Be Bloody, Bold and Resolute
Written for Yuletide 2011, Giftee: grey-sw
Request: Larkin & Bragg, war story, emotion, unlikely friendship and/or mild slash, ensemble Ghosts, touch of Chaooooos
Notes: Takes place before the campaign at Vervunhive (Gaunt's Ghosts #3: Necropolis). This story should have unicorns, but it doesn't because the Inquisition screamed HERESY and - we're not even really here.
Warnings: Massive animal death, we didn't realize it at first, sorry! D: Also, sorry that Mkoll snuck in there and stole the show, like a boss. What the feth, Mkoll. Nobody invited you.
Spoiler for the end: NO GHOSTS DIED AT LEAST. :D
Beta'd at the nth hour by the OSM (in a shower of glitter and rose petals) Kurokurorin
THIS BOOK HAS BEEN DEEMED HERETICAL AND WAS SEIZED ON THE ORDERS OF HIS HOLY INQUISITION. PUBLISHING HOUSE IS UNDER REVIEW FOR SPREADING SEDITIOUS IDEAS.
Imperial history must by necessity leave out a great many details in its long and otherwise exhaustive records. With the war being fought on a billion fronts by a billion armies every day for hundreds, thousands of years, a condensed version recording only the most decisive of actions is both economical and a necessity. The generals and tacticians cannot fight if they do not have history to learn from, and they cannot hope to learn from history if the history to be learned will take longer to read than the actual fight.
Yet the average soldier and citizen has no more use for the weighty tomes of battle reports and deployment decisions than a simple farmer has for the unabridged edition of Tolstoi's "War & War". In a galaxy where we must give every moment of our lives to fight the alien, the mutant, and the heretic in the name of the God-Emperor and for Mankind, there remains those who would argue that war in His name is less than glorious.
While pious citizens and His holy instruments take care of the worst of that faithless rabble, it is the belief of this loyal servant that by disseminating true accounts of the common soldier's lot, the citizens of the Imperium will come to a better understanding of the sacrifices they themselves should make.
A collection of those tales can be found in The Loyal Citizen's Inspiring Handbook, available now from your local pub or dispensary. This collection, on the other hand, is its light-hearted companion. Within are stories gathered from the various anecdotes and legends told by our heroic troopers and officers. They have been carefully checked against filed records and personal interviews.
We pray you find inspiration, joy, and meaning in the comedy of errors we have collected here. May the fires of your faith be stoked higher as you see how the light of the Golden Throne shines even in the strangest of places. The Emperor is watching you, and He surely protects.
Scribe Erstwhile Devotio of The Beige Library
In His Name, Liberation Press, Year 999.M41
- from the introduction to Funny Follies from the Imperial Guard
The Commissariat's Disaster Response, Approved Tactics Handbook did not cover this, Gaunt thought.
The Tanith had never been a model regiment, even before they'd become the First and Only. Although they could clean their kits and press their uniforms and arrange everything according to Guard standard, there was no hiding the bold blue and green tattoos on their skin, the jewelry decorating their ears, the way they ambled instead of marched. Gaunt had allowed them to hold onto their identity, rather than press them into less individual, more orderly shapes, because it was all they had left to show of their home world. They proved far more effective than their appearance would suggest.
Sometimes it was almost as if he were campaigning with a seasoned regiment like the Hyrkan 8th again. He could see how they might, against all odds, win a world for themselves.
Then there were times like this.
Gaunt was at a loss as he stared at the three men standing sheepishly in front of his desk. Literally covered in sheep, in Bragg's case, who stood there with a blood-splattered lamb draped across his broad shoulders. Larkin, on the other hand, was covered in tufts of white and brown feathers. Corbec, who surely had a good explanation for this as the officer in charge while Gaunt was off-world, was just covered in blood. Gaunt was confident his last order to his men was to get some rest and eat a hearty dinner, but it would seem both objectives had been bombed and set on fire as explosively as Ovidiu's farmland had been.
"This had better be good," Gaunt said after a long silence. They were gathered in the temporary command tent. "The Elector wants you all fed to the pigs and I'm inclined to see some merit in his wishes."
"Well you see, sir," Corbec started, scrubbing some of the drying blood from his beard. It flaked off and stuck to his uniform vest, like bloody dandruff. "We were planning to do the whole rest and food thing. Most of us were doing the rest thing, and Larks and Bragg were taking care of the food thing..." Corbec paused, glancing at the two men in question. "Well. Perhaps you'd like to hear it from them."
"That would be the usual protocol, yes." Gaunt's irritation slipped through and Bragg at least appreciated the situation enough to look contrite. Gaunt nodded at the two troopers. "Let's hear it then."
Larkin and Bragg exchanged a look. The lamb bleated from Bragg's shoulders and Larkin shuffled forward nervously. Corbec coughed, dislodging more flakes of blood, and Larkin threw a hasty half-aquila to Gaunt. He started, "We were just going to hunt up some wildlife to add to the pot, when we came across an abandoned farmstead..."
Ovidiu was a very pink planet. Bragg said as much to Larkin as they walked through the strange forest. According to the briefing reports, there was a wide variety of game to be found on this Agri World. The prize, Corbec joked, was an animal called an ursine. It was a smaller and more docile version of grox, but tasted like Terran pigeon. Easy hunting, for someone of Larkin's experience. Bragg only accompanied him because something smaller than a grox was still too big for one man to drag back alone to the temporary camp the Ghosts were setting up at the edge of the forest.
"It's not like a real forest at all," Larkin groused in reply, hands clutching his longlas to his chest like a talisman. "It's practically xenos!" With the beautiful and ancient shifting forests of Tanith lost forever, Larkin didn't feel comfortable anywhere anymore, except when he was behind his scope with a target in the crosshairs. He had no qualms about airing his complaints to all and sundry either, which was part of the reason Corbec sent him out to look for local game to add to the regiment's evening meal, rather than have him scare the other men with his talk. Or worse, attract the attention of a neighbouring regiment's nosy commissar. Gaunt might tolerate Larkin's less than exemplar conduct, but then again, he didn't have the men to spare.
