Author's Note: Once again it is brought home to me how much I suck at planning out chapters. If the following chapter seems a bit uneventful (or, to be less charitable, a pointless waste of e-paper), that's because it was originally supposed to be the middle of one single chapter consisting of the previous one and the one after this. However, since personally I'm not a big fan of Big Goddamn Updates upwards of 10000 words, this is what you get since, as of The Threat Within, I'm paranoid about skipping over too many things.
So have a Merry Christmas and a bit of a bridging chapter!
(I promise there'll be actual Tyranids in the next one)
"Hurry up and wait.
Then realize you're frak outta fuel anyway and just screw it all."
-Captain Dubois, 48th Dakian Armoured
Kathel couldn't say how long she stood there like that, slumped over the heavy bolter; waves of relief and euphoria washed over her, carrying away all sense of the passage of time and lulling the Commissar into a pleasant stupor that made the world around her look both unbelievably sharp and incredibly surreal at the same time.
Everything – from the gentle wind caressing her face, to the coarse fabric of her greatcoat's collar, brushing against her neck – felt fresh, new. Even with the metal bolter part pressing painfully into her cheek and the stench of charred flesh and burning promethium wafting off the burnt Hormagaunt carcasses, Uskarus II somehow seemed warm and welcoming all of a sudden. Painted in the light of surviving her first real brush with the enemy, those same fields that had terrified her so not more than a dozen minutes ago were now nearly as pleasant to the eye as the icy fields of Valhalla.
It has to be pointed out that, in the Commissar's mind, the entire affair with the Tyranids had appeared rather more dramatic and life-threatening than it had actually been. A common – and understandable – mistake often made after one's first encounter with this particular strain of xeno.
Lost in this ecstatic haze, the young Valhallan could be forgiven for letting her guard down and forgetting everything she'd learned about that main law of life that she had been so recently taught:
The universe loves nothing more than to screw with a perfect moment.
"Hayel, talk to me. Casualties?"
Lieutenant Klozen's voice sounded distinctly unpleasant to the Commissar's ears, almost like fingernails on a chalkboard; fortunately, it was also strangely distant, hovering on the very edge of hearing for whatever reason. While not entirely sure what that reason might be, she felt entirely satisfied with this state of affairs - for the slight moment before what discipline her tutor had managed to beat into her in the Schola reasserted itself, that is.
Forcing herself to look for an explanation, her eyes swerved downwards – and, sure enough, there it was. The bulky earphones that Derichs had recently acquired for her were hanging uselessly from Kathel's neck, having slipped off her ears at some point.
Reluctantly, she pulled them back into place. Just in time to hear Sergeant Hayel's response.
"We're still alive… ish." Though obviously none too happy, at least the sergeant seemed alright, judging from the sound of her voice. "Leo's gone, though." She carried on after a sigh, trying to sound like it was all one to her - and she would have succeeded, too, were it not for the barely audible edge lurking behind her words that betrayed her. "Seems he went down with his ride, too. Hard to be sure from in here, but pretty sure the Chimera's more or less frakked."
Clearly disappointed, Klozen echoed her sigh. "Right." Evidently, he had been hoping that his platoon – already quite a ways below nominal strength – wouldn't have to put up with further vehicle losses; to no avail. Once again, fate was only too happy to prove its penchant for vomiting in everyone's collective kettle.
"Get your people out, then. No point in serving yourself as canned food for the 'nids."
"Roger." The sergeant responded with the Guard's trademark professional terseness, the earlier irresolute edge already pushed from her voice. Kathel couldn't help but feel impressed. Had it been her in Hayel's boots, the Commissar had no doubt - she would have been struggling to put together a coherent sentence.
The hatch on the wrecked Chimera's turret popped open with the dull thud of metal hitting against metal, giving way to a gaunt female face.
Watching as the woman's mane of dirty blonde hair swayed slightly in the faint morning wind, it took Kathel a moment to realize something odd – the presumed Sergeant Hayel wasn't wearing a helmet. Having seen nothing but faces staring out at her from beneath the Guard's standard-issue bucket (as the troopers themselves affectionately referred to that particular piece of equipment) or some sort of hat for quite a while, that probably accounted for the Valhallan's finding her head to be strangely small.
