Harcourt crashed through the thorny undergrowth ringing the bole of a massive tree and toppled, face first, into a mud-filled puddle. He was so exhausted that he wasn't sure his quivering muscles could yank his hands free from the soft, stinking suction of the forest floor. For a moment he considered just letting himself sink in all the way, so he could nestle in the muck for a quick nap. Then he heard the howls and screeches of the Kroot behind him, and napping was the very furthest thing from his mind. Gasping at the effort, he pulled himself out of the puddle and continued to hack and stumble his way through the interminable brush.
Just when the Kroot had caught his trail was impossible to tell, but it had been that morning that Harcourt had grown suspicious. He had been wandering through the heavy forest for the better part of a week and there had been no sign of any carnivorous aliens. The most dangerous thing he had found up until then had been a breed of biting beetle that came out after dark and left incredibly itchy red welts all over any exposed skin. He had practically itched his flesh right off after the first night, and made sure to cover his skin in mud after that. In any case, he had started to think all the rumors about the Kroot in the woods had been a complete farce-a Tau invention to scare their prisoners into staying put-when he had found the bones.
He had found a before dark the evening before, and had resolved to sleep there in the interest of sparing his back the aches inflicted by several nights of sleeping on tree roots. He was so tired, that he hadn't bothered looking around much, and had laid out the old blanket Roxman had given him over a likely patch of tall grass and fell instantly asleep. In the morning, when he had awoken, he noticed the bones piled neatly all around him. They were immediately recognizable as human, but this wasn't the unnerving part. The thing that made Harcourt nervous was just how organized the bones were. There was one pile of five skulls, one pile of ten sets of leg bones, one pile of ten sets of arm bones, one pile of ribs, one pile of five spines-the complete skeletons of five men, stripped down to the bare bones, without a scrap of flesh on them. Five Kasrkins had gone into the woods from the prison camp...
I couldn't have been a coincidence.
Harcourt had made haste from then on, looking over his shoulder and keeping Wiggins' knife handy. Apparently, this was enough for the Kroot to decide that the 'stalking' phase of their hunt was over, and the chase was set to begin. It had been perhaps midday when he had first heard the screeching cries of the arboreal aliens, so loud as to make him think they were scarcely an arm's length away. He had been running since then-several hours now-and it was almost dark. With his endurance flagging and the sun going down, he knew the hunt was going to come to a close soon, one way or another.
Try as he might, Harcourt could not extend his lead on the Kroot as he plunged headlong through the forest. The harder he ran, or the slower he crawled, their cries remained just far enough behind him to keep him going without making him feel like he was done for. The cool, logical part of his brain appreciated this tactic for what it was-damned brilliant hunting. They were going to run him until he was ready to drop, and then make their kill without risking a thing. Hell, he hadn't even seen a Kroot yet. If he had only been able to control the primal fear that was pumping adrenaline through his limbs, he might have come up with a counter strategy. As it was, he just ran wildly and without any sense of direction. They could have been running him into a trap, off a cliff, or into the arms of their fellows, and there wasn't a thing his terrified instincts could do to stop them.
Harcourt tripped and tumbled down an embankment, striking his head on a thick tree root. He swore, and dragged himself to his feet. Looking around, he noticed that he was backed into a gully, which was lined on three sides by steep, rocky walls and small, scraggly thorn bushes. "So..." he panted, "This is it, then." Trying to catch his breath, he quickly cleared a small space of any uneven footing, kicking small stones and pulling up uneven roots. If this was going to be his last stand, he wanted to end it actually standing, and not tumbling ass-over-teakettle like a moron.
The Kroot slid out of the thick forest brush a silently and easily as a man stepping through his own doorway. There were five of them, each armed with a long, heavy rifle with a bladed stock and muzzle. They were tall, too-easily pushing two and a half meters. Their long, thin limbs were coils of cable-like muscle, and they moved with the frenetic precision of large birds of prey. Their faces were dominated in a large, beak-like jaw and yellow, inhuman eyes, that blinked as they tilted their blue-tufted heads side-to-side. Again, Harcourt thought of birds-big, mean birds with guns and an appetite for human flesh.
For what seemed like a long time, the Kroot stood still, watching him. Harcourt, heart pounding, thought this was unusually cruel of them, and told them so. "C'mon!" He yelled, "Get it over with!"
