The screaming alarms signaled intruders, Ehung Zekhoros had realized the moment they woke him from dreams of blood and skulls. But he had not reacted, given the distance to those alarms, except to call his company together. The Salamanders could seal the breach, if by some chance the alarm hadn't been a false positive.
The screaming alarms signaled intruders. The screaming people, however, signaled that something was very wrong.
The remnants of his Company came to him slowly. A third of his men had chosen the suicidal boarding attempt against the Perfect Honour. The rest, ostracized by the Legion upon arrival for their choice not to, had charged the front lines of the Ultramarines at the dropsite first, raging to redeem themselves and throwing themselves headlong into the chance to at least die meaningfully. Zekhoros was first among them, and he was not sure how he'd gotten out alive - the first thing he knew after the Nails had receded was standing in the center of a circle of dead Ultramarines, a kilometer away from the battle. Some of his brothers had been similarly lucky. Most had not.
As far as Zekhoros had been concerned, that should have wiped away any accusations of cowardice. Kharn agreed, and Zekhoros suspected that so did the rest of the Legion, in their hearts. But for any World Eater who wanted a target to vent their rage at, the Thirteenth Company was easy to blame - and being locked up in a fortress meant that most of the Legion had spite in abundance that had nowhere to go but the undeserving. And of all the undeserving, the Thirteenth was closest to being deserving.
So while the Thirteenth was no longer despised for losing the Conqueror, they still tended to get into more than their fair share of sanguis extremis pit fights. Fortunately, this trend was petering out, mostly because they had also won more than their fair share of sanguis extremis pit fights. When a company lost four Astartes in five, the survivors tended to be hard to kill.
The previous night, Zekhoros had fought alongside Dranzytchon of the Salamanders' Pyre Guard, against two Astartes from Delvarus's Triarii, who somehow blamed him for losing the Conqueror. Given how easily he and Dranzytchon had won, Zekhoros suspected that those with genuine grudges against the Thirteenth Company were down to the dregs. (Alternatively, it could have just been that he was good, and Dranzytchon was better.)
Squads Limbeten, Zurvon, Unjasth. Squads Takena, Ainai, K'wex. Squads Redorey, Sakhai, Alimborushan. Squads Meryneitand, Orr, Ztenontex. Rampager Squad Breidan and Destroyer Squads Andelesot and Muil. Ancient Lofoporus, presently asleep. Apothecaries Kerenil and Dussadol. That was all that remained - in total, one hundred and sixty-two Astartes. In just one day, he had practically become a centurion instead of a captain.
It was still a force that could kill planets.
In Lofoporus' place, one Ancient did appear to walk with the Thirteenth Company, and Zekhoros gave a shallow bow to the war machine as it emerged.
"Legion Master. You're still awake?"
"Oddly," Lhorke said, his speakers set to low volume but still echoing, "I feel genuinely curious about how this campaign goes." He paused. "I awoke to find that half the Legions had rebelled against the Imperium, and what was stranger, that we were not among them. Angron is acting like a Primarch. And the stench of corruption hangs heavy over the entire Twelfth. Not to mention the ritual."
"More than half the Legions," Sergeant Takena put in. "It's ten to eight. Or nine and a half to eight and a half, if the Alphas really did split."
"Half," Lhorke said. "Ten, out of twenty. And from what I've heard, no one can tell what the Twentieth is doing anyway, except maybe their Primarch. Anyhow, that's why I'm in no hurry to sleep. Things are finally changing, and I want to see how it plays out. And if I do sleep, I'm not sure I'll wake up again this time."
"You're better-maintained than that," Zekhoros said with a frown.
"No," Lhorke said, "I mean that someone'll probably rip me out of - and this is what I'm talking about. What the hell is that."
As the Thirteenth Company emerged, at a jog, into the main hall, Zekhoros could not find an answer for the Dreadnought.
The middle of the chamber was still filled by a stasis field, but someone had evidently aimed to fix it by turning it off and back on, and Zekhoros's servo-arm twitched at the mess that resulted. The captured sacrifices were for the most part still within, but they had been caught in the middle of a stampede, their neat ranks having turned into a bloody mess. Among them were more than a few World Eaters along with some Salamanders, caught in the midst of attempting crude crowd control. Around this frozen centerpiece, perhaps a thousand humans who had escaped were trying to make their way out, being intercepted - mostly lethally - by Astartes.
And while his brothers and cousins were focused on keeping the sacrificial lambs corralled, Zekhoros saw that the other stasis field had also gone down.
"Where's Guilliman?!" he shouted into the vox, scanning the hall for a sign - no, of course he'd gotten out. Probably had been carried out by Ultramarine saboteurs.
The World Eaters wouldn't know. The Salamanders probably wouldn't either. As such, it was the tech-priests that Zekhoros tried to raise, failing three times. The Thirteenth Company stood back, firing a few stray bolter shells into the crowd when it became necessary but not wading in, mostly because of how obvious it was that wading in wouldn't help.
