|Topic Review (Newest First)|
|08-03-16 11:52 AM|
To be continued in:
and coming soon, Renegades 13: Nucerian Sands.
That's all! Thank you for reading.
|08-03-16 11:44 AM|
Mortarion, Primarch of the Death Guard, looked at the dust the shuttle kicked up as it landed with some disapproval. He had intentionally placed his experiment some distance away from population centers, and the improvised spaceport some distance away from it in turn; yet while the Mechanicum shuttle’s dust would not interfere with the experiment, it was still more than he would have expected from them.
Especially when the owner of the shuttle was the newly-minted Fabricator-General himself. Though perhaps, with the loss of Mars, the Mechanicum simply could not spare the expense for a clean landing.
The shuttle settled, hemmed in close to the orange canyon wall that blocked off one side of the platform. To the other side, perhaps as the reason for Kane’s caution, yawned the Gresseti Canyon, the roaring of its river audible even at this height. In these highlands, it was the only place within fifty kilometers to be suitable for human habitation; and for that reason, humans had not bothered to make the trek, in the time before Mortarion.
They had been losing. Mortarion wondered, sometimes, what could have been if he had arrived to a rising world. Instead, Barbarus before him, or at least the human part thereof, had been a planet of dusk. He had inverted that, only to fail on the last step.
To be saved by one whom he had immediately suspected to be merely another facet of psychic tyranny. The Emperor had convinced him otherwise, in the early years, yet even Magnus had proven to possess more moral fiber – a fair bit more, at that. Though Mortarion was not confident that it would last.
The landing ramp at last rolled out, and Kane of the Mechanicum strode out, shaking Mortarion’s hand with his half-biological one.
“Greetings, Lord Primarch,” Kane said, still standing well away from Mortarion – in particular from his toxic collar. Wise, though Mortarion had to assume Kane had solid filtration systems, and he should have… but what was to gain? All Barbarus was above, and that would be a truer way for Kane to test himself, in the unlikely case that the Fabricator-General was so inclined.
“Greetings,” Mortarion said, softly, as was his way. “Let us limit formalities. Come!”
A cloaked door slid open, allowing Mortarion and the adept into the first tunnel before sliding closed, leaving the two transhumans in shadow.
“Magos Zeth,” Kane said, “asked to transmit her… dissatisfaction… with Rask’s choice to sacrifice Magma City. But she will not go further with her discontent.”
“Understandable,” Mortarion accepted. He was somewhat ill at ease with Rask’s choice to lie himself, even if dropping Magma City had been sensible. “Are we certain as to whether the Forge was indeed destroyed?”
“No,” Kane admitted. “But I do understand the decision itself, Mortarion. My curiosity is as to why the sacrifice of three squads to defend a doomed stronghold, when one Marine could have blown the reactors, and two more defended him.”
“To cause more damage to the Iron Hands,” Mortarion said, though Kane should have deduced as much already. Or – “Do you mean the self-sacrificial aspect? Every one of those Astartes chose that mission.”
“I am not accusing you or Rask of immorality, but... is such readiness to sacrifice oneself Astarte normal?”
Ah. “Somewhat.” They stopped as Mortarion slid another door open, both phasing through the screen before it without problem. “All my sons – all sons of any Primarch – know they are to die in battle. Not as quickly as baselines perish from disease or accident, yet their fate is singular. That leads to… acceptance. Less for some Legions, more in others. Most of all, in a Legion built to endure, to guard both against, and for, the end. Most Astartes do not fear death merely because they do not fear anything. My sons embrace it… they fight in its shadow every day. As do I.”
They passed onto a balcony, on the third floor of a vast rotunda. They walked along that edge, Kane scanning the simply decorated walls. Perhaps seeking hidden messages. He would find none.
Mortarion believed in tactical subterfuge, but he was no Alpharius. And he was quite satisfied with that, though he was glad the Last Primarch was on their side. Moving too deep into the shadows made them little different from light, lost the rippling interplay.
“Your reforging of the Mechanicum is proceeding apace?” Mortarion inquired.
“They will not follow me as unquestioningly as Kelbor-Hal,” Kane said. “But a figurehead would be enough to prevent infighting, given the crisis, and I am no figurehead. Yes, we are an organization again. Some are wondering how I escaped.”
Kane’s voice gave no indication of how weakened the Mechanicum truly was. Even if it did, the iron would mean Mortarion could hardly trust the Adept’s signals. “I trust you told them nothing.”
They passed into another door, and then into a clean room, weblike systems vacuuming the dust away; Mortarion disabled all active systems in his armor. For five minutes neither was able to speak loudly enough for the conversation to continue over the sterilization’s din.
“So,” Kane said as it was done and they passed to a viewport over an industrial – and entirely humanless – landscape, “what are you making, that you request my assistance for?”
No, Mortarion decided, he was not particularly fond of Kane, no more than he was ever fond of the Mechanicum. But both were trustworthy, and so he would hold ironclad his alliance with both.
“Consider the sulfur component,” Mortarion said. “And combine with an iron-based compound. Inorganic variations of timoline, metallic bonds through the dimensions….”
“Jumbite,” Kane said, awe clear on his face. “You truly believe you can synthesize jumbite?”
“It has been a focus of mine for some time,” Mortarion made clear. “No less than a year remains, but I have replicated Satasir’s results, and gone further.”
“So you have come closer than any Adept,” Kane said with a sigh. “Primarchs…. But why jumbite, Mortarion? The inorganic variant of polymorphine… useful, certainly, but in this time of war….”
Mortarion looked at Kane, wondering whether anyone besides him had worked these details out. Whether Kane would even believe him, if he informed the Fabricator-General of his calculations’ results – they had been a surprise even to him.
But he had desired, at first, a protection against sorcery… and then come to understand. That sorcery was more than merely the psychic arts – it was their pinnacle, or rather their abyss. Their endpoint, in sum. Which even the Emperor could not withstand.
Except that just as the Warp pushed on reality, reality at its most turbulent could push on the Warp.
“Polymorphine alters flesh,” Mortarion said. “Indeed, it is capable of creating flesh, under specific circumstances. But flesh… on the scale we now venture towards, flesh is weak.
“Jumbite… I believe it is not bound to the same limitations. It cannot achieve polymorphine’s diversity, yet in all varieties it warps the fundamental fabric of reality.”
“Like psychic effects,” Kane said, making the connection.
“Aye.” Mortarion turned his eyes from Kane, who stood closer to him and more comfortably now that his armor did not vent toxic gases, and looked at the crucibles of the experimental complex. “The mandatory precision is intense, Fabricator-General, and the consequences of a mistake grave. Because in some configurations, jumbite will be Chaos itself… as it will be, in others, its end.”
|08-02-16 01:18 PM|
Last chapter, except for the epilogue:
The din of hammers filled Northern Timefell. The art of smithing had changed much over the decamillennia, yet some principles remained parallel to the practices of yore. And so, even in at the dawn of the thirty-first millennium, hammers had their part in finishing weapons, even if they were built of etheric composites and optically woven metamaterials, rather than simply iron.
Though iron had its role, too.
And such echoes were even more common, in all crafts, when a Primarch was involved; and so Ferrus Manus, beating out Arbilent for the last time, was well-aware he likely looked like a sweating artisan of the first millennium and not the thirty-first. Not that it mattered, as after all there was no one there to see him.
The Eldar had a legend about one of their dead gods, Khaine, about how he forced their smith-god to forge a thousand equally enchanted blades, yet that smith-god – Vaul; was there a psychic connection with Vulkan’s naming, there? – could only complete nine hundred and ninety-nine in time, sparking the War in Heaven. If the legend had any truth to it, Khaine had been an idiot. One perfect sword was worth more, to a god, than a thousand great ones.
And Ferrus now served a god; and so, he now completed Arbilent. Another hammer blow, the movement seeming mechanical yet in truth requiring great, human focus. A single blade, for a single ruler.
A month of Primarch’s work, to craft a weapon worthy of its divine wielder, the Emperor himself.
The rebellious Primarchs would never craft its like, not so much due to their position alongside destruction as because none of them were artisans in his and Vulkan’s fashion. Well, perhaps Perturabo. Ferrus had seen the other Primarch of iron as a rival, and indeed far too few had seen him as a friend… had that helped drive Perturabo into Horus’s traitorous arms? All intelligence suggested that the Comrade had thrown in with that Coalition.
The Iron Hands had begun deployment, to the front lines of that war, as the war on Mars transitioned into memory. Ferrus would not join them; he had a separate path. But first, he had a sword to finish.
He turned it over, his hands burning with the effort, nearly beginning to melt. Arbilent was decorated, to the nanoscale, and its core was infused with the finest techniques of millennia of Martian and Medusan technological development, as well as psychic effects the Librarians had assisted him with. And while its true composition was complex, it shone like purest gold. Radiant, untainted… but not naïve, and far from weak.
A weapon with which the Emperor would return, when the time came, to the crusade. A weapon Ferrus knew he was not worthy to wield – and that, perhaps, could mean it was worthy of his father. If any weapon was.
He lay Arbilent down onto a platform, which slowly rotated, pushing it out of sight. His work was done; there were a few hours of temperature treatment remaining, and after that Arbilent would be complete. And Ferrus was far from sure how he would ever create a greater weapon.
And yet, if he survived this war, he would. That was as sure as the stars themselves.
He lifted segments of his ceremonial armor and put them on, one by one. Black armor, for the ideals of the blacksmith, for the inevitable side effect of creation. In the same way that war itself was an inevitable (apparently) side effect. And also black armor for the void of the night sky, and for humanity’s path into it.
And the white hand that crafted both, that had to. It was humanity that created, always. Perhaps there was strength to be found in surrendering choice to the automatic, in giving up emotion and willpower and humanity, but there were goals far more important than strength. He preferred the plain hand to the variant where the hand was contained within a Clan-symbol gear; what humanity had created was clear to see, in the armor itself, and in a sense in the Astartes that wore it. Better the shield-chain, for the Legion’s duty.
Once ready, Ferrus opened the forge doors, exiting the innermost sanctum of Northern Timefell. The forge had been his for the entire war, situated in Mars’s northern basin. A wave of heat rolled out behind him, as Ferrus stepped through doorway after doorway, walking upwards.
For, it seemed, there was a centurion who he needed to see.
Northern Timefell was not undamaged by war, but its scars had healed, at least in its interior. The exterior still looked halfway between the industrial park it had been and a burnt ruin. Ferrus supposed he could make an analogy with the state of his own mind, and the spirit of the Legion. But they were not iron, not at their core.
They would need to remain thus. The Mechanicum, the Imperial sections thereof, as well. Too many had emphasized iron over flesh, and turned to the Dragon through its order, dreams overwhelming common sense and creating fanatics. The new Guardian had confirmed Semyon’s death, and now continued his lonely vigil. Ferrus was unsure if much of meaning had changed, with the guard.
Though one Magos had found escape through that faith. Ulrach Branthan’s blockade had been unable to stop Magos Ahotep’s flight, and somehow Rogal Dorn’s greater Solar System defenses had likewise been evaded. A ploy of the Dragon, or merely the peak capacity of iron? And for what, given that Ahotep would not find allies in the Coalition? Ferrus did not know, and he suspected the answer would not be pleasant.
But he would face it nonetheless. As now he faced the last of the descending set of doors within Northern Timefell, and walked out onto the parapet. Already the Legion was assembling for his address on the metallic plain that served as plaza, at the triumph of war’s end.
Lorgar had chosen to remain on Terra, and he would meet his father privately at a later time. Dorn was here, though. But before his brother, his son.
“Castrmen Orth,” Ferrus said, turning to his left.
“My lord,” Orth said, kneeling. “You wished to see me?”
“Stand,” Ferrus said. “Walk with me, Castrmen.”
He did, as they ambled, peacefully, along wall’s edge. Orth was still not entirely at peace, with Ferrus or with himself. Ferrus Manus was not sure if he could fix that – he couldn’t do so for himself. But other things, Ferrus could do.
“You still worry about the consequences of siding with Branthan,” Ferrus told his son. “Despite understanding his folly, and avenging your error with fire.”