The Kroot did nothing but chitter and squawk to one another in what must have passed for their 'language.'
Harcourt pointed his knife at the closest one. "You! Yeah, you with the big freaking rifle! Shoot me!" The Kroot didn't move. "Go on! Shoot me, dammit! What are you waiting for? I'm right here!"
The Kroot chirped at each other again, and then the one Harcourt had indicated stepped forward. Coming to within a few paces of Harcourt, the tall alien held up his rifle and began to work the bolt, ejecting shell after shell from its magazine. Blinking, Harcourt whistled to himself. "You want to fight me hand-to-hand, eh?" He had to hand it to these aliens, they had some class.
Harcourt, however, did not.
Before the Kroot was halfway through his magazine, Harcourt threw Wiggins' knife at the alien's stomach. It sunk in to the hilt, causing the Kroot to double over and scream in agony. Rather than watch the theatrics, though, Harcourt was already charging. He launched into a kick that caught the wounded Kroot right in his wounded stomach, causing the alien to drop his fearsome rifle. Harcourt had been banking on this, and snatched the weapon up before it hit the ground. It was a good thing he did, too. The other four Kroot were closing fast, and the lead one would have had Harcourt's head in a basket if he hadn't stuffed the muzzle of his new Kroot rifle in its face and blown its head off.
The sharp kick of the alien rifle knocked Harcourt on his back side, but he recovered in time to roll away from another Kroot's lighting-fast strike. Coming to his feet, he parried an over-hand chop from the stock of another Kroot and then brought his own bladed stock around into the creature's knee. Maroon blood fountained out, and that Kroot went down, but not before another kicked Harcourt in the stomach hard enough to knock him three meters. He hit the rocky walls of the cul-de-sac with crunch, and white spots danced across his vision. Blinking them away, he leveled the rifle at the next charging Kroot and pulled the trigger.
Evidently, Kroot Rifles took fewer rounds than Harcourt had originally suspected.
The towering alien beast hit Harcourt in the forehead with the butt of his gun, and the word suddenly blazed white with pain, and then tumbled away into darkness.
* * * * * * * *
Harcourt heard the voice from far, far away-a raspy, high-pitched thing, like somebody talking with their toe caught in a trap. Where was he? Was he still alive?
"Hey, you! Wake up!"
The next thing that hit him was the pain-a fierce, throbbing pain that seemed to hold his head and neck in a vice. Then came the smell. There was smoke, and roasting meat, and the stomach-churning stench of blood and human filth. He heard a fire crackle, and opened his eyes.
He was lying face down in a net of woven vines, hanging about three meters from the forest floor. His body was tangled up in the net so much that he could scarcely move but, judging from the incredible pain in his head, he wasn't sure if moving would have been wise, anyway. Beneath him were a pair of Kroot, each nibbling the gristle off a pair of bones about the length of his forearm. No, he corrected to himself, about the length of A forearm.
These two Kroot were chirping among themselves, and looking towards a series of large fires that formed the center of a Kroot encampment. Sitting on their haunches around the fires were another two-dozen or so Kroot, with another four or five vaguely canine beasts sleeping in a pile nearby. Set above the fires were a series of spits, on which were an array of skinned carcasses being roasted. Judging from their size, Harcourt could venture a guess that these weren't just any kind of large game. Surrounding the Kroot and the fires were a variety of discarded Imperial equipment, and not just lightweight stuff, either. There were several standard cargo containers that the Kroot seemed to be using as some kind of storage, a one-legged sentinel on its side from whose leg they were hanging a variety of bloody strips of flesh to dry, and a Rhino half tumbled in a ditch bearing the stylized 'I' of the inquisition. All told, it was a pretty substantial affair, and Harcourt had to admit that maybe Wiggins' unreasoning fear of the Kroot was well founded, after all.
"Like the view, do you?'
Harcourt looked up to see the source of the voice that had brought him out of consciousness. It was another human man, wearing a tattered and threadbare crimson uniform, who was likewise stuck in a net, though his was hanging a full meter higher than his own. Harcourt couldn't see his face very well in the flickering firelight, but from the sound of things he wasn't Arkanian. "What company?" He asked.
The man snickered. "Don't much matter, do it? Not now, no, not now. Name's Pigeon."
