Argyre was secure, but Castrmen Orth was far from happy.
The order had come in shortly after he’d broken into Magos Prenitiev’s forge, the last point of resistance in the basin. For supposedly devoting all of their resources to unleashing their god, many of the Order of the Dragon’s individual members were clearly hedging their bets. Orth’s own battalion had thankfully suffered no more losses, but the infantry had been devastated.
His lost tanks were being rebuilt; the victory in Noachia had been a major triumph, but an exceedingly costly one, in men and especially in materiel. For him more than for Rochaar, as it happened, but it was Rochaar that was the anomaly among the Iron Hands as a whole, not him.
Noachia had been painful in the extreme; but such was war. Argyre had certainly been less so. But that was not the cause for Orth’s current confusion. Rather, it was the fact that, as Argyre was taken, Ferrus Manus himself arose from his seclusion and gave an order that went against the very idea of progress. Chaos, he said – Chaos, the official religion of the Imperium – was to be abandoned. The Iron Hands were to flee in fear from the horrors of the Warp, as in the days before the Emperor’s revelation. The Emperor could still be worshipped, but the power of the Warp was to be forgotten.
Orth did not dispute that his Primarch’s return was a good thing. His orders to the battlegroups had completely realigned the war map, setting up total strategic victory in, potentially, one month. If the tech-priest heretics could be defeated in the area of the Labyrinth they were so irrationally seeking, and in the south, the war would be as good as done. Orth wasn’t sure about how easy either of the two battles would be to win, as many of the Iron Hands were tied up in other sieges across Mars. But Ferrus had turned, for instance, Orth’s charge from an attempt to do maximal damage before inevitably retreating into a thrust to finish off the rebels’ heartland.
But Ferrus could not be right in blocking the Legion off from change. Some of his madness, at least, clearly remained. And so Castrmen Orth, standing on the tower that had topped Prenitiev’s forge, now largely a smoking ruin that was, nevertheless, still freestanding, looked down at the vista of gray and red and tilted his lips in thought, waiting for the return ping from Ulrach Branthan that would tell him their meeting place.
He did not have to wait much longer. The return ping flew in, and Orth felt vindication at its contents. Now, in the forge below. Branthan had proven clearly that the Warp was a powerful ally; that, or he was lying, and this was a trap. But Orth would spring that trap if he had to. He was an Iron Hand, after all.
So he walked down the spiraling metallic staircase, glancing around to commemorate the knowledge lost. This, much like his decision to join Branthan, was (he contemplated) driven more than anything by his philosophical beliefs, even though those beliefs were distant from his regular activity. He was a tank commander; a warrior, not a builder. But he respected the work of building, and perhaps he could be more than he currently was.
He descended further, following that same staircase below the nominal Martian surface, and entered the heart of the former forge. Already a couple of loyal tech-priests were scurrying around in the distance, trying to rebuild something from the ruins. Two adepts would not be enough for that, though. Not enough of the Mechanicum had remained loyal, and therefore the lack of skilled staff constantly plagued the Iron Hands; and the loyal tech-priests had no desire whatsoever to go into a recent conflict zone, or even to send any of their underlings there.
And then Castrmen Orth descended the last step, and came to the door. It was a tall, chromium-based double door. It led into the tunnels that connected together the forges of the Argyre basin; as such, it was locked with thousands of encryptions, ones that would take all the cogitators of Mars a thousand years to break via brute force. It also had a Space Marine-shaped hole in its center.
Orth stepped through that hole, and faced Ulrach Branthan, Captain of the Sixty-Fifth Company, also known as Clan Erigez.
“Brother-Captain Branthan,” Orth said, noting that two other Iron Hands stood by Branthan’s side. “Welcome to Argyre.”
“Thank you,” Branthan replied, “and I find the ‘accommodations’… satisfactory. This will make a solid place to begin a laboratory in the Martian south. Brother-Centurion Orth, these are my lieutenants – Xage Urannih and Cadmus Tyro. I do not believe you have met them.”
Orth exchanged the warrior grip with Urannih and Tyro. “If you were wondering,” he added, “the general area is quite secure, but we have not entirely completed our sweep of the tunnels. I doubt we will be interrupted, but it is not impossible.”
“It would be, if anything, good to get into an honest fight again,” Branthan said, cracking his knuckles under his gauntlets. “So, let us discuss the matter I am here for.”
“I assume you will not be ceasing the entirety of your experiments as per the Primarch’s edict?”
“Not all,” Branthan said. “We still aim to embrace the Warp. Though the Obliterator project is cancelled – the Gorgon awoke when we announced it, implying that Ferrus is severely angry about it. And it is unwise to invite the Primarch’s anger more than is necessary.”
“That sounds rational,” Orth noted, “especially since viruses are… difficult to contain.”
“We had to sacrifice much,” Branthan said, “but we obliterated the Obliterator, completely and utterly. Ferrus was right about it, actually. It, unlike our other projects, was notoriously difficult to control.”
“Indeed,” Orth said. “So what are those other projects?”
Urannih and Tyro grinned, in ways visible even under their armor if one knew where to look. Branthan, helmetless, showed a smirk.
“I could tell you,” Branthan said, “but – well, Tyro, why don’t you show him?”
