Durak Rask looked up at his Primarch, Mortarion, the Death Lord and the Dusk Prince, scion of Barbarus and Luna, and a trueborn son of the Emperor who had, for once, endured what the Emperor himself could not – the temptation to declare himself a god.
Mortarion was tall and relatively thin, with an ashen face bereft of any sort of hair. His many weapons were attached to his belt or back, but the Deathshroud next to him held their scythes at the ready. And his collar continued to emit toxic gas, which did not seem to bother the Primarch at all at this stage.
This was Rask’s father. This was Rask’s savior.
This was a man who – along with nine other Primarchs – had been forced into rebellion against a mad Emperor, against a new tyrant, once again into the smoke of war. That was the trajectory, it seemed, of his life.
“I have a mission for you,” Mortarion said, “my most fervent son.”
Rask nodded, at rapt attention.
“Mars,” Mortarion said, “is in rebellion against the Emperor, for he has betrayed the Treaty he once forged with the Red Planet and its Mechanicum and allowed Ferrus Manus to kill their leader, Fabricator-General Kelbor-Hal, for no reason at all besides boredom with negotiations. The outer Forge Worlds report Mars is crying for help; but it is close to Terra, too close to be capable of holding it.”
Rask nodded again, but in truth he felt somewhat confused. “I will do as you ask, my lord, but how would I even get into the Sol system without getting shot to pieces?”
“Ah,” Mortarion said, “that
is why we are here
.” The Death Lord swung his left arm around and indicated the barren, sandy plain they were standing on, a dry ocean bed on a forgotten lifeless rock named Almenis, and specifically the ramp dug downwards into it. “Walk with me.”
And Artillery Squad Rask followed their Primarch into the dugout. Rask was still confused, but he had no doubt whatsoever that the Primarch had a plan.
“There is an object that we dug up some time ago,” the Death Lord said. “It is a vertical rock circle, with the appearance of a gate – an open gate. As it turns out, it leads into another realm, onto a surreal road. One can walk this road; there are many gates adjacent to it, all of them closed, but the gates on the road itself are both open. In the end, one comes to another gate, the first one found, one currently closed.” He looked over his shoulder at Rask and his fourteen-man squad, as they came to the open gate. “That gate is at the heart of the Magma City, Rask. Koriel Zeth’s forge on Mars.”
Rask knelt, the squad following suit. “What do you wish for me to do, my lord?”
“Something so insane,” Mortarion said, “so audacious, that few in the Legion would accept it. But Perturabo ensured, when he got the key to the Martian gate, that a tech-priest near his own beliefs would possess the Magma City; and Koriel Zeth will never worship the Emperor, he assured me. And though we have little love for each other, I believe him without hesitation on that. As it is, he gave me the key as a gift, when we attempted to settle our differences; and I had this second gate excavated.
“Your squad – if you accept, for I would never force anyone to do something like this – will go through the gate, and use the given key to open the Martian gate, which is about two hours of an Astarte’s walk away. I will warn you to walk quickly, for those that have stayed on the road for too long have been lost. Then, if there is anyone loyal to humanity still on Mars, you will get them and as much of their equipment as you can through the gate and run back to Almenis, closing the gate behind you.
“The only problem is that many reports state that Mars is still uniformly hostile, fully loyal to the God-Emperor. I am not given to hope, Rask, and I do not believe Mars has surrendered, as is claimed. The tech-priests are logical enough that they would have done that, but not against a tyrant such as that the Emperor has become. Still, Ferrus’ entire Legion is on the planet. You will have ten squads in total, no more, and I freely admit it is because I fear your quest is doomed, and you must prepare for a fast retreat if necessary.”
“As is your will,” Rask said, “my lord.” It was a suicide mission, in a sense, or at least one that had a high chance of being thus; but dying for his Primarch was always how it was supposed to end. “Ten squads?”
“They are arriving now,” Mortarion said, and looking back, Rask saw drop pods. “The other reason that I chose you, of course, is your skill with machinery. We have too few such as you in the Legion, so I would prefer if you came back; but if it is impossible, well, everything ends.”
“Aye,” Durak Rask said, “everything ends. Especially tyranny. As you desire, my lord, so it shall be done. For the sake of humanity.”
Mortarion nodded, seemingly in pride, and nine squads walked up behind Rask’s force.
