Stealthsuit Commando: Chapters 1 and 2

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 Chapter 1
 Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Blood pounded in the human's ears as he reeled from the blow to his temple, his vision blurry and swimming before him. Wildly, he threw a swinging hay-maker in retaliation, but the Xenos was too fast. It ducked his attack and stepped in to launch a one-two combo into the disgraced guardsman's kidneys. Vurn doubled over as he staggered away defensively, groaning in pain. The spectators howled and shouted in excitement, urging the combatants to new levels of aggression. Vurn stumbled and nearly fell over a line of smooth rocks buried in the hard ground, but several rough hands shoved him forward again. You didn't leave the ring if your opponent could still walk…
This was an Imperial Prison Camp on the outpost world of Naav Talos. The Imperium of Man was contesting territory here on the eastern rim of the galaxy with an alien race who called themselves the Tau. The campaign had not been smooth… The Tau resistance was surprisingly strong and tactically skilled, but their defeat was certain. There were as many human soldiers as there were stars in the sky, and the Imperium had reigned supreme for millennia.
Vurn was an Imperial Guardsman, formerly of the 107th mechanised infantry. He'd fought on the edge of Tau territory for over a year before a doomed mission saw him fail to die in service of his Emperor. His fate would normally have been to die at the hands of a Commissar, but experienced troops were a commodity here on the Ultima Segmentum. His C.O had stepped in to ensure 'leniency', and thus Vurn had been transported to Naav Talos for two years penal labour. The benevolence of man was limitless.
The Tau who was pounding Vurn stepped back, flexing its right hand which had found the human's skull to be a tough target. He was big for a Tau at almost six feet tall, with broad shoulders which glistened with sweat. The guards knew him as prisoner T-18178, but his fellow Tau POWs were chanting his true name. They shouted it with fierce pride and respect, and Vurn grimaced as it was echoed by voices on his side of the ring as well. Even the human prisoners were impressed by this Fire warrior's skill and power.
Watching from a guard tower above, Commandant Tridus frowned, his pitted features stern. His eyes remained locked on the Tau as he spoke in a low voice to his aide.
"Who is that Xenos? What is that they're calling out, Stanton?" he growled.
"That is eighteen one-seven eight" the aide replied immediately. "And I believe they're using his Tau name, sir. Kaede…"
Tridus's face twitched as he watched the Tau warrior parry and dodge as Vurn made something of an all-out attack, none of his blows landing with significant force and his grapples evaded.
"We're supposed to win these little fights, not the Xenos. The moral of the human prisoners will suffer…"
Stanton nodded readily in agreement. "Yes, sir. This is the first time a Tau has lasted so long in the ring. It seems the promise of extra rations for the work team that can produce a decent challenger was all the motivation they needed."
Tridus knew that Vurn was a tough fighter, and the current champion of the brawling ring. His military record contained several merits for bravery in the field, yet this Xenos was all over him like an Ork smelling rotgut liquor on a gretchin. 18178 didn't look like any Tau Tridus had ever seen before, either. Generally they were a lightly built race, with a tendency to be lithe and quick. This one was fast, but also taller and well-built even for a human. His muscles bulged and stood taut beneath his violet-blue skin, veins crawling like worms just beneath the surface. His shoulders and arms were especially powerful, with muscles like cords of steel that strained to be contained by the skin as they were flexed. A long, clean scar ran diagonally across half his chest, like a ceremonial mark of some kind. The hard labour in the prison camp had taken Kaede's already athletic body and re-forged it with sweat, tempered it with blood. Now it was the pinnacle of Tau physiology, an unyielding machine of flesh and will. Tridus remembered him now from when he was first brought shackled before him. He had told his interrogators to question him as forcefully as they deemed necessary. As a Shas'ui, or team leader, Tridus suspected he could reveal useful intelligence on Tau strategy and troop distribution, but he'd never been broken and was eventually put to work with the others. And now it seemed his defiance continued.
Inside the dirt ring, Kaede circled his human opponent smoothly, looking for openings in his defence, sensing that he could finish the fight at any time.
"End it, Shas'ui!" one of the other Tau prisoners shouted. "Finish him off before they decide to lock you in the pit as punishment for hurting a gue'la!"
Kaede narrowed his eyes and glanced up at the tower where the commandant stood impassively. These fights had always seemed foolish and dishonourable to him. They were prisoners of a war which raged without them beyond the walls of the prison, yet still they were forced to fight its skirmishes. Vurn saw Kaedes brief distraction and seized the opportunity a launch a rocket-like jab at the Tau's chin. But Kaede sensed the attack and twisted sideways to avoid the blow. He grabbed Vurn's arm with one hand, twisting it to lock it as he grabbed the human by the head and slammed his head downwards with irresistible power. Vurn's nose connected with Kaede's knee with a wet crunch, bright blood spraying over the packed earth as Kaede let him fall to the ground, stunned. Dozens of voices chorused in blood-lusting praise as Kaede turned away, and the prison guards slumped in disappointment. Most had bet a good portion of their meagre wages on Vurn, and his defeat was almost as painful for them.