"I don't recognize you from the camp." Harcourt said, keeping an eye on the sentries below. If they heard the humans talking, they didn't seem to care.
"That's because there's more than one camp, mate. Lots of 'em, fact is."
Harcourt, bizarrely enough considering his surroundings, felt a seed of hope take root in his guts. "Really? How many? How do you know?"
"Couple Catachans managed to sneak past the Kroot and go around to a bunch of camps-not yours, I reckon. Anyhow, the chaps that found us said we were the fifth camp they'd found. All different units, all men left behind during the withdrawal. About two hundred men a camp."
Harcourt did the math - that meant around twelve - hundred guardsmen scattered through the forest. A sizeable force, one that, if organized, could easily...
Pigeon giggled and kicked his feet in his net with mirth."Know what your finking, mate. Betcha I do!"
"How's that?" Harcourt frowned.
"Cause the Catachans had the same bloody idea, didn't they? Organize, revolt, take a ship or some such, escape the planet-already tried it. Five camps, a thousand men; we set up signal fires, the whole job. Codenames, even-called it Doormouse. Not bad, eh?"
Pigeon pointed over at the storage containers and the strips hanging off the sentinel. "That did. Ran into the forest, and the bloody Kroot was waiting. Bedlam it was. We had clubs and some knives, they had those rifles of theirs. We blundered around in the woods, a Catachan each to guide us, and it didn't bloody matter. They ran us down and killed us."
"Somebody might have made it."
"Nah. They been dragging in blokes sunup and sundown for days. Too many to eat, if you'll believe it. Took to cooking the excess, curing 'em like pork, salting 'em and tossing 'em over yonder in the cargo containers. Lucky you got caught when you did-all them Kroot is stuffed as turkeys. They'll cut your throat and bleed you dry, then roast you on the fire. By the time we're eaten, it'll be winter. Lucky, lucky men we are."
Harcourt cocked an eyebrow at Pigeon. "Lucky? What's unlucky?"
Pigeon leaned down so Harcourt could see his face in the firelight. It was creased and worn like a leather bag, with a fresh scar going through his right eye, which was filled with blood. "When the Kroot is hungry and he catches a bloke, he eats him. He eats him raw. Raw and live."
Harcourt swallowed hard. "How long have you been here?"
"Five days. Last one left, I am." Pigeon grinned, showing several missing teeth. "Excepting you, of course."
There was a commotion below, and a large Kroot wearing a bandolier of skulls approached their guards. He squawked and chittered to them in their barbaric tongue, pointing a long knife at the captive humans.
Pigeon giggled. "My turn."
Harcourt saw one Kroot begin to pick apart a knot at the base of the tree where He and Pigeon were hanging. Adrenaline shot though him like a lightning bolt. "Pigeon! There's gotta be a way out of here!"
Pigeon was swinging from side to side in his net, humming an Imperial Battle Hymn. "No good! Not without transport."
Transport! Harcourt immediately looked at the Rhino half in the ditch. It had probably gotten stuck there in the rain, when the mud was so loose it couldn't get a hold. The ground now, though, looked dry, and if there was one think Harcourt knew about Rhinos, it was that their engines always ran.
There was a sharp snap, and the sawing hum of rope running rapidly over wood. Pigeon's net fell, and Harcourt shot an arm out to catch hold of it. The weight of the man caused his own net to sag and nearly pulled his arm out of its socket. "Where were the Catachans taking you?"
Pigeon was singing at the top of his lungs. "Hail, hail Praetoria, noble, pure, and true! No Traitor foul, nor Xenos breed, could ever... "
A Kroot grabbed the other end of Pigeon's net and pulled him. Harcourt doubled his grip and yelled, "PIGEON! Where were they taking you?"
Pigeon seemed not to notice. "... if e'er the Emperor Calls! Never shall we shirk from fear, for duty always... "
"Dammit!" Harcourt wrapped his arms through Pigeon's net, so that even two Kroot yanking on the other end couldn't manage to pull them apart. The one wearing the skulls said something to one of the guards, and it stopped pulling and instead raised the butt of its rifle to cut Harcourt's net from the tree.
Harcourt saw the blow about to fall and yanked his arms free from Pigeon's net. The Kroot rifle cut through the rope with a 'thok', and Harcourt rolled into a ball. Pigeon, whom he had dropped, hit the ground first, and Harcourt landed on top of him, which broke his fall somewhat. Furthermore, rolling into the ball meant, as the net hit the ground and fell open, none of his arms or legs were tangled in it. He was, in essence, free.
