Agriworld Auru One
Aurun 22nd Regiment, Imperial Guard
Trooper Dwyer rolled the filter of his tabac stick between his fingertips, before bringing it to his lips. He patted his camo blouse pockets for his lighter with one hand, while scanning the swamped trench. His other hand held tight to his lasrifle web sling, a comforting tightness against his right shoulder. Throne’s Sake. Dwyer lent his lighter to Corporal Hag this morning when he relieved him from fire watch. They had gotten to chatting, or “smokin and jokin”, as Captain Resh called it. By the time Trooper Dwyer took his post, Hag had pocketed the lighter and was already in his rack, fast asleep.
Dwyer tucked the fragrant stick behind his ear, adjusted his helmet, shouldered the rifle again, and resumed his patrol. His sweat-matted brown hair helped keep the stick secure. He prayed he’d run into another Trooper who could help sort him out. Sloshing through the mud he continued his circuit until he smelled the sweetly distinctive scent of freshly lit tabac. He pushed on, quickening his march just a bit more with each stride until he came to an intersection of sandbags and posts. Two troopers stood up as he rounded the corner, metal mugs full of steaming recaf, two lit cherries tossing a slight glow on their smiles when they realised he was not, in fact, the Commissar.
A flare went up into the sky, green and bright, throwing wavering shadows against the walls of their fortification. Softened krumps and blobs kilometres away sounded out in a bass-filled cadence.
Recognition clicked instantly for the three troopers.
Faces wrenched in terror as they bellowed mightily before the screaming artillery dropped in and drowned them out.
The rounds fell behind the position and the earth trembled, eruptions of loam, splinters of wood, and clumps of muck, bore the news of the strike to the front lines. The Guardsmen threw themselves into the thick, cold, slurry covering the duckboard. They scrambled to the closest dugout meters away. Dwyer’s feet slipped, his hands slid, his face submerged in the gritty congealed muck, his fingers clawing and pulling to find purchase in the wooden supports and sandbag walls. Something gripped his flailing arm and pulled him down deeper. Dwyer panicked, fearing he was being dragged off to be slaughtered by a toothy, deranged and unkempt cultist. However, the killing blow never landed.
Rough hands with frightening strength hauled him up by the back of his neck. Above the din, Dwyer heard corporals and sergeants relaying contact, range, the direction of fire, and head counts.
Squinting through the grit, Dwyer automatically straightened when he recognised the black, red, and gold trenchcoat of the Commissar dragging him into the dugout.
‘Trooper Dwyer, did you just try to come to attention?’ Commissar Gund asked, smiling kindly.
The Commissar’s smile broadened, like a craftsman who’s found a sullied set of pliers. His handsome face and green eyes genuinely conveyed kindness, born of zeal for the God Emperor.
‘Good. You haven’t lost your wits. Nor your fear of the God Emperor. You can still deliver His message to those who need it most.’
He clapped Dwyer on the back and turned towards the opening of the shelter.
Dwyer fell in, back pressed against the rockrete wall, lasrifle cradled in his arms.
Corporal Hag nudged him with an elbow.
‘Second strike coming, then Sergeant says we’re moving out. Pass it on. Check your gear, check each other.’
Dwyer nodded and repeated the call down the line to the next Trooper beside him. He turned back to Hag and began checking over his gear.
‘Got my lighter?’ he asked after checking the last powerpack.
‘Yeah, I’ll grab it. Got a smoke?’
Dwyer lifted a finger to his ear and his heart sank. It was lost. He fumbled around his flak jacket to get to the pack in his blouse.
A crumpled, soggy pack of tabac-sticks greeted the weak orange light in the shelter.
‘Throne’s Sake,’ Dwyer cursed, thumbing the pack open. Two smokes remained unsullied. He chuckled. Good omen. He passed one to Hag and took the other out, stuffing the pack back. Maybe they’d dry out. Corporal Hag winked, stood up and went to the shelter entrance to smoke. Captain Resh came over to Hag and the two spoke in hushed tones. Dwyer turned his attention to the trooper on his left. Trooper Dunha, was it?
They checked each other’s gear and it felt like more of an exercise in meditation than in function. Behind them, Imperial Earthshakers opened up with their response, no doubt targeting the enemy artillery pieces. Dwyer caught Hag’s eye, who nodded and held out the lighter.
Corporal Hag, Commissar Gund, Captain Resh and two other troopers were ripped apart by the direct strike. The dugout went black, the world went silent, and Dwyer felt a terrible kick in his side. Then he knew nothing.
The world came screaming back with pain, booming in his ears, refusing to be ignored. The darkness of night threatened to swallow his mind. He tried moving anything and found the waves of pain were too much. He jerked back and the hurt became electric again, pulsing in every nerve fibre. Dwyer waited to die. Between the riptides of agony that dragged his mind through oceans of madness, small shores of clarity drove his thoughts to crave the promise of painlessness that only death could give him.
One last tabac-stick. His hand still clenched the battered smoke. He hung the stick in his lip and tried to sit up.
He almost gave up until his eyes caught the glint of the lighter, just out of reach, settled in the mud. He tried to reach out for it but came up short, he felt too much pain. Heartbroken, he laid back and closed his eyes, resigned to die.
When he didn’t die, he finally opened his eyes again. Red flashes of lasfire pulsed staccatos of the new world he found himself in. In the burst of light, Dwyer gingerly felt around his body with wandering hands probing the earth and wooden wreckage around him.
Chunks of rockrete tumbled off of him and he winced as his side informed him that he was moving too fast with a tearing sensation. His fatigues were sticky and his hands came back black. He laid back and felt the strap of his lasrifle strain against his body. He grabbed the weapon up and inspected it, fingers running through the grooves and spaces to clear debris and mud, when he couldn’t see.
