"I must remind myself that when all else fails, simply revel in the absurdity of it all."
For many people, Emperor's Day is a joyous occasion and arguably the most anticipated day of the year for every juvie. It is a celebration of His Majesty's gift of peace, unity, and enlightenment to all of mankind. Families gather, drinks are shared, and a reflection is made to all that the Emperor has given to us and continues to provide. For some, it is a reminder of what we, as a people, owe to Him, while others merely see it a simple festival where His gifts to mankind are emulated through the exchange of gifts between friends and family before gorging on food and drink until you're rendered comatose for the night. It is a day that invokes many memories in people – some good, some bad. For me, most of the good ones were back when I was still a child, watching the misty haze above Krieg late into the night in hopes of catching a glimpse of the fabled Emperor's Light as he delivered gifts to all the faithful boys and girls of the Imperium. I rarely got to spend those ones with my father, though, as he was usually busy serving the Imperium on a distant world like so many other military men and women. The one time we did get to share an Emperor's Day together was a very memorable one, which would be expected since we both knew that it could very well be the first and last time we'd get such an opportunity. He gave me a toy lasgun with which I could finally defend myself against my friend and neighbour, Lukas, who had spent the previous months expressing his childhood infatuation with me in the only way boys know how. Of course, he got an even bigger toy lasgun for Emperor's Day so the mock-battles were still rather one-sided but at least I finally had a chance to shoot darts back at him.
The bad ones, though, were the far more numerous ones I had during my service alongside the Imperial Guard. I, like most people in my position, found it difficult to be reminded of the gifts of peace, unity, and enlightenment when I spent many Emperor's Days slogging it in the most remote, misbegotten systems in the galaxy to knock heads with xenos, heretics, or whatever horror the universe could vomit upon me. Many times the holiday came and past without me even realizing it as the rotational cycle on many planets made it very difficult to keep track of the current Imperial date. The few I did 'celebrate' while up to my neck in blood and guts were fairly unmemorable or at least on par with the rest of my 'exemplary' career. There is one, however, that stands out in my memory despite it involving a very close brush with death at the same time. It was my first celebration of Emperor's Day with the 597th Valhallans and Commissar Cain.
Though it was still early in my career, the memories of care-free Emperor's Days as a child were quite a distance behind me when I spent the holiday with the 597th Valhallan Ice Warriors on the remote mining world of Acitcratna. At first, our situation on the ice world, which was mostly used for various mining and refining operations, seemed grim and I was fully-prepared to spend my Emperor's Day face down in the snow. The planet had, for some reason or another, been targeted by a small war band of Chaos-worshipping scum-frakkers. Now normally this wouldn't have been a concern for us but the initial reports from the frontlines made it quite clear that these heretics had with them a significant number of armour-clad, abominations of the Emperor's finest. It was to be my first encounter with Chaos space marines.
After ours and several other regiments held the line against waves of cannon-fodder heretics and the occasional Chaos marine for several weeks, we were reinforced by elements from several different chapters of the Adeptus Astartes. Though I had no doubt that the Imperial Guard forces stationed on the planet could have held their own against the Chaos worshippers, the Astartes thought otherwise and immediately took over the bulk of the fighting. While it probably saved countless lives through all the regiments, it also meant that when history recorded those days it would be the Astartes who would be listed as the heroes of the campaign.
Personally, I was relieved that we could get off the frontlines for a little while even if I disliked how it made me feel as though I was skipping out on my duty to the Imperium. I had managed to survive the weeks without personally encountering a Chaos marine but I was nearly decapitated by a random rocket, almost run-over by a chimera, and came down with some mild frostbite during a bad blizzard. However, if I thought I had it rough, rumour had it that Cain had wound up running into a few Chaos marines and supposedly he managed to beat them all. He, of course, denied the rumour and said that he had help during the fight. At the time I took it as his modesty flaring up once more but looking back I suspect he was telling me the truth as his personal aide and anyone else within a ten foot radius rarely got the credit they deserved.
With the Astartes freeing up most of the major battlefields, the regiments were able to be redeployed to guard vital assets on the planet in case the heretics attempted to alter their strategy. Cain reassured me that this was not likely to be the case since the ancient hostilities between the Astartes and their twisted former-brethren would keep the battles contained. What that really meant, though, was that we were able to spend the days leading up to Emperor's Day guarding a mining town with little chance that we would even catch so much as a stray artillery shell. It was a safe distance from the frontlines and its location amongst the mountains meant that only the most determined soldiers would be able to reach it. It wasn't in a location of any strategic value and its only importance was of the raw resources the town provided. All we had to do was keep watch over the town and make sure that the shipments went out every week - shipments that weren't even really needed for the continued defence of the planet but apparently the governor insisted that somebody watch over the town regardless. There was little reason for anybody to even waste time or effort in trying to take over the town. Logic and reason, though, were rarely high priority in the decision-making process of a Chaos worshipper. Their approach to reasoning was about as clever and resourceful as hammering the square peg through the round hole with your forehead. In the end, the men and women of the regiment were relieved to be away from the fighting and the winter season kept them in such good spirits that Cain and I were barely necessary. Even after two months of zero enemy contact, morale was still high among the troops, though idle hands were starting to take root.
In fact, I think the boredom of not having an enemy to fight had even gotten to Cain as he spent many nights in the local tavern getting acquainted with the owner's amasec collection. Even I occasionally partook in such drinking but I toiled much of the free time I had available building snowmen in the forest and then proceeding to melt their faces off for target practice. I never had snow growing up and aside from the occasional brief stay on other worlds I had never spent much time with the stuff. Cain didn't seem to enjoy the cold, nor did my personal aides, but I was probably spending more time outdoors than I should have been. Were morale and discipline a concern I would have been worried about potentially skipping out on my duties but with the way things were I was about as needed as a pair of beach shorts. Aside from us, there were also a handful of Astartes stationed in the village just in case some Chaos marines decided to drop by for a visit. They weren't a very talkative bunch as to be expected and from the few times I spoke with them they appeared quite perturbed to be stuck 'babysitting the guardsmen,' which I tried not to take offence to.
With the fighting a distance away and the tide gradually turning towards the righteous, the men and women of the 597th felt less like they were on deployment and more like they were on leave. Drills and battle practices continued of course and our patrols remained vigilant but it became obvious that the soldiers were becoming too idle when the guard stations started turning into extravagant snow fortresses.
"Bored corporal Magot?" Cain asked as we stopped by one of the guard stations at the southern approach into town.
"What gave you that impression?" she replied, peaking over the snow mound she had piled overtop of the sandbag barricade.
"Just a guess," Cain mused, tilting his head curiously to one side. "The skulls are a nice touch I must admit and the steeple must have taken forever to build…but are the topless snowwomen really necessary?"
"Actually they were Grifen's idea commissar," she replied but still sounded rather proud of her accomplishments nonetheless. It was definitely impressive, to say the least. She and her squad had somehow managed to pack the snow all around the guard station without actually impeding their combat effectiveness, even going so far as to carve out niches across the ice-covered walls to fire their lasguns from. The snow and ice wouldn't stop a bolter round, of course, but from a distance it was actually difficult to see the guard station and were the weather marred by snowfall it would be nearly impossible until you were right on top of them. Despite its extravagance, it wasn't nearly as intricate as some of the ice fortresses erected by some of the neighbouring squads. One squad actually managed to erect a rather accurate snow sculpture of a Leman Russ tank, which through the haze of a blizzard could have actually been mistaken for the real thing. Cain actually went and suggested they mount a spare stubber on the top to make it look more accurate.
"This one looks a bit like you Magot," I commented after taking a closer look at one of the meticulously sculpted snowwomen.
"Don't know what you're talking about," she sheepishly replied before ducking back into her snow fortress. Cain and I continued on our way, making rounds throughout the perimeter as was our usual routine…or at least it was my routine since Cain often left that to my care. Coincidentally it was always seemed to be only on the really cold days. That particular day was rather mild, which meant most of the Valhallans were running around with their coats unhinged while Cain and I kept ours fastened tightly. Still, it was warm enough that you could take a cup of recaf outside and still have it nice and hot for several minutes, which was probably the main reason why I was able to coax Cain out into joining me for the morning's walkabout.
"You don't suppose there's something going on between those two, do you?" I asked casually once we were out of earshot of the ice fortress.
"I've learned its better some days to just not ask questions," he replied before taking a sip from his recaf.
"Of course," I nodded in agreement and we continued on our way.
The town itself was rather rustic in comparison to what we were used to when on deployment. The use of rockrete was limited primarily to the major structures such as the law enforcement station and schools, while other stone-based materials were used in the construction of local shops and the homes belonging to the wealthier members of the town. For the lower and middle-class folks, which constituted almost the entirety of the workforce for the local mines, homes were constructed from the local trees and leftover rock from the mines. Though it might seem low-tech at first glance, many of the workers were able to build themselves very spacious and comfortable abodes without having to spend much more than their time and effort. I recalled glimpsing upon one family's log cabin, if it could still be called that, which had evolved over several generations into the size of a small mansion. Were the owner not covered in rock dust when I met him I would surely have mistaken him for the wealthier upper class. As a result of their personal connection to the town, the people who lived there were quite determined to keep it out of the enemy's hands. In fact, the town felt quite vacant as a bulk of its younger population had signed up with whatever military regiments they could get to in order to help protect their world. Our arrival at the town was met with much fanfare and not just because we had the famous Ciaphas Cain in tow. Rarely had I met a more grateful populace and they treated us as if we had already freed their planet from the Great Enemy.
