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Brother Ayre was already running towards the clearing as the Thunderhawk began its final approach. The only thing he was able to hear as he entered the clearing was the roar of the engines. As the giant gunship touched down there was a blast of dust and small debris so fierce that he was forced to screen his eyes with one hand, but he kept on nevertheless. He leapt onto the ramp before it even touched the ground, and was inside, picking the apothecary out in an instant.

The white armoured figure was already rising, and Ayres said, “Come with me brother.” The apothecary didn’t reply, merely followed as Ayres headed down the ramp and back into the jungle. The trees flashed past as they ran, and before long they were on the battlefield. Those brothers still standing cleansed the heaps of dead Bugs with incendiaries to ensure no new monstrosity would rise from among the dead. Ayres almost wept to see how few were still standing. Around the perimeter the hulking forms of the company’s twin dreadnoughts, Brother Hugo and Brother Rufus, stalked a cautious patrol should the escaped Hive Tyrant reappear.

They approached the triage area where the surviving squad medics had done what they could. Many of Ayre’s brothers lay there, still and stoic. None screamed or moaned, although there were some firmly clenched jaws and tightly set eyes. Ayres watched as the Apothecary set to work, calling out orders, choosing who he could save, and blessing those whom he could not.

Since there was no one else free to do so, Ayre dropped to his knees and began to pray for the souls of those who were going to the Emperor’s embrace. The tears came then as he watched Brother Paean unseal his breastplate.. Bright red blood flowed from the opening like a river. Paean turned his head towards Ayre and smiled, looking him in the eye, “Thank you brother” he said, and then was still.

Sergeant Brutus, the company Primus Pilus, who had led the drop approached the apothecary. Ayre could see that Brutus’ head hung low. The sergeant spoke to the apothecary softly, but Ayre could hear well enough, “How many?”

The Apothecary looked at Paean’s body and said, “Eight dead now, and four more who will die, even were it the Emperor himself tending them.”

Brutus shook his head, “and the rest?”

Ayre did not hear the rest of the exchange, his attention drawn by a shriek of pain. He could see one of the scouts trying to hold down his sergeant with one hand. The other was severed at the wrist, but his injuries were nothing compared to the sergeants, whose head jerked from side to side from the pain. Then Ayre felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, and turned and looked.

Sergeant Brutus standing behind him. “The Emperor will be pleased that there is still one of us to stand vigil over the fallen.”

Ayres said nothing. Reeking smoke from the pyres drifted past, and they waited and watched. From the trees they could hear the landers soming in to disgorge the troops that would expand the bridgehead they had bought so dearly. The apothecary worked feverishly, and one by one those he had bought another day for were carried away. Finally there were just twelve bodies in a row, arranged and composed, waiting their turn to be carried away.

The twelve who had remained standing at the end of the battle gathered slowly as they were relieved of their tasks. The sergeant was the first, and gathered up the body of one of the fallen, cradling it in his arms like a child. One by one they followed suit. They had to help place a corpse in the dreadnought’s grip. But even they with their mighty strength seemed almost tender as they held their fallen brothers. As they carried the dead back through the jungle they sang the old, sad hymn.

Seal the locks and dim the lights You know they won’t be home tonight They’ve set a course that no ones knows, Through winds of space that blow cold.

The sergeant’s voice rang out alone:

The give no quarter. And they all replied, They ask no quarter.

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Korvus 23:11, 8 February 2008 (UTC) Nicholas Cioran

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