One Terran month later
Klord Empion swam into consciousness through a sea of pain.
He could not see, at first. For a few moments he was alone in the dark, before his senses reconnected. He was on the deck of the Omega Unbowed, Nucerian terrain speeding past a porthole.
It looked strangely distorted, most unlike what it had appeared as in life. Everything looked strange now, when compared to what he had seen with his own eyes. There would be a period of adjustment. He knew that, intellectually.
It was still strange, being dead.
Guilliman had offered him, for his heroism, the choice to die in truth. Some Astartes preferred that, preferred oblivion to a frozen life, and two years ago Empion had been among them. But he had refused that offer, for two reasons. One was that he knew he still had more to offer the Legion, and he could no longer consider giving it less than everything. The other was that, with recent revelations on the nature on the universe and the Word Bearers' claims specifically, he doubted that oblivion was actually possible.
And so his broken body had been placed in the sarcophagus of a Contemptor Dreadnought. He was compatible, physically and psychologically. So the tech... not tech-priests anymore, not in Imperium Secundus... the tech-adepts, anyhow, had claimed. At first he had feared they'd been wrong.
But while in orbit around Nuceria, the other Dreadnoughts were having nightmares as well.
"Hi, Empion," said a voice that the Dreadnought recognized.
Empion - he'd probably have everyone referring to him as Empionus in a few years, but if that happened that would mean he'd have survived a few more years, which he would consider a success - slowly lowered his angle to make the impression of glaring at the psyker girl.
"Gilloa. Did you wake me?"
His dubious attempts at intimidation, unsurprisingly, did not work. "You shouldn't be sleeping right now. It's not safe."
"Due to the storm?" All things considered, though the tech-adepts would have disagreed, she might well have been right.
"No," Gilloa said. "It's because of the battle that's going to happen today. The assault on Ghanun. And also, Guilliman is coming and he was going to wake you anyway."
That child was altogether too comfortable in the company she was having.
Then again, she was as terrifying as any of them.
"Chapter Master - ah." That was a new figure walking into the room. Blue armor, fitted with new insignia. Phrostus, Ninth Chapter Master of the Ultramarines. "Gilloa - "
"Phrostus," Empion said. "You are Chapter Master now. Not I."
"Yes, but...." Phrostus frowned. "It still feels wrong. The title is new, but I will adjust to gaining it. But you never did anything to lose it."
"How fares the Ninth?" Empion asked, changing the subject because he too felt strange about the previous one. He had never been one to obsess over promotions, but his being simultaneously one of the honored dead and still conscious was awkward in a number of ways.
"Well enough," Phrostus said, before taking a heavy breath. "The assault begins tomorrow."
"On the main fortress?" As Empion talked, he walked forward, taking a few thunderous steps to look out the porthole at Nuceria below. Unfortunately, at present the Omega Unbowed was on the opposite side of the planet to Ghanun; instead, slightly off-center, he saw the ruins of Desh'ea and the mountain of Fedan Mhor.
"The secondary fortress has been taken," Phrostus confirmed, "but theoretical artillery setup has not been achieved. However, there is no time in the practical. According to the vox traffic, the Imperials are due to begin their ritual in a Terran day, and we must break them before them."
Empion rumbled non-vocal assent. He had been told, already, that he would not be part of this final assault. His sarcophagus was simply not set, not yet. He nevertheless itched to go to war, to test the seismic hammer, storm bolter, and heavy conversion beamer built into his chassis, less because of a general bellicosity and more because of the desire to do something.
The peaceful future they had believed in had included a place, precarious as it was, for Astartes. Empion was not sure how much of a place it had for Dreadnoughts. Yet the issue was now academic. The paths of the Expeditionary Fleets had diverged, and then reconverged in a fashion that hopelessly scrambled them together, no longer parallel but anti-parallel. And some were angled - neither fully supporting Horus nor remaining loyal to the Emperor. In a sense, Imperium Secundus itself was... not orthogonal, far from it, but deviating.
But none of them were orthogonal to the Emperor. In the end, they were all either with him, or against him. That fanaticism allowed no other choice.
"What about you, Gilloa?" he asked.
"I don't know," Gilloa said. She paused. "Nuceria is wounded, severely so. But it is not dead yet."
"We won't let it die," Phrostus said firmly.
"No," Gilloa clarified, "it has to die, and die in the right way. My people can be saved, the planet can be saved, its technology can be saved. But the union of those three things needs to die. It almost certainly will, but if its existence is prolonged it will only bring a worse ending." Empion was not sure, as his cameras were not perfectly calibrated, but he thought that Gilloa, the nine-year-old that had seen her family and her entire city die before being thrown into a maelstrom of galactic war and rescuing a Primarch from another Primarch, all without flinching, shivered at that possibility.
