The briefing gallery was a huge space, set deep in the bowels of the Governor Seydlitz. In a sense it was a place of devotion as well as briefing, the place where soldiers were imparted with the information that would enable them to carry out the Emperor’s divine work, their valour on the battlefield the purest form of worship. This sense of holy instigation was reflected in the high vaulted ceiling and the golden doors that arched three metres high at one end, split open down the centre of a vast bas relief Aquila. At the opposite end of the room, in front of a large oval holo-projector, was a raised dais with a pulpit for an officer to stand and give address, visible from every point in the hall. In the absence of the regimental chaplain, a devotional servitor crouched below the pulpit, swinging a gilded censor back and forth in spidery hands to sanctify the air.
Near the pulpit, the mahogany-skinned lieutenant Blake watched the servitor for a moment with his expressive brown eyes before turning his appraising gaze back towards his senior NCO. Colour sergeant Pilgrim was shorter and more thickset than his superior; while Blake’s face was round and honest Pilgrim’s was severe, accentuated by the sharply trimmed hair and beard that framed it.
“Is it true, sir?” the colour sergeant asked carefully, “That the xenos can mess with our heads?”
Blake clasped his hands behind his back. “I’m not going to lie to you, colour sergeant. The after-action reports from Schattenwelt make for pretty grim reading. Waking nightmares, hallucinations, even spontaneous suicide on the battlefield. But our fellow Imperials are holding the line, and now it’s our job to finish the affair. No matter what blasphemous abilities these xenos are wielding, we’ll drive them back to where they came from. In the Emperor’s name.”
“In the Emperor’s name, sir.” Pilgrim replied dutifully.
“I’m getting ahead of myself.” Blake smiled thinly as he heard the tramping of feet beyond the arched doorway. “Best I explain things where everyone can hear, eh? Colour sergeant, if you would do the honours.”
Both men turned towards the company of Delphic soldiers approaching down the long corridor.
“Triarii!” Pilgrim roared in his best parade ground voice, “Fall in!”
“AYE!” came the universal response as the Imperial Guardsmen broke into a jog and split to either side in a well-drilled wave of movement, filling the room and forming up into their squads. They were fresh from the training galleries, sweat-streaked and with their weapons still in their hands. Every man wore the dark grey and black fatigues they had been issued with for the Schattenwelt intervention - the shadowy camouflage starkly out of place in this brightly lit hall of steel and gold, but perfect for the continual twilight of Schattenwelt’s dark season.
Blake recognised every face in the company - there was meltagunner Lehner, the man from Stranix who’s irascible nature totally contradicted the laid-back stereotype traditionally associated with that idyllic island chain. Of course, what the Orks had done to Stranix would have given any man cause to turn bitter and hateful. Behind him was Corbec, the parallel Ork claw-marks that raked his forehead failing to detract from his chiselled good looks as he shared a joke with Martos and Fitzgerald. Forming up in sergeant Cameron’s second squad were the adopted offworlder O’Rourke and the grizzled and taciturn Vicario, behind their dependable point man DuGrae. In the third squad under Ferro, the soldiers talked animatedly among themselves, all except Nyl who remained grim and focussed. Nyl was one of the company’s most haunted and hard-bitten soldiers, despite his young age. In amongst the grenadier squad was corporal Klemens, his face hidden behind his closed helmet, but recognisable by the distinctive lasgun he cradled which was a carryover from his original homeworld.
The command squad detached themselves from the jostling guardsman and ran to join Blake and Pilgrim. Leading them was sergeant Mainwering, the huge autolaser she carried almost dwarfing her small frame. Another offworlder, she had nevertheless trained most of this company with a discipline every bit as blunt and brutal as the gun she carried. The officer and his colour sergeant accepted her salute, and turned to face the now ranked up guardsmen.
“Triarii!” Pilgrim shouted as Blake ascended the pulpit alongside the ceremonial servitor, “Ten-shun!”
There was a loud thump as fifty right feet stamped in unison against their left counterparts. At the pulpit, lieutenant Blake crossed his hands over his chest and made the sign of the Aquila.
“Let us pray.” he said.