Guardspony: Part One
Note: INTRODUCTORY CHAPTER. Much more action and CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT and less MUCKING ABOUT to come. I promise. Also Phobos pattern Leman Russes aren’t an actual miniature. I invented them for the sake of being more PONY LIKE.
It is the 41st millennium of the Holy Equestrian calender. For more than a hundred centuries the Empress Celestia has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Holy Equestria. She is the mistress of ponykind by the will of the Gods, and mistress of a million worlds by the might of her inexhaustible armies. She is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. She is the Carrion ruler of the Equirium for whom a thousand unicorns are sacrificed every day, so that she may never truly die.
Yet even in her deathless state, the Empress continues her eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, their way lit by the Astronomican, the magical manifestation of Celestia’s limitless power. Vast armies give battle in Her name on uncounted worlds. Greatest among Her soldiers are the Equus Astartes, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: The Equirial guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the mysterious techno-sorcerers of the Equus Mechanicum to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants - and worse.
To be a pony in such times is to be one among untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime in the history of ponykind. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of friendship and magic, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of love and tolerance, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace among the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting Gods.
Steel Smoulder smiled. It was the first smile he could remember which wasn’t borne out of desperation and short-lived hope. He was home. The gentle winds of the Hoofthenian foothills caressed his face and breezed through his dirt caked brown mane and pale yellow fur, or what little of it remained after the regimental barber had had his way with it. Hoofthens, the jewel of the Aggripian sector and the capital city of Hoofellenes. It was a centre of culture, learning and art. The envy of the entire Aggripian sector and its neighbours. It stood proud and beautiful in the distance, presiding majestically over endless stretches of glittering sand and jeweled, pristine sea. The city was exactly as he‘d remembered it all those years ago, down to the last building and brick, before the guard tithes had taken him from his home and family.
Every guardspony’s dream was to survive, fulfill his duty to the Empress and return home bearing trophies and stories of glory and honor. It was what kept every guardspony fighting in the face of impossible odds and horrific aberrations from the beginnings of creation and Smoulder was no exception. Pangs of longing filled him at the sight of the unspeakably beautiful city. The wheat and grass around his hooves had an aetheric quality to it. It felt unreal and fragile, as if ready to disappear at a moment’s notice with even the subtlest of disturbances. The feeling perturbed Smoulder greatly. Taking a step forward, the sound of his hooves lightly crunching on dried stalks of grass was accompanied by a slight, almost unnoticeable clink of metal. Smoulder sighed and looked down at his forelegs. Sure enough, they were clad in the sleek, black steel greaves favoured by the Aggripian Hoplites. A grinning pony skull adorned with a plumed Stallartan flak helmet greeted him as his eyes traveled, resigned, further up his foreleg and lingered on his shoulder pads. He remembered what his tearful but proud father had told him on the day of the muster. “Guardsponies never come home, son. But I’ll be praying for you all the same”
It had been too good to be true. He’d realized that from the beginning. Everything always was in this universe. “Vox-sergeant? Sir?” Smoulder turned. Standing before him in the grass was a young, white colt barely a year past puberty. His head was unadorned and his mane disheveled and greasy enough to make his Aggripian armor appear in pristine condition by comparison, as if it had just rolled off the assembly lines of Stallarta. It was Corporal Firelight, one of the fresh-faced new recruits from Aggripa that the 17th regiment received annually. One of Smoulder’s vox-operators, a fellow Hoofthenian, unofficially his protégé and right now, one of the last ponies Smoulder wanted to see. His soldier’s training kicked in and he rolled out of his sleeping mat, the pleasant fields and rolling hills of the dream fading away to reveal the hard concrete walls of the bunker within the fortress that had been the 17th’s home for a week.
Considering the enemy that they faced, Smoulder strongly suspected that the fort would be the regiment’s graveyard but he kept his dark thoughts to himself and assumed his usual air of soldierly stoicism. Vox equipment crackled with half heard transmissions and vague interference within small islands of floor as yet untouched by the carpet of cables and wires lying everywhere.Corporal Romper lay on the sleeping mat next to Smoulder’s, sleeping soundlessly after a hard night of vox duty. The three ponies were the regimental long range vox-operators, who facilitated communication between the regiment and other Equirial forces. Without them, the regiment would be left without vital artillery or air support. Not that such luxuries were available at this point in time.
