War had come to the Ghanun desert, and it was just on time.
Vulkan, Primarch of the Salamanders, was still uneasy with viewing the world in a frame of reference that involved such concepts. War could be necessary or inevitable, but it had never been desirable. It was the outcome of a failed compliance negotiation, or else the defense against a xeno threat. In the former case it was tragic, in the latter, at the least, inconvenient.
But such was the way of the universe now. Humanity and his father both required him to be a being that could use war as a means for manipulation of the ether. Lorgar described it as playing a symphony. To Vulkan, whose youthful spirituality had been of a more practical bent, it was smith's work like any other, save that instead of metal it was the Immaterium he hammered into shape.
Warpcraft was a craft, in the end; and like any craft, it had tolerances. And the Ultramarines' attack, while not coming at the most fortuitous time, was comfortably within the tolerance of this ritual.
As he slipped his gauntlets on, he took a brief glance around. Varrun had arrived. Atanarius, Igataron, Dranzytchon, and Artellus Numeon, who had recovered from the injuries he had sustained the night of Guilliman's escape. A new Pyre Guard would yet be inducted to replace Skatar'var, but not until the campaign had been completed. Yet the sacrifices that escaped that day had not all been recaptured, and Ultramarine redeployments blocked further raids in brilliant designs that could only have been his brother's. To complete the ritual, Vulkan had been forced to redesign it.
"The barrage has begun, my lord," Varrun said. "Onto all walls simultaneously, aimed mainly at the third angles of each."
"The storm is coming," Vulkan accepted, walking up to clasp Dawnbringer. "Good."
"The west-northwest pocket," Numeon said. "It seems too lightly defended. I suspect the Ultramarines will know it for a trap."
"They will," Vulkan confirmed, "but they will spring it nevertheless. Carefully, at first, seeking to limit potential losses, but when we do not respond they will seek to exploit the gap. And they will, but the losses they take when we do close the trap will be enough to put out the beacon."
Grasping Dawnbringer in his hands, Vulkan tried a few experimental swings before twirling the hammer one-handed. That was a substantial exertion, even for him, with his armor powered off. He could feel his own heartbeat, intermingled with the heartbeat of the world below him. It was not a literal quake, but a swaying in rhythm with the storm above.
The beacon that Angron had lit in Desh'ea by the power of Khorne and death would be put out in Ghanun by the power of Nurgle and life, and in the resonance in between enough power would be generated to begin the Emperor's ascension, with the favor of two of the Warp Gods. It would be Fulgrim and the Lion who would complete the ritual, likely on Caliban or Cadia, by lighting and putting out a second beacon for the other two and concluding their father's apotheosis. For now, the beacon passed through the planet's very center, and all Nuceria was suffused with its energy.
This ritual was necessary. It was also dubious. What would come after the Emperor's ascension was not an alluring topic to broach. But Vulkan had made his oaths, and besides, what would come without that ascension would be even worse.
And above all, his father had saved his life and his mind, after his failure on Chogoris. Vulkan had to repay as much of that as he could.
"Come," he told his Pyre Guard without looking back, and walked to war.
The command center was located above the fortress's center, a ring that surrounded the great beacon. The modules were manned by the few loyal tech-priests present, or else by Salamanders. One was taken by Captain Zekhoros of the World Eaters.
Somewhat surprisingly, Angron was there. Even more surprisingly, so were the Devourers, though the Primarch paid them as little attention as usual.
"Brother," Vulkan said.
"Brother," Angron answered. "They're coming. At long last, they're coming."
Vulkan took a moment to look over his brother. After Guilliman's ritual, whatever it had been, had ripped the Nails from the Primarch and a thousand of his sons -
He did not look completely healed. The skin was still pale, the eyes still yellow. The Nails had been removed, but the damage they had done was still there. A quarter of the affected World Eaters had never woken up after the attack, and if not for the modification to the Nails, Vulkan doubted that one in ten would have survived. Whatever sorcery Guilliman had delved into to support his rebellion, it was undoubtedly mighty. Even after the Emperor's changes, the Nails should have been impossible to remove.
Some of the World Eaters had spoken of hammering them back in. But Angron had forbidden it.
For if he still bore his scars, then it was because he'd at long last stemmed their bleeding. His sunken eyes darted with a newfound curiosity, and his movements had a newfound elegance to them, that of a hunter - not quite a feline grace, perhaps, but the ursine kind at least. And he stood not as a broken slave that wished to be dead, not as a wounded soul whose greatness was in equal parts glory enduring and glory lost, but as a proud Primarch, a son of their divine father, a general that could not merely break worlds but forge them. Alone of all of them, Angron of the Red Sands had not lost himself in this war, but rather been made whole.
And yet, in his eyes, Vulkan could read the same doubt he saw in mirrors.
"They are," Vulkan acknowledged. "We have fifteen minutes, if they keep to their theoreticals. Which they won't."
"I look forward to it," Angron admitted. "Even without the Nails, I still look forward to it. If nothing else, to avenge my defeat."
"You may not have the chance to duel him," Vulkan warned.
"I am aware," Angron said, glaring at him. "You plan to break him by sorcery. But I tell you, it's not so easy to break a Primarch by sorcery. Magnus tried that against me."
And Guilliman had succeeded, Vulkan silently noted. Though he was not wrong, but.... "It is not a psychic attack, Angron. It's a psychic... distraction, in effect."
He walked to the edge of the command center, and looked westward, at a sky aflame with Ultramarine munitions and behind that with the raw potential of the Warp. At sand millions of years old, untouched, holding the broken ruins of civilizations that predated humanity itself; at Mount Keghil bridging that sand and that sky, crumbling, the last memorial of a dead hotspot, layers of increasingly desperate lava flows and ashfalls vanishing towards its summit. He felt the breathing of Nuceria below him, and the pulsing of fire through his veins in beat with the blood. Warp-fire, far beyond reality but still bound to him. It was approaching - the window of opportunity was opening.
His part in this ritual was the part of Nurgle. A god of perseverance and compassion and rebirth, but also of disease and decay and fear. A god, like every one of the Four, that was a force of nature rather than even a remotely human-like being. And among the things Nurgle was the god of was despair.
In the aftermath of the beacon being snuffed out, the power of Nurgle would permeate the fortress. And in that moment, if he poured that fluid power into a mold, if he could convey to Roboute Guilliman what was happening in the galaxy outside....
Then, a moment of despair would become an eternity, and Roboute Guilliman would either die or understand, as Vulkan had on Maragara.
This was the only way. It was not a good way, and indeed it was a terrible way; but humanity was lost in a terrible universe, and so they would all have to become monsters. Continents would shift and worlds would die, both literally and metaphorically - but the Salamanders would walk through hell itself if necessary, and emerge damned, but unbroken. And when this time of trials came to a close, Vulkan trusted - he had to, for there was no other way he could keep moving forward - that new growth would sprout from a galaxy's worth of ashes.
Outside, the barrage stopped, and the ground came alive with a new melody - the thunder of Titans.