Commandant Tridus shot a disapproving look at his aide, then turned to walk away.
"Give the order, Lieutenant" he muttered, but paused as he heard a single voice shout his name from below. He turned back to see the victorious Tau staring boldly up at him, a digit on his three fingered hand aimed at his chest.
"Try-duse!" Kaede shouted in strangely accented low gothic. "Remember… what… you… promised. Give my… team… the food… you… promised!"
Tridus cocked an eyebrow at Stanton, his expression a mixture of surprise and disapproval. "Lieutenant, did that Xenos just address ME?" he said in a vaguely indignant tone. His aide paled slightly, and nodded.
"Er, yes sir. I believe he did…"
"They've learnt to speak?" he growled as he stepped to within inches of his subordinate, towering over him. The lieutenant swallowed nervously, and wondered if this day was about to take a serious turn for the worst.
"Commandant, I understand a few of the Xenos have managed to grasp some of our language. As you can see, it is halting and, er… they probably don't realise what they are saying…"
Tridus scowled at his aide, then turned to regard Kaede with a mixture of contempt and fear. It seemed the Tau had learnt more from their captors than they had relinquished themselves despite torture and drug aided interrogation. His breath quickened, and Tridus struggled to keep his fury in check.
"I… did not promise additional rations" he said in a loud, clear voice so that the prisoners below could hear him. "And I'm in charge of this camp."
There were angry mutterings from the assembled prisoners, and the guards shifted in readiness of trouble. Tridus looked at one of them, who quickly stood to attention.
"Sergeant, this Tau has attacked another prisoner and broken discipline. Take him to the pit and disperse the others".
The guard saluted rigidly and moved to relay the order as Tridus stalked away. His aide hesitated, unhappy with the decision and sure that it would lead to trouble below. A harsh siren sounded, cue for the guards to move in with stun batons and irritant spray, and then everything erupted into chaos…
In the confusion no one saw the disc-like shapes rise to hover above the outer walls. And with the noise of the siren no one heard the first barrage of fire. The Tau Gun Drones targeted the weapons towers first, plasma pulse energy cutting down the guards stationed on the lascannons with the element of surprise. Commandant Tridus dived aside as his sergeant convulsed suddenly, his chest exploding outwards in a spray of liquid crimson. Drawing his sidearm, Tridus snapped off laser blasts as he weaved and ran towards the upper entrance to the keep. His men began returning fire, but they could barely look up to shoot. The Gun Drones had them pinned down, and that's when the second phase of the attack went into action.
Rapid fire energy bolts began to appear from thin air, cutting down groups of guards from directions they didn't expect - couldn't anticipate. Kaede saw a strange blur near the armoured front gates, as if a thin layer of concrete wall had stretched across and become part of the durasteel doors. He smiled tightly to himself, but knew he had to keep a clear head. Running low he dashed to where several guards had been blasted down and picked up a lasgun. It was a heavy, poorly balanced weapon compared to a Tau pulse rifle, but simple enough in operation that he could put it to good use. "Prisoners, move away from the gate!" he yelled, pushing several stragglers in the direction of cover. With a concussive BOOM the heavy gate buckled and snapped open, well placed explosive charges destroying the massive hinges and a section of wall to either side. In the distance, across the arid plain, rooster tails of dust could be seen. Kaede had been a prisoner for nearly two years, surviving longer than many of his comrades in the harsh conditions, but his freedom was at hand. In less than a minute the Devilfish APCs would arrive, and the Prison camp would be totally over-run.
With the gates torn asunder and the few remaining guards suppressed, groups of prisoners began running wildly to escape onto the plains. Kaede held back, directing the flow and laying down bursts of covering fire. His main fear was that any guards within the fortified keep would be able to use heavy weapons against the fleeing Tau. His fears were needless, for his comrades were acting to neutralise the threat. Missiles streaked overhead, fired from the approaching Devilfish and guided by marker lights from the forces already within the walls… The Stealthsuits. Explosions rocked the air, and chunks of hot concrete and steel rained down around Kaede as he noticed a figure half collapsed in the open. Immediately he ran forward, bending down to help the prisoner to his feet. It was Vurn. The dazed and wounded soldier gripped Kaede's dirty coveralls with all the determination and strength adrenaline could lend him, and the Tau began hauling him bodily to the blasted gates.
The air shimmered as Kaede reached the smoke filled exit, darkening until a black armoured figure stood poised for action in front of him. Vurn moaned, remembering the spectre-like warriors who had routed his unit in the battle before he came to Naav Talos. Its right arm was dominated by a many barrelled assualt cannon, still spinning from laying down a withering barrage of fire. The Stealth trooper reached out eagerly, calling to Kaede with a voice filtered by his visor comm-link.