Well, there was one thing Larkin would have to admit. "It's nice not being shot at," Larkin said to Bragg as they both picked their way around the bulging pink mounds of moss and sparkling crystal formations that carpeted the forest floor, winking in the soft light that streamed through the wide-leafed canopy. As they passed, the crystals glittered like multi-faceted jewels in a treasure pile from fairytales.
It was pleasant. It was disturbing in its pleasantness. It was only a few days before that thick crossbeams of lasfire cut through wood and field, bathing everything in blood and ash. Other than the increasingly red cast of the forest around them, the planet seemed untouched by their presence.
Larkin sidestepped a large pile of animal dung when Bragg suddenly grabbed his hand. "I'm glad we're alive," he said, slowly, weightily. So was Larkin, but he had a suspicion that wasn't what Bragg meant. Well, what did he know? He was just the crazy guy, 'Mad Larkin'. He patted Bragg's large hand. His was squeezed in return.
"This place reminds me of that planet... Caligula, but less stinky and more sparkly," Bragg said. "It's starting to get almost as warm. At least it's not as wet here, like it was there. Derin got foot rot because of it. Don't fancy foot rot, myself."
They continued walking. Larkin felt many times a fool. They were holding hands like stone-skipping children on a play date to the solstice stones. A warm breeze gusted past and a small flurry of white feathers and pink, heart-shaped blossoms swirled along the path before them. Pale birds with bright blue eyes tilted their heads as they watched the two black-clad soldiers go past. They trilled in lively melodies that recalled dancing by firelight and... alright, Larkin amended, perhaps this was the sort of atmosphere made for hand-holding.
And it was in that atmosphere, where birds sang peacably overhead and pastel pink leaves fluttered through the ever warming air to carpet the grass at their feet, that Larkin reminded himself that Bragg was a younger man. A significantly younger man. The blushing tree trunks surrounding them seemed to pulse in sympathy to the shuddering backwards somersault that his mind performed.
He scanned the forest frantically for something else to pin his thoughts to. A silvery white caterpillar with bright orange markings wriggled its way across a low-hanging branch, standing out amongst the many little dark pink buds peeking from their split pods.
"Summer's coming," Larkin muttered, for lack of anything better to say. Bragg, who had paused to bend over and root around in the shapely brush (did anything ugly grow on this planet?), was already sweating. Bragg straightened up and presented Larkin with a small crystalline flower. It was a delicate, spindly thing with smoky, tinted filaments and a pale, pink stamen. Larkin stuck it through a hole in his lapel, and Bragg smiled. Larkin told himself the warm flush he felt was just the heat getting to him.
They continued walking amiably through the woods together, past a singed and wildly tilting sign painted with a horse's head, and stopped at the edge of what was once a farm. Burned out buildings still smoldered in the morning mist. Puffy, softening bodies lay strewn across the ground and in mangled ruins flung over fences, machinery and through holes in walls. They were beginning to stink. Rawne's platoon had moved through this sector earlier in the week and came across an isolated group of cultists. The resulting firefight had lit up not only the entire farm, sending all the animals running, but had also taken out several large grain silos. Their contents were now strewn across the entire area and down the slope of the hillside the farm was located on. Mixed clumps of pelleted feed and grain dusted over trees, debris and bodies. Animal footprints made random, circular patterns as creatures had tracked their way around large obstacles and ate the unexpected bounty.
Bragg turned over a nearby body with the end of his rifle. Even putting aside the the damage sustained by fire and a good Tanith blade, the body was grotesque. Bones and skin were unnaturally warped - the figure looked more like a man and a half, with a partially-formed second face that grimaced and protruded from the side of his head. The corpse beside him was branded on her forehead and while her body was not as obviously mutated, the small eyes peeking out from beneath her hair on the sides of her neck showed that whatever dark powers they had dallied with had begun to take its price from her body as well. Wishing there was a flame-trooper with them, Larkin clutched his rifle closer and skirted a good distance around the bodies, Bragg following obediently at his side.
He nearly had a heart attack when, behind him, there was a sudden, loud bleating. Larkin spun around, leveling his longlas at shoulder height and sighting through the scope automatically. He saw some fleas in a bed of fluffy white cotton.
He pulled back. The fleas became specks and the cotton belonged to the fluff on a blue-eyed lamb.
It charged forward happily, little tail bouncing as it headbutted into Larkin's rifle barrel, headbutted Larkin's leg, and would have headbutted a corpse hanging off a broken fence if Bragg hadn't intercepted it. It bleated again as it nuzzled Bragg's knuckles.
Larkin said nervously, "I'll never get used to that. They're too friendly to be natural." Bragg shrugged, watching the lamb as it nibbled on his fingers. Larkin continued, "I mean, they don't have pupils. I can't tell if they're even looking at me or not. Corbec says they have bad eyes."
"I don't think they're bad. They're pretty. We have blue eyes too," said Bragg, ponderously, fitting his hand over the lamb's entire skull as he rubbed it. "I like your eyes."
Feeling every second of his fifty-plus years, Larkin said, "Please don't compare my eyes to a sheep." He felt the onset of a headache that had nothing to do with his usual fits, though he was beginning to think his vision was going funny anyways.
"I could compare it to that chicken," Bragg replied, gesturing to a fat bird that strutted past a yard or so away. Larkin was sweating now too, his internal temperature rising with every beat of his heart as another warm easterly wind swept through the ruined farm, sending seed and black ash swirling into the air.
"Are you sure there's nothing unnatural about it?" Larkin asked, pointing at the silver patch of wool that curled beneath the lamb's nostril like half a jaunty mustache.
"It's just got character - half of one."
