The skies were clearing.
Multicolored wisps faded from the heavens, coming apart in swirls as if they were sinking underneath the surface of the cerulean skies. The Warp Storm that Vulkan's ritual had summoned was collapsing, its structure coming apart and crumbling into mere reality.
"Did Vulkan plan this?" Ehung Zekhoros asked Dranzytchon of the Pyre Guard, both looking up at the sky in the brief respite from battle.
"I don't know," the Salamander answered. "The Primarch keeps his own counsel. But I believe he did, yes. I think the forging was always meant to have a finite duration, and that the lasting product of this ritual will be found in the Warp."
Zekhoros nodded. It wasn't much of an answer, but getting much of an answer would have meant that Dranzytchon was guessing. No one knew what they were doing here, except the Primarchs themselves.
It was frustrating, that this war was being fought for a purpose they didn't know. They were not owed an explanation - not from their Primarchs - but Zekhoros nonetheless regretted that they would all die without knowing why.
"Let's hope that the lasting product was worth two Legions, then," he said.
Dranzytchon frowned. "Numeon said there'd be a way out."
"Then you have your answer," Zekhoros said.
The fatalism he was feeling was not necessarily due to the circumstances alone. In the last minutes before the battle, when the Titans were already walking towards their lines, there'd been a war council. Vulkan had brought the Pyre Guard and two captains; Angron had picked eight Astartes, chosen seemingly at random. Some of the names were predictable - Lhorke, Delvarus, and of course Kharn. Dreagher, responsible for the Legion's name. Captains, of no special distinction, Nordas Vyre and Edrenyyn Upiliz. Borgh Buktal, a mere sergeant, if one renowned for valor. And Zekhoros, the disgraced captain of a destroyed company, who had ended up the unofficial second-in-command, after Lhorke, of those who had survived the Nails being rent from them by Guilliman's... whatever it was. Sorcery, anti-sorcery, it made little difference, given how little of it Zekhoros understood. It had left Zekhoros ostracized from the Legion, but had also left his mind his own again - a trade he was more than happy to make, even if many in the division were not.
Yet despite this, he had been there when Vulkan had described, in vague and possibly misleading terms, exactly what he planned to achieve. They had stood, at the corners of a seventeen-pointed star, tensely waiting for the chance to go to war, and Vulkan had spoken of Nurgle, who of all the Warp Gods seemed to Zekhoros to be the least appetizing. A god of disease and morbidity and of enduring beyond one's natural end as a pale mockery of past vitality....
And, also, a god of despair, one whose distant influence they had been warned would wash over the battle.
This was Vulkan's attempt to gain the favor of Nurgle for the Emperor's ascension. A petition, written in gore. Zekhoros couldn't claim that this made any sense to him, all this talk of hammering at the Warp, but it was evident enough that it was real.
And then they had been dispatched to the walls for the desperate defense, which they were presently engaged in.
"Vulkan has said little," Dranzytchon said after a pause. "If there's a way out, it's to Numeon I'd look. But Numeon is also an optimist, that's true. Still, he wouldn't claim to know an escape route if he didn't have one."
"Yet he did not inform us what this route is."
"He didn't." Then Dranzytchon narrowed his eyes. "They're coming."
Zekhoros swept a look down from the parapet. The Ultramarines were indeed coming, on Rhinos, on speeders, and on foot. As were the Titans. As were Army auxilia, laying down covering fire with impressive resolve for baseline humans. It wouldn't have done them any good without the Ultramarines there, but in the circumstances they were in....
It was a coordinated dance, every movement carefully orchestrated. Zekhoros could see some of the patterns, but not how to break them. It was less a scalpel and more a great power maul, but it was a spiked maul where each of the spikes were scalpels. In sum, a chainsword.
Still, they were going to stop that blade, no matter if they took a mortal wound in the process. Even if Zekhoros had wanted to run again, there was nowhere to run to. Every wall was overrun, and the great clashes throughout the inner courtyards spilled in every direction.
And the beacon that had lit their way was out, as was the storm that held their daemonic allies. The skies had cleared.
There was nothing left except to fight.
"World Eaters!" Zekhoros yelled to his men - a ragtag collection of Thirteenth Company, other warriors caught in Guilliman's act and exiled from their own companies, and World Eaters that had been carried here by the whims of the Nails. "Or War Hounds, if you prefer! We haven't got long, so all I'll say is - it's been an honor." He paused.
This defeatism was unbecoming of him.
"It's been an honor," he continued, "but we all know exactly how much honor is worth in war." Some laughs at that. Good. "So let's try and not die yet, and kill as many of those traitors as we can in the meantime. For Angron and the Crusade, brothers!"
The cries came back. For Angron, for the Crusade, for the Emperor, for Terra, for Bodt, for blood, and for the Blood God. They all fought for their own reasons, but they were still brothers. In blood, if nothing else.