The wide distribution of the town meant that our forces would have been spread rather thin if we tried to make a single defensive line. Though the town could only be effectively approached from the south and the southeast, this still left a large front for us to defend while still keeping enough posted to watch all the ineffective routes into town. Trying to form a solid, defensive line over such an area was like trying to stretch your underwear over a chimera. Using a tactic from a previous campaign, we kept a minimal number of troops on the frontline to serve as sentries and held the rest in reserve with the chimeras for rapid deployment. It was bad news for whoever was stuck on sentry duty but it was the best way to keep the town intact.
Besides, none of us actually expected the Chaos to penetrate that far without alerting us to their presence first, at which point we could count on being reinforced to meet the new threat.
"At least everyone's still in good spirits," I commented when Cain and I stopped for a short break on the edge of a frozen pond. "Even the townspeople," I added as I pointed out a handful children skating a few meters away from us.
"You'd almost forget that there's a war going on," Cain agreed.
"Can you blame them?" I asked rhetorically. "It's almost Emperor's Day and it could very well be the last one these people ever have. We might as well let them enjoy it."
"True enough," Cain said calmly. "Plus I don't think the shopkeep would keep bringing us these free biscuits if we ruined the festive mood."
"For Emperor, the Imperium, and these damn good biscuits," I said with a chuckle, grabbing one of the aforementioned treats that the nearby shopkeep had made especially for us. After several days of walkabouts our routine had become predictable enough that the grateful shopkeep and baker was able to have them ready in advance for us. Normally we didn't get this level of gratitude until after we kicked the enemy off-world but who were we to turn down free treats? The sugar-spice biscuits were sweet enough to leave you in good spirits and with just enough of the local spices to leave your tongue tingling for hours afterwards. By the time Cain and I finished with our daily serving I was flustered from the spice and could barely feel my tongue but I couldn't be in higher spirits.
"Have you heard word from the front?" I asked before tossing back the last of my recaf.
"Nothing definitive for our situation but the Astartes seem to be making good progress at the far east end of the battle line. I wouldn't count on us leaving this world any time soon but the prospect of us seeing combat seems slimmer and slimmer."
"I'm sure you can barely contain your disappointment," I replied, though a bit sarcastically. I was sure he hated being stuck on the sidelines just as much as I did but like any sane human he wasn't about to charge headlong at Chaos marines just to cure boredom, not when there were hundreds of able and almost obsessively-eager Astartes willing to do battle for us. Cain was sensible in that way, which made him far more bearable than most of the scripture-quoting commissars that I've known in my lifetime. He kept his eye on the bigger picture, which often entailed our regiment not charging headlong into suicide missions if it could be avoided.
"You think I should get something for the colonel and some of the other senior staff for Emperor's Day?" I asked with genuine hope for an answer. Unlike most times when I asked for Cain's advice in order to validate my own judgments, in this case I was genuinely clueless on how to proceed, which was a situation I hated being in. Back in my old job, most of the people I worked with were members of the Administratum or fellow commissars so a little exchange of gifts meant little for any of us but in a frontline regiment would it be wise to risk coming off as being so chummy with the senior staff that I was supposed to be monitoring for devotion and competence? Like Cain I had formed a rather close working relationship with the senior staff, though in some cases I worried that I might have been trudging a bit closer to the line that's supposed to keep us commissars separate from the officers.
"The colonel and major maybe but I would be careful with that. You can send the wrong message with who does and doesn't receive gifts," Cain replied. It was the answer that I had been pondering myself so unfortunately Cain hadn't provided anything with which to aid my decision so I asked what he was doing. I often found that doing what Cain would do usually kept me on the right path, or at least the path that Cain would back me up on if things went awry. "I was planning on something small for Regina and Ruput and maybe a couple of the platoon commanders but nothing big."
"Maybe I should stick to something similar then…but maybe all the platoon commanders. I don't want anybody to think I'm playing favourites. Is there any place in this town to actually buy something that says 'glad to work with you but don't think too much of this?'"
"Most of the shops keep them in stock next to the 'let's just stay friends' shelves."
Once we finished the last few posts on our walkabout, Cain and I went our separate ways as he apparently had pressing matters to attend to with the command staff back at the makeshift regimental headquarters, which were located in the atrium of town's community center. With no matters that required my immediate attention, I was able to detour from my duties for a little while as I continued my walk through the town. The snow-capped mountains in the distance against the clear blue sky provided a tranquil atmosphere that had a strange way of worming its way into your mind like a sweet drink that hid its alcoholic charm. Within days I was half-tempted to push my entire work schedule to start a couple hours later just so I could stay wrapped within the warm confines of my newly acquired bedding.
Unlike the previous weeks where we had to rough it in the cold wilderness, there was an abundance of available housing for us to use. Between the citizens volunteering in droves to house our troops and the vacant houses left behind by newly enlisted citizens, I had no trouble securing a quaint little log cabin for my personal use. With no Valhallans to share it with, I was free to make use of the heating ovens to keep the temperature up, as opposed to the aforementioned ice-worlders who literally kept the windows open for the 'pleasant afternoon breeze.' Despite its rather ugly pink curtains, it still ranked high as one of the best billets I had ever used.
As I headed further into town, the few citizens I passed were all courteous enough to wave hello as I passed by and a few continued to profess their gratitude for our military presence. I began to wonder if anything of interest ever happened in this town if the populace greeted a military occupation so warmly. It was still early in the day so I didn't have to deal too much with the grateful citizens and I was able to enjoy the tranquility of the relatively empty streets. I stopped by one of the local bistros for a hot breakfast, which the owner provided free of charge despite my repeated attempts to pay. When I hit the streets again, it had begun to snow a bit but barely enough to deter anybody from going outdoors so I continued on my way to a nearby marketplace that the bistro's owner had recommended. While I wasn't surprised to see some of the Valhallans were as just as behind on their shopping lists as I (since none of us expected to be away from the fighting at this time of the year), I was certainly surprised to see one particular figure amongst the ranks.
"Morning colonel," I greeted when I caught up to her at the front of a liquor boutique.
"Good morning. Doing some last minute shopping as well?" she replied looking a bit embarrassed as though I had caught her in an illicit act.
"I didn't really plan this whole gift-giving thing out very well."
"Tell me about it," Kasteen sighed. "It gets tricky when your list was contingent on who was still alive and then you're suddenly pulled from the frontline." As regimental commander she wasn't allowed to show any favouritism among the troopers but considering this was one of the few rare occasions where she would be able to celebrate Emperor's Day without the threat of being killed looming overhead it would be improper not to give something back to the soldiers. Of course, the enlisted troopers were easy to please with a simple doubling of the rum rations, a special meal or two, and some recreational activities for those off-duty but the officers would need something a little more for it to be meaningful. Amasec or some other spirit usually worked well and I imagined the owner of the local distillery made a small fortune thanks to us.
"Well you know what they say about liquor being quicker," I chuckled as we headed into the shop. I was surprised, and relieved, to see that despite an influx of a few thousand guardsmen the liquor store hadn't been exhausted of its supply and, in fact, was still readily stocked. I suppose when most of your days were spent mining rocks or cutting down trees you probably needed a hard drink at the end to keep boredom at bay. Half the town's population could have drank me under the table and I was able to go through rum and amasec like it was water back in my youth.
"You think a bottle of amasec would be too predictable for Ciaphas?" Kasteen asked as we browsed through the more expensive vintages available. Scores of meticulously distilled liquor lined the walls, each encased within a handcrafted crystal bottle that seemed to shimmer like freshly fallen snow in the morning light. A wax aquila sealed each bottle along with a silk ribbon that adorned the top, making it seem almost like a waste just to pop one open. Clearly these were the products of a man who viewed distilling amasec as sacred as an Astartes viewed his bolter.
"Considering how much he can go through I don't think he'd really mind so long as it was a good year." What I didn't mention to Kasteen was that that was the exact same gift I was planning on getting Cain and now that I had a moment to think about it I was beginning to have second thoughts about such a predictable gift. Part of me said that he wouldn't care just as I had said to Kasteen but another part of me wanted to at least get something a bit more significant than a bottle of liquor, since being a fellow commissar it wouldn't be as improper to exchange gifts during a festival. Were he not so attached to his laspistol and chainsword I would have considered finding a suitable replacement or upgrade. Like most people who spent their military careers in the field, he had little need for material goods beyond what kept him alive and healthy. Kasteen and I finally deciding upon some ludicrously expensive bottles of amasec (since we didn't have much else to spend our money on as most of our needs were provided for by the Munitorium) but I made a mental note to find something a little extra for Cain, if only to set my gift out apart from the countless other bottles of amasec I figured he would receive in a few days.
As we were about to leave the shop, our eyes caught wind of something so spectacular we were left momentarily speechless not to mention pondering internally how we had missed it upon first entering the shop. Perhaps the centerpiece of owner's entire collection, there stood in the center, erected like a statue to the Emperor himself, was the single largest bottle of rum I had ever laid my eyes upon. The bottle itself was massive and crafted in the shape of an aquila and I wondered how somebody was even expected to get the bottle out of the store, let alone a drink out of it. According to the shopowner, who had quickly noticed our slack-jawed admiration of the centerpiece, the bottle had been in the shop for a few years now and while people enjoyed gazing in awe at its magnificence few actually had need for that much rum. I wondered if the bottle had always been there and that the store had merely been built around it as the more convenient option.
