Bolter shots split the windy night of the small mining town called Meteres Heights. A Salamander strike force, led by one of the Pyre Guard, had come to the village in order to capture its people as human sacrifices for the Imperial forces' dark rituals. Their green armor shone in the storm that was the sky, seeming to reflect screaming faces. The town's stone walls, hastily erected, had been rammed straight through, sending the gun emplacements on them tumbling down.
Yet Klord Empion had known they would come here, and so the Salamanders' raid was not unopposed.
Three companies of Ultramarines - not three full companies, but the main part of them. They had followed Empion to one of the few remaining villages in the vicinity of the Ghanun desert, and with the locals' aid had established a trap.
Empion felt ashamed, in truth, talking to those civilians. So many of them were slaves, some of those half-lobotomized with implants to enhance focus and pliability. Not most - the implants were for potential troublemakers only, for their casualty rates were simply too high. Above them, the common miners were ever fearful of falling into slavery, and so they were brutal overseers. There was no one in Meteres Heights that was not poor - even without the threat of raids, there never had been.
This was a world of the Imperium, and had been a world of the Imperium at the height of the Crusade. Yet many of Meteres Heights' people did not even know the Imperium existed.
Well. Had not known. They knew now.
Bolter shells split the night, the surrounded Salamanders - perhaps a hundred of them - refusing to even attempt retreat. Their Terminator-armored leader, marked by a massive horn protruding from the back of his armor - Skatar'var, Empion read in a glimpse - yelled at them to hold, joining his voice to the cacophony of battle and his flamer to the stream of fire the Salamanders were putting down.
"Practical:" Empion said, putting down his magnoculars, "I'll take the Pyre Guard. We need to make this quick for the plan to work."
"Practical: I'd recommend that you take your honour guard along for that, Chapter Master."
Phrost's words made Empion frown. Not the reminder to tilt the scales - for he was right that this was no time for suicidal heroism - but at the form of address, and at the reminder that served as.
What was he Chapter Master of, with their Primarch gone? The psyker child, Gilloa, claimed that Guilliman lived. None of them wanted to doubt her. But command was fragmented. Of course there were theoreticals for this contingency, but the practical was that Odinathus was not quite capable of carrying them out, but close enough to that capability as to stubbornly forge ahead with the theoretical. The end result was that the seven active Chapter Masters (Aronion having received serious injuries in the campaign's first battle, and removed himself from command for the time being) were engaged in a constant debate about the speed with which the campaign should proceed. Radorakius advocated for an immediate massive assault, while Odinathus led those who preferred a war of attrition.
The Ultramarines were, by their standards at least, paralyzed with indecision. The theoreticals had proven lacking, and the practicals were held back by the hammer blow to morale that losing Guilliman had been. And, therefore, Empion had developed a daring theoretical and acquired Antoli's support for it.
All that remained was to, despite everything, execute it.
Empion called his command squad to him and checked his weapons one last time. Of the ten, Aerent was absent - a wound suffered during the explosion at Keir had festered, in a fashion that should've been impossible for an Astarte. The Apothecaries and Librarians had successfully saved his life, but the bionic had not yet set. His place was, for this mission alone, taken by Codicier Thorastus.
Estinus nodded to signal readiness, the Terminator armor giving it an impression of sageness that Estinus's personality didn't exactly justify, in the practical.
"We march for Macragge!" Empion said into the vox, and they took off, at a speed that, in the practical, was very far from a march. On every side of the surrounded Salamanders, Ultramarine squads did likewise.
The hab-blocks grunted under their weight, and despite Empion's best efforts in a few places plaster crumbled, but the jump-packs held. A dozen blue daggers struck at the Salamander encampment from every angle, and at the end of the last roof, Empion jumped over the edge and into the fray as the thirteenth.
The hulking Salamanders reacted quickly, of course. Empion swung his thunder hammer even as he landed, neatly decapitating the first of them by knocking away helmet and skull without damaging the body armor, but another was already bringing up his flamer at him. But Estinus was already slamming his chainsword into the Salamander's arm, revving it up and dropping the flamer onto the ground. It fell with a slight thud, but seemingly intact.
That was good. All according to theoretical.
Jussyd rammed aside another Salamander, emptying his bolter into the helmet. Empion was already charging ahead, Estinus at his side and laughing under his helmet, Thorastus lagging a bit behind as per theoretical - but Empion was only dimly aware of that from peripheral vision of his retinal display as he ran towards the leader, Skatar'var, who was even now yelling out orders. For a moment Skatar'var's head turned, and he locked lenses with Empion.
