Best of the Best
Sergeant Drade was uncomfortable. His parade uniform was over-starched and the ribbon that held the medal clasped around his neck was too short and too tight for comfort. He was very much aware of how the temperature in the room had risen in the last hour as more and more celebrities, nobles, officers and other notables had elbowed their way into the banquet hall eager to see but even more determined to be seen in this momentous occasion. Tonight the most esteemed Stellan families could mingle with the heroic members of the Stellan hoplites fresh from their adventures amongst the stars. A dribble of sweat worked its way down Drade's back and he struggled with the urge to scratch at it like a trooper fresh out of Schola.
Drade knew all too well he was not cut out for such functions. The opulence and easy wealth niggled at his utilitarian spirit. Here was a place where the wealthy came to flaunt their status. The ceiling was high to allow for tapestries and exquisite murals to spread across enormous surfaces and tall windows through which the commoners might observe the high society. The furnishings were not gold painted but actually gold wrought with care and precision around delicate velvet finishes. The floor was a soothing azure marble flecked with emerald dust. All around servitors offered refreshments from behind platinum plated masks. And here was Drade, a soldier, and utterly incapable of pointless small talk and social posturing.
A weak tug at his sleeve interrupted Drade's study of his surroundings. A small boy of about ten standard years blushed shyly and pointed at the sergeant's scabbard.
'Mister? Can I see your sword?' squeaked the youngster and Drade favored him with his most benevolent glare. The young boy started at the intense purple of the sergeant's irises. Slowly Drade unbuckled his scabbard and offered it to the young boy hilt first.
'Wow!' the boy exclaimed, 'how many people have you killed with this?'
'A few' answered the veteran noncommittally.
'Like...like a million?' the boy asked enthusiastically. Drade smiled
'No, not that many, son'
'You're one of the hoplites aren't you? The best of the best!'
'Well I don't know about that', said Drade, his smile broadening
'Can I have a sword too?'
The smile faded from sergeant Drade's lips.
'Maybe some day.'
'What in the warp are you staring at you worthless pile of grot leavings? Do you think you're man enough to earn this saber?'
Drade immediately averted his gaze from sergeant Loticus' scabbard. What was he thinking spacing out like that? He knew better and now he was certain he was going to have to pay a heavy price in sweat and blood for his wandering eyes. He stared directly ahead and found himself fantasizing for the millionth time about the massive pulsing vein in sergeant Loticus' temple bursting giving Drade and his mates a free pass until their drill sergeant could be replaced. Then again Loticus looked a stroke might be as dangerous to him as the sudden urge to sneeze was to a normal man.
'Answer me you pitiful sack of xenos spawned witch drool! Are you man enough to wear this weapon of honor?'
An intense feeling of indignation surged within Drade. He had drilled and fought for two years on this ball of dust earning the right to petition for a position amongst the Lady Enchantress's Hoplites. He had trained with every weapon accessible to the vast Imperium and then some. He was ready for a sword. He was ready for anything.
'Sir, yes sir!' screamed Drade
'What the gor did you say you gutless mutant failure of an alien experiment?'
'Sir, YES SIR!'
'Well then what in the Emperor-damned warp are you waiting for?' the sergeant responded with surprising calm. Drade had a moment to open his mouth to say 'sir?' before his feet were kicked from under him. His classmates who had moments ago been standing at attention to either side of him had disappeared. Now five men in drill instructor uniforms stood over him pinning him to the ground with their boots. Drade's two years of training kicked in immediately and he struck out, open palm, at the side of one of the drill instructor's kneecaps. The joint made a sickening crack as it shattered. The men standing over him quickly stepped back and Drade spun on his shoulder blade leaping to his feet in an instant. They seemed unwilling to approach him again. Realizing he had likely overreacted he quit his defensive stance and approached the man he had injured. He hastily began to voice an apology explaining that the adrenaline had caused him to lash out when a blow to the head from behind knocked him out cold.
Drade was woken by the most excruciating pain he had ever felt in his life. His eyes burned like living creatures were burrowing into his skull through his sockets. His whole body ached like never before. He felt like a cadet on his first physical training exercise. And there was a sound, a rhythm at once familiar and yet totally new. He realized it was his heartbeat, stronger by an order of magnitude than it was before. Strong enough for him to hear it's steady pace like waves crashing on an unseen shore.
Unconsciously Drade placed a hand on his chest and was not at all surprised to find a fresh scar there. Despite the pain he smiled.