"Shas'ui Tash'var Kaede?! Shas'an ta'lissera shi. I knew we'd find you, brother!"
Kaede recognised the voice of his friend Kusha, with whom he had taken the bonding ritual years ago after passing their Test of Fire, swearing to protect and support each other with their lives.
"I stayed alive because I knew you would not stop searching, Kusha" Kaede replied as they clasped hands.
"Who is the gue'la? You must go quickly!" Kusha shouted, but Kaede continued to haul Vurn with him. Kusha swung his burst cannon from side to side, scanning for enemies and urging his friend to head for the Devilfish APCs. His advanced sensors chirpped a warning suddenly, drawing his attention to a narrow port in the keep wall. The long barrel of a sniper rifle gleamed in the sunlight, the angle directed towards the back of Kaede's neck. With a dull crack, the weapon fired…
The heavy slug would have taken the Tau's head messily from his shoulders if it had hit, but the sniper had not counted on the intervention of one of the Gun Drones. The Kor'vesa somehow appeared at his back, it's well armoured dome blocking Kaede from view. With a loud metallic tearing sound the bullet hit the Drone, ripping through its armour and shattering the A.I. processor into a myriad of plastic and crystal shards. It spun lopsidedly to the ground, sparks hissing form the hole gouged in its carapace. With a cry Kusha opened fire, the hail of energy causing the concrete around the gun port to sizzle and melt. The sniper did not fire again, and Kaede made it to the side of a Devilfish unharmed.
Pathfinder reinforcements moved in to mop up the last vestiges of Imperial resistance, and the Tau prisoners were welcomed back by their comrades and swiftly evacuated to Orca dropships waiting just beyond the range of the camp's lascannons. There Vurn was taken away by a Pathfinder medtech, but the human had strength enough to thank Kaede for his help.
"I fight who my superiors tell me to fight…" he wheezed, managing to form a twisted smile as he gave Kaede a salute. "But if I'd had a choice… I'd leave you alone, Tau".
Kaede grinned, then turned as a voice called his name loudly. A Pathfinder hurried over and began pulling him to a dropship landed apart from the others. Kaede blinked as he saw a tall, magnificent Tau standing just inside the ramp, piercing him with a penetrating gaze that made the back of his neck tingle.
"Who's that?" he asked his escort over the throbbing noise of the Orca engines, and the Pathfinder answered reverently.
"That is Aun'El Tau'n Mont'Ka Keis. He has ordered that you be taken to him, when you were found".
Kaede moved to the base of the ramp, his escort swiftly taking up a sentry position as Aun' El Keis studied Kaede intently, smiling warmly. The freed Fire Warrior bowed his head and saluted with all the rigour of a soldier on parade, wondering what an Ethereal caste member could want with him.
"Be at ease, Shas'ui Kaede" the lordly Tau said in a hypnotically powerful voice. "I am Aun' El Tau'n Keis, and I have need of you, Fire Warrior."
"I will serve the Tau'Va with my life, and until death!" Kaede assured him, and the ethereal smiled, beckoning for him to enter the dropship.
"Your dedication is known to me, as are your deeds of honour and battle. The Empire needs you now…Come."
Kaede nodded and strode up into the interior of the Orca, immediately followed by the Pathfinder. The hull vibrated as the engines built power and the dropship quickly lifted into the air.
"Aun' El, I am grateful for my freedom, and look forward to rejoining my unit. Your presence here is as unexpected as it is appreciated."
Keis's smile was genuine, and a nod indicated that the Pathfinder guard should unstow a blanket and medkit for Kaede. The ethereal regarded the muscular young warrior shrewdly. "You will not return to your pathfinder squad at this time… I require a team leader for a special unit being formed under my command."
"Sir?" Kaede quizzed, holding on tightly as the Orca accellerated rapidly skyward.
"You must serve me for the Tau'Va, Shas'Vre Kaede. The empire needs your skills."
Kaede was almost too stunned to reply. He had been rescued and promoted in the space of a few mili-decs.His reponse was all an ethereal or drill master could expect to hear. "Yes sir. For the Tau'Va!"

Chapter 2

Amber light flashed off Kaede's battle armour as stood inside the airlock, his mind focused on the daunting task ahead. A warning klaxon sounded around him, but it swiftly faded as the atmosphere in the chamber was sucked away. The pulsing light flicked to red, an unmistakable sign that it was about to begin. A voice sounded calmly in his ear, telling him over the comm-link to stand-by.
Of course it was easy forhim to be calm, Kaede thought, and a wry grin flickering across his flat features. The air caste had no fear of heights, AND he was safely strapped into a chair on the bridge of the destroyer.
"Still want to go ahead with this?" Kor'ui Jo'kan said in a lowered voice, probably so that others on the bridge of the Enigma couldn't hear him.
Kaede exhaled slowly, and nodded, trying not to think about what lay beyond the armoured airlock doors.