“Firelight. What is it?” Smoulder suppressed a yawn with an unconscious ease borne out of years of brutal Equirial guard discipline and noted that the rusty lamps hanging from the ceiling made a poor substitute for the pleasant Aggripian sun which had warmed his back minutes ago. He silently cursed the unfortunate coincidence which had led to the end of his dream, whatever it was. The vox-operator had spent half the night listening to the regimental vox, keeping an ear out for important notices and orders.
Corporal Firelight regarded him with worried eyes and a forced smile as he held out a clipboard with his hoof, which very slightly shook, as if he was attempting to suppress his fear.
“I’m sorry to have interrupted you sir. But you need to see this.”
He was a combat virgin, after all. Smoulder mused. He’d get used to that kind of fear very soon.
He supposed that by now, no one in the regiment was truly a combat virgin. Not with the week that the regiment had spent within the fort. But Firelight had never used his weapon. He had never stood the line and witnessed the deaths of his fellow Aggripians first hand. If he was unlucky, his chance could come at any moment.
“It’s a message from command sir. High priority.”
Smoulder raised an eyebrow, a faint glimmer of hope welling up at the prospect of…what? Orders to withdraw? Abandon this deathtrap of a fort to the chittering hordes which loomed just outside its’ walls? He took Firelight’s outstretched clipboard with a hoof and read the message quickly and efficiently. The hope within him flickered and died, and it was all Smoulder could do to suppress a fear driven gasp. “Colonel Helios will want to see this in person.” Smoulder’s voice barely stuttered as he turned and trotted up the stairs, ignoring the unrestrained fear evident in Firelight’s eyes. “Keep listening for updates, corporal.”
He grabbed his longlas and combat vox saddlebag as he trotted up the stairs, snapped the weapon onto the right shoulder of his flak armor with practiced ease and gripped the aiming bit with his mouth. He swung his head perfunctorily from side to side, making sure that the longlas swung with his head, allowing him to aim at something just by looking at it. A careless guardspony was a dead one, especially on the current battlefield. Throwing the vox-pack onto his back, he stepped out onto the fort’s grounds and was blasted by the stench of burnt wood and stale blood. The trees around the fortress in a six hundred metre radius had been burned to the ground and the terrain painstakingly flattened to provide no cover for approaching attackers, yet a great alpine forest loomed before the fortress, sinister at the best of times. And now, enemy territory. Great, snow capped mountains loomed behind the fortress. On a clear day, somepony could see the towering black profile of Kelphio’s alpha hive, the capital city, which was built directly into a mountain for security and access to precious minerals and ores. It was what the 17th were here to defend, and for that, Smoulder greatly resented its existence.
Sunlight was trickling through the clouds as dawn broke, and as Smoulder emerged from the long range vox bunker, he spotted the various sentries and heavy weapons crews stationed on the fort walls silently and stonily watching the surrounding forest. It was an impressive display of Equirial guard firepower and discipline. Heavy bolters and lascannons covered every possible approach, leaving no blind spots in the regiment’s defences. Despite watching the fortress all night, iron discipline and an undercurrent of nervous fear kept the sentries on edge and fully capable of fighting effectively despite their night long ordeal. Hydra anti-air flak batteries kept constant vigil over the skies, ready to dispatch anything larger than a small bird with a controlled burst of autocannon rounds. Two Phobos pattern Leman Russ tanks, loaned to the 17th courtesy of the 43rd Pferdian Armored, stood watch by the gates, their enormous flamethrowers depressed and ready to fill the portal with a torrent of burning promethium. None of it was enough.