Orth nodded, slightly.
“Don’t,” Ferrus said. “Your service far outstrips your error.”
“Thank you, lord,” Orth said. “Part of my mind… Qevpilum’s death, in Magma City. The knowledge he recovered may have great potential, but he was a personal friend. And with Rochaar in his new role as Firemaster, the sun has set on the Young Squid.”
In truth, while Ferrus mourned Qevpilum’s death, his recent record was directed downhill. Though his replacement, Nusaamnius, an older Astarte… he would, Ferrus hoped, do better. As Strigeus could make a fine replacement for Orth.
“And you alone remain,” Ferrus said with a slight smile. “But not for long, Castrmen.”
The Iron Hand turned to his Primarch, and Ferrus saw Orth’s request for explanation in his eyes.
“The Iron Fathers have done an excellent task maintaining the Legion’s creations,” Ferrus said. “And they have done no worse as inspiration. But it would be far too much to ask them to also lead on matters of the Warp.”
“And I am among the few survivors of Branthan’s cabal,” Orth added, understanding Ferrus’s direction.
“Precisely. I ask you to take on the public role of First Etherspinner, leading the development of a brotherhood devoted to mastering Chaos – without, I emphasize, letting Chaos master them. To develop aetheric technology, to maintain diplomatic relations with Lorgar’s ecclesiarchy, to fight on battlefields affected by the daemonic. And – and this will not be among the official roles of the Etherspinners – to watch for ideological deviance. For times when Chaos worship falls into cults, or when its enemies plot against my authority.”
Orth nodded, and Ferrus supposed he would be looking back to the massacre of Branthan’s cabal. Of his own brothers.
“If you feel you are not capable of the last of that,” Ferrus said, “I will not punish you. You have done enough internal service for a lifetime.”
“But my duty is eternal,” Orth said. “And I will do whatever is necessary.” He knelt, driving his sword point into the path. “This is a great honor, my lord, and I will do my best to deserve it. For Medusa.”
Ferrus smiled. He had expected Orth to accept readily; the centurion was less broken-up than most Astartes would have been, at the incidents of Cassini Forge.
“You will stand opposite Eergabay,” Ferrus clarified. “Chief Librarian and Chief Etherspinner. Go!”
Orth nodded, kneeling for just long enough for Ferrus to pin the Etherspinners’ seal onto his armor. He looked at Orth with a smile as the Iron Hand moved towards his place in the Legion’s order. Orth had responded well, and Ferrus Manus trusted him to lead the Iron Hands through Chaos in calm, rational fashion. He had, after all, already rejected its madness aspect once.
If only Ferrus could be so sure himself. It was the burden of the leader, to know on how thin a thread his work hung. To know, as well, what had been done to achieve that work, and what would yet have to be done.
Ferrus walked on, faster, meeting the bright yellow figure that stood out from the red and gray of the wall; and then he embraced Rogal Dorn.
“Ferrus,” Dorn said. “So that is that, Mars is entirely ours?”
“And it will remain thus,” Ferrus confirmed. “You received my remarks?”
“Indeed,” Dorn said, “although the Emperor seemed less than ecstatic at them. Your role is accepted, but… you walk a narrow path.”
Ferrus frowned. “Surely the Emperor has bigger concerns with the rebellion?”
“He is… not paranoid, not in the sense of irrationality, but the analog for one as far above us as he is. The betrayal has taken its toll even on him, and divinity has not made him happy… the opposite, in fact. I do not think he ever wanted it.”
Ferrus nodded. He would keep the Emperor’s troubles in mind. And Dorn’s own, which were also clear enough. “Good luck on Terra, Rogal.”
And without further words, Ferrus Manus nodded to his brother and walked to the podium.
It looked out over Mars’ northern plains. Forty thousand Iron Hands, including most of the Legion’s command, had gathered to hear their father speak. They stood within their Clans, and as Ferrus took his position every one was at full attention. Before them, the forge’s sides were arranged in titanic steps leading up to the podium, the promontories to Ferrus’s sides hosting the chief officers of the Legion, which now included Castrmen Orth.
“Iron Hands!” Ferrus called. “Today we celebrate the retaking of Mars!”
Slight cheers. As he had planned.
“Aye, the celebration is dim indeed. This was a war we should never have had to fight, against enemies that should have protected our backs. But what is done is done.
“And so Mars, the center of learning and industry, Sol’s secondary heart – Mars is wounded. Wounded deeply, scarred to the bone; but its flesh will recover. Yet the knowledge, the principles of Mars… they have been burned out of the traitorous Mechanicum, yet far too little is left of the loyal one to keep hold of them.
“Aye, the old Mechanicum is dead! And that tragedy far outweighs the victory we have achieved over the past year.
“And yet the Mechanicum lives on. It lives on in the archives recovered from fallen forges and in the armor each of you now wears. It lives on in the cogitator cores in the Imperial Palace and in the might of the Imperial fleet. And it lives on, moreover, in every one of the Imperium’s citizens, who have been blessed by the touch of iron in their lives – and that is every last one of them. Aye, it lives on in flesh – and though flesh is weak, it is also the only true representation of iron’s impact.
“And above all, the Mechanicum lives on in us.” Ferrus swept his hand across his Legion. “We were its wings, and now we have budded off and must replace it. For we are the only ones who can.
“The battle of Mars is over. The reforging of Mars now begins! I am the Futuresmith, and I will not let the Imperium’s grand destiny fall under the attacks of its betrayed present. Many of you will leave to protect the Imperium. Yet the core of the Legion will remain here, to build the future!”
He looked over his sons, a black grid of flesh and iron standing on red ground, stretching towards the horizon. “Flesh is weak, but that does not mean we can abandon it entirely, for it is only from its weakness that true strength arises. Iron can protect and destroy, but is only flesh that can meaningfully build. So let us build! Let this be our duty forevermore, on Mars and on Medusa, and on every other world – to forge as well as to fight, to look into the distance as well as unblinkingly at our foe. Let these be our chains forevermore – faith in the Emperor, duty to the Imperium, and need for eternity. Let this be our second founding!”
And this time, the cheers were deafening. Even Dorn smiled, in the distance to Ferrus’ east, a sentinel invisible from the plaza.
The Imperium was not yet gone. He was not yet gone.
“No,” the voice of Gabriel Santar said, “you are not. But neither am I.”
|08-01-16 04:07 PM|
One Terran month later
The barely lit tunnel stretched ahead of Srequi Lantrane, a mix of green and dark gray alloys bounding a corridor with a coffin-like cross-section. Where the earlier paths had branched and weaved, this one was straight and (given that they were in a realm not bound to the same distances as the material) unnecessarily long. Anrakyr even exuded uncertainty over the possibility of a trap.
Lantrane knew there was none. The path to Szarekh had, she recognized, been engineered to induce doubt in those who trod it, even if they were Necron. Still, if pressed, she would have admitted uncertainty. After all, Szarekh’s location was not entirely a secret – the Dragon of Mars, that ancient enemy of the Necron race, had managed to somehow uncover it. And yet there was this interminable corridor.
Over a Terran month of walking, according to her internal chronometer, with some property of the walls inhibiting running, and presumably mechanical transportation. Anrakyr had said, at first, that it was a fitting walk for an audience with the Silent King.
“It still is,” Anrakyr transmitted, and Lantrane recognized she had transmitted that last thought. “If it is not a trap.”
“Five and a half minutes,” Lantrane updated Anrakyr. Unnecessary, but a firm reminder that they were almost there.
To meet the being that had led the Necrons to their destiny. While on quite a few subjects he had insisted on keeping his silence, Anrakyr had told Lantrane of Szarekh, the last Silent King, who had forged the pact with the sinister grandeur of the C’tan to take vengeance on the Old Ones of Terra. Who had led his people to sacrifice their souls, and in many cases their very minds, for immortality, but led them too to victory in an impossible war. Who had, in the end, betrayed his gods and restored the Necrons’ free will. And who had, in the last instant of his undisputed reign, caged the Necrons for sixty million years (sixty-five, if Terran), for reasons Anrakyr did not fully understand.
To awaken at the End, calculated to within a few millennia on a scale of aeons. Lantrane did not need even her Mechanicum augmentations to recognize the implausibility of that being accidental.
Most of the Necrons were still in stasis, and Anrakyr himself had only recently awoken, spending the last decades covertly visiting other worlds and ushering them into this new era. Many had been less grateful than Anrakyr had hoped and expected. Nonetheless, he had thus far come out ahead on resources. But with the situation being as desperate as it was, Anrakyr had decided to sacrifice freedom and summon the Silent King, if Szarekh still lived.
Lantrane, on that, would honor her part of the bargain. Liberty had never been high among the Mechanicum’s values – all Adepts were servants of the Quest for Knowledge, and while there was a certain amount of equalized discretion implied in that, there was also a certain amount of random defiance forbidden by it. And she had sacrificed her life once, to a mad god. Sacrificing her liberty to a reluctant king…
If, of course, Szarekh would listen. And on that matter, she could only trust Anrakyr’s competence and patriotism.
“Forty and a half seconds,” Anrakyr transmitted, and Lantrane allowed herself a concealed crest of irritation. It was strange – her emotions had become subdued, or perhaps more accurately slow, and changed greatly (as evidenced by a month of near-solitude, interrupted only by Anrakyr’s occasional commentary, having little psychological effect), but they had not gone entirely, or at least were not the reason for the hole at the center of her mind.
What was missing was, rather… something she had not known she had. A soul, Anrakyr had dubbed it, and that was as good a name as any. Was it a figment of the Warp? An inefficient twist in neural circuits? Merely the absence of a fragment of hungry C’tan discontent that the star-gods had, accidentally or not, forced upon those meant to be their pawns?
And then the empty space in front of them changed, and what had been a road became a cell.
They stood behind an erratic grid of varying light, arranged as if a stained-glass window, though presenting no image Lantrane could discern. Beyond them, there was a trophy hall filled with crystalline cells holding wildly varying weaponry. Some were straightforward, swords and pikes and tridents, albeit decorated in widely varying ways and in some cases half-camouflaged. Others, Lantrane associated with things besides war: lanterns, cubes, screwdrivers. Yet more were filled with weapons with forms deemed impractical by every race in the Milky Way: taijitus, asterisks, and something that looked vaguely like a Terran hippopotamus. There was nothing resembling a gun, though. Many of the artifacts seemed to Lantrane to be whimpering, as if denied some portion of themselves and stating as much noospherically.
The path behind them was closed, as were their sides; Anrakyr poked the leaden-gray wall with his halberd, experimentally, but it was no illusion. Lantrane was not sure how it had emerged, but she had more crucial points to obsess over.
One of them being the Necron now walking into that hall. He looked not unlike Anrakyr, if slightly hunched where Pyrrhia’s ruler stood straight. Moreover, his skeletal body glowed green, not blue, and seemed saturated with light instead of merely emitting it from a few orbs on his body. He wore a complex article of clothing built up of metalloid strips, with a bright green cloak around his shoulders and a black cylinder that presumably extended into a blade at his belt. His gaze turned to Anrakyr and Lantrane, and both were on their knees without the latter realizing how. It was a look of unfaded memory, across a barely conceivable temporal abyss, and of an unbounded authority undimmed by those depths.
“Anrakyr, Overlord of Pyrrhia,” Szarekh said (in Necrontyr rather than binary), causing Anrakyr’s eyes to twinkle in confusion. “Oh, don’t worry, I am silent no more. Your companion?”
“Srequi Lantrane of Mars, your grace,” Lantrane said, unmoving.
“What have you been up to, Anrakyr?” Szarekh’s tone held only a thin slice of accusation, reflecting that he saw Anrakyr’s cooperation with the C’tan as unlikely; but that slice was stark indeed.
“It was her choice, not mine,” Anrakyr said. “You hid yourself well, your grace; I had to get your location out of a shard of Mag’ladroth, through a mix of intimidation and her sacrifice.”