The aim was, in principle, to knock the baselines unconscious without killing them. Zekhoros estimated that this aim would be achieved for perhaps a quarter of them.
He felt the call of the Nails as he stood there. Not merely their song that he had known for decades, but the voices, the ones coming from the god called Khorne. They seemed to come from all sides, whispering of battle and of massacre, of the eternal need to kill. They had first come when the Emperor had modified the Nails, salving their curse; after Prospero they had receded, but now, with the storm above them, they returned. Some of his brothers worshiped the voices, an instinct Zekhoros did not quite understand. It was surprisingly unimpressive, to have a god whispering in one's ear.
The again, he'd had the call to battle squatting uninvited in his brain long before that call became divine.
"So," came a voice behind Zekhoros, a powerful yet strained one. "Have we found the Ultramarines yet?"
Zekhoros did not have to turn around. He could tell when his Primarch was present.
"Are we sure it's Ultramarines?" Muil asked.
Zekhoros just looked at his sergeant, trying to make it clear exactly how stupid that question was. Lhorke did the same. Somehow, despite the lack of facial features, he was successful.
Before Angron could say anything more, the fourth adept Zekhoros had tried to raise replied. It was Lebet-Nix, a scrymaster who had been attached to the Legion for three decades and whose loyalty to the Legion and the crew had outweighed his loyalty to the Mechanicum.
The same had been true of Legio Audax, but the Emperor had not trusted the Titans enough to send them on this mission. That, in retrospect, had been a mistake.
"The south-south-western gate," Lebet-Nix said. "We brought down their speeders - they're retreating on foot. Twenty-five Ultramarines in Salamander armor, and Guilliman."
Angron grinned, baring his teeth.
"A hunt it is," he said. Then, yelling out to the Legion: "I'm going to chase my so-called brother! Try and keep up!" He gave a slight chuckle at that, even as he took off in his loping gait.
"Speeders!" Zekhoros ordered. There was no way to keep up with Angron on foot, but he was not passing up this fight. The voices called to war, and the Thirteenth Company answered with the sound of boots on ceramite.
They grabbed a few speeders quickly enough, and set off in formation. Most of the trailing pack didn't. There was more than a thousand of them, some grabbing speeders and bikes, others moving out on foot. Someone had grabbed a Rhino, whose front was carved with a massive rune of Khorne. Every vehicle and suit of armor was, beneath the dust, white and blue. Vulkan, it seemed, had ordered his Legion to work on crowd control, entrusting the hunt to Angron - likely at Angron's own insistence.
They caught them a few kilometers from the fortress. It was far enough away that the guns couldn't block an extraction, and far enough away that the World Eaters had spread out. But Zekhoros and his company were there, their speeders trailing opposite those of the Forty-First Company, behind and to either side of the Primarch. Between their two unequal formations, twelve Terminator-armored Devourers struggled to keep up. They did surprisingly well - they were actually close enough to see their Primarch.
Ahead, Guilliman was ordering the green-armored Ultramarines (and... a little girl, since apparently Zekhoros was not just hearing voices because of the damned Warp Storm but hallucinating as well) to take up defensive positions. He pointed to the horizon, and Zekhoros followed his gaze to see approaching gunships, blue gunships, enough that they would block out the storm when they arrived.
They had minutes.
Angron, realizing this, leaped at Guilliman, and the Avenging Son swung his halberd-like weapon to block it, the horn at his belt seeming to follow the motion. The metal rang, and the rest of the field seemed to freeze for an instant as the Primarchs began their duel.
Zekhoros had seen his Primarch fight before, but never like this. Never against an enemy that could actually challenge him. There was no way to see the individual blows: Angron was everywhere, the Blackblade and Gorefather surrounding Guilliman from all sides. He beat on Guilliman like waves on a seashore, and like waves each blow was turned aside.
But - Guilliman was tired, not yet recovered from his imprisonment. With each blow his defense was being eroded away, a little bit of it washed off and carried back by the waves. It was not about whether Guilliman could win, but only whether he could hold out for long enough. His halberd flashed and fired, but Angron dodged every blow that struck true, and endured through the glancing ones.
"We shouldn't have left him that halberd," Zurvon said.
Before Zekhoros could reply, his seat lurched and he was tossed from the speeder, as it went down in a ball of flame, colliding with a speeder of the Twenty-Ninth in the process. Well, it was the pilot's own fault for trailing that closely behind.
He landed on his feet, setting off in a run at the Ultramarine line. The Nails sung, but he pressed them back. Losing himself here meant getting shot down by those gunships, which were far too close now. Squad Orr was mowed down around him (down, not deceased, though Zekhoros wasn't sure about Sergeant Orr himself, the totems on whose armor fell scattered across the sand), and it was Lhorke that tore into the Ultramarines alongside him. Zekhoros's armor was cracked in five places, at least, but as he revved all three chainswords he couldn't quite care.