Second company had had a very close call the day before. Captain Brightwater had been supervising the final touches to the barren land just outside the fortress when the enemy had burst out of the ground and struck without warning. Scything claws and spiked tentacles had eviscerated hoplites by the dozens in a wild orgy of killing. Fully a fifth of the company had watered the ground with their blood before Brightwater was able to reform his ponies and fight a rearguard action back to the fortress walls. Over forty casualties for less than ten of the enemy, who had scattered and retreated back underground when their prey escaped. Smoulder sighed as he recalled the bedraggled, shocked guardsponies who had stumbled through the gates, many of whom were missing limbs or sporting deep wounds. None of them had expected a foe like the paranids.
The rest of the fort was stirring as squads of fully armed hoplites trotted out of barracks buildings and bunkers to relieve the sentries. All of them were hard faced and scarred mentally if not physically. Most were veterans of dozens of campaigns who had felt their comrades’ blood splash on their faces countless times. Others were young and unblooded recruits just like Firelight, who had already gained the same hard eyes of the veterans marching beside them, Smoulder included. All bore wounds of varying degrees of severity.
Such was the nature of the enemy that anypony unfortunate enough to have received more than a minor wound was either dead or fighting for his life in the medical bunker, from which, very faint screams could be heard from the open hatch. A depressingly long line of sheet covered corpses laid outside the medical bunker testified to that fact. They were the previous days’ dead, yet to be buried. Smoulder wondered how soon it would be before there were more corpses to bury than hoplites to bury them. The regimental standard stood tall and proud in the very centre of the fort. It, at least, remained unblemished and unspoilt by combat. The Grinning Stallartan Pony skull of the 17th Aggripian Hoplites watched over the fortress and provided an anchor of courage for the more idealistic guardsponies among them. The sight of it reassured Smoulder, and he made a conscious effort to banish the fear and nervous fluttering roiling with his chest.
Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Smoulder trotted briskly to the command bunker directly opposite his and nodded to the two guardsponies stationed outside the door, both of whom saluted and opened the door. As he descended the narrow concrete stairs and entered the command and control center, he was greeted by a tired and weary white unicorn with a chainsword cutie mark surrounded by the various officers and regimental company commanders. His mane had almost been completely removed, leaving his head bare. His chainsword clattered in its scabbard as he looked up at Smoulder over the various maps and reports adorning the large but cluttered table which adorned the middle of the CNC. Rows of data lecterns and holographic maps lined the walls of the room, attended to by various aides and enginseers.
Fearsome was the word most often used to describe Colonel Helios. He was a Stallartan, born and raised in the brutal, highly militarized industrial hive. Stallartans were natural fighters. They were a tough and uncompromising breed of ponies made so by the brutality of their lives from birth to death. Their society trampled the weak underfoot, and each Stallartan had to fight to prove his worth repeatedly over the course of his life, whether it was on a distant, brutal battlefield or within the vast manufactoriums which churned out millions of weapons each day.
Fearsome was an appropriate description for Colonel Helios. His face had been tattooed in black patterns to resemble a skull and gave him a terrifying appearance which, while not fazing in the least the orks, eldar-ponies and heretics that the 17th regularly faced off against, did have the effect of both bolstering morale among the men during battle and maintaining discipline outside of it. This, coupled with an overdeveloped musculature borne of a lifetime of hardship, caused him to loom over every other pony in the room, including the other Stallartan officers. Even in an out of combat situation, the Colonel wore his Stallartan helmet with pride. Its long red plume extended back down his neck, denoting rank, while numerous scars and grazes all over his helmet and face served as trophies. Reminders of exactly why the colonel was so feared and respected by his guardsponies.
“Vox sergeant Smoulder. What have you got for me?” Helios’ voice was clipped and purely professional, holding none of the usual disdain and superior pride with which Stallartans tended to treat their Hoofthenian kin. He nodded to a nearby aide and handed him a clipboard, seemingly unwilling to put his planning on hold for Smoulder’s sake. The assembled officers regarded Smoulder with impassive countenances and straight, trim figures. All spitting images of Aggripian martial pride.
“Sir, operational orders from high command.” Smoulder’s voice was similarly clipped as long years of guard discipline asserted themselves in front of his superior. Helios nodded and took the clipboard as Smoulder leaned forward to offer it, and then scanned it carefully. His stony countenance and gray eyes disgested the contents of the message as he laid it down on the table.