"They won't know what hit 'em..." Kaede grunted, his stomach knotting up. It wasn't fear; it was simply common sense that urged him to consider the wisdom in Jo'kan's words.
"It might be you, sir..." the manta's comm-tech replied dryly, and Kaede laughed his tension away.
"Just blow it, ya son of a Kroot!"
There was a brief pause, and then Jo'kan spoke again in a loud, clear voice. "Opening hatches on my mark.!"
The Enigma was a highly modified Manta Missile Destroyer, and at that precise moment it hung in low orbit over the semi - toxic jungle moon of Drez IV. With a powerful holographic projector array and sensor baffling hull panels, she floated like an unseen sea predator above her prey. Directly below was an Ork outpost, a base the savage green skins had used for their intermittent raids on the D'Yanoi sept. The only thing stopping Kaede from destroying the massive fuel stores there were the massed air defense batteries, mobs of 'shoota boyz' and a free fall from 200,000 feet. It hadn't been done before, which was why he knew it HAD to wOrk. Kaede's reasoning was lost on many other Fire Warrior commanders, but Aun'el Keis had selected him to lead the Vah'dreka cadre's stealthsuit commandos because of his ability to conceive the unconceivable.
With a blast from his rocket pack Kaede leapt out into the near vacuum. Like a volley of cannon fire, his team mates followed him, their XV 15 battlesuits melting into near nothingness as the stealth system activated. Jaw clenched, Kaede felt gravity begin to tug at him as he accelerated towards the hazy blue glow which encompassed Drez IV. He felt his suit begin to vibrate as the atmosphere started to thicken about him, and with it came friction. The Earth caste techs aboard the Enigma had agreed that a battlesuit could withstand the maneuver Kaede had proposed, but only if they remained in the helmet first torpedo dive that streamlined their descent. Kaede began to sweat as he struggled to keep his body rigid, applying quick bursts of his thrusters to maintain the knife-edge course towards the Ork base. Losing focus, losing control would send him tumbling like a rag doll at several times the speed of sound towards the surface of Drez. His armour would over-heat and begin to disintegrate within seconds, and his last moments would be indescribable agony as he was consumed by flame hundreds of light years from his home. Kaede had no desire to take the term 'fire warrior' to a new and literal level.
His battlesuit glowed like a sun with the heat of re-entry, and Kaede barely had two inches of composite armour between him and near instant, agonizing death. Like shooting stars his team streaked downwards, burning through the murky sky. Clouds and water vapour burst into steam behind them, leaving glowing trails of gas that couldn't be hidden by the stealth fields. But Kaede had planned for that, and the system's sun lay directly behind them. No Ork eyes would spot them through the glare until they smashed down among them like thunderbolts hurled by a vengeful god.
The descent seemed to take an eternity for Kaede, although in reality it was only a few minutes before the swampy, thickly shrubbed surface of Drez IV materialized below him. Sweating profusely with the intense heat seeping through his battlesuit's environmental controls, Kaede locked his gaze on the compound below him. Set on a low hill cleared of scrub, the Orkish fortifications were haphazard and crude in appearance, but effective in operation. A barricade of rusting metal encircled it, and there were several squat towers upon which sat chunky and powerful weupons. The XV 15's Heads Up Display in the visor blinked a warning as it detected the various assembled Ork war machines below. There were Wartraks, Scorchers and mobile artillery parked randomly around the hill or beneath tattered camouflage nets.
Kaede knew from the intell report that the artillery included what the Orks referred to as "Zzap" cannons. They harnessed some terrifying and unstable energy to inflict great damage, and were the reason that his Ethereal Holiness Tau'n Mont'ka Keis didn't want to send in Orca dropships or skimmers until they were neutralized.
In a few moments the Tau commandos would need to fire their jump packs to slow their descent to something less than meteoric. Kaede quickly checked to see if they'd all made it down safely.
"Farstrider unit, roll call!" he ordered over the comm. Kusha, his second in command and bonded comrade was the first to respond.
"Farstrider 2, right behind you sir" he said breathlessly. Quickly the others checked in, all sounding exhausted yet exhilarated by the experience of plunging from the very edge of space itself. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, Kaede pulled up his knees and strained against the wind resistance to flip about. As soon as he got his head back, the rushing air did the rest, flipping him so he was falling feet first. "Farstriders - hit the brakes!" he grunted, and ignited his boosters to slow his descent.
The usual roaring whine they made was left in his wake; such was the speed he was falling. Several of his team mates whooshed past, invisible but for the trail of glowing steam that enveloped and trailed behind them.
Then their rocket packs erupted to life and Kaede saw their velocity begin to slow with his. The ground was close now, and the Tau shas'vre directed his marker light towards the Ork compound. Numbers flickered across his visor display, telling him he was two kilometres up and dropping at 100 metres per second... Still too fast. He recalled Kor'ui Jo'kan's comment about hitting the outpost hard and grimaced. There was a series of beeps from his helmet's computer as the battlesuit's sensors scanned and mapped the terrain below. Controlling its systems via the small neural-link chip implanted behind his jaw, Kaede relayed the information to the Manta missile destroyer above.