"Sweet Emperor…is that even legal?" Kasteen remarked upon casting her first glance to the monstrosity.
"You could weaponize that much rum."
"You could kill an ork with that much rum. Heck, you could probably get a whole platoon drunk on that much."
I paused for a moment, glancing between the colonel and the giant aquila of alcohol. "You think so?" I mused coyly. "Well, maybe we should, you know, confiscate this. Just so it doesn't fall into enemy hands."
"The troops would brawl trying to get to it though."
"They have been rather bored lately. It would at least give them something to do."
"Are you suggesting what I think you are Abel?" she said with a smirk.
"If you can get the troops organized, I can get Cain to agree to play along."
An old saying goes that the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach and while normally I would disagree and state that it's obviously through the sternum, when it came to getting Cain to agree to my proposition all it took was sacrificing the next few day's worth of sugar-spice biscuits. Since I would have rotted all my teeth out if I kept eating them as I had been it was probably in my best interest to cut them from my diet for a few days. It made the morning walkabouts less bearable but it only took a day before the man who provided the biscuits found something else equally addictive to offer to me. The mint chocolate biscuits he prepared were a stark contrast to the numbing warmth of the sugar-spice, instead leaving my mouth as chilled and crisp as the morning air. I offered some to Jurgen but he seemed disinclined to accept my offer and I wondered if he had something against mint.
Cain joked that it would be easier to clean an ork than help Jurgen with his odour problems.
As for my proposition, I figured fostering some healthy competition through a regimental tournament would be a good way to bolster morale even further (not that it was really necessary) and keep the troops busy for a few days. The prized alcoholic aquila would serve as trophy for the victorious platoon though I hadn't suggested what the tournament would consist of. I figured it would be better for the platoon commanders to come to an agreement over what kind of tournament it would be. Of course, getting that many platoon commanders to agree unanimously was challenge in itself – without direct intervention from the higher officers we wouldn't have been able to get them agree to which pot to take a piss in, let alone that they needed a pot in the first place. Eventually, with Kasteen and Broklaw lending their advice, we reached an agreement on a tournament of combat skills – accuracy and proficiency with guns and fists. I had hoped for something like scrumball but I shouldn't have expected anything less from a bunch of soldiers. Each platoon was to put forward its five best troopers and a series of trials and sparing matches would determine the overall winner of the competition.
We actually managed to convince one of the Astartes to participate as well, though he refused to actually compete for the prize since he acknowledged he had a huge advantage in terms of experience and physiology over us regular folks. I was glad to see not all Astartes were complete anti-social, 'holier than thou' knuckleheads (then again, they live in a completely different world so maybe being that way is the only way to survive).Of course, the moment we allowed one person to participate without competing, troops began petitioning for Cain, Kasteen, and all the other senior officers to take part. Though Cain and I had apprehensions about allowing the troops an opportunity to pummel their commanding officer, we were eventually talked into participating as apparently the troops wanted to settle once and for all which commissar was the better shot. They also wanted to see who would win in a fist fight but considering Cain was almost a whole foot taller than me and nearly twice my weight you didn't need an inquisitor to figure out the answer to that mystery. I'll get to the 'inevitable ass-over-tea kettle' part later, though it wasn't as interesting as you might think.
Once word started to spread through the town about our little tournament, the town responded exactly as one would expect from a populace whose yearly highlights included 'fastest writing in the snow' and 'largest snow-Emperor' competitions. Bookies began taking bets and vendors peddled various treats and by the time we got the actual tournament started a couple days later about half the town came out to see the show, along with as many of our own that could attend (throughout the tournament we never slacked on our defences and kept the same numbers of troops deployed and on stand-by). It certainly made for a festive enough occasion and parts of me did feel guilty that we were holding a tournament while there was technically a war going on but, as I mentioned before, we had been guarding the town for almost two months by that point and hadn't even had so much as a suspicious silhouette. I kept telling myself that we were doing what was necessary to keep morale high and boredom at bay.
"I hope nobody tells the generals about this," Kasteen commented as Cain and I met with her at the outdoors field that the town officials insisted we use. She seemed to have many of the same concerns as I did but she was far more outward about them. "Are you sure this isn't improper use of Imperial forces? I mean…we're practically putting on a show now."
"We are holding a regimental tournament to improve morale, bolster the competitive spirit, and strengthen resolve with trials of military skills," Cain said in a 'quoting from the book' tone. "We are well within our rights to hold what drills and trials are necessary in order to maintain combat efficiency during non-combat periods. We can't be held responsible if the locals decide to come and watch."
The festive spirit in the air was palpable as bleachers (apparently set up the night before by the locals) slowly filled with men and women - young, old, rich, poor, and everything in between. It was interesting seeing people who might, under normal circumstances, not even give each other passing glances but were now chatting and mingling in anticipation of the upcoming events.
The weather was clear, the air was chilled at a comfortable level, and a layer of fresh snow had blanketed the area. In fact, because of the fresh snow we barely even heard the approaching footsteps of our Astartes participant until his massive figure loomed over us.
"Ah, glad to see you could make it. You honour us all with your presence," Cain said when he noticed our new guest. Since Cain had the most clout with the Astartes of the Reclaimers chapter, it was he who convinced the space marine to join us. "Colonel Kasteen, Commissar Abel, this is Sergeant Rooge of the Reclaimers."
"It is always an honour to meet one of the Emperor's loyal space marines," Kasteen greeted. Like all marines, Rooge was a giant of a man, his face grizzled by centuries of warfare (at least two, according to the metal studs above his brow), and one of his eyes had been replaced with a large biotic one. The one good thing about space marines, though, is that you always knew where you stood with them because, socially, they were as subtle as an ork mob. It didn't long for me to figure out that Cain had gained some favour with the Reclaimers during his time spent serving alongside them and Rooge seemed to be almost as much of a fan of Cain as everyone else. It could partly be attributed to just how charismatic Cain was but also that Rooge was a fairly amicable man…for a space marine. He was polite and courteous to Kasteen and I and I got the impression he dealt with us regular troops more often than his brothers.
"Quite the crowd you have assembled here Commissar," Rooge commented as he surveyed the bleachers. I had worried that so many people would put off the Astartes or even insult him for making it seem like we were putting him on display but he seemed to be pleased with it. "The Emperor demands faith and loyalty from us all but when the darkness swallows your world it can be difficult for the people of such distant worlds to remember what faith in the Emperor provides. Well, it is time to restore it and show them what gifts the Emperor delivers to the faithful."
As Kasteen ushered the Astartes along to the staging area with all the other participants I paused for a moment and let Cain have one of my best suspicious glares. He was probably immune to its effects but it set the mood. "What exactly did you tell him Ciaphas?"
"Just the truth," he replied modestly. "Well…an interpretation of it."
"Bad time of the year to be naughty, Cain; the Emperor is watching remember?"
"Says the Commissar harbouring immoral thoughts about one of her colleagues," Cain said with a sly grin.
"I…I am not!" I snapped back, though I doubt I would've convinced an ogryn with my response. He just laughed and headed off to join Kasteen and the others, leaving me to wait until my complexion returned to normal so I could join them without drawing attention to myself. By the time I caught up to Cain, having momentarily lost sight of him in the crowd of troopers, the tournament was just starting.
The first rounds consisted of stationary target shooting, increasing distances and decreasing target size as the match progressed and tabulating scores based on the shooter's average accuracy. I saw a lot of familiar faces among the participants, including Villhon, Magot, and Lustig to name a few. I wasn't surprised at all that Magot was taking part, since she was everyone's favourite for winning the hand-to-hand combat portion of the tournament. Though disappointed I wouldn't get an opportunity to test my mettle against her, my thoughts were more preoccupied with my impending spar with Cain. It wasn't that I was afraid of him or thought that my defeat was inevitable, just that I didn't want to lose too badly and lose what respect I had with the troops (though in hindsight, that likely would not have happened with a simple spar). Technique-wise I probably had the upper hand but I knew from experience that he was quick on his feet and able to read a person's movements easily, not to mention he also had about eighty pounds on me.
The first few rounds weren't particularly interesting as the competitors were all seasoned veterans with lots of combat experience so hitting large targets at such short distances was just slightly less challenging that putting a round through an ork's backside. It was only until several rounds in, when the targets were small and at a long range, that the aces were separated from the deck. I was happy to see our red-headed natural-born killing machine taking one of the top spots but it surprised nobody that Lalee, one of Sulla's top snipers, ranked the highest. On the final round there was some confusion with Lalee's final target board as the judges (the judges being Cain, Kasteen, Broklaw, and myself) only counted three holes out of the sniper's five shots. It wasn't until Cain noticed that two of the holes were slightly oblong and we realized that the marksman had overlapped some of his shots. The fact that Lalee was grinning smugly when he arrived just before Cain's discovery left me suspecting that he was aware of the fact the whole time and remained silent if only to take amusement in our confusion.
Once the main competitors were finished with the target range, Cain, Rooge, and I were ushered out onto the field to cheers of the crowd. Standing in front of a crowd of civilians was a lot different than a crowd of soldiers; for starters, it was a lot louder. I imagined most of the excitement came from seeing the giant space marine among us. For almost everybody in the audience, it was the first time they had ever seen the armour-clad warriors of legend as the Astartes spent most of their time practicing and praying in a secluded location near the edge of town. Rooge spent a few minutes on a vox caster speaking to the audience, reminding them the importance of faith in the Emperor and that the Emperor truly does protect.