Larkin would have questioned what the other half of its character was, but he found his attention caught by something just a little behind where Bragg's wide waist was filling his vision. The chicken Bragg had pointed out earlier was behaving strangely. Maybe it was just Ovidiu that was different. Perhaps no more than any other planet, and the Emperor knows Tanith had its share of oddness that others found potentially heretical, but there was something off about this place that made Larkin look through his scope every five minutes.
Time seemed to slow as the sweat stains increased through Bragg's uniform. Heat haze rose from the flat earth in shimmering waves. Larkin groped for his medication, only to remember he'd finished the last of it. He was having another of his visions, then. It was timed to the heavy thudding of his heart. Thump. Pale feathers shifted colour, silvery streaks shifted to a dark grey as they puffed out in an aggressive, mass-doubling display. Thump. Blue eyes became amber. Thump. Head came up and beak opened wide.
The chicken launched itself at Bragg with gimlet-eyed determination. Larkin twitched and shot its head clean off before it got halfway there. The body ran about, anointing both their legs and the lamb with blood before it toppled over in its final death. It had vicious looking spurs, Larkin noted.
"Sorry," Larkin said, though he wasn't sure what he was apologizing for. The trees seemed to swell, flushing a dark red. Fat fronds burst from their pods to form a swollen, mushroom-shaped canopy overhead. Crystal formations grew opaque and shifted to a darker, smokier color. Some took on a metallic sheen.
Leafless vines creaked as they grew in length, snaking about, their runners bleaching to a strange bone-white. Three inch thorns spiked out in all directions and where they cut into their own flesh, the vines oozed sticky, crimson sap.
"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Bragg murmured.
Larkin's hands gripped his longlas, white-knuckled and steady, though the rest of him wanted to shake at the knees and fall over. "I don't know. Maybe? Depends if I'm having another one of my episodes?"
A shrill scream came from the north. Then shrieking bird call from the south.
"I don't think you're having an episode." They turned, standing back to back as hooves thumped closer in all directions and the braying became louder. Shadows circled as birds massed and blotted out what little sun streamed through the growing canopy.
Larkin said plaintively, "And here I was thinking it was such a nice day too."
During training at the Commissariat, they had been schooled in a wide variety of subjects. They had to be prepared for anything the galaxy could and would throw at them while in the service of the Emperor and His Imperium. One thing they didn't teach, however, was how to deal with the mind-numbing boredom of official dinners. Fortunately for Gaunt, Oktar had.
"When it's dire, I find it helps to make up stories about everyone in the room," Oktar had told him. "Each character is informed by how a person presents themselves and if I get far enough along, I'll map out the relationship between the cast as well. It keeps me observant and aware of everything that's happening in the room, even the more insipid conversations. The downside is if you get a little too creative, you'll start smiling for no reason. Most sane people fear the smiling commissar."
Gaunt never did get the hang of making up stories. He learned to suffer through these social affairs, while people like Blenner actually enjoyed them. This, too, was part of his duty to the Emperor. He preferred to be out on the field with his men, fighting the enemy with them, but playing politics and making nice with officiaries was as much a part of war as shooting cultists and xenos in the face.
Still, he was really, really bored. Perhaps it was leftover adrenaline from the short, intense fighting they'd been engaged in on Ovidiu when clearing out the last of the seditious forces. Perhaps he'd become too used to the company of the Ghosts with their stories and straight-forward attitudes. Even Rawne proved entertaining with his glaring hatred. Perhaps Gaunt was just uneasy, feeling that they were pressing on too fast, too soon, just to meet Warmaster Macaroth's demands.
The Rebellion on Ovidiu Minor, they were calling it. It had been the Emperor's luck that one of the Crusade fleets had been passing by the system when the distress call was heard. The rebels had been easily crushed by the combined forces of the Vitrian Dragoons, the 201st Landed Gentry, and the Tanith First & Only. A small detachment of the 13th Winged Hussars of Polska joined the Imperial forces fighting near the Pleurch Forests; they were only there by chance, on a routine trip to Ovidiu to pick up new breeding stock, when they received news of the rebellion.
The Elector and local lords, the Ovidiun PDF and Imperial Guard officers, and the representatives of the Administratum and Munitorum - They were gathered in the opulent dining hall of the Grim Provocation to celebrate their victory. From the wide viewport window, the pink sphere of Ovidiu could be seen below, surrounded by a flotilla of gray Navy ships whose weapon batteries were still aimed at the planet's surface.
Somewhere down there, Gaunt thought, his Ghosts were setting up camp and enjoying a day off on the hospitable world. A servitor offered him a tray of rolled scrambled eggs stuffed with a hazelnut paste and sprinkled with icing sugar. He took two and offered one to Milo, the only Ghost he'd brought up to the ship with him. He had yet to find a new adjutant, but Milo seemed happy enough to continue serving him when needed in the meantime.
"It's a local delicacy," Gaunt said, recalling information from the briefing slate he'd studied during transit to Ovidiu. "It's very popular at this time of year, as the season changes over to summer." Milo nodded and took an experimental nibble at the confectionery. He wrinkled his nose as he chewed.
"A bit sweet," Milo said, politely taking another bite. He grimaced.
"Surely it's not that bad?" said Gaunt, his smile turning into a frown as Milo dropped the food and clutched his head. "Are you well?" Milo looked through Gaunt and was opening his mouth to say something when the dining hall doors exploded.
"What the feth is going on!" Corbec shouted over the cacophony of shrill animal calls, the yelling of men as they scattered in confusion, and the crack of lasgun fire from those with enough presence of mind left to shoot at the stampede that was throwing the camp into disarray. Gaunt and Corbec had told the men to stay alert, but clearly not everyone had felt the need to. With the delay in transportion back to the Navarre, the Tanith First had been enjoying the peaceful day of rest. Well, peaceful now that the rebel forces were wiped out.