It seemed fine.
Sure, it wouldn’t pass an inspection from the Commissar, but it would work in a firefight. Dwyer held the weapon and, for the first time, felt a measure of comfort. Now all he needed was a damn lighter. Dwyer reseated the battery pack and listened for the faint hum of the weapon accepting the charge. Discordant chanting of hideous voices bound over the earthworks, a prelude of insanity yet to come from the Chaos troops soon to storm the trench. Louder the voices came, taunts, promises of torture and torment, planting seeds of doubt to shake the faith of the Guard who resisted them.
Dwyer pushed through the pain, desperate to free himself and get anywhere else that wasn’t a muddy coffin whose lid was slamming shut. He gritted his teeth, pushed hard, and tore himself loose. His leg was a mangled mess, chewed up by the rockrete and splintered wood. He almost passed out due to the pain. His head lolled back and the world around him spun in circles.
He clenched tightly to the rubble pile trying to anchor himself upright.
He scooted across the duckboard floor, placed his back against the trench and continued to move down the line as fast as he could. His hand pressed into the lighter and he stowed it in his pocket.
By the Grace of the Throne, maybe today was salvageable.
The screaming of the enemy grew louder, as las fire snapped from either side above his head. The thumping staccato of a stubber opening up gave Dwyer a vague idea of just how close they were to his line. Screeching and whining of heavy las weapons made him wince as he continued his scramble against the wall.
A krak grenade plopped into the soupy mix where he had been pinned minutes before. Several more dropped in further down and Dwyer kept scooting, rifle raised to his cheek.
The grenades detonated and concussive heat washed over him. His breath let go as relief washed through him. A screaming soldier vaulted down with rifle and bayonet, wild eyes flashing as his countenance was lit by the burning rubble. His uniform was adorned with ornaments of Chaos, sharp lines that almost made Dwyer avert his gaze. Another traitor trooper hopped into the trench and the pair began lancing bodies with their angled bayonets.
These troopers, at first glance, or to an untrained eye, could have been him and his comrades. They might have been any other regular guardsmen. Dwyer knew better.
Their effigies of Chaos Undivided, their mutilated trophies, abominably defaced weapons, and undisciplined tactics gave them away to Dwyer immediately.
They hadn’t spotted him.
More of the Arch Enemy poured in ahead of him, dipping in and climbing out and over to assault the Guard beyond his line. Dozens deftly dove and scaled into and over the line to bring their fury and violence to his fellow man. The tide of hell stopped and only the crackling bark of a vox speaker closing in was the only intelligible sound he could make out. A titanic form, lightning fast, leapt impossibly high and sailed over his head. Dwyer froze. A Traitor Astartes. It droned blasphemy and it pained Dwyer.
‘Your Emperor is a corpse puppet.’
‘Accept your inferiority and be remade.’
‘There is no hope. The false-god is not with you in the hour of your doom.’
The Emperor Protects, the Emperor Protects, Dwyer repeated in his head, unable and unwilling to do anything else. He wept in relief, fear, and mourning for the poor bastards who would have to confront it. He cried with guilt and shame. He didn’t have the courage to stand in the way of the black and gold hulk adorned with the shattered helms of other astartes.
Another set of large black boots crushed the fortification walls as a second Chaos Marine launched himself over the trench, dribbling a slurry of crushed rockrete and splinters of wood onto Dwyer’s shaking form.
The Commissar Gund would have surely shot him for his cowardice. Corporal Hag would have been the one to stand up and give his life in a heroic last stand. Instead, he was here, gutshot, crippled, sobbing in the mud, with a busted up tabac-stick, trying to get a smoke break. All he longed for was the rich aroma of the flavoured dried herb. To take that essence into himself and breathe out the stress, the fear, and the panic.
Pathetic, he chastised himself.
The sound of violence dimmed. The two enemies had finished their grisly work and began moving down the line towards Dwyer.
He wiped his eyes, brought his rifle up, and pressed the trigger.
His first shot punched through the body of the closest, while his other shots went wild. Dwyer adjusted and opened up again, the enemy trooper returning fire wide and harmless, while Dwyer’s was centre mass.
A burst of pain took everything from him. Dwyer slumped against the cold earth, rifle tumbling from his hands. With the last waning scraps of strength, he lifted his head to see an enemy trooper standing at the edge of the trench wall above, lasrifle levelled at him.
His killer slid down into the trench and drew a jagged and strange knife from his back sheath. The man was smiling wickedly. Whatever he had planned was probably going to be incredibly painful for Dwyer. A red discharge caved in the Chaos soldier’s chest and with a roar that shook Dwyer, the remaining force of the power maul wielded by the astartes, buried the broken enemy vertically into the trench wall.
Dwyer looked upon the glorious god-like saviour with awe and reverence. His heart swelled.
The Emperor does protect!
Dwyer tried to sign The Aquila as the looming giant in green armour bent down to him. Failing, Dwyer chuckled and let his arms fall.
‘May I, sir?’ he asked, sticking his chin out indicating the tabac-stick still hung on his lip, hoping against all odds for a final puff.
The large Salamander nodded solemnly and held his pilot light from his flamer gingerly to Dwyer’s smoke. Dwyer drew deep on his reward and felt comfort wash over him. When the tabac-stick tumbled from Dwyer’s mouth, sputtering out in the mud, the Salamander stood up and left Dwyer’s lifeless body to join the other astartes advancing forward into enemy lines. The last Salamander in the squad gently brushed his massive gauntlet over Dwyer’s contented face, closing his eyes for the last time.
About the Author
Mario has been a fan of Warhammer since 2007 when his friend invited him to a table top day and gave him his first Black Library book, The Gaunt’s Ghost Omnibus.
He is currently painting his first ever 40k army- The Raven Guard.