Continuing the story of Vhuna and Koju. Part one can be found here.
They stood outside in the chill morning air, the warmth of the Command Tent leaching quickly away. Koju retrieved a packet of gutka-sticks from his arm pocket and proffered one to Vhuna. She took it with fingers that barely trembled at all.
If her bracelets had been turned off she could have done her party trick, but as it was she permitted Koju to light the stick. The proximity of the man as he did so sent a fresh chill down her spine, despite the effects of the limiter he wore around his neck.
The warm smoke brought her some ease, and the thick collection of lines around her eyes and tight, pinched mouth relaxed very slightly.
“I don’t suppose you’re about to tell me what he was doing here? I doubt the reliquaries need the likes of him.”
“Need to know, Shiny. Need to know. You’re welcome, by the way.” Koju put the packet of sticks away, and started to walk towards the comms tent, where Vhuna was expected on duty. She took another draw deep into her lungs, sighed out the last of her uneasiness and followed after him over the frozen, rocky soil.
Even before they reached the tent, Vhuna could tell something was amiss.
“Resolve,” she said. The word stopped Koju in his tracks, and he turned to face her.
He caught the hubbub coming from the comms tent and quickly detached a code-key from his belt. He paused.
“Taliesyn. Sabbatine. Iconarch.” Vhuna quickly recited the names of the Saints that no warp-daemon could ever bear to utter, and Koju nodded.
She held out her hands. Koju placed the key into a slot on the side of one of her bracelets, and Vhuna quickly pressed her wrists together, planting the key into a matching slot on the other bracelet.
With her wrists now locked together Koju pressed two runes on the code-key, one on the top and the other on the bottom, at the same time. There was no way Vhuna could reach these runes herself with her wrists clamped together like that. The Mechanicus had been diligent in their safety routines.
The code-key bleeped three times and the bracelets unlocked. Koju retrieved the key as Vhuna’s head jerked upwards, her silver eyes rolling back into her skull.
Her head snapped forward an instant later, her eyes blazing with an unearthly light.
“They’re here,” she said. “And not where we expected them, not at all. Get the Colonel.” She hurried off into the tent where the commotion was now spilling out the open flaps as messengers rushed out with data-slips.
Koju keyed his vox link for Colonel Lekh as he followed the psyker into the comms tent.
The arrival of the Colonel and his coterie found the initially fraught comms tent now well-disciplined by the presence of the Cadet Commissar. The presence of the psyker in her unbound state had also imposed a kind of nervous calm, although most of the comms officers were more or less used to her by now.
Lieutenant Weild fired off his salute along with the rest of them and stood stiffly to attention.
“Communique from General Kurt at the Convent, sir.” He handed over a data-slate, although Colonel Lekh did not even glance at it. He just waved it in the air to silence the Lieutenant before moving over to the chart table, where a map of the Canossis region of Coulter’s Haven had been spread.
“Show, don’t tell,” Lekh said.
“They’ve come down here and here. This whole area, and the bay as well. We think here too,” Weild’s finger indicated various points to the north of the Convent of the Adorers of the Blood of the Emperor.
“Nothing in the grain valleys to our south? The forests?” queried Lekh, his head still bent to examine the locations Weild had pointed out.
He must have caught Weild’s nervous nod out of the corner of his eye. He looked up, his anger at the non-verbal response clear in his face. “You’re absolutely sure? Be certain, Lieutenant. Act as if your very life depends on it.”
Weild shuffled backwards under the Colonel’s furious glare and gestured to Vhuna, standing to attention off to one side. Koju stood behind her.
“The orbital scans are accurate, Colonel. There is nothing south of us. Not yet.”
Lekh glanced at the précis on the data-slate. He knew what to expect, and found it almost immediately.
“The orbital platforms are gone. Destroyed. This information is old. You have to be sure, Psyker. I’m not about to abandon this position only to be bit in the arse as we pull back to the Convent.”
“That much biomass – I would see it easily. The general’s psykers got it wrong, sir. The southern Breadbasket is clear.”
Lekh turned back to the chart table without another word, studied it in silence for a moment and then straightened up, slapping the table loudly with both hands as he did so.
“Major Limburgh. I think we should be thanking the Emperor that they are not here in strength enough to seed the whole planet at once. We fall back to the Convent and hold there with the main force until the transports arrive and the reliquaries are away. I want the mechanised companies to leave as soon as they are ready. Within the hour, understood? Everyone else will follow on up the pass by noon at the latest. Bravo Company Armoured Fists are to form a rear guard, just in case. Strike camp and prepare my transport for immediate departure. I want to see this Convent for myself before the enemy arrives. Cadet Commissar, you and your psyker are with me.”