"Do you feel their suffering?" Empion asked, seeking clarification.
Gilloa walked to the porthole, Empion very carefully laying his hammer on her shoulder in such a way that she did not actually have to support any weight. "Yes, but that was always there. Nuceria is suffering less than before. It's only the storm."
The storm. They could only see Nuceria's surface as they looked nearly straight down. But Empion could imagine what lay outside their field of view.
Empion tried hard not to think about the nature of this madness, the mirages it summoned forth, for those were conjured as much by imagination as by the Warp. But even the strategic implications of summoning Warp Storms were cause for nightmare. If the Imperium had been able to bar the way of any ship it wished -
Though the Imperium was not able to do so. If they had been, the course of this war would have been carved entirely differently. No, whatever the World Eaters and Salamanders were doing here was unusual. It was, moreover, a ritual that they seemingly had not wanted interrupted.
Neither side wanted this war - the Imperials wanted to complete their ritual, and the Ultramarines to return to their domain, which they still had no word of. The irony of all this was not lost on Empion, even if the humor in that irony was.
The sound of footsteps shook Empion out of contemplation, and he carefully turned to see, for the first time with his augmetic senses, his Primarch.
Roboute Guilliman was armored for war. Intricately decorated power armor gave a sense of stark majesty even beyond that of his face, but the compulsion to kneel was no longer overwhelming. Empion's attention was instead drawn to the Cornucopia of Katha, still attached to the Primarch's waist.
"Empion, Phrostus," the Avenging Son said. "And Gilloa, whose handlers are searching for her even now."
"Let them," Gilloa said. "This is important, and I've wasted too much time on things that are not. Also, they try to make me sleep."
The Primarch frowned. "Just how much of a problem would that pose?"
"That depends on the amount. I've been napping some, because at some point I can't stay awake anymore even with the trances, but a full night risks me, and regular full nights would risk the fleet."
"I'll talk to Uneli." Guilliman shook his head. Empion could emphasize - during the Crusade, most psykers as powerful as Gilloa were found to be mad, and this was one of the reasons why. According to some protocols, Gilloa should have been mercifully executed.
In these times, no one had even brought up the idea, a reticence born of practicality as much as morality. They needed every ally they could get. The time for paranoia about purity was long gone, except where it had been proven justified.
"Anyhow," the Primarch continued, "you're not going to have to deal with this for much longer. Empion, the Mark of Ghanun is at minus eight hours. You will transfer to the Perfect Honour and take command over the fleet from mark minus four hours."
"I am honored," Empion said. "You intend a full deployment on the surface?"
"Every able Ultramarine," Guilliman said.
"Understood. What of the Linearity?"
"Ah." Guilliman smiled. "I've finally figured the Cornucopia out. It does encourage growth of sufficiently simple organisms when correctly blown, so mainly a farming and terraforming aid with secondary utility as battlefield control, but the details... it's a magnificent piece of craftsmanship, if an intentionally opaque one. The Cannon is a weapon, and the third part is Gilloa, the sensor and the thermoregulator. The fourth and fifth... a nexus and a transport, I imagine."
"Gilloa?" Phrostus asked. "My lord, what do you mean by that?"
"He figured it out during the escape," Gilloa said glumly. "I am Gilloa of Nuceria, but I always knew I was not the first of the Line of Nuceria, that this Line predates humanity's presence on my world. And this makes perfect sense. We are part of the Linearity, a weapon crafted by some race forever ago." She gripped her knees. "I'm... I'm getting worse, aren't I? I'll need to sleep for a very long time when this is over."
"Not much longer," Guilliman said - kindly, but honestly.
"I'm not so far gone," Gilloa insisted. "So, when the Linearity is aligned, it aligns unreality to its rhythms."
"And taint is burned away," Empion guessed. He had heard the first part of the explanation before, but not the second. It was illuminating, and it gave him hope that whatever these things the Emperor had allied himself with were, they could yet be defeated.
It had been too easy to doubt that, with their enemies seeming to win even in defeat.
"More or less," Gilloa said. "Whorls straightened." She walked up to the very edge of the porthole, brushing her hand across the surface, tracing out the curve of the Edear mountain range up to the Narkha Plateau, and slightly off it, the great massif of Fedan Mhor. "It is a good thing, that the Linearity exists, that it is in just hands. It is just that... I do not know what to think about it. I do not know what to think of the knowledge that I was born as an engineered weapon."
Roboute Guilliman walked up to her, putting his gauntleted hand on her shoulder. Unlike Empion's attempt to do the same, it visibly calmed her, the orbital motion of the Omega Unbowed slowly pushing her hand off Fedan Mhor westwards, into the coastal plain and the Perraila Sea.
"Neither do I, Gilloa," he said softly. "Even after two hundred years.... Neither do I."