Mayhem reigned on the battlefield. I watched it quietly, not allowing the surging mass of bodies to distract me from my goal. Bullets sparked off the wall around me, punching deep holes into the rockcrete. I ignored it all. The bullets were directed at the Blood Raven Space Marines below me. The rogue Guardsmen had no way of knowing I was there. From my camouflaged position halfway back in the room, laid out on a table, I was invisible to the melee before me.

My spotter grunted in annoyance beside me. I took my eye off my scope, blinking to get my vision focused, and turned towards him.

"What, Adin, no show?"

Adin swore quietly as a tank shell spiraled through the air, striking the floor above us. The building shook threateningly, but held. It was a sturdy building. A single tank shell would not bother it.

"Can't see as much as a Commissar."

"That kind of follows… considering these guys are traitors. I can't exactly see a Commissar going along with that kind of thing. They're usually all gung-ho about the whole 'Emperor is Lord' business."

A low chuckle emanated from Adin's throat. He put his binoculars up and resumed scanning the field. We had very specific orders. Leave the bulk of the fighting to the Guard and the Blood Ravens. We were there to eliminate the command structure. I knew that the Blood Ravens would have disapproved of this, had they known it, but Colonel Mars was insistent. The Space Marines did not have to know. They had enough on their hands as it was.

"Oh, Officer-type. Near the tree-line, between two Russ tanks."

My eye snapped back to the scope and I started hunting. Starting straight ahead, I turned to the right and searched. There were a dozen Leman Russ tanks on the tree line. Only four were still firing. The remaining eight had been disabled or destroyed by a combination of the Blood Raven's Whirlwind and the loyal Guardsmen's squadron of Basilisks. As my gaze swept over the burning hulks a ninth tank exploded, struck square in the turret joint by a rocket strike. Its turret went spinning through the air, slamming into a tree trunk before smashing into the ground. I did not pause to watch. I had found my target, now scrambling off the ground after being knocked down by the shockwave. He was getting off his feet when I pulled the trigger. A brilliant, near-invisible plume of blood shot out the side of his head and he collapsed.

"Target down."

"Switch?"

I rolled off the table, allowing Adin to take my place. He handed me my bolter, grinning wickedly at the prospect of using the sniper rifle. As powerful as the bolter was, nothing shot up Adin's adrenaline like drilling an unsuspecting soldier through the skull from hundreds of yards away.

"Don't spare the ranks," Adin ordered as he settled in. I nodded and approached the window. Satisfied that the chaos of battle was too distracting, I peeked out. The field was littered with corpses wearing the muted grey of the 42nd Uthreme Guard. The Blood Ravens manned the low walls alongside loyal Guardsmen, towering over the men like angels of death. Torrential fire belched from their bolters, scything through the charging ranks of traitors with ease. The heavy weapon squads of the Guard matched their intensity, blowing holes through the attackers with lasers, bullets and shells. Behind them were Predators and Leman Russ tanks, pounding huge shells and laser beams into the screaming mob. A little extra fire could not hurt, I decided.

Returning to my position, I took the binoculars and began spitting out ranks as fast Adin fired. First a sergeant, then a brace of officers that appeared, then another sergeant. It happened quickly and easily. After each man fell I heard Adin muttering to himself, counting down the kills. He was on a warpath now. It happened quickly with him whenever he got behind the scope. I had a few minutes before he would start unleashing hell. Adin in rage was a terrifying sight. His most impressive kills came when he was fully absorbed in the shooting.

"Sergeant, near the mound. He's got a-"

A sudden bolt of lightning surged out of the advancing traitor ranks. The bolt arced through the sky, drawing the attention of a host of men, before exploding against the front armor of a Leman Russ. The tank rocked back on its treads, cannon firing aimlessly into the air. I gasped and began looking for the offender. It was a psyker. How a psyker had joined the traitors I could never guess, but he was there. Correction, they were there. There were four of them, hidden behind a cluster of banners and a squad of stormtroopers. The presence of those men confounded me. What were sanctioned psykers and stormtroopers doing fighting on the side of the traitors? Those were some of the most loyal men in the entire Guard.

The words had barely left my lips when one of the psyker's heads exploded. The psykers stared in stunned horror for a moment, watching their comrade fall to the ground. Adin reloaded the rifle and fired without hesitation. A second psyker fell, a fist-sized hole in his chest. The rest panicked, diving for cover and fading into the mass of banners and stormtroopers.

