On the world of Verghast, a grinding war between two hive cities — one loyal to the Imperium, the other fallen to the worship of the Dark Gods — is bolstered by the forces of the Astra Militarum, spearheaded by the Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and the Tanith First and Only. But bitter rivalries and treachery threaten to derail the defence of Vervunhive, and it falls to Gaunt to take command of the Imperial forces and forge victory from an almost certain defeat.
During the Sabbat Worlds Crusade, on the planet of Verghast, the vitally important Hive City of Vervunhive comes under siege from the neighboring hive of Ferrozoica. The Hive leadership's pleas for Imperial assistance are answered by a small task force, including the Tanith First and Only. Soon after they have landed, it becomes clear that Ferrozoica has been corrupted by Chaos, which has mobilized the entire hive population into an army several million strong.
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The story begins with a variety of perspectives from the citizenry of Vervunhive on the planet of Verghast, when their city comes under attack from their neighbouring city-state, Ferrozoica. The attack is sudden and furious:
- In a transit station, Livy Kolea is shredded by exploding glass during the opening salvo from the Zoican artillery and tanks; her two children, Dalin and Yoncy, are scooped up and saved by the down-hiver woman she snubbed only moments earlier, Tona Criid;
- Guild House leader Amchanduste Worlin panics when the firing starts and flees his business office; finding a packed commuter train, he "commandeers" it to carry him back to his residence by drawing a needler pistol and shooting down a dozen civilians aboard, causing the rest to flee;
- In the mining outreaches outside the city, Gol Kolea hears the gunfire and his first thought is for his wife and children, but the mine shaft is collapsed by enemy fire;
- Salvador Sondar, the High Master of Vervunhive, who controls much of the city from a neural-wired casket which he never leaves, ignores the pleas of his military commander, Gnide, to raise the city's void shield, insisting that Ferrozoica is their ally and the Vervunhive Legislature have made a mistake - or worse, is conspiring against him; when Marshal Gnide tries to raise the shield himself, Sondar kills the man with his bodyguard servitors, outraged at this insubordination.
- Commissar Pius Kowle, the Imperial Guard liaison with Verghast's militia force, assumes command of an armoured formation and leads a hasty counterattack from the city walls, only to have the spearhead crushed and Kowle narrowly escaping.
With Sondar continuing to ignore the evidence that the hive is under attack, the defensive batteries are forced to remain idle, unable to return fire without orders from above. Only after the Zoican artillery have inflicted massive devastation does Sondar relent and activate the shield.
Over the protests of the Legislature, the Administratum's local High Master sends an urgent call for help to Warmaster Macaroth. By good fortune, a troop transport from Monthax is close enough to be diverted away from the Crusade effort. The arriving reinforcements include the Tanith First, the Narmenian Armoured division under General Grizmund, and the Royal Volpone under General Noches Sturm. More troops arrive from Vervunhive's neighbours in the Northern Collectives, but the city is shocked when its other ally, Vannick Hive, is obliterated by atomic weapons.
At first, the militia and Legislature refuse to believe Kowle's reports that the Zoican army numbers in the millions - since Vervunhive's population is three times as large, yet mounts an army of only half a million - but Ibram Gaunt says it only confirms what he and the other Imperial Guard commanders suspected: Vervunhive is not facing a re-ignition of the Trade War between the two hives 90 years earlier (where Vervun was victorious), but a full-blown invasion. Ferrozoica has been corrupted by Chaos, which has mobilized every single man, woman and child in it into an army of extermination.
Seeing the Zoican forces advancing towards the city, Gaunt, along with Generals Grizmund and Nash, advocate making an armoured sortie from the city. Grizmund's tanks will have more room to maneuver on the open ground, and with a little luck, they may be able to open the way for a flanking attack. But Sturm vetoes the idea, backed up by the Vervun Primary and the city Legislature, who feel secure behind their walls. Gaunt poses the question: if the enemy breaches the walls, where will there be to retreat?
As he storms out of the Legislature meeting, Gaunt is asked to meet in private with Guild house leader Heymlik Chass.
The Imperial Forces fortify the city and dig in at the Veyveyr, Croe, Hieronymo Sondar Gates and the Spoil. The first Zoican assault falls on the twenty-ninth day of the Siege, with thousands of infantry troops marching on the gates, accompanied by bizarre and destructive war machines. The assault is repelled, but the Vervunhive troops are badly shaken by their first glimpse of the Chaos forces - not only their overwhelming numbers, but also the implacability with which they absorb the most appalling casualties; for every soldier killed, five more calmly step forward and take his place.
Gaunt meets with Lord Chass, who has studied Gaunt's career and hopes he can count the commissar as an ally if extreme measures are needed to win the war. Gaunt is noncommittal, but Chass insists that they both have a duty to save the Hive that outweighs their obedience to their bureaucratic superiors.
While treating the casualties from the first assault, Tolin Dorden, the Ghosts' Chief Medic, and Vervunhive Surgeon Ana Curth work closely together, and he gives her some much-needed advice about catching rest and staying alert in a prolonged combat situation. He also points out something strange: among the thousands of bodies left by the initial Zoican attack, he found a dozen from the same location who were killed by needler wounds instead of shrapnel or collapsing debris. As exhausted as she is, Curth agrees that they need to follow it up.
