousandth time he could see what he was doing. ‘It has to be someone with a grudge against both us, in which case it has to be someone to do with Tartovski’s genestealer cult from the Manticore. A fourth generation human perhaps. I don’t believe that someone from Karesh, or Farrax or Kormandolt would have the resources to pull something like this off considering we’ve only been attached to the regiment for five months! To work up that much irrational hatred is…’

‘It was a Chaos-infested planet,’ August said emphatically. ‘Chaos is hate. Someone may have been…I don’t know, poisoned against us!’

Vandemarr sighed.

‘August, you’re missing the point,’ he said, patiently terse. ‘There’s no-one else here. It’s just me and you. Which means it’s someone who has taken a disliking to me and you. Plus, no-one was tainted on the Blue Bolt when I was attacked in the library. We were still a month away from planetfall!’

August waded even closer, until Vandemarr could smell his terrible body odour even above the sewage-ridden water.

‘The Farraxians had just come from another theatre,’ he hissed. ‘We went to the regimental dinner where they were welcoming the new ranks! You told me what MkCormack told you! He said that you would be a target now, after we destroyed the cult on the Manticore, because you were a hero! Even Hoyle knew about you! Someone who joined the Farraxian ranks with the new arrivals could have done so to specifically get you! Someone who had been tainted, who had links with this Chaos world! Someone who had the means to get us both back here!’

‘But why you?’ Vandemarr replied, angry now that August was missing the point. ‘I prayed to the Emperor! The miracle happened through me! I conjured the saints! If your theory’s right, then why have you been brought here? No-one knows ‘Captain August’! It’s Commissar Vandemarr they know! Commissar Vandemarr who was touched by the Emperor! Commissar Vandemarr who summoned the angels, the holy fire, who killed Tartovski!’

‘Oh, so now it’s about you!’ August snarled.

‘Dammit man, it’s not about me!’ Vandemarr said, close to striking him. ‘You’re not seeing the point! This isn’t pride, these are the facts! And the facts are, people don’t know you, they know me, which explains why I’m here, but doesn’t explain why you’re here. Which is why the only possible explanation is that someone who was attached to the cult is after us, because you were there on the Manticore! It can’t have been a Chaos-tainted Farraxian or Kormandolt or whoever, because they’d have no reason to bring you here as well as me!’

Both men fell silent, exhausted by the exertion of arguing and the water pressure on their chests.

‘It has to be Coradion,’ Vandemarr said, breathless. ‘That’ the key. The assault on Coradion.’

‘Well,’ August panted, ‘why don’t you regale us with it, before we’re drowned?’

Vandemarr grimaced, ignoring the acid in the Captain’s voice. Now was not the time for pride.

‘It was on two-two five,’ he began, spitting as some of the neck-high water lapped against his chin. ‘I was signing death certificates…’
 

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Chapter 10


‘Success is measured in blood; yours or your enemy’s.’

- Imperial Guard maxim

2 Distrikt, Centre-north line
Carthage
Ultima Segmentum
225 982 M41​



~ Coradion (i) ~

It was three o’ clock in the morning, and Vandemarr was tired. His wrist ached painfully, initially from wielding a sword to great effect that morning, and now from signing death certificates like they were going out of fashion. Each one, a small rectangular slip of paper, had the soldier’s name, number, date of birth, rank and regiment printed on it by the dugout’s resident KIA cogitator, was then checked by a clerk, and finally handed to Vandemarr in a novella-sized stack for him to read, sign, and stamp.

After the first half-hour, he’d drafted a servitor to do the stamping.

His eyes felt dry behind the lenses of the gas hood, and his lids drooped wearily. It was not so much combat fatigue, but the dreary monotony, which at first had been admittedly depressing, but now had become a draining formality. Read, sign, stamp. Read, sign, stamp. Read, sign, hand to the servitor to stamp.

He pulled the next one from the pile, and was halted with a stab of adrenaline.

Captain Karl August......................KIA, 224 882 M41​

‘Emperor, no,’ he breathed, staring at the slip. He’d feared as much, but to see it written was unnervingly distressing.

‘Is everything alright, sir?’ the servitor asked, its pallid, tube-ridden face suddenly next to his own. ‘Captain Karl August, killed in action,’ it read in a tone that was infuriatingly neutral.

‘He was a good man,’ Vandemarr said, uncomfortable emotion trying to overcome his cold, Commissar’s logic. ‘And a good…friend. I shall miss him.’

He signed the slip, and handed it to the servitor, who took it into its cold, metal fingers.

And stamped. It sounded like a gunshot, and startled Vandemarr. He snatched the next slip from the pile, forcing anger and irritation to overcome his sadness.