"Leon?"

I did not respond. My eyes were glued to the binoculars, searching for a flash of the tan jackets that the psykers wore. It was impossible to see in the sudden writhing mass of bodies. After a second of fruitless search I snarled and gave him an order.

"Stormtroopers! Go for their cover!"

He obliged, dropping two before they could respond. By that time they had figured out the likely locations of our hiding spot. A flurry of hellgun fire sprayed across the building, blasting into windows with abandon. Adin continued firing, making two headshots in as many seconds. It was a marvelous sight to see him picking them apart like flies as they vainly tried to find us.

Then one of the Russ turrets turned in our direction. I saw it through the binoculars and shouted a warning. Adin did not hear it; he was too busy taking his fifth stormtrooper down with a bullet straight through the man's rifle. The explosion that followed ripped the man's facemask apart, flaying his skull open. It was a horrible screaming death.

The turret was aiming near us. Not at our window, but close. I dove for Adin, shoving the table with my shoulder a split second before it fired. The table was a solid wooden piece, that was why we had chosen it for the perch. Something in my shoulder cracked, but it lifted and Adin went tumbling to the ground, cursing in anger as his shot flew wide of the mark. I was still landing when the shell hit.

The floor buckled violently as the room below us was struck. Paintings and china fell from the walls, shattering all around us. A hellish heat wave washed over us, choking our lungs as the air crackled with energy. For a terrible second I thought the floor was going to explode.

"Leon!"

Adin's voice was hoarse and wracked with gasps. The dust kicked up by the blast left us nearly blind. I felt a groping hand touch my shoulder, and I grabbed it. He lifted me to my feet and stared at me. His armor was coated a ghostly shade from the dust.

"Are you ok?"

He screamed the question, hurting my ears. His eardrums must have burst, I realized. Nodding my heads yes, I leaned against the table and looked for my bolter. It was lying against a desk, nowhere near where I had dropped it. I staggered over to it and checked it for damage. It looked fine. That was good enough for me. Bolters were tough weapons, capable of withstanding quite a pounding.

"Where's the rifle?"

I turned back towards Adin, alarmed by his question. He was on his knees, searching the floor like a blind man. I scanned the floor for it. There was no sign of it. A nervous shudder coursed through my body. If it was lost… that was an expensive weapon.

"Found it!"

Adin stood slowly, cradling the precious rifle lovingly. I managed a weak smile and eyed the weapon fearfully. It was scraped and scratched all over, but it looked like it was still in one piece. Without asking, Adin went to the window, kneeled down, and took a shot. I was not sure what he was aiming at, but the satisfied grunt told me that it still worked. A sigh of relief passed through my lips. We were still in business.

"I can't find the psykers, or the stormtroopers," he announced after a long search. "They've disappeared."

"Let me see."

He handed me the sniper rifle and backed away, not wanting to draw attention to our window. He was the better shot, but I had better eyesight than him and was able to pick things out better. He was right. The remaining psykers and their retinue had disappeared. I searched the whole battlefield, skimming over the dwindling attacking force before checking the last of the traitor's Russ tanks. No psykers, but there was an officer sticking his head out of the Russ. I put a bullet into his temple and watched the body fall back into the tank with grim satisfaction.

"Time to relocate," I told Adin as the tank's turret began tracking in our direction again. He needed no second order. Pausing only to grab my bolter, he rushed from the room and aimed for the stairs. I followed close behind, keeping my eye on the tank. It was aiming straight for our window this time. I had picked a good time to leave.

The stairs were on the other side of the building, which meant that we were clear of the explosion by the time the shell whistled through the window and slammed into the back wall. I staggered forward as the wall exploded into the hallway, sending a mushroom of smoke and dust stretching through the building. A loud, pained creaking shivered through the building and the room began to collapse, falling down a story and ripping an ugly gash in the side of it. Adin grabbed my arm to steady me and we continued on, reaching the stairwell without incident.

Skating down the stairs, we reached the second floor landing in seconds. Adin turned to go farther down, started in alarm, and loosed a long burst down. I skidded to a stop behind him, slinging the sniper rifle over my shoulder instinctively. My hands dropped to the hell pistol and plasma pistol at my sides. I drew them in a flash and covered the stairs as he spun back out of the return fire. Sliding to a crouch, I cleared the railing and took aim.