“I shall depart,” the Dusk Prince said, “but do not forget this, Rask. Mars has burned, and if I am right it will burn again. Priceless knowledge will be lost, and your duty is to save what you can. Yet you do this not for the knowledge, but for the war effort. There are those who say that such an approach will lead to a new dark age; they are right. So will any other approach, in a galactic war like this one. No doubt there will come a new dusk… hour infernal. But such is the cycle of our rust; such our arc eternal.”
As the Death Lord spoke the last words, he passed Rask a small, black cubic box pulsing with green light, turned, and walked to the Stormbird that had carried him and Rask’s squad onto the surface of Almenis.
Rask turned to the men under his command, who waited expectantly, especially those who had not heard the Primarch’s description.
“The Primarch has decreed,” Rask said, and as he did so noted that his group was a mix of the most devoted and the most technologically inclined warriors in the Legion, “that we are to go through this gate, and walk to Mars.” Incredulity was evident on their features. “It is an ancient technological marvel of unknown provenance –” this he was uncertain of, but it clearly could not be sorcery if Mortarion had chosen it – “and with the key I hold in my hand, it will permit us to pass into the Magma City. Our mission is to save as much equipment and personnel from the Martian forges as is possible from the war that rages on the Red Planet’s surface, to enable knowledge and industry to be saved, for the Warmaster, for the Primarch, and most importantly, for the human race, to use against those who would oppress it. It is possible that the war is already lost; then we must manage a quick retreat.”
The hundred and thirty-nine Death Guard before him silently brought their fists to their chests. Rask had never commanded quite this many of his brothers before.
“Forward,” he quietly said, “for Mortarion.”
And they walked forwards, into the stone circle (which Rask now realized was much more than that, inscribed with symbols and intricate circuitry), two hundred and eighty feet marching onto a printless road.
The place inside was lit dimly, by lines of variously colored radiance that stretched along the corridor. Rask walked ahead of the rest, the key attached to his belt, observing the utter blackness that seemed to fill this place outside of the lightlines. It was strange, but not quite supernatural.
They walked, in rows of five, Rask at the center of the front; from time to time, they passed by what appeared to be side doors, which were indeed uniformly locked. Presumably Perturabo’s key would not open those. So the Death Guard marched forward, through a winding path, instead. It curved emphatically, moreso as time went on, in some places seeming to try and get the Death Guard to turn around; but that would have been a hopeless endeavor.
Rask contemplated the squads he had been assigned. Rurgon and Falenatak were sergeants of fellow artillery squads; Lgalun and Riolasa, meanwhile, were ranked as sergeants of ground troops, but had truly earned their renown in void war, and in Lgalun’s case as the author of Tyranny and Weakness
, an attempt to describe in detail just what the Fourteenth Legion stood against. Sostoar managed a large part of the Fourteenth Legion’s tiny armor division. Saxeost, Pralgro, Sofev, and Mineceno, meanwhile, Rask knew little more about than their position as infantry sergeants and their zeal. Mineceno in particular nearly worshipped the Primarch to a degree even Rask found disturbing; some said he reached the point of violating the Imperial Truth.
Somewhat earlier than Rask had expected, and three and a half minutes before Mortarion’s prediction of two hours, the other gate became visible. It had been an uneventful passage, though Rask had no way of knowing whether that was the norm.
The ring he faced seemed, from a distance, to be simply a stone circle around reddish silver that shone with a gentle light. In the center of the silver region, there was a cubic indentation, with a protrusion at its center. Rask took the cube from his belt, noted that only one side had a hole for the protrusion, and attached the cube. It pulsed, a brief flash of green, and then turned on with a steady red glow. Rask attempted to turn it in either direction, neither giving any effect.
“Open, surn you!” Rask swore in Barbarusan.
At the first word, the door glowed, and then the metal slid to either side, retreating with the cube. Eventually, the cube remained in an indentation within the ring of false stone. Through the portal, Durak Rask could see the heart of the Magma City.
And even to one such as him, the sight was marvelous.
Below, far below, there was a lava lake. Above it, countless catwalks crossed the cavern, nearly blocking out the orange glow, probably with machinery of their own that Rask could not see. Ahead of the Death Guard, there was the back of a command throne, and some distance beyond it the narrow metal platform, with railings at its sides, suddenly widened into a full floor, blotting out the view downward. Rask had no idea what a number of the mechanical wonders therein did, but he recognized that they were doing it right now, filling the hall with a metallic din.
It was, fundamentally, a factory, one dedicated to production of everything imaginable; and it was active. Hammers rang, belts sang, and altogether an impression was created of controlled chaos.
