“When the traitor’s hand strikes, it strikes with the strength of a legion,” ~attributed to Warmaster Horus Lupercal, Primarch of the XVI Legion.
“It is the great irony of the Legiones Astartes: engineered to kill to achieve a victory of peace that they can then be no part of.” ~ Roboute Guilliman, Primarch of the XIII Legion
The world’s official designation in the records of the Imperium of Man has it labelled as Heaven, but to the thirty billion citizens living on the surface of the planet, a more accurate word to describe it would be Hell. For residents on the lower levels, it is possible to go a whole lifetime without seeing the sun. For the city’s elite, the planet’s rulers – the sun isn’t even considered a luxury for them. But the world below their very feet is a different matter, and Captain Nero Maxar knew that this was no way a world conquered by the XIII Legion should be ruled.
The Imperial Governor had neglected his duties during the time that Maxar had been away. Once, Nero viewed Theodore as a young, brave and noble man – but fifteen years could change many things, and the inspirational figure that Maxar had seen before departing to aid his brothers had now become corrupt, and unfit to rule.
But the Imperial Governor was not the reason why Nero Maxar and his company had been called back to Heaven, a name that should have been changed long ago by the Imperium of Man, mostly for its religious connections. But the Captain of the 5th Chapter, 17th company was not here to do either of those things. He was there He was here to make sure that the world was defended whilst the final touches of the planetary defence grid were put into place.
It was his Company’s duty, along with two squads of Terminators and a Dreadnought from the first, to watch the sea of stars for xenos incursions. And so far, there had been nothing. No aliens, no pirates, not even traders come to exchange their materials with this particular planet. Which wasn’t unusual, of course. Maxar had heard of worlds that had gone millennia without invasion, Terra being the prime case. Whilst it was, admittedly, rare, it was not unknown. In the small, unfinished star fort that hung in the stars above Heaven, Maxar was currently in the training rooms of all places. Simulation.
He had a feeling that this was the calm before the storm. The storm would come, and when it came, the Astartes vowed that he would be ready. Eldar, Orks... Pirates...
There was nothing out there that Maxar could be afraid of. He faced everything before, and in most cases, multiple times. Right now, he was observing a simulation of what would happen if an Ork horde descended on Heaven. The star fort Heaven’s Guardian still did have some weapons that could be brought to the fight, and the hangers had been completed allowing for Thunderhawk boarding squads to take the xenos by surprise.
He watched and observed the simulation. Ultramarine gunships, painted all in blue, took the fight to the greenskin xenos, disengaging his noble warriors on the invasion flotilla. He watched them storm the various ships, doing battle against an enemy that far outnumbered their own, and emerging victorious in the way that war should be fought.
Thunderhawk boarding squads would not be necessary though. Everything pointed to the fact that the greenskin would not wait for Thunderhawk boarding squads, and send their own xenos hordes out to the fray before Maxar could get his men out of the hanger. But that was only if Maxar didn’t want to get his men out of the hanger, for his Company had a reputation for boarding parties and were, the Captain had been told, one of the finer space combat trained companies in the Legion. Of course, just because they had a speciality for space didn’t mean that they couldn’t fight on the ground; far from it – for every Astartes – every Astartes in the XXI Legion at least, was capable of fighting in both forms of war. In all forms of war.
The simulation changed to the planet’s surface. Following planetfall, he watched his Ultramarines strike from the kill zones that they had learnt to use following a joint mission with the Iron Warriors, establishing a killing ground where the Orks would be mercilessly beaten into oblivion. Scouts would penetrate deep behind enemy lines, cutting off supply lines and denying the Orks their reinforcements, allowing the Ultramarines to surround the remaining, separated and outnumbered greenskins that still survived – and cut