And the Pyre Guard yelled a challenge, one that could have been aimed at any of the warriors around him but that Empion knew targeted him.
He rushed forward, up the slight incline, and the Salamanders parted before him - some willingly, some due to being knocked down by his weapon. Skatar'var charged downhill to face him. Shells glanced off his armor, just as they glanced off Empion's. Both ignored them. All the same, this was a battle and not an honor duel, and so Skatar'var's companions were at his side, as Estinus and Rostasthex were at Empion's.
The Salamander swung his power maul at Empion, the seemingly graceless arc nearly taking the Ultramarine's head off. But Empion had ducked in time, swinging his hammer forward past Skatar'var's shield, forcing the Salamander into a desperate block as he swung the maul at Estinus. Estinus took the blow, crumpling but - according to the retinal display - quite alive.
Empion used the moment to weave sideways, dancing out of the Pyre Guard's way and striking down one of the other Salamanders, whose shoulder pauldron had been cracked by bolter fire, in the same movement. He shifted again, his pack knocking with that of one of his brothers, as Skatar'var's return blow was blocked by the Salamander corpse.
Around them, the din of battle was dying down. The remaining Salamanders were killed carefully, the Ultramarines trying to cut open their armor in a way that did not destroy it. They wouldn't have much time for the turnaround.
Empion dodged the maul again, striking again, this time scoring a glancing hit. The movement had left him a touch overextended, but the Pyre Guard winced with a blow to his leg - Estinus's work, due to a thrown knife - and could not take advantage of it. An instant later, having recovered, he swung his weapon in a wild sweep, collecting Ultramarines and Salamanders alike onto it in the mighty strike - but leaving himself open to Empion's shortsword digging into the crack his earlier hit had created in Skatar'var's armor, and the maul flew out of his hands as the Salamander fell, his helmet rolling away and clinking to a stop.
"Leodrakk...." the Astarte croaked out, before an Ultramarine sergeant Empion didn't know, with a helm marked red for censure, drove a powersword into the Salamander's exposed throat.
There was a heatbeat of uncertainty as the Chapter Master awaited the next enemy, and then Empion realized he could hear his own heartbeat. The plaza stank - stank so badly that he could smell it even in his helmet - but it was not ringing.
Every Salamander in Meteres Heights was dead.
"Thanks for the assist," Empion said, "Sergeant...."
"Aeonid Thiel," the sergeant said, "and you could've finished him off yourself, Chapter Master. I just thought it was best not to let him talk."
Empion shrugged - in the theoretical Thiel was certainly right, with both statements. "You're with the 135th?"
Thiel nodded. "Captain Taerone has command, but he won't be on the recon mission. My squad is due to be."
Empion looked the sergeant over. He didn't look to be a scout, but this wasn't really a scouting mission, and he trusted Antoli and Taerone to have picked someone fitting the mission. That being said.... "If I may ask about the helmet?"
"For running theoreticals about reconquering Ultramar if it fell."
Empion inclined his head in question - that did not sound like something that deserved censure.
"If the Ultramarines in it turned," Thiel clarified.
Empion nodded. On the one hand, such a theoretical was hardly good for morale, and Gage was not one to return to the Emperor's side; on the other, Thiel was correct in that they would yet have to fight brothers as well as cousins, for some Ultramarines had gone back to Terra. Deserving of censure, but also a sign of the creativity Empion needed. And, naturally, a source of plausible deniability for Sharad Antoli regarding his involvement in this operation, should it go poorly.
"Well met in any case, brother," Empion said, shaking Thiel's hand. "Now, as to those helmets...."
He walked around the field, looking over the dead. Most of them, fortunately, were Salamanders. A few seemed slightly rotten already, and those were immediately tossed out. Protocol was slightly unclear on what to do with them, except for applying sufficiently corrosive acids to destroy every trace of the bodies. Fire, which had been the theoretical for Word Bearer corpses in similar cases, did not work.
"Roughly thirty suits," Thorastus reported, "that are both intact and untainted."
Empion nodded, and set about collecting those suits that the Librarians pointed out. Techmarines were already at work to mask the damage, aiming to make the armor damage seem nonfatal.
