BATTLE REPORTS - The Hand of the King - 10 (The Beacon)

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Melchoir crouched down as he ran forward. He didn't really know why - this mission was about speed, rather than stealth, after all. He guessed that it was something instinctual about moving around at night. It just FELT like you were supposed to be sneaky.

He looked around at his troops. A massive human wave was surging up the hill in the cover of near pitch blackness. Hundreds of footsteps gently plodded in the frigid air as they ran forward silently. From the little that the officer could see of the quiet stampede, the troops under his command had similar instincts and were trying to present as low of a profile and make as little noise as possible. Adrenaline was high. They all wanted to make it up the hill without being discovered first.

This was it. This was the grand assault.

The enemy had been fighting bitterly to prevent loyalist forces from being able to link up into their new super drop zone. Once complete, the roughly triangular piece of territory some 300 square miles would form an invincible fortress through which millions of soldiers and trillions of tons of materiel would be able to disgorge from the fleet above to the planet below. The last few pockets of resistance in this planned fortress had been brutally hammered for weeks, and had held despite the withering display of Imperial Guard firepower. They would need to be driven out by assault.

Imperial Planetologists had reached into the warp for guidance, and had foreseen a massive new system of storms coming into the general area. It was decided that the big push must be made before those storms hit. In the violent weather, the enemy might be able to escape or worse, sow mass disruption within the loyalist pocket. Once the drop zone was secure, the imperial forces could dig in in relative peace, the enemy being unable to attack without, and being completely stamped out within.

Melchoir had been fighting a slow, grinding battle of attrition with his new conscript forces for days. Their enemy was now completely contained within a set of three converging river valleys. They were surrounded. The officer would have liked to spend the next several months vortex missiling them into oblivion, but instead, the dozens of Foleran lines were on a shorter time table.

The plan was simple: take the ridges, pour down and take the valleys. To this end, Melchoir's group was put at the vanguard of his line. He would lead the assault company up the hill to take the ridge. All along the area, there had been beacons dropped on the hill tops by aircraft in preparation of the coming conflict. His job was to secure the crest, and start up the beacon. Once all of them along the ridgelines were activated, all of the armies would begin the largest attack Melchoir had ever personally been a part of. Nearly a quarter of a million guardsmen, all descending onto a single junction.

He and his forces were attacking in the darkness. The attack was scheduled at this time, not to achieve an element of surprise (a feat that that many guardsmen can never accomplish), but because Battle Command was desperate to get the assault underway with enough time to start mopping things up before the sleet and freezing rain began anew.

Melchoir fumbled with the strap around his shoulder. He had been given a special night assault kit that included a hand-held grenade launcher and three firefly grenades. He had also been given a badly beaten-up old surveyor, the same model he used to have back when he was a junior officer. He fished it out of the satchel and flicked it on. His charge forward slowed slightly as he fiddled with the knobs to adjust the instrument to his current environment. The soft sound of boots on wet earth softly scuttled past him.

Something was wrong. The officer frowned as he manipulated the band pass dial, but whatever it was just wouldn't come into focus. No, it wasn't that there was something out there, it's that there was NOTHING out there. If the top of the hill was only occupied by grass and buildings, then he would have seen the background noise of grass and buildings on his instrument. Instead there were a few inky black splotches against the monochrome green display.

The officer looked forward into the darkness. He deduced that the only explanation for there being a void on the scanner was for there to, in fact, actually be something there, but something that was putting out some sort of a signal that was fooling his surveyor. Perhaps if it wasn't so good at masking their presence, the officer might not have even noticed.

Melchoir put the surveyor back in its pouch as his anti-aircraft tanks began to roll up behind him. He took out the grenade launcher, plugged in a firefly grenade, and fired the flare high up into the air. After a moment of darkness, the grenade exploded into a bright phosphorous fuse, casting a pale green light over the top of the hill.

The flare began to flicker and drift slightly in the breeze, causing shifting, winking shadows to jolt and shift before his eyes. His men continued to rush forward in the gloomy, unsettled darkness.

The officer peered over the heads of his soldiers as they advanced in the green light. He searched the shadows for any sign of whatever was out there. He began to frown once again. Maybe it was just a broken surveyor. Maybe this time, there were no threats lurking in the darkness, just waiting to stab out and eviscerate his men.

The firefly began to descend back to the ground, its light quietly fading. The light was high contrast, and flushed out all color, making it difficult to pick out objects. Melchoir began to feel anxious as the flare sputtered out with a pathetic fizzle.

Everything went black. The officer began to rub his eyes as his night vision struggled to cope. They were so close to to the top of the hill, but the officer needed to know for sure. He pulled out his second grenade and fired it high into the air. After a couple of seconds, the grenade burst, casting a second eerie glow over the ruins around them.

Then they were there.