“Gentlecolts.” Helios’ voice was remarkably even and soft, as always, quite at odds with the skull face tattoo which had earned him a fearsome reputation for valor and brutality. “Our job has just gotten a little more challenging. As of this morning, the 32nd Mareza Rifles on our western flank fell to a concentrated paranid assault. The bulk of the paranid forces is heading this way to reinforce the swarm that has kept us pinned down here. They will be at the gates within two days.” The assembled officers took the news stoically and merely nodded understanding as the colonel continued. “We are currently the only force standing between the paranids and Alpha hive. Command has ordered us to hold the paranids back long enough for our offworld reinforcements above us to break the hiveships and get their men down here. We’ve prepared for this eventuality gentlecolts. You all know your assignments and positions. All other operational planning is hereby canceled.” The finality in the words was unmistakable, and Smoulder envied the ease with which the Colonel accepted the situation.
The gathered officers nodded grimly and solemnly spoke as one “The Empress protects.”, though Smoulder noted that the Stallartan officers did so with determination and pride rather than the concealed fear infecting their Hoofthenian colleagues. Just as Colonel Helios opened his mouth to issue further orders, the door slammed open and a guardspony rushed down the stairs, his lasgun readied for use. The sound of shouting and marching boots drifted down the steps behind him, along with a terrifying yet all too familiar sound. An unmistakable chittering accompanied by the beating of thousands of wings.
“Sir! The paranids are attacking in force!”
They don’t waste time do they? Smoulder mused silently as he gripped the longlas’ aiming bit with his mouth and rested his tongue on the trigger.
Guardspony: Part Two
The regimental officers thundered up the steps, already bellowing orders into their commbeads as the sound of weapons fire shouldered its way into the previously serene command center. Colonel Helios merely nodded to his aides, who scurried away to bring the command and control center to full combat readiness. As he turned away to face his now operational tactical map, he glanced at Smoulder questioningly. “Dismissed, vox-sergeant. Take your place on the field.” Smoulder’s reply died in his throat as the colonel immediately began barking succinct orders into his private vox-set and took control of the battlefield. Galloping up the steps, Smoulder emerged into a frantic scene of controlled chaos set to the constant, nightmarish sound of thousands of hungry paranids. Black armored hoplites ran along the battlements in squads, picking their positions strategically to maintain a tight, unbroken wall of lasfire.
Smoulder ran over to the vox-tower and climbed the ladder, using his knee grooves to ascend the rungs with practiced ease. It was a skill few ponies mastered, and Smoulder normally took pride in being part of that elite group. That pride was currently being overwhelmed by the stoic professionalism drummed into him every day since he’d joined the Guard, and he refused to allow his fear a foothold as he took his position at the top of the vox tower, where he could observe the battle and relay orders between the rest of the regiment by smoothing the transmissions between commbeads considerably.
His vox-saddlebags crackled alive with shouted orders as soon as he activated them, and he took aim with his long-las. Though he wasn’t exactly a sniper, the long-las did allow him vastly increased range and a small 4X scope. Much more than the average Guardspony had at his disposal. A tingle of fear ran through him as the scope allowed him to see the elements of the battle about to begin.
On the edge of the forest, a swarm of chitinous horrors began pouring from the trees through the shadows, in a seemingly unending wave. A black carpet of blades and organic armor shimmered in the sunlight, making the swarm seem more like a single mass of liquid rather than as a collection of individual creatures. The endless, droning buzzing of tiny wings filled the air as the paranids flapped them to increase their running speed. The wave approached from a single direction, straight towards the gates, and as Smoulder looked down at the ponies assembled on the walls, he smiled grimly. The fortress was quite literally a bastion against the darkness, straight out of the tales he had heard as a colt.
Smoulder’s vox saddlebag crackled as a new voice joined the chorus of orders. The other voices immediately faded as Colonel Helios finally took personal command of the situation. “Gentlecolts, you know the drill. Lascannons at 550 metres, target the warriors exclusively. Heavy Bolters at 300. All line infantry are to fire at 150 metres. Single shots only. Mortar teams, open fire….now. Incendiaries only.”
