The night was cold. The twin moons of Ophelia Prime hung large and low in the sky, their pale blue light twisting and straining to pierce the heavy mist which hung over the moor. Beneath the muted radiance, its gothic spires piercing into the stygian sky, lay the Chapel of Saint Sophia the Radiant. Its edifices of plasteel and alabaster glimmered in the faint light of the twin moons with each passing cloud, revealing its position to malevolent eyes lurking in the darkness. Men clad in tattered, mud smeared uniforms lay hidden amongst the fighting holes they had dug for themselves within rifle shot of the ancient temple. But these men had not come here for worship. They had come for vengeance. They were the part-time soldiers of the Opheilian Homeworld Guard; men who had grown tired of tax after tax, levy after levy, and crushing hypocritical law after crushing hypocritical law. The demands of the Eclissarchy had grown too much for these simple farmers and shop workers. The God-Emperor they had claimed to serve was silent and distant, and as they had burned the Heirophant in his cathedral in the capitol of Lux Aeterna, now too would they burn out the last remnant of the tyrant-priests, the memorial built to an ancient heroine: the Chapel of Saint Sophia the Radiant. Field guns had been hauled up in the night, and the Motor Rifles with their Chimera IFVs were on their way. Soon the assault would begin.
But the hard eyes of bitter farmers were not the only eyes that glared into that dark night. Across the green, ancient fields the Chapel of Saint Sophia was not stagnant. Over the edge of a slit trench torn into the dark earth peered green eyes 'neath ebon bangs. Sister Fatima, a warrior of The Order of Our Martyred Ladye gazed out into the darkness in an effort to make out signs of their soon-to-be attackers. Their sacred armour girded in sackcloth, their bare pale faces concealed with ashes, she along with her sisters lay in wait in the blackness, their bolters clean and charged. They were but one of several squads of female holy warriors dedicated to protecting this shrine, arrayed as they were both within and around the Chapel. If it fell, it would do so as a coverstone for their collective graves, a symbol of their martyrdom.
Sister Fatima continued to peer through the frail evening light. The icy air tore at her nostrils, the wet earth on her face left a copper taste on her lips.
'Almost like blood' she idly thought to herself for but a moment. 'The soil will taste more heavily of it before we are finished here tonight'.
Her emerald eyes slowly panned with a focused deliberance, scraping greedily for the slightest trace of movement. Nothing.
'These hefer-minders are disciplined' her mind continued.
Her thoughts were interrupted as a flash lit up the distance. Then another, and another after it. Then the thunder roared. The reports of the howitzers had only barely reached her ears when their deadly payloads slammed home among the sacred groves of Saint Sophia. Soil was torn from the earth, artfully crafted stained glass shattered, shrapnel tore into stone and ricocheted off plasteel. Sister Fatima sat in her trench, her mind attempting to force her armoured body into a small a shape as possible. An arm wrapped over her head in an effort to stave off debris and save her ears, she briefly cursed herself for not wearing her helmet. But then, she remembered...if it be the Emperor's will that her hearing be lost, her eyes taken from her, or her very soul sent forth to dine at his table, no armour could undo it. She withdrew her shielding arm, rose up on one knee and brought her bolter to port. As the rebel shells streaked overhead into the chapel behind her, she waited with a mental sharpness keener then a Catachan knife. Soon their infantry would come. Even now they likely crept forward under the cover of the bombardment. Then she and her sisters would have them. Vengeance for this outrage would be sweet. Justice to traitors and apostates more so. Saint Sophia's grounds would indeed drink very well tonight.
For fifteen minutes the Chapel of Saint Sophia rang not with suplucheral bells, but with the horrible din of high explosives touched off against ancient cyclopean walls. For fifteen minutes the mud caked tigresses of the Adepta Sororitas waited with scowls on their scarred faces and scorn in their hearts. Then...silence. The bombardment had lifted. Sister Fatima's ears strained to seek the slightest sound in the dark, struggled against the painful ringing in her head. The squeak of wet muddy leather, the clink of a sling swivel, the slosh of a half filled canteen; any sound that could alert them to the foe that was even now crawling towards the chapel on their bellies over the churned earth. They may be no more than twenty metres away...dare she risk to look?
'The truth, no matter how blinding, is always better then the torrid night of ignorance' Sister Fatima recited half consciously to herself.