Were he not so good at killing things he would probably have made an excellent priest. Though, according to Cain, Rooge was a rarity among space marines as most weren't actually members of the Imperial Cult, instead having their own religious system contained within the chapter. It explained why Cain was able to convince Rooge to participate and 'bolster faith in the Emperor.' Personally, I found Rooge's speech to be about as spiritually uplifting as the business end of a Sororitas' purity flamer. It wasn't that my faith was shaky or that Rooge sounded insincere, merely that after everything I had seen thus far in my career it would take more than a space marine saying a few words to elevate my faith above my usual level of 'pray and panic.'
Apparently, whoever had the responsibility of crafting the targets we used was never told that there was going to be a space marine participating in it, or more specifically, his bolter. It only took one explosive-laden bullet for the marine to reduce the wood and tin target into a shower of splinters and shrapnel.
"We…probably should have seen that one coming," Kasteen remarked.
"Should we even bother with scoring his shots?" I added.
Cain was prompt to agree. "It's not like he's competing for anything. Plus the audience seemed to like it."
Since it was quite superfluous, we merely allowed the competition to continue as normal with our Astartes friend reducing a few dozen targets to scrap and splinters. The crowd loved it, of course, since I doubt anybody in the town had seen anything more technologically sophisticated than a recaf machine. For them, the Astartes was a walking avatar of the Emperor's might, which was a rather accurate analogy as a whole, and they revelled in awe at his every shot and movement. Rooge's proficiency with a bolt pistol was impressive but he was definitely not as talented as Garrick and my thoughts drifted momentarily to the only Astartes I could ever truly refer to as friend. Once Rooge had made kindling out of his set of targets, Cain and I were ushered before a very excited crowd, the loudest of which were our Valhallans. Cain might have had the bulk of our troops rooting for him but I had a handful of squads who put their chips on me. Grifen's squad also promised me a bottle of amasec if I could outshoot Cain.
"Remember Abel, this is just a friendly competition," Cain said as we took position at one of the field.
"You just keep that in mind after I beat you," I taunted before unleashing a burst of laspistol fire that struck my target dead-center. I didn't expect it to be an easy competition, though, as Cain was able to mimic my performance flawlessly. In fact, after several rounds of punching holes through wooden targets, neither one of us had managed to gain the upper hand. At the rate we were going through targets we'd need to harvest another section of forest before we could get a decisive winner. This was why proper duels were settled by shooting each other but good luck convincing Cain that shooting him would be good for morale.
"Crazy as this may sound, I think we might be too good at this," I commented after Kasteen and Broklaw called for an intermission so they could determine a suitable tiebreaker. Aside from the obvious problem of boring the troops if we continued on there was also the problem that my laspistol would likely wear out before Cain and would thus throw my aim off. I wasn't about to lose because of a technical fault.
"We keep this up and we'll kill more trees than heretics," he replied.
"I'm pretty sure those trees had offended the Emperor somehow."
"One of Saint Ulysses' lesser known quotes was 'slay the pine, suffer not its evergreen mockery of winter,'" Cain said with a remarkably straight face. Before we could continue, Kasteen returned to inform us of her decision.
"Since standard shooting is clearly too simple for you two and you've managed to blast through all our spare targets, we're going to settle this with one last round," she began as a trooper came over and handed her a pair of circular metal plates. "Broklaw and I will throw these plates into the air and each of you will take a single shot. Whoever lands it closest to the center will win; and yes, we'll break out the smallest ruler we have to settle this matter. We need to wrap this up quickly because the civvies want to see our troops beat the tar out of each other."
"Well who are we to stand in the way of good, wholesome violence?" I agreed, as did Cain.
Cain and I took position equidistant from the colonel and major, each of whom held the foot-wide circular target. Putting everything down to one shot wasn't my preference but if we wanted a quick resolution this was the only viable option. I prayed to the Emperor not to choke and miss the target altogether. The tension was mounting to such a degree that I had to keep a tight grip with my off-hand just to keep my aim steady. Winning or losing to Cain wasn't what was getting to me but rather it was the fact that there were so many people watching that left my heart pounding faster than it should be.
At the blast of a whistle, Broklaw and Kasteen tossed their payloads up, sending them on a slight arc through the air. I carefully traced the target with my laspistol, waiting for it hit the apex of its trajectory before I planted a laser bolt only slightly off-center. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Cain doing the same and when he fired there was an audible gasp from the audience. Two metal targets landed in a snow mound, one with a clean hole through it just slightly off-center and the other without even a scratch on it. There was definite confusion on my part at first until I looked upwards and noticed a peculiar cloud of slightly singed feathers drifting in the breeze.
"Did you just…" I began in disbelief.
"I did," Cain muttered. The audience fell silent and for a brief moment it was so quiet you could've heard a bird fart if Cain hadn't vaporized it. Finally, Cain simply holstered his pistol with a barely audible sigh. "Well, you win Abel."
"Wait, what? But you didn't even…I mean, you hit the…"
"Exactly," Cain said with his patented modest tone, "I took my shot and I failed to hit the target fair and square. Those were the rules we agreed upon." Whether Cain was truly being gracious or not, he managed to rob my victory of every sensation of being such. Sure, there were cheers from the crowds once Kasteen announced my victory and many of them were sincere but I half-suspected that most were more impressed with Cain's modesty in conceding defeat to me rather than my actual triumph. Though I tried to tell myself otherwise, victory felt like anything but.
I tried my best to mime Cain's modesty but I doubt it came off as sincere as his so I simply excused myself as quickly as possible and retreated to the sidelines to rest. My slight disappointment must have been evident because a few moments later a steaming bowl of tanna leaf tea was pushed into my hands and Major Broklaw took a seat on the bench next to me.
"I'm afraid it's all I've got at the moment," he said when I noticed he had a bowl of his own. I gazed into my own bowl, catching a strong whiff of its aroma while I let the warmth spread through my hands. Tanna leaf wasn't exactly my cup of tea, figuratively and literally speaking, but it was better than nothing. Since I didn't want to seem ungrateful to Ruput, I sipped on it casually while we watched the second half of the competition. I had wrongly assumed that the second half would have us move to a new, preferably indoor, location but apparently it had been decided that they were going to spar in true Valhallan style, which meant outdoors, in the snow, and with little more than your fatigues on. Considering most of their idiosyncrasies, fighting outside in the snow seemed relatively mild in comparison (I almost killed the quartermaster when I first discovered the hard way of the Valhallan's preference for ice-water showers).
"I got robbed by a bird," I grumbled quietly.
"You won the match, just take it for what it's worth," Ruput tried to reassure me.
"Cain got beaten by a bird, not by me."
"You make it sound like Cain had planned that out."
"With Cain, I wouldn't be surprised if he had," I said and imagined Cain spotting the bird at the last second and shooting it instead as an easy means to get out of the match without actually making it seem like he lost it. It would have had to have been the unlikeliest stroke of fortune in the galaxy but he was the sort of man to find opportunity in the unlikeliest of situations. In the end, though, I dismissed the whole notion as another far-fetched scenario produced by my paranoid and sometimes cynical insecurity.
By the time the troopers finished stomping flat, circular arena for the competitors I had already finished my tea and Ruput had to excuse himself to go and judge the matches. My money was on Magot, of course, to take top seat as she was pretty much the undisputed champion of the 597th. That fact didn't make any of the matches any less entertaining to watch, especially hers, since there was always the occasional trooper that could give Magot a run for her money. Also, after several rounds weariness started taking its tool on people and even some of the more skilled fighters went down simply due to exhaustion. Even Magot, a woman normally known for never running out of steam when it came to kicking arse, found herself struggling just to keep up with her opponents by the end. Her last match was a close one as Magot only barely managed to find an opening in her opponent's defence, which she promptly pushed through to deliver a stunning Catachan kiss. What energy she had left she threw into a roundhouse kick to finish off the match, knocking the trooper out cold. About four seconds later Magot would collapse into Grifen's arms.
Unfortunately, we were never able to find the man's teeth in all the snow.
Though I would have preferred to have avoided it, when the crowd started chanting for Cain and I again it became obvious what they wanted – they saw who was the better shot, now they wanted to see who was better in a fight. When I spotted Cain across the field I noticed he looked about as reluctant as I was to step onto the field again but something he was speaking about with Rooge seemed to give him motivation to head out. With great reluctance, I set my empty tea bowl aside and headed onto the field to the elated roar of the crowd.
"I guess it would be bad for morale if we backed out now, huh?" I asked rhetorically when Cain and I met on the center of the snowy arena, which was now speckled with the blood of a dozen troopers.
"Well we need to be moderately presentable tomorrow, so perhaps some protective gear would be in order," Cain suggested as we started taking some of our excess clothing off. The moment I had my great coat off, I felt the winter air's sting down to my core. I noticed Cain was shivering about as much as I was so at least the feeling was mutual. If anything it would motivate us to finish the match quickly. Once we donned some light sparing gloves and headgear, we were told good luck and to not kill each other if possible. Thankfully, watching Magot's bout just a few minutes earlier gave me some confidence that the size discrepancy between Cain and I could be overtaken by a skilled enough fighter, though whether that meant I could was yet to be seen. We spent a few moments circling each other, sizing up our adversary and trying to decide upon an opening move. Cain had a lot more reach than I did so I knew I had to push in quickly if I wanted a chance to land a solid hit. A few quick jabs were exchanged in hopes of getting the other to commit to a defensive posture but we both knew better. I finally decided to push to the offensive, catching Cain off-guard with a strong kick to the side of his knee. It opened up his defences enough for me to squeeze in a few solid hits to the trunk but the lack of force behind my hits meant that once he recovered from the leg hit he was able to force me back with a few strikes of his own. I dodged the first few but the fourth one, a hip kick, nailed me in the chest and I was knocked to the snow. He must have felt sporting because he gave me plenty of time to get back up and continue the fight. Perhaps he was more motivated to fight than I had anticipated.