"It belongs to me now," said a voice as soft as silk. Drade turned to find its source sliding gingerly off the cold stainless steel operating table he had been laid out upon. The room he was in was featureless and small with nothing but a stack of medical monitors and a window high upon one wall where the blood red clouds of Stella could be seen against the midnight blue of the sky; a distant star twinkled knowingly at him. The voice belonged to a woman, one Drade noticed, that could easily have been the most beautiful woman he had ever seen despite the fact that her diaphanous gown revealed her heavily augmented, gold plated form. Drade wished he had realized he was stark naked before he had decided to turn around. Determined not to reveal his discomfort he replied coolly.
"What does, dam?"
Drade grinned a rogue's grin, excited by the invitation in her voice.
"That it does, dam"
"Don't play the varlet, Sektor, it doesn't suit you" the woman said but her smile implied she was charmed by Drade's mannerisms. Drade smiled back, it had been a long time since he spoken with a woman. It's going pretty well, he thought to himself. He opened his mouth to ask how she knew his name but was cut off.
"What are you afraid of, Sektor?"
Just as suddenly as it arrived Drade's confidence vanished.
"What is it you fear?"
Drade felt his pulse quicken and his temper rise. His eyes burned even more acutely.
"Nothing dam. That is to say I wouldn't want to see Sergeant Loticus across the mat from me but other than that we've had all the fear drilled out of us."
"And yet there's fear there. I've seen it"
Drade was definitely angry now. Who was this woman to claim she knew him? That he was a coward? His eyes felt like they were radiating heat and his muscles tensed, ready to be put to violent use. The woman stepped closer to him and he could see that her eyes were as gold as the mask that covered half of her face.
"I'm not afraid of anything. Of anything!", he said and his voice was louder than he had intended it to be. Good, he thought, she should know I'm serious. Yet another part of him wondered what it was about her words that bothered him so. He was so filled to the brim with conviction, with the burning knowledge that he could do anything, that the very notion that he could be afraid was hateful to him.
" Don't dare lie to me Sektor Drade," she said all the playfulness gone from her voice. She took another step towards him and her countenance became both menacing and enthralling at once. Drade was captivated and at the same time hurt, like a schoolboy who's had his love rejected for the first time. He found her stern words almost impossible to bear.
"I have sifted through the very ether of your soul, witnessed your consciousness from beginning to end". Drade was aware of the room growing darker, the lights dimmed by some action unnoticed to him. He realized he could see his breath and that goosebumps were forming all over his exposed skin. The woman's voice sounded twice like an echo and Drade noted that he could only hear the echo in his mind.
"The contents of your heart were made plain to me when I held it in my hands. You fear disappointment, you fear helplessness, you fear death," the woman's eyes began to glow, discretely at first but then more noticeably until Drade could not look directly at her face. He had seen this before when Sergeant Loticus was very angry.
"And most of all Sektor, you fear failure. Failure to make your family proud, failure to protect Stella and its people from the enemies of the Imperium and, yes, failure to me."
Drade was outraged. He felt as if he were about to burst with anger at the truth in her words. The burning in his eyes was agony and he noticed with a start that tiny motes of light hovered around him. Static discharge ran between his fingers. He was struck with a sudden realization.
'My eyes... they hurt because they're glowing?'
'The pain will ease with time, my love,' the woman's voice had lost its hard edge. In a moment it had gone from terrifying to comforting. It soothed Drade in an altogether unnatural way, like a balm for the soul.
'And you... you're the Lady Enchantress', he said falling to his knees.
'I am a servant of the Emperor, Sektor,' she said reaching down and gently lifting his face so that his eyes stared directly into hers. At such short distance staring into her irises was like leaping into the coldest ocean, like being blasted into atoms only to be reknit at the center of a blue-bright sun. He saw the unyielding courage of the Imperium's billion billion souls and felt himself be placed amongst them as a star appears in the night sky to guide the lost. He shared no similarity now to the man he had been just moments ago, he was larger, greater, more determined. In the endless void of space numberless faithless fiends and aliens scrawled challenges to him in human blood. He could feel their hatred radiating from furthest reaches of the galaxy. He would meet them with the force of a supernova and destroy them, he swore it.
'I accept your promise, Sektor', said the Lady Enchantress soothingly 'make me proud.'
'Tyco, leave that man alone.'
From deep within the crowd a woman appeared and promptly removed the sword and scabbard from the young boy's hands. She was young, Drade guessed, too young to be the boy's mother. She could perhaps be as young as he and why not? She wore her ruby studded dress with frank disdain and he could see her brown hair had been hastily arranged into something more presentable than she would have liked. Some strands near the back were still dyed purple. She was born into wealth but like most of the privileged at her age she felt it was fashionable not to show it.
