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by Hal Melom
The three figures stopped at the edge of a steep hillside overlooking a deep, narrow, dry river valley below. Crouching behind the overgrown trunk of a huge fallen tree, they immediately set about constructing a small device directly behind their position. Only when the task was finished, with the device producing a clear, perfectly pitched hum, did the three Eldar Rangers allow themselves a rare moment of relaxation. One of them touched the temple of his helmet, studied the readout projected onto its eyepiece, and smiled.
“Excellent. We are on time and well ahead of the sluggish mon-keigh,” he said to the others, no small amount of pride evident in his voice.
“Yes, Artun, we stand in awe of your incredible pathfinding skills. Truly, the divine hounds of Tethion himself would lose your trail and bay howls of lament at their inability to catch you,” came the immediate reply from another male voice, this one laden with sardonic mirth.
“Your unwillingness to acknowledge the skills of your fellows may be attributed to the ignorance of youth, but mark well my words, Kas—you may yet learn something if you can pry your attention away from our companion for a second,” came the reply.
Both members of the conversation turned their eyes toward the other one, who had removed her helmet to reveal flowing tresses of beautiful golden hair beneath the dark hood of her cloak. Her almond shaped eyes were deep blue and set perfectly in relation to her delicate, aquiline nose. When Artun made his comment (which was quite accurate), the pale skin beneath her high cheekbones flushed a deep red and her thin, graceful eyebrows furrowed into an embarrassed frown. Kas hastily got up and turned his attention out over the ridge, muttering something about “watching in case the humans arrive early.” Artun removed his helmet and gestured towards Kas with a flick of his eyes.
“Forgive him, Elhionne,” he signed in a series of complex hand gestures, “his behavior is understandable, if poorly masked. You are truly a rare creature, even among the radiant children of Isha.”
Elhionne turned a deeper shade of red and signed back, “Thank you for your praise, though it is undeserved. I wish, however, that neither of you would discuss it so openly. At least, please refrain from making comments while we are out in the field and have more pressing matters to be concerned with.”
Artun nodded and turned to the device, which was now glowing a pale yellow at its base. He reached out two slender, weather worn fingers and touched them to the base. Immediately, an voice entered his mind.
“Your speed is to be praised, Artun. Truly your reputation is well deserved. Remain where you are and report as soon as the mon-keigh arrive.” Artun withdrew his fingers and the voice disappeared. He unlimbered the long rifle beneath his cloak and looked back towards the two younger Rangers under his command.
“We remain here,” he spoke, “settle in and keep your attention on the valley.” This was accompanied by a slight but unmistakably stern look in Kas’s direction. “Report the instant the humans arrive,” he finished before turning his attention to the elegant weapon in his hands. Elhonne turned wordlessly and began preparing a place to hide. Kas stole one more glance at her before he too settled into a concealed spot underneath the fallen tree.
Not too long after that, the rumble of heavy engines drifted to the Rangers’ position. Elhionne and Kas turned at the same instant to signal to Artun, but he had heard the noise too and was already channeling his thoughts through the psychic device. After a moment, he opened his eyes and spoke.
“Niondras’s visions were correct, as always. We face true human warriors today, Space Marines of a chapter that refers to itself as the Fighting Tigers. I have witnessed their prowess before; they are deadly foes and should not be underestimated, human though they are. We shall enter the battle only after the rest of our forces engage them—if we are discovered, then we must retreat before they can respond.” He punctuated his last remark by loading a long, heavy bullet into his rifle and chambering it with a deliberate motion. He climbed underneath the log with his two younger charges and all three of them waited for the Marines to show themselves.
They did not have to wait long.
As the sun reached its apex in the clear blue sky above, seven treaded vehicles appeared one after the other in the distance, rounding the mountain that composed the opposite side of the valley. The lead tank dwarfed the other six and practically bristled with guns. From what the Rangers could see through their viewfinders, the remaining six shared a common chassis, but half of them mounted an additional turret on top. All were painted bright orange with black stripes covering virtually every surface, which obscured their outline and made them look almost like huge bulky animals. No infantry marched alongside the column, which brought a brief sigh of relief to Kas’s lips before Artun reminded him that the vehicles were all transports and that they most likely held scores of soldiers.
“The lead vehicle is a Land Raider, of standard design,” Artun informed them. “It is heavily armed and armored, and most likely carries their best warriors within. The others are known as Rhinos and Razorbacks, both light transports common among the human warrior caste. Keep your sights on the forward end of the Land Raider; the most dangerous fighters will appear from there once the fighting begins.” Elhionne and Kas nodded and adjusted their scopes accordingly. As they were doing so, a faint, high-pitched, keening hum became perceptible in the distance. It began steadily increasing in volume behind the Rangers.
“Steady,” Artun warned, tension creeping into his voice, “the moment is almost upon us.”