The Kor crew would quickly establish seeker missile and rail gun locks, ready to assist in the assault.
Below, in the Ork base, Griznik leant over the rail of his sentry tower and sent another glob of thick, green tinged saliva curving down towards the gretchins pumping fuel into several parked wartraks. The foul blob of spit landed sloppily atop the leather skullcap worn by the closest, which glanced up briefly, biting back a scowl.
"Hurr-hurr hurrr" another Ork laughed dully, displaying a set of yellow and broken teeth. His friends called him Gaptoof, generally because they'd found his real name too long to remember or rhyme with coarse language.
"Betcha can't hit 'em twice, Griz" he grunted. Like all Orks, Griznik would never step back from an honest challenge. "Betchaz I can..." he replied fiercely, and proceeded to snort up another foul smelling projectile.
The Gretchin engineer below heard the exchange, realized what was about to happen, and proceeded to give Griznik a moving target.
There was a rushing, roaring noise which distracted Griznik at the vital moment of expulsion, and the gretchin laughed gleefully as the spit flew wide of its mark. Gaptoof howled derisively and jostled his friend roughly, but Griz had focused his attention upwards. Jets of flame and smoke were falling all around the outpost, obviously the source of the noise which even Gaptoof heard now. The Orks stared in fascination at several points in the air which shimmered as if with heat haze. In the back of Griz's mind something tingled, like a memory he couldn't quite recall, and all around the walls sentries were cocking their heads in confusion.
"Dat's funny, Giz. Wot d'ya fink dat is?" Gaptoof said scratching his nose with the barrel of his slugga. About five metres above the ground the flames vanished, along with the accompanying noise. Giz heard a thump that sounded like something heavy landing on the armoured bunker a stone's throw away, and he regarded it with squinting eyes. There didn't seem to be anything there, but it was hard to tell through hazy distortion that seemed to cover part of it. Gaptoof punched his arm, distracting him so that he blinked just before he thought he could make something out. "Oi - Waz up wit dem gretchins?" he quizzed, nodding to where the re-fuelling team had shared worried glances and suddenly started chittering and crawling under the Wartraks.
Griz frowned and mumbled under his breath as the pieces to a great revelation began slipping together in his mind. "...Stoopid gretchinz... Always hidin' someplace, sneaky little buggas... First sign of a fight and dey try an' get out of sight so dey don't get shot... Haaang on -"
Griznik's train of thought was disrupted by a series of rapid concussive blasts from several points around the compound. Glowing hot stone and metal filled the air as bunker entrances and rocket towers exploded. A split second later while the Orks were still flat-footed, hails of blue energy began screaming through the air. Griznik was about to yank the alarm clanga when his tower was hit by a stream of plasma bolts. He hurled himself aside as they cut through the tower's flimsy cover facing the courtyard and reduced his tripod mounted big shoota to slag. "Weez unda attakk!" bellowed Gaptoof, his blood shot eyes blazing enthusiastically.
Griz blinked as sparks rained down around him and fell over the ammunition crate, and the wooden floor planks began to smoke.
"You shudd be da Big Boss!" He grunted, but knew that Gaptoof wasn't clever enough to understand the subtleties of sarcasm. Griz watched as the crate holding hundreds of slugs for his heavy machine gun was subjected to a growing amount of heat, and began to wonder what would happen if it caught fire. A hissing pulse of energy glanced against one of its corners, leaving a large char and a puff of smoke, then a wisp of growing flame. Griz made a peculiar kind of whimpering sound that was most unOrkish, and Gaptoof jerked around to see what had caused his friend to produce such a gretchin-like sound. "What?!" he yelled, assuming Griz had spotted some huge foe responsible for the damage. He followed Griz's eyes to the centre of the watchtower's floor...
Kaede's team laid down a withering barrage of suppressing fire after detonating the explosive packs they had set quickly on strategic targets. Few Orks were braving the pulse cannon blasts to look for the source of their attackers, and even then they were finding it hard to pick the Tau through their stealth fields. With his vizor however, and the use of specially encrypted beacons built into the battlesuits of his team, Kaede could see where his warriors were. They moved from cover to cover, spraying their weupons so that the pulses of energy danced and weaved across each other. They raked along the walls, strafed after Orks caught in the open, and occasionally concentrated on targets that were dug in. Kaede spied a group of Orks scrambling up from an entrenched barracks, and quickly took note of which of his soldiers were closest. They were hefty brutes with crude piecemeal armour strapped and chained to their bodies. It wasn't pretty, but some of the metal plates looked they might have been stripped off tanks and other combat vehicles, giving the Orks sturdy protection.
"Farstriders two, four and five" Kaede ordered into the comm-link. "Hit those 'Ard Boyz with a cross fire."
