The captain’s voice rang out, sweet as silver.
‘This will not be easy!’ she shouted, loud enough for the entire section to hear. ‘There will be blood! And there will be losses! But I know, in my heart, that we can strike a bitter blow against the enemy, here and now! Fate has brought us here, fate and the God-Emperor Himself! And who are we to spit in Their face?’
I’d heard better speeches. Sergeants and troopers, run-of-the-mill soldiers speaking from the heart and eking out another ten minutes of force and fury when it mattered. This sounded like she’d followed a rule book on speech writing and forgot that you needed to add passion.
‘Rifles ready!’ Hands rapped lasguns, exactly as trained
‘Soldiers ready!’ Boots stomped, and prayers were whispered, as we stood on the parapet.
Another day, another chance to scramble out of cover and get shot. At least this new captain had the forethought to requisition some heavier weaponry, even if she’d forgotten to put on a helmet. Come to think of it, her hair was far longer than regulation length too, constantly flicking forwards and back over her shoulders, begging to be caught in a strap or coated in sludge.
‘Before we start, I have a treat for you! I followed my own recipe for this, none of the standard Militarum crap, so drink deep!’ Two men walked up the trench, carrying a heavy cauldron between them, and a third trailed them with a stack of metal tins and a serving utensil, ladling out thick, dark broth to every trooper in the line. ‘If you die with its taste on your lips, know that you die in service to the Emperor, and He will save you a seat at His side!’ When the cauldron passed by me, I took a deep breath and downed my drink in one. It was bizarrely rich, with coppery undertones, like someone had stirred together expensive recaf, top quality amasec, and a pile of metal shavings. Whatever it was, though, it did the trick. I was ready to storm the trenches, with or without backup, and everyone around me felt the same, joking and chuckling together.
Silence fell in a wave, like a stone thrown in a pond, as troopers stopped and stood ready.
‘Excuse me, captain.’ The commissar’s voice slithered along the trench, and even the cauldron bearers halted from their task for a moment, turning around in well exercised fear. Commissar Derish was not beloved of any man, woman, or beast, and did not let that affect him one iota. He stalked past us, his overcoat immaculate as always, his cap as clean and stiff as the day he was given it. Derish had been attached to our regiment for as long as I could remember, outliving captains, colonels and generals. He had executed some of them.
‘I was not informed of this…’ He raised his eyebrow as he walked past me, staring at the captain like she was prey. ‘…Assault.’
The captain stepped down and pulled a slip out of her pocket. ‘New orders, came in this morning. See for yourself.’ He snatched it out of her hand.
Derish’s back was turned to me, but apparently everything was in order. ‘As you were, captain.’ He made to turn, but the captain grabbed his shoulder.
‘Say, commissar, do you fancy joining us for a drink?’ A tin was quickly filled and proffered to Derish.
With a slow deliberation born of contempt, Derish poured the liquid onto the trench floor, eyes locked with the captain. ‘I do not think that would be appropriate.’
A flash of anger crossed the captain’s face, gone as quick as it came. ‘No matter,’ she said, with forced lightness. ‘You will be joining our push, correct?’ Derish nodded curtly, and turned to face down the trench, his mouth taut.
The captain hopped back up onto the firestep. It looked like she was dredging up another old speech, and my heart sank.
But she shook her head briefly, and smiled ruefully. ‘There’s nothing I can say you haven’t heard a hundred times before, and dreaded hearing every time an officer opens their mouth.’ I couldn’t help laughing. Finally, a captain who understood. She swung herself up, hanging off the top of the parapet and raising her plasma pistol in the air. ‘So let’s just go out there, and kill those cultists! Are you with me? Now!’
With a roar rising to a crescendo, every man and woman in the trenches leapt up, and started running.
Straight into the wall of death.
We’d been fighting long enough that the enemy knew what our roaring meant, and they had long since trained a kill zone in front of trenches. Dozens were cut down in seconds, from the mass hail of heavy machine gun fire and las rounds.
Why had I thought this time would be any different?
I made it a couple dozen paces before my courage gave, and I flung myself into a crater next to a couple of other Kanarians. Rounds flew over our heads, and we could hear the curious whine of a machine gun’s barrels overheating as the pitch grew higher and higher until, with a grating screech, it stopped. I popped my head over the lip of the crater, just for a moment, and a moment was all it took for new barrels to be attached. My brief appearance had provided a new target for the gunner crew, our crater coming under renewed fire, small explosions popping off around us. The last thing we needed was for their grenadiers to find their range. I looked at my companions closely for the first time, surprised to see they didn’t look as worried as myself. Probably because they were both already dead. For some time, by the smell of them.
The captain must have survived the initial charge as well, her voice rising over the din of the furious gun fire.
