"Emperor grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not shoot, the courage to shoot the things I can, and the wisdom to hide the bodies."
-Sergeant Callahan, 72nd Laskarian Regiment
The land speeder's engines roared, propelling the skimmer just over the craggy rocks making up the mountainside. On the distant horizon, the sun was setting, casting long shadows over the badlands they had crossed. The vehicle darted over the rocky face of the mountain, its grav-engines taking it higher and higher, towards a small cave that had been discovered the previous day. Gaius Meridius, scout of the 10th Company of the Ultramarines Space Marine Chapter, leaned out the side of the land speeder storm, scanning the passing scenery for any signs of the enemy.
Orks weren't known for their effective sentries, but one had to always be vigilant. Though relatively stupid, the Orks were possessed of enough cunning to surprise those who were overconfident. That was why they had taken to wearing badlands camouflage for this mission. The normally blue land speeder storm had been daubed in various shades of greys and brown in irregular blotches to help it blend in with the surroundings. Gaius and the other scouts of Echo squad had painted their armour in a similar manner, covering the parade ground blue of their Chapter, but leaving one shoulder pad untouched for identification purposes.
He reached up with a free hand and rested a hand on the white Ultima glyph on his right shoulder, muttering a quick prayer under his breath. He had served the 10th Company for five decades now, and picked up the habit of muttering a quick prayer to the Chapter before every mission. Their Chaplain approved of the habit – even if the rest of Echo squad was just tolerant of it. Their sergeant, Aurelius, claimed it distracted him. However, Gaius had not failed in his vigilance yet, so the squad leader withheld any official reprimands.
The pitch of the engines changed, the vehicle beginning to slow down as they neared the cave – their entry point into the mountain. A mountain infested with Orks. Gaius had heard the veterans suggesting that the mountain was actually the remains of an asteroid the Orks had used to reach the planet, centuries ago. Maybe that was true. But it ultimately changed nothing.
The warband that used the mountain (designated simply as LM001) as a lair had been specifically chosen as a target due to its increased range and mobility. The Orks' lightning raids and forays deep behind allied lines had made it difficult to organise the thrust even know powering towards the main horde in the east. The majority of the space marines on the planet had been committed to the assault, leaving the 10th Company to deal with the problem. Lacking the heavy weaponry of a full battle company, the scouts had instead chosen to run a series of covert actions to disrupt the Orks until a battle company could be assigned to cleanse LM001 of all xenos presence.
With a dying whine, the land speeder came to a stop, hovering just outside the entrance of the cave. Sergeant Aurelius unbuckled his restraints and hopped out of the gunners seat, joined on the rocky surface by Gaius and two other members of Echo squad – Blasius and Felix. The fifth member of their squad, Vibius, would remain with the land speeder in case of any unforeseen complications.
Echo squad swept through the darkness, their goggles glowing a faint green. Though space marines enjoyed far superior eyesight than regular humans thanks to their ocular implants, even they had to rely on technology to aid them navigate the pitch black tunnels. The cave had led them into what could only be described as a warren – multiple tunnels weaving and winding their way in manic patterns throughout the body of the mountain. Aurelius had them keep close to the walls, moving swiftly with their sniper rifles slung over their shoulders, bolt pistols and combat knives in their hands.
The musky air was thick with noise. Hammering tools, guttural grunts and bestial roars surrounded them, echoing through the tunnels. There was no way to know where the noises came from, or how near their sources were. Aurelius led the squad with an auspex in his hand, his eyes flickering to the device every time they came across another branching route. It seemed as if the machine spirit of the auspex was weak within the caves, as the sergeant continued to check and recheck the display as the made their way deeper to the mountain, the risk of discovery increasing.
Gaius tightened his grip on his weapons. If they came across an enemy, they would have to strike swiftly, decisively, and most important of all, silently. Which meant they would be relying on their blades. Orks were dangerous melee combatants – towering slabs of green muscle and adrenaline, with brains too small to register death unless it was made abundantly obvious. He wasn't scared at the idea of battling on hand-to-hand – just anxious that he would fail.
An animal cry of surprise made him blink, his mind snapping to the situation at hand and immediately taking in everything. Aurelius had taken them down a smaller tunnel, and run headlong into a wandering Ork. The beast exclaimed in shock as the sergeant immediately drove his blade up through the thing's lower jaw. Thick blood poured from the wound as the blade stuck fast, and the scout marine was sent sprawling by a backhand from the xenos.
There were no cries of panic or alarm from the scouts – they simply charged as planned. The Ork had no weapons in its hands, and their offensive gave it no time to draw any before it was brought down by a tackle from Felix. Blasius leapt after him, delivering an uppercut to the beast, driving the knife in its jaw higher to reach it's brain, killing it. Of course, it kept thrashing about, it's massive arms smashing into Felix and Blasius, denting their armour.