Kaede had grown up on the Ork molested world of Tash'var, facing his Test of Fire against the greenskins, and he knew more about them than many Tau - including the names they gave their units. "Three and six move on the fuel stockpile".
Kaede's team acknowledged his orders swiftly, and he watched as streams of weupons fire traced towards the 'Ard Boyz as the clambered boldly into the open. Turf erupted around them and they dove wildly into cover once more, their numbers thinned. Suddenly the air was ruptured by Ork gunfire and ricochets, and slugs whistled chaotically through the outpost. Kaede threw himself flat, rolled into cover and looked towards the source of the attack. It appeared as if one of the sentry towers was braving the Tau burst cannons to begin a counter strike. Pock marks appeared in the concrete beside him as several slugs glanced off it with a cracking sound. The Tau shas'vre barely flinched, leveling his burst cannon to retaliate. Movement caught his eye, and he saw an Ork scrambling away from the watchtower with his arms over his head. Suddenly another came leaping wildly from the burning platform and Kaede realized what happened.
The smoldering Ork tumbled to the ground just as there was a terrific cacophony of explosions. Griznik's ammunition crate detonated violently, shredding the watchtower to fragments of wood and steel. Kaede realized it was time to get the second phase of the attack into action, before the Orks could rally as a mob and mass their own firepower. He dashed towards a mound of earth near the bottom of the low hill the outpost occupied. Holding his fire so that he wouldn't give away his position, Kaede darted past the smoking wreckage of several overturned warbikes and drew up against several broken crates. He could see a reinforced ramp which led below the mound into a solid, cave-like bunker. Inside were stacked dozens upon dozens of rusty, grease stained barrels. Farstriders three and six stationed themselves either side of the door, then slipped inside to place the demolition charges they carried. In just a few moments Kaede thought, this outpost will vanish in a greasy ball of flame. The troopers re-appeared, and they began to pull back, Kaede activating his comm with a thought. "Farstrider One to Enigma. Begin the Mont'ka".
On the red-lit bridge of the Enigma, Jo'kan heard Kaede's message through his comms implant and turned to where Aun'el Tau'n Mon'ka Keis stood on his command dais. The Ethereal was majestic in pearlescent white and gold robes, his lavender-grey skin glowing with the reflections of the holo-display around him. It was impossible for Jo'kan not to be inspired by the simple presence of this enlightened Tau, and he approached with slow reverence despite the fact they were on the edge of combat.
"Aun'el Tau'n Keis..." Jo'kan said inclining his head and doing his best to shorten his lanky frame. Being one of the Kor, Jo'kan was naturally slender and tall compared to other Tau, but Aun'el Keis still managed to equal his physical stature. The ethereal looked away from the images projected from his dais, scenes of the assault below recorded by the stealth team's visors and transmitted to the Enigma.
"Yes, Kor'ui?" Keis asked in his smooth, hypnotic, voice. Jo'kan couldn't help but suspect that the ethereal already knew what he had to report, and the fact he was allowing him to speak it anyway was gratifying.
"Vah'dreka One reports that we may begin our bombardment. They have eliminated the enemy anti - ship defenses."
Keis nodded in understanding, and then waved his hand across the holographic displays. "The Orks will rally soon, we must intervene swiftly" he said softly, and then raised his voice to address the Enigma's captain and the most senior of her military personnel. "Kor'el Vash'ya Sana , Commence Mont'ka! Fly swiftly, Kor'el - our warriors will need us." The Enigma's captain repeated the orders to the rest of the crew, and the Manta destroyer began to descend rapidly into the atmosphere of Drez IV. Keis spun back to Jo'kan, his gold-red eyes sparkling.
"Order Vah'dreka One to prepare for retrieval, and dispatch an Orca dropship immediately" he instructed.
"As you command, your Holiness" Jo'kan answered, bowing curtly and retreating to relay the orders. If Aun'el Keis believed that haste was necessary, then Jo'kan would ensure that every member of the ship's crew would hear and obey immediately.
A slug glanced of Kaede's shoulder, and he spun to face the attack. The situation was getting hot, with the Orks finally recovering from their surprise and beginning to mount serious resistance. They couldn't accurately identify the position of the Tau commandos, but had managed to surround their general position. The greenskin warriors had formed into skirmishing mobs, and were now advancing from cover to cover, firing optimistically towards the Tau. Kaede knew his team could use their rocket packs to escape, but that the thruster fire would give the massing Orks a decent target. Their retreat would have to wait until just the right moment...
"Shas'vre, trouble..." Kusha warned, and Kaede narrowed his eyes as he saw two clanking, hissing monstrosities lumbering up the hill. They were Ork dreadnoughts, the greenskin's answer to Tau Broadside battlesuits. Unwieldy, crude and ugly, they were none-the less formidable war machines. Kaede signaled for his men to get down, forgetting they couldn't see him.