I couldn’t see over the edge of my crater, but I could still hear the sounds of a launcher being loaded, and knew exactly what the troopers would be doing. Ammo – check the missile was primed. Sights – free of any incidental dirt. Aim – lean out, pick the target and –
The launcher fired almost exactly the same time I leapt out of the crater. The Kanaris 34th Regiment was known for their accuracy, and this was just the example needed to prove it, the missile flying straight through the firing slit. Flame burst back through, and a pall of smoke erupted from the nest as a cheer rang out across the mud.
It meant little, though. There was a twin nest still firing across no man’s land, its raking fire forcing us into cover again, and I slid behind a slumped wall that was the final remnant of a long destroyed building. We were close enough now to smell the exotic stench of the cultists and see the brass face masks they wore. Not content with a simple helmet, the heretics had fashioned angular carvings hanging down from the armoured skull piece, covering the face aside from small eye slits. Some had animals, some human faces, yet somehow they all inspired unease, no matter how lifelike or caricatured they were.
Bodies slammed down next to me, crashing themselves into cover. A couple of troopers, followed by the captain, and finally Derish (Throne’s sake).
‘Not much further!’ shouted the captain. She winked at me, then thrust her plasma pistol out of cover and fired blindly.
‘Not close enough!’ Derish called back. I leant out of cover slightly, sighted at a felid face and fired. I had enough time to see the mask distort and the cultist start to fall before I jerked back, dodging another hail of fire from the trenches.
‘Good shot!’ said the captain, and I felt my cheeks burn. ‘But it’s gonna take more than that to get rid of the big ones! Missiles, ready!’
Twenty metres away from the wall were the launcher squad, pressed up against a burnt out troop carrier. Their packs were full to the brim with missiles and explosives, it was a wonder they’d managed to lug it this far. They were already loading a launcher, and the bearer was leaning right on the edge of cover, going through the motions that had been drilled into him. He checked the ammo, wiped down the sights, leant out of cover, and –
They’d been expecting it. As soon as he appeared, a hail of rounds smashed into him, the left side of his head disappearing in a flash of red. He slowly toppled backwards, his grip slackening, the launcher pointing at the vehicle that was still covering his squad mates. As he hit the ground, fate conspired with the final echoes of life to pull the trigger.
It was only a frag missile, so it didn’t do much to the armoured vehicle. No, what did the damage was the explosion detonating every single ammo pack the troopers were carrying, taking out the squad, the carrier, and most of the ground within a ten metre radius around them.
Half of our wall crumbled from the shockwave, nearly burying us with ancient bricks and mortar. Any moment now, a cultist grenade would land next to us, and that would be that.
‘Trooper Kossa!’ I jerked in surprise. As far as I knew, she’d never even looked at me before, let alone asked my name. ‘You’ve got the best angle!’ she said, nodding her head toward the stuttering whine of the machine gun. ‘Take it out!’
My ears were still ringing from the explosion, but I did have the angle. I shuffled as close to the edge of the wall as I could, and waited, listening to the screech coming from the trenches. It was pitching higher and higher, any moment now it would stop, and that was my only chance. A window a couple of seconds long.
‘What are you waiting for, trooper?’ hissed Derish. He was holding his bolt pistol, slowly turning it towards me. I held out a hand, with all my fingers splayed, then began dropping them.
The machine gun stopped at the exact moment I rolled out of cover. By the time I’d sighted, the crew had already taken off the glowing hot barrel, and had a fresh one half-attached. I had a moment looking down the sights, into the eyes of a brass ursid, before I pulled the trigger.
The ursid deformed, the metal bending in on itself, and the other crew member yelped in shock, dropping the barrel.
‘Now, now, now!’ I bellowed, my deep voice rumbling across no man’s land, and I began running even before I had pushed myself to my feet. I heard the captain and Derish leap over the wall behind me, and with a great roar, the rest of the Kanarians bounded forwards as well.
The trenches were still packed with cultists firing away, but there were too many of us, and we were too close. A flood of maroon and black uniforms flowed down into the enemy, and the real fight began.
I’ve fought in cities and across agri-worlds. I’ve even repelled a boarding action on a space station once. But nothing compares to the ferocity and brutality of a trench fight.
There isn’t the time to aim and fire a gun, let alone reload. There’s barely enough space in trenches for a full length las rifle anyway. No, this was done the old-fashioned way – knives, clubs, and fists. There was no rhythm, no reason. Stab, parry, kill, advance wasn’t going to work here.
I can never remember trench fights properly. Every moment just blurs into one, the flash of steel, the spray of blood, the screams of the dying, all mashed together in my mind. I couldn’t tell you the difference between my first trench fight and my twentieth, let alone whatever number this was. I just knew that with every battle, my luck was closer and closer to running out.