The day started out well enough. The fight against the secessionist forces on Ovidiu ended much sooner than predicted by the tacticians of the lord general. Cultist activity had been in its infancy and was too scattered to mount any real defense against Imperial forces.
The Munitorum workers had barely hammered in the last nail on the prefab supply depots when the operation was declared a success and the Guard was recalled. Soon, they would be moved to the next field of battle in the Crusade. A celebration dinner was being held on one of the ships in orbit. Corbec had declined Gaunt's invitation. Surprisingly, so had Rawne.
Maybe Rawne preferred to stay with his cats. Since they'd made landfall, he'd been followed by several of the feline creatures that roamed the forests. Then when Bragg had "accidentally" dumped a new bag of the strange-looking rations the Munitorum had supplied them with, an incensed Rawne had ended up covered in the purring cat-things, much to the suppressed amusement of everyone else. Corbec sent Bragg along to help Larkin with the hunting. It was best to keep him and Rawne separated, he reasoned, before someone got knifed. It was Rawne's own fault for messing with Larkin, but as the officer in charge, it fell to Corbec to try to keep the peace.
And a fine peace this was, Corbec thought as he blew off the head of what might have been a deer. Except he'd never seen a deer look at him with such intensely focused amber eyes before, nor one with such a bright teal coat. In the briefing, they mentioned that the creatures of this planet all had poor eyesight, which they compensated for by gently headbutting their way through life. There was a brief note about the changing seasons and its ecological effect, but Corbec had been more concerned with passages about terrain and the disposition of enemy and allied troops at the time.
He sliced the throat of a leaping squirrel with 30cm of good solid Tanith straight silver, blood splattering over half his face and obscuring his vision. He swung his knife wildly as he backed up, blinded. There was a mad chittering sound, probably more of the angry creatures headed straight for him. It was a welcome relief to hear the crack of three las blasts in quick succession accompanied by high-pitched death screams and the smell of seared meat. He scrubbed his eyes hastily and saw Mkoll stepping out of the tree line, lasgun raised.
"Thanks," Corbec said. Mkoll nodded, spinning around to shoot at another group of angry squirrels flying out of the trees.
"There's a whole herd of wildlife coming this way," Mkoll said between shots. Corbec envied Mkoll's calm, but it was rare anything ruffled the quiet scout-sergeant. Perhaps, Corbec mused, he had a private foxhole somewhere to have his panic attacks in private.
Corbec looked around. Their partially set up camp was in chaos. With the initial shock of the bizarre attack over, the men were forming up into squads, the sergeants organizing the men into sloppy firing lines. The animals continued to rush from the forest, too frenzied recognize the obvious danger ahead of them. They were acting like they were possessed.
A chill ran down his spine at the thought. True, the stink of Chaos had yet to be noticed by anyone - had the vox been working, someone would have been screeching about it - but what else could explain this sudden madness that had taken hold of the creatures of Ovidiu? Was someone deliberately flushing them into the Imperial camps? Had they missed some of the rebel forces?
The steady rhythm of lasgun fire was punctuated by the roar of flamers and the terrible, chilling screams of the crazed animals as they continued their suicide charge. Corbec tried to vox a warning to the 201st Landed Gentry, but heard only confusion and explosions from their end. He voxed the Navarre and Grim Provocation, relaying the situation to the latter's vox-officer as soon as he got through. Then a large duck dive-bombed at Raglon's head and smashed into the vox-caster unit, both duck and unit immediately bursting into flames. Corbec left the unconscious Raglon with Lesp and went to organize a better defence around the perimeter.
On the plus side, the animals were as single-minded as some cultists, knowing nothing of strategy and only charging in unerringly straight lines at their chosen trooper. It was this simplicity that made the men more and more nervous. No animal acted like this. Not unless they were controlled by something.
"They're throwing themselves on our knives," Corbec said to Mkoll as a large flightless bird did exactly that. He jerked his head back as its beak snapped at his face, the bird straining forward even as impaled itself through the heart. Blood slicked the hilt of Corbec's knife and he pushed the dead bird off the blade and wiped his hand hastily on his fatigues.
"Their vision isn't good," Mkoll reminded him, having also read the briefing slate, "and the weather's changing." Ifvan ran by, yelling in pain as a wild goat repeatedly stabbed its horned head at his ass. Corbec and Mkoll both raised their lasguns, but before they could get off a shot, Merrt blew the goat's brains out from where he was crouched behind some supply boxes, some distance away.
Corbec changed the clip on his lasgun and pushed up with Mkoll, checking on the other squads as they went. "What's so important about the weather?" He shot a slavering dog as it ran into the side of a billet, careful to make it a quick, clean kill. "Mkoll?" The scout had disappeared into the woods. Angry shouts started up from the other side of their camp, as the herd of animals Mkoll had warned about burst through the tree line.
A striped, orange furry thing with long, flapping ears leapt at Corbec's groin, its blunt eye-teeth bared. He decapitated it with a grimace, the arterial spray splattering the last clean area of his uniform. It was sickening, to see animals used this way, to have to kill them when they couldn't even defend themselves. Whoever was doing this had to be stopped.
Senior vox-officer Samuel Milne had been born on the Grim Provocation, had never been outside of its hull in all of his sixty-three years of service, and was certain to die on board the ship, a true Navyman to the end. He had survived no less than ten hostile boarding actions, though in the last six he had experienced them from the comfort and safety of his partially enclosed console on the bridge. He'd met his wife, Tara, an enlisted crewman who'd grown up on a hiveworld before it had been destroyed by Tyranids, and they'd raised three children together in the belly of the Provocation, two girls and a boy that grew into fine young Navymen themselves. The Emperor's blessing was upon Milne and his family, the crew would say, and pray a little harder for themselves.
One day, three years ago, on the tenth time the Provocation had been boarded by the enemies of the Imperium, Milne lost that blessing.