The whump of mortar shells leaving their barrels reverberated through the fortress, and fiery explosions
rippled across the front ranks of the paranid swarm, sending hundreds of bio-constructs flying in even more pieces. Burning promethium doused the paranids in the vicinity of the explosion and ignited them, turning almost every single blast survivor into living torches. The mortar crews were all veterans, and operated with mechanical precision. One pony made minute adjustments to the mortar’s angle and direction, and another loaded a round at almost the exact instant when the barrel had been correctly adjusted. Each detonation reflected the skill of the Aggripian mortar teams as they continued to load and fire their mortars without pause.
Though fearsome, the explosions were little more than ripples in the veritable sea of the growing paranid horde. The lascannons opened fire as soon as their targets presented themselves, and gigantic lasbeams tore towards the larger paranid warriors responsible for directing the swarm. Many of the shots struck true, blowing off limbs and punching holes straight through armored thoraxes, bringing paranid warrior forms down mercilessly. However, many more failed to hit their targets as swirling swarms of tiny, flying creatures floated in front of the warrior forms and acted as living shields, though they were incinerated in their thousands. Faster than Smoulder wanted to believe, the horde entered heavy bolter range.
The veteran heavy bolter crews on the walls opened fire and cut down the front ranks of the paranid swarm with disciplined, rapid bursts of fire. The mass-reactive, highly explosive bolter shells detonated among the swarm and ripped dozens of paranids to pieces, shrapnel slicing and crippling what the bolts didn’t outright kill. The mortars fired again, targeting the edge of the forest and reaping a bountiful harvest as the trees caught fire and began to burn the paranids yet to emerge from the shadows of the forest’s edge.
As the swarm crossed into lasgun range, Smoulder opened fire indiscriminately, repeatedly pressing the aiming bit’s trigger with his tongue. The horde was so thick that it was impossible to fire at it without hitting something. The hoplites on the walls and the actual snipers in the other watchtowers followed suit, targeting whatever the heavy bolters missed on their bloody sweep. For an instant, a wall of red las beams illuminated the entire front of the wall, felling an entire rank of the paranid swarm.
Despite the efforts of the guardsponies, the horde reached the walls and began clawing their way up. The warrior paranids stomped towards the gate, rearing up to begin battering it down as guardsponies peppered their thoraxes with lasfire. Paragaunts, perverted creatures slightly smaller than a pony, crested the lips of the walls and leapt at the hoplites with claws outstretched.
The paragaunts resembled parasprites only distantly. The rotund, bulbous bodies of their tiny, carnivorous cousins eschewed in favour of sleek, chitin armored forms. Two scything claws protruded from each shoulder, perfectly capable of slicing through flak armor with ease. Perhaps the most disturbing feature common to all paranid creatures was their faces. Though the rest of their bodies were monstrous and twisted, perfectly honed and suited for killing, their faces defied all logic. The chitin armored faces of the paranid bioforms were twisted into perpetual smiles. Their large, wet eyes seemed innocent and childlike, yet reflected a cunning, extremely dangerous intellect perfectly capable of complex reasoning and thought. They truly were abominations.
“Aera!” The Aggripian Hoplites’ ancient regimental warcry, taken from the classical Hoofllenic tongue, reverberated throughout the entire fortress as the hoplites mounted sword bayonets onto their lasguns and engaged the paragaunts at close range. Smoulder looked on, his fear replaced by the determination and sheer survival instinct common to long serving guard veterans. He robotically picked off targets with his longlas, blowing apart heads and shooting off limbs as the hoplites maintained their ranks and fought off the paranids as solid units. The heavy weapons crews continued to fire into the encroaching horde as hoplites kept the gaunts off their backs, jabbing with bayonets and firing lasguns at point blank range.
Smoulder noticed a paranid warrior effortlessly clambering over the edge of the wall. It was far more monstrous than the paragaunts surrounding it, and towered over ponies and paragaunts alike as it stood on two hoofed legs and loosed an ear shattering roar. Almost immediately, the paragaunts reformed from disparate, wild mobs into units with a clear sense of focus and control. The squads of hoplites had reformed into firing lines, all of which kept up a constant barrage of close range lasfire and slaughtered gaunts by the dozens. However, many more bio-constructs awaited their chance.