Szarekh’s face cracked, indicating his worries were assuaged. “Never Necrontyr, yet Necron. Well, Anrakyr of Pyrrhia and Lantrane of Mars, I bid you welcome to the Tritium.”
The bars of their cage vanished, and Anrakyr rose to walk forward. Lantrane followed him.
“An impressive collection,” Anrakyr noted.
“Aye,” Szarekh said, “but little of it is functional, so close to the Milky Way. The Warp confounds some of the mightiest tools, and both its strength and character are profoundly variable across megaparsecs.”
“And some of it is complaining about that,” Anrakyr added.
“Indeed,” Szarekh said. “Come! We may be incapable of food and drink, but I have long run out of worthy opponents in saain-mo. And discuss, in the meantime, whatever your reasons for coming were.”
Anrakyr’s head vibrated at a slightly anxious tenor as he sent Lantrane the game’s rules. He had been considered one of the empire’s best players in his time, but Szarekh had presumably improved over the time he had been awake – a time Lantrane expected was a small fraction of the Necrons’ era of sleep, to be sure, but still.
“It was originally a game of the Old Ones,” Anrakyr transmitted to her in Necron binary. “A symbol, even, of the Necrontyr’s derision for gods who spent months on a mere game. Now we are the only beings to retain it.”
They walked up a set of barely moving stairs, and Lantrane was forced to note that the complex – whether it was indeed a vessel or not – looked truly ancient. Wear that had to have taken thousands of years to engrave itself was left unrepaired; yet regions were built up that implied repairs nonetheless happened. And Szarekh’s mentions of foreign galaxies… Lantrane could actually believe some of those travels had been sublight.
“The great dark of space,” Szarekh said, “smiles with a gaping maw.” But the great maw of time, it seemed, was nothing to him. How many millennia had he seen?
Was even the Emperor any more than an aberration in his heartbeat?
And then they came up to the game table, situated at the center of what seemed a royal bar. No alcohol or water, of course – Necrons mainly kept personal processes from ambient energy, herself included. She had needed to suppress the temptation to tinker with her own body, after realizing that. If she had still been an Adept and discovered such a possibility… but it was far from the greatest dazzling strangeness, in this new world she had entered. If her emotions had not been altered, her wonder would have been overwhelming; as it was, it was modified towards awe, though still abundant.
Anrakyr set down opposite Szarekh; Lantrane took up a position as the designated second, and a bodyguard as Szarekh’s. Neither needed to make significant strategic decisions, thankfully. Lantrane could not expect to meaningfully contribute in that sense.
“First move is mine,” Szarekh observed as the randomizer resolved, entering his first rules into the system, laying the game’s foundation. Anrakyr responded by attacking randomization; Szarekh did not fight on that front, instead acting to speed the match up. In principle, a full saain-mo match could take Terran months; the shortened version Szarekh had here chosen was limited to a day, and with the current rules would be over within three hours.
Anrakyr pushed his luck, but Szarekh cut him off with what Lantrane found to be a clever loophole. Anrakyr’s reaction indicated that it was in truth a well-established part of opening theory. The Pyrrhian pressed on scoring rules, but was once again repulsed, this time through a dagger that exposed weakness in his randomization advantage. Anrakyr responded with quick interplay to make massive gains in rule creation economy, Lantrane assisting, but Szarekh exploited the hole to score his first points and render the victory almost moot.
“Vakhephis’ gambit,” Anrakyr said, head vibrating. “You’re only the third Necron to successfully pull that off on me.”
“Well, since you blocked off Pririz’s….”
Anrakyr nodded. “A rapid match, then.”
Szarekh nodded, entering his next commands. Stars littered the field, the board in information on void warfare. “You’ve still got quite a chance, mind you.”
“I’m aware,” Anrakyr said, illusory cracks appearing on his face to signify calm confidence as ships began to appear. “So where are we, then? You mentioned that it was near the Milky Way?”
“I should be able to reach the galactic east within a few of our years, if necessary,” Szarekh said, Anrakyr winning the first battles, tilting the score in his favor. “You awoke early?”
“And have been trying to awake others,” Anrakyr agreed. “Clocks have somewhat diverged over time, tectonic movements making matters worse.” He radiated frustration, though trying ineffectively to hide it; Lantrane tried to make calming movements, but Anrakyr overextended nonetheless, allowing Szarekh to swoop in. Suddenly Anrakyr’s lead had become Szarekh’s, though Anrakyr regrouped in time to prevent total collapse.
“I had my reasons,” Szarekh declared after a long silence.
Anrakyr let out a rattling sigh, one of the few portions of Necrontyr body language close to humanity’s. “Aye,” he said, “and they were valid. But communication….”
Szarekh gave affirmation, as he failed to press his advantage, perhaps from distraction. Anrakyr sent probing attacks, scoring a few points to start catching up. Both focused on the game once more, as it became increasingly competitive; aside from a few compliments to one move or another, the Necrons were silent. The bodyguard – no, the Praetorian – had remained thus since appearing. Lantrane imitated her hosts.
Then Anrakyr made an attack, adding a crucial rule change in lieu of scoring… only for Szarekh to respond with his own, clearly planned attack, also forgoing the scoring to use a loophole in Anrakyr’s move. A few shots later, Anrakyr’s economic meta-advantage was in ruins, the score even, slightly above three hundred.
Anrakyr’s head shook. “You’ve made that move before,” he commented.
“Yes, in a recent game in Triangulum. Never underestimate the effect of boredom, Anrakyr. But this was meant to be a friendly match, was it not?”
“Yes, yes,” Anrakyr said. The cracks appeared again, though this time they were ironic. “So. How many galaxies have you visited, anyhow?”
“Ones not secret? Six hundred and fifty-eight. Over forty million years of subjective time.”
The shockingly unshocked Anrakyr looked at the board, as he pressed Szarekh’s forces back again, capturing critical freedoms. “We’ll both beat that score within an hour.” A Necrontyr hour, of course, equal to roughly three-quarters of a Terran one. Alien time measurements were a special tier of torture.
“And the game will end soon after,” Szarekh noted. “So, business?”
“Business,” Anrakyr accepted, and there was another long, pregnant pause. “Your grace, we need you to return. To awaken the Necrons and lead our kind to war one last time. The End Times are here.”
“The End Times?!” Szarekh’s troop movements showed no sign of his shock, but his diplomatic ones were a different matter. The Silent King’s forces were quickly surrounded, and suddenly Lantrane saw through the espionage system what Anrakyr must have noticed several minutes ago, a way to go in for a sudden kill. And Szarekh would not be able to realize it, at least not unless….
“The End Times,” Anrakyr confirmed, flipping another star. “Lantrane is from Mars – a world we once knew as Time IV. Her race, from Time III, dominates the Milky Way.”
“Terra?” Szarekh inquired. “Its location in the galactic plane is quite different from Time’s.”
“The humans moved it,” Anrakyr said. “Other astrological prophecies match, too.”
“And you want me to go back,” Szarekh continued. “To renew the command protocols, and lead the Necrons into the final war, to gamble for everything.”
“The gamble is inevitable,” Anrakyr defended himself, even as he attacked on the field. “If we do not play, we merely lessen our chances.”
“Indeed,” Szarekh said, and suddenly the map shifted.
Lantrane took several minutes to realize just how Szarekh had been able to pull it off, but suddenly Anrakyr’s forces were split by a trap, and Szarekh had split the Pyrrhian’s attack. The center could not hold, and the attack meant to end the game was bogged down. Anrakyr still held the scoreboard advantage, but within a few seconds every other advantage went Szarekh’s way.
Anrakyr looked down. “That….”
Szarekh was silent, looking into the space between Lantrane and Anrakyr. Seeing, perhaps, some shade from his eternity.
Anrakyr continued playing, trying to rebuild his economic advantage; Szarekh did not try to hurry the match. The conversation on galactic matters paused, a game taking precedence over galactic fate for several minutes.
“Anyhow,” Szarekh concluded, “I will do as you recommend, with one exception. The End Times… I trust you told the truth, Anrakyr, but my wrath will impress even Mag’ladroth if you lied here. Unless it was a joke?”
“It was not, your grace,” Anrakyr said, and cracks appeared on his face again, for the first time since Szarekh had turned the tide. By now in the Silent King’s favor, after a period of quick scoring.
“Then so be it,” Szarekh said. “I will steer the Tritium back to the Milky Way, and initiate galactic awakening… but the command protocols are gone, Anrakyr. I am king for eternity, but god of Necronkind no more.”
Anrakyr seemed some mixture of relieved and frustrated. “Then the dynasties… there’ll be little to unite them. You are only one being, your grace, you cannot be everywhere.”
Lantrane did not know how she felt, herself. Surely at a moment (on the planetary timescale, at least, it was a moment) as crucial as this supposedly was, Necronkind would come together, even if not literally forced to?
“But it is better than doing nothing,” Szarekh said. “And I would not install the protocols again, even if I could. No… we will find our way in the flaming evening one by one. The Tritium flies back to the Milky Way, Anrakyr; now, with that settled, back to the game?”
Anrakyr acquiesced, though even Lantrane saw that the match was hopeless. She took the moment to look around herself, at the implements she had no idea as to the function of. Absurdly ancient artifacts of a race that had risen from time’s trenches, that would bring... something… back to the galaxy. To what extent it would be somewhat benevolent, or at least beneficial, time would as ever tell. Yet Lantrane expected that they would improve matters, if only because they understood them.
She noted a pinprick hole, in the bar’s wall, and rose to examine it; Anrakyr could manage for a few minutes by himself. To her surprise, when she leaned to observe it, it was a viewport. Through it, Lantrane could see a starscape – no, those fires were diffuse, a galaxyscape. And brightest of all by far, in the lower part of the vista, a great, tilted spiral lightfield, dominating the void.
The Milky Way.
Every empire, every life, every object she had ever known, within that half-steradian. But the space outside… she could see, with her newly enhanced vision, galaxies in every direction except the Milky Way’s halo, no longer blocked out by dispersed starlight. It was not empty; it was full of dream reflections, of paths she could have walked.
And yet they were returning home, to that wheel from which all her paths had sprung, and from the anxiety Szarekh had shown, she suspected it was for a crux that might well matter for more than one galaxy. For a time relevant on a scale well past millennia.
Yes, Anrakyr was a questionable hero, and the race she now belonged to moreso, those ghosts whose lifespan was geologic. And she was most questionable of all, had in a sense been even as a member of the Mechanicum, that sinking ark she had abandoned (with doubt, but without hesitation). But did it matter? The daybreak, from what she understood, would be fragmented….
Its sun would shine no less brightly for it. For knowledge, and for every other value.
And it would shine with the luster of iron.
|07-31-16 06:34 PM|
The battle for Magma City had been won, but Cadmus Qevpilum knew that the things more important than battle had been lost.
He stood on a platform, the forge’s high point, which had once housed the Death Guard’s command post. The body of Sergeant Lgalun lay at his feet, though it had been Zerondem who’d killed the Death Guard commander. Qevpilum had thought that Rask had led the defenders… but the importance of that was null, now. The third Death Guard squad, Mineceno, had been the first to fall, though Nusaamnius had worriedly mentioned not all of their bodies had been found. Deception aside, there were no Astartes of the Fourteenth Legion left in Magma City, or on the rest of Mars.
And he’d killed Rask. A traitor, of course, the action had been necessary. But they had been brothers, once. That did not vanish for him as easily as, by appearance, for Rask.
That was only the third-greatest defeat of the day, however. The second was that the Death Guard had apparently been evacuating Mechanicum personnel, as well as data, throughout the war. Lgalun, Rask, and the others had stayed behind, to kill loyal Astartes, but those – Adepts, mainly, Qevpilum expected – who had fled were far from irrelevant. And they would yet frustrate the Imperium.
The first was that Magma City would fall into the depths of its volcano within the hour, and its numerous archives with it.
“Brother-Centurion?” Tlaar Hemcasi asked, walking up to Qevpilum.
Hemcasi’s leg was mangled, and Qevpilum knew he should really see an Apothecary. Less due to triage, and more for separating commanders within a collapsing forge complex. Magma City, dropping off, piece by piece, with nothing he could do –
But no, this was not Pyrrhia. Still not a battle, perhaps, but not unwinnable. Even when limited to the current setup.