"We don't have the firepower to engage these..." he said after a moments consideration, remembering his previous battles with Orks. "Farstriders, keep low, move for the fuel bunker. Maybe they'll hesitate to shoot at that, but don't count on an Ork to think it through. Move out."
The Ork dreadnoughts strode up the slope, the mobs parting to let them through. There was a series of clicking and chugging noises as they armed their weapons, before the mechs attacked with landscape destroying ferocity.
Heavy sluggas spat hot lead relentlessly, and the hillside erupted in geysers of dirt as the bullets hit. Rockets streaked from the shoulder of one ' kan ', exploding in a greasy, orange plume only metres behind the retreating Tau. Kaede immediately split away and let rip with his burst cannon, raking one of the waiting mobs with fire as he ran. Like a magnet the Ork's weupon's fire zeroed in towards him, and he dived rolled behind the charred remains of a wartrak as bullets tore up the turf behind him. With tremendous agility he reversed his direction and sprinted away as a rocket slammed into the wreck behind him, smashing it into twisted debris. Kusha's voice swore anxiously over the comm, and Kaede knew his friend was about to come to his aid. "Hold your fire!" he ordered, pounding towards the fuel bunker. Somehow, despite the chaos of the battle field, Kaede had noticed a shadow pass over head. He glanced up, and thanked the Tau'va support had arrived.
Missiles rained down from the sky like hammer blows from a vengeful giant; blasting the Ork base and defenders into dust as the Enigma arrived. Thunder boomed as the destroyer's huge railguns opened fire, pulverizing any threat the gunners could spot. A Dreadnought staggered as its armoured hull was ripped open. It exploded a fraction of a second later, its rockets detonating like an enormous fireworks display. Griznik ran as quickly as his stocky legs could propel him, heading for the latrines on the far side of the base. He'd overseen the gretchins who'd dug them, and knew they offered an express trip away from the firezone. Reaching the collection of crude shacks set against the outpost wall on its steepest side, he darted behind them. With a running leap he dived into a slushy channel which led beneath a hole in the wall and all the way down to a swampy mire at the bottom of the hill. Griznik knew it wasn't mud the trench drained from the latrines, but his survival instinct over-rode his displeasure at sliding at high speed through a sea of bodily waste. Covered in camouflaging goop, Griznik was safe from the destruction behind him. Moments later there was an explosion of an intensity he had never before experienced as the fuel bunker and the hill it was buried in, exploded.
Kaede's team stood atop the fuel storage bunker, in the center of a growing inferno. An Orca dropship circled above, awaiting the signal to descend, but Kaede had other ideas. "Hold your position, we're coming up" he told the pilot, then quickly surveyed the battle zone for signs any Orks were looking their way. "Farstriders, rocket jump to the Orca. Disengage your stealth fields. I'm blowing this dump in five-"
The commandos didn't need to be told twice. As one they boosted upwards, fiery trails spreading behind them.
Airborne, their camouflage fields flickered out, but the Orks were too pressed by the Enigma to let off more than a few half hearted shots in their direction. "We see you!" The Orca pilot reported excitedly, less used to the stress of war than a Fire caste Tau. "Opening the bay-door!"
The last to take off, Kaede was still counting as he launched skyward. "...Two - One - For the Tau'va!" he snarled, detonating the explosive packs his team had planted. Below the hill seemed to heave upwards, until the hilltop simply disintegrated in an expanding black globe of smoke and fire. It was like the packed, wet earth itself was igniting. The flames raced after Kaede as he flew skyward, steering a collision course for the Orca. His vision became a glare of orange tinted light, his visor instantly dimming to protect his eyes. Like a cannonball he flew through the rear door of the Orca, crashing against Kusha and sending them both sprawling into the cargo bay. His friend grabbed him with one arm and cargo webbing with the other, holding him steady as the drop ship was buffeted by the blast. Smoke and heat rushed in after him, and the stealth team turned their backs to it as one.
"Farstrider team recovered" the Orca's drop master reported to the pilot, slamming his hand against the door control. It folded closed in a moment, sealing the shuttle against the inferno outside. With a roar of engines it rose quickly upwards and carried Kaede and his team to the safety of the Enigma. With the Ork's defences removed, and no friendly units on the ground, the destroyer was free to use its significant destructive potential to completely level the greenskin base. Minutes later it was breaking free of the atmosphere and leaving Drez IV far behind, the Greater Good once again victorious.