The Colonel strode from the tent and in his wake the cramped place exploded into activity as the officers and men rushed to implement his orders.
The Salamander’s engine rasped and revved, filling the tiny compartment with a foundry of noise and the stench of hot unguents. The tracks slipped on the frozen surface as the alpine-camo’d vehicle roared up the valley towards the pass which slumped between two south-facing peaks. The sound of stones ricocheting off the adamantium hull competed with the thrashing engine to drown out the occupants’ conversation, conversation which became even harder as the vehicle started bouncing and lurching over the larger rocks of the moraine.
Vhuna clung onto her webbing straps, and did her best not to be sick. Or to scream. She did not like confined spaces, not one little bit.
Colonel Lekh, on the other hand, seemed utterly indifferent to the bucking steel-tomb he had chosen as his transport, and was deep in conversation with his adjutant, Major Limburgh, and two other aides.
“Any word from the Order’s Sisters of Battle? Can we expect them to come and help defend their own bloody Convent? Where the hell are they? Those fat nuns watching the relics are about as much use to me as a comb to that psyker!” shouted Lekh.
The reply was lost to Vhuna as one track revved impossibly loudly and the side of the scout vehicle she was on plunged sickeningly before bouncing and grinding over the rocky terrain once again. Glancing up, she was enraged to see Koju looking at her with amusement in his eyes. She swallowed her anger; there was nothing she could do with it right now.
In her mind, the surface of the Canossis region was laid out as if etched in silver. Features were indistinct unless she focused her mind’s-eye on them, but even so the deformations caused by the lifeweight of the invading Tyranid armies far-off to the north stood out clearly. As they proceeded up the mountain pass she could even begin to see the bruising in the skein caused by the massed defenders arrayed at the Convent. The Imperial Guard had received advance notice of the arrival of one of the last, lost remnants of the shattered Hive Fleet Kraken in the Coulter’s Haven system, and were here in force to deny the enemy a foothold to rebuild their strength.
Not that Coulter’s Haven offered much in the way of material for the Hive Fleet to consume. A Haven in name only this world was sparsely populated, and far from verdant. Even the oceans were dead, the chloro-bromine seas incapable of holding life. Mockingly known as the Breadbasket, the lower reaches of the Arpentium valleys were the one attempt at horticulture on this world, and would fail without the yearly salvation of imported water for irrigation. Still, they kept the Convent in grain. The Convent of the Adorers was the only feature on Coulter’s Haven worth the effort of defending, and even then only until the famous reliquaries of the patron Saint of the Order were removed.
Once it was gone, the ravening hordes could have this world, until absolution arrived and burned them all from high orbit. Even now the Navy was mopping up the few living ships that had made it past the blockade, although obviously not quickly enough to prevent them launching their mycetic spores.
Hive Fleet Kraken would not renew itself here, thought Vhuna, but plenty of Guard were going to fall to protect some musty old relics. It would have helped if any of her fellow troopers had even heard of Coulter’s bloody Haven, the Adorers of the Blood of the Emperor or their precious and supposedly famous relics, but there you were. Life in the Guard.
“Is she safe?” Vhuna heard the Colonel shout over to Koju. She was not naïve enough to think he was enquiring after her health.
“Psyker Vhuna’s bracelets have been deactivated, Colonel. I thought you would want to retain the use of her senses for now,” Koju yelled back, gripping onto his own webbing as the old Salamander slid and leapt again. The terrain was getting steeper as they neared the summit of the pass.
The Colonel’s chiselled face remained impassive, giving no impression of whether he approved of Koju’s suggestion or not.
“There’s a lot I don’t like about this mission, Cadet Commissar. I don’t like mountains. Mountains and tanks don’t mix. I don’t like being bottled-up on a plateau. And I don’t like being the lab-monkey for you and your warp-magnet.”
He paused, still looking at Koju, his eyes blank.
“You’ve seen action together before.” It wasn’t a question. “Green-skins. A large theatre, plenty of back-up. Plenty of reinforcements. Plenty of places to fall back to in the event of a cluster-feck. In the Convent there’ll be none of that. Your pysker’s been – useful so far, but I don’t like what I hear. You should know that. I don’t like it. If she screws up –“. He paused again, letting the words hang.
Koju nodded. “The Commissariat is ever mindful of its duty, Colonel.”Lekh stared at him for a few seconds longer, and then turned back to his adjutant. Neither of them had looked at Vhuna throughout the exchange, and Koju avoided the woman’s eyes for the remainder of the journey.’
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