The war for Nuceria had ended in a tactical Ultramarine victory.
The Ghanun desert had been subjected, afterwards, to a localized orbital bombardment. Theoretical was that the Salamanders and World Eaters had left some surprise behind, or at least some form of 'taint'. The Librarians detected little of it, and none after the bombardment.
But if Nuceria was at peace, what that peace meant had yet to be defined.
Justinian Thexilev stood on the slopes of Fedan Mhor, alongside his Primarch and the other surviving captains of the First Chapter, looking at the scattered bones of the ancient gladiators. Angron's comrades-in-arms, in a time before the Imperium. The wind was still. That would not last; in the distance, to the west, Thexilev already saw thunderstorms.
Yet they were the only storms in the sky. The great Warp Storm that had stranded the Thirteenth Legion on Nuceria had all but entirely dissipated.
Their Stormbird waited on the slope, like a gem vein hidden in the rock. Within hours, it would depart, headed, surely, to Ultramar. Thexilev yearned to see it again, above all to see for himself that it still stood, to feel the air of his home realm on his skin. The monuments of Macragge, the seas of Talassar, the ruins of Setterane, and above all the forests and farms of Espandor - distant, half-forgotten, but his birthplace. Gilloa had said that Ultramar stood, and there were astropathic signals that implied as much, as well as the vision Vulkan had supposedly shown Guilliman... but none of those sources were fully trustworthy, and more importantly, while all said that Ultramar stood, all also showed it under siege.
Guilliman was most eager of them all, even though he did not easily show it. Ultramar was Thexilev's birthplace, as it was for most of the Legion, and for all of the Legion it was their home - but for Guilliman, it was not just his world, but also his life's work.
Yet for all of that, in these last hours while the machinery of war was being loaded onto the ships in preparation for the battle to come, it was to Fedan Mhor that the Ultimate Warrior came.
"We don't know any of their names," Guilliman said. "The Nucerians did not care to record them, and Angron did not speak of his past unless prompted."
"You still respect him?" Modoleo asked.
"I pity him, or rather what he could have been," Guilliman said frankly. "He was a shattered ruin of a Primarch, and even now he is broken, fundamentally, because of what happened here. I learned of his tragedy, and I put it out of my mind. There was nothing to be done, it was not my concern, and it seemed hardly a worse case than Mortarion or Curze. No, I do not respect Angron. But while I forgot Angron, as did many of my brothers... the Emperor did not. And we should not have, either."
"The Eaters of Cities...." Cestus paused. "They are remembered as monsters, and not for no reason. Their cause may have been righteous, but they were monsters, even if it was not by choice."
"They fought against a tyrannical regime," Lusbraeth, Auguston's second-in-command, said. "But they didn't really fight for anything, did they? Only to destroy, with no consideration of what came after. Because they were incapable of that consideration."
"And that," Guilliman said, "is the reason I came here."
There were always imperfect echoes, and fundamental lessons, to be found in the bloody scrolls of past monstrosities. That was no surprise to Thexilev. History rhymed - but it did not repeat.
"Justinian," Guilliman said, presumably because Thexilev had been silent for some time. "What do you think we should do with Nuceria?"
"Practical is straightforward," Thexilev rattled off, as he had been thinking about precisely that for the past several minutes. "Treat it as newly compliant, leave an Astarte garrison, end slavery, integrate into the Imperium... perhaps even Ultramar. Theoretical for analogues is a different matter. Allying with monsters is a line we have crossed before, and will cross again. Doing so without becoming monsters is often trivial, but far from always."
Guilliman nodded. "We will need," he noted, "to leave half a Company to garrison the planet - and the surrounding subsector - and protect them from Imperial retaliation. There is the additional purpose, however, of observing for residual taint. Some of the archaeotech is suspicious. So, Captain Thexilev, would you take the honor of leading this garrison?"
To stay behind. To build a rampart instead of reinforcing Ultramar. The theoretical was clear in that someone needed to take command. Thexilev wished it had been someone else, but he knew his duty. Less clear was why him, and that he asked.
"It had to be someone from the First Chapter," Guilliman said, "and someone with a low but nonzero respect for Nuceria as it was." So he'd be able to work with them, but without letting them forget that he was part of an occupying force.
Well, it would not be the first time.
Memories of the Great Crusade played out in Thexilev's mind as they returned to the Stormbird, and took off once more, heading to orbit before Thexilev and half his company were to be dropped to Iela'kamm, the city designated as Nuceria's new capital. This was a compliance - theoreticals were well enough established. There were goodbyes, and Ixiosph's assumption of command for the portion of 2nd Company that was remaining on the Perfect Honour, and funerals for the far too many brothers Thexilev had lost in the war for Nuceria, and Gilloa briefly waking up from her enforced hibernation to wish Thexilev good luck and give him a gift, a shell carved in the shape of the Linearity - five stars, and the ray connecting them.
"It carries some part of my power," she said, "some measure of sensory ability for the worst or best of the Warp."
"It senses taint?"
"It senses power, and something of that power's nature," Gilloa said. And when Thexilev clasped it to his neck armor, he found that indeed it did - Gilloa seemed to blaze with a brilliant white flame, whistling through chimneys as light to illuminate the world around. Yet there were dark cracks in that fire, flaws introduced by the girl's exhaustion.
"Thank you," Thexilev said, unsure what else to say. "For the gift, but mostly for your aid to Guilliman. You shouldn't have had to...."
"You don't think you should have needed my help," she said. "But all of us need each other." At the moment, with her eyes shining with that silver gleam of the furnace inside her, her diminutive size felt like a lie - she stood her ground with the aura of not merely Thexilev's equal, but his superior. "I feel like I shouldn't have needed you all either. But I did, and more importantly, I will again."