Qevpilum listed through the schematics, trying to find the biggest block of archives that would be relevant and might be intact, assuming the Death Guard had not intentionally moved them (there were far too many to steal everything through whatever magic transportation Lgalun’d had). 02B – no, those were restricted military schematics, dangerous enough that perhaps they would be best drowned in magma. Moreover, the traitors and adepts would have raided them. Far from sure that they would be intact.
No, 12L was the better bet. Marginally smaller, dealing with medical technology and evolutionary biology. Much of it incompletely understood, yet. And he could see the region, twisting walls colored orange and silver – 12L would still be intact, at the moment.
“Brother-Centurion?” Hemcasi inquired again.
“Brother Hemcasi,” Qevpilum answered. “Set up cranes. We should be able to raise Block 12L onto the slopes.”
Hemcasi tilted his head in surprise. “I was going to say… wait. Remove Block 12L? Why?”
Did Hemcasi not see, or was it Qevpilum?
“To save the information within,” Qevpilum explained. “The Death Guard have been extinguished; this is the best commitment of our time.”
Hemcasi cautiously nodded. Qevpilum opened the vox channel to Venth Zerondem, repeating his order to Hemcasi; again a pause, albeit a lesser one.
“I will contact the Mechanicum,” Zerondem said, “but will the block hold together?”
That was unclear – as Qevpilum jogged down the complex’s edge, he could understand Zerondem’s skepticism. If merely lifted from above, the holes in 12L would shatter it, and maybe a tenth could be lifted. It would need to be separated from its neighbors, and even after that the bottom half lifting would not be a sure thing.
Best shot they had, though. “Squads Hemcasi, Hierrth, Nistrlaq – under Brother Hemcasi’s command, cut all physical connections between block 12L, coordinates appended, and surrounding Magma City blocks. Command squad, squad Ixeutyi – under my command, support block 12L from below. Squad Zerondem, work with the tech-priests to raise the block from above. Use all available machinery.”
He descended into the Magma City on foot, ever cautious of errant movements as the forge flaked apart from below. A few murals and filigreed sculptures worked into the walls lined the corridors, but for the most part the abandoned complex was a monument to humanity in stark, utilitarian fashion. Qevpilum preferred that – it was fundamentally honest, and more importantly did not waste resources. Art had its place, perhaps, but this was not it.
It was strange, that some in the Mechanicum did not seem to recognize that. Their perception of beauty may not have been the same as baseline humanity’s, but they still placed significant weight into it.
But then, that was part of what they fought for as well, was it not? The freedom not to be limited to survival. It was not as if humanity would go extinct, if Mortarion’s like won. But life was more than… well, servitor status. And complexity, in its inconstant arc, sometimes turned to strange eddies.
Eddies, here, of presses and of channels, of iron etched with the promise of sublime destiny, a promise that was not destiny’s to keep. Qevpilum traced a hive of pipes and cables into the depths, a nest that changed color and anastomosed as he jogged, but led unerringly down, to the base of 12L.
Qevpilum nodded to Hemcasi as he passed his lieutenant, the latter sawing angrily while fastened to one of the complex’s many divided ceilings. Anwiter was waiting with Ignition Grasp below, and in the corner nest –
Qevpilum had time to scream a warning, as he raised his own bolter. Hemcasi did not have time to hear it.
Qevpilum’s lieutenant fell, even as the centurion dashed into the hall. Hemcasi’s armor impacted the floor on its back with a grinding crunch, but the fall was not fatal; the headshot, however, was. A halo of blood surrounded Hemcasi’s ruined head, its central ray pointing straight towards the nest from which the killing shot had come.
Nusaamnius was next in line, now, if Qevpilum died here. But as the centurion ran past his brother’s body, he realized that such an outcome was unlikely. The Death Guard within wore a sergeant’s armor, but pitted and mangled to the point where one would at first think the Astarte within was dead. Likely Hemcasi had thought so, too.
Sergeant Mineceno began to raise his bolter again, but he was far too slow. Qevpilum had unlatched and extended his pike with his left hand, and now drove it forward like a javelin with his right, impaling Mineceno’s head on its tip in one movement.
The bolter dropped from Mineceno’s gray-armored fingers, and Qevpilum waited for a few seconds to ensure the traitor sergeant had not somehow survived. Kicking the Astarte to confirm in full, he walked back to Hemcasi’s body, kneeling to his lieutenant.
His gene-seed was intact, at least, and so Qevpilum raised Hemcasi’s body onto his shoulders and walked down the few remaining steps, meeting Anwiter’s unhelmeted gaze, his squadmate’s head plugged into cables and mechatendrils that snaked down his armor.
“Hemcasi was killed by a hiding Death Guard,” Qevpilum clarified. “Mark Sergeant Mineceno’s body as found.”
Anwiter frowned and nodded, looking at Eulemaz and his bike. Qevpilum handed Hemcasi’s body over as he climbed up Ignition Grasp’s side, noting the newly repainted Legion sigil on the tank’s side.
“Apothecarion, and come right back, Brother Eulemaz,” Qevpilum ordered. “We need all hands.”
Qevpilum climbed into the hatch, Anwiter following him.
“Zerondem suggested modifications to your plan,” Anwiter said, “for efficiency’s sake. He plans to redirect –”
“Accept them all.”
They drove through the forge complex, occasionally bulldozing a particularly stubborn support. Ixeutyi’s team marked the remaining two Death Guard bodies, meaning Magma City was now provably cleared. Well, unless Lgalun had brought along Astartes not from the three squads here destroyed, just for this purpose. Qevpilum couldn’t be entirely certain.
The plascrete above began to infinitesimally move, as Zerondem began to wrench 12L free of its mooring. Qevpilum tossed a few disc grenades into a hole below, watching them explode and send another doomed chunk of the Magma City into the fire. Then they drove onwards, across this boundary floor, dark except for what the Iron Hands provided, full of abandoned metal. Ever westwards, towards the crater wall.
He didn’t talk with Anwiter, in those minutes, except to declare targets. Qevpilum did order the rest of his squad, in accordance with Zerondem’s calculations. But the rate of collapse was on the high end of those expectations.
Ahead, Qevpilum could see the wall of dark pink rock, the complex’s end. The ceiling above began to buckle, Zerondem accelerating his work to counter the collapse below.
They didn’t have time for the initial plan, Qevpilum recognized. He was no tech-priest, but he had studied and seen enough of mechanics to know the building wouldn’t hold, even if Ignition Grasp continued moving at full speed. Moreover, Ignition Grasp could well fall through the floor and into the lava lake below – and the tank’s loss would be almost as tragic as its crew’s in that case.
“Park Ignition Grasp at the wall,” Qevpilum told Anwiter. “I’ll set up the second support point on foot.”
Anwiter looked at Qevpilum with uncertainty, but obeyed. “The flesh is weak!” he said.
“Fire and Iron!” Qevpilum responded, with a brief nod to the veteran.
Ignition Grasp’s hatch sprung open and Qevpilum jumped out, running northward along the wall of barely modified stone. Circuits built into some of its surface, yes, and supports that Qevpilum chopped through with strokes of his pike, but that uneven red curtain still separated transhumanity’s world from that which existed for billions of years before the first sapience on Earth woke.
But then, was not Mars a dead world before humanity’s arrival? Deep time may not have been humanity’s, but humanity’s echoes would linger through it, even if all Earth-descended life vanished in one impossible instant.
Qevpilum shook his head to evade the grim thoughts, tracing the rough rock, and chopped through a final nail before walking to the point where the second support had been meant to be.
And above, the ceiling creaked and slanted.
It was too early, still. But Zerondem had accelerated, trusting in his centurion to keep up… or he’d had no choice. Below, Qevpilum saw decimeter-scale fragments of Magma City pouring like sand into the furnace – cables, supports, electronics, screens, and weirder industrial dust.
Without time to think, Qevpilum stood on a bump in the floor, bending to support the complex’s weight and pushing upward. Too much for a single Astarte to hold, of course, a thousand times too much… but then most of the weight was Zerondem’s and Anwiter’s, and Ixeutyi’s, at the third support point. So Qevpilum held the ceiling, and the sky above.
Perhaps 12L had been a bit too much, he thought as his teeth grit against each other, as he felt flakes of bone leave his vertebrae; but then, when had Astartes settled for merely enough? And he was not merely an Astarte, but an Iron Hand.
The weight began to lift, Qevpilum’s cracking knees extending into verticality. The pain did not go away. He’d need surgery after this, need to turn more of his body into iron, effectively rebuild himself entirely. Still, he felt the going get easier, as he pushed the bump he was standing on flat, as the gray floor above lifted, lifted –
And then he felt the crack.
It was deafening, and at first Qevpilum though that he had failed 12L. But the ceiling continued to rise, even letting light in. Reddish white light from above, reddish orange from below –
That was when Qevpilum recognized that the crack had been below him, and that he was falling.
There was a circle of fire, his exhausted eyes recognized. Not a ring, but a splotch of certain scorching doom, whose heat he could barely feel, warming his feet from below. The fall would be mortal, even without the lava. Around him, more dust… well, a macroscale version thereof. It drifted down, like hail into a lake.
Above, 12L’s rise revealed a fragment of dusty sky, Ignition Grasp’s side visible on a solid ledge. Below… below, Qevpilum knew he was falling back-first now, looking upward towards the sun, cresting in the sky. Qevpilum would not see another dusk.
He wasn’t particularly bothered, by that.
No doubt there would come a new dusk… but no doubt, either, that the last dusk would come, and quite possibly soon. One way or another. As in all things. Death would die; the only question would be whether it would be before or after it had destroyed all else.
The principles of Chaos which Ferrus spoke about… they were merely one more step. Driven first by death, perhaps. But sworn, brightly, to life. All of them were, or at least had to be.
The heat was scalding, now, but Qevpilum did not close his eyes in those last instants before the impact came.
Instead he opened them as wide as he could, taking in the iron – and not only iron, but then for the Tenth iron had only ever been a shorthand for creation – hail and 12L, by now safe above the crater, partially eclipsing Sol; taking in the red sky and the redder walls, webbed with humanity’s legacy. And taking in, not physically but with his imagination’s brightest parts, the heroes of Mars gazing at smoking foundations of marvels like few yet known.
And smiling. Because the foundations were enough.
|07-30-16 08:37 PM|
As he ran through yet another collapsing building, Anrakyr the Traveler had to admit that he should really have planned the excursion better this time. Though he had, at least, secured almost all of his objectives.
Except for, thus far, survival. Rather important, that.
“Do you have the gate’s precise coordinates?” Srequi Lantrane inquired, running at his side, a half-step behind.
“Yes,” Anrakyr said as they rounded a batch of metal boxes, “but they predate this complex.” As Lantrane should really have realized. Well, Anrakyr supposed she was still adapting to her new body.
Lantrane had been a surprise. Anrakyr had taken her along because companions tended to make travel more interesting, but her behavior with respect to the Mag’ladroth shard… that had been unexpected. Its outcome, moreso.
Anrakyr’s circuits still burned with fury at what the Dragon of Mars had done. He recognized, though, that Lantrane did not feel the same. Bereft of context, bereft of betrayal, he supposed the transformation could indeed be interpreted as a blessing. Of course, that was not to say he would forgive the C’tan for what they had done.
Nor that it would affect his actions much if he did, considering the star-gods’ nature as devourers of worlds.
Still, Lantrane was a Necron now – the equivalent for her own race, at least, but the same thing in all relevant ways – and he had an unexpected apprentice. Anrakyr found he rather liked humans, when compared to most of the races now inhabiting the galaxy. Young, yes, but determined, rational, self-modifying, and… well, how many other species would be willing to fight their own god-emperor for their moral qualities?
And though Anrakyr’s loyalties were ever with his own species, he knew the humans had a critical role to play in this last war. What that role was, of course, was a different matter. They did not share the Necrontyr’s homeworld, after all, but rather that of their ancient enemies. Not that such omens mattered except with respect to the Warp, as homeworlds could spawn quite… diverse sapients.
