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Eye Of Terror III - Ghost Trails

"Ascendants", Kyle spat onto he broken flagstones under his feet as if to physically remove the bitter taste of the treachery from his mouth.
He; they, had been too late. The intel they picked up on Scelus VII had been correct, but the enemy was long gone, this shard of purple armour the only clue to the victors of this bloodbath.
He opened his vox-link; "Sergeant Vernassus, I have positive identification of the enemy. It was those whom we seek. Send a collection detail to these coordinates for identification and retrieval. Rendezvous your squad with me, I want to search the perimeter for survivors."
"Acknowledged Captain". The reply was short and succinct. Kyle approved. Vernassus had the initiative of a good commander, needing no more from him.

Kyle turned to scan the woodline that ringed the village. There was still a lot of smoke from the attack, but, his helmet's ocular-senses would scan for the tell-tale EM outlines that would indicate an enemy ambush. He found none. He flexed his fingers on his bolt trigger unconsciously. For 13 months the Hawks had been pursuing this enemy. For honour, for revenge, for a myriad of other reasons that seemed pale in comparison. Countless times had they been forced to follow ghost trails, illusory tracks across whole planetary systems, or like here, been evaded moments too soon. Risius Kyle was a patient man, but he longed for the action of combat.

He turned to face the scene of devastation in the compound. The dull grey hab buildings lay in ruins, wreckage strewn about. Metal girders threw themselves skyward at oblique angles, piercing plascrete and charred flesh alike. Bodies lay bloody and burning across the compound, eviscerated in obscene positions, red rivulets of blood running across the shattered pavement like the veins of the planet.The community looked small. He surrmised that they were probably self-sufficient farmers. There were possibly 20 structures at most he estimated, organized in two rings, interspersed with radial roads stretching out from a central plaza where a statue of the Emperor had overlooked all. The statue was now broken and defaced. A servitor team was engaged in removing the foul inscriptions from his most holy countenance. Analysing the structural damage patterns, Kyle suspected they were inflicted by light ordnance, probably from a strike aircraft or dreadnought. With no sign of the perpetrators of this massacre, yet the damage being so recent, the enemy must be well equipped and highly mobile.
'They hadn't stood a chance' Kyle reflected. The poor agri-worlders had been caught off guard and murdered to a man. Still, they had been a determined and not unskilled bunch, to have even managed to remove this scrap of armour displayed admirable soldiery and courage.

His auto-senses picked up the whir of power armoured gears that indicated Vernassus and his men approaching through the smoke, long before the eyes of a mortal man could have laid their gaze upon them. Sergeant Vernassus' hulking form emerged from the smoke, followed by his squad, striding over the blackened and smoking ruin of a regional administratum hall, their heavy feet crumbling the plascrete to dust beneath them. Auric Vernassus was a good leader and soldier. He and Kyle had once fought side by side at the Gate of Lost Hope for 4 days, holding the breach double-handedly in the face of all odds. Kyle had noted him a prime candidate for the recently vacant post of 6th company captain, though would sorely miss losing such an excellent officer from his own company.

Vernassus saluted as he approached; "The Swordhawk reports ready to deploy the rest of the second company on your command Captain", the gruff accent of his homeworld distorting through Kyle's helmet audio. "Tell them to stand down Sergeant, we have once again missed our quarry." Kyle requested, trying to mask his disappointment. "Tell the other men to load up and return to orbit. I'd like your squad to perform a sweep of the perimeter woods with me and see if we can't discover some clues to their exit vector..." As he finished, Kyle's attention flicked to his left, his helmets auto-senses picking up a faint movement near the treeline. It was a small register, most likely some local fauna, but worth investigating. Something just didn't add up here. 'What had happened here?' he mused.


++++++++++++++++++++++++

Kyle dodged sideways as a tree branch collapsed above him, the bolt shell that splintered it followed swiftly after by another shaving past his ear. He returned fire without thinking, his boltgun spitting full-auto into the thicket ahead. The foliage was so dense in this part of the forest that even his enhanced senses could not pick out the form of their attacker. Vernassus opened fire from behind a nearby tree, his boltgun held in one hand while the other danced across his signum, trying to get a data-id on the hidden assailant. A quick vox command and the other marines were alerted, they would be on their position in minutes. He and Vernassus had split the squad, 11 men, each searching a 10 cubit area, each the equal of one hundred men, each more than capable of standing alone against almost any foe of the Imperium.

The captain took cover behind the dead stump of a once great tree and swung round for a better look, covering his exposure with a burst of bolter fire. He ducked back, narrowly but intentionally avoiding a return spray of fire. Very accurate, Kyle thought. Probably a marine by his skills and the bolt rounds. Although only one of him by the looks of things. Perhaps a terror agent left to instill fear in the rest of the population, or maybe left as a spy to observe the Hawks. Either way, he could provide invaluable tactical information before they sent him to meet the Emperor.
Kyle barked orders into his voxlink; "Squad Vernassus, follow standard containment pattern Omega, centre on these coordinates. Alissus and Gervain, I want a perimeter scan, make sure he doesn't have any friends. Hold off on the plasma, we want him alive."
The call came back acknowledged. They had all done this hundreds of times before. The enemy was outnumbered and outgunned, perhaps this would be their lucky day after all.


++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Choking up his last words, the disfigured face crumpled in impossible ways as he spoke.
"...Scelus Primus .... vox-comms central ... urcch ... it doesn't matter, you are too late." He rasped, "Your corpse-god cannot prevent this. Nothing can halt what we have set in motion . .. gurghh"
With a swift motion, Kyle broke his neck. Vernassus, at his side was instantly ready; "Shall I call down a Thunderhawk for extraction?"
"No. We have no time to lose now. Get them to send a combat shuttle – something warp-capable, and patch me through to fleet command. Scelus Primus is an alpha level facility with many civilians and a major manufactorum. If it falls the Imperium will lose this sector."
Vernassus, turned, issuing orders to his waiting men. Kyle felt a moment of guilt – it looks like that promotion will have to wait, my friend.
His helmet display flashed the green sig-glyph to indicate an incoming trans-request. He opened the secure orbital vox-channel. "Kyle to Swordhawk, patch me through to Captain Ortega, ident alpha-omega-gamma-septus". The vox-chirp of ident-auth confirmed he was connected to the frigate comms; "Swordhawk acknowledged, Vox-routing now."
The lilting tones of Captain Ortega came onto the channel in perfect high gothic. "Captain Kyle, was your mission a success?"
"Most definitely, we have discovered information critical to the capture of our quarry and maintaining Imperial control of this sector. Mobilise the fleet immediately, I want you ready to warp-jump in 50 milli-cycles."
"Imperial navy regulations state 200 milli-cycles as the minimum time to safely perform the necessary blessings and machine rites for a warp-jump"
"I am aware of that" Kyle replied cooly, "but the risk is necessary this time. Mobilise everything immediately. "In nomine Imperator"
"Acknowledged. Imperator est."
Vernassus returned; "A shuttle is on its way Captain, but I don't understand how we can hope to catch the fleet in such small a craft?"
"We're not going with the fleet, my friend. It's time to collect on an old favour..."

Featured Dramatis Personae

Emperors Hawks