There were a handful of traitor Guardsmen at the mid-level landing. Three were splayed out on the steps, their bodies riddled with holes. Four more were behind them, eyes burning feverishly with Chaotic light as they fired wildly into the air. Their helmet markings were scratched off, replaced with symbols of Khaine, the Bloody-Handed God. I shuddered for a moment, wondering how these men could have let their minds fall to the twisted seduction of Chaos, then fired. My first shots were dead on, striking one Guardsman in the chin, blowing out a good portion of his skull, and another in the thigh. The plasma round melted through his armor, burning the majority of his flesh to cinders in a second. His agonized scream grated in my ears as he tumbled to the ground, still pulling the trigger.

The remaining two lowered their weapons to fire at me, but Adin appeared over the railing, hurdling it with one hand for support. He fired a short burst, catching one of the two in the shoulder. The skin and bone evaporated under the hail of high explosive rounds , tossing his arm aside like a blade of grass in the wind. I focused on the last man, hitting him in the chest with both las and plasma fire. He was dead before my third shot hit him.

Adin finished off the wounded Guardsmen with his knife, ending their screams quickly and efficiently. When he stood up, he was grimacing.

"How'd they get in this far?" he shouted, his hearing still not recovered.

I shrugged and holstered my pistol. It was beyond me, but they must have breached a point in the line. The more important matter for me was the amount of ammunition Adin had expended. The bolter had a large clip, and I had plenty of extra magazines for it, but he had used a lot of ammunition on that cluster. Perhaps it was just a heat of battle moment, but that was a careless waste of pricy rounds. More often than not I had to go to the black market for bolter rounds. Those dealers were never cheap.

"Careful now," I mouthed, pointed down the stairs. He nodded in recognition and moved to the edge of the landing, peering down to the ground floor. After a moment he nodded, signaling the all clear. I passed him, stepping over the bloody bodies, and edged my way to the bottom. Keeping my back to the wall, I leaned out and searched the lobby. It was empty, but the glass of the front doors had clearly been shattered. Breathing slowly, I motioned for Adin to move out. He leapt to the bottom of the stairs and sprinted past me, sliding behind the front desk for cover. When no fire came, I stepped out and moved to the doors. Adin went to the other side, and we looked out at the battlefield.

The defensive line was holding for the most part, especially where the Blood Ravens stood. The main gate had been blown down, but a squad of fearsome Terminators held the ground, crushing the traitors with gigantic power claws and thunder hammers. There were two breaches in the line, and one was a furious melee as reserve infantry poured into the gap. As we watched a squad of Assault Marines soared through the sky, plowing into the mass like meteors. Bodies flew in all directions and the Space Marines began hacking through the traitors with their chainswords and bolt pistols.

The other breach was a different matter. Sentinels stalked across the open ground behind the wall, pouring las cannon fire into the hole in the wall as a never-ending tide of traitors poured through. A handful slipped through the barrage every few seconds, and they were met by a ranked platoon of conscripts. The conscripts fired in volleys, one line at a time, keeping a one second pause between each. Only a couple attackers survived the combined fire, and they threw themselves on the conscripts with screeching oaths to Khaine. Looking past the conscripts, I saw a few small melees scattered around the square. The conscripts and Sentinels must have just arrived, because a couple squads of traitor Guardsmen had reached as far as the Command Post. I raised my sniper rifle toward the CP, praying the Mars was not dead. He was an old friend, and I doubted any lasgun could bring him down.

The CP was a brutal scene, with Mars' command squad fighting hand-to-hand with a dozen traitors. I saw one raise a power axe, Emperor knows how he got that, and pumped the trigger. The powerful needle round struck him between the shoulders, ripping his spine neatly in half. His body collapsed to the dirt, where it lay twitching as the melee trampled it. The traitors did not notice the unexpected fall of their comrade, so I switched targets and brought another down, this time with a very loud and piercing shriek as the bullet tore though his knee. The traitors faltered, hearing one of their own in such agony. That bought Mars and the two priests standing beside him enough time to cut their numbers in half. Mars' Commissar finished off the last one with an expertly placed shot from his las pistol.

There was no time to savor the small victory, because a clutch of rebel Guardsmen slipped through a crack in the defenses and charged toward the building. Adin fired dangerously close to my head, sending me diving backwards. The bolter rounds cut through the traitors in a flash, dropping the front rank and savaging the second. By the time they reached the doors eight of the twelve men were dead.