“There!” Lantrane exclaimed, causing Anrakyr to swivel his head for a fraction of a second, before realizing that Lantrane’s vantage point was allowing her to see something he did not. Therefore, the gate was… down.
Without thinking much, Anrakyr used his momentum to grab onto the catwalk’s handrails and jump over the edge, onto the metallic floor far below. Lantrane hesitated, still subconsciously assuming she would break something – or correcting for uncertainty about her new body, more charitably.
She jumped a few seconds later, as Anrakyr landed in a roll, sending clanging sounds through the factory complex. Now he saw the portal, even blocked as it was by the empty command throne. Lantrane landed seconds after, as the forge complex tilted with the aftereffects of the explosion. Both stayed on their feet, though Anrakyr saw that for Lantrane it was not without difficulty.
“It’s closed!” Lantrane yelled, running towards the portal.
Disappointing, again. Though it was a high-stress situation, and Lantrane would be used to chemical impediments in context – and then, confirmation bias. Or a psychological quirk. It was hard to know, since Anrakyr had far too little information on the transformation, what with the original one being simultaneous.
“Not to us,” Anrakyr said back, without screaming but loudly enough for Lantrane to easily hear over their footsteps.
They came up to the Dolmen gate together, a ceramic circle built into the rock, with seemingly more sandy rock within it. Anrakyr stepped first as if through air, as the floor slanted dramatically in the other direction, and then he was himself barely on his feet, standing half on the Webway fragment and half in empty space. Lantrane did not have that, dropping towards the lava lake below –
Her fingers closed around his, and Anrakyr pulled Srequi Lantrane into the Dolmen gate, which flickered permanently shut behind them.
“Apologies and thanks,” Lantrane said. She looked around, in genuine awe, if Anrakyr’s interpretation of human facial expressions was correct. “So this is what Zeth was hiding.”
“I suppose,” Anrakyr admitted. “But only the least fraction of the Dolmen paths, which is itself far lesser than the Old Ones’ Webway.”
Lantrane nodded, as they walked along the unchanging corridor. At the first closed gate, Lantrane stared into its unlit depths and nodded.
“My map is up-to-date,” she said. “Though these paths have changed from your time, no?”
“They have,” Anrakyr admitted. That the Dragon had fresh intel was, indeed, disturbing, if not unexpected. “Should we change to binary?”
Lantrane turned and stared, for long seconds, down the open path. Towards her past species’ rebellion, towards her friend Zeth, towards the life she could have had. Anrakyr supposed she was deliberating leaving him. Not unreasonable, and if she transferred him the coordinates he would allow it. It would take long minutes to decide, anyhow, for one such as her. Anrakyr supposed he would spend the time deciding how to best phrase his response. Not to Lantrane, but rather to the Silent King. He did not like going to the summit first, he would have preferred to assist in awakening Tomb Worlds himself, but there was far too little time. After far too much. How much of this had been planned? And by whom?
Four and a half seconds after Anrakyr’s question, Srequi Lantrane stepped through the locked gate with her left foot, and turned her head towards the Phaeron of Pyrrhia.
“Let’s go,” she transmitted in Necron binary.
Four and a half seconds, to leave her born identity behind. For Anrakyr sixty million years had not been entirely sufficient.
Well, he supposed that was evidence he, too, had room for improvement.
Throwing his cloak around himself as if it was eternity, Anrakyr of Pyrrhia followed Srequi Lantrane of Mars into the pulsating darkness.
|07-29-16 01:15 AM|
Durak Rask stood on the wall’s top, by now protected by the parapet alone with the force shield overwhelmed into uselessness, as Magma City shook from artillery fire, perhaps ten minutes away from the final mass assault by Cadmus Qevpilum’s Iron Hands, and wondered at just how similar Koriel Zeth really was to Qevpilum.
Perhaps, he knew, it was more correct to wonder the converse. Zeth was an adept of the Martian Mechanicum, and her dedication to progress, if occasionally above wisdom, was an intrinsic part of both her selection and her creed. But the Iron Hands had been just another Legion, before. Close to the Mechanicum, yes, but it was Zeth that Rask would have expected to choose submission to Imperial madness over the risk of losing largely idle information.
Though, of course, if that had been the point of disagreement, Magnus and Perturabo would have been enemies now, while Angron and Vulkan would’ve been allies, while rumor had indicated the opposite. No, not all Astartes saw the war as Rask did.
A ping on Rask’s retinal display, as a fireball bloomed uncomfortably close to the Death Guard’s position, caused him to frown. Neither of them were ones much for social excesses, but he did wish to say goodbye to Koriel Zeth before the Forgemistress left.
Especially since, in defiance of the plan he had informed Zeth of, he would not be seeing her, nor the accompanying Squad Sofev, again.
He walked down from the parapet, barely bothering with a glance back. He had given overall command to Falenatak for this period, while he and Lgalun were taking some long breaths, in the minutes before Magma City’s fall.
Because it would fall. One way or another, it would fall.
He passed empty staircases, as well as manufactoria, idle for the first time in – decades, perhaps? Centuries? He did not think it was millennia, but if someone told him it was, his reaction would not be disbelief. Mars was an old world, and the Mechanicum an old culture. Albeit a changing one, which was the reason for his skepticism. The recent rise of the Order of the Dragon was ample evidence of as much.
The floor holding the portal was, by contrast, full of ant-like activity, but even that was winding down. Servitors carried the last boxes into the tunnel, biological components straining, as the first members of Echalo Sofev’s squad vanished into its darkness. Rask emerged onto a catwalk above as Zeth, herself, took the first step after the last of her human tech-priests.
“Adept Zeth!” Rask exclaimed, voice amplified by his helmet’s systems.
The Forgemistress turned, showing perhaps some slight surprise. “Ordnance Master Rask?”
“Farewell,” Rask said, wondering if he should take his helmet off. Yes, there was not much risk – he unclasped it and looked at the scene below with his own, if augmented, eyes. “And good luck in the Mechanicum’s reconstruction.”
Zeth paused. “You’re not planning on surrendering, are you?”
It took Rask a moment to process the notion before violently shaking his head. “Not even Qevpilum would accept my surrender. But he might get my head.”
“Then farewell,” Zeth said, “and may he not receive it.”
Zeth nodded, Rask nodding back, and then she was gone with the chain of servitors, and then Sofev saluted farewell as Rask responded.
That left only five squads in Magma City – Rask, Rurgon, Falenatak, Lgalun and Mineceno. Five squads in theory, but in reality four and a half, as Leskos Rurgon and several of his men had fallen during one of the earlier clashes. Falenatak would be last to leave – Lgalun was already relieving him, Rask noted on his visor with some surprise. That was only meant to happen when Qevpilum made his move. Were things evolving that fast?
He therefore rushed down the staircase – well, rushed in a relative sense, he wasn’t in battle after all. Lgalun knew everything, Falenatak only most of it. But Lgalun had been uncomfortable with leaving no record of their reasoning, and Rask supposed Mortarion would agree.
He paused as he reached the clanging stairs’ bottom, facing Zeth’s abandoned command throne. Mortarion would agree – but he only partially did. Was his devotion fading?
No, he realized. It was merely that talking to Mineceno had redirected it. Changed him, as he had changed the infantry sergeant; perhaps that was why he walked so readily towards death. He was still fighting for Mortarion, yes, but Mortarion as a symbol. Because Mortarion was a symbol. All the Primarchs were, he supposed, or at least many of them. And what Mortarion stood for –
Preferable death. Preferable destruction. And determination, and individual excellence, and all the other fragments of war, and that eternal dusk.
No doubt there would come a new dusk… hour infernal.
“But such is the cycle of our rust,” Rask muttered. Even past war, some things did not yield readily to the Mechanicum’s dreaming. “Such our arc eternal.” And that was not necessarily malicious, nor indeed was it necessarily unfortunate.
It was merely what the world was. Part of its fabric, like the stars themselves.
“Brother Durak Rask?”
“Brother Zecusor Falenatak,” Rask said, raising his head to meet the artillery sergeant and the squad and a half with him – Squad Rurgon’s remnants had been summoned as well. Falenatak’s own moved a fraction of a millimeter back, and two of his Astartes’ eyes widened. Not enough to indicate something was actually wrong, however, as Rask confirmed with a ping.
“Brother Falenatak,” Rask repeated as he extended his left hand and the object therein, “the Almenis key.”
He felt Magma City shake again. Differently than the previous artillery strikes. One of the last strikes, he would estimate.
Cadmus Qevpilum’s task force would be inside within the next minute.
Falenatak, understanding the urgency, took the key and ordered his squad forward.
“Squads Rask, Lgalun, and Mineceno will remain in the Magma City,” Rask stated. “You will close the portal behind you – merely say ‘close’ in any language as you touch the key within the lock – and we will fight a delaying action against the Iron Hands. We will then detonate the reactor, drowning Magma City and all industry and archives therein in, fittingly, magma, to ensure maximum damage to the Iron Hands and minimal Imperial recovery potential.”
“So you did lie to Zeth,” Falenatak noted, inserting his cube into the door’s mechanism.
Rask shrugged. Lies were far down on the hierarchy of sins, by now, and it would not impede future working relations, given how this would end. “Necessary.”
“No,” Falenatak said with genuine anger, “merely convenient.”
Rask made no comment.
“Close!” Falenatak exclaimed, and then they were gone.
Rask walked in the reverse direction, away from the command throne, away from the closing portal. He paused, Falenatak’s words echoing in his head, then broke into a sprint.
Falenatak did not understand. Perhaps that was for the better – Falenatak, after all, was to live.
Most of his squad were manning the walls, alongside Lgalun’s and Mineceno’s, but Mnisen Ipharoj and Rulvon Atigrarin were waiting for him behind the door. Both fell into line behind him with a nod.
They knew everything. Every Death Guard that had stayed behind had been well-aware how this would end. Lgalun and Mineceno had both refused, despite Rask’s objections, to leave and let Rask’s squad alone make the sacrifice. With Mineceno that had been expected; with Lgalun, it had not.
Lgalun was managing the battle now, and Rask made no move to intervene. His duty was different. The first Iron Hands were over the walls, clashing with disposable servitors and the Astartes of Mineceno’s and Lgalun’s squads. Too little, by far, to protect Magma City. But they would keep it for long enough.
Magma City would fall. But Rask would yet have the chance to determine how.
Rask jogged, Ipharoj and Atigrarin at his sides, westwards through the complex. Toward Magma City’s reactors, taking an arcuate path by the cone’s ceramic walls, helically moving upward. The forge had not been designed for fastest internal movement, merely for efficient transport of materials. Another reminder that Mars had not been built for war, merely refitted for it at the last moment.
Or not for civil war, at least. Bombardment… the Mechanicum had planned for large-scale conflicts, but had neglected individual heroism by comparison. As usual.
Rask knelt by a firing slit and took up a shoulder cannon, of the Rinikkir experimental design. He let off several volleys, coordinating with Ipharoj and Atigrarin. Apart from brief pings to synchronize time, they did not speak. But they had fought together for long enough that words would be merely, as the Adepts phrased such things, inefficient.
Iron Hands fell under their aim, though most of them would ultimately live. Still, they were close enough to Magma City that the volcano’s collapse had a decent chance of ending them nonetheless, excluding evacuation.
Then a shell hit the wall to Rask’s left, tossing Ipharoj backwards and causing Rask to instinctively shield his eyes despite his helmet being secured. Shrapnel scattered itself through the air, and Atigrarin was already running. Rask pulled Ipharoj to his feet before following. Ipharoj, Rask noted as he ran, took a moment to scramble fully upright, regaining his senses; but he was following along normally after that. Perhaps some minor damage, but Rask wasn’t an Apothecary, and it didn’t matter in context.
So they rushed northwards along the wall, Rask counting down the meters to the reactor rooms. Lgalun’s analysis said the Iron Hands were already within the complex, and –
And Durak Rask’s thoughts were rudely interrupted by an Iron Hand directly in front of them.