As these entered the fray, the warrior directed them into concentrated attacks which overwhelmed several of the hoplite squads. Replacing their losses and gaining ground far too quickly for the hoplites to keep up with, the gaunts closed to range and swarmed in among them. Their claws descended and ponies died, hacked to pieces and trampled underhoof. That section of the wall degenerated into a brutal melee, with pony and paranid blood sloshing around the floor, with deadly consequences for the hoplite combatants. One sergeant, defiant to the end, primed a grenade just before his head was chopped cleanly in half by the warrior form. The front half of Stallartan flak helmet still contained his muzzle, the grenade clutched firmly in its teeth . The fragmentation grenade detonated, blowing the warrior to pieces and killing dozens of gaunts, showering hoplites and gaunts alike with pieces of burnt flesh.
The situation couldn’t continue. Smoulder’s vox set crackled again as Colonel Helios ordered the gates open. By now, everypony in the regiment had come to respect the Colonel enough to obey him without question, yet Smoulder felt a twinge of fear. Has Helios finally gone mad? As the Phobos tanks rumbled into position, their barrels aimed straight at the gates, the Hydras followed suit and depressed their autocannons low enough to target infantry, and formed a semi-circle of armored vehicles facing the gate. Of course not. The gates swung open as the last Hydra rumbled into position.
The Hive Mind, sensing its opportunity, immediately redirected the bulk of the horde off the walls and towards the gates. A triumphant, surging wave of gaunts flooded through the portal and were met by a blazing torrent of burning promethium which engulfed the horde and turned the gate into a raging furnace. The Hive Mind, uncaring, simply threw its minions into the inferno without pause. This suicidal intent struck Smoulder as incredibly stupid, a trait which the Paranid swarm had never been known for. This realization sent a sharp wave of fear hurtling through him and he shook his head, trying to focus solely on the battle before him and nothing else. This didn’t stop him from spotting a warrior standing just beyond the horde, calmly and intently observing the phobos tanks and the effect that the flames had on the paranid bioforms.
The battle on the walls, meanwhile, went well. The heavy weapons crews slaughtered vast swathes of the swarm while the hoplites continued to pour fire into the gaunts with only feeble, unorganized resistance. Bayonets separated limbs from thoraxes and were jammed into paranid faces, while concentrated lasfire tore paragaunts and warriors alike to pieces. No more than several dozen guardsponies had been lost so far, a significant proportion of whom had been the squad which had overwhelmed earlier. This realization in the face of the enormous casualties being inflicted on the paranids was driving the hoplites to arrogance and impetuousness as they began slaughtering gaunts with finesse and pleasure, showing off to their comrades subconsciously.
The battle was going far too well for Helios’ liking. His soldier’s instincts told him that there was no way that this wasn’t part of the Hive Mind’s plan. What worried him more was the distinct lack of terma-paragaunts, paragoyles and the numerous other support constructs that the hive mind fielded. The only constructs present had been regular paragaunts and warrior forms. Had the hive mind actually intended to win this battle?
His suspicions were confirmed as the vox crackled excitedly, as unit commanders reported the withdrawal of the entire paranid force from the fortress. The Phobos tanks had ceased fire with nothing left to incinerate, while the heavy weapons were silenced as the swarm bled back into the forest, out of range.
None of this encouraged Helios. He’d read previous battle reports with paranid forces. He knew how they operated in the long term, and the one thing that had struck him about the paranids was their adaptability. As the paranids disappeared off the tactical map and long range auspex, Helios ordered a full after battle census and summoned his officers for a strategy meeting. When paranids had engaged Equirial forces, they had returned after the first engagements with specially adapted armor suited for deflecting lasbolts. When they had fought orks, they returned with stronger, tougher paragaunts at the expense of speed and agility. As he stared at the tactical map with narrowed eyes, he realized his grave error. He had allowed the paranids to discover the capabilities of his most powerful weapons before they had been truly needed. Resisting the urge to buck the tactical map, he leaned on a nearby table and focused only on one terrible truth.
The paranids had won this battle.