"Keep us covered," The sergeant voxed after a moment's taking in their surroundings, clambering out of her disabled transport. The way she slipped down its hull seemed almost graceful; long years of practice were probably to blame.
Any further observations as the Commissar may have hoped to make were thoroughly ruined by Derichs' enthusiastic reception of Hayel's order. Without so much as a warning, he revved their Salamander's engine in a show of blatant disregard for his superior's safety.
Sure enough, taken completely by surprise by the mighty lurch with which the vehicle climbed back on the road, Kathel could do little but helplessly feel the heavy bolter's handles slip from her loosened grasp – and brace for impact as she was forcibly (and painfully) sat down.
All things considered, she was quite lucky not to have cracked her head open on one of the innumerable sharp angles treacherously scattered throughout the scout transport's passenger compartment. However, preoccupied as she was with rubbing her rear and wondering if her spine hadn't shattered, the Valhallan wasn't really in the best of positions to appreciate such small victories.
"Sorry, ma'am. Shoulda warned you." Her aide apparently decided a late apology was better than none; delivered with his usual note of utter indifference, though, it sounded rather less than sincere. At least she could take solace in the fact that he hadn't seen her newest foray into the already all too familiar lands of undignified flailing. "Hope it didn't catch you off guard?"
Deciding to try and avoid adding insult to her own injury, Kathel pushed her Commissarial cap off her eyes and fixed what she dearly hoped might pass for an unfazed tone. "Not quite," Rubbing her rear, she couldn't help feeling he could hear her attempts to disentangle herself from her greatcoat, and so desisted for a moment. "But I would prefer some advance warning next time."
"Noted, ma'am. Again, apologies."
Trying not to consider the possibility of Derichs intentionally trying to make her look like a fool too seriously, Kathel dusted herself off and wrapped her fingers around the pintle-mounted heavy bolter again. Doing her best to ignore the throbbing pain in her hind quarters, she swung its barrel towards the gaping hole in the bunker's wall.
Even now, after having vomited forth the xenos that had been lurking within, the crack in the rockcrete shell still grinned menacingly at the platoon of Guardsmen scrambling to get back on the road. The Commissar didn't trust its malicious darkness one bit and after the hell it had just put all of them (and, rather more importantly, her individually) through, she was damned if she would turn her back on it for even a second.
After what must have been at least a few minutes of staring at the gap, however, curiosity over what was going on behind her back was starting to take its toll.
Finally, she decided to screw it. After all, as the Valhallan justified it to herself, it wasn't as though their security hinged on the watchful eyes of her alone; a brief glance over the shoulder could hardly do that much harm.
Thus, blissfully ignorant of just how wrong she was – and just how badly this mistake might have come back to bite her in her already sore behind under different circumstances, - she looked back.
Hayel was standing next to the Lieutenant's Chimera, her squad huddled behind her back like juvies around a Schola tutor. A rather apt comparison; among the armour-plated beasts totting heavy bolters and the like, the six soldiers – all that was left of the original nine after the brutal campaign against the xeno foe had taken its toll – seemed awfully small and… squishy, for lack of a better word.
Just the sort of thing a Tyranid on the lookout for a nice meal would go for, in other words - which probably accounted for the jittery way they swung their lasguns about in their search for any signs of threat in the surrounding fields.
The sergeant herself, on the other hand, looked entirely at ease, her own gun hanging idly from her shoulder. She seemed far more interested in Klozen than in either the 'nid carcasses or the fields around her, looking up at him sticking halfway out of the hatch of his transport's turret.
If the amount of gesticulating was any indication, the two were involved in quite the heated talk. One that they had chosen to keep off the comm-net, as Kathel was disappointed to discover after quickly flicking through their squads' frequencies.
Lieutenant Klozen soon brightened her mood somewhat, though, bringing the conversation back onto the vox.
"One Chimera more or less, we can't stop here." He grumbled over the platoon net. "The Colonel wants us holding down the suburbs for the rest of our boys'n'girls, and a safe launchpad's exactly what I intend to give him."
Hayel did not seem amused, even if the chain of command – and the uncomfortably close proximity of an acting member of the Commissariat – prevented her from giving voice to whatever reservations she may have harboured. "Well unless someone can give us a ride, we're stuck here until the cogboys get our tin can running again... Sir."