We began exchanging strikes and blows but our advantages seemed to off-set the other's; my nimbleness meant his strong blows were often glancing at best but my lack of strength meant I could never deal a strong-enough hit to put him down. My best chance at victory came when I managed to seize his arm during one of his failed strikes and tried to wrench it to the side. For a moment I had him right where I wanted but when he shifted his weight, trying to throw me off-balance, my only option to keep myself standing was tipping him off-balance first, which took him out of my grasp. Once he was on the ground, he was kicked out my legs but I managed to control my descent enough to land right on him.
From there, it was a mad scramble back to our knees. Once again I tried to seize him in a submission hold but he was clearly prepared for that possibility. When I attempted to get my arms around him, he instead seized control of my arms. Using his strength and size advantages, I went from being behind the commissar to being thrown arse over teakettle onto the snow in front of him. Though I was a bit disorientated at first, I was able to regain my senses before Cain could capitalize on his advantageous position. A quick kick above my head kept him at bay long enough for me to flip over and tackle the commissar to the ground. I thought I had the advantage at that point, moving quickly to straddle Cain and I should have had him at my mercy at that point. However, for a brief moment I had let my guard down and in typical Cain fashion he drove through it with the force of a freight train. He drove his fist straight into my gut, just below the rib cage, delivering a whole parcel of pain right to the mailbox of my solar plexus. Pain shot down and breath shot up, both heading out and down the block to the med-clinic to check in for the night. I was hardly able to fight against gravity, let alone Cain as he gently nudged me off and to the ground.
"Think that's enough?" Cain asked quietly between heavy breaths. I only managed a subtle nod in response. Slowly, he helped me back to my feet, the crowd roaring in the background, and we shuffled off to a nearby bench where we could both catch our breath.
"This was such a stupid idea," I moaned.
"This was all your idea, remember?" Cain said as he threw his coat back on.
"And it was a stupid idea. Next time I suggest something like that just remind me of this moment." I was still doubled over in pain but Cain was enough of a gentleman to throw my coat around my shoulders so I didn't freeze to death while waiting for the pain to subside. As we watched Broklaw and Kasteen announce the winning platoon, Cain and I were joined by our Astartes compatriot.
"If all Guardsmen could fight with such zeal and skill I'm certain there would be less need for us space marines," Rooge commented. "I hope your comrade did not injure you too badly for our little match."
"Match?" I asked in confusion.
"Correct. Cain here agreed to grant me the honour of testing his skills with the chainsword against my own. Word has it that the commissar is one of the best in the sector."
"I still doubt that a mere human would be able to outmatch one of the Emperor's finest," Cain said modestly, sounding vaguely as though he were trying to get out of the arrangement. Were he a lesser man I would've suspected it as such.
"I was told you managed to hold your ground against two tainted space marines," Rooge insisted nonetheless. "Even if you held your ground against me I would be greatly impressed and it would be a feat few mortals could claim to have accomplished. Besides, perhaps you do not give yourself enough credit, hm? Tainted they may be a Chaos marine is still a formidable opponent even for His Angels of Death."
"Well if you put it that way," Cain said, sounding faintly reluctant to concede the point to Rooge, "but despite her size, Ariel here hits awfully hard. I don't suppose I could have a few minutes to rest up beforehand? I'm sure you would not wish to test my mettle with me at anything other than prime condition." I noticed Cain was slightly supporting the shoulder that I had wrenched earlier and while against any other opponent he probably wouldn't have let that stand in his way, he would need every advantage he could get against an Astartes. Were I in Cain's position, I would've intentionally allowed myself to be injured during our spar in order to postpone a match with the Astartes. However, Cain possessed a sense of honour far greater than my own, which was always one of our most fundamental differences.
"It would dishonour us both if you didn't," Rooge agreed. He told Cain to take all the time he needed and to simply find him once Cain felt up to par. Too bad 'indefinitely' wasn't an option otherwise I would've suggested just waiting until the Astartes got called up to the frontlines as they usually were every few weeks. Instead, Cain merely excused himself, gathered his things together, and went to take a stroll. I, still slightly winded from the fight, set my head down on the bench and rested for the time being, watching as Magot's and her team, who were just announced as the tournament's victors, were ushered back onto the field. The bewildered look on their faces when a servitor brought out the grand prize (which we were somehow able to keep a secret from the troops despite it standing out like an ork in a tutu) was priceless and made the whole ordeal worthwhile. At least that's how I felt until the inevitable aftermath of giving that much booze to a bunch of troopers started trickling back to my desk. Magot, alone, incurred about six months worth of latrine, kitchen, storehouse, and extra guard duty within a couple weeks. We should've seen that freighter coming a mile away so we really had nobody to blame but ourselves.
With the tournament finished and the sun beginning to set in the horizon, the civilians began to disperse and troopers started to pack their gear away. I was still on the bench but and just about ready to retire to my cabin for a long, hot bath while our Astartes friend was still waiting patiently for Cain to return. He was just about ready to contact Cain when the commissar beat him to it.
"This is Commissar Cain to all troopers, we are under attack! Multiple fast-moving vehicles have already breached the perimeter!" He must have been broadcasting across all vox channels because every soldier in the vicinity immediately grabbed their lasguns and started ushering civilians out of the way. The sound of roaring engines and gunfire soon became audible and in the distance I could see a transport truck racing through the streets, bullets and laser bolts flying from openings along the sides of the rear compartment.
"Cain, what's your position?" I asked.
"I'm on one of the trucks!"
"How did you…I mean, where's the truck?"
"I think we're approaching your position."
An ever-increasing roar of an engine alerted me to the accuracy of his assumption. A large transport vehicle was barrelling across the field, plowing through benches and half-broken targets, and just as he had said Cain was standing atop of the vehicle. What was more shocking, though, was that on the vehicle with him was a hulking giant in red and it took me a moment to realize that he was squaring off against a Chaos marine.
"Take cover!" I shouted needlessly as the truck rushed past me and a number of guardsmen. We kept our aim focused on the rear compartment where a number of armed cultists were peppering the surrounding with bullets and laser bolts. Considering these were heretical civilians firing from a moving vehicle, they were less accurate than an ork mob and hit the buildings and snowdrifts more often than us, though a few unlucky civilians did catch a bullet in the back. Still, with several trucks screaming past our position, most of us were keeping our heads down or taking cover near the buildings. I, unfortunately, was stuck in the middle of an open field and the only thing even resembling cover near me as the giant warrior in power armour. Rooge, as I came to expect from any marine, was calm and alert despite the chaos quickly enveloping the area. His eyes traced each trucks movement as he took stock of the amount of resistance we were facing. A bunch of cultists in trucks was probably of no threat to a soldier of his stature. Hell, he could've beaten them all to death with his fists were they not zipping around so much.
"We have vehicle-born cultists and possibly marines as well. Meet me in the town square," Rooge said though his helmet's vox caster, most likely summoning the rest of his squad. I didn't know if they would be able to reach our location but it was reassuring knowing that they were fighting somewhere in the town. Turning to an oncoming truck (not the one with Cain on it), Rooge took aim with his bolt pistol and emptied the entire magazine as the truck passed by him, leaving a reassuring trail of blood and viscera in its wake. Slamming in a fresh magazine, Rooge took careful aim and fired off a couple more shots, blasting out the truck's rear tires. It swerved and screeched for a few seconds before it finally tipped over and crashed a few blocks down the road from us. Most troopers would be elated to have single-handedly taken down an enemy vehicle but Rooge barely gave it a second thought as though he expected nothing less from himself.
"Where are the rest of them?" I asked, hearing trucks and gunfire but seeing no targets to shoot at.
"They don't seem to be stopping so it's hard to keep track of them," Kasteen replied over the vox, "Just hold your ground until we can get a fix on their locations."
All of the attacking trucks must have been content with shooting on the fly because I never caught word of any stopping to unload or attack a particular point. I soon saw sentinels and chimeras moving down the streets in pursuit but the trucks were a bit quicker than our armoured transports so the chasing was left primarily to the sentinels. Every few minutes a truck would blaze by, spitting bouts of ill-aimed gunfire in every direction, and while it kept us alert and on edge, the enemies were proving to be more of a nuisance than an actual threat. Their driving was erratic and uncoordinated and it wasn't long before I heard reports of some of the trucks crashing into parked vehicles or buildings entirely on their own. This attack began to look more and more amateurish and if it wasn't for the confirmed presence of at least one Chaos marine I wouldn't have been nearly as concerned as I was then.
Another truck began an approach on our position as Rooge's fellow space marines arrived on the scene. Quickly forming a firing line, the five marines unloaded their bolters at the oncoming truck, the effects of which were absolutely devastating. The front cabin of the vehicle was torn to shreds along with the driver and as the marines got out of the truck's way one of them tossed a grenade into what was left of the cabin. The resultant blast split the vehicle in half and sent both flaming wrecks crashing into a snow bank. The few remaining survivors, dazed and bloodied, didn't even crawl three feet from the wreckage before being gunned down by nearby Valhallans.