Thexilev nodded. "And I thank you for all of that. You're leaving with Guilliman. Leaving your world behind." He thought back to his own induction into the Legion at that, wistfully, though of course the circumstances were different.
"No," Gilloa said. "My world is dead."
But it wasn't, not really. As the gunship carried him down to the island city of Iela'kamm, shining with its golden flame-shaped towers, black beach sand scattered to every side, with people even now visibly crowding those beaches - both to catch a glimpse of the Ultramarines' departure and simply to swim - and the plazas under giant screens, as the sea breeze caused the gunship to gently sway in its descent, Justinian Thexilev knew he was not looking at a dead world. The lords of Nuceria were terrified of the Astartes, as Cestus had promised, and its slaves looked forward to freedom, but Nuceria lived.
He was greeted with an honor guard, as he walked up the steps of the Union Hall. Thexilev suspected he could kill them all alone, if necessary - the soldiers standing to either side were armed with clobbered-together guns, and some were visibly trembling. Iela'kamm had surrendered to the Ultramarines willingly, but only because some of its surrounding villages had not.
That would have to be fixed. Thexilev did not actually want to be overly feared. Obeyed, yes, but there was much more to leadership than fear. Then again, for this moment of revolution, perhaps fear was inevitable.
The carpet they had rolled out to him was silver and blue, the latter color being recently painted in long stripes. President Mavangar, the ruler of the city-state, prostrated himself and all four of his chins before the Ultramarine captain once the latter had ascended the steps to the palace.
"A bow is sufficient," Thexilev noted.
"As you wish," Mavangar said, clambering to his feet. "As you know, Iela'kamm has never practiced Nails implantation - " it did, of course, have its own, admittedly lesser, slave implants - "but we have captured several slaves from nearby states who were fitted with the Nails. They are in the basement of the Union Hall - you understand, they're uncontrollable. After a while they always become so. The sorts of monsters who would do that for simple entertainment - why, if only we could...."
Thexilev blocked out most of Mavangar's droning. The president was doing his best to deflect blame, and Thexilev would not stop him from doing so. If Mavangar had not been among the best of Nuceria's petty dictators, he would not have been left in charge. And while insufferable in supplication, he was supposedly a competent administrator.
"They're held in stasis," Mavangar said.
"Was there no other way?"
"Not reliably," Mavangar said, and Thexilev thought he caught a glimpse of real regret behind the false sadness.
Thexilev looked at the four pods. The humans within did not, even when so frozen, look to be at peace. Their closed eyes seemed to blaze with pure hate, and their unmoving lips seemed to tremble with mute curses.
And there was an itch at the back of Thexilev's neck, one that took a few moments to identify.
He came closer to the pods, to check. The itch strengthened, and with it came emotions. Not felt - seen. It had not just been his imagination, when he heard curses from those silent lips.
The Butcher's Nails stole away peace. But they did more than that. They instilled anger and hate, war and death -
Blood, and skulls.
"Throne," Thexilev said on reflex. "How the Warp did you people make those things?"
"We didn't - "
Thexilev tuned out the rest of Mavangar's words, as he was too focused on the implications of what he had learned.
The Butcher's Nails were more than monstrous. They were directly tainted by the power of the Warp - by the power of the false god that the Seventeenth called Khorne.
For how many centuries had that power waxed, on Nuceria?
For a moment Thexilev wondered about Exterminatus, but... but the Line of Nuceria had not failed. But Gilloa had still been born, here, and surely many others that deserved to live. Most of them, in frankness.
There was still something to be saved.
Even if Nuceria truly did have to die.
"Practical," he told Mavangar. "All implants will be removed from every slave on the planet, as soon as possible, and any future attempts to use slave implants will be punished by death, effective immediately."
"The end of slavery must be a gradual process - "
"You've had three months to prepare, and short-term disruption is inevitable and even desirable. But I'm not talking about economics right now. I mean specifically the implants."
"They cannot be removed," Mavangar noted.
"Many of them can, at least hypothetically," Thexilev said. "We'll get together teams to find the ways for those. But the Nails, and perhaps a few of the other worst ones...." He looked at the bodies in the stasis pods. They were stuck in time... but he was not sure that the Nails were. "They may have to be killed. There is no other way."
Mavangar blanched, but nodded. And as he did -
As he did, Justinian Thexilev understood the truth he had been searching for, subconsciously, those past months.
There were daemons in the universe - whatever one preferred to call them. There were heroes, too, including psykers like Gilloa, but also scholars, artisans, and warriors that did not have any special link to the Warp. There existed, in them, the ability to hold the powers of hell at bay. But the line between the realms of good and the realms of evil, while not a thin line, was from a distance clearly visible, as the line between good and evil themselves was not. It was a great struggle at the outer rim of civilization, against treachery and entropy. And myths... myths were nothing more than forgotten legends, which were themselves forgotten histories. They had power, because knowledge was power, but for that same reason their power was nothing compared to the clarity of understood truth.
The daemons themselves... they understood, in their alien way, what they were doing. Perhaps some xenos did, as well. And Guilliman and Horus and the others had in the days of the Crusade, and would, in time, even in these mad hours - at least Thexilev hoped so. But the Word Bearers and the Salamanders and all the others, who sook refuge in myths, were doomed by that very fact. They fogged their mind with superstitious devotion, and expected that devotion to be rewarded. It never would be. They looked to the past, and were thus blinded to everything that mattered in the future.
"Should I convey that order to every city on Nuceria?" a recovered Mavangar asked.
"Not yet," Thexilev said. "I'll deliver a formal address this evening, to every city...." He paused. "No, not on Nuceria. That world is dead. I will speak to the people of Empioea, about the future that we have not yet lost."