The lieutenant, who Orth knew was also Branthan’s equerry, nodded and pointed to the circle drawn on the ceramite floor to their side. “That’s how we got here – protected Warp teleportation. No need for Gellar fields, only a sacrifice. Machines, if sufficiently complicated, do as well as humans; and there are plenty of machines here.”
“I see,” Orth said.
“No,” Tyro said. “Now
you will see.”
The equerry took a canister from his armor and sprinkled dust into the circle, which Branthan now noticed was not drawn on, but incised into the ceramite. Then he took out a combat knife and, with Urannih’s help, drew a bewildering array of symbols on the floor, with surprising speed. As Urannih made the last line, the two Marines jumped back, and for good reason; the circle and its contents exploded into flame.
But from the fire, an entity emerged. It roared in frustration, caged within the ring. A yellow, snarling bat-like creature, it looked around the assembled Iron Hands uncomprehending of, seemingly, anything that was going on.
Then Branthan hefted his thunder hammer, and smashed the daemon on its head. Body fluids (Orth could hardly consider them blood, given the iridescent sheen and the light color) spurted forth, but all somehow fell within the circle. The corpse almost immediately began to dissolve into nothingness, but some wisps from it seemed to get stuck in the dust, creating multicolored swirls in the air.
“And that,” Tyro concluded, “is how one creates blackfate liquid. When solidified, it turns into blackfate crystals, which can be used for a variety of purposes. Blackfate liquid, however, has a simple utility – it’s an incredibly effective combat drug, albeit a somewhat addictive one if used too often.”
Branthan nodded. “Tyro is currently attempting to decrement his use,” he said. “I do believe, however, that you have a cooldown dose currently due?”
“Indeed,” Tyro said, and collected some of the liquid before injecting it into his armor. “From here, it – ah, that’s better. Now, Orth, spar with me.” That sounded like a bad idea, but Tyro calmed the centurion’s fears. “Blackfate has no negative psychological effect. Unlike any known Materium combat drug, my mind remains intact after injecting myself with it, discounting the effects of addiction.”
“Well,” Orth said, “if you can talk while on combat stims, that’s an incredible accomplishment in itself. First blood?”
“Or first grease,” Tyro added.
They removed their armor and fell into their combat stances, and Branthan lowered his hand to indicate the bout’s beginning. Orth hung back, analyzing Tyro and his apparent capabilities. Tyro did likewise; Orth was quite impressed by that. It was almost as if Orth wasn’t using a combat drug at all.
And then Orth attacked, and it became evident that he was. The force of the responding punch threw Orth into the back wall. Tyro advanced, and the centurion replied with a perfectly placed kick that should have pushed the lieutenant back. It didn’t. Rather, Cadmus Tyro grunted, but otherwise didn’t even flinch.
Instead, he rammed the centurion, and blood flowed from Orth’s left arm. Tyro stepped back, satisfied.
“That was… demonstrative,” Orth said. It had also been quick, but he had no desire to repeat the experience. Thinking back, he recognized that even Tyro being an incredibly strong Space Marine would not have been enough to explain the fight. Simply put, Tyro’s eyes were filled with too much single-mindedness and causeless battle-fury to be from anything other than stims – or, apparently, blackfate. If there was anything Orth knew how to do, besides fighting mechanized wars, it was reading his brothers. Normal humans were much more difficult, but Iron Hands could be understood.
And right now he understood that there was something other than blood and blackfate in Tyro’s veins, and said so. “A non-combat drug of some sort,” Orth clarified.
“In a sense,” Branthan said. “I apologize for not being upfront with you about this – Tyro’s enhanced strength was blackfate, but there is also a small amount of aether in his blood vessels. We were hoping it would provide psychic abilities, and it did so in some of the test subjects, but usually – and in Tyro as well – it merely made the subject more difficult to read. Urannih, by contrast, had a larger dose injected.”
“Mine was not simple aether,” Urannih observed. “It was aethereal blood, the life of daemons. Others have used aether-flesh.”
“Such as myself,” Branthan stated. “My left arm is bionics, and my right is aether-flesh. There is even a chant.”
“Oh?” Orth was curious as to that.
“We have seen gods’ perfection, so surrender your metal; aether-flesh is the zenith, and we’ll prove it in battle!” Urannih recited.
“So,” Orth asked, “most of what you do is body modification?”
“Body and mind,” Branthan replied. “We are Iron Hands; we have always used abundant bionics. This is, to begin, merely the next step.”
Orth nodded. The power of Chaos was self-evident, and though blackfate’s addictive nature severely damaged it in his eyes, these were experiments that had been developed within a year. The progress that could be achieved within a few more would be vast indeed. Why was the Primarch denying them this?
It mattered not. Ferrus Manus had no right, for though he was the Iron Hands’ father in theory, he had abandoned them when they needed him. And he was not superior to the Emperor’s own decree that Chaos is an ally.
“But in truth,” Branthan said, turning Orth’s attention back to the captain, “it is more than that. You see, Orth, we seek more than merely improvement in battle. We are looking for the favor of the gods themselves. And through daemon-blood and aether-flesh, and a million other experiments, we shall ascend to beings beyond the limitations of what we are. We will be more than matter, Orth; indeed, we shall become like gods ourselves.”
It was a matter, then, of transcendence. And as Castrmen Orth looked around the room, he thought of the importance of victory. Victory over foes, and victory over nature. Will deserved to reign supreme over all.
“We will triumph over anyone,” Orth said. “For Chaos.”