"Don't look here," Sergeant Neumann's distinctive rumbling burr called back from the lead Chimera. "We're crammed."
"Same with us." Another, unfamiliar, male voice echoed him. Likely it belonged to the sergeant of the rearmost of their vehicles, since Kathel couldn't remember hearing a word from it so far. "We're already bursting at the seams trying to keep two squads in. Don't even wanna imagine what it'd look like if we tried to squeeze another in."
"Guess there's no point in asking you, sir?" Hayel sighed, sounding on the verge of giving up.
Even from where she was standing, the Valhallan could see Klozen's shoulders slump in defeat. "'fraid not. I guess you'll-"
"We've got a bit of space."
An uncomfortable silence descended over the platoon comm-net briefly.
If they were surprised to discover they still had a Commissar in their midst, the Guardsmen could be forgiven; after all, she hadn't let out so much as a squeak ever since the Tyranid assault. For her part, Kathel was simply left somewhat speechless by her own boldness, hardly having expected herself to pitch in to help like that.
"…That's an idea, ma'am." Sergeant Hayel croaked, being the first to recover. She cleared her throat.
"It's not a lot, though; there certainly won't be much in the way of elbow room." The Commissar hastened to elaborate, suddenly feeling a rush of eagerness to prove she wasn't completely useless. "Plus it's open-topped, so if we run into any fleshborers… Well, quite."
The words lingered uncomfortably in the air for a moment. Much like the rest of the platoon, Kathel wrestled with her own imagination briefly as she tried not to visualize the results of the unfortunate combination of ranged bioweapons and crowded, roofless transportation too vividly.
"But I should think it's better than staying behind." She finally pushed the image to the most distant corner of her mind and concluded with a tentative cough. "With a bit of creativity…"
"You're right, ma'am." Klozen was obviously trying not to sound too surprised at her turning out to have her uses but, just as before, a Commissarial uniform – even one that he couldn't actually see – was enough to put a significant chink in his mask. He realized that just as well as she did, at least if the way he rushed to move on was any indication. "Hayel, think you can fit all your people in a Salamander?"
The sergeant nodded confidently. "Sure as the Throne is golden, sir."
"Do it, then." Her superior let out a relieved wheeze, apparently happy for at least something to have turned out relatively well. A sentiment Kathel considered herself able to sympathise with entirely by that point. "I'll vox back home and let them know we've left a little something on the road for them to pick up."
With a salute towards their commanding officer, the small knot of Guardsmen set off towards her vehicle. Though wading through the mud and debris was no walk along a paradise world's beach, the sudden hope that they wouldn't be left to stand knee-deep in that mess all by themselves seemed enough to spur them onwards with a fair bit of enthusiasm.
Watching them, the Commissar entertained for a moment the idea of asking whether it wasn't slightly careless to leave an armed – if incapacitated – Chimera all by itself in the middle of no-man's-land. Such thoughts, however, did not last altogether long. Her courage had already been spent offering her Salamander up as transportation for a squad of troopers, after all – and even if she had felt like risking publicly humiliating herself in some fun new manner, the young Valhallan soon found herself forced to concede that, of all the many (many, many) enemies of the Imperium, the Tyranids must have been the ones least likely to salvage or jury-rig Imperial tech.
"Ma'am." A voice from below snapped her out of her thoughts. Looking down, she saw Hayel, the sergeant saluting as she reluctantly performed the dangerous manoeuvre of drawing a political officer's attention to herself. "Suppose we'll be joining you, then."
Kathel nodded. "Yes, I suppose so, sergeant." Her eyes wandered across the band of soldiers – most of them looking down or to the side rather than meet a Commissar's stare (for which she felt grateful, since hers was not a stare anywhere near as imposing as those of some of her colleagues) – then back to the passenger compartment. She'd never thought of it that way but, now that they'd have to find room for seven more people, it was starting to look awfully cramped.
"Are you going to be alright in here?"
The non-com looked up, caught by the query in the middle of climbing aboard the Salamander. "Yes ma'am." She pulled herself up with apparently no effort at all, flashing the Valhallan a smile that looked a bit rigid and insincere - the only kind of smile, in other words, that any member of the Commissariat could expect from a Guardsman. "We've had worse."