He still went to the chapel every day, as he had his entire life. He prayed under the watchful gaze of the God-Emperor, made the sign of the holy aquila, observed the rights and rituals needed to keep the machine-spirits of his equipment appeased. His faith was firm.
Yet he was only a man. A simple man, and like other men, he questioned what he might have done to deserve this. Had he been less than diligent in his service? Had he not communicated orders quickly or clearly enough? If his fingers hadn't slipped, if he hadn't drunk a bit too much at the engagement party of his second child the previous night, would they have lived? He would not fail in his duties again.
When the message came in from the 201st Landed Gentry, he followed protocol to the letter. There would be no mistakes. The message light blinked at him again just as he finished relaying the 201st's desperate pleas for aerial support. The Tanith First & Only were under suspected cultist attack, holding position but unable to get in touch with the 201st or the 13th Winged Hussars, long-range vox assistance requested. Milne dutifully passed that message to his captain as well.
Captain Gravett contacted him personally over the vox from the dining hall. "Officer Milne, repeat that last message," he said. Milne did. Gravett swore and put him on hold. More message lights from the various regiments, Munitorum and Mechanicum forces on the surface lit up his console. He took their messages calmly. In a small corner of his mind, a picture of the fierce battle on the surface was forming, and his heart swelled with pride as he thought of how fortunate he was to be given this chance to prove himself in the eyes of the Emperor again.
The captain came back on the vox. "Milne, send a wide-broadcast alert the fleet and all ground personnel. High alert, maximum force. We have cultists!"
"Yes, sir! Also, incoming message from the 13th Winged Hussars -"
"We know what the message is, Sam! For Throne's sake, we don't have a second to lose! Get those vox-links up!"
The canaries were back.
They had been following him all morning, singing and landing on his head, his gun, his back if he held still long enough. As master scout, Mkoll spent much of his time on the ground, exploring the area and reporting anything of interest to the regiment's officers. Though he prided himself on his skills, he was certain there wasn't a scout in existence that could stay hidden while covered in small but noisy stark white birds.
After increasingly desperate gambits involving everything from a swim in a river to knocking over the local version of a hornet's nest, Mkoll thought he'd finally lost them. Of course, then he discovered the stampeding herd of wild animals headed directly for base camp. All vox channels were unreliable on the planet's surface due to atmospheric interference during the seasonal shift, and the best signal he could get was a sticky crackle in his ear. Mkoll had rushed back to warn the camp.
Now back to crawling through brush, it seemed long-range broadcasts to and from the navy ships worked perfectly well, better than usual in fact, as even signals from ground troops could be received without aid of a vox-caster. Mkoll listened as Captain Gravett announced over a wide-beam broadcast the confirmed presence of active cultists both onboard the Grim Provocation and on the planet's surface, sector XXIB, also known as Pleurch Forests. Mkoll cursed. That was where their camps were. He pushed away a questing canary's beak from its designs on his ear and tried to get in touch with Corbec or Rawne via the fleet vox-officers.
"Colonel Corbec exclaims and asks after your health, Sergeant Mkoll," said vox-officer Milne when Mkoll finally got through an indeterminable number of busy signals. Before he could respond, Milne continued, "Please hold one moment, urgent priority message incoming." Mkoll waited as the line clicked silent, then clicked on again. "Sergeant Mkoll, your message please."
"Tell Corbec and Rawne I'm cut off from a direct return to camp, going to get reinforcements for our line. That's all."
"One moment please while the message is relayed," vox-officer Milne said, voice a monotone drone. Mkoll didn't wait for a confirmation.
He ran, this time to the 13th Winged Hussars' camp. He didn't bother trying to raise them on the vox. As evidenced by the fact that everyone was using the fleet comm channels for ground to ground communication, it was doubtful the inter-regiment vox channels were suddenly working any better than the poor performance they'd suffered all week. The swarm of birds flying around his head would announce his presence to any sentries soon enough.
Mkoll cursed and ducked a murder of crows. He made quick work of them with his knife, though he did not come out unscathed. He'd agreed to join the Founding so he could die for the God-Emperor, having nothing left to keep him on Tanith with Eiloni gone and his sons grown up. Ironic, that now he daren't die lest another piece of Tanith's memory be lost.
Mkoll reached the Hussars' camp, heralded by his personal singing entourage. The Hussars' camp was a much simpler affair than those of the other regiments as there was only a squad of them, seven riders and their ten were Rough Riders - they carried only what fit comfortably in their packs. If they lacked in anything, they made do.
The Hussars were just finishing up, buckling down the last bag straps and bridling their mounts. They watched with amusement as Mkoll appeared, one of them shouting something undoubtedly hilarious, given the raucous laughter that followed. Mkoll would've been more irritated, had he not been on an urgent mission, and had he not already accepted his canary-full fate. Besides, the Hussars and the Tanith were on friendly terms.
"Scout-sergeant!" boomed the deep rumbling voice of Sergeant Sikora of the 13th Winged Hussars. "Looks like you have made some new friends!"
Sikora was a large man who's height had grown sideways. His finely wrought plate armour of silver steel and gold heraldry gleamed a faint shade of burnished pink and was so highly polished that, with skill, it could be used to reflect light at enemy forces and temporarily blind them. His bright fuchsia padded żupan was barely visible under layers of armour and chainmail and Sikora's spotted animal pelt cape still hung from his shoulder guards, despite the warm weather. Tall plasteel poles hung with chains, skulls, and the long feathers of a land bird native to Polska, formed arching wings that framed his squat figure.
All the Hussars wore highly stylized but effective chichak helms that obscured their faces, but the sergeant was identifiable by his magnificent moustache. It was thick, elaborately braided and waxed into the shape of a winged leering skull into which small tokens and charms had been woven through.