"Enemy sighted!" Melchoir choked out, as his enemy glid out from the recesses of the shifting shadows. "Everyone, attack!"

The officer looked forward at an enemy vehicle before him. Then it was gone, replaced with nothing but a flickering glow. The officer looked left and saw nothing. He looked right, and got the faintest glimpse of the enemy before he disappeared into the winking shadows.

"Open fire!" Melchoir shouted to no one in particular. Assorted lasfire began to erupt randomly as the troops continued to run forward almost at a sprint. Soon the hydras got involved, leveling their autocannon batteries to start pummeling into the darkness. Soon, a brilliant display of hundreds of concussive flashes blasted onto the hill as the hydras opened up. Melchoir could see the enemy moving in front of him now, as if watching death itself smoothly stalking him through a strobe light. The noise was horrendous.

A tremor shook the officer as one of the speeding vehicles showed up from behind a ruin just to find itself accidentally in the beam of a meltagun that was being fired at random by one of the guardsmen. Melchoir could see the enemy overlord escape off of his craft moments before the flaming vehicle slammed into the side of the ruins, the fireball adding its own light to the night fighting before failing to the light of the firefly still hanging in the air above them.

The officer watched the fireball flicker out, only to see two glinting black objects hurtle out of the darkness, the flare shining briefly off of their crescent wings. It was enemy aircraft.

"Hydras!" he shouted switching over to his vehicle band, "Enemy aircraft sighted! Shift fire to aerial targets!"

The officer looked back up the hill.

His soldiers continued to rush forward towards the beacon in a great wave. As they approached the hill, the enemy revealed themselves in the flarelight, silently gliding forward.

The air suddenly shook with the power of lightning arcing everywhere, slamming into the conscripts as they took the hill. The screams of men as they were unwittingly blasted apart served as the thunderclap that followed. The conscripts instantly began to break and run as their comrades were randomly disintegrated in front of their eyes. Lightning continued to arc, up into the ruins and crackling into the air, sending out searing fingers that slowly danced around the vehicle.

Melchoir watched as his regular infantry began to press forward regardless as the conscripts melted into their lines.

"Come on!" the officer shouted, "Keep up the fight!"

The officer turned to keep his men moving forward, when a black shape silently appeared in the doorway of the ruins in front of him.

For a moment, it didn't seem real as it stood stalk still, its green eyes casting a dead glow at the guardsmen in front of him. The firefly briefly winked out. Melchoir stared into the darkness.

A half a second later, the flare re-ignited itself, and the officer could see again. There he was, the enemy overlord, still standing in the doorway. Before him was a pile of corpses of the guardsmen who had JUST been standing there.

The conscripts turned in confusion to see the mechanical monster in their midst, its warscythe dripping in blood. "It's here!" one of them shouted "We're all going to die!" another added. "Everybody panic!" Someone else shouted as the conscripts scattered and fled before their enemy.

Melchoir was nearly knocked over by a fleeing guardsman. As he struggled for his footing, he looked back into the doorway, wide-eyed with fear.

The enemy leader was gone. The ruins were empty.

A chill ran down the officer's spine as he looked over towards his hydras, which still hadn't managed to begin firing at the now circling enemy aircraft. He squinted into the blasts of the autocannons. They were firing at some object at point blank range.

From behind them, more conscripts poured into the gap.

The officer watched as the skimming vehicle was rocked and buffeted by the hydras. The sheer force of the unyielding torrent of fire forced its speed down to a crawl as the vehicle desperately fought off the dozens of high-caliber shells thrown at it every second. The rounds exploded off the front of the chariot, showering the air with sparks and sending fire and shrapnel spraying everywhere.

Eventually, despite being at full thrusters, the vehicle finally slowed to a stall before collapsing under the insane pounding of the 16 autocannons shooting a cone of light and steel directly focused on it. As the vehicle collapsed, it traversed too low for the hydras to fire at.

From the smouldering ruins, a dark figure arose, lifting its warscythe to the ready.

One of the onrushing conscripts got the idea and began to shoot his lasgun at the overlord. Soon other lasguns followed suit. Someone threw a shovel at the alien menace. Melchoir watched as the badly wounded overlord began to succumb to an entire platoon worth of lasfire aimed in his general direction, along with other various weapons of war cast at him. It was getting hard to see, for some reason. He watched the warlord drop.

And then it went black. Melchoir stood disoriented for a moment as the light of the horrific lightning blasts at the top of the hill provided the only light. A blue haze flickered over the armor of his soldiers as they continued to funnel into the enemy killing zone. Frantically, the officer dug in his bag for the last flare in his satchel, still holding the launcher in his other hand. The grenade clicked it in place. Melchoir held the launcher over his head and pulled the trigger.

A new, bright flash of green cast itself over the battle.