Gaius hung back as his squad mates kept the creature pinned until it died, his gaze darting from one end of the tunnel to the other, keeping watch for any other approachers. That was his role in the plan they had put in place just in case of such a situation – the two closest squad members would take down the threat that had neutralised one of them, whilst the fourth would keep an eye out for any other incoming threats.
Aurelius was already staggering to his feet, coughing up blood as Blasius stabbed down at the Ork's face with his combat knife, repeating the action again and again until the thing stopped twitching. Gaius allowed himself a sigh. Nothing had been drawn to them during the commotion. Or so it seemed at least. It was hard to know if there clamour they could hear was of boots heading in their direction or the Orks partaking in one of their rituals in a nearby cavern.
Aurelius nodded at them, Blasius standing up and wiping the dirty blood off his blade on his trouser leg, the sergeant's blade in his free hand. He flipped the weapon over, offering it to Aurelius hilt first, and the other marine took it without acknowledgement. Felix managed to stand up as well, though it seemed as if his jaw had been dislocated when he had tackled the Ork. He paid it no mind as they looked to their sergeant.
“Keep moving,” he ordered, having Blasius take point. They had wasted enough time in these forsaken tunnels.
It took them another ten minutes of running through the darkness to finally reach their destination. A huge cavern at the heart of the mountain – so big that it was impossible to see the opposite wall, even with their enhanced goggles.
And it was filled with war machines.
A tide of Orks ebbed and flowed amongst rumbling trukks and buggies, trying to clamber atop the ramshackle vehicles. Hoots and roars were raised in response to the noise of industry – of clanging tools and shearing metals. Gaius watched it all impassively from the lip of the ledge they had exited onto, immediately dropping flat on the rock to avoid being seen. Not that the Orks seemed to be on watch at all – the chaos down below keeping them all distracted.
“Any sign of the target?” Aurelius asked from where he was tending to Felix. Blasius was holding the scout's head still as the sergeant wrenched his jaw back into place.
Gaius sweept his gaze over the crude effigy towering over all the other machines. A stompa – a gigantic walker with layers of armour and piles of gun welded on in typical Ork fashion. Gaius frowned for a moment. How did the Orks expect to get the lumbering machine outside? None of the tunnels were large enough for it...
He dismissed the though as he spooted their target. Perched atop the stompa's head was their target – the warboss. Or was it a Big Mek? It was hard to tell sometimes. The Ork he was looking at across the chamber was clad in a heavy suit of armour, hydraulics hissing as he swung his claws around, trying to direct his warband. They were almost ready to ride out.
“Mark him,” ordered Aurelius, moving into position to Gaius' left. Balsius and Felix also crawled up to the edge, their sniper rifles in their hands. Orks were notoriously tough. Those in charge even more so by virtue of being bigger and tougher than their regular brethren. Hence why they were going for four head-shots. With envenomed bullets. That would either put the Ork down for good, or stagger it enough to show weakness. And when an Ork in charge showed weakness, it never took long for others to start trying to usurp its position.
Gaius began to measure his breaths as he tucked the rifle butt against his shoulder. The goggles had been pushed up onto his forehead, letting him use the much more powerful scope on the weapon. He could make out the broken toothed maw of the monster that ruled this mountain, it's small beady eyes lost in the shadow of it's brow. Aurelius had given him a great honour, even if only for pragmatic reasons. He would be the one to guide the squad's attack. He would fire the first shot.
True, he hadn't done anything to earn the honour except adhere to their plan and stay out of the sudden brawl they had stumbled into with that Ork. Maybe...that was it? Ultramarines were expected to know every contingency plan, to always have a plan of action ready to fall back to. They had all done their part...perhaps it was to make up for Gaius being denied an opportunity to aid his brothers in the combat?
It didn't matter in the end. Gaius exhaled and held his breath, his body stilling. He knew that around him, the rest of Echo squad were doing the same. He pulled the trigger.
The dash back through the tunnels was swift and chaotic, their cloaks fluttering out behind them as they charged through the darkness. Their pistols roared as they shot anything that moved, anything that could bar their retreat from the buzzing hive that was the mountain. Grenades were thrown down side tunnels, filling them with smoke and shrapnel. This was always the most dangerous part of the mission – the fade, when the enemy knew where you were, and all that kept you alive was speed.
Echo squad burst out of the tunnel into the cave, hurling what remained of their grenades back at their pursuers. The land speeder storm was still in position, it's side presented to them. The scouts dashed to it as the Orks fired after them, leaping onto the vehicle's passenger deck. Vibius manipulated the controls, rapidly pulling away from the cave mouth and guiding the land speeder storm down towards the badlands – all of Echo squad accounted for, and their target dead.
Panting heavily, Gaius reached up and tapped the Ultima symbol on his shoulder. His thanks for a prayer answered.