'It's okay, dam. This little fellow was just telling me how he wanted to earn his own sword some day, right friend?'
'Over my dead body!', the young woman replied hotly. 'No more cousins of mine are going off to get themselves killed!'
Drade studied the woman closely. She was attractive even though she wore no rouge and her face was lined with worry. Her dress looked like it had been badly tailored or, Drade thought to himself, as if it had been purposefully loosened to hide what must be an impressive womanly figure beneath.
'It is an honor and a privileged to serve the Inquisition and the Lady Enchantress', Drade countered.
'Tell that to his father', she said and he could see he had stumbled upon something very sensitive.
If the kid noticed the nature of their conversation he gave no sign. Outside the banquet hall a sound like distant thunder caught the crowd's attention. Drade tensed immediately. He knew explosions when he heard them.
'Look, Ava,' said Tyco pointing to something beyond the window 'Fireworks!'
Drade followed the child's outstretched finger to the window and joined the rest of the crowd that now chattered appreciatively at the spectacle in the night sky.
'It's like Emperor's Day back in the old town, eh Drade?'
Drade ignored the new recruit. It wasn't that he disagreed with the young soldier it was simply that he had other things on his mind. Often in the transitioning moments just before combat his thoughts were overwhelmed with the memory of the Lady Enchantress. The consequences of the oath he swore to her weighed heavily on his conscience. It was not the that the promise to serve her might cost him his life. What tugged at him was the fact that dying with her name on his lips bothered him not at all.
He rechecked his harness, tightening the straps while the hulking transport barreled down the narrow streets. The Land Raider took a sharp turn and Drade cursed as he hit his head on the bulkhead behind him. Outside the vehicle it sounded like the world was being torn apart. Explosions were so frequent it sounded like an infinitely long firepopper chain. Just like Emperor's Day, he thought.
Drade's vision flashed gold as his internal display activated itself and began calibrations. Bars and figures scrolled in front of his eyes detailing weapons status, power levels, the settings of his helmet's advanced targeting suite and dozens of other figures any one of which may determine whether he lived or died in the next few moments.
A monotone voice spoke inside Drade's head. "E.T.A. fifteen seconds."
The voice belonged to the Land Raider's cogitator sprite. Drade could tell that the rest of the squad had heard it too as the their chatter died down to a few nervous laughs. They craned their heads as if listening to someone calling them from far away. Drade cringed internally as the thought that most of these men were still green invaded his mind once more. Who am I to judge them, he thought to himself. After all it had only been two years since he had been in their position looking to emulate the calm mannerisms of the veterans in his unit. On his first mission an autogun round had skipped off his helmet just a few minutes into the fight leaving him unconscious for the better part of an hour. When he awoke he found the grim features of Sergeant Loticus staring down at him as he lay in the infirmary. The sergeant's return to active duty was cause for celebration in Loticus' eyes and he celebrated by drenching Drade with a bucket of blood and gore.
'Pig's guts', he explained chuckling, 'since you didn't get your share of the enemy's.' It was all Drade could do to keep himself from vomiting while the sergeant walked away laughing.
Now his face was chipped by the scars he'd earned. His days of training on the harsh Alderan Moonscape seemed a relaxing escape compared to the hardships he now endured at every turn. Lord Corydon was a driven, tireless leader and whenever there was so much as a whisper of enemy activity anywhere in the Lucifus sector the Inquisitor was known to embark within moments of hearing about it. Thus the Stellan Hoplites were always ready.
'Five seconds to ramp release.'
Everyone was standing now weapons ready in one hand steadying themselves with the other. Sergeant Loticus took a moment to look at each of them and then the ramp was down and the world spiraled into chaos.
'I see Tyco has made a friend!'
Drade struggled against the urge to salute at attention as a Major stepped into view from behind him. The Hoplites were on standing orders not to ruin the festive atmosphere by doing anything so distasteful to the public as saluting or standing to. It was widely believed that they were a fighting force founded solely on the ideas of camaraderie and courage. Between them the Hoplites laughed at this concept but to the public the romantic view that the military could foster something other than the strictest dictatorial regime was invaluable in drawing the enamored youth.
The Major nodded to Drade. He looked tired and rather bored thought Drade. He found himself considering how lucky he was. While as a sergeant this was his first formal banquet the Major who was an officer had to suffer these kind of events frequently. Drade wondered how the officer knew the child.
'Uncle Thadeus!', exclaimed the girl.
'It's nice to see you again, Ava', said the Major.
'And you, Uncle', she replied
'Sergeant... Drade, isn't it?', said the Major turning to Drade. 'From Epsilon Company?'