The first man to storm the doors was met with a boot to the stomach as I lashed out from my position on my back. He staggered backwards, bent over in pain, and a second traitor took his place. Drawing my hell pistol, I shot the man in chest. His armor stopped the round, but sent him reeling back. That left an opening for Adin, who stepped out and mowed them both down without mercy. A third traitor reached the door, firing his lasgun into Adin's refractor field. I put two rounds into his gut and he fell motionless over the threshold. When Adin stopped firing I rolled back to my feet and looked out.

The battle seemed to be dying down, because no more traitor Guardsmen were coming through the gaps. The Terminators stood motionless by the gate, brandishing their bloodied weapons with little concern for the las fire that plinked off their shields. The ground around them was littered with corpses, but not a one of them had fallen. Looking to the wall, I saw that the same was not the case with their lesser armored brothers. Three hulking red bodies lay stretched out across the length of the wall. Two wore jump packs, and were slumped side-by-side in the larger gap that they had leapt into.

Stepping out into the sun, I holstered my pistol and began walking towards the wall. The Conscript platoon, standing idle but at the ready, stared at me and Adin as we walked. Their curiosity was understood. Adin and I were wearing our old Kasrkin armor, painted a dark green and brown that stood out glaringly from the plain grey of the Guardsmen. The sniper rifle and bolter added to the dissimilarities, drawing the eyes of several men on the walls too. Between the two of us though, Adin drew more attention. He still had his helmet, I had lost mine in a campaign long ago, and the bolter made him look like a miniature Space Marine to the naïve conscripts. I could see the questions brimming in their eyes as we strode past them towards the point on the wall where one of the Commissar's was.

"Ah, the Kasrkin's are still alive" Montross' booming voice cut through the after-battle hubbub like a knife. It took me a moment before finding his imposing figure come stomping through the crowd. I studied his uniform carefully. The bottom of his full-body jacket was soaked darkly with blood and his powerfist had a shiny gleam in the fading sunlight. Montross watched me for a moment in silence before grinning mirthlessly and extending his unencumbered hand. I shook it warmly, allowing a slight grin to etch my features.

"Despite their tank gunner's best efforts, yes. We did our part."

Montross huffed and gestured out over the battlefield. "I take it you were the one who silenced those cursed psykers."

I nodded slowly, jerking my thumb towards Adin. "He got two of them." Lowering my voice so the others could not hear, I whispered. "There's at least two more out there, plus a squad or so of stormtroopers. Adin was working on them when the Russ started pounding our position."

"Ah." Montross nodded knowingly and leaned his head away, a false confident smile on his face. His eyes sparkled with intelligence as he digested the information, but he kept his countenance strict. That was what I loved about Commissars, when they were not executing their own troops to improve morale. They knew how to keep a secret, and how to keep their composure.

"They won't be coming back for a while," he announced loudly, for the benefit of the troops. "We showed them the strength of those who remain true to the Emperor. No traitors can withstand the True Emperor!"

The men cheered. They were flushed with excitement after the battle, and were fired up for more. I counted the number of casualties and raised a surprised eyebrow.

"You didn't lose many" I noted, indicating the medics as they dragged the fallen off the wall. I could count the dead with one hand. Coming from a company-sized detachment fresh off of a battle, it was practically nothing.

"The Adeptus Astartes provided support." A hint of humility managed to slip through his show of bravado. I followed his gaze to where a squad of Devastators stood farther down the line. Two held heavy bolters, faint wisps of smoke still clinging to the barrels. "Their fire saved many lives."

"Don't they always," I muttered quietly. "They took some casualties here."

"A few, yes. But they are not immortal." The Commissar dismissed the comment with little apparent concern. "Just nearly so. What news from the Command Post? I saw that some traitors broke through our lines."

"Just a few." I leaned against the wall and rolled my neck, enjoying the cracking as the joints popped. "The Sentinels and a Whiteshield platoon held them from getting far. A dozen reached the CP, but they didn't do anything."

"Ah, yes, the 5th Training Company." Montross' gaze settled on the conscripts, who were now sitting down or milling about under the watchful eye of their sergeant. "So they have found their first taste of blood. They are taking it well."

"As long as they aren't bawling their eyes out…"

A passing trooper stumbled, and I shot out a hand to catch him. My eyes flitted over his body, looking for the source of the trip. His left leg was bandaged, but the linen was stained darkly. Before the soldier could protest I pushed off the wall and sat him down.