Dranzytchon took the left, while Zekhoros got the right. Those with the Nails would rush forward to meet their enemy anyway, so he had them hide in the intermittent walls, to counterattack the Ultramarines and hopefully break their lines. Conveniently, this also ensured they were far enough away from the shooting that they wouldn't get immediately get hit by friendly fire.
Of course, all those plans were affected by several Titan-sized complications.
"So what are your plans for dealing with those, Captain?" Limbeten asked.
"Hope Legio Audax uses the opportunity to teleport straight from Mars to here." Zekhoros shrugged. "My hope is that we can board them. They can bring down the walls, but if we fight in the ruins the Titans will have to stay back anyway."
Limbeten nodded. "We're making this up as we go along, aren't we?"
"The Ultramarines have it all calculated," Zekhoros said. "And we've been able to match them anyway. War isn't an equation to be figured out, it's an experience to be lived."
"Yes," Redorey put in, "but there's also a whole lot more Ultramarines. And they've lived through a whole lot of war as well."
Zekhoros couldn't help it - he laughed. Then he took up a long, thoughtful glance at the clear sky. "Just fight. We've done it plenty of times before. For once, it's just that simple."
He had wanted this, he considered as the Titans came closer, met by scattered fire from the emplacements. And he'd received it, miraculously enough. Freedom in his own mind, even if it was only for the last month of his life.
But none of them were immortal. Under a sky of horrors, or under a sky of blue....
He didn't hate the Legion anymore, not now that he was freed from its main curse. He hadn't even recognized that hate before, of course. He'd thought he merely despised Angron, though it'd never been so simple. Now, though, Angron was reborn, and Zekhoros was free. Free to fight - and it had been no accident that he'd been selected for the Twelfth Legion, there. They were all born of the dust of war, not the lines of a map that generals and Ultramarines took pride in but the mad uncertainty that was all most soldiers ever knew. Others fought for great dreams, or against great nightmares. World Eaters, and War Hounds before them, fought only for each other. They could have betrayed the Imperium with the others - no one could have stopped them, not even Angron. They had not. And that, too, was a choice.
Zekhoros took a deep breath of the sandy air, taking up and revving his three chainswords, and then the Ultramarines slammed into them.
Zekhoros and the squads with him were holding a chokepoint, in principle. In practice, the Titans could make holes in the walls wherever they felt like, despite the clumsy attempts to board them by Zekhoros's Nails-driven brothers. Nonetheless, he waded into the fight, parrying with two blades as the third eviscerated an Ultramarine sergeant, surrounded by enemies for a moment in a spinning circle, jumping back once Limbeten opened up a passage -
It was war. But it was war experienced in a way Zekhoros had not in a very long time. Every moment, every kill, weighed heavily on him. The sensations surrounded and suffused him, every moment poignant, every stab of panic desperate. Without the Nails to calm him, he could experience everything. Most humans would have collapsed from the shock.
Zekhoros was a Space Marine, though. He just kept fighting, stabbing and parrying and slashing and dodging. At one point he had the space to look over at Dranzytchon's section, completely bemused as to the fact that they were both still holding, and saw what looked like very large gobs of mucus charging forth at the Ultramarine lines, spewing, presumably, pestilence. A few of Dranzytchon's warriors, though distinctly not the Pyre Guard himself, fought alongside them; their armor was pitted, as if heavily corroded, something ceramite didn't do. Zekhoros didn't react to it; their allies' choice of patron was their own.
The next moment, Zekhoros realized that he was surrounded. Four Ultramarines, stabbing directly at him. Zekhoros parried their first blows, one per chainsword. The teeth of his servo-arm's blade scratched as they tried the block, and teeth flew out as shrapnel, one by sheer coincidence (or, as the case may be, by the gods' will) striking the remaining Ultramarine in the helmet seal and knocking his own strike off-center. As it did so, Zekhoros wrenched his left-hand sword, decapitating one of his foes. The other two let up for a moment, circling Zekhoros defensively. The World Eater crouched, his blades spun in a vague imitation of preparation.
Then the Ultramarines disengaged. Breathing heavily, Zekhoros walked over the pile of bodies to his company. They'd fared better than he had suspected - a solid majority was still alive, especially among the Nailless.
"Did we seriously drive them off?" he asked Limbeten.
Limbeten pointed to their left, where the Ultramarines and Titans had breached an undefended section of wall and were spilling past, leaving the meaningless chokepoint to the Twelfth and Eighteenth.
"Well, that's something at least," Zekhoros said. "We weren't the path of least resistance."
That was when his vox, inert for some time except within his and Dranzytchon's detachment due to dust-caused interference, beeped.
It was Artellus Numeon.
"Form up on my position," the First Captain of the Salamanders said, in a deep voice made scratchy by interference. "To - *khhk* - off of Nuceria."