A hundred men were dead or missing from the 9th – fifty percent of the company’s remaining strength. Third platoon had been wiped out in one single blast, fifty lives lost in a split second. Most of second platoon – Aleksi Kasparkova’s mob – had been massacred after getting bogged down in Death Alley. First platoon had lost fifteen – twelve of those to the same heavy stubber. With the enemy attacks coming thick and fast, soon there wouldn’t be a company left.

He was broken from his souring thoughts by the popping growl of a motorcycle outside the dugout entrance, which in turn was soon occupied by a runner.

‘Captain-Commissar Vandemarr?’ the gas-hooded youth asked, saluting smartly.

‘Yes?’ Vandemarr replied, wearily returning the salute and leaning back in his chair.

‘Orders from dispatch.’

Vandemarr took the proffered tube.

‘Thank you,’ he said. The youth left, his motorcycle growling off into the darkness.

‘Schtan,’ he muttered. He pulled the stopper from the end of the cardboard tube and extracted the wafer-thin order slip with his index finger:



Recipient: Captain-Commissar Albrecht Vandemarr
Classification: MAGENTA
Thought for the day: the rewards of tolerance are treachery and betrayal.

+ + +

Report to GHQ at 04:00 for briefing. Assault on Coradion at 06:00.

+ + +

Ensure the destruction of this message. Failure to do so bears the penalty of death.

The Emperor protects.



He stuffed the wafer back into the cardboard tube, replaced the stopper, then pulled a small length of tape running down the length of the tube. The exposed chemicals set alight, destroying the wafer inside in seconds. He tossed it towards the stamping servitor.

‘Get rid of this,’ he said, pulling his leather storm coat and peaked cap on. ‘And sign the rest of these.’

He threw the pen to the servitor, and ducked out of the dugout entrance.

It was a crisp, cold night, and the starry blue maelstrom of the Eastern Fringe filled the sky, visible through the sparse banks of gas clouds drifting above. The trenches were mostly empty, save a few sentries conversing in hushed tones around promethium-barrel fires. Everyone else, save those on line duty, were asleep, billeted in the surrounding dugouts and blissfully unaware of the coming assault.

He walked for forty minutes across the duckboards, still damp from the morning’s rain. The further back from the centre-north he moved, the better condition the trenches were in. Walls of earth were supported by neat wooden buttresses and sheets of corrugated adamantium, and the sandbags were intact, un-chewed by the huge rats – fattened to frightening proportions on the abundance of corpses – that plagued the front.

Sodium lamps, swinging gently in the light breeze, guided him first to the medical tents, where exhausted medics still clamoured over the moaning, salvable Guardsmen, and then to the huge, drab communications towers that formed the vox and orbital relays for the whole of the centre-north. Beyond, the prefab metal structured of GHQ dominated the available horizon, welcoming a steady influx of officers.

He hurried towards it, dipping his head into the breeze. The entrance was well-lit, and flanked by two Guardsmen with lasguns. There was some chatter amongst the officers, but for the most part, a grim silence pervaded. An assault on Coradion could mean one of two things; that the increased enemy attacks were testament to desperation, and that a strong, solid punch to the gut would ensure a glorious victory; or that the increased enemy attacks were in fact due to a massive influx of expendable forces from further down the continent, where the war for the equatorial desert was taking place. In which case, the enemy was resolved to a war of attrition, and could afford to wage one.

Most of the officers, Vandemarr guessed, suspected the latter.

* * *

‘These increased enemy attacks are testament to their desperation,’ Major General Berman said from the front of the amphitheatre. He whipped his metal pointer against the projected map of the centre-north line and Coradion. ‘A strong and solid punch to the gut at dawn will ensure a swift victory.’

There was a murmur amongst the assembled officers, their faces illuminated green by the projection. Most had notepads out and were scribbling random, disparate sentences.

‘Admiral Vas has assured me that fleet-arm support craft will be available. This includes Marauders for the heavy work and Thunderbolts to watch the advance. The artillery will hopefully have opened the city up by then, but we’re not taking any chances.’

There was some scattered laughter, though Vandemarr doubted whether Berman had intended to be ironic.

‘The forces will be positioned thus; Farraxian 427th, your first to fifth companies will move up the north, here.’ He indicated with his pointer. ‘Sixth to tenth companies, just slightly south, here, across the arterial accessway. The 428th and 429th Farraxian will take the middle sectors, split into two equal groups of companies in similar fashion to the 427th. The Kareshian Dragoons will take the southern sector, through the adamantium foundries here, and the Light Auxiliary will remain at the centre-north, in reserve.’

‘This is insane,’ the man next to him whispered – a Major, by his slides, and a Kormandolt from his uniform. ‘They’re committing all our strength. If this attack fails –’

‘Major Cosic,’ Berman shouted from the front. All eyes turned to face him. ‘Have you something to say?’

Cosic reddened.

‘Sir, I was merely…ah,’ he faltered. Vandemarr cleared his throat.