If nothing else, Hayel at least sounded like she knew what she was doing. This was far more than the Commissar could say about herself, so she resolved to trust her professional expertise and leave the troopers to the business of cramming themselves aboard the scouting vehicle.
As she watched a stocky Guardsman with what seemed like traces of a poorly removed gang tattoo etched onto his left cheek make himself comfortable on the Salamander's hull just right of her heavy bolter's barrel, however, one of his knees hovering precariously close to the tracks, Kathel had to confess to beginning to question the validity of the sergeant's claims.
"…Are you sure you're going to be alright?"
"No worries, ma'am. They just need to hang on real tight..." The blonde-haired NCO smiled again, the air of confidence she put on for the benefit of her troops taking a slight blow after her eyes swerved involuntarily towards the Commissarial cap perched upon the Valhallan's head. "As I've said, ma'am, we've had worse rides."
"Sure true, sarge." A nervous voice grumbled somewhere around Kathel's elbow. She looked down to find a lanky trooper crouching down there, trying desperately not to poke her with the barrel of his lasgun despite the lack of space. Doubtlessly, he was scared witless of violating her personal space in any way lest he incur the wrath of the Commissariat; one of the few benefits that came with the position. "'member when we had to go at it on the hull of that Russ? Back when we were with the…"
That was when his brain seemed to catch up with his mouth. Realizing what he was saying, the Vanquese soldier trailed off into uncertain coughing, busying himself with inspecting the sleeve of his coat so that he wouldn't have to look up at the Commissar.
Kathel frowned slightly, puzzled. "I'm sorry?"
"…The Dakians. Ma'am." Hayel pitched in to save her beleaguered subordinate, looking distinctly unhappy at the need to pronounce the name of that particular regiment. If the way she was glaring daggers at him was any indication, these must have been the same Dakians whose tardiness had almost resulted in Colonel Hofler ending up on the wrong end of a field execution – or, to put it otherwise, the one subject you didn't want to bring up in front of the regimental morale officer.
Deciding it was up to her to salvage the atmosphere before the rest of the journey to Skawenplatz turned into an exercise in awkwardly breathing down one another's necks in silence, the Valhallan pretended she hadn't made the connection. Instead, she occupied herself with switching to Derichs' commbead frequency.
"I think we're as ready as we're going to be up here." Glancing over her shoulder to check if that was indeed the case, she received an affirmative thumbs-up from Sergeant Hayel. "Just don't go too fast and we should all be fine."
Common sense told Kathel this was nowhere near the truth. For once, though, she decided to do the Commissarial thing and ignore it. After all, what did she care? It wasn't her who would be getting caught in the tracks and suffering a horrible death when they hit the first larger bump in the road.
"Yes ma'am." Her aide's reassurances, spoken in his usual monotone, did nothing to convince her someone wouldn't end up with a broken bone or a dozen after he pressed down on the accelerator with all the caution of a stampeding grox. Once again, she had to put the voice of reason to rest by (correctly) pointing out it wasn't her ass on the line. "I'll be so gentle, you won't even know we're moving."
The Commissar sincerely doubted that. Deciding to keep her scepticism to herself, though, she focused instead on maintain a tight grip on her pintle-mounted bolter. Stumbling backwards into Hayel and throwing both of them overboard was an adventure she would have much preferred to do without, if at all possible.
Off to the side, Sergeant Neumann's Chimera rumbled back to life. It seemed it was well and truly 'go time', as one of Kathel's fellow Cadets had dubbed it.
"Think it's best if you went second instead of us, ma'am." Klozen voxed as he disappeared back inside his transport. "We can keep you covered better."
It only took a glance at the troopers sitting on both sides of her heavy weapon, reducing her field of vision to a fraction of what it was supposed to be, to convince her that the Lieutenant may have had a point. Knowing she'd regret it, the Commissar tapped into her aide's personal channel again.
"Derichs, you heard the Lieutenant."
That was all the encouragement he needed. All promises of gentle conduct thrown to the wind, the Vanquese trooper put the pedal to the metal and the Salamander leaped forward with a jolt, eliciting excited yelps from his fellow Guardsmen. As she watched them hang on for their lives with what looked rather more like exuberant grins than terrified grimaces, the Valhallan could only arrive at one conclusion.