The ruse wouldn't hold for long, but hopefully it would hold for long enough.
"You'll take the Pyre Guard's, I'm assuming," Phrost said as he came up to Empion.
"It's one of the pure ones?" Empion frowned, considering it. "Yes, I suppose that's sensible." He had limited practical experience with Terminator armor, but he had some, and since Skatar'var had been the leader it would preserve group dynamics to have him take that suit. "It's sized for someone half again my breadth, though."
"I'll ride on your back," came a little girl's voice.
Phrost turned with a long-suffering sigh, which Empion barely prevented himself from copying. Gilloa was an asset, and - like most psykers - wise beyond her years, but she was also a nine-year-old child, and sometimes that showed.
"Gilloa," Phrost said, "that's a terrible idea."
"I need to be there," she said. "I have to be concealed in some way."
"We'll hide you in the speeder," Empion proposed. "Their scanners would pick you up, but you said you can block them."
Gilloa pouted a little, but nodded. "That should work. But I'll need to get out...."
"A random girl stowed away on our speeder, probably looking for adventure or some such nonsense," Empion growled, "and I apologize for the oversight, but after the disaster that this raid was and barely getting out... with three-quarters of my men killed... we weren't exactly looking for stowaways."
"About that," Phrost said. "I understand why she needs to come, but my lord, you are a different matter."
"She said I need to lead the mission."
Phrost looked down at the girl. "Empion, I trust her, but not that far."
Phrost was right, of course, in the theoretical. Gilloa seemed to be on their side, but there was no reason to fully believe her, and the Librarians' prophecies - while seeming to support Gilloa's point - were vague. And if prophecy was ignored, sending someone as highly ranked as Empion on this mission was far more risk than theoreticals advised.
"The practical, Phrost," Empion said eventually, taking off his helmet and briefly glancing at the deranged sky, "is that I have to see this through. And in the worst-case theoretical, my death might at least serve to wake Odinathus up."
He took off his armor piece by piece, before allowing Phrost to help him into Skatar'var's Terminator plate. It was uncomfortable, as predicted, but the compensation systems helped him stay upright. Phrost handed him the Cornucopia of Katha, and with some hesitation Empion took it - the Librarians were still unsure of its purpose, but Guilliman had told him to keep it, and so he would. With Estinus injured, it was Rostasthex who stood next to Empion, picking up the plate of one of Skatar'var's companions - Vanzytar, if Estinus was deciphering the armor correctly.
The sergeants picked up armor of their own, Thiel and Reonaxan (94th Company), as well as their squads. Thorastus and two other Librarians were coming along as well, with two Techmarines. All of their movements were practiced, efficient, in a manner that Empion appreciated. It took only minutes for them to crowd into the repainted Ultramarine speeders - the Salamanders' actual speeders had been downed in the crossfire, and would not fly anywhere anytime soon.
And then ignition, and they were flying northward, first slowly along the downhill road and then, at supersonic speeds, across the flats of the Ghanun desert.
Empion was going behind enemy lines with a few dozen chosen battle-brothers, in a desperate but carefully planned mission to change the course of a conflict. The memories that dredged up were decades old - as a Scout, and as a Sergeant, he had done so often. As a Captain or Chapter Master, he fought on the front lines only rarely. Empion didn't exactly miss that past, but there was a certain romantic appeal in this recurrence. The importance of the mission had grown, to a point where it was entirely reasonable for a Chapter Master to be planning it, but... well, it was important not to forget past practicals.
The wind scourged the surface of Empion's stolen armor, the sand it picked up gouging out shallow eddies in the surface - not enough to be relevant in combat, but enough to paint interesting designs, Empion even needing to check with Thorastus and Epistolary Vezultyl to ensure it was not some sort of psychic test. The desert stretched out, nearly featureless except for a few forward forts that were too widely spaced to completely block the Salamanders' passage. The reason for this was simple, and evidenced by the ruins of several more half-built defenses in the spots in between.
The Twelfth and Eighteenth would do everything in their power to prevent an Ultramarine victory.
Not that this was a surprise.