She shifted her weight a little, peering up ever so slowly above the edge of her refuge. The ringing in her ears gave way to the pounding of her own heart; a childish fear rose in her, and just as quickly fled, that its own booming rhythm would somehow alert the enemy to her presence. The mist that not even artillery could dislodge confounded her efforts to seek her would be destroyers, the night seem to give up no secrets. Then, suddenly...there! Something shifted in the black. A shape...or was it?! Were her eyes playing tricks? She glared even more intently, seeking the foreboding, crawling shape again. Nothing.
Then suddenly the piercing voice of Sister Superior Rebecca rang out from the trench to the left:
'CONTACT FRONT! INFANTRY, FOURTY METRES!'
A bolter barked in the night, followed by dull thuds and a sickly smacking sound as its shells found their target and detonated. The man had barely time to scream. Even if he had, few would have heard it. A great cry went up up and down the trenchline as a whole company of Ophelian Guardsman lept to their feet and charged the Sororitas trench, lasrifles blazing from the hip. The air around Sister Fatima was suddenly lit with fragments of a hundred suns as lasbolts cracked and burned through the air, turning it sick with the smell of ozone and fiery red as the hot plasma illuminated dozens of muddy, wrathful faces. This outpouring of rage and valour of the Ophelian men was met in kind by the ebon clad women, as at once volleys of fully automatic bolter fire belched shrapnel, flame, and death into the bodies of the charging infantry. Flashes of white and red illuminated the killing ground with a stocatto radiance, ten score strobes tearing asunder all their light touched. Sister Fatima played her role. As the world seem to come apart around her in a torrent of chaos, her mind locked into a rhythm. The metronome of her combat training took over from her conscious mind, and with her bolter as her partner she danced a minuet of death. Target up. Brace weapon. Align sights, target torso. Finger to trigger, squeeze. Chest cavity shredded, left arm severed. Target neutralised. Shift to next target. Target up...
Crack. Crack. Crack. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two three. The tempo echoed in slow motion as the bolt of her weapon flew back, tossed a spent casing into the air, and drove a fresh round home. The smell of burned powder flooded her nostrils, the shockwave of the detonating rounds resonated in her chest. The fury of a firefight at point blank range carried away her senses in an infernal ecstasy. Then as suddenly as it had ended a mere few seconds before, a deathly painful silence reigned again in the misty night. That ringing scream returned to Fatima's eardrums, drowning out the moans of the hundred dying men mere feet from her. Her eyes darted to and fro, searching for targets. Her brain raced with anxiety 'What if they're flanking? What if they have Camoline? What if they're moving up sharpshooters?' She never consciously noticed as she pitched her bolter into her line of sight and changed magazines.
The tinnitus in her ears began to wane a little, just enough to hear the focused exclamations of the Sisters Superior of the squads guarding their side of the chapel.
'CLEAR FRONT! MAG CHECK! STAY KEEN ON THE FLANKS!'
The ringing had passed enough Sister Fatima could make out the barely audible squawking of her squad leader's vox headset, though what was said didn't quite register. She could also make out something else, distant, faint. It was a rumble. But it was low, constant, not like the rapid roll of howitzer fire. She strained her ears against the breeze, trying to catch the sound it carried while ignoring its bloody cordite tainted smell. Then her eyes went wide, half in fear, half in anticipation. Engines.
The traitors' armoured reinforcements had arrived.
As Sister Fatima strained her ears to the approach of oncoming enemy armour, three hundred metres away scowling eyes peered through muddy field glasses. A Colonel of the Ophelian Homeworld Guard took in the results of the horrid carnage of the last ninety seconds, and cursed the position he found himself in.
If a single word could be used to describe the condition of this hasty offensive, it would be 'inadequate'. The Coalition Committee that sat well fed and dry back in the capitol had insisted on the swift destruction of the old Chapel, without allowing the time to properly assemble an assault force. They had ignored his requests for aerial reconnaissance and additional munitions, which forced a company of his men to crawl across the moor behind a half-assed bombardment to assault earthworks they barely had time to observe, with only fixed bayonets and three power cells each. No wirecutters nor stachel charges, no squad support weapons, not even a single hand grenade. They had ignored his warnings regarding the exceptional training and fanaticism of the Sororitas custodians. They would now ignore his reaffirmation of the difficulty of this task and would likely scream at him over the vox for his inability to neutralise 'a crumbling nunnery protected by a dozen flower maidens and old crones', as one committee member had put it. Those same flower maidens and old crones who had just chopped a hundred of his boys to pieces. It was going to take all of his will not to do plenty screaming of his own when time came for his next situational report.
The brown clad officer lowered his field glasses and returned his attention to the small table behind him, nestled in the small concealed dugout that served as the Battalion Command Post. His hands trembled as he shuffled through vox transcripts and tables of equipment, squinting in the dim light of the single oil lamp that hung from a peg in the sod wall. He squared his shoulders and closed his eyes, trying to steady himself and bury the anguish that boiled in his chest.