"Don't walk on that, soldier. It'll only get worse. Give it some rest until the medics can get you something."

The man started to protest reflexively, but seeing the Commissar standing beside me, wisely shut his mouth. He set his lasgun on the ground beside him and inched back to use the wall as support. Montross nodded approvingly.

"That's good advice, soldier. You are not going to heal quickly if you aggravate it."

The soldier nodded and thanked me, stunned by the Commissar's unusually gentle words. Montross allowed a faint smile and turned away quickly, not letting the men see it. I stepped away from the wall so that his facing would not raise suspicion.

"A kind, but unnecessary act" he muttered.

I said nothing, but grinned fiendishly. One of the things that I had learned to love about this unit was that its officers were quality men. Whereas most Commissars were unforgivably brutal and the leaders aloof, this Regiment had a handful that truly inspired their men. Mars and Montross were perfect examples of this. Mars led by daredevil charisma, fighting to the front and never allowing his men to be meaninglessly slaughtered. Montross led with biting humor and clipped precision coupled with an ironclad spirit. As far as I knew, he had never had to execute a deserter in his entire stint as a Commissar, a remarkable feat.

Montross glanced past my shoulder and his body language tensed. I turned my head slowly to see what made him react so. A helmetless Space Marine was marching towards us, wielding a heavy bolter with ease. I swallowed hard as his booted feet crunched through the loose rockcrete. I was a little over average height for normal men, and he towered over me. Despite my many years in the military, I still marveled at the might of the inhuman Space Marines.

"What can I do for you, Avitus?"

Montross faced the imposing figure without a hint of trepidation. Standing comfortably with his powerfist at his side, he stared up at the dark scowl with a confident air. I backed up a foot to give them a clear line of sight, bobbing my head in deference.

"Your unit held the line. That is good."

"The loyal soldiers of the 42nd Uthreme Guard are more than a match for these traitors" Montross spat, directing the venom at a fallen traitor's corpse on the far side of the wall. The soldier had made it as far as the wall, then a crushing blow from Montross' powerfist had obliterated his face. Avitus' eyes flicked to the body and back. He was not impressed.

"My Commander is sending out a scouting party to track the traitor's as they fall back. It is his wish that you pick a handful of skilled trackers to accompany them. We will find use for them, I am sure."

Montross' eyes hardened just a touch. The implied meaning was clear. The Blood Ravens wanted extra bodies to draw fire when, not if, they engaged the enemy. That's all that the Guardsmen were useful for, in their eyes. Human shields. I did not bother hiding a disgusted snort. The noise drew Avistus' attention like a dying animal drew a vulture. His piercing eyes studied my armor and face before he turned to Montross.

"I do not recall hearing about the arrival of Kasrkin troopers to this fight."

Montross did not bat an eye. He took a calm breath and explained my presence to the irritated Space Marine in a clear, precise tone.

"This is Leon and his comrade, Adin. They are freelance mercenaries, former Kasrkin and members of the Ordo Malleus."

"Former members." Avitus repeated the two words with a slight tilt in his voice, having noticed the way they were connected. His eyebrows narrowed questioningly. "And how is that?"

"My unit was requisitioned by Inquisitor Verne. He was slain along with the rest of our unit fighting a Chaos cult that succeeded in summoning a greater Daemon."

"And you left the service? I do not see the Ordo Malleus granting such amnesty."

I shook my head, letting the jab pass. "We were honorably discharged for our part in the operation. A Deathwatch Chaplain declared us unfit for further duty."

"Yet you are here, fighting on the frontline."

Adin stepped up, answering for me. "We were declared unfit for duty, yes, but that is not why we were discharged. During the battle, Leon was struck by a warp blast from the demon. The blow triggered a dormant Pariah gene. He's a Blank."

I winced inwardly. That bit of information was one that I preferred kept under wraps. The Pariah gene drew suspicion and danger at every turn. The bulky Space Marine regarded me with renewed interest, but his expression did not change. The wondering accusation was still there. I got that a lot. Being a one-in-a-million case brought nervous attention all the time.

"If that is so, why did the Ordo Malleus not keep him? A Pariah is a valuable tool in fighting Chaos."

"Apparently I am unlucky for them." I pulled a wry smile and tapped the side of my head. "They said something about being too distracting… and unstable."