'Yes, Sir', answered Drade
'You were in that mess on Vega, weren't you Drade?"
'I was, Sir',
'Lost a brother in that fight. At the Second Breach just outside the wall. An ugly fight if half the stories are true.', said the Major and his pale green eyes glazed over. He seemed lost in an battle that had already been won, a victory stamped in blood, almost half a year ago. Drade closed his eyes and tried to keep a hold on the memories springing from the darkest corners of his mind.
The recruit that had spoken to Drade just moments before looked disbelievingly at the hole that had appeared in his chest. He collapsed backward onto Drade without a word and was dead. Drade pushed him aside and surveyed his surroundings. This must be hell, he thought. Everywhere he looked enemies were pouring fire onto his squad's position. Directly ahead of him about two hundred meters out a massive wall, impossibly tall, took up most of his vision. The wall seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon and was large enough to keep titan-class warmachines out. He and his comrades had orders to destroy the heretics defending it and secure it.
The Land Raider, having disgorged it's occupants surged forward over the rubble. The heretics immediately diverted their fire to target it giving Drade and his squad a chance to go on the offensive. Drade's earpiece crackled and Seargeant Loticus' voice boomed the order to advance.
Drade lept up from behind the rubble he was cowaring behind. His visor flooded him with information about the battlefield outlining enemy positions in sharp red lines and superimposing waypoints and possible entry points over his vision. Rising to his feet he let his targeter draw his sights to the nearest threat and squeezed the trigger repeatedly, firing short bursts at each target. He neutralized an archenemy heavy bolter nest and sprinted forward, the sound of his augmented heartbeat drowning out even the noise of the explosions cutting down men all around him.
Following the jagged waypoint lines described to them by their advanced wargear Drade's squads mounted an assault on the dug-in heretics in perfect coordination working their way towards the guardhouses at the foot of the wall. Drade's visor indicated friendly fire teams to either side of him covering his squad's advance with blistering arcs of fire. Just ahead Drade's helmet spelled the name "Chapter 7" hovering over the dust cloud that Drade knew was being put up behind the rampaging Land Raider tearing a hole in the enemy lines with its devastating firepower.
Enemy fire criss-crossed over Drade's head all too often finding it's mark in the body of a comrade. Drade lost track of how many kill shots he had made. His team ran up to an artificial ridge raised just in front of the first guardhouse. Sergeant Loticus made a hand motion and the team responded by unclipping their incendiary grenades and priming them. At the sergeant's signal they tossed them over the ridge. The grenades detonated into a firestorm of white hot flames incinerating the screaming heretics that had set up an ambush position just ahead. Drade gagged as his rebreather filter failed to scrub the smell of burning flesh from the air being vented into his helmet.
Sergeant Loticus drew his saber from it's scabbard and thumbed the activation stud. The wickedly curved sword sparked to life surrounding itself in a nimbus of crackling green energy. The sergeant looked back at his squad and even through his reflective visor each of them could see the purple glow of his irises. Small points of light flickered in and out of existence around the sergeant's massive form and the squad felt an answering burn in their chests where the lady's gift thrashed angrily and their souls cried out for blood.
The slight overhang of the defensive ridge in front of them afforded the squad some cover and chance to catch their breath but Drade was not the least bit inclined to slow down. All around him his squad was preparing for close quarters combat. The heavy flamer was brought up from the rear by a huge brute of a man that Drade didn't know. Combat specialists drew their powered blades and axes. Sergeant Loticus raised his voice above the cacophony.
'Maximi!', answered the squad as one in ancient Proto-Gothic
'For the Lady!' yelled the sergeant
'For the Emperor!'
'Nike! Nike! Nike!' screamed the squad, their boots stomping in time with the chant
With a sound the world ending a massive earthquake shook the battlefield. A mile to the south Drade could see a portion of the wall as wide a hive block coming down in a kilometer high cloud of dust. The first breach in the wall had been made and the assault on the city proper had begun. Drade's squad surged forward over the ridge into the waiting enemy bayonets and trench guns. To the right Chapter 7 exploded from within as an anti-armor mine erupted in its bowels spraying the area with bits of torn metal. Drade took a round through his left hand but hardly felt a thing as the potent mix of adrenaline and the mysterious workings of the Stellan heart took over his body and his vision blurred in time with the throbbing pain in his eyes.
Drade plunged into the melee ahead of him. His first swing clove a heretic trooper in two and the return stroke tore the leg off of another. On his third thrust his blade was caught in the rusted mail of a traitor and he was forced to let it go. The mortally wounded soldier dived at him with his dying breath knocking Drade to the ground and making him easy prey to the heretics swarming all around him.