Except, of course, for the three Kroot standing over him. The element of surprise was his, though, and Harcourt made the most of it. While they were still trying to figure out what just happened, he rolled to one side and snatched up a rifle. He worked the action and laid on the trigger in one, smooth motion. The three Kroot were perforated with two rounds apiece before they had time to react.
The rest of the camp was a different story. They all sprung to their feet and went for their weapons as an instinct, and Harcourt figured he had about two to three seconds before they figured out where the shots had come from. He began to count in his head.
He dragged Pigeon to his feet, but realized he was hoplessly tangled in the net.
"Hold on to my back!" he yelled over the Praetorian's screeching tenor. Pigeon held on, and Harcourt began to run in a wide arc towards the Rhinos.
Suppression fire was the order of the day, so when the first Kroot spotted him, Harcourt began to randomly spray bullets towards the packed masses of aliens headed his direction. He didn't notice if his rounds hit anything-that was a bonus, really-but he did notice that more Kroot hit the deck and ducked for cover than bothered firing back.
With the ground kicking up dust with the impact of incoming rounds, and the heavy Kroot rifle bucking in his hands as he fired, Harcourt ran for all his worth to the Rhino. All the while, Pigeon kept singing his praises to the God Emperor and Praetoria over his shoulder, and even stopped to add, "You're just full of bloody surprises, eh!"
Five paces from the Rhino, the first Kroot blocked their path. Harcourt, who was moving at a full sprint despite his load, stopped short and ducked. The sudden move caused Pigeon to sail off his back and slam into the Kroot's legs, knocking the beast prone. Taking the second's pause to shoot two more Kroot who were closing the gap, Harcourt slammed the bladed muzzle of the gun into the downed Kroot's chest. The creature screeched as it died, releasing its own, largely loaded rifle, which Harcourt then kicked up into his hands and continued blasting away.
He covered the five paces to the Rhino in a fraction of a second and kicked open the side door. Taking up a position of cover as bullets pinged off the armored transport's hide, Harcourt kept up his barrage of fire and yelled to the floundering Pigeon. "You coming, or what?"
Pigeon half stumbled, half hopped over the ground to the Rhino, with a crowd of angry Kroot no more than a half-dozen meters behind him. Harcourt grabbed him by his net, which was still wrapped around his torso, and pulled him inside. He slammed the door closed in the faces of a cool dozen screaming aliens, and threw the lock.
Harcourt knew his way around Rhinos from a campaign where they had been working with the Inquisition on Ruthari IX to weed out a cultist infestation. He batted away cobwebs and flipped on the interior lights, delighted to see that the power plant was still good. Outside, he could hear the dull thumps and faint cries of the Kroot who were trying to claw their way inside-not much time for sightseeing. Skipping the pre-mission checklist and crossing his fingers, Harcourt threw himself in the driver's seat and hit the ignition.
A bass rumble of churning gears and pumping pistons shook through the interior of the abandoned Rhino, and Harcourt smiled. "Pigeon! Hold on!"
Squinting through the vision slits, Harcourt threw the accelerator to the floor. As predicted, the sturdy old tank burst to life and dragged itself from the ditch at a healthy pace. With the patter of small-arms fire sounding like rain on the Rhino's flanks, Harcourt steered a course through the biggest knots of Kroot and the crashed through the low underbrush of the surrounding forest. He flipped the headlights on and tried to avoid trees.
"Pigeon! Where are we going?"
Pigeon dragged himself into the co-pilot's seat, holding his stomach. His voice was weak. "There's an old road a kilometer to the south. Leads to an old airbase, they say. Go there."
Harcourt looked over at him. Blood was pooling at the Praetorian's feet. "They get you?"
Pigeon smiled. "Nicked me as I was coming in. Bloody bastards... "
Pigeon nodded. "Bad enough. Worse ways to go, though."
Harcourt frowned. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be..." Pigeon was fading from consciousness, his head drooping onto his chest. "Fellow like... you deserves a... medal."
Harcourt smiled mirthlessly. "Already got one."
Pigeon chuckled as his last breaths escaped him. "Bloody... priceless... "