"Cain, where are you?" I called out again, hoping that his truck was close by.
"Little busy Abel!" he replied and the line fell silent save for a few grunts. "I can see the field though so I think I'm close to your position again."
I instructed the nearby troops to keep an eye out for a truck with Cain on top of it but even with so many eyes it took several minutes before somebody finally flagged it down. Fortune was with me because it was spotted heading north not too far from I was. When I finally spotted him, he was in the same situation as he was when I last saw him, clashing his chainsword with a hulking Chaos marine. Not only was I amazed that he was once again holding his own against a Chaos-infused, genetically-engineered super-solider but that he was managing it on the back of a moving vehicle. Even if the rumours were true and Cain had defeated multiple Chaos marines in the past, I didn't intend to wait and see if Cain could survive another encounter on his own.
"Cain, jump for a snow bank so we can take out the truck," I advised as the vehicle roared past but gradually began turning about for a second run.
"Bit risky don't you think?" he replied.
"Says the man fighting a marine on the back of a speeding truck."
"Fair enough," he finally agreed after a short, worrying pause.
I rushed into position, standing at the end of a long stretch of road that put me directly in the trucks path. Figuring a cultist would forgo evasive manoeuvres to try and run down a commissar, I readied my laspistol and lined up my shot. Sure enough, the vehicle continued on right towards me and my single shot through the windshield was rewarded with a visible puff of red where the driver's head was. With the vehicle now a runaway, I hurried to the side of the road (as getting creamed by the speeding truck would be a grossly embarrassing way to end my career). I thought I was in the clear until I saw something large and black heading right for me. For a brief instant I wondered what it was…and then it hit me.
Cain had only just jumped from the back of the truck and had aimed for the snowdrift that I had stupidly run in front of. Neither of us even got a chance to let out a scream before the commissar crashed into me, sending us both into the cushioning mound of snow. On the bright side, the cold numbed the pain as I lay there beneath several inches of snow and a two-hundred pound commissar. In the end, at least I had the satisfaction of hearing the truck crashing a few moments later and the ensuing gunfire assured me that the occupants were slaughtered.
"I suppose I should thank you for breaking my fall," Cain said dryly with a groan.
"And thank you for breaking my back…again."
"That's what comrades are for," he said, helping me back to my feet. He kept an arm around me as the impact had aggravated old injuries, leaving me feeling as thought somebody replaced my spine with a power sword. Getting up under my own power would've involved a lot more pain and a whole lot more cursing. "Still, sorry about all that."
"Just help me back to my billet so I can take a hot bath and all will be forgiven."
"Um…isn't that the cabin you were staying in?" Cain asked, pointing over to what remained of a sturdy wooden cabin that now had a large truck protruding through the facade. It must have struck one of the major support columns as the roof sagged in the center, teetering on the precipice of a complete cascade. At first it was hard to tell what the original building looked like with half of the front now caved in but after a longer examination I noticed some of the unique features that were indeed characteristic of the cabin I had been using. The pinks curtains were a dead giveaway, which fluttered almost tauntingly from one of the truck's exhaust pips.
The sudden attack on our base came as a huge shock to everybody, especially the Valhallan's commanding officers. Kasteen and Broklaw spent most of the remainder of the night scouring over after-action reports, maps, and observation data trying to figure out what went wrong. I imagined they were concerned how high command might react when they found out about the sudden raid in the aftermath of a somewhat questionable competition event. Cain managed to keep them reassured that the events of the day were unrelated to the attack and the element of surprise would've happened in either case.
According to Cain, and backed by testimony from other troopers, during his walk he came across the trucks stopped at one of our perimeter checkpoints. The driver of the lead vehicle had the appropriate documents stating that the convoy was a routine supply run but the trooper found them suspicious. When Cain passed by, he was called over by the trooper for a second opinion and that was when the truck drivers panicked and broke through the checkpoint. Cain just barely managed to grab hold of one of the trucks and climb aboard, only to find a Chaos marine eager to fight him. Had the commissar not arrived at that moment, the trucks would likely have been waved through the checkpoint and got the drop on us with far more devastating results. In the end, Cain reassured everyone that we had no reasons to suspect the enemies would use supply trucks to try and infiltrate and we would have been just as surprised if it had happened the day before. Of course, that didn't exactly comfort Kasteen, who still felt she should've been able to anticipate the tactic, but at least it meant she (and by extension, I) wasn't going to be accused of falling asleep at the wheel.
The final tally of the surprise raid was laughable at best. Not a single trooper on our side was killed in the attack, though about a dozen were wounded and a large number of civilians were killed. We managed to take a handful of the enemies alive for interrogation and were able to eventually extract names of who had provided the trucks and documents and passed that information on to higher authorities. I was later told by a reliable source that the culprits were apprehended and dealt with swiftly.
The only setback to an otherwise effective defence against a surprise raid was an absence of a Chaos marine corpse. Despite a thorough search of the area, we were unable to find any remains of the marine Cain had done battle with and that left everybody on edge. According to Rooge, the Chaos marine was likely still in town, waiting for an opportunity to try again. Kasteen doubled the patrols that night and Rooge vowed not to rest until the Chaos marine was 're-taught the meaning of the Emperor's wrath.' I had little interest in playing 'hunt the super-powered heretic' so I used my aching back as an excuse to retire for the night, which Kasteen and Broklaw had no objections to. Finding the lone marine was a job for the soldiers and Astartes, not the commissars, so Cain was free to help me along. He must have felt bad for me because he offered to let me crash at his place for the night, which I was infinitely grateful for since I had no desire to rest in one of the refrigerator lodgings of our Valhallan comrades.
"I can't believe I got my own cabin wrecked," I muttered in disbelief upon meeting the warmth of Cain's billet. His lodging, as per his preferences, was lavish enough for a man of his stature but not enough to make it seem like he had an over-inflated sense of worth. It was also a good distance from the town too, giving it a semi-secluded feel, which worked well for keeping the number of visitors to a bare minimum. Jurgen was surprisingly absent but according to Cain he was working late at headquarters with some paperwork so at least I didn't have to deal with his odour.
"Could be worse, Jurgen once set fire to a latrine while I was still inside it," he replied with a chuckle. Exhausted and sore from a long day, I promptly tossed by coat and hat onto a nearby rack and left my holsters on a table near the fireplace. "The further of the two bedrooms isn't being used, you can sleep in there. Bathroom is through the middle door."
"Good, I'm going to go soak for a few hours," I said with a hint of relief. Stopping in my new, temporary bedroom, I popped my comm. bead out and set it aside on the bedside table along with a few of my things I salvaged from my former billet. Thankfully, the truck plowing through the kitchen window didn't destroy any of my gifts. Lastly, I turned on a small promethium lamp to help heat up the room.
"Care for some tea afterwards?"
"Oh sure, why not?" I replied rhetorically. He was probably making more tanna leaf tea but a drink was a drink so I wasn't going to turn it down. I figured it wouldn't matter since I planned on staying in the bathtub for a long time. I sighed contently as I lowered into the tub, feeling the aches melt away in the heat. For a short while, the war seemed a million light years away and all I could hear was the water sloshing around me and Cain walking about in the next room. There were many times in my life where I envied the somewhat simpler life of a civilian, who probably took such luxuries like hot baths for granted. On a good year I got the opportunity to have one maybe a couple of times, the rest either soaking in my own sweat and blood on the field or accepting the inevitable and taking a cold shower. On my worst days, the thought of being able to stay in a single home for years, even decades, at a time seemed like an unattainable dream. Quite often, though, those thoughts are quickly dashed by the realization that many such lives are ruined by the chaos that assaults the Imperium from outside and within. I'd prefer to have more control over my destiny rather than growing old in a hut and praying to the Emperor that nobody decided my planet should be reclassified as a death world.
I probably would have drifted asleep in that tub were it not for a sudden, unusual thud noise that seemed to have come from nearby; a thud that accompanied a subtle shake in the luminator that hung directly above me. "Cain," I called out, "did you do that?"
I heard the noise a couple more times except that it was softer and seemed to be coming from overhead. Having not heard a response from Cain, I wondered if he had gone outside for something, so I got out of the tub, grabbed a towel, and took a peak to see if Cain was still inside. What I saw worried me immediately, as Cain was standing in the middle of the main room with laspistol and chainsword in hand and his eyes cast upwards at the ceiling.
"Get your gun Ariel," Cain said in a whisper. Worried less about my dress attire (or lack thereof) and more about what might be happening, I hurried over to the nearby table and got my hotshot laspistol. "Where's your comm. bead?"
"Back in my bedroom. Yours?"
The noise subsided for a moment, leaving Cain and I curious as to what was the source but I was beginning to suspect we were worried over nothing. "Maybe it's just the fauna," I said after a moment.
Words could not begin to express the magnitude of how wrong I was. Firstly, there weren't any indigenous creatures that were large enough to make that kind of noise that had a habit of scampering on rooftops. Secondly, and most importantly, animals don't fire bolters rounds through the roof. The rounds punched through the wooden ceiling, blasting apart the furniture around us and causing us both to sprint for cover, despite there being a lack of any real protection against an opponent on higher ground. I ducked into the bathroom mostly out of reflex, snapping off rounds in return with the hope that I could force the attacker off the roof. The bolter fire stopped suddenly, followed by the heavy thud noise again that peaked with a very heavy grinding sound, like a tank rubbing alongside a rockrete building.