I don’t know how I survived. I just… came to, atop a pile of bodies, both cultist and Kanarian. Trooper Terik pulled me up with a grunt, and that was it. There were no sweeping reinforcements, no counter attacks. Just the moans and groans of dying men and women, and gasps as the Emperor’s Peace was given and received.
It was a victory, I suppose, but not much of one. How many of us had survived the desperate run across no man’s land, and the brutal melee? Maybe a quarter? Maybe less? I didn’t see what we could do, other than ransack the trenches and rush back to safety. Derish’s disdainful glance over us made it look like he agreed with me, but the captain had other ideas.
‘We’ve done well here. But we can go further! If we get behind their lines, we can wreak havoc. Sabotage convoys, reconnoitre force dispositions, get a lay of the land for when the lines move up, we can do it!’
‘With respect, captain,’ drawled Derish, showing a distinct lack of it, ‘This regiment does not have stealth specialists. Without them, what makes you think we can get anywhere, do anything, without being found and killed immediately? It would be more prudent to search nearby bunkers or assist other attacks.’
‘Commissar, we attacked with far too much speed for the enemy to have called for reinforcements, or even to have prepared themselves properly. No one knows we are here, for now. But before long, they will get suspicious about the lack of contact, and then they will send reinforcements. Feel free to stay here until then. I’m sure the proud warriors of the Kanaris 34th would prefer to push forward, and claim their place in the annals of history. Isn’t that right?’
We cheered. The captain was entirely correct. Her words could convince me of anything, I’m sure. Our attack was definitely too fast for the cult to react properly, and I knew, with every word she said, that we could go on and win this war, for Kanaris and the Emperor!
‘I have no doubt of your courage, captain,’ said Derish. ‘I merely wanted to raise a counterpoint. Lead on.’
The captain graced him with a smile, and turned to lead us through the maze of trenches. She didn’t see Derish beadily watching her out of sight, the sneer on his face, or the way he revved his chainsword, splattering a wall with chunks of flesh. ‘What are you looking at?’ he spat at me.
‘Then follow on, trooper. Don’t even think about falling behind.’
I think the worst thing was the silence.
There was nothing alive here, no birdsong, no plant life, not even any insects to pester us. These lands had been stripped clean by the cult, leaving only thick red mud behind.
Even the captain was quiet, barely saying a word, just grimly marching us forward for several hours.
The sun was beginning to set, and I was beginning to lose hope, when we crested yet another muddy hill. Nestled in the valley below were the remains of an agri-town. Barely audible voices drifted toward us, several blue flags listlessly fluttered in the low wind, and brass icons had been erected at the entrances to the town. Searchlights began to pop on as night fell, but we could still see the blackened field toward the edge of the town, a heap of charred bones piled high in the centre.
‘Livestock?’ someone whispered, trying to convince themselves. It might have worked if Derish wasn’t here.
‘They were faithful to the end. The Emperor will reward them for it.’
The captain grimaced. ‘This is what we’re here to stop. No turning back now.’
This close to town, the mud was foul. But it was also plentiful, and easy to apply. Even Derish smeared it over his face, giving us a look as if to say that regaling this tale would end badly. In truth, we needn’t have bothered. The spot lights were powerful, but they were also slow, and moved in the same pattern over and over. Foot patrols were non-existent, and only once did a roving half-track come anywhere near us, down an adjacent street as we flung ourselves to the ground in a despoiled ministorum office. Nearby there was a row of partially wrecked hab buildings, and we slipped in there after the half-track trundled away. The smell of us all packed in together was almost unbearable, but it didn’t stifle the captain’s enthusiasm, her eyes shining bright with excitement. Somehow, she’d managed to remain spotless, as if she repelled the dirt that covered the rest of us.
‘This close to the front lines, this must be a major installation! Anything we can do here, any sabotage or mayhem, is going to make things so much easier for everyone still stuck in the trenches.’
‘You saw the lack of guards on watch, captain,’ rumbled Derish. ‘This can’t be more than a few warehouses. I’d be surprised if there were even many munitions here. More likely it’s a staging post for more of their scum soldiers, which means we are heavily outnumbered. We should leave, now.’
‘That’s strange, Commissar. Out of everyone, you’re the last I’d expect to be a coward.’ With her voice, she made insults even as grievous as that sound like a light joke between friends. ‘I’m sure the other brave men and women here don’t want to tuck tail and flee. I’m sure they’d want to cleanse every piece of filth that dares defile the land of the Emperor, correct?’
If I wasn’t worried about being found, I’d have cheered. She was exactly right. I didn’t know why there were relatively few guards, perhaps this place was so important that the mere rank and file weren’t allowed close? That would make sense.
I felt renewed, like my sense of purpose had been reignited. We were going to destroy this town, come what may, and nothing was going to stop us.