"Really?"

"They let us go with a Xenos Mandate," Adin added. "They hire us as mercenaries, but only in short increments. While we are on our own we hire out to whoever wants us."

"Providing they are Emperor-fearing souls," I cut in, forestalling a comment that Avitus was undoubtedly going to make. "And never for xenos, not that they'd want us anyways."

That seemed to satisfy the Space Marine. That, or he received a call from another Blood Raven, because he abruptly spun on his heel and returned to his men, not bothering to say goodbye. Montross stared after him, eyeing the power armor with undisguised envy.

"The things you can do with a squad of those," he mumbled to himself. "Just think of it."

"Aye, and they don't wear helmets. That's just asking for a sniper to give them one in the eye."

I shot Adin a sidelong glance, half-smiling at his words. He hefted the bolter meaningfully and slapped the barrel. Seeing Montross' questioning gaze, he retracted his words.

"Never a loyalist, Commissar. Just a couple Chaos scumbags."

Montross nodded after a moment of silence and looked back to his men.

"If you will excuse me, I have a squad of corpses… scouts to volunteer. Good evening, gentlemen."

Montross inclined his head in a nominal salute and whipped around, switching to his Commissar attitude in seconds. He bellowed for the platoon leaders and sergeants, summoning them out of the air like magic. I watched for a moment, remembering the time that I had been a simple sergeant, leaping to the command of my officer, then turned away. Adin read the nostalgic gleam in my eyes and slapped my shoulder reassuringly. Life had been much simpler, even a little safer, then. At least we had a whole company of like minds then. Not it was just the two of us.

"Want to go see Colonel Mars?" His question startled me. The first thing on my mind was a shower and a hot meal, if that was available. We could go see Colonel Mars in the morning. He would be busy right now, checking on his lines and making adjustments as necessary.

"What for?" Adin was already moving, so I shook off my surprise and followed, loping after him in easy strides.

"To go join that scouting party, obviously."

His enthusiasm could not be masked by his inflection-killing helmet. I suppressed a sigh. Sometimes he had too much energy. Quirky did not begin to describe him. Not only was he as energetic as a caffed battle priest, but he was a ladies' man too. 'Too distracting?' Try 'he kept bedding every female in the unit.' There was something about him that just fired up the women in the Inquisitor teams. The normal women, that is.

We strode into the Command Post expecting a chaotic flurry of activity. The opposite was the case, it was quite calm and collected. Orderlies came in and out, delivering messages and reports. Colonel Mars was in his tent, with the battalion Commissar, the two Priests, and the Blood Ravens commander. After being let in by the guards, I delivered my respects to the officers and stood to the side, waiting for them to call my name.

While I waited I studied the Space Marine. He was the usual superhuman mass of genetically enhanced soldier that was expected of Space Marines. His face was angled sharply, with a hawkish nose and deep set, vibrant green eyes. The top of his head was covered in an ashen military cut with long sideburns. The tips of the hair glistened as if he had put gel on them to retain their shape. A vain choice for a Space Marine. He had the ubiquitous chainsword sheathed at his side and a large bolt pistol in his hand. I studied the weapon carefully, searching for unique markings. Nothing special showed.

I was disappointed at that. Some of the Space Marines I had met in my time with the Ordo Malleus had owned some impressively crafted weapons. Maybe this was a new leader or something. Perhaps he had not earned the right to gain personal weapons yet. Who knew, when the Space Marines were concerned. I was perfectly happy to let their ways remain mysterious so long as they continued to inflict punishing damage on the twisted forces of evil xenos and Chaos that threatened the Imperium.

Colonel Mars and the Blood Ravens commander were discussing the next step in this campaign against the traitor Guardsmen. Mars was advocating for bringing in the second battalion, which was currently occupying the capital cities. The fourth battalion in the regiment was holding the other border forts and towns. It appeared to be Mars' hope to launch a blitz on the reeling traitors, dominating them before they could recover. The Space Marine was urging a more cautious approach. He wanted a careful reconnaissance followed by harassing raids. His plan was to lure the leadership of the rebellion into the open, where they could be discovered and destroyed. A good enough plan, as far as I was concerned. They both had their merits.