The arrival of the grav tanks was announced by a white-hot beam of energy that lanced through the sky and exploded against the side of the Land Raider in a coruscating ball of energy. A fraction of a second later, pulses of bright red energy cut through the air and perforated the number two tank, followed by a missile that finished the job, sending jagged hunks of plasteel screaming through the air to land hundreds of yards away. The Falcon and Fire Prism that had launched the volley of shots shrieked overhead and peeled off in opposite directions, the Falcon cutting sharply to the left while the Fire Prism veered right to attack the column from the front.
The human column exploded into action, apparently unfazed by the sudden, violent attack and eager to avenge their losses. The Land Raider opened up with a pair of heavy bolters and its remaining laser cannons, trying to hit the elusive flying tank that had just wounded it. The Rhinos and Razorbacks behind it immediately halted and disgorged their passengers, then wheeled around and attempted to bring their guns to bear against the Falcon trying to flank them. Amazingly, a few armored figures stumbled from the burning wreckage of the destroyed transport, and in a few moments they had taken cover behind its charred hulk and opened fire at the Fire Prism. Artun marveled at the discipline and resilience displayed by these warriors, just as he had the last time that he fought them. Once again, he reminded the other two Rangers to keep their rifles trained on the Land Raider.
The Marines that had disembarked from the remaining transports had by now taken up positions alongside the road, using the hillsides as cover to ensure that the two deadly tanks could only fire upon them from a narrow angle. The Eldar trap, however, was not completely sprung yet. Just as they had settled into their firing positions, the Marines found themselves embroiled in a furious melee with a large group of green-armored Eldar, who sprang upon them wielding whirring chainswords and firing bursts of energy from their pistols and even their helmets. On the other side of the valley, the unmistakable outline of a Wraithlord emerged from the trees and strode inexorably towards the closest group of Marines, who fell back while pouring volley after volley of explosive bolts into its armored carapace.
Still, Artun, Kas, and Elhionne held their fire.
The Fire Prism launched another blast of energy that pushed the monstrous Land Raider back a few feet when it impacted directly on the front end. When the glowing haze dissipated, however, the enormous tank was battered but still very much functional. To prove this point, the twin laser cannons on its left side spat back at the Fire Prism, punching a glowing hole in its right wing and causing it to veer wildly to the side for a few precious seconds. It stabilized long enough to fire another devastating shot, but this time it arced wide and exploded in the jungle next to the Land Raider. The Fire Prism started a jinking maneuver that would carry it safely behind the rise of the mountain, but it never finished. The gunner inside the Land Raider had found his mark and this time the twin lascannon beams punched directly through the lower cockpit holding the pilot, flash-incinerating him before they connected to the complex apparatus powering the Fire Prism Cannon. The resulting explosion annihilated the grav tank in midair, raining flaming chunks of crystal and psycho-plastics over the battlefield. The most immediate threat dispatched, the Land Raider finally lowered its frontal hatch to disgorge its passengers.
“The time is upon us. May Asuryan guide your shots,” spoke Artun before raising his rifle to his shoulder. A massive, clawed, black and white form emerged from the Land Raider, followed by four others. Artun let out his breath in a slow sigh and gently squeezed the trigger. The shot pierced the tiny eyepiece of the Terminator armor and ricocheted around inside the thick helmet. The Tiger of Indra slumped and blood poured from the single tiny hole in her helmet. Kas likewise fired, but his shot was a fraction off and it bounced harmlessly off another Terminator’s armored forehead. He cursed and worked to load the next bullet. Elhionne completed the volley by sending her shot at the tiny joint connecting the helmet to the body, but at the last second the huge armored suit turned and her bullet disintegrated on its massive shoulder pad. Without even a glance at their fallen leader, the remaining white Tigers bounded towards their beleaguered brothers who were desperately trying to hold off the Striking Scorpions. Kas reloaded and drew a bead on the thermal vents running up the back of the nearest one.
“Make peace with your Emperor, mon-keigh,” he whispered, slowly pulling the trigger. Elhionne heard the sharp report of his rifle, but was puzzled when Kas neither whooped with triumph nor cursed his misfortune. She looked to her left and let out an involuntary scream; Kas’s cloak was spattered with his blood, a gruesome hole in his head yawning wide.
Artun glanced in her direction, saw what was left of Kas, and immediately grasped the situation. He yelled to Elhionne, “We have been discovered! Run, now!” With that, he snatched Kas’s soulstone and tucked it into his cloak before turning and sprinting into the jungle, Elhionne close behind. Immediately after they abandoned their position, a hail of high-explosive shells from the Land Raider tore the log, and Kas’s body, to shreds.