The captain pulled a document out of her jacket, sliding it free of its wax cover, and laid it on a rotting table. Everyone crowded around, those at the back peering over, trying to catch a glimpse.
‘Got this from some adjutant with a healthy respect of commanding officers,’ she said. The wax cover had fallen near me. Clearance level Magenta. Higher than the captain must have had, but if I was that adjutant, she’d have got everything she asked for and more.
It was a map. Apparently this town was once called Volifer. Now, in the eyes of the Astra Militarum, it was simply Site Delta-Delta Two-Three.
‘Of course, the adjutant couldn’t give me any of the tactical notes the generals and other brass made, but I’m sure I can make a fine plan here. Now let’s see…’
In short order, she managed to analyse and identify key areas of the town. I’ve no idea how, everything looked the same to me. But apparently obscure clues could lead her to recognise motor pools, barracks, munitions storage… The only thing she couldn’t work out was a series of large white structures that dominated the centre of the town. ‘Perhaps just warehouses?’ I ventured, and she shrugged.
‘Possibly… We’ll need a squad to investigate…’
‘A squad? Are you wanting us to separate into even smaller groups, captain? A folly if I ever heard one.’ Derish grim gaze was broken by a drop of slime falling from the brim of his hat.
‘Divide and conquer, commissar, it’s a fairly basic concept. I’m sure you must have learned about it at some point.’ Another insult wrapped in sugar from the captain, and this time Derish twitched. I don’t know who else was paying attention, but for a moment, just a moment, Derish’s hand went for his pistol. The captain was playing a dangerous game, even if she had the right of it.
The captain made a plan in short order, without asking for input and without us giving any. We were to split into four squads – one to secure a rendezvous in a building the captain seemed sure would be defensible, two other squads were sent with our remaining explosives to sabotage the motor pool and munitions storage, and the captain herself would lead a final squad to investigate the mysterious buildings. Commissar Derish attached himself to the captain, and wouldn’t brook any argument against it.
‘I go where I feel I am needed most, captain. I don’t need to remind you that I don’t follow your orders.’
It was the most annoyed I had ever seen the captain, which is to say she pursed her lips and nodded without a smile.
Through luck, or the vagaries of fate, I was pushed into the same group as the captain, and we were the last to leave the ruined hab, muttering muted farewells to the others as they left. When we were finally alone, the captain rolled up the map, tucking it back inside her overcoat.
‘Captain! Your arm…’ Someone blurted out before trailing off. But I’d seen it too. A sleeve had pulled back, exposing her wrist, which was festooned with bandages.
‘It’s nothing!’ she smiled, covering it up again. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
It was only a bandage. I can’t imagine anyone hadn’t gotten themselves some wounds and scars after the time we’d spent in the trenches. If she was well enough to lead us here, I’d take no time in worrying about her wrist, especially if she had already been seen by a medicae.
The other squads were nowhere to be seen in the streets, only a lingering stench evidence of their passing. I remembered little from our stealth training, so long ago back on Kanaris. The things I could remember were simple enough: stay in the shadows, don’t tread on loose objects, control your breathing. But I’d never needed to put any of it in action. Lessons on stealthcraft had been pushed out of my mind by experiences learned in the grinding attrition that is trench warfare. Vague memories of distraction and timing had been replaced by sharper images of storming streets and supporting tank actions in the cities of Rownis Prime.
There was no one on these streets. No patrols, no civilians, not even any mongrel hounds or rotting corpses, just the sniffles of vermin skittering away to their nests. I needn’t have worried about our lack of ability – it wasn’t long until we were doing the bare minimum of what we could remember, hugging the shadows in single file as we picked our way closer to the centre of the town. It was as silent as a town on the edge of a war zone could be, the distant thunder cracks of artillery and mechanical clanks of loaders and lifters covering our not-quite-silent footsteps.
We were all on edge. Any sound louder than a whisper would spook us. A dislodged brick tumbling down a pile of rubble, a chain snapping and the worried cries of labourers, even the jabbering laughs of intoxicated cultists echoing down roadways and through buildings were enough to force us to the ground, clinging to rubble, and our slow progress was frustrating the captain. Her bright smile had become quite fixed, and it was with obvious reluctance that she guided us inside another ruined building.
‘Take a few moments, try to find your breath,’ she said. And your courage was left unsaid.
The pillars lining the room were mostly still standing, having failed in their purpose, and the evidence of their ineptitude covered the floor. The roof of this building had collapsed, coating the rubble in chalky white dust, and our presence was sending it swirling into the air. Any time we moved, another tornado of dust would erupt, covering the mud on our faces and clothes, leaving us more spirits than soldiers.
Little had not been crushed by the falling roof. As the rest of the squad sat on lumps of carved stone, I clambered over toward the far wall. Part of the roof had survived here, sheltering a few wooden benches that had rotted through so completely they disintegrated on touch. Empty plinths guarded a dais that was clear other than a fallen wooden box.