There was the enemy warlord. Mere feet from him. The enemy's cold, dead eye sockets stared into him. Melchoir froze.

"N-Next wave!" Melchoir studdered, "Next wave! Come on!"

From behind him, another unit of conscripts was finishing its charge up the hill.

The flare began to flizzle. As quickly as it had illuminated the battlefield, it began to wink out again.

Melchoir searched the darkness. The flare re-ignited. The enemy warlord was here!

"Open fire!" Melchoir screamed, "Open fire! Kill it! Kill it now!"

The flare extinguished itself high overhead. The world went dark.

The air exploded with lasgun fire.

The vendetta transports hovered slowly in formation. Long, boring maneuvers, especially at night, made both pilots and passengers uneasy. The tedium and darkness made one sleepy. The darkness made visibility terrible, especially on such a dark night as this. It was an accident waiting to happen.

It was the price that had to be paid, though. Being able to take the ridges was absolutely crucial to the mission. If even the smallest gap remained in an otherwise air-tight seal, the enemy would be able to escape through the breach, and all of the hells would quickly break loose. Without the best understanding of enemy dispositions, they had to be ready at a moment's notice to rush to the aid of the guardsmen on the ground.

One of the stormtrooper sergeants wouldn't have had it any other way. He was the best of the best. He could strike anywhere and everywhere. It didn't make sense to PLAN their use, as the dagger that kills the enemy is the one he doesn't see. The one that surprisingly finds the weakest spot and exploits it.

He jiggled one of his legs on the corrugated floor of the transport. He had seen unspeakable horrors and had witnessed unknowable carnage in the brief few months he had been here. Other men looked on with shock, disbelief, and panic. Not him. He was now hooked. He had honed his body, mind, and now focus to a razor sharpness and was slowly going insane as he sat next to his squadmates in the endlessly circling aircraft.

The dim cabin lights finally turned on, and the vendetta sped forward in a jerk. "Finally!" the sergeant shouted, a little louder than he had intended. He quickly rose to his feet and donned his helmet. The other stormtroopers followed suit, triple-checking each other's equipment. Not more than a half minute later, the red light above the access hatch blinked on. The men attached their repelling lines. Seconds stretched into lifetimes as they stood still, hands on their hooks, waiting for the light.

Their transport began to lean to the right in a wide banking maneuver. The aircraft leveled off as the door began to open. The scream of the engine and the rushing of air buffeted the stormtroopers as they stood stoically in line facing the rear hatch, waiting.

The transport banked again, this time to the left. The pilot couldn't seem to find a safe drop zone. A glowing flare passed in front of the door and then was gone as the aircraft circled.

Finally the vendetta began its descent, the Kingsguard dug their boots into the steel floor as the aircraft dove forward, threatening to send them all slamming into the back of the cockpit. As quickly as it swooped, the aircraft righted itself. The light flashed green.

"Let's go!" the sergeant shouted, as his men sprinted for the exit. One by one, their repelling hooks caught at the end of the line, and the stormtroopers fell out of the back door on their ziplines. They careened towards the ground, using their hands to brake their fall down the repelling lines before they collided with the wet earth below. As quickly as their near-freefall began, it was done. The men instantly unhooked their tethers just as the large aircraft sped up and away into the night.

The sergeant looked around to gain his bearings. A little ways away from them, another squad of Kingsguard had ziplined out of their ride. Almost before they landed, they had their guns on their target.

A great explosion filled the air as the enemy vehicle instantly detonated. As the fireball rose into the air, it was briefly blotted out by an enemy vehicle speeding across it. The stormtrooper turned to look, but lost it in the darkness. Screams of panic began to fill the air behind him. He turned and saw an enemy overlord in the doorway of a nearby ruin. There were guardsmen on the other side engaging the enemy.

The flare overhead flickered for a moment, and the overlord apparently teleported a few feet away behind the ruin.

"Kill THAT!" the stormtrooper shouted, pointing his finger in a chopping motion. Instantly, his stormtroopers opened fire, a short burst of hellgunning causing the enemy leader to crumple to the ground, pinned to the side of the ruins as the flare re-ignited, casting a pale green glow over its lifeless, metal corpse.

With the immediate threat down, the sergeant finished developing his situational awareness. To his left was one of the beacons that had been dropped off only a few hours before. No doubt, the guard commander on the other side of the ruin was making his push towards this objective. He had scarcely finished thinking it, when a squad of guardsmen came into view from behind the wall and ran towards the objective.

From out of the darkness came a pair of enemy vehicles. They instantly burst into lightning, arcing massive bolts of electricity into the ground and into the men in front of him. From the barges themselves came more eerie green gunfire from the unseen alien menace slowly gliding forward. The guardsmen quickly began to rout as they fled the lightning storm erupting all around them. More shouts of panic as they desperately attempted to avoid the disintegrating fire of the enemy.