Everyone around her was completely, irreversibly mad.
Despite Kathel's fears and reservations to the contrary - and against all reason, as far as she was concerned, - the rest of their journey to the Uskarian capital went by without a hitch. Not once did the bloodcurdling scream of a trooper caught in the tracks break the morning silence; nor did they ever need to stop and wait for someone who had lost their grip and fallen off the hull.
As a matter of fact, from what she'd seen, none of the Vanquese soldiers had even so much as shifted to get a better hold on whatever it was that they were clinging onto. While not entirely sure if this really was the experience of a veteran mechanized regiment showing, or simply sheer luck, in the end, the Commissar had to admit – she was impressed.
And all the more apprehensive for it. It would be so much harder to maintain a facade of competence while serving alongside veterans, after all.
If she'd been looking forward to their arrival into the suburbs of Skawenplatz to calm her down, the Valhallan would be sorely disappointed, too. The city, which looked simply unwelcoming from a distance, seemed to grow outright hostile as they drew closer; towering warehouses rose abruptly from the ground on either side of the road to greet them, casting an ominous shadow and offering no gradation in the transition from countryside to city.
Surrounded as she was by a whole squad of the very troopers she was supposed to inspire to great deeds, Kathel could do little but swallow silently. Inwardly, however, she was starting to think that the bombed out streets of Nordskawenplatz may not have been as bad as she'd originally thought.
"This is it, boys'n'girls; welcome to Skawenplatz." Lieutenant Klozen's baritone was the only noise to break the eerie silence as he bravely attempted a joke. "Population: 'nids."
Tyranids were indeed the only thing they could have expected to run into in the bleak, lifeless city stretching out before them. Where once the drab (if one were to be generous; as far as the Valhallan was concerned, nonexistent would have been a better word) decor of the hab-blocks shooting up from the ground to greet them at the three-way intersection up ahead may have been merely unpleasant, in the context of a xeno infestation it looked downright threatening.
Even though she knew from the brief that Derichs had given her yesterday that Skawenplatz had only been in enemy hands (or talons, as it were) for several months, looking at those buildings, Kathel couldn't shake the feeling that the city had been nothing but a ghost-town and xeno hidey-hole for decades on end.
"Charmed, sir." Sergeant Neumann was the first to give voice to the whole platoon's thoughts. "Where do you want us stopping?"
"Take us up to that intersection, right ahead." Klozen replied. "We'll see what we can do from there."
Clinging tighter onto her heavy bolter, the Commissar mumbled a hasty prayer to the Emperor under her breath, all the while trying to keep up the charade of nonchalant confidence for the benefit of the troopers squeezing around her. It were those same troopers that worried her so much as to turn to Him on Earth for support, really; with how crammed they all were, their Salamander's combat efficiency had been reduced to naught but a dinner invitation for the Tyranids.
Worse still, while the street ahead seemed clear as could be when it came to enemies, Kathel hadn't yet forgotten the demonstration of the blasted xenos' penchant for appearing out of nowhere. Overactive as always, her imagination was hence in no rush to stop painting images of certain doom awaiting them up ahead.
Under the circumstances, Neumann's vox message was an Emperor-sent. "Looks clear, sir."
Exhaling silently, only now did the young Valhallan realize how tight her grip on the pintle-mounted bolter had gotten. For once, she had cause to be thankful for the gloves that came with the Commissarial uniform; at least, with her hands thus covered, the Guardsmen hitching a ride with her couldn't see her doubtlessly whitened knuckles.
"'Course it does." The Lieutenant tried to sound completely assured as his APC pulled up behind the overcrowded Salamander. His relieved sigh didn't slip past Kathel's ears, though. "Neumann, Hayel, get your people out while I check our bearings. Rest of you, pray to the Emperor that the Navy's intel is good for once, 'cause I'd rather not get lost while slogging it out like the PBI that we're about to be."
The usage of one of the Guard's many infamous three letter acronyms left the Commissar slightly lost. "PBI?" She glanced over her shoulder, not really expecting anyone to take the time to explain it to a grass-green political officer.
"Poor Bloody Infantry, ma'am." Hayel obliged, smiling wryly as she took the time to gesture towards one of the streets leading deeper into the city despite being in the middle of hefting herself out of the Salamander. The vehicle still rumbled idly, Derichs apparently in no rush to cut the engine just yet.