‘What are you doing?’
I hadn’t heard the captain follow me, but she didn’t sound angry, just curious. ‘I recognise this place,’ I said, picking up the wooden box and setting it upright.
‘You’ve been here before?’ She sounded incredulous.
‘No, of course not. …Captain.’ Now the lectern was in its proper place, it was obvious what this place was. ‘This is a church.’ The aquila must have been torn down when the cult conquered this town, and the statues of saints crushed into the dust that danced around us.
‘Sing a song for us, Kossa!’ said Trooper Terik, a lop-sided grin on his ghostly face. Appreciative murmuring from the others was cut off when Derish punched him in the side of the head, knocking him off the rubble and sending him sprawling on the floor.
‘Quiet! Or do you want to lead them right here?’
The captain wasn’t paying attention to them. ‘You can sing?’ she asked in a low voice.
I shrugged. ‘I used to be part of the choir at the Basilica Saint Solemus back on Kanaris.’ I’d nearly gained enough favour to be given a full time position at the Basilica, in a choir close to the Pontifex himself. ‘But then there was a founding. So here I am.’
‘The Emperor works in mysterious ways, don’t you think?’ The captain unnerved me. She had no smile on her face, no light in her eyes any more. Instead, she stared at me, a predator watching her prey.
‘What do you mean?’ I said, backing away. I bumped into the mouldy lectern, and it teetered on the edge of the altar.
‘You came so far from home, from basilicas and temples, yet here we are. As if the – the Emperor has delivered us here for a purpose, no?’
I cast my gaze around, trying to find a way out of this conversation, and my eyes alighted on a glint, nearly hidden between the dais and the back wall. ‘Look at this!’ The heretics had tried to hide it, but the aquila was still here, illuminated by a shaft of moonlight. Its surface was battered and scarred, but it was still in one piece. ‘Captain, could you help me with this?’ I started trying to pull it out of the debris.
‘No, we shouldn’t move anything. We can’t leave any trace we were here.’ She backed away slightly, her eyes flashing.
‘Captain?’ half-whispered Derish from across the room. ‘We aren’t going to achieve anything by waiting in here all night.’
‘He’s right,’ she said to me. ‘We shouldn’t stay-‘
The captain was interrupted by an explosion.
It was pitifully weak, but the town responded immediately. Alarms burst into life, voices called out in stern order, and lights began slamming on, bathing the streets in harsh blue-white light.
‘To the rendezvous, now!’ barked the captain, her voice barely audible over the blaring sirens. ‘Forget the mission!’
For reasons unknown to me, it looked like the cult had never even entered our rendezvous. Statues still guarded the atrium, bequeathed with engraved aquilas and stone rosettes. The arches showed no signs of weapons fire, free from dirty black bullet holes, and even the room-spanning reception desk was still there, made of expensive lacquered wood.
This must have been a fine library, judging by the statues, and the heavy curtains still lining the windows. Shelves upon shelves of books criss-crossed the great hall. I reached for one, and its spine fell off in my hand, the paper falling apart into sodden lumps. Further into the room, down a few steps, the floor was black ink, like all the words had trickled out of all the books. Only then did I hear the steady drip, and see the dirty black patches seeping across the ceiling. The cult hadn’t needed to desecrate this place. They could just let nature take its course.
Other Kanarians were already here, perched upon piles of old tables, out of the water. No cultist had ever entered, they said. No broken windows, no smashed in doors, just the steady drip, drip, drip of the water. The only unexpected exit was some sort of trap door in a side room, leading into a slimy tunnel passage, but they hadn’t explored it, only pushed a cabinet over to block it off.
Sirens were still wailing outside, but in the cool darkness of the library, they faded to a dull whine, a background noise easily ignored. So when a Kanarian burst into the library, bouncing the doors off walls with slams like cannon fire, near everyone jumped. It was pure luck that no one shot him, and he stumbled down the steps, then waded through the water calling for us, all semblance of stealth forgotten.
Derish’s hand reached from behind a bookcase as the soldier walked past and dragged him into our torchlight. He was in a bad way. Blood caked his face, pouring from a wound above his left eye, and he no longer had his rifle, only a bloody blade in one hand and a laspistol blinking empty in the other.
‘What happened?’ asked the captain, showing infinitely more sympathy than Derish was about to.
‘We went to the motor pool,’ he gasped, rubbing his neck where Derish had grabbed it. ‘But there was nothing there, nothing worth wasting our time on. The others were close by, we joined up with them, and managed to rig up something on the fuel tanks. But they weren’t fuel tanks! It was just water!’
‘And after that?’ asked Derish, hand drifting to his side.