It struck me as odd though, seeing the Space Marine advising caution while the Imperial Guard officer recommended immediate and brutal action. Then again, Mars was fighting for his home planet, and with every heretical uprising came the looming threat of a potential Exterminatus. It was in Mars' best interest to contain and eradicate the rebellion before his planet itself was eradicated. The horror stories of the planetary purges sent shivers down the spine of the most hardened Imperial officers.

Their discussion went on for several minutes until Mars relented, promising to hold off on brining the second battalion into the fight until the Blood Ravens were satisfied with the level of danger that the insurgency presented. The Space Marine left the tent quickly, striding out to collect a squad of scouts. I watched his departure in interest. The man returned my gaze for a moment as he passed by. The faintest hint of suspicion crossed his eyes, then he was gone, sliding out of the tent with a grace that did not fit his power armored hulk.

"I noticed the support," Mars told me after the Space Marine disappeared from sight. "Appreciated, but not necessary."

I flashed him an innocent smile. "What are you talking about? We were in the hotel, shooting skeet."

Mars chuckled quietly and motioned for me to approach the table. "What did you spot from your post?"

I pulled out my knife and touched the map of the town. Drawing the blunt side of the blade across the forest's edge, I began reciting what I had seen.

"They had a good amount of Leman Russ tanks just at the edge of the woods. All but one were destroyed by artillery fire. The bulk of their force hit the center, near the gate, but a sizable portion assaulted the hotel-line. That's where the breaches were, as far as I saw. There was at least a half battalion in the fight, plus extra vehicle support."

"Anything else?"

My eyes drifted over the faces in the room. The only people in the room were Mars and his handpicked command squad, me and Adin. It was safe to speak.

"Did you see the psykers?"

"Psykers?"

Mars' eyes narrowed dangerously. Psykers were extremely rare on Uthreme. Over time a taboo had formed over them, and human psykers were universally loathed by the men of Uthreme. The men of Uthreme were solid fighting men. The ability to tap into the Warp was a direct insult to their honor.

"Not yours?"

"No" he snarled, glaring at the map. His body shivered with a sigh and he ran a hand through his graying hair. "Were you able to neutralize them?"

"Half of them. They had a squad of stormtroopers covering them, and our shooting drew the attention of a Russ. Two got away, as did the remainder of the stormtrooper squad. We took out two clusters of traitors that had broken through the lines after relocating."

The Commissar snorted in disgust and flexed the fingers of his powerfist menacingly. "Damn psykers. Where in hell did they come from?"

"Have the satellites picked up any unidentified ships entering the system?"

One of the priests nodded his head and began leafing through the massive book that he carried. Flipping through the pages, he found what he was looking for and stabbed an accusing finger at the text.

"Our satellites do not have the power to identify all space vessels that enter this system, but three months ago an unidentified vessel landed in the southern peninsula. An investigative force was sent to determine what this vessel held. They never came back."

"The 3rd Battalion rebelled shortly afterwards," Mars added, gesturing for the priest to shut his book. "We know they are connected, but we have been unable to gain access to this vessel. The only thing of which we are certain is that it has not left the planet."

"Have you made any further attempts to locate it?"

"Three. Two infantry units and a squadron of fliers. Nothing made it back."

Adin stepped forward and studied the larger of the two maps on the table, the continental one. He idly placed his index finger on their position and began tracing paths down to the peninsula. His eyes were narrowed in concentration as he guessed at the routes down there. It was a week's journey marching, half that if they cut through the woods.

"You've told the Blood Ravens, correct?"

"Of course. Their commander assured me that his scouts would look into it."

"Scouts… as in this scouting party of his that he is organizing?"

"How-"

The Commissar cleared his throat noisily, silencing the colonel. I held up an appeasing hand to forestall any comments.

"I was speaking with Montross on the line when one of the Space Marines… Avitus, I think his name was, ordered him to round up a squad for a scouting mission."

The Commissar's glare softened, and he looked to Mars, bowing slightly in apology. Mars brushed it aside and fixed me with a curious eye.

"Are you volunteering?"

"We've got nothing better to do," I answered, wishing my words were true. I could think of a hundred other things I would rather be doing than going on a scouting party, much less being on a planet split by Chaos. But that was our life now, ever since that cursed Pariah gene had activated.

"You do realize that he requested my troops as a formality. I doubt you will be allowed to do anything useful out there."

"Well, we can always take a shot at that mysterious vessel."

The look I shot Adin was murderous. Looking for that spacecraft was definitely not on my to-do list. I mentally damned him to the Abyss and glanced back at Mars, a correction forming on my lips. It was too late.