Atigrarin was the one to run forward against him, slamming bodily into the enemy and pushing him to the ground. Rask ran up to assist, but it appeared to be unnecessary as Atigrarin grabbed his sword and stabbed the Iron Hand, again and again. His hearts should have been gone already, but it was taking the Iron Hand an embarrassingly long time to die.
“Go!” Atigrarin yelled, and Rask and Ipharoj ran past, heading towards the iron maintenance door that led to the reactors. Wrenching it open, he stepped into the unlit room, Ipharoj covering. Calling it a room was an oversimplification, of course – some of the upper vats vanished into the dark.
Ipharoj still covering, Rask intently walked towards the south reactor. He knelt by the control panel, entering the first digits of the code Zeth had given him, with everything else, but instructed not to use.
And then the shot, and Rask involuntarily glanced back.
Ipharoj was immobile, and for an instant Rask almost thought he had imagined the sound. But then the gun slid out of his loosened grip, and a few drops of blood trickled out of his neck clasps.
And Cadmus Qevpilum stood in the doorway, surrounded by a ring of light from the burning outdoors, smoking gun tightly clasped in his left hand. Rask had not thought Qevpilum would beeline here, but he supposed it was not surprising, in retrospect, that the Squid had foreseen his plan.
They had been so similar, after all, once. Yes, Rask had a spark of dedication to his Primarch that was far less pronounced in Qevpilum’s mind, but they had warred side by side for a reason. Blunt instruments on a tactical level, far from it on a strategic, total devotion to their craft, and a fondness for heavy weaponry; but also a philosophy of determination through the dust.
A philosophy that had been nothing, for either of them, compared to Primarch loyalty. That they were faced with each other was chance, but Rask doubted that Qevpilum would ever have taken the right side in this war, at least unless Ferrus did.
Rask’s right hand entered the last digit of the code, and the Death Guard ran north, to get to the other reactor – but Qevpilum was there, and Rask was defending, parrying blow after blow from Qevpilum’s power pike. No words – Qevpilum was personally angry for some reason, and Rask was generally so, and had no questions besides. Two of Qevpilum’s men followed their commander into the chamber, but Qevpilum waved them backward.
Shots in the gallery. Atigrarin, Rask supposed. But most of his mind was dedicated to the fight with Qevpilum. If the other reactor did not blow soon, Magma City would still drop into the lava lake, its supports unable to hold its weight for long. He had already done his job. But Qevpilum would have time to evacuate, making the last stand somewhat of a questionable exercise.
The southern reactor’s blast rang out in the distance, a boom that disturbed both Astartes’ senses of balance. Qevpilum was worse-affected, and so Rask’s blows pressed his once-friend backwards, northwards, towards the panel that would end it all –
And then Rask felt a fire in his gut, and a glance down confirmed it was Qevpilum’s weapon.
He tried to respond likewise, to drive his chainsword into Qevpilum’s chest, but he could not force it forward through the pain. Qevpilum indented a button, and Rask slid to the ground, unable to even scream. It seemed quiet, somehow.
Perhaps, Rask groggily realized, it was that his heart wasn’t beating.
He tried to close his eyes as Cadmus Qevpilum raised his pike for the final blow.
For Mortarion, he thought as the light he could see despite his best efforts came closer. For humanity, and for the dusk that is inevitable, no matter how hard Cadmus will struggle.
And, after we have together burnt it all to void, for the fresh dawn after.
|07-23-16 09:24 PM|
Castrmen Orth walked towards Cassini Forge calmly and slowly, sweeping his eyes around the surrounding terrain. It had once been built in manufactorial rings; with the war, the rings had become concentric defensive trenches.
And with Ulrach Branthan’s inexorable advance towards Cassini Forge, they had been flattened entirely, to the point that Orth could cross them without trouble.
Branthan, and his Clan Erigez, were mopping up Magos Ahotep’s remaining men within the forge’s core complex. Orth expected the battle would be over by the time he – along with Strigeus, who was at his side, and the Morlocks that Ousautro was leading through the lower tunnels – would arrive at the center. Already the guns on the walls had fallen silent, allowing Orth to walk up to the slanted walls without difficulty.
That significant achievement was, in fact, why Branthan had judged Cassini Forge effectively secured, and had summoned Orth – along with the rest of the Ethereal Hands’ central cabal – to Cassini Forge. It would not be a mass assembly of the Ethereal Hands’ followers – that was planned to elapse later. It was merely a planning meeting.
One that would end, one way or another, in death. Branthan’s treachery had to be stomped out quickly, and at an unexpected time. The later assembly would be a perfect time for attack, if Ferrus’s reasoning was what Branthan expected – the suppression of dissent. But in truth, he wanted – like his primarch – the salvation of the Legion; and so a strike today would be both less destructive and less expected, a limited purge followed by a renewal of the Legion under Ferrus.
That, at least, was the model Ferrus’s mind had come up with, using Orth’s information. It was far from clear whether everything would work, and Orth would have preferred a better understanding of the precise machinations involved, as well as certainty that Branthan did not suspect him. This political confusion was not his preferred battleground, especially when it interweaved with rapid violence; but he was in a position to help protect the Legion from an internal rot, and so he would, if possible.
There was little honor in his intentions, but they were for the Legion and for the Imperium, and so he had no misgivings.
He looked around the waste as he walked, searching out traces of Branthan’s experimentation. He had not augmented himself aetherically in a direct fashion, but his current eyepiece had some psychic enhancements, enough to allow tracking of other Warp effects. There were not many, but two or three rituals had evidently taken place in his vicinity. And there was something related to – the Morlocks below?
Orth had no way of knowing for sure whether that was part of Ferrus’s plan or one of Branthan’s traps, but the impression – for the vision was not quantitative, or at least not at the current state of development – was one of light strangeness, with no aether involved. Besides, if it was a severe problem the Morlocks would have broken vox silence.
With that in mind, Orth focused instead on the walls ahead, tilting outward at their tops. They were close enough to be in their shade, by now. Sounds from within, still, but most of them were that of construction rather than gunfire. Repair work, presumably, or else ritual.
“Brother-Centurion Orth!” Captain Gabriel Ikttagaaq said in greeting, as he ran up to Orth’s side. “It is good to see you again. I see you chose to visit this conclave after all?”
“I always planned to be here,” Orth said. “It would be pointless to disagree with Branthan’s speed if I did not argue against it.”
“But that speed brought us to aether-flesh and the Xi Vertebrae,” Ikttagaaq said. Then he shrugged. “Anyhow, argue as you wish – I merely doubt many will listen.”
“It’s not a reason to stay silent,” Orth said with a shrug. “Captain Ikttagaaq, this is my second-in-command, Ashaafit Strigeus.”
Strigeus, looking rather less comfortable than Orth, nodded his assent. Before any more words could be exchanged, though, the looming wall opened before them, and the Iron Hands walked into Cassini Forge.
The interior was like plenty of other Martian forges that Orth had seen. Rather less scarred than a recently conquered building had any right to be, because of Branthan’s gradual approach – and even more than that. Perhaps Branthan had used his warpcraft to get in with less damage.
They walked to the left, and then down a jagged stair, following Branthan’s directions. Strigeus exchanged a few words with Ikttagaaq, imitating general uncertainty – well, the uncertainty was real enough, though Strigeus could hardly reveal the reason for it.
The reason was ultimately, as for so much, the Xi Vertebrae. They were a new implant Branthan was in the process of developing, one that plugged directly into the nervous system. The Xi Vertebrae provided increased reaction time and pain tolerance, and occasional flashes of brilliant insight, but came with the massive weight of sometimes – unpredictably – losing control of one’s body. It was unclear what entity, if anything, took over in those periods, though it generally did not do much of anything with the host, except ensure their survival.
And Branthan was proselytizing the Xi Vertebrae with a zeal that bordered on suspicious, evangelizing their use for all Legion members – and the Ethereal Hands bought it. Ferrus Manus did not, in the least. Orth knew both of them had far more knowledge than himself of what the implant actually did, so he merely went with his general judgment, and sided with the Primarch privately while speaking his instinctual view – a moderate position – publically, including among the Ethereal Hands. He had done this on quite a few issues related to Branthan, though before they did not call for fratricide.
But those thoughts were only distant in the back of Orth’s mind by the time he reached the room Ulrach Branthan had turned into a council chamber. It was a cylindrical space, with six doors along its sides. The ceiling was richly decorated with designs that seemed to flow with liquid metal. And the opposite door to the one Orth had entered through resounded with the sounds of gunfire, the last such sounds in Cassini Forge.
“Magos Ahotep’s sanctum is not far in that direction,” Branthan said, by way of both welcome and explanation.
Orth nodded, taking in the other Astartes present. Twenty of them, including himself and Strigeus, at the moment. Four more were due to arrive. Of those twenty-four, thirteen had the Xi Vertebrae in them, including Branthan’s three lieutenants – Urannih, Marmtzan, and Imrsadyaved – and Branthan himself.
He nodded to Feifdun as the Iron Father came in, second-to-last. The Iron Father was the only other outspoken opponent of the Xi Vertebrae called to Cassini, and the only other council member that Orth had told the Morlocks to spare. Feifdun took Orth’s offered spot next to him.
“Let’s begin,” Branthan said. “I am not sure whether Brother-Apothecary Ellitu is coming, but –”
“I am!” Ellitu yelled from beyond the door the gunfire was heard from. A few seconds later, he burst in, knee plates cracked. “Was it absolutely necessary to have the conclave on the edge of a war zone?”
“Apologies, again,” Branthan said. “My decision was made from a geomantical standpoint, but I suspect I did not weigh realspace considerations enough.”
“In any case,” Branthan said, “let’s leave ideological arguments – that includes you, Brother Feifdun – to the end of the meeting. We expect to hold the rally in Argyre, in eleven Terran days.”
“That soon?” Ikttagaaq inquired.
“Ferrus seems less reasonable than I had thought,” Branthan explained. “We need to show strength –”
And then the sheen of the ceiling changed from black to gold, an instant before it fell.
The Morlocks, heavy-angled armor smoking, descended in the fashion of an avalanche, and even the fractional seconds they spent dropping to the floor were not wasted. Storm bolters and rotor cannons filled the air with shells, one of which whizzed disturbingly near Orth’s ear.
Orth himself took the instant to fire on Ikttagaaq, who was already raising his own weapon. Others were slower to react, Branthan among them; Orth fired again, as Ikttagaaq’s face melted into dead shock, this time at Iron Father Rachan Roonsaind. Roonsaind’s cybernetics blunted much of the impact, but it was enough for him to drop his own weapon, leaving perhaps five of the rebels still firing. Orth spared a glance for Feifdun, caught in a restraining hold by one of the Morlocks –
And then the Morlocks stopped motion, instantaneously, in a manner that might have violated physics and certainly opposed their will – stopped, and began sinking to the ground.
Orth looked at Branthan, as Strigeus raised his bolter to fire – but Branthan, with his helmet on by now, simply swept his hands aside, sending a shockwave through the room. Strigeus’s shot went wide, slamming into a back wall, and the Morlocks…
They were dead. Every last one of them. No rasping last breaths, either, their lives cut short in a sorcerous instant. Feifdun was breathing, but still immobilized by the Morlock on top of him, looking some mixture of frustrated and confused.
Roonsaind and Xage Urannih, both wounded, stumbled to Branthan’s side, though Urannih toppled before getting there, sorely wounded despite being fated to heal in time. Roonsaind gnashed metallic teeth as Branthan stared, impassive. Strigeus was at Orth’s side, drawing his blade. Two against two.
“So you betrayed us after all,” Branthan growled. “I suppose I should have expected as much, but I’d held hope that you would restrain yourself to reasoned debate.”
“You call me the traitor?”
Branthan swept his head around the room, filled with its groans of dying Astartes – and of the silent Morlocks. Whatever Branthan had done, Orth had noticed the obvious, namely that it had affected only the Avernii. Presumably, that was because of the Warp-taint he had sensed earlier – a mark, on those who would enter uninvited. Though Branthan had not been suspicious, at first – so perhaps it had been when they fell through the ceiling?