Our eyes were drawn to a black cloud that fell into the fireplace, coating the ground and table in ash and soot. Laspistols trained onto the fireplace as we expected our assailant to appear shortly but nothing came. Things fell quieter for a moment, save for a dampened version of the grinding noise from earlier. A moment later we heard some sort of noise from the fireplace, something deep, heavy, and muffled.
"Was that…ho ho ho?" I asked, trying to figure out if what we heard was speech. As we took a step closer, we heard something else – something far more discernable and disconcerting.
"Blood for the Blood God!"
Cain didn't even get to finish his expletive as the wall above the fireplace suddenly broke apart and the monstrous red-armoured figure of a Chaos marine dropped into the living room. With chainaxe and bolt pistol in hand, the bloodthirsty warrior immediately focused its attention on Cain. "You will not escape me this time Cain! I will deck these halls with your entrails and claim your skull for His throne!"
Undaunted, Cain merely revved his chainsword and motioned for the Khornate to approach. Were it up to me, I would've run for the door as fast as humanly possible but not only was I not dressed for going outdoors but outrunning a Chaos marine was about as likely as the number of L's in 'you're frakked.' The Khornate was quick to respond to Cain's challenge, rushing headlong into battle with a howl of rage. Oblivious to the bolter in his other hand, the blasphemous marine began swinging his chainaxe about in a manner as vicious as it was swift. Adamantium teeth clashed in a shower of sparks as Cain parried blow after blow from the red giant. Though I had seen Cain fight on numerous occasions before, rarely did I get a chance to actually watch it unobstructed (as I was usually fighting my own enemies at the time). I stayed my hand, as I feared taking a potshot without a guaranteed killshot could throw off the momentum of the fight and cost Cain dearly. Even with superior form and technique, I was hard-pressed to see how Cain hoped to overcome his adversary as every hit that Cain managed to sneak in simply grazed off the marine's armour, yielding little more than sparks and flecks of paint.
Though it might have been from the shock of the Chaos marine's sudden arrival or simply being awe-struck at watching Cain expertly deflect attack after attack but it took a while for me to realize that I should've gone for my comm bead right away. I ran to my bedroom but just when I was a few steps from grabbing it the universe decided to drop more trouble into our lap, this time crashing through the window. Just when I had resigned myself to the fact that we were about as screwed as humanly possible, now we had a second Chaos marine on our hands. This one was much larger due to the jet pack mounted upon his back, denoting him as a Chaos raptor, which up until that point I had only ever read tac-reports about. Apparently they possessed a reputation for preying upon the weak and I imagined standing there in a bath towel and holding a mere laspistol I looked about as weak as a one-legged grox.
"Frak!" I cursed rather unceremoniously as I turned and ran back to the living room. A few bolter rounds whisked past my head but the raptor seemed to favour close-range as much as his compatriot. I heard his jet pack fire up and I instinctively dove to the ground just as the marine vaulted over me. He must have tried to grab hold of me with his taloned greaves as I felt one rake across my back. The sting was the least of my concern, though, since the bastard snagged my towel at the same time.
So now I was lying stark-naked on the floor, bleeding from a foot-long cut along my back, and hovering in that mental grey area between blind rage and blind panic. While the prospect of being killed was one I had made peace with a long time ago, the idea of being killed while naked was not one I was going to stand for. Once the raptor realized I wasn't being crushed beneath him, he turned about just in time to take a trio of shots to the chest from my laspistol. At that range, a hotshot laspistol had no problem punching through the layers of ceramite and armaplas but how much damage it did after that was a mystery. The raptor didn't seem too dissuaded by the hits, merely raising his bolt pistol and forcing me to roll out of the way as a burst of fire tore the floor apart. Unfortunately, my evasion had landed me in the corner of the room between a dresser and a wardrobe. The wardrobe didn't last very long as it took a few bolter rounds fired through the wall, spraying the room with flecks of wood and linen. There was barely enough room between the doorway and me to aim my pistol, let alone make a stand against a chainsword-wielding raptor. When the blasphemous warrior began to emerge through the doorway, I went with the option that held the best chance of survival, no matter how marginal – I grabbed the promethium lamp and swung it right for his head. I was certain the last thing he'd expect was for a woman a third his size to go on the offensive. Warrior's instinct quickly brought his arm up to block the strike but that only served to shatter the lamp, dousing the raptor in burning promethium. Again, I held no delusion that I had done anything other than to continue annoying my opponent but with his head engulfed in flames I was able to rush past him and back into the more open living room.
Cain was right where I last saw him still battling away with the other marine and while Cain may not have been making any progress in defeating his opponent, neither was the marine. If anything, Cain was focusing entirely on defence as though waiting for divine intervention or, more realistically, an opportunity. He was even taunting the marine in the process, which was driving the Khornate further into a bloody rage. Whatever thoughts allowed Cain to devise his plans so quickly and on such short notice has always been a mystery to me and has been a subject of debate for me for many decades. What can't be debated, though, is how quickly he can pull a plan together with such proficiency one would think he had the entire thing scripted from the very beginning.
While I charged into the room with the raptor soon giving chase, Cain shifted his fight with the Khronate towards me. Just as I came up to Cain, he suddenly pulled away from the Khornate and turned to tackle me to the ground with a sudden 'get down.' One could imagine the flurry of thoughts that ran through my head at that instant, most wondering if this act was going to get me killed and whether I should be annoyed that Cain was tackling me to the ground even though I was clearly in the buff. What happened, though, was nothing short of a miracle because the two marines suddenly collided into each other. Whether by impulse or ire, the Khornate quickly turned and backhanded the raptor with a shout of rage.
In response, the raptor shoved the Khornate away shouting in a venomous hiss, "You blithering idiot, watch where you're going!"
"Up yours frakhead! His head is mine so fly away and find a drunken oaf to gut instead!" replied the Khornate, shouting right into the other marine's face. Many days I wondered if Khornates had any other volume other than obscenely loud. If anger could kill the raptor would've spontaneously combusted right then and there.
"You can't even kill one little human so why should I let you embarrass yourself further?"
"Frak you! I was here first!" the Khornate shouted and pointed his bolter at the raptor's face.
"You know, you both can't take credit for killing me. Khorne is only going to be happy with one of you," Cain suddenly interjected and I was able to quickly decipher his angle.
"Actually," I interrupted, "I heard that guy say he was going to sacrifice our souls to Slaanesh."
My assumption was correct and Cain's plan to poke a stick at the massive rivalry between the Chaos gods Khorne and Slaanesh as well the animosity that tends to exist between Chaos marines (apparently both Khorne berserkers and raptors are particularly notorious for attacking foes and allies alike). The fact that I was lying didn't even register as a possibility to the Khornate, who was so angry at that point that the mere suggestion that a follower of Slaanesh was trying to muscle in on his prize set him off like a nuclear bomb. The raptor, though, was quick to realize that the berserker was going to turn on him and knocked the Khornate's bolt pistol aside but not before a round was fired, striking the raptor along the side of his helmet. The two Chaos marines immediately went at each other, chainsword and chainaxe clashing against each other repeatedly. Eventually, the raptor was able to knock the chainaxe aside and drove his blade through the Khornate, starting at the vulnerable shoulder joint and slowly cutting through the chest plate. The whole living room was sprayed with blood and broken metal as the Khornate roared in agony and rage before finally slumping to the ground in a bloodied mess.
"Frakking idiot," the raptor spat before turning to Cain and I. Unfortunately, while the raptor was busy eviscerating his former ally, Cain had grabbed hold of the Khornate's fallen bolt pistol (though normally a creature of habit, I assume Cain did this due to the much-needed firepower over his laspistol. At the range we were at, his unfamiliarity with the weapon was a moot point).
"Happy Emperor's Day," Cain said as we both opened fire. Together we punched at least a dozen holes through the chest plate with the explosive bolter rounds turning his viscera into a pulped jelly. One of the shots, though, must have ignited the fuel in the jet pack because it suddenly flared up, launching the raptor through the ceiling and high into the air where it soon detonated in a massive fireball that surely woke up the entire town.
"I can't believe we just did that…" I said as the gravity of our outcome finally settled into my mind. We just overcame two Chaos marines with minimal injury and only a bit of property damage. Normally I wasn't the type to attribute fortuitous outcomes to some sort of divine intervention but I couldn't think of our survival as anything other than a miracle.
"Nice work back there," Cain complimented as he tossed the bolter pistol aside with a look of disgust on his face. I heard he spent the next few days getting his hand doused in holy water on an hourly basis by the regimental priest just to be on the safe side. He helped me back to my feet and judging by the surprised look on his face in the process, he seemed to have only just noticed that I had lost my towel. He must have been more focused on his fight than I had anticipated. At least he was polite enough to keep his eyes focused above my neck.
Before I could say or do anything, though, there came a knocking from the front door followed by somebody clearly trying to get it open. "Commissar Cain, are you in there? Are you okay?" a voice shouted from the other side, one that I immediately recognized as Broklaw's.
In hindsight, my next act was probably none too wise but at the time my reputation with the regiment was still fledging at best and I wanted to protect it more than anything. The last thing the soldiers, and the officers, needed to see was not just me naked but me naked with the other commissar (the remote cabin wouldn't have helped first impressions either). Sure, a logical explanation might have convinced Broklaw but the regular troops may have spread stories nonetheless. Rumours of courting between two regimental commissars would have been grounds for immediate disciplinary action from the Commissariat and Cain's reputation would have been tarnished forever (mine too but I like to believe that I was thinking of his reputation before my own). There were numerous other reasons but that was the main one that led me to sprint for my bedroom once more.