A quarter of a rotaa later Kaede strode towards the private quarters of Aun'el Tau'n Keis. He was dressed in the under suit of a Fire Warrior, special badges and stripes marking his rank and elite status. A shas'ui saluted him and announced his arrival, then opened the reinforced double doors that led to the Ethereal's chambers. It was not Kaede's first visit to these rooms, but he felt honoured each time that his prestigious mentor received him there. Keis's quarters were spacious and comfortable without being excessive or indulgent. Kaede paused in the ante-chamber, regarding the four large wOrks of art which honoured the Tau castes. They were each dominated by the colour associated with their particular caste, but were obviously designed to be seen as a single piece - the contrasting tones delivering much of the work's power. It was a comment on the Tau race as a whole, and their commitment to the greater good. Kaede examined each in turn, wondering again why there was no piece dedicated to the Ethereal caste. He caught the sound of rustling cloth and spun on his heel immediately to stand to attention, his eyes lowered. Aun'el Keis appeared a moment later, his mouth bent in a crooked smile. "That's what I like about you, Shas'vre Tash'var Kaede. You don't stand to attention if only the walls will appreciate the show of discipline."
Kaede bowed from the waist, knowing that the words were not a good natured rebuke but wondering if he'd been too relaxed none-the-less.
"Your Holiness, I apologize if I have shown disrespect in your chambers. I serve only at your pleasure" he answered, adopting his most inspection worthy stance. Tau'n Keis clicked his tongue chidingly, and motioned for Kaede to approach. "At ease, shas'vre. I'm pleased you can appreciate this art, you thus will understand the duties of the Fio caste extend beyond the construction of pulse rifles and crisis suits."
Kaede shifted his weight smoothly, acquiring a posture which was comfortable but erect. "I believe I know your meaning, your Holiness" Kaede said, glancing up to meet the jewel like eyes of Aun'el Keis. "The Tau culture is greater than the sum of its parts, and the Tau'va is more than just a military campaign to make our empire safe. It is the development of our society on intellectual and spiritual levels, also..."
The Ethereal made a small sound of agreement. "You wonder why only four castes are represented here" he stated, and Kaede was taken aback by his leader's perception. His surprise didn't show outwardly as more than a blink, however.
Keis motioned for Kaede to follow him into his chambers. "It is because we Ethereals are honoured by the achievements of our society as a whole. We hope our guidance brings all the septs together, for the Greater Good. That is what honours us. Our most worthwhile achievements are the ones that help others gain success in their endeavors."
Kaede studied his surroundings curiously as they walked, as they were passing down a corridor to a place he had not previously visited. "The Ethereals are the spirit of our people, Holiness" he said after a moments thought, recalling the times the presence of an Ethereal amongst an army had lifted the troop's morale and sealed difficult victories.
Keis laughed softly, stopping before a door of sculpted bronze metal. "You could find a place amongst the Water Caste, should you tire of soldiering" he smiled.
Kaede accepted the compliment with a bow, but he reaffirmed his dedication to his mentor, saying "My place is in your service."
Tau'n Keis spoke a quiet phrase in a language Kaede didn't recognize, and the ornate metal door swung open. Beyond was a dim, circular chamber. A ring of thin, rune inscribed stone columns surrounded a depression of fine fire-vein marble from the Tau homeworld itself. Set into the marble was a dais , covered in a complex pattern of lines and shapes Kaede thought arcane and mysterious. Keis walked around the edge of the room until he came to one of three small vaults. Taking his ceremonial wands of office from his belt, Keis placed them against the safe's door, and it clicked open. The Ethereal removed a bundle of fine cloth and returned to where Kaede had remained discreetly in the door way. He held it before him in both hands and fixed his gaze on Kaede's eyes, the warrior unable to look away as the red-gold orbs bore into him.
"Shas'vre Tash'var Kaede..."Keis intoned, his voice solemn. With his flowing robes of office and great height, the Ethereal loomed over Kaede. But to the fire warrior it was Keis's force of character that was truly dwarfing him.
"You have performed heroic deeds this day, and won a victory for the Tau. With every breath and each beat of you heart, you serve the Tau'va. The warriors who serve with you know that each time you ask them to place their lives in harm's way, it is danger you will face at their side. And if you can, you will take the risk alone. For this reason, some of them have taken the Ta'lissera Ritual with you, and your battlesuit bears the design of a knife to depict this pledge." Keis began to unwrap the bundle of silken cloth, and Kaede's eye's opened wide as he saw what lay beneath. The scar across his chest felt suddenly warm, and he looked up at Tau'n Keis in wonder. The Ethereal extended his arms, offering it to him.
"Accept this from me, as acknowledgment of your bravery and dedication. There will be dark places I ask you to venture, shas'vre. May this proclaim to all the bond that binds your team, and when you are alone Kaede, my faith in you. Kaede was near speechless as he accepted the gift, and his body wasn't certain whether to fall humbly to his knees or become as rigid as a durasteel hull plate. Kaede snapped to attention, held the gift over his heart, and bowed.
"I would assault the Eye of Terror, or the gue'la emperor's palace alone and without fear" he stated proudly. "I swear that my team and I will not fail you. Send us where you will, Holiness - No odds are too great as long as you lead us!"
Tau'n Keis's solemn expression began to slip as a wry smile turned up one corner of his lipless mouth. "It's interesting you should that, Kaede..." he said.

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