The first Ultramarine went down easily, his blade only able to parry one of Zekhoros's three swords as the other two carved him up. The Nails sung, but Zekhoros still pressed them back as another Ultramarine came up. All of a sudden, Zekhoros found himself surrounded by fire, as if it really was the Eighteenth he was fighting. It was Lhorke that saved him, strafing the Ultramarine in question - Rostasthex, Zekhoros thought he could discern - and pushing the flamer stream skyward.
In his peripheral vision, the captain watched the Primarchs duel, in a silence that belied the storms raging behind both of their sets of eyes. Guilliman was being worn down quickly, until finally, a strike from Gorefather connected. As Zekhoros simultaneously struck through the last two Ultramarines on the barricade, and looked forward to the next one - as he watched Breidan's squad and their speeder impact against the next barricade, spilling out directly onto the Ultramarines - as the gunships' thunder became audible, still several minutes away - as Lhorke raised a fist in salute for the taken barricade - as all of that happened, Guilliman half-jumped, half-fell back, laying prone on the ground and screaming for Gilloa, whoever he was -
As that happened, Gorefather bore down on the Ultimate Warrior, Zekhoros realizing that Angron had never had any intent of taking Guilliman alive again, and the girl he was hallucinating ran to Guilliman's side, throwing out a bolt of invisible lightning (Zekhoros was not sure how he was seeing it in that hallucination, and he didn't know if he wanted to know) that incinerated Rampager Steosp on the spot -
As all of that happened, an Astarte in green Terminator armor, with a drake's horn protruding from his back, leapt in Gorefather's way and took, albeit glancingly, a blow meant for a Primarch.
The Ultramarine crumpled, instantaneously, but Angron hummed in appreciation of the courage. It was the briefest of openings, but that was the moment that Zekhoros surveyed the battle. The front two barricades had been overrun, while on the long rear one, green-armored Astartes were still holding out. A dozen speeders had been downed, which would be a major hassle to repair - but then, the Salamanders were here, maybe they'd be so kind as to do it for them. A mass of World Eaters was charging in a long tail pointing towards the fortress. And in the center of it all, Angron, looking down on the crumpled Astarte and at the prone Guilliman beyond that like the god of war he had been meant to be.
"Hnngh," he said. "The 'honor' may be nonsense, but I guess your sons do have courage after all."
That was the moment of the World Eaters' victory.
In the next moment, Guilliman brought the horn in his right hand and the halberd in his left into alignment with the girl who, apparently, was not a hallucination after all, and there was light.
Not golden light, as the beacon above their fortress; not the Warp-touched light of colors unknown. It was simply light, which would have been pure white had it possessed any color at all. It shone in a line from the halberd to the horn to the girl, and its path went through them, as a lance that pierced Angron's head.
The world seemed to freeze in a moment of stasis.
"You know nothing of honor, Angron," Guilliman calmly said, as if he was on parade instead of just having had the wind knocked out of him by one of his brothers. "Honor does not depend on birth - and our own births, I might note, are equally noble. We are the sons of the most powerful transhuman known to history. Fortune gave you less than me, but it gave you far more than the people that make up the vast bulk of our galaxy. Honor is the limits we set for ourselves, to be better than... than primordial hate. Than your god." He stared at Angron, holding the girl in place with his free arm; the Red Angel did not move. Zekhoros tried to, bringing up his gun even though it was like pushing through sludge. "Honor is not war. Honor is what we hold onto despite war. It is the opposite of the power you have embraced since the Nails were first hammered into your head. And yet as war breaks men, honor can yet break war. Such is the alignment. This taint of endings - it ends now."
And the ray of light became a blinding beacon that outshone both Vulkan's beacon and the storm above.
Zekhoros was faintly aware of the gunships landing, of a limping Guilliman carrying his Terminator-armored son in his arms, of the remaining dozen Ultramarines making their stoic retreat as artillery shells were lobbed in their vague direction (more as warning shots than anything else, for the gunners, he hoped, would not wish to hit Angron). He saw his Primarch on his knees, howling in impotent rage, and Lhorke alone running to his gene-father's side as a thousand and some World Eaters twitched on the ground. Captain Ehung Zekhoros was among them. The pain was like nothing he had ever felt, like half his head had been cut away. He felt something in his hands, and turning it around through the black spots in his vision, he realized what the spikes were.
It was the Nails. The Nails had been removed from his head. According to every experiment that had ever been run, death would come in three to four minutes, and unconsciousness in seconds.
"The sky...." he mumbled, knowing those were his last words, as he rolled onto his back, for it seemed the storm itself had recoiled from Guilliman's ritual; and then darkness claimed him.
When he awoke, still lying atop that barricade with Ultramarine corpses scattered around him, the blood-covered Nails still clutched in his hand, it was because the sun was directly overhead.