"I'm not here!" I hastily whispered to Cain before I departed and hid underneath my bed. Again, in hindsight this seemed like an idiotic move on my part but at the time I was young and worried too much about little things. As such, I remained under that bed as troopers began to file into the cabin and I prayed to the Emperor that nobody thought to look under the bed.
"Is everything okay commi-sweet Emperor!" The trooper's shout of disbelief meant that everybody was inside now. You could imagine what the regular troops and officers would think upon discovering Cain standing next to a Chaos marine who died from an apparent chainsword wound. I was barely able to decipher individual remarks as troopers began voicing his amazement at this latest feat of heroism from the commissar. Troopers began milling about the cabin, examining the damage left in the attack's wake and a few even walked around my bed, which left me paralyzed with fear for a few fleeting moments. Even Broklaw's boots stood only a few feet away from my face at one point. In the end, we had no choice but to remain silent about my participation in the battle and the true events that transpired, if only to protect our reputations within the regiment, which one could argue would be directly tied to troop morale and combat efficiency. Eventually, he also had to explain to the major why there was a massive hole in the ceiling and scorch marks on the ground, which led to a fabricated story about how he bested the raptor as well. By the next morning the whole town was talking about how Cain was ambushed in the middle of the night by two Chaos marines and killed them both without getting so much as a scratch on him. Though I would've loved to have been a part of the official story, I had already committed to my course and trying to explain the cover-up afterwards would have only complicated matters further. It also would have made Cain out to be a liar since he had to file an official after-action report on the incident as well.
Eventually, Cain managed to talk all the troopers and Broklaw into leaving but even then I wasn't able to come out of hiding as the Astartes came knocking on our door moments later. "Sergeant Rooge, I see word spreads quickly," Cain said over the sound of heavy footsteps plodding into the cabin.
"Evening Commissar Cain, I am pleased to see you're still in one piece," Rooge replied. I heard more heavy footsteps entering the cabin so apparently Rooge did not come alone. "This body needs to be dispose of properly, lest its taint is allowed to linger," he explained and the heavy footsteps continued drowning the conversation. Eventually, once the marines had carried the corpse away, I was able to hear Cain and Rooge continue their conversation.
"You're bleeding sergeant, were there more incidences in town?"
"Very much so," Rooge said, sounding almost pleased with the fact. "It appears that the earlier attack was a diversion so the enemy could sneak a squad of traitors into the town. They almost took us by surprise too but when that explosion you set off caused one of the traitors to break cover and we were able to crush their pitiful attempt at an ambush."
"I hope that all your fellow marines are in good health."
"The Emperor protects the faithful, Commissar, and no enemy can stand against His space marines. I will need to report this to my captain but your valour and deeds shall not go unmentioned Commissar and they most certainly shall not be forgotten."
Finally, after what seemed like forever, Cain and I became the sole occupants of the cabin once more. He waited a few minutes for that certainty to be assured before heading to the bedroom. "It's safe to come out now," he said before leaving a towel on the ground for me. When I finally entered the living room once again, Cain had already collapsed into the only chair that was still in one piece. He asked why I had dove under the bed earlier but I was fairly certain he had already deduced, or at least suspected, my reasons so my explanation provided little new insight.
A few minutes, after I was dressed once more, I rejoined Cain in the living room. "I don't suppose you have a bottle of amasec on you?" Cain asked when he saw me.
"I…might," I said reluctantly since said bottle was the one I had stowed away as part of my gift to Cain. It took less than a quarter of a second to see right through me.
"It's the present, isn't it?" he asked rhetorically. I merely nodded in silence. "Well, it's almost Emperor's Day so if you want to break it out early I'll split it with you."
"Sure, I could use a drink," I agreed and headed back into my room to get it. I was glad that I was at least able to get it wrapped before all the chaos broke out so I was still able to hand over the wrapped box with a smile and a 'Happy Emperor's Day.' I suspect that Cain, like most commissars, didn't get too many gifts on Emperor's Day and I was glad to see the smile across his face when he opened the box up and pulled out the most expensive bottle of amasec I could find on the planet. He even looked a little impressed. However, the fact that the box was much larger than the bottle didn't elude him and he looked inside once more to see what else was there. The second item was a thermos as I recalled that his old one was blown apart when a bolter round nearly Jurgen. His aide was more infuriated at the loss of the tea within than the fact that he was almost killed by the shot. Lastly, there was a finely-crafted crystal amasec glass. Its basin was sculpted in the shape of the wings of the aquila and an elongated body forming the glass' stem and the material itself shimmered in a prismatic aura from the refracted light. At the bottom, engraved along the base of the glass, were the words 'Galaxy's Greatest Commissar.'
"Cute," he remarked with a smirk that vanished a second later, "though I feel a bit guilty now as I have nothing to give in return."
"Oh, you didn't need to get me anything," I said dismissively.
"I did though," he quickly replied before motioning over to a nearby cabinet that was now in a dozen pieces. "I kept it in there though so I'm afraid it's a bit on the exploded side."
"Well if you split the bottle like you said we can call it even," I suggested, finding an intact cup amongst the refuse. It was definitely one of the best bottles of amasec I had ever had.
Emperor's Day rolled along without any further incursions on the little mining community, much to everybody's relief. Reports from the frontlines suggested that what we encountered was little more than a scouting party that had managed to bypass the main battle lines and were scouring for easy targets. In fact, the reason they had penetrated so far from the frontlines was because our main army was making such good progress than the scouts quickly found themselves deep in enemy-held territory without as the frontlines kept moving further away.
There were some local festivities that off-duty troopers and officers were able to partake in, though there was still a general sense of raised tensions as a result of the raids. Nonetheless, the citizens refused to let a bit of Chaos and death ruin the holiday spirit for them and given how dreary things were before and after the festival I wasn't surprised that they clung to the one day of the year they could still get excited over. Much to my surprise, I was greeted with a number of small gifts from some of the senior staff and platoon leaders. I think the gesture that I was truly welcomed in the regiment meant more to me than anything else. The best gift I received, though, came from the major who I had to track down for most of the day just to deliver my gift. I managed to corner him in his office by the afternoon, much to his surprise.
"You're a hard man to find," I said with a smirk when I strode in.
"Some last minute business to take care of," he replied. "I was actually about to start looking for you."
"This 'business' wouldn't happen to be gift buying now would it?" I said coyly. Broklaw was never the type to keep things hidden so his attempt to cover his tracks was pretty obvious. "Well, since I found you first, I get to go first." I felt it was a bit unnecessary to wrap his gift since the smoothly varnished and brass-trimmed box it came in was ornate enough for the occasion. He looked genuinely curious as he slowly lifted the lid to see what was inside.
His expression made up for his lack of words as he delicately lifted the master-crafted bolt pistol from its case as though it were made of glass. The gold fittings, ivory handle, and skull motifs were obviously not of a standard-pattern bolt pistol. On each side of the handle were the engraved words fides and officium, High Gothic for faith and duty, respectively. They were, for a Kriegan, the two most important words to live and die by. Once again I had left Broklaw momentarily speechless, a feat that I relished every time I could.
"It was my father's bolt pistol," I finally explained. "I've never really been much for bolt weapons and I'm sure my father would have preferred it be put to proper use than gathering dust in my kit bags."
Still silent, Broklaw put the weapon back into its case and carefully took the box from me. It wasn't until well after he set it down on his desk and grabbed a similarly sized box of his own that he finally spoke. "I'm…I'm not sure what to really say except thank you. Well, that and I got this for you. I wasn't really sure what to get for you but…I thought this might be useful for you."
To no surprise, Broklaw was about as experienced in the art of gift giving as an Ork was in Progenium-style debates. It came with the profession since one rarely needed to give anybody anything other than a swift death, let alone something with meaning to it. Now it was my turn for curiosity and surprise, which were two feelings one in my profession rarely got with good connotations attached. Inside the box was one very pink and very fluffy (and sweet Emperor was it ever soft) bathrobe with the initials 'AA' stitched onto the breast pocket. I was definitely surprised by the choice and my mind tried to get an idea of how Broklaw came to such a conclusion until the obvious hit me.
"You didn't…" I murmured sheepishly.
He nodded. "I did."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I trust you had your reasons."
I was flustering bright red by that point and doing my best to avoid eye contact. Awkward silences were, and still are, the bane of my existence. It was easier to solve problems with a laspistol or a textbook drawn speech but moments like these required a delicate touch that I simply didn't possess. "You do remember what we agreed on back on Adumbria, right?" He nodded. "Good then. Well, uh…thank you for the gift then. It's very nice. I, uh, I should probably go now. Happy Emperor's Day Ruput."
"You too, Ariel."
Despite the fact that I avoided the major for the next few days I actually did enjoy his gift. It was as smooth as silk, soft to the touch, and warm as a winter coat, which was exactly what I needed living alongside Valhallans. For soldiers and people living on the battlefield, Emperor's Day often meant something much more than just exchanging gifts and good food. It was a reminder of what we fought for and the gifts from the Emperor that we often overlooked, like good friends that always watched your back. It's having people like that with you that made even the simplest of gifts mean so much more and it's why, even after more than seventy years, I still have that bathrobe.