The two Rangers sprinted deep into the jungle, Artun changing their course erratically to throw off any who might be pursuing them. Behind them, the sounds of the battle in the valley reached a new crescendo of weapons fire, explosions, and screams. After a full minute of flight, in which time he used every evasive technique he knew, Artun leapt behind the base of another massive jungle tree and pulled Elhionne in with him as she ran past. Breathing hard, he reached into his cloak, produced a small crystal, and held it tightly while furiously muttering a stream of incantations. The crystal grew warm, then crumbled to dust and sifted through his fingers. Safe in the knowledge that the psychic communicator had been similarly disintegrated, he turned to his shaken companion.
“You are unharmed?” he asked in the silent code. She responded to the query with a quick nod, then motioned to the waystone affixed to her chest. Artun produced the gem, which now glowed with the trapped essence of Kas’s soul, then replaced it within yet another of the seemingly innumerable pouches in his camouflaged tunic.
Elhionne’s relief was visible even through her expressionless helmet. Artun slid a fresh round into his rifle, then leaned perfectly motionless against the base of the tree. His breathing became slow and regular as he strained his consciousness outward, absorbing every minute detail of the jungle around him. He felt the hot wet atmosphere pressing thickly through the lush jungle canopy. In the distance, the rumbling booms had become more sporadic, but he though he could still make out the whine of the Falcon’s grav engine.
He could not hear anyone approaching, so he opened his eyes, his plan of action now firmly decided.
“We have done all that we can. The battle, won or lost, is no longer our concern. Follow me back to the retrieval point.” Elhionne nodded and quickly checked to make sure all of her gear was secure. Artun cautiously peered out from behind the tree. When no heavy shells screamed forth to take his life, he turned and motioned for Elhionne to follow. Then his head exploded.
Elhionne screamed and threw herself backward, Artun’s headless corpse sagging forward on top of her. That saved her life, as an instant later the corpse jerked with the impact of another round. Terror lending new strength to her limbs, she heaved the heap that had been her guide off her body and leapt behind the tree. Breathing raggedly, the rifle she clutched to her chest now her dearest friend in the galaxy, she willed herself to focus and not give in to the hysterical panic that promised sure doom.
Expecting every second to feel the impact of the killing bullet, she crammed her free hand into her coat and withdrew a gray ellipsoid shape. She tossed it to the left and reached for a new one with the same motion. A bright flash accompanied a burst of electromagnetic static and heavy smoke from the blind grenade, and a moment later the second grenade went off as well. She sprinted forward in that instant and dove for a thicket of ferns eleven yards in front of her, dropping a third blind grenade to the ground as she ran. It went off right before she made it under the massive fronds.
Without stopping, she crawled through the thicket as far as she could before the smoke dispersed and the static dissipated. After another few seconds of frantic crawling, she rolled onto her back and pointed her rifle directly between her legs at the jungle beyond the wall of smoke. Absolute stillness greeted her, accompanied by the steadily fading booming from the valley far behind. Nothing moved, except…a clump of shadows, just momentarily, in the trees a hair’s breadth to the right of where her rifle was pointed. She edged the weapon over and strained to make sense of the magnified image through the scope. A glint caught her eye. Somehow she knew that if she didn’t fire, that would be the last thing she ever saw. Centering the source of the glint in the scope, Elhionne squeezed the trigger. In her awkward firing position, the barrel of the long rifle jumped through the protective ferns above and around her when the shot was loosed.
The bush where she had seen the shadow suddenly leaped as if it was a living thing and had itself been shot. It jerked wildly and its inner structure seemed to grow hotter, finally settling on a warm orange color. Finally, it exhausted itself and lay still. Elhionne herself froze and waited to die, knowing that her position had been revealed when she fired her one shot, and that if any other Marines were in the area, she was doomed. Nothing happened, however, and after a minute she stood and walked over to where the dead sniper lay.
He was young, with dark skin and curly black hair that was now tangled and streaked with gore. His armor was dull and black, but his long cloak was a rich, brilliant orange hue, with thick black stripes covering its entire surface. His fingers clutched a crude human rifle with several scratches in its butt. The visor that he wore had a neat hole drilled directly into its center. Elhionne realized that the glint she saw had been the Marine looking directly at her. If she had hesitated for another second, he would be the one inspecting her lifeless body.
She also noticed several bloody bundles fastened to his belt. No, not bundles. Hands. Severed Eldar hands. Revulsion welling inside her, she turned and walked away, leaving his carcass for whatever scavengers the smell would inevitably attract. When she neared what was left of Artun, another wave of emotion threatened to overwhelm her, but she forced it down. Kneeling, she gathered the soulstone from Artun’s chest and the one containing Kas from his cloak. She left one final gift for the fallen Ranger before she rose and ran towards the extraction point.
of the plasma grenade vaporizing Artun’s body followed her as she began
the long journey towards the starship awaiting her return.
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© copyright February 2001 by Hal Melom. Used with permission.
Codex <> Tactics <> Gallery <> Allies and Enemies <> Tales of the Tigers