"Sergeant Sikora," Mkoll said, recovering his balance after Sikora's welcoming shoulder slap. Sikora's mount, a gray mare that had developed a taste for Ghost scouts after gnawing on them a few times too many, snaked her head forward, disturbing a canary that had settled on Mkoll's head. Mkoll leaned away as she sniffed at him. "Ensign Bunny," he said, addressing the horse by her name and rank. The canary chirped and resettled itself in Mkoll's cape as he turned back to Sikora. "You heard Captain Gravett's broadcast?"
Sikora nodded gravely, his moustache tinkling. "Yes, it is unfortunate news," he said, then grinned toothily. "For any cultists."
"We could use your help at our camp," Mkoll said, "we're being overrun. Somehow they're driving the animals at us, though the level of violence they show varies." He indicated the circling canaries with a tilt of his chin.
"Those Chaos scum! The Tanith First can count on the support of the 13th, Scout-sergeant," Sikora said. When Sikora turned to give orders to his men, Bunny sidled closer to Mkoll and nosed at him. Mkoll tried to push her head away, but she swung back and knocked him to the ground. Sikora grabbed her reins, aborting her lunge.
"My apologies, it must be the turn in season," Sikora said. "Though she shouldn't be exhibiting aggression after all the inhibitors -" He paused and looked at Mkoll, who was getting to his feet and backing away from the horse warily. The canaries cheeped and circled in the air, scolding the larger animal. "Scout-sergeant, did you handle animal feed recently?"
Mkoll blinked at Sikora. "Animal feed?"
"Yes, in particular Munitorum-issued cloth sacks full of pellets," Sikora said urgently. He pulled Mkoll towards him and sniffed the startled scout. "You stink of it, no offense."
With horror, Mkoll listened as Sikora explained the nature of Ovidiu. The Administratum data had been woefully circumspect. The briefing slates had only mentioned that the planet had two seasons. The spring season was mild, but the summer season was harsh enough to place restrictions on the tourism industry. During summer, the entire planet's ecosystem went into overdrive. Plants changed and grew at exponential rates. Those with crystalline organs became dangerously spiked and aggressively expansive foliage, kept only in check by finite resources. Animals went into a frenzied cycle of mating and fighting. Weather alternated between thunderous rainstorms and scorching sunshine.
It was an environment turned as deadly as any Death World.
"Of course, an entire industry sprang up around the control of animals during this period, otherwise we would not be here," Sikora said.
"How so?" asked Mkoll. A thought nagged at him about the cloth sacks Sikora had mentioned, but his mind was racing with new information that indicated there might be more to the attacks than Chaos cultists.
"With judicious training and hormonal controls, Summer Horses make excellent battle steeds and stock for crossbreeding. Using a cocktail of additives developed by the Adeptus Biologis, we can control when the breeding occurs and trigger or calm aggression." Sikora quoted, scratching his chin with a practiced hand that left his moustache undisturbed. "Or so they tell me. I am certain there is more to it, things involving the use of native soil and chemical sprays and other incomprehensible farming things. But I am a horseman, that is what I learn about. You know how it is."
The men were on their mounts, lined up two abreast and waiting patiently as Mkoll and Sikora spoke. Sikora swung up onto Bunny and held out his hand to Mkoll. "Up you come, Scout-sergeant."
"Um?" Mkoll said. Bunny turned her head and winked at Mkoll. The canary in his hood shrilled at the horse, flapping its wings against Mkoll's face. He tried to brush the bird away. Sikora took the opportunity to grab his waving hand and haul him up into the saddle.
"We ride!" Sikora shouted to his men. The men blew into their fluted trumpets, carved from the bones of slain enemies and woven into their thick beards. The horses whinnied and leapt forward, the feathered pinions fluttering and making a hideous, clattering noise. Mkoll scrabbled and clung onto Sikora's belt. The canaries were dislodged or warded off by the flapping 'wings' of the Hussars. They called out as they were left behind. The forest blurred around him as they galloped through, but he could still see the pleasant pink hues changing as they rode, turning dark red and purple as the air turned sticky hot and overripe. Summer had come to Ovidiu.
Mkoll, trying to distract himself from the idea of falling off and being trampled, thought back to what Sikora had said about the cloth sacks. An image appeared in his mind of an incident earlier this morning. Larkin and Bragg, the rations all over Rawne, the sudden cat-pile on the major.
"...So, this breeding feed. Are the pellets greyish-brown, resembling tiny ration blocks?" Mkoll felt faintly ill.
Sikora nodded, his helmet clanking. "Yes, that's the breeding mix, to trigger the hormones. It is coated with a sweet substance, to sweeten the deal." He chuckled, and Mkoll felt the rumble against his chest despite the armoured plates Sikora wore.
"That's what they've been feeding us," Mkoll said, now resigned to his suspicions. "All week."
A deafening silence fell over the party. Even the horses stopped making noise for a few moments as Sikora and his men, who were absolutely not listening in, took in Mkoll's words. Someone further down the line started to laugh, then stopped.
"Ah, well, they are safe to eat, if I recall..." Sikora said slowly. Noise reasserted itself. The men blew into their trumpets a little louder, though Mkoll thought he could hear a wheezing laugh sputter through several of them.
"We also blew up silos on some of the farms earlier." May as well throw it all out there, Mkoll thought. "We thought it was just Ovidium grain."
Sikora cranked his head around to look at Mkoll. "There is a prank we play, a welcoming ritual, if you will, for those that wish to become Hussars," Sikora said. "We drop the recruits naked into the feed bins, and then set loose the baby animals. Baby animals are not affected by the feed, but they do love the taste and smell. The recruits must escape the mass licking without doing injury to the animals or themselves. Some animals bite and claw, yes? It is great fun to watch."
"Sounds like a riot," Mkoll said.
"Yes, we record the proceedings and play them at the graduation ceremony."
"We should try feeding them the pellets this year," someone muttered, and a giggle rippled through the horns. Sikora coughed and they played their horns more furiously.