‘Sir, the Major and I were debating who would reach Coradion first. I was confident that it would be me,’ he said. There were some laughs, and some growls from the Kormandolt officers. Even Berman cracked a grin.

‘I wouldn’t be too confident, Captain-Commissar,’ Berman said, his portly, moustached face contorting into a mock-frown. ‘I have organised an orbital strike to carve a trench-road across the manufactoria in no man’s land, at 05:30, after the enemy artillery. This will allow the Kormandolt third division access to the capital. I have been informed by Admiral Vas that the use of such naval facilities has only recently been made an option, and I intend to use it to its full capacity.’

There was a murmur of excited conversation. Not only fleet-arm support, but ground armour as well. An unprecedented optimism suddenly broke out amongst the ranks of officers, despite the fact that they were committing nearly their entire strength on one assault. The casualties would be monstrous.

‘Those who’ve been informed of further briefing will stay; if you have not, please leave now, and inform your men. No doubt they will be eager to bring our business here to a swift conclusion.’ Berman said, collapsing the pointer.

Vandemarr stood up, and strode out.

* * *

‘Captain Auskar,’ Vandemarr said, ducking through the dugout entrance.

‘Lieutenant Auskar, sir,’ the man said sleepily, wishing he could rub his eyes.

‘Not any more. Get up.’

Auskar swung his legs over the side of the billet and squelched down into the mud without thinking. Vandemarr began pinning the rank slides to the dirt-encrusted uniform below.

‘Sir, what’s –’

‘Captain August is dead,’ Vandemarr said, more matter-of-factly than he’d intended. ‘As second in command of first platoon, and under my authority as OC 9th company, I’m promoting you in his stead. We’re assaulting Coradion at 06:00. Here is our designated sector. Here are the day’s codes. Memorise them and burn them. Korbel is now your vox officer. Inform him of such, and then the day’s codes. There will be fleet-arm support available, and we’ll be supported by the Kormandolt second company.’

‘Sir, I –’

‘Shut up and listen,’ Vandemarr snapped, and the man fell silent. ‘The company is down to one hundred men. First platoon, about fifteen men of second, and fourth. Let’s not do anything stupid with them, alright? You’re a good commander, Auskar, so just do what comes naturally. I’ll be with you for some of it.’

‘Not all of it?’ Auskar asked, clearly nervous. He had only been a sergeant a couple of months ago. To be brevet-commissioned was a rarity in itself, but to then be promoted again to Captain was nothing short of remarkable.

‘Not all of it,’ Vandemarr echoed, ‘some of it. You’ll stay with first platoon. I’ll be moving between the three, keeping everyone in order.’

He checked his chronometer.

‘It’s 05:14 now,’ he said. ‘Brief the men, exactly what I’ve told you. Tell them we’ll have armour support and air all the way. You’ll need to choose a Lieutenant as well. I’ll leave that to you. Do it now, and do it quickly. Understood?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Auskar said, tracing the outline of the new rank slides with his fingers. ‘Thank you, sir.’

‘Just don’t die,’ Vandemarr growled, and turned to leave.

‘Sir? Where are you going?’

‘To liaise with out armour,’ he said, as the first of the enemy’s morning artillery began crashing down. He ducked out of the entrance, and was gone.

* * *

At 05:30, the sky above no man’s land suddenly darkened and swirled into a huge static vortex, like some terrifying glimpse into another dimension. Seconds later, the swirling thunderheads bloated outwards in a colossal surge of pressure, and an unbearably bright lance of energy stabbed down from the heavens, carving a huge, five hundred metre-wide trench across no man’s land and into the enemy position in Coradion. All around it, manufactoria collapsed, liquefied into slag and molten concrete and forming a road of igneous rock, and everything for half a kilometre in either direction was set alight in a fire so intense its backwash could be felt by the thousands of assembled troops lining the centre north line.

After half a minute, the lance disappeared, retreating back into the bombardment cradles of Blue Bolt above, and sucked the clouds back up with it so they were contorted into a huge funnel. Almost immediately, the deep rolling booms of thunder sounded from the static build up, and rain began lashing down as the weather was sent haywire.

In the skies, squadrons of fleet-arm Marauder bombers roared through the amassed clouds over Coradion, releasing entire payloads of bombs over the city, and after them the higher-pitched drone of distant Thunderbolt attack craft, swooping, diving and strafing. To the south, the Imperial gun pits opened up, as thousands of high-calibre shells were thrown kilometres away into the planet’s capital.

At 06:00, the shrill whistles signalling the general advance sounded.
 

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Thanks very much Holmstrom, for the kind words, very much appreciated. There's a link in the post above to the rest of this story and the rest of my Vandemarr novels, if you're interested.

Thanks too to you Kale, I'm glad you enjoyed them. I'll endeavour to start posting up the rest of this at some point.

Cheers chaps
 
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