“This room shows clearly enough,” Branthan said with barely constrained fury, “who betrayed whom.” Roonsaind, in the momentary truce, bent down to a Morlock body, loosening its arms to unlock Feifdun – before falling on his back.
Feifdun raised his spear out of the gaping hole in Roonsaind’s body, one that had pierced the other Iron Father’s body vertically from head to left toe, and slid it back into its casing. Roonsaind had had enough organs replaced that even that had not been a guaranteed kill, but apparently it had worked.
“I’d always suspected you, Rachan,” he muttered to his fallen comrade. Then he turned to face Branthan, lowering his spear, as Orth and Strigeus began to charge, while his opponent lowered his gun – what sort of bolter was that anyhow? – and shot, blindly and accurately. Feifdun stumbled back, severely wounded. Branthan used the distraction to duck out of a door.
Retreat? Though Branthan would understand, now, that such truly was his best choice. He could yet inspire a rebellion, after all, with or without the others; plenty in the Legion had the Xi Vertebrae installed, if nowhere near a majority.
Orth ran after, Strigeus following – no, there was no telling what would happen to Feifdun, like this. “Watch the wounded!” Orth yelled, Strigeus nodding without satisfaction. Orth was far from certain that he could take Branthan alone, but then neither of them was a duelist.
Branthan did not spare a glance back as he ran through the corridor, but Orth had no doubt he heard the pursuit, even if his armor’s sensors were for some reason non-functional. The Ethereal Hand did not pause, however, to fight, instead grabbing what appeared to be a cable and swinging forward. Orth thrust his hand forward, grasping the same cable in one fluid motion, an instant before it jerked upward.
The cable, and the two Space Marines on it, soared upwards through a shaft Orth could barely distinguish the top of – one that clearly led to the very top of Cassini Forge. Orth made to climb upward, but spared a look downward as the heat sensors recorded a river of molten metal, rushing perpendicular to flood the corridor he’d left Strigeus in.
There was no time for regret, though, nor worth, and his lieutenant would probably notice the stream anyhow. The cable flew up, through a particularly thick level – and then the two Marines were passing what seemed to be a hangar floor. And on the floor, mounted on massive rockets, a ship. A grand hemisphere, its lower part supported by solidified fire, festooned with cannons – big enough that by all rights it should have been constructed in orbit, even if it was only frigate-sized.
Shots bounced off Orth’s armor, Branthan receiving the same reception; only a few skitarii, though, were actually shooting. For the most part the hangar, like the ship’s exterior, was deserted. The inside was immune to Orth’s surficial scans, but from appearances Ahotep had simply converted much of his forge’s volume into the vessel – the Dragonwing One, Orth could now see.
“Did you even fight Ahotep?” Orth screamed upwards, through the fading hail of gunfire.
“The blockade will,” Branthan replied as he repositioned himself, swinging his sword to cut the cable and drop Orth into the skitarii or the melt – but he’d waited too long for that. Orth swung and leapt, landing on a ceramite platform hanging near the Dragonwing One’s mass, once presumably used to machine the ship from outside. It had not been removed – Ahotep wasn’t done yet, that much was clear. Branthan made a similar jump, flying towards the same platform.
“We have seen gods’ perfection,” he screamed far too loudly to explain physically, “so surrender your metal!!”
“Not surrendering anything,” Orth replied, gripping his sword and adjusting his stance against the future Astarte impact.
“Aether-flesh is the zenith – and we’ll prove it in battle!!”
Where were Branthan’s men, anyhow? Were they even in the forge? Certainly there was little sign of struggle – Ahotep had, it seemed, executed an orderly retreat, and Branthan hadn’t risked his men. If he had them, that is.
Branthan landed, and swords met, even as the platform swung and tried to throw them both off. Both kept their balance, but only just, as it tipped far to the north, Orth pushed back into one of the cables holding the basket up.
“Why betray the Legion?” Branthan taunted, as he pressed forward; Orth defended, parrying, but Branthan’s strength was clearly greater. The platform reached its apex, and blades met again and again, sparking in the air, only the cable preventing Orth from falling off the platform. But the platform swung back, and the acceleration began to reverse.
Branthan was focused, abnormally so. What drug he was on, Orth had no idea. For his part, he observed, as the platform swung south, the sparks in the air, the intricate microstructure barely visible in the walls outside that was now scarred by hurried servitors, the first tongues of red below the edifice of the ship.
“I chose not to abandon our past,” Orth said as he pressed, now with a brief advantage, though Branthan seemingly didn’t even notice the platform’s swinging. “Aether, but not before iron!”
“Aether is stronger!” Branthan intoned. “We will not back down on progress!”
Stronger, but not wiser. Branthan did not react to the acceleration, his vastly augmented strength making it unnecessary. As the thundering fire below turned from a dim red to an incandescent orange, Orth twisted the platform, combining it with a strike to Branthan’s legs. The opposing Hand’s reply would have been lethal if it had happened on flat ground; instead, it merely carved a deep gouge into Orth’s armor, as the captain of Clan Erigez plummeted down into the first beats of inferno.
“Progress requires caution,” Orth quickly muttered, as his brother turned foe fell. “A blind rush just as easily leads backward.”
A survivable plunge for a Space Marine, of course, under normal conditions. But as Branthan fell, the Dragonwing One lifted off, at first so slowly Orth feared it would fall back down. Then it accelerated, rising higher and higher on heat and fury. Branthan met the exhaust head-on, as the ceiling above simply ceased to exist, phased through by Ahotep’s ship carrying the last of Cassini Forge.
Orth realized a touch too late that he was himself far from safe from the launch. The scalding gas washed outwards over his armor, penetrating beneath to burn his Black Carapace. The cables did worse, disintegrating, dropping the Iron Hand onto a northwards arc.
Orth barely felt the impact with the northward wall, the punishment nearly enough to send even a Space Marine into unconsciousness. Still, he rolled into position, as the smoke clouds reduced visibility to a matter of centimeters. He lay there, breathing heavily, trying to gather his thoughts.
His vox crackled.
“Strigeus here,” his lieutenant noted. “What happened up there, Brother-Centurion?”
“Branthan is dead,” Orth muttered with some effort – his lungs were clearly damaged, all three of them. He could already feel the regeneration beginning, though. The smoke was clearing, white wisps going… somewhere. The hangar around him was a charred mess, the spot where Branthan’s body had melted barely recognizable. Microsculptures hopelessly ruined, the Mechanicum escaping – but that was Branthan’s fault, and there was no shortage of blockading ships in the Solar System at the moment.
The ceiling, it seemed, had somehow vanished entirely (an illusion?), and the white sun, tilting towards setting, was visible over the walls. It illuminated fire and iron.
And Castrmen Orth, struggling to his feet in the graveyard of a mad dream.
|07-17-16 07:18 PM|
Note: this is the second update today, immediately preceded by an interlude (see above).
Cadmus Qevpilum looked at the grim, spiraling peak of the Magma City, rising from the volcanic shield of Arsta Mons. Despite its helical patterns, on the whole it was a cylindrical wall, with irregular and complex structures within a heavily fortified enclosure (which, according to Qevpilum’s plans, itself hung over a lava lake). Artillery from within its shield lobbed shells towards the attackers, but lazily; the defenders were short on ammunition, and the forge had sustained significant damage throughout the siege, especially from Ulirrben’s failed assault.
In response, Qevpilum’s own cannons, tank-mounted and otherwise, rained fury on the Magma City. Most impacts were absorbed by the shield, but enough came through to render the rebel forge a thoroughly inhospitable place. In time, the shield would fall, and a full assault would be mounted; until then, any direct attack would share the same fate as the previous one.
Ulirrben…. The Captain of Clan Evaeseph, the 49th Company of the Iron Hands, had fallen on the front lines of his charge, leaving the siege to be transferred to Qevpilum’s command. Some would rage at Ulirrben for his failure, but after a briefing about the situation, Qevpilum understood why the late captain had acted as he had. Magma City was highly desirable to take intact, and its defenders likely had archaeotech that allowed a retreat in certain cases, preparation probably being helpful in that task. Besides, those defenders were Astartes. So he had gambled, and gambled unwisely.
No, it was the Death Guard that concerned Qevpilum. Space Marines turning against the Imperium was a concept unheard of and inconceivable. Primarchs turning against the Imperium – and Qevpilum was well-aware that those were precisely the rumors percolating through the Legion – was far, far worse.
And though Magma City did not hold a Primarch, it wasn’t as if Qevpilum had Ferrus Manus available either. This was a lesser battle, compared to the clashes that would singlehandedly decide galactic fate, but it was still likely to be one of the greatest conflicts in Qevpilum’s life.
It was wise, of course, to approach such a battle cautiously. But Qevpilum’s hesitation was also born of the memory of Pyrrhia, and of the schism that had been revealed to him as soon as he had landed on Mars. He was off-center, right now, capable of thinking strategically but not in optimal condition for hand-to-hand combat. Perhaps mechanical attachments were capable of fixing that, but though the Grand Cogitator had not permanently damaged Zerondem’s mind, Qevpilum retained a firm skepticism towards severely altering one’s brain. A touch of stabilizing iron was quite enough.
And so, instead of staying in the Apothecarium and undergoing cerebral surgeries, he was standing near the base of Magma City’s shield, protected by a scattering of rocks, and looking at a town of heresy.
“Brother-Centurion,” Venth Zerondem said, walking up beside Qevpilum. “I’ve received the answer – no second attempt at infiltration is sanctioned.”
“Good,” Qevpilum said, still wondering about the treasures held within Magma City. “So the spies will finally stop trying to interfere?”
“Indeed,” said a voice that Qevpilum had to turn to confirm. It was the newly promoted Sergeant Amax Hierrth, standing adjacent to Zerondem. “Biresteon’s team has been confirmed dead, and they don’t want to keep throwing their men at the problem, at least until they know what went wrong.”
“And when they do?” Qevpilum clarified, still not entirely focused on the conversation. Magma City could hold wonders, it was true – or, like Pyrrhia, it could hold horrors. Who knew what forces the Death Guard had invoked, that they believed they could stand against the Emperor’s wrath?
“They’ve cut all personnel and funding from the mission,” Zerondem clarified. “And any outside investigation will take months. They’ve cut their losses, and left us to do our work.”
Qevpilum nodded. It would have been nice to actually know what was inside the forge, but the tech-priest spies had effectively stalled the siege for the past week. Only now could Qevpilum actually direct munitions towards places where they could effectively bring down the shield, with minimal damage to recoverable assets, instead of focusing on clearing tunnels and avoiding Biresteon’s team. Which had probably been turned into servitors, by now, or else just disassembled for scraps, despite the Spearhead-Centurion’s best attempts to help.
“Understood,” Qevpilum said. “Hierrth, convey my gratitude to whoever approved this. Or denied it, rather.”
The sergeant nodded and left. Zerondem stayed; Qevpilum looked at his uncertain face from the corner of his eye.
“What is it, brother?”
“Brother-Centurion,” Zerondem said, less certainly than his previous speech but not by much, “I intend to submit a request to join the Iron Father corps.”
Qevpilum blinked. He had not expected that. It did make sense, of course – Zerondem was brilliantly logical, and inspiring when he tried. He was precisely the sort of person Qevpilum would have liked to see as an Iron Father, and although he despised the quasi-religious approach to technology many of them shared (the only avatar of true divinity being the Emperor), Zerondem could work with it even as he tried to displace it. Perhaps, in time, he would even succeed, and the Iron Fathers would stop trying to imitate Chaplains.
Besides, Hemcasi was Qevpilum’s designated successor, and though Zerondem was not intensely ambitious, he deserved a more independent post.
“You have my blessing,” Qevpilum said. “Nusaamnius will take your place as lieutenant, after you are accepted. Which you will be, despite the politics. How does the training on Mars function, in the current… situation?”
“There are loyal tech-priests,” Zerondem explained, “and the senior Iron Fathers will take a larger role in training. An expansion is necessary in any case, because of the diminished future role of Mars itself.”