‘They found us, I don’t know how, but they did, and there were too many of them, and when they brought in the flamers…. I was the only one who could get away.’
‘You ran?’ Derish’s voice was pure ice now.
‘No, I – well, yes, I needed to tell you-‘
The sirens died instantly, and in the surprised silence we heard an altogether more chilling sound. The gibbering voices of cultists were massing outside the library, and it was only a matter of seconds before they attacked.
‘And you led them here? You disgust me.’ Krak. The trooper fell backwards, most of his head missing.
‘We needed every body we’ve got,’ the captain half-whispered angrily. The ripples from the trooper’s jerking body spread his blood further and further.
‘He’s already run from one fight. I’m not giving him the chance to do so again.’
‘Do we have a plan?’ I interjected, before they could get in another argument, one that I feared would not end well for the captain.
‘Sell our lives for the Emperor,’ said Derish immediately, ‘taking as many of them with us as we can.’
‘No, we should-‘ The captain was cut off by the sound of the main door slamming open again, and the excited footsteps of the cultists fanning out through the library.
They hadn’t seen us, but they knew without a doubt we were here. Each one of them had rifle-mounted stab-lights, poking them into corners and side rooms. It was only a matter of time before they descended to our level and saw sign of us. A ripple from a step, a too loud breath, the glint of eyes watching through a bookcase, any or all of them were about to give us away.
I was watching a cultist, one of the closest ones. I’d seen light play across his mask once or twice, and it took the form of a great brass rat. He stopped at the top of the steps, looking down at the lake of black water. He was close, so close I could hear the curse under his breath, and see the slight shiver as the coldness seeped through his foot wrappings when he started making his way toward us, sniffing like the giant vermin he was pretending to be.
Then he stopped, the light shining directly at his feet, and in that moment I could’ve screamed at the Commissar. Because the cultist hadn’t seen a ripple, or heard a breath, or spotted a pair of eyes. No, what the cultist saw was the blood in the water, leaking from the executed trooper. I heard him open his mouth, heard him drawing in a deep breath to shout for his comrades, and I knew that was it. So I leaned around the bookcase and shot him.
The library erupted.
The brass rat and a dozen other cultists were blown off the feet almost instantly. Every Kanarian still alive was firing, lighting up the library brighter than it had ever been, or would be again.
The mouldy tomes lining the shelves weren’t cover, not really, so as the cultists fired back, their autorifles slammed through book and bone alike. It became a furious brawl, as close as it could be to hand-to-hand combat without ever actually turning into a melee. Steam rose from the ground, as the massed las fire evaporated the standing water, and then it became almost a game, shooting at shadows and flickers of movement, no way of knowing if you’d hit a cultist, a repositioning Kanarian, or anyone at all. They kept pushing forward, firing blindly as they ran at us, and we kept pushing them back, flash grenades and las fire wreaking their bloody toll.
But it wasn’t enough. The cult’s weight of numbers was telling, and it was only a matter of time before they found enough angles. And then there’d be no chance. The trooper next to me twisted and fell, a bullet in her throat. If someone was going to come up with a plan, they had to do it now.
Once more, the captain provided. ‘To me!’ she yelled, somewhere off to my side. I couldn’t see her through the boiling mist. ‘To the tunnel!’
Now we were the vermin, scurrying for safety, and for the first time I was glad of the white dust still mostly covering my armour, masking me in the steam. Others were not so lucky, a bare movement out of cover and accurate autorifle shots turned them into corpses before they could reach the next book shelf.
I tossed another flash grenade round the corner, and jumped out of cover the moment it detonated, heading with a dead sprint toward the room I hoped she was in.
And I was right. The cabinet had already been moved, and a few troopers were heading down. Only the captain and Derish were still up top. ‘Is there anyone else?’ grunted Derish. He’d lost his cap, and there were holes in his stormcoat, but he didn’t seem wounded.
I peered back round the doorway. The steam was dissipating, and most of the standing water was gone. Bodies littered the library, both cultist and Kanarian, and I was forced to jerk my head back as shots pinged around me. ‘Only one!’ I called back. Terik was close, only a few steps away, taking cover by the statue of some local saint. Another glance told me the saint was missing an arm, both wings, and most of their face. It wasn’t going to last much longer.
‘Come on!’ I yelled, sticking my las rifle out of the doorway and firing it blindly. ‘I’ll cover you, get over here! On three!’
Terik braced himself, then sprinted out of cover. I wish I could’ve said that the saint protected him, even after he left the statue’s cover. But the saint did no such thing. Terik was shot five times before he was even halfway, his legs riddled with bullets, barely making it to the doorway before crashing down next to me. Blood was already pooling around him, soaking the books that were scattered on the ground.