As Kathel looked where the sergeant had pointed, her heart skipped a beat. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Klozen had it right. Though the Imperial Earthshakers hadn't been targeting the suburbs during their nightly bombardment (as far as she knew, at least), someone else had evidently done the job beforehand. Craters grinned up at them from the pavement and large chunks blasted out of the surrounding buildings littered their avenues of advance, providing ample cover for the infantryman – but also threatening to shred the tracks of any vehicle foolhardy enough to try going through. Perhaps it might be cleared away once the bulk of the regiment arrived, but for now, they'd have to make do with just their own feet in the way of transportation.
For the second time that morning, the Commissar cursed the Uskarian PDF and its desperate – and ultimately pointless - struggle to hold back the Tyranid tide. Had the lot of them not been turned into biomass long ago, she would have probably gone out of her way to shoot a commander or a dozen for complicating the Imperium's liberation efforts with their stupid attempts at survival.
"...Right!" The Lieutenant's voice brought her back to the there and then. She glanced back, only to find him once again emerging halfway from his turret's hatch, this time with what looked like a map of some sort in hand. "Seems we'll want to hold this place we're at."
Inwardly, Kathel shrugged. Standing their ground, while somewhat terrifying in its own right, was certainly preferable to advancing onwards.
Klozen wasn't done, however. The frigid cold of fear would yet have the chance to worm its way back into her stomach as he carried on, motioning down the two ways that the road they'd taken into Skawenplatz split into. "Wouldn't hurt to advance up those two streets there and take the first crossings they split into, too."
The man may as well have been spouting heresy, as far as she was concerned. What in the Warp was he going on about – of course it would hurt to go anywhere further!
"We going to be fanning out much more once the bulk gets here?" Hayel butted in before the Commissar could embarrass herself with a terrified squeal or something of the sort. Apparently, she wasn't so easy to perturb; as a matter of fact, she was still leaning against the Salamander, her casual manner contrasting sharply with that of her troopers - who were already huddled behind whatever cover they could find.
Apparently, the sergeant's hiver instincts were telling her that they weren't going to be ambushed anytime soon. Kathel wasn't about to follow the lead of the one person strolling into a warzone without a helmet (whether by choice or, rather more likely, necessity), though - the fact that she wasn't much better off with her blasted cap be damned.
"Not in those directions, no;" Shaking his head, Klozen looked back down at his dataslate map. "Seems those intersections're gonna be our flanks. We're gunning for the palace and that's south west of where we're at," His hand indicated somewhere ahead and to the right - which made sense, considering they were coming in from the north. "While those streets, they run a full ring 'round the city. We keep heading down them, we run into the Widrunian infantry."
"That'd be great," The unfamiliar third sergeant remarked sardonically. "I always wanted a bunch of scared kids getting in my tracks."
"Shut it." Judging from the lack of genuine sternness to the Lieutenant's growl, his subordinate's sentiment wasn't entirely lost on him. You couldn't just up and admit that in front of the regimental Commissar, though. "All you need to know is, I want heavy weapons up in those crossroads. Neumann, you've got..?"
Kathel picked out the sergeant's nodding shape among the soldiers hiding among the rubble, Neumann having already led his troops out of their transport as ordered. "Two, sir. Bolters."
"Good, and Felpp?"
"Third fireteam's got one bolter, sir. And not much more, at that." The sardonic sergeant called back, sounding a lot more professional now that regimental prejudices weren't the subject. As far as she could understand from what she'd heard so far, this Felpp had apparently been saddled with the leftovers of one of the platoon's squads – likely after it had been reduced to less than half its nominal strength, probably losing both the sergeant and the ASL for good measure.
"Could use that, sir." Hayel interjected again, stepping away from the Commissarial Salamander and looking up at Klozen. "Me and third squad could take one of the targets..."
"...Leaving Neumann the other. Do it." The Lieutenant nodded. He glanced over his shoulder at the rear Chimera. "Felpp, you're staying back here with me as reserve."
Silence descended over the platoon comm-net after that. It took Kathel a moment to realize that Klozen was looking at her from the hatch of his Chimera – and then another to piece together what it was he wanted from her.