“Sensible,” Qevpilum agreed. “Primarch’s order?”
“Or something similar.”
“Good. Brother, I wish you the best of luck; you are the sort of Iron Father we need more of. Do not forget that you are an Iron Hand above all; and, of course, do not even contemplate sinking into superstition like so many Iron Fathers have. Rough calculations show that, in a few decades’ time, if the Great Crusade continued as normal, you would have a significant chance of restoring the corps away from them; and you are closer to the ideal Iron Father profile than almost anyone in the battalion. Fire and Iron, brother.”
“Fire and Iron,” Zerondem replied, as a shell boomed nearby.
Zerondem walked away, and Qevpilum was left alone before the siege. The centurion did not feel particular regret, for Zerondem would find his place yet. And yet there was some… nostalgia, perhaps. He recalled a time when he had himself been in Zerondem’s position, and concerned himself with finding his place, more than finding others’. He had passed that phase as a young sergeant, though – or had he?
At times like this, and doubly so with Pyrrhia still echoing, Cadmus Qevpilum tended to contemplate destruction. He knew, of course, that the devastation sometimes left by the Great Crusade was necessary. Often, what was lost was obsolete anyhow; they were not Thousand Sons, to archive false paths. Even more often, it was tainted by xenos or hateful men. But even when, as today on Mars, neither was the case, the shock wave of truth was sometimes deadly.
What bothered Qevpilum had more to do with inefficiency. How did they know that they were incapable of doing better? Did even the Emperor, in finally turning the Imperium religious, have any certainty that today was a better day for such a shift than a year earlier, or three years later?
Those thoughts were somewhat blasphemous, of course, but with Primarchs rebelling Qevpilum doubted his own path would much concern the god of mankind.
A movement in the corner of his viewfield caught Qevpilum’s eye, and he turned his gaze to the parapet, behind which a decorated Death Guard had come up to survey the battle. Qevpilum focused his enhanced vision on his figure –
And he froze, as he recognized the warrior.
Cadmus Qevpilum had first fought alongside Durak Rask in the ice towers of Valenitr, both saving the other’s life in the process. They had been brothers, in the aftermath, and had fought alongside each other several more times along the course of the Crusade. Rask was among the few who understood, perhaps even more than Qevpilum did, the raging melody of fire and iron, the pounding of artillery and the mechanistic arts.
And so, of course, it had been Rask that had been sent to defend Magma City against the forces of the Imperium. Qevpilum supposed he should have known that Rask would follow his Primarch into rebellion, if that was where Mortarion went. Rask’s love of his Primarch had always been severe. But for all that rumors talked about a war of brothers, this was the first time Qevpilum had felt the concept in truth. And – if this was how it weighed on him, how bad was it for Ferrus Manus?
“Durak,” Qevpilum voxed along the private channel, standing up by half-forgotten instinct. Perhaps he could understand – not for intel, though he supposed he could couch it in such terms, but simply for knowledge.
“Cadmus,” Durak Rask answered from the wall of Magma City, locating his now-foe with his eyes. Either could decide to fire, now, try to decapitate the enemy in a firestorm. Neither did, of course. “Why?”
Qevpilum’s mind spun, somewhat, from the question, because it was the precise question he had intended to ask his friend. “Because I am loyal,” he eventually said. “Because I fight for the Imperium, and that has not changed. It is you that I should be asking – why? Why betray the Great Crusade and everything we fought for?”
“I follow Mortarion,” Rask said, “as always. And I fight against tyranny, as I always have. Against blind religion, and against those that would order planets destroyed for one false word, and against darkest sorcery. Against unnecessary atrocity, in sum. We have done enough damage as it is, in the Crusade, when it was to unite humanity against greater threats. Now, your loyal Legions battle for the Emperor – but against every idea of the Imperium.”
“We fight for progress!” Qevpilum exclaimed. “As we always have. Perhaps some have taken the destruction too far, yes. The Twelfth and Eighth in particular have always had such a tendency. But our cause is to lift the human race to new heights. Our warpcraft is merely another frontier of science. And religion – you know well the majesty of Primarchs, Rask. And the Emperor is as far above them as our fathers are above us. What is he, if not a god?”
“A tyrant,” Rask quietly said. “A monster. The sort of being we fought on Crusade, but with more power by orders of magnitude. But the worth of leaders is not primarily determined by power.”
Qevpilum’s head was shaking, even more, from incomprehension. He had expected the loyalty to Mortarion, perhaps, but certainly not the devotion and conviction. The Primarchs were rebelling in a moment of convenient weakness, not simply because they were misguided – right? They were beyond such errors, after all. Or should have been, at least.
But Qevpilum allowed, too, a glimmer of hope. Perhaps his friend could yet be convinced to negotiate.
“We’re all monsters, of a certain type,” Qevpilum said. “We’re all soldiers, after all.”
“But that can only be redeemed by fighting for ideals. For something more important than the lives we end. And a single being, no matter how wise or strong, cannot be that.”
“We fought for the future,” Qevpilum explained. “For a new golden age. That was my ideal. And your rebellion is likely to break the Imperium, to at most shatter humanity back into Old Night. To counter the Crusade.”
“And that is better than the Emperor’s tyranny would be,” Rask insisted.
“And what was before, that was not tyranny, then? We burned worlds too, and your Legion especially has often been accused of atrocity.” They were arguing in circles, it felt like.
“We killed when necessary,” Rask said, “like any Legion. But the Emperor’s rule, on worlds already integrated – such as Mars – was always an understanding one. And now, he has lost his last connections to the people he rules, and fallen back on godhood.”
“And the rule of anarchy, will that be preferable?” Qevpilum asked. “A billion warlords, will that be better? And the knowledge, the technology, that we have painstakingly begun to recover over the course of the Imperium, will be lost. The new dark age will be darker than the last one. Or do you deny that there will be one?”
“There might,” Rask admitted. “But humanity will rise again, as it always has. And sooner or later, dips are inevitable. No doubt, there will come a new dusk – hour infernal. But such is the cycle of our rust. Such, our arc eternal.”
“So you will burn it all,” Qevpilum said, understanding coming along with bile deep in his throat. “Then I have no more to say, brother.”
“And you surrendered choice for faith,” Rask retorted. “Farewell.”
Rask cut the link before Qevpilum could respond. For a second the centurion was silent, contemplating Rask’s movement along the parapet, and then a rocket fell on the boulder of scrap metal he had been standing on.
He was thrown off, barely avoiding another rocket. He could barely process what had happened, hurtling through the air, but it was clear enough: Rask had ordered him to be targeted.
He landed lying down, skidding head-first away from the shield. Rask was still there, on the wall, solemnly watching.
“Brother-Centurion?” Hemcasi voxed. “Should we target the visible Death Guard?”
“No,” Qevpilum said, scrambling for the bunker. He would make it; Rask had stopped firing. “Not this time.”
|07-17-16 05:53 PM|
Sabik Wayland, former Iron Father of the Iron Hands Legion, stood armorless in the rune-inscribed chamber, looking on the shattered body of Guardian Semyon.
“I won’t survive this,” Semyon stated, confirming what Wayland had already suspected. “I’m held conscious by short-acting chemicals, right now. Still, I believe even you Astartes would consider that a worthy end.”
“Most certainly,” Wayland said, bowing his head. “Primarchs have had dimmer falls.”
“We won after all,” Semyon said with a chuckle that was most unlike him. “The Dragon remains imprisoned. And I have a few secrets to pass on, before omega point.”
“A data wafer?” Wayland was curious, despite everything. Despite his place in the Legion being lost, as part of Semyon’s grand plan.
He suspected Ferrus Manus might, if plans were optimally executed, welcome him back, if he knew that Wayland had pretended to die in order to aid Semyon’s defense. Only he did not quite want to go back to the Legion. It had changed, the last year, mutated into something altogether different. He did not want to betray his Primarch and his Emperor, but Chaos was more madness than progress. It had twisted Branthan and his Ethereal Hands, and though Ferrus was attempting to keep a lid on it, Wayland doubted even the Primarch could manage such a deed. He was not even sure of the Emperor.
There was a different hue to everything the Legion had done since embracing religion, and it was not a hue Wayland could quite define. Perhaps that was why he could not accept it, either. Others did not have the same problem; perhaps he had joined Semyon because the Guardian, despite everything, did.
“No, speech first,” the Guardian said, still smiling. “There are data where archiving would have been an excessive risk.”
Wayland nodded. He supposed he was to pass the data on to the next Guardian, whoever they were.
“Declaration: The Dragon is half of a god,” Semyon said, switching to the binary language of Mars, a more efficient language than Gothic. “Explanation: Long ago, a few-numbered race of extremely powerful xenos, who fed on vast quantities of energy, were broken into pieces after losing a war. Fear: If they were to reunite, each might be no weaker than the Emperor.”
“Query: Why were those xenos not simply destroyed?”
“Confusion: I had assumed it was impossible, but some information indicates it is feasible. Hypothesis: Destroying a xenos or shard might lead to unknown, severe consequences.”
“Explanation: The Dragon is the most powerful of its parent xeno’s shards, and was imprisoned here by the Emperor. Declaration: The Order was correct in that it assisted Martian technical progress, but not in why. Explanation: The Dragon is malevolent, and seeks to be freed.”
“Comprehension.” All of that seemed, thus far, fairly intuitive.
“Curse: The Dragon is not the only shard of its parent xeno. Explanation: The silver arms of your gene-father are another, weaker shard. Fear: If Ferrus Manus’s mind is weak, the shard will seek to possess Ferrus’s mind.”
“Comprehension,” Wayland said, though he was far from it.
Ferrus’s arms – Asirnoth – that had been but another shard. One that would seek to reunite with the Dragon of Mars, perhaps. One that desired to kill his gene-father and take his body, just like the forces of Chaos. Ferrus was doomed twice over.
“Intent: We must warn Ferrus.”
“Disagreement: We must not. Explanation: If Ferrus even suspects, his resolve will be lost, and his loss more certain and earlier.”
“Affirmative.” There was no escape for Ferrus. Just as there was none for Wayland. The truth was a heavy burden, sometimes, but it had never weighed on Wayland quite like this.
Because, he knew, despite all of what Semyon had said, that Chaos was an even greater threat than the Dragon to his Primarch’s mind.
“Declaration: The Dragon is not the darkest secret in the heart of Mars,” Semyon continued. “Explanation: Some things, I dare not say, and you must discover for yourself.”
With those words, something finally combined. “Query: Do you intend me to be the next Guardian of the Dragon?”
“Affirmative,” Semyon answered. “Explanation: I needed a transhuman not loyal to the Order or to Chaos, with sufficient intelligence and lore. Hope: This data wafer should be enough to begin, plugged into yourself.”
Wayland took the wafer from Semyon’s trembling mechatendril.
“Memory: I was the Guardian of the Dragon for over three millennia,” Semyon said, a bit of white noise seeping into his statements. “Hope: You may well surpass my tenure, if Mars survives long enough. Recommendation: Do not reveal any of this to anyone, of course, and position yourself simply as the new Guardian. Explanation: With the resources of my forge, it will not be overly difficult to turn enough of yourself into iron to prevent Ferrus identifying you.”
“Comprehension.” That, Wayland would do eagerly.
It was a final turn away from his Primarch and Legion, of course, but he had a greater duty now. And duty was what being an Astarte was about, was it not?
Sabik Wayland plugged the wafer into his shoulder, and all at once, he understood the layout of the complex, and a million linked, tiny secrets of Noctis Labyrinthus. Primed by Semyon’s speech, he saw many of those details in an utterly different light, a deeper and brighter layer of what the Grand Lie of Mars, and other Labyrinthine secrets, truly were.
A mere data wafer could do this. Truly, this place was a wonder, a relic of the Golden Age of Technology.
And it was being left to him, because there was no one else.
Semyon smiled wider, and Wayland could even hear the ragged mechanical breathing.
“Greeting: Welcome… to… Noctis Labirynthus,” Adept Semyon stated, “Guardian of the Dragon.”
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