I began dragging him towards the hole. Derish was the only one still up top, fury written over his face. ‘Don’t waste your time!’ he roared, leaning out of the room and firing wildly, exploding a shelf of books, creating a fountain of confetti.
‘Commissar’s right…’ burbled Terik, blood spilling down his chin. ‘Just go…’ He lifted a trembling hand, and grabbed my bandolier. ‘Give me this… They’ll make a sweeter song than you ever could…’
I scrambled backwards, following Derish down the tunnel. I looked back at Terik, fumbling with a pin. The last thing I saw, before Derish slammed the hatch closed, was another burst of autorifle finishing what it had started, and Terik dropped his grenade.
I couldn’t see it explode, along with every other grenade and power pack that lined both of our bandoliers. But I could sure as shit feel it, the walls trembling above us before they finally gave out, and the screams and nauseating crunches of cultists being crushed by collapsing masonry. The library had been on its way to ruin before we had showed up, one storm away from crumbling down. Terik’s terminal act had simply been to provide the final push.
The hatch broke too, spilling rubble down the steps, but we were well gone by that point, running down the slimy tunnel in near total darkness. Derish and I leaned on each other for support, stumbling over rails that had been set in the ground and forgotten centuries ago.
‘I don’t trust her,’ muttered Derish, and I grunted back, noncommittally. Was this some kind of test? Was I about to get shot for openly doubting a commanding officer? And even if it wasn’t, what was he going to do about it? I didn’t even know how I felt about her any more.
‘You made it!’ The captain looked more cheerful than she had any right to be. ‘Follow me.’ Derish and I shared a grim glance as we fell into step behind the rest of them.
I’d say I had no idea how the captain knew where we were going, but I had a growing suspicion that I did. I lost count of how many nondescript hatches we passed by before she eventually stopped and opened one, apparently at random.
We spilled out into a plush room, beset by mirrors and hanging rails. The mauve and gold velvet lining the walls and cushions had been nearly greyed out by a thick layer of dust, and a faint scent of parfum lingered in the air. There were boxes stacked up against walls, with off-world stamps showing that this wasn’t a local production, but rather a hired company that toured the subsector.
Someone opened a closet, and another rail wound itself out, carrying the most fantastical assortment of clothes and costumes. Each outfit was more ostentatious than the last, every one a different shade of blue. There were fancy midnight dresses bedecked in imitation sapphires, royal blue gowns lined with white fur, and even the simple sky blue robes were accented with brass buttons and lining. ‘What was this place?’ said Derish.
‘We’re in a changing room,’ I said. I’d been in and out of them back in the Basilica long enough to recognise it, even one as dusty and unused as this. ‘I wouldn’t have thought a town like this…’ I trailed off. One of the boxes was drawing my eye.
‘Go on,’ prompted the captain.
‘It’s just… these are some nice costumes. Handmade, not machine. I’m surprised a town like this could host a Theatricala at all, let alone one that cost this much.’ My eyes kept sticking to that box. It was just a costume box. A strangely compelling one, but otherwise ordinary. I tried to ignore it.
‘Do you ever think that you were wasted in the Astra Militarum, Kossa?’ asked the captain, not unkindly. ‘Maybe we should put your detective work to use elsewhere.’ She gestured, and everyone else began to follow her out of the room, leaving me alone.
I couldn’t help myself. I had a combat knife, so I began to lever the box open.
‘What is it?’ Derish appeared behind me, and the lid suddenly came loose in a crash of wood and dust.
The box was filled with painted masks. I took one out and showed it to Derish, who looked at it thoughtfully. ‘Maybe-‘
‘Kossa!’ The captain appeared at the door again, and for the first time I thought I saw a flash of fear in her eyes. ‘Come on, follow me!’
The masks were probably nothing, so I obediently picked up my pack and followed her out. I looked back at Derish, who was still studying it, turning the mask over and over.
The captain led me up some wooden steps, onto what was clearly the stage. The polished wood beneath my slimy boots squeaked in protest at my steps. The heavy velvet curtains that closed off the auditorium were a deep, rich blue.
‘You might as well sit down, Kossa, I wanted to get everyone out of that room, I could barely breathe in there with all the dust.’ She was right, I was tired. I gratefully flumped to the floor next to the others. After how many of us had charged the trenches in the first place, it was hard to believe there were only a handful left.
Derish stomped up the stage, still holding the mask, and tossed it viciously at the captain. Somehow she managed to catch it, and started back pedalling as the Commissar drew his pistol.
‘Explain yourself!’ he shouted.
The captain was silent, looking at the mask. Then she began to laugh. ‘Alright! I suppose this is the final act, after all.’
I don’t know what Derish had expected, but it certainly wasn’t that. His aim wavered for a moment, arm trembling. ‘What are you talking about?’ he growled.
The captain raised her hands high above her head, and clapped once.