'Not now Joachim...not now...'
He drew a deep breath, and retained his focus. There would be time to grieve later. He went back to scanning the manifests in the flickering light of the bunker lamp. The stench of its smokey flame made his nose itch.
'Can't even keep a CP half tolerable in this comedy of errors...' grumbled the old man half audibly.
The Colonel was forced to toss the mess of papers back onto the table in a heap. The evening damp had once again begun to work its witchery against the joints in his fingers. A sigh of resigned exasperation steamed in the chilly air as he slouched back in the rickety field chair. Then as if by magic an orderly appeared through the blanket covered hole that served as the CP's doorway with a mug of hot root tea and a click of his bootheels. A tired smile revealing a mouth of crooked teeth creased the Colonel's face;
'Johannes my boy, what would I do without you?'
Gingerly handing the mug off to his superior, the young adjutant snapped back to attention and revealed a more somber purpose to his appearance:
'Colonel Kraus sir, Observation Posts have just phoned in the observed status of the 2nd Rifle Company.'
The old man shut his eyes, prepared for the worst. Johannes continued:
'Estimated friendly casualties ninety percent. Enemy casualties unknown. Both bombardment and infantry assault succeeded in inflicting structural damage to the chapel but appear to have had negligible effect on probable enemy entrenchments. Captain Holzman has confirmed his batteries have expended an estimated fifty two percent of the available ammunition for the seventy five millimeter howitzers.'
The Colonel cradled his head in his free hand.
'And what did that sonofabitch Hachek say when he finished watching those boys die?'
The orderly hesitated, then answered with a slight tone of uneasiness:
'He...doubted their commitment to the Revolution, sir.'
Committee Representative Officer Gregor Hachek. The toadie the politicos in the capitol had sent to keep an eye on the 'loyalty' of Kraus' command. The idiotic popinjay strutted around in his black tunic like a Cardinal's Praetorian on parade while refusing to acknowledge how he washed out of selection for the Guard. The obnoxious rat faced little bastard ranted on and on about glory and liberation when Kraus had the audacity to question the sanity of their orders. Hachek's lack of military aptitude or even basic common sense flared rather brightly as he refused to acknowledge the foolhardiness of rushing a single company of infantry over open ground, against an unrecconoitered enemy position. Supporting companies of Foot and Motor Rifles were on their way, if only they'd wait an hour. He wouldn't listen. At first, the Colonel refused. He was not going to send his troops to their deaths for this moron's ego. But then the black fiend played his hateful card. The Colonel remembered the sickening smirk on Harchek's thin face as the venomous word's rolled off that serpent's tounge...
'Surely Colonel, you wouldn't doubts to fall on the loyalty of your men? You know how thorough we need to be in internal security matters. When an individual displays counter-revolutionary tendencies we're often forced to extend our investigations to his entire family...'
The same man who now bore the blood of a hundred Opheilian sons on his hands. Some day very soon, Colonel Kraus was going to find a way for Officer Hachek to die very tragically and very gloriously on the field of battle. Or maybe he's just stuff him in a drum of prosiel fuel and set it alight...
'Additionally sir, Captain Metzger's company from the 3rd Motor Rifles has just arrived. We're refueling his Chimeras now. They can commence a second assault as soon as they're finished. I'd estimate about five more minutes sir.'
The Colonel took in this information with what little relief it could offer him. Pensively he sipped his tea, letting the warmth of the brew roll over him as he worked to put the disaster he had just helped create out of his mind. The name of the company commander brought the old man back to happier times.
'Ah Metzger. Good lad. He was in my class back when I taught Operations & Logistics at the Academy. Good thinker, asked lots of questions.'
The Colonel took another sip, and smacked his lips with a half drowsy satisfaction.
'Run after the good man, see if he can't be bothered spare a few minutes to shake hands with an old professor.'
'You do not wish to have him launch the attack immediately sir?' Johannes replied quizzically.
'Oh bugger all.' retorted old Krauss 'That damned chapel isn't going anywhere. Besides maybe we'll get lucky and those loons in the capitol will finally come to their senses.'
Johannes managed smile 'With all do respect sir, that doesn't seem likely.'
Colonel Kraus let out a laugh 'Hah! Hang “Due Respect”!'
The old soldier reached underneath the field table, withdrawing a bottle of apple whiskey and emptying it into his cup.
'Some flaming Revolution this turned out to be...'