The second Zoican assault is launched only days later. The first was a probe of the city walls, while the second focuses on three vulnerable points, including the wide-open Veyveyr Gate. During the assault, the Vervunhive Primary's shortcomings are painfully exposed: reinforcements from other parts of the city are delayed by logistical confusion and congested highways, vox frequencies become hopelessly cluttered, and the fight at the gate descends into a desperate melee, held by Colm Corbec and a chaotic mix of Ghosts, Volpone, and VP troopers. After the assault is beaten off, Gaunt personally executes Colonel Modile, the senior VP officer in command of the Southern Wall defences, who simply shut down his vox rather than try to coordinate the miasma.
In the middle of the night after the first assault, Tona Criid, who is starving along with her two young charges, sneaks into the Ghosts' camp to steal food, but she is caught in the act by Trooper Caffran. He pleads with her to come back, he wants to help her, but she flees the camp, abandoning her backpack. Caffran leaves the pack outside the camp and backs off. When Tona retrieves it, she is surprised to find all the food she stole, plus water, first-aid supplies, and Caffran's own laspistol. At the bottom of the pack, she also finds a regimental pin for the Tanith First. Tona has joined and quit a dozen hive gangs in her young life, but starts to think of the Ghosts as an outfit worth belonging to.
Gaunt defends his actions to the Legislature and the Vervunhive Primary Commissariat, who say that he exceeded his authority; Gaunt insists that the rules must be followed absolutely, but is stunned to hear that General Grizmund was arrested for disobedience - trying to take an alternate route to the battle zone rather than remain on the gridlocked highway. Gaunt is furious, particularly with Sturm and Kowle, who are more than willing to sacrifice Grizmund to placate the Vervunhive authorities.
A scout team from the Ghosts, led by Sergeant Mkoll, creeps into the Spoil to observe the encamped Chaos forces. They get close enough to make out the words the soldiers are chanting, over and over again: "Heritor Asphodel..."
Gaunt, who encountered Asphodel's forces on Balhaut, warns that their enemy cannot be underestimated. The Heritor was one of Archon Nadzybar's foremost lieutenants, a tactical genius and a charismatic warlord. Gaunt urges Marshal Croe to release Grizmund immediately, but Croe still refuses to cross the VPHC.
Impatiently, Gaunt consults with a legal advocate to ensure that an Imperial Commissar can override the VPHC's decisions, but the advocate's clerk mentions that Grizmund's trial is already going forward: Kowle agreed to represent the Imperial Commissariat there. In a fury, Gaunt rushes to the stockade.
While this miniature drama is going on within the city, all hell breaks loose on the outside. The Eastern Gate of the city, spared most of the fighting thus far, collapses when Zoican sappers and tanks appear behind the Guard lines and demolish the wall. At the same time, General Nash spots a gigantic Zoican armour column advancing on the south wall and sends a frantic call for armoured reinforcement, while Zoican forces renew the attack on all the other sections of the wall.
In the command center, Sturm's nerve fails, and he begins to think of ordering a retreat. Marshal Croe, tired of deferring to posturing fools like Sturm and Kowle, orders Sturm to release Grizmund and reinstate him immediately, while Croe leaves to take personal command of the VP reinforcements tasked to the south wall.
Gaunt arrives at the stockade at the same time as Sturm and his Royal Volpone troopers. Of common purpose for once, they free Grizmund, having to shoot down several VPHC officers when they refuse to surrender. Gaunt places Kowle under arrest.
Just when things could not possibly get any worse, Salvador Sondar finally gives in to the psychic chatter that has been harassing him since the start of the siege, and grown steadily worse as The Heritor's forces have drawn closer. Unable to think of anything else, Sondar shuts down the city's void shield. Moments later, Zoican rockets and artillery begin to devastate the city, while the ground forces surge forward in triumph.
Gaunt forces his way up to Sondar's chambers with a strike force of Royal Volpone, accompanied by Sturm and Kowle. They link up with Lord Chass, who has come on his own, since a Noble's gene-code is needed to reactivate the shield.
Sondar, corrupted by Chaos, refuses to listen to them, saying Asphodel has promised him lordship of the planet. When Gaunt insists, Sondar attacks them with his bodyguard servitors, several of which have been mutated into vicious beasts. Sturm flees the room in terror, while Kowle is killed in a suicidal attack that brings down the largest beast. Major Gilbear dispatches Sondar, and the mortally-wounded Lord Chass reactivates the shield, before dying himself.
A desperate defense, led by the Ghosts, has prevented the Zoican forces from overrunning the city, when a masterful counterattack by the Narmenian Armoured, led by Grizmund in person, begins to drive them out of the city. In the midst of the fighting, Caffran and Tona Criid meet up and fight side by side against the Zoican forces, while keeping her "nephews" safe.