Not for the first time since stepping foot on Uskarus II, the urge to tell the Guardsmen just where they could cram their expectations about a Commissar's conduct flared in her chest. In the end, she did nothing of the sort, of course; after all, if the Valhallan had been brave enough for something like that, she wouldn't have been so bothered by what it was that she was about to 'volunteer' for in the first place.
"If I may interject, I think I'd be of more use accompanying Sergeant Hayel rather than hanging back here."
The Lieutenant nodded after a slight delay, adjusting the bulky goggles on his face for no apparent reason other than to give his hands something to do now that he wasn't thumbing his dataslate anymore. "'Course, ma'am. We'll keep an eye on your Salamander for you."
"Much appreciated." The young Commissar mumbled, doing her best to sound at ease despite the unpleasant tingle already creeping up the tips of her fingers. As she reluctantly let go of the heavy bolter and clambered out of her trusty transport's passenger compartment, the vehicle's safety was understandably the least of her concerns. As a matter of fact, as far as she cared, the Emperor Himself could descend from the heavens and requisition it indefinitely, just so long as she herself got through this alive and in one piece.
Her boots' heavy footsteps did not sound anywhere near as assured as she would have liked but, doing her best to ignore it, Kathel strolled up to Hayel, trying to look every bit as nonchalant as the sergeant. Whether or not they were both putting on an act was uncertain, but it remained a fact that the blonde-haired NCO seemed rather closer to the real deal than the Valhallan – even if the former could at least hide behind her naturally pale complexion to conceal any outwards signs of her apprehension.
Hayel wasn't the only one, too. Derichs, for one, seemed every bit as immovable as he always did. He materialized at her side without warning, the same toothpick he'd been chewing on back in Nordskawenplatz still in his mouth, just a little bit shorter.
In actuality nowhere near as calm as either of them despite the facade she tried desperately to maintain, the Commissar bit her lip nervously. How was she – an alleged paragon of battlefield virtues – supposed to feel if even her aide was looking more Commissarial than did? 'Pretty damned miserably' seemed a good answer to that particular question. Feeling a flare of pointless anger at the world in her chest, she kicked a pebble away, watching it bounce across the pavement.
It took her a moment to disentangle herself from her gloomy thoughts, caught unaware as she had been by Derichs' voice. She looked up to see the trooper holding a worn and battered pack of lhosticks out at her.
Apparently, he'd mistaken her anxiety for withdrawal.
Kathel cracked a faint smile at her aide. "Thank you, I'll pass."
With a shrug, Derichs shoved the packet back into the pocket of his coat. If the thought of trying to read from his face whether or not he had actually made the mistake that she'd initially presumed him to have, one glance at his dispassionate, unshaved visage was enough to dissuade her. Her hands itching for something to do, the Commissar busied herself instead with pulling the bulky headset off her ears, letting it hang from her neck.
It was only after the three soldiers that Hayel had rather too grandly dubbed 'the third squad' joined them that Kathel finally realized what it was that they had been waiting around for. This did inspire her with a little hope; while calling three soldiers a squad seemed like a considerable overstatement, at least they brought with them the considerable firepower of a heavy bolter. Having weaponry like that along for the ride was always a good thing. So long as she managed to stay on the right end of it, that is.
Feeling a little better but still quite convinced she was about to wave her life goodbye, the Valhallan figured she might as well get it over with. She glanced at Sergeant Hayel. "Shall we, then?"
With a last salute towards Klozen, the sergeant flashed her a smile that, while just as rigid as before, at least managed to look confident. "Sure thing, ma'am." She turned to her troops, the Guardsmen having reluctantly torn themselves away from what cover they had managed to scrounge up. Instead, they were now huddled behind her back in much the same manner as they had when the platoon was still stuck by the bunker.
Kathel just managed to catch a glimpse of Neumann waving at them from the opposite end of the intersection as he herded his troopers down the street Klozen had assigned them. Hayel waved back, her smile growing into a grin. How exactly she had it in her to do it, the Commissar had no idea; her own arms, hanging stiffly by her sides, seemed to have turned into wood.
It was only after trying to take that terrifying first step that she discovered the case was much the same with her legs. Apparently, even her limbs were sure that what awaited her down that damnable rubble-littered street could be nothing short of certain death.