The sands, yellow-white in principle but lit by a night that was pink and green and colors not of the rainbow, stretched before them. The madness of the sky reigned above. In between, a narrow horizon, and the great fortress that the Salamanders had constructed with unusual speed (Empion was increasingly doubtful that the World Eaters had been involved in that construction) - even from here Empion imagined he could feel its oppressive taint. It was gold and green and blue and white, shining, its towers being artfully arranged. Even where shells had written destruction into the fabric, somehow the Salamanders had managed to make that look intentional, like an ancient time-worn relic. The bastions wore those scars with pride. And yet, for all its beauty, for all that any individual piece could inspire admiration, taken as a whole the seven wings of the fortress made a different impression entirely. The narrow windows, the massive cannons, those could be justified as merely expediency, a concession to function over form... but they came together as more than that.
Empion wasn't sure how to describe that, but when Thiel pointed out the Librarians' discomfort, he knew it wasn't just in his own mind.
"They're creating something terrible," he said quietly. "And vast...."
Out of the very center of the star fort, a beam of golden light was being emitted upwards, slicing into the storm above, scattered by suspended sand grains to light the night. The same beacon as at Desh'ea, effortlessly piercing thousands of kilometers of rock and metal to emerge on Nuceria's other side.
Before Reonaxan could reply with the inevitable cutting remark, Empion's - or, rather, Skatar'var's - vox flickered to life.
"...Skar!" the voice said. "I had feared you wouldn't come back!"
"Most of us didn't," Empion said, with the metallic voice of his armor. "The Ultramarines were ready for us."
"Bastards," the voice on the other side of the link - Artellus Numeon, Empion read, the name of the Pyre Guard's leader - said. "I should have known.... I'll meet you at the south-southeastern gate."
Empion voiced approval and cut the link, then relayed the information to his men. The speeders continued to slice through the night air, sending up clouds of dust behind them as they passed between two Ultramarine forts, getting a few long-range shots. None hit, though one artillery shell impacted close enough to knock the slightly nauseous Thorastus off his feet.
"I'm fine," he said, waving his hand. "Maintaining the cloaking, without a psychic hood, is... not easy."
They pulled up at the gates without incident, Empion stepping off first, followed by Thiel, straight onto the parapet. The wall below descended ten meters past the desert's natural level, having been dug downwards for pragmatic purposes.
A Terminator-armored warrior stood before the speeder, his drake-hide mantle fluttering in the wind the speeders were kicking up, somehow undamaged by the sandstorms. He wore no helmet, his shaved head void-black with red flames for eyes. His open expression radiated some combination of concern, relief, and frustrated vindication.
"Skatar'var!" Artellus Numeon said, walking forward to embrace Empion, who slightly uncomfortably returned the hug. "What happened? Let me look upon your face, brother - "
Empion pushed his knife in even as the Pyre Guard said the last word, Thiel doing the same to Numeon's companion.
Numeon toppled before Empion could catch him, but the blade had struck true, and the Salamanders' First Captain fell from the wall, leaving a streak of blood along it, silently. Any screams from the other Salamander had been silenced because Thiel had choked him before decapitating.
"That'll buy us two minutes at most," Reonaxan said, stepping up beside Empion and Thiel. Gilloa was out of the speeder as well, but Empion didn't have time to consider the implications of that. "The way in?"
Thiel simply pushed on the door.
It swung open.
They passed along a lengthy hallway, focusing on speed over silence. A few seconds in it became a catwalk, and then, as they neared the center of the complex and heard the first alarm sound, Empion gasped. They had emerged onto a ledge overlooking what was presumably the fortress's grand hall, and in it-
Before and below them, arrayed in vast and orderly rows, were people. Men and women and children, slaves and freemen, all of them in the thousands, likely every soul that the Salamanders had captured in their raids. They stood, even hovered, without even the slightest motion, and Empion could see the telltale refraction of a stasis field above their ranks.
And in a separate position, but also presumably in a stasis field, at the head of those mummified ranks, hung the cobalt-blue armor and unconscious body of Empion's Primarch, the Cannon of Premioi still clenched in his right hand, colors dulled by the field.
"Is what we came here for," Thiel gathered the will to say. "All Librarians exhausted from the taint, we need to lower the field... but to even get there...."
"No," Empion realized. "We need to lower both fields."
"Cause chaos," Thiel said, understanding. "The civilians will mostly die, but they're dead already. But how - "
Gilloa came up beside Empion and locked eyes with the Chapter Master.
"Be ready," she said.
Before Empion could ask for what, she raised her hand and clenched her fist.
And in an instant, both stasis fields fell.
The next instant, as Empion took the first step in his sprint for the Primarch, was when the screams started.