“Close,” Rask said in High Gothic, putting his hand on the key cube. The gate fluttered shut once more in a flurry of silver and crimson. “Open,” also in High Gothic, and the gate obeyed. The master of ordnance nodded.
“Forward,” he said, turning back at the column of Death Guard, and the warriors of the Fourteenth Legion stepped forward into the forge. Their weapons were at the ready, and their white, unpainted armor shone in the dim light, but Rask hoped no fight would erupt just yet.
He walked in front, checking the command throne and discovering it was at the moment empty. He looked around the factory floor and found that, despite the impression of orderly work, it was nearly abandoned, clearly understaffed. Mars was at war, or at least had recently been.
And then, from between the engines, a female tech-priest emerged. Her armored dress appeared to be fused with her body; her hands and feet had been converted into versatile Mechanicum implements. Her face, however, was only covered with a snarling mask; as for her hair, that was tied into braids around the noocables that emerged from her head, terminating in skull-ports. And behind her, a dozen skitarii walked up, weapons at the ready.
“You have come,” she said in perfect Gothic, “to kill me. But before you do so, I would ask you to answer a single question: why?”
“That is not why we have come,” Rask said, clipping his bolter to his belt. “Answer me this, Forge Mistress Zeth: are you loyal to the Emperor and Imperium, or to the human race?”
“The latter,” she said. “Has Mortarion declared rebellion as well?”
“Indeed,” Rask stated with a smile. “Or, more accurately, he has joined the Warmaster in denouncing tyranny, even when it is of his own father. And have you?”
“Certainly,” she said, “or more accurately Kelbor-Hal has, and we have followed his last decree. But even a hundred and forty Space Marines will be insufficient to save Mars. Ferrus Manus has brought most of the Iron Hands Legion with him here.”
Rask nodded; that part of the intelligence had been accurate, then. “Our goal is not to protect Mars,” he said, “for that is by now impossible. Our mission is merely to evacuate everything that can be saved, so that the Mechanicum can rebuild on other worlds.”
Zeth frowned, but nodded, beckoning the Death Guard with her. “It stands to reason that the Warmaster would underestimate the importance of Mars; though, perhaps, by this point his estimate is correct. My forge is one of only a few on the Red Planet that remains intact.”
“It is a factor of nearness to Terra.”
“That it is,” Zeth said with a rattle of her left ‘hand’, “and the Emperor will never tolerate rebellion in the Sol system itself. We will commence evacuation of knowledge immediately. People and industry can be found on other Forge Worlds as well, but the secrets of Mars, those that remain, are far more important, and the Magma City acts as a particularly notable repository for them. Indeed, I would rather these secrets fall into the Emperor’s hands than be destroyed.”
Rask nodded, though he entirely disagreed; Mortarion’s final words echoed in his mind. “What is the overall strategic situation?”
Zeth rattled again, in a different way. Rask wondered if that was supposed to simulate laughter of some sort. “Ah, that. Mars is at war between two coalitions, both of them hostile to the Imperial Truth and the Omnissiah.”
“Ferrus’s Iron Hands are following the new commands of the Emperor,” Zeth said, “leveling Mars to bedrock to rebuild their own forges on the lack of ruins. They control most of the northern hemisphere, excluding Tharsis, which is a mess. In the south, the Order of the Dragon holds the dominant position. They are a cult that has gained almost all of the remaining tech-priests loyal to Kelbor-Hal. Even the new Fabricator-General, Kane, seems to have taken their side. But Kane only did so for political reasons.”
“Then we help the Order?” Rask clarified.
“No,” Zeth said. “The Order has sworn itself to the destruction of all Space Marines. They are an insane faith, believing that human inspiration happens only due to the actions of something they call the Dragon, who they want to free and give dominion over Mars. And they refuse to contemplate alliance with those not in their cult, though fortunately they are still logical enough not to attack me. Kane, and some others, will abandon the Order if it is beneficial to them; but most of them have become fanatics.”
Rask paused. “Fanaticism is not a concept I associate with the Martian Mechanicum.”
“That is how it should be,” Zeth said. “But they grasped at phantoms, seeking a path to victory, and decided on this religion. Come; I will show you the strategic map. Your opportunities for sallies will be limited, but Wernitian’s forge is close enough for you to save him, and Kane’s might be.”
Durak Rask nodded and followed the Forge Mistress, instructing his forces to take up positions in defense of the forge. Then he looked around, at the wonders of human technology that surrounded him. Wonders that would, soon, be lost forever.
But in time, inevitably, rebuilt.
For mankind, he would do what he could. And for Mortarion, he would go beyond that.