With Marshal Croe dead, and Sturm absent, command of the city falls to Gaunt, as the next senior infantry officer. From a makeshift command center in the nearest Ecclesiarchy cathedral, Gaunt spends the rest of the night coordinating the defense, carefully re-establishing contact with the Imperial units scattered around the city and stitching them into a defense plan that gradually drives the Zoican forces out of the city. Gaunt has never commanded a unit larger than a regiment, yet his stamina and situational awareness of the entire battlefield put the meager contributions of Sturm and Kowle to shame. Many behind Gaunt's back whisper that it is reminiscent of old Warmaster Slaydo, but Captain Ban Daur senses a hidden rebuke in Gaunt's furious energy: against Vervunhive, against Sturm, and against the whole Crusade high command, for not putting him in charge from the very start.
In the midst of Gaunt's preparations, Sturm is brought before him, having been captured trying to flee the city on one of the refugee barges. Sturm screeches that he gave the order to retreat, and all of them are guilty of disobedience. Gaunt sees through this lie, strips Sturm of his rank and charges him with desertion. Sturm requests that he be able to take his own life, so Gaunt gives him his own bolt pistol to do so. As soon as Gaunt turns his back, Sturm tries to shoot him, but Gaunt wheels around and slices Sturm's hand off with Sondar's power sword. Sturm, maimed and sobbing, is marched to the stockade to await trial.
After finishing his plans, Gaunt collapses on his bunk, exhausted. To his surprise, he is visited by Lord Chass's daughter, Merity, who spends the night with him.
The next morning, Merity confides to Gaunt that her father had a secret weapon. The city's former High Master, Heironymo, who was a mechanical genius, created a hand-held device that could shut down the entire city. He entrusted it to House Chass, as a safeguard against the High Master becoming a tyrant (as Salvador did), but Lord Chass decided not to use it.
Gaunt's plans have pushed out the Zoican forces and prevented disaster, but victory is nowhere in sight. The Zoicans are assaulting with everything they've got, and the city is close to falling. Across the battlefield, the Guard detects the approach of a massive command vehicle, nicknamed "the Spike," and Gaunt knows that Asphodel has come to witness his triumph in person. On being told that the Spike appears to be the source of the vox signal that is keeping the Zoican forces hypnotized, Gaunt comes up with a radical plan.
Gaunt personally leads a commando team into the Spike, including elements from the Ghosts, the Royal Volpone, and the VP Scratch Company known as the "Spoilers", led by Gol Kolea. Reaching the bridge, they fight their way past Asphodel's elite bodyguards and Gaunt plugs Sondar's device into a data port. Immediately the Spike shuts down, including the force field at the center of the bridge, surrounding Asphodel's command throne.
The Heritor attacks in person, barreling at Gaunt and knocking aside the other commandos. Gaunt runs Asphodel through with his power sword, at the same time as the Heritor's massive bolt pistol fires straight into Gaunt's heart. The only thing that saves him is a metallic flower, given to him by Lord Chass during their first meeting, that Gaunt pinned on his coat.
Two months after the start of the siege, Warmaster Macaroth arrives with massive reinforcements, having learned of Asphodel's presence on Vervunhive. Macaroth completes the job of exterminating the Chaos forces, although they fell into anarchy and retreated as soon as Asphodel died. Ferrozoica is wiped out by orbital bombardment, and the Spike - along with Asphodel's body - is incinerated by the Imperial Fists Space Marines.
Vervunhive is victorious, but it is a hollow victory. The city is devastated to the point that Macaroth decides it is not worth reconstructing. Instead, he offers its citizens the Act of Consolation: a chance to join the Imperial Guard and contribute to the wider Crusade. The Vervun Primary embraces the offer, with the overwhelming number of them choosing to enlist in the Tanith ranks - their first new recruits since their Founding. Among the new recruits are Tona Criid, Gol Kolea, Ban Daur, and several female snipers who are on par with Larkin.
Conducting a post-mortem on the events of the Siege, Macaroth's staff realises that the Zoican sappers infiltrated the city through a promethium pipeline owned by Guilder Worlin. The city authorities ordered the pipelines shut down after Vannick was destroyed, but Worlin kept his operating in secret, anticipating a monopoly and a huge profit. But when VPHC forces storm into his residence to arrest him, Worlin is gone.
Ana Curth also decides to join the Ghosts as a medic. While she and Dorden are packing their supplies, she regretfully gives him the news that his son, Mikal, was killed during the second assault. Dorden cries in her arms, but then they are interrupted by Guilder Worlin, who received their routine request for witness information about the murder victims on the train. Worlin draws his needler pistol and tries to kill them, but is shot down by Gaunt, who was recuperating in another part of the hospital.
The Tanith First-and-Only sails out of the city on the river, on their way to their next battle. The barge captain tells Gaunt what an honour it is to have the "People's Hero" aboard his boat. Gaunt, who received a similar compliment when he and the Tanith first arrived, politely asks whether he is being mistaken for Commissar Kowle again. The captain says, on the contrary, Gaunt is the hero of Vervunhive, and everyone knows it.
List of Characters
- Tanith First and Only