"Is there any way to stop the effect? It sounds like this might not be the work of rebels or cultists," Mkoll said. "We should update the commanders." Sikora agreed, and waved at the squad vox-officer
"For stopping the cycle, no, it is difficult if they have already found their targets. The urge to breed is strong, it is in the very air itself, you see. You may be able to mask your smell," Sikora said, again turning his head to glance at Mkoll. "It would take a stronger scent than the one you smell of now." Mkoll wasn't sure how to take that, so he settled for nodding.
"You guys have something that works? Your horses seem to be fine."
Sikora stroked a curlicue on the end of his moustache. "Well. We Hussars, we have a technique, but it is not for everyone. I am not sure it would work for you Tanith."
"Anything might help," Mkoll said. He felt the heat of six pairs of eyes focused on him. "Any word from command?" he said loudly.
"We're on hold," the vox-officer replied. "They don't seem to like taking our calls." The Hussars were a cheerful lot, which was why the Tanith had gotten along with them during the Ovidium operation. Though, right now, they seemed a bit too cheerful, given the current mess of conflicting orders and information. Probably because they weren't under threat of being crushed by animals in a mating frenzy, Mkoll thought sourly.
Explosions broke through the chatter of auto cannons. The sharp cracks of lasfire were barely discernible over the rattling of the Hussars' charge. "We're close!" Sikora shouted, then broke into a battle hymn. The men joined the hymn with their trumpets, and the horses whinnied in accompaniment.
At Sikora's signal, the Winged Hussars hit a switch on their armour that triggered a mechanism rigged into their pinions. Tiny holes opened up in the plasteel poles of their wings, pouring a promethium-based mix onto the feathers. A second hole opened above the first and a tiny blue spark jumped out, to land on the now soaked wings. They instantly burst into flames, and Mkoll hastily tucked his camo-cloak around him and hunched down as small as he could behind Sikora. While the Winged Hussars were impressive to watch in combat, experiencing the charge up close was a bit much for the scout.
Something poked into his ear, nearly causing him to fall off. One lone canary had remained, nestled in his hood, and it was now amorously rubbing its beak against his neck. Mkoll glared at the bird. It chirped sadly at him. The galaxy was a dark and lonely one. It would have to learn to deal with it.
Bragg was a good son. He had grown big and strong, bigger and stronger than the other children, and his parents were careful to teach him to be gentle and thoughtful. One of the most important lessons they had taught him was to protect and aide those in need of help, or too weak to help themselves.
As Bragg ran alongside the scrambling Larkin, dodging goats and leaping rabbits, he realized that the terrain was too spiked and hazardous. They were slowing down. He grabbed Larkin by the back of his belt and threw him over his shoulder. There was a plaintive bleating from behind him. He turned and saw the lamb from the farm, trying to follow. He picked it up as well and threw it over his other shoulder.
They bounced against his back as he ran. The braying and barking grew louder as other animals joined the chase. Larkin's longlas smacked him in the side of the head as the other man reached down and groped Bragg's rear. Bragg almost ran into a tree.
He corrected and dodged around a jagged rock spiked with eerie, black crystal. "What? This isn't the time!"
"This is the perfect time! I'm an old man and we're going to die!"
Bragg ducked under a low hanging branch and vaulted over twisting vines. He felt like he was back in training. "Why now? I have plans!"
Larkin whined, "What plans? I noticed no plans! I just realized I don't want to die without getting my chance with a man half my age!"
"You're not that old! I'm not that young! We're not going to die!"
"Maybe not you, you're big enough. But I'm too little to handle it when that horse with the raging hard-on reaches us!" Bragg stumbled and spilled both man and lamb onto the ground. "That's what I thought!" Larkin rolled and sighted his longlas. It was the chickens that reached them first. He opened fire, sending three to their deaths before the rest were onto them. Bragg reached into the flurry of scratching and clucking birds to extract Larkin. A moment later, both Larkin and the lamb were over Bragg's broad shoulders again as they continued their race back to camp. Sharp cracks of las-fire nearly deafened Bragg as Larkin tried to shoot while slung over his shoulder.
Bragg snarled, "I HAVE PLANS. GOOD PLANS. Involving a real bed!"
"Feth take your plans! I just don't want to die."
"Throne, man! I said you're not going to die!"
But even those words seemed less and less likely. An exhalation of larks flew overhead, blotting out all light as effectively as a cloud over the sun. The animals were closing in now. Bragg caught glimpses of large furred forms running parallel on either side. A few hundred metres, he prayed, just a few hundred and they'd be safely back at camp, he could grab his twin-stubbers and kill the rest of their enemies, then shut Hlaine up with a kiss, like they did in holodramas. He started reciting the Litany of Protection. He thought he could see smoke in the distance, before the birds and canopy closed in above them and they were plunged into darkness.
Gaunt drummed his fingers on the table and felt the sharp stab of an approaching migraine between his eyes. There was pressure from the Administratum to appease the Ovidium Council; the Elector was demanding an explanation for why the Pleurch Forest was on fire; the Munitorum was denying any mix-up in the supplies; the Winged Hussars were lamenting the loss of breeding stock when they weren't, for some reason, chasing the Tanith around shouting something about needing to cover them with "natural musk"; the Mechanicum representatives were bemoaning the destruction of years of careful work by the Biologis; and the Navy was insisting it was a Chaos strike while the Guard was writing it off as traps left behind by the rebel forces.
On top of all that, his only clean uniform was covered in soot, buttercream, and cultist guts from when they had to fight the thankfully small group of stowaways that attacked them on the Grim Provocation. His years as a cadet had not exactly trained him in the disarming and dispatching of mutant heretics while armed with only a serving tray full of cake and a glass of wine. The fire that ignited the punch bowl and several members of the Administratum was just the redberry on top.