"It could be done," Mars mused. He leaned against the table, bracing himself with one arm, and drew a path from our position to the middle of the peninsula. He tapped the endpoint twice. "The first investigation went straight down the road. We lost contact with them in the swamps. The second stayed near the beaches. We can only assume that the traitors ambushed them, because they dropped off the radar in the middle of a report. The fliers came in from our carrier platform. Only the Emperor knows how far they got or what they saw."

"And you have no idea what is out there now?"

"No." The words resounded through the tent with uncomfortable clarity. The priest opened his book again and thumbed to a later page. "By the accounts we have received two battalions have broken away from the Emperor's graces. The first to rebel was the 3rd Battalion of the 42nd Uthreme. The second belonged to 1st Battalion of the 15th Uthreme. Several company-sized units from the other battalions in the 15th also turned away from the path. Their estimated strength is between 1500 and 4000."

"Less a two hundred fifty or so after today," I commented, fighting back a sinking feeling in my stomach. "And a couple hundred more from this week's skirmishes."

"Which leaves them with enough to still put a sizable force on the field. We managed to contain them in the peninsula, but we have been unable to ascertain where the 1st has deployed. The only elements we have seen belonged to the 3rd."

"Do you think the 1st might be guarding the spacecraft?"

The priest shut his book and tugged at his wispy beard with a bony hand. "That is a distinct possibility. Our satellite readings pointed to an alien origin. Not Ork, but certainly not Imperial."

"Chaos?"

Mars shook his head. He was a veteran of several campaigns against Chaos forces. His very first tour of duty had been in the defense of the Cadian Gate. If anyone knew how to recognize Chaos forces, it was him.

"We have seen no evidence of Chaos weapons or troops. The Blood Ravens have assured me that no Chaos force is at work here. Whatever convinced the Battalions to…" Mars shuddered at the thought. "It is not of Chaos origin."

"Xenos then?"

"It must be."

I read the frown behind Mars' words easily enough. Tapping the stock of the sniper rifle, I shrugged confidently. "Whatever they are, they've got to bleed. If the Blood Ravens want to take a gander at it, so be it."

"Thirsting for blood, Leon?"

"Not blood, just peace. This planet has already seen too much war."

Mars nodded knowingly. "No rest for the righteous, I am afraid. Get some rest, I will send for you once the scouting party is ready. The battalion armory is at your disposal should you find yourself lacking in supplies."

"My thanks, Colonel." I placed my right hand over my heart and bowed low. "May the Emperor guide your blade."

"And your aim."

Adin left the tent first with me right behind. We walked in silence towards the rear, where our tent was. Once out of hearing range of the tent I took a quick stride forward and smacked the back of Adin's helmet with my palm. He rocked forward, managing to not stumble, and swore.

"What was that for?"

"Are you serious? You just had to volunteer us for the scouting party, not to mention investigating the frakking spacecraft. What in the Abyss have you been smoking?"

Adin's injured tone was ruined by his helmet. "I haven't been smoking anything. I just figured it would be something to do. It sure beats sitting around in camp, sniping officers all day."

I had to agree with him there, but only on technicality. As much as I would hate going on this scouting mission, holding the line was going to be a bore. We had already been shot at by tanks once this week. That was one time too many. The city was practically deserted, thanks to the recent buildup of troops, so there was nothing to do behind the lines. Camp life was one thing about being in the Imperial Guard that I did not miss. Granted, we had been Kasrkin, serving mainly on Cadia during that time, but camp life was boring.

"You owe me for dragging my butt into this," I growled. His response was to hand over my bolter, which I snatched quickly.

"There, there's your rifle back. We're even now."

I snarled at him and flipped it around, aiming it square at his chest. We stood in silence for a second, then a low chuckle reverberated from Adin's helmet. I cracked a smile and shook my head wistfully. Slipping the sniper rifle off my shoulder, I handed it to him and flicked his shoulder plate.

"Did you get a load of that Blood Raven commander? He looked too smart to be a Space Marine."

Adin laughed and started off for the tent. I fell in step beside him and glanced around conspiratorially. "I heard that the 3rd Battalion has an all-female unit in it. Sounds like something that's just up your alley."

The big man's grin would have taken in his ears had he had his helmet off. I could almost hear the gears start whirring in his head. This was going to be one hell of a scouting mission.