Drade flung the corpse from on top of him with a burst of panic-spawned strength. Looking down on him were the mutated, monstrous visages of heretic troopers their faces split by mirthful, murderous grimaces. One of them, a swine-headed subhuman stabbed a cruelly barbed ice pick into Drade's abdomen piercing straight through the heavy ceramite plating and into Drade's stomach. Blood gushed forth uncontrollably. The creature leaned close to Drade's face to watch him die, wet ropes of putrid drool dripping through its broken teeth onto Drade's faceplate.
'I accept your promise, Sektor'
Drade's vision swam, his body felt like it was on fire.
'Make me proud.'
A wave of pain overcame Drade as the pig-thing pulled the weapon from his bowels preparing to stab him again but the blow never came. Like a hurricane unleashed Sergeant Loticus was there slashing with his lightning-wreathed saber. He had lost his helmet at some point in the fighting and his eyes were too bright to look at. Glittering sparks of energy surrounding his body like the aura of a war-god from ages long forgotten. The heretics fell before him like wheat before a scythe. Almost single-handedly it seemed, Loticus was routing the enemy who were tossing down their weapons and crying out in shrill tones to their heathen gods.
Drade's blood was soaking into the soil around him and at that moment he knew he was about to die. Before his eyelids closed shut forever another earth-shattering clap of thunder sounded and a huge expanse of wall directly ahead began to crumble shrouding the battlefield in choking brown dust.
Drade opened his eyes. His body was numb with shock but death was not so easily invited into the bodies of men blessed with the Stellan Heart. Drade was not surprised to find his wounds had sealed themselves. There was still a fight on and Drade's part in it was far from over he knew. He rose to his feet and began to look for his weapons. Blinded by the swirling dust he groped blindly for a few moments before he found the heretic with Drade's sword still in his chest and, having pulled it free of the corpse, sought a way to regroup with his squad that had moved ahead without him. He thought he heard Sergeant Loticus furious war cry and moved in that direction.
It did not take long to find the sergeant. As usual Loticus was at the heart of the battle and the trail of destruction he and his squad had left behind them was easy to follow. A chill wind blew in suddenly from the west revealing the apocalyptic landscape directly ahead of Drade for a moment. In that instant what Drade saw caused his modified heart to skip a beat. Before him stood a figure of legendary horror unnecessarily outlined in bright red by Drade's visor. The traitor marine stood more than two and half meters tall and all 250 centimeters were covered in pink gore. The marine gripped a roaring chain-axe in each ham sized gauntlet and blood vapor spouted from the traitor's face grille in violent plumes. At the marine's feet was the rent and torn body of Sergeant Loticus.
Drade ignored the chasm of terror that seemed to swallow him whole. He grit his teeth and raised his carbine. His helmet gave a soft chime and the digital crosshairs flashed green as his sights centered on the marine's chest. The marine dug his heels into the dirt and began to charge, an unearthly scream blasting from it's helmet speakers. Drade gave an answering roar, toggled the full-auto switch on his carbine and pulled the trigger.
Drade was snapped back from his reverie by the hard smell of rich liquor. A nobleman, Drade could tell from his rich attire, swerved into view and clapped the Major hard across the back.
'Magerrr Lodigus!' the aristocrat slurred drunkenly 'I ab thrilled you could dthoin us, tonide.'
'Lord Castol, always a pleasure,' said the Major catching Drade's eye apologetically.
Drade was dumbfounded.
'Major... Loticus? Sir, are you perhaps related to-'
'Anoder Hoplide! Major you must introduthe me to your heroic acquaintanth' interjected the drunken nobleman.
'Please, Sir', said Drade nearly blushing 'the term "heroic" is reserved for better men than I.'
'Strange to hear those words come from a Stellan wearing the Storm's Triumph ribbon,' said the Major smiling sadly at Drade. Drade fingered the medal clasped at his neck anxiously.
Lord Castol seemed to sober at this revelation.
'You were the Battle of Vegas Breach!' cried the aristocrat. The entire hall was instantly quiet save for a unanimous intake of breath. The booms and claps of fireworks seemed inappropriately loud.
'I was made to understand all the men decorated with that honor were dead.', said a woman just behind Drade.
'The best warriors can breach any wall and live to earn their medals', said a voice a soft as silk. 'The wall twixt life and death is no different.'
The crowd parted and the gold-plated form of the Lady Enchantress was revealed moving directly towards Drade and the Major. As one the crowd knelt before the demi-godess, awestruck in her presence.
'And the Hoplites, my Storm Troopers, are the "Best of the Best."'