Meanwhile, at the North Pillar, even with a weakened force, the Ar'cea were defending the structure with a tenacity that had so far rebuffed the initial Tau attacks.
Shas'ui Tash'shi had long abandoned the the Devilfish that had brought them here, its hull shattered by searing bright lances. He had gathered the four surviving fire warriors and continued the advance through forest terrain, as the Shas'vre in local command had made it in no uncertain terms that the pillar had to be destroyed at all costs. As he reached an outcrop of rock and watched the 'vre's crisis suit team hovering behind the treeline to his left, presumably waiting to launch another attack on the Ar'cea, there was a warning shout by a Sniper Drone Spotter located in the backstop position: "Enemy! From above!"
Tash'shi saw the crisis suits swivel around on their jets, their sensor packed heads angling upwards, scanning for this new threat. Lasblaster beams stabbed down on them, one of them connecting explosively, sending a crisis suit crashing downwards into the dirt. He saw the Shas'vre's battlesuit, the one with the large white antenna, skipping backwards on two gouts of flame, returning fire with missiles and ion blasts. If Tash'shi had been out of cover, without the canopy partially blocking his view, he would have seen a terrifyingly beautiful scene - a swarm of Ar'cea with outstretched wings descending down from the skies, weapons blazing.
The sniper drone teams attempted to track and engage the Ar'cea, but the acute elevation required and the swiftly moving targets made it impossible for them to get a solid lock. Several rail rifle shots whizzed by into empty space.
"Target priority Swooping Hawks," Tash'shi heard the Shas'vre's order, and he hurriedly repeated it to his squad, motioning for them to spread out.
"Every warrior to a firing position! Take down the flying Ar'cea!" he shouted, racing to the nearest opening and raising his pulse rifle upwards, triggering it on full automatic fire at the winged forms swarming through the skies.
Tash'shi noticed the crashed Shas'ui's suit pick itself up jerkily from the ground, its right arm gone, sheared from shoulder joint. But the plasma rifle on its left arm was upraised, pulsing rapidly, burning one of the swooping hawks into a crisp in mid-air as it tried to get a shot in at the damaged crisis suit.
Another took a direct hit from the Shas'vre's cyclic ion blaster, and the Ar'cea flyer spun out of control, its delicate flight systems fried by the weapon's energy pulse. It veered erratically and crashed at terminal velocity into the side of the rocky outcrop with a sickening crunch.
Between Tash'shi's squad and the crisis suits, the Tau put up an impressive show of anti-air firepower. Tash'shi managed to clip one on the wing with a lucky shot, sending it tumbling to the ground where the Shas'vre finished it off with a missile. A fourth was eviscerated by focused pulse rifle fire as it came a bit too close to their positions.
But it was not enough, there were too many of them, too many to take down. The remainder drew their power swords and primed their leg mounted grenade launchers for a devastating assault on the Tau below. Tash'shi watched transfixed, the wings a riot of blurred colours as they began their attack dive, avoiding the energy blasts from the fire warriors and crisis suits. Things seemed to move in slow motion for Tash'shi. Pulse rifle rounds floating lazily upwards at the Hawks, each and every one of them a near miss… A shouted command for the squad to prepare for close assault… The Ar'cea swooped down on them…
… and were promptly blotted out of the sky by a barrage of smart missiles that had intersected their dive path from an oblique angle.
"Broadside team here, who needs a little fire support?" a voice came over the cadre channel. Tash'shi recognized it as that of Shas'ui J'kaara, the veteran battlesuit pilot whose exploits included the single shot kill of a Necron Monolith. Tash'shi heard a cheer go up from his fire warriors, and he allowed himself a grim smile.
But the danger was far from over. The Swooping hawk exarch had seemingly survived the attack with little the worse for wear, and now sped towards the Shas'vre on wings of vibrating plates like an angel of retribution. It activated its slender, curved powered sword, all the while blasting away at the Shas'vre with the shuriken pistol in its other hand.
Fortunately the Shas'vre was no slouch in the dogfighting department, and the decorated war hero started jinking his crisis suit around erratically, evading most of the shots aimed at him, while those that hit did nothing more than just shatter harmlessly against its armour. The cyclic ion blaster attached to the left arm spat rapid fire death at the Exarch, but the Ar'cea avoided them with contemptuous ease, gracefully corkscrewing through the air as if it had lived among the air currents all its life.
The exhaust from the Shas'vre's thrusters drew a dizzying pattern of contrails in the air as both combatants danced around each other in the air, scrabbling for every ounce and every bit of advantage they could find, looking for that one opportunity, that one weakness in the enemy that could win the battle for them.
In terms of agility, the more nimble Exarch had the advantage, cartwheeling in mid air like a gymnast, its powered weapon repeatedly coming close to landing a telling blow on the Shas'vre. But several times the iridium hardened gauntlet armour of the battlesuit parried the blazing sword, turning it away from the more vulnerable or critical parts.
What the suit lacked in speed and maneuverability, it made up for it with superior servo-assisted strength and general durability. While the battlesuit could well afford a few cuts and dents in its armoured shell, the same could not be said of the Exarch. A single solid hit by one of the suit's massive fists would be very much unforgiving, if not immediately fatal.
It was no surprise then that they started employing tactics that suited their strengths as the battle dragged on. The Shas'vre was deployed in a defensive stance, battlesuit arms and legs bent and covering the torso and head, always rotating the front torso towards the Exarch, biding his time and always waiting for the killer Mont'ka moment where it could strike with all the strength and power behind its mechanical muscles and heavy weaponry.
The Exarch on the other hand was constantly moving, never allowing the Shas'vre a chance to land a blow. Its wings whipped it around in a frenzy of attacks, chipping away continuously at the battlesuit's formidable defences, embodying the fighting style of "death by a thousand cuts" while its sleeve mounted forceshield projectors turned away any lucky shots from the crisis suit's weapons.
In the end the deciding factor was neither the skill nor cunning of either combatant. It was a minor battle damage sustained by the Exarch's wings in the earlier smart missile attack. In normal flight, this would have hardly been a cause for concern. But in a tight spiraling battle between two evenly matched opponents, the ever so slight slowdown in the speed of a turn, of a feint, or of a dodge was the difference between a successful or failed attack and evasion.
It happened when the Exarch stretched itself for a blinding sequence of slashes and cuts at the Shas'vre, hoping to smash through an exposed gap or weaker section of armour. To Tash'shi it seemed at that moment that the Shas'vre was enveloped by a solid shell of energy as the faster Ar'cea orbited the slower battlesuit several times, going for the kill.
Then the Shas'vre struck back. The Exarch pulled away a fraction too late, and the armoured fist smashed into its body with resounding force, too powerful for the forceshield to nullify, its generator collapsing on itself as it failed to dissipate the kinetic energy. The Exarch was hurled backwards, a split moment out of control, and the Shas'vre instantly rippled off a trio of missiles, the ensuing explosion rattling even the Shas'vre who was strapped in tightly in the cockpit of the crisis suit.
Even as the burning body parts of the Exarch clattered onto the ground, Tash'shi ordered his squad to advance. A single squad of Ar'cea jump infantry had held off their attack long enough, and they were running out of time. Up ahead the pillar was already starting to glow.