Milo's uncanny prescience, ingenuity, and bravery in yanking on a passing techpriest's robes could never be recorded in the official reports, though his actions prevented more than minor injuries amongst those in the dining hall. Offended at the physical tresspass by a fleshy one, the techpriest had sprung ten limbs of whirring blades and stabbing instruments. The charging cultists paused at the display. Their hesitation bought the rest of the officers in the dining hall just enough time to get the civilians under cover before arming themselves and attacking. Within five intense minutes of blade to fork and food fighting, the invaders had all been killed.
Then, reports started coming in from the surface.
"So there was a siege of herons, but Brostin set them on fire, and the Hussars were galloping around on fire too, though I think that was deliberate. With everything around the camp burning, Colm said we should pull back, and then I was telling Bragg this was my last chance before I died and I'd really like to take him up on his plans now, so I took off my-" Bragg clamped a giant hand over Larkin's mouth and smiled nervously at Gaunt.
"What Larks is trying to say, colonel-commissar, is that we didn't see anything alive that was particularly... Chaos-y at the farm, just the dead mutants. Then Mkoll and Sergeant Sikora told us about the seasonal thing," Bragg said, then trailed off with a shrug. "We weren't doing nothing else but fighting to survive." Gaunt stared at him. Though Gaunt knew well that Bragg's earnest and simple attitude hid a clever mind, Bragg's attempt to look innocent was the most alarming thing he'd seen since he stepped back onto Ovidiu.
Corbec cleared his throat. "We're awful sorry about the fires, but it was that or get smothered by animals, sir. And I'm sure nobody wanted that to happen, special breeding grounds or not."
"And we did save this lamb!" Bragg said, beaming as he swung the fluffy creature down off his shoulders and held it out to Gaunt. It bleated and cocked its head at Gaunt, squinting, its ears flopping like a child's stuffed doll. Gaunt resisted the urge to reach out and pet it.
"Besides," Corbec added, "Nobody told us about the whole feed business before. Rawne was only following orders when he blew those silos up. I think we did successfully wipe out the rebel forces on Ovidiu. They had a few cultists among them, but they're gone now too. Must've been the last of them that infiltrated the Provocation, but that's Navy business."
"And where is Major Rawne?" Gaunt was somewhat surprised to not see him reporting as well. For all his well-known hatred for Gaunt, the handsome man stood on protocol as well as any Schola-trained officer. There was some quiet scuffing of boots on dirt. Corbec looked at a point over Gaunt's head, expression neutral. "Well?"
Bragg said, "He's fine, I'm sure." He sounded certain. Granted, snake-like, dagger-faced men like Rawne were always 'fine'. Whether it was 'fine' without collateral damage to add to Gaunt's headache was another matter.
Gaunt leveled a stare at Corbec and waited.
"He's fine! Just... not dressed to military standard." Gaunt could have sworn someone muttered, 'naked', but their mouths were all firmly shut. "He won't let the Hussars near with their natural musk, so he's trapped in your tent."
"By the cats, sir. They reach adulthood and triple in size in the summer. Apparently they took a shine to the major something fierce. All of them. At the same time."
"Some feed fell on him," said Larkin.
"Maybe got stuck in his hair," agreed Bragg.
"Some feed fell on him," Gaunt repeated flatly. Nobody would meet his eyes. "You know what, I don't care." He took off his hat and placed it on the table in front of him, scrubbing at his dirty hair. "From your reports and those of the 13th Winged Hussars and 201st Landed Gentry, we didn't deviate from orders or mission protocol. The Mechanicum is rigging something up to put out the fires, and the Ovidiu PDF and Munitorum will check out the farmstead Larkin and Bragg found to confirm there's nothing else there."
The three men standing before Gaunt's desk relaxed. "Thanks, sir" said Corbec.
"Oh, don't think we're in the clear yet," Gaunt said. "I expect the Elector won't care how this all got started, so we'd better hope the Warmaster has us moving on sooner rather than later, before the Administratum decides someone has to take the blame."
"We'll keep that in mind, sir," Corbec said.
"At least we got the food," Bragg said. Gaunt looked at him, confused.
"We went out to hunt for food," Bragg said, "and we got it." He nodded at the lamb still held out to Gaunt and set it down on the table. "It's almost time for Candlemas on Tanith, I figure." The lamb bleated, knocking cups and papers over until it found and picked up Gaunt's commissar hat. It started chewing on it. Larkin edged towards the door.
Gaunt stood up. "You're dismissed," he said. They made the sign of the aquila and quickly piled out of the command tent. Gaunt waited until the flap had closed behind them. Acting Adjutant Beltayn poked his head in, and Gaunt waved him away before he sat back down. He could hear the noise of the camp outside. The Ghosts were swearing and singing as they cleaned up the mess, fending off Hussars and the stray animal still affected by the special feed. One positive effect of the fire was the smoke had killed most of the scent. Without the scent escalating their aggression, the animals were easily rounded up by the Hussars and herded into a hastily erected pen, to be dealt with by the Ovidium officials later.
He considered the lamb, which had made a proper mess of his hat by this point, and rested his face in his hands, massaging his eyes. A year had passed, a new one was coming. This wasn't the worst he'd had to deal with since taking command of the Tanith First and Only. There were no casualties for the Ghosts this time at least, no 'friendly fire'. They were a fine regiment for all their quirks. He would make sure to light candles for all of them, both living and dead.
The lamb butted its head against his and nuzzled his hands. Gaunt regarded it through his fingers. "The God-Emperor works in mysterious ways," Oktar had said to him every Candlemas, "and He has plans for us all. We must be ready to live up to His expectations."
He patted the lamb. Plans indeed.
(ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:'¤,°•:* +°'Ω THE END HOW HEARTWARMING
NOTES: The Commissariat's Disaster Response, Approved Tactics Handbook - all responses are based on a 2 path flowchart. Is Chaos involved? No: Evacuate the people or allow local governance to do their thing. Yes: BURN IT WITH FIRE. It's a very thin book. And untouched.
Mkoll keeps the bird. They have a beautiful lifetime together.