Beasts Of Heaven
“The Unionites are holding fast at the city center, Your Grace. Their Lancer units have proven… difficult to overcome.”
The Warpriest reclined on his couch, robes heavy and still.
Distant: artillery rumble. Closer: blessed utterance, whispers against the profane.
The Warpriest’s tent was crowded with command staff, sweating in their carapace armor and heavy wool uniforms.
Cornucopian summer was humid. Feverish. There should be rain, but the initial bombardment had shattered the storms.
The world didn’t want them there, Neeraja thought.
The generals reports were dour.
“Fleetmaster Iall reports that initial bombardment has clouded the troposphere with ash and dust. Our targeting lasers cannot pierce the chaff.”
“Centuries Ist, Yaa, Ree, and Ve have been all but depleted.”
Neeraja stood towards the back of the Warpriest’s retinue.
A soft pull towards the back of her head.
Hush, she thought. Rest.
Her Soul ached. Unionite anti-system weapons -- Her debrief would tell her more, if she could get to it.
The roar of jets overhead shook the tent.
They passed, the generals and projected fleetmasters looked to each other, sighing relief.
“Why do you fear beasts of heaven?” The Warpriest spoke. “Those are ours, can you not tell?” He scoffed. “Children playing war.” He beckoned the commanders to his cartograph. “Observe.”
The cartograph was sterile. It showed death, but no bodies. No cost. A city projected in miniature, wireframe under swirling black pyres.
Neeraja did not lean in with the rest of them. She closed her eyes.
“Flame?” A general muttered approvingly. “Good coverage. They cannot hide.”
A polite round of applause followed the bombing run.
“How much longer until my orbitals have returned to me?” The Warpriest asked.
“An hour at most,” a fleetmaster replied.
“And my Ofanim, how fare their Souls?”
Neeraja started, stood at attention. “Eager, your grace.”
The meeting left ash in her mouth. She strode across the churned mud of the encampment, back to her Ofanim section.
We are supposed to save these people, she thought. And yet we slaughter them by the tens of thousands.
What glory could we build this way? What kingdom?
Her sectionmates greeted Neeraja as she entered the section bivouac.
“Attend to your Ofanim,” Neeraja ordered. “The Warpriest will set us upon the city.”
“We are the second wave?”
“Yes. The city holds. We are to drop from HALO.”
Her sectionmates muttered, shared glances.
Aboard the HALO disc, Ofanim Aun’Ist, Section Ist, prepared.
The first down would be Solom and Biwan, guardians to clear the LZ
Then, Saam and Mirah, furies, to hold the corridor
Finally, Neeraja herself. Chosen, to lead
It would be her first drop; inside her helm, soothing Word.
They navigated the acrid smoke above the city, black pillars that stood miles into the sky.
Ash fell like snow, embers even this high up.
Below, explosions burst, flak like rain from the earth.
A dim glow marked the vast fires where they would land.
“THEIR SALVATION IS AT HAND. THEY REJECT THE WORD. THEY SPIT UPON THE PATH.”
“DESCEND TO THE DEMON COURT. STRIKE DOWN THEIR BANNERS. CLAIM THIS LAND FOR GLORY. AUN ASCENDANT.”
The ‘scape lit: a HALO to their flank, lanced by anti-orbital fire.
The Warpriest continued his sermon.
Neeraja held on to the crash handles in her cockpit, her stomach lurched.
Their HALO banked, turning hard. It was not enough.
A flash, Saam and Mirah’s IF/F signatures winked red, then faded.
“Sister! By n-”
Neeraja cursed the crusade.
The fall was endless.