The curtains drew back, revealing us to the auditorium. In every single seat sat a sky-blue cultist, in every box on every wall the glint of brass masks.
We must have made quite the spectacle: Commissar Derish, bolt pistol still held in front of him, but confusion writ large across his face; us seven guardsmen left, sat on the floor like children, covered in muck and dust and blood; and the captain, smiling as if there wasn’t a gun to her head.
‘You’ve put on a merry show, Commissar Derish, but I think it ends here.’ She turned to the crowd and clapped again. ‘Wouldn’t you say?’ On cue, the crowd applauded, as loud as the guns that had been cutting us down in no man’s land scant hours before.
Another smooth wave of her hand, and the applause died.
‘Restrain her!’ hissed Derish. I moved to get up, and out of the corner of my eyes I saw a couple of the others move-
‘No. You can sit right where you are.’ The captain smiled, and our bodies obeyed.
If I stayed sitting, her guard would drop, and then we could take her, all together-
He glared at us. Didn’t he realise? We were going to get her! Just… not yet. We simply had to wait for our cue.
‘This is where it started, wasn’t it?’ His confusion had been replaced by disgust. ‘This is where the taint took hold.’
‘Oh, Commissar!’ The captain laughed, like glass chiming in the wind. ‘You have such a big voice, but you think such small thoughts!’ His gun was still trained on her, but she took no notice, walking to the front of the stage and spreading her arms out wide. ‘This place, and a hundred others like it. Across the world, across the sector. Wherever a show is needed…’ She bowed, and the audience clapped again, whooping and cheering, ‘…we perform.’
The bolt pistol firing was like thunder in a jar.
A cultist died, their mask exploding as the round punctured it. Several of their neighbours were sprayed with chunks of brass and bone and brain, but they didn’t stop their cheering.
The captain had moved without me being able to comprehend it. One moment she was facing the cultist, soaking up their adulation, then, exactly as the gun fired, she was facing Derish, a step to the side, laughing at him. Just… laughing.
He fired again, another cultist died, and she had moved a step closer, still laughing. Another cultist died, and another, and another, and Derish was grunting in frustration, and all the captain did was laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
She laughed when he drew his chainsword, and she laughed when he swiped wildly at her, and she laughed even harder as she broke his arm, the snap loud enough for us to hear over the cultists’ braying.
Derish tried shooting at her again, but even he didn’t look surprised when her foot flicked out and smashed his head into the stage, and his bolt pistol was deftly taken from him.
With just one hand and her eternal smile, the captain picked up Derish by his broken arm and flung him across the stage. He rolled off the edge in front of the cultists, out of our sight. ‘Take him,’ the captain said lightly, and a dozen cultists sprang up from their seats and piled in on him. He tried to fight, I could hear his grunts, but it was useless. ‘As for you lot, stand up for me.’ We did so. This might be our chance!
She inspected us, like we were livestock at a market, and we stood still. We had to. If we moved, maybe she’d realise… I saw her looking in someone’s mouth, inspecting someone’s teeth, and when she got to me, she grabbed my neck. Someone had to do something! I couldn’t, but maybe they could…? ‘Good, good,’ she murmured, and I had a sudden vision of her ripping my throat out with her teeth. ‘You’ll do nicely,’ she said, hand still around my windpipe, and she began dragging me away, my legs obediently following her every step.
‘I can show you things, Kossa, you would never have dared to dream about.’ She reached the steps leaving the stage. ‘Ah! I nearly forgot!’ She raised her hands high above her head, and clapped twice.
Just for a moment, it sounded like applause.
It was a different world, a different regiment, and a different war, but it was still trenches, still las guns, and still the same fight.
Some soldiers greeted me with an enthusiastic aquila, others with a nod and a muttered ‘Captain…’
I responded with smiles and fatherly words.
It struck me how similar they were to what I used to be. Sure, this time the mud was a sickly yellow. And these soldiers were clothed in autumnal oranges and silver fastenings. But they were still fools, knowing nothing of the universe, just like I had been . They simply needed a push in the right direction. They needed someone to show them the truth. They needed someone to, well… put on a show.
My wrists itched under their bandages, but it was a good pain, and the cauldron bearers were already behind me, serving out broth to the line of guardsmen. One of the many things the captain had taught me was that oh so simple recipe, deliciously heretical, topped up with the blood of the faithful – my blood.
I pulled my fake orders out of my pocket as I stepped up on a crate, and opened my mouth.
A captain’s voice rang out, as deep as daylight.
About the Author
Stephen Diggle has been reading science fiction since he was about ten, and has been writing it since about a day later. Raised in the middle of England, Stephen was exposed to Warhammer at an early age. Born too late to explore the world and too early to explore the universe, when he isn’t reading and writing he spends his time walking, cooking, and imagining life on other planets.