The sergeant looked at his men.

"Let's do this!"

The stormtroopers charged forward against the objective, reaching the beacon just as the enemy vehicles began to fully emerge.

The Kingsguard quickly formed up back to back against the beacon. The enemy barges opened fire on them in a brilliant flash of electricity. "Return fire!" the sergeant barked at his men. Hellguns began to shoot fruitlessly at the enemy vehicles. If they could not wound the occupants, they could at least try to limit their return fire. Two of the stormtroopers stepped forward and fired their flamethrowers up into the air, the great, arcing sheets of fire splashing against the vehicles, and blinding everyone around.

The sergeant turned around behind him and saw a second wave of guardsmen advancing up behind the ruins. All they needed to do was to hold out long enough for the guardsmen to get to the objective.

One of the floating vehicles lurched away from the flames, only to focus its attention on the guardsmen. More eldrich lightnings and flashing green energies blasted across the field, bowling over several guardsmen in disintegrating agony.

"No!" the sergeant shouted as his men bravely stood on the objective, "No!" he shouted again, "Here! Focus on here! Don't shoot the guardsmen!"

The sergeant fired his hellgun into the vehicle. When this proved useless, he started taking out grenades and throwing them at the vehicle. They bounced off and exploded harmlessly, one and then another. The guardsmen began to waver as the enemy transport glided over towards them.

"Advance!" the sergeant shouted at the guardsmen in the dying light, "Don't run away, you idiots! We're holding the beacon for you!"

The sergeant turned back towards his men as they took another round of lightning blasting into them from point blank range. Everywhere his Kingsguard were falling. As the vehicle approached and as men slumped to the ground, the stormtroopers fell back further into a ring. Night fell on them as the firefly grenade extinguished itself. The stormtroopers fumbled for their night vision when another flare burst overhead.

The last survivors looked forward into the renewed light. In front of them, the metallic horror had disembarked. A dozen near-shapeless forms barely glinting in the light. They slowly and silently marched forward. The stormtroopers quickly began to fire into the enemy, trying as best they could to find shots against their lifeless frames. The enemy kept marching forward.

The light of the flare went out.

When it sputtered back on, they were right in front of him, staring silently, unfeelingly. The empty stare of death. A hollow void reaching into his eyes.

"Combat knives!" the sergeant shouted, dropping his hellgun and drawing his blade from its scabbard.

The world went dark.

The crack of a hundred lasguns burst into the air behind him.

The sergeant stabbed his blade frantically in front of him, but found only empty air. He tried again. Then he tried again. Nothing.

He turned on his night vision. Where once there was the enemy nightmare, now there was nothing. He searched frantically. The vehicles were gone too. It was suddenly very quiet.

The sergeant lowered his knife and began to relax. The enemy appeared to be completely gone. They weren't defeated, they weren't retreating, it was as if they had simply disappeared. As if they had never even been there in the first place. Just gone.

The moans of the wounded began to creep into the frigid night air as the stormtroopers stood bewildered in front of the beacon they had defended with their lives. After a few moments, the first guardsmen began to appear. The trickle slowly developed into a flood. Silently and apprehensively, they began to secure the ruins around them as others came forward to take care of the wounded.

As the guardsmen began to secure the area, the stormtrooper sergeant could see the guardsmen's commander striding forward with the rest of his command squad, including a priest with a mustache as menacing as his ten foot long chainsaw sword.

The sergeant gave a quick salute that was returned by the officer.

"Kept it waiting for you, sir," the sergeant quipped.

"Thank you," Melchoir replied, a mild look of shock still on his face. The Kingsguard moved out of the way as the officer strode up to the beacon. He pushed a button on the interface, and a bright light on the top flicked on, bathing all those gathered around him in the harsh glare. He turned on the long-wave vox and punched in the designated frequency.

"This is Marshal Melchoir Theleos to Alpha Command. Position 2-13 has been secured, repeat, 2-13 is in friendly hands."

"Affirmative 2-13," the vox clicked back, "Good work."

The officer beckoned for the stormtrooper sergeant to follow him. He and his command squad walked over to a ruin on the other side of the crest of the hill. Before them stretched two of the three great river valleys nestled into the blackness of the night. A freezing breeze wafted over them as they looked out into the distance.

On the far ridgeline, a few beacons had been turned on, their lights casting tiny points of hope into the darkness. Points that told of victory. Another light turned on along his ridge further down the valley.

In the far distance, the horizon flickered a menacing glow. It was too far away to be in earshot, but the battle was going on, and going on hard somewhere else along the valleys.

More soldiers began to form up around them, looking at the lights across the valley and the distant flicker of war. The sergeant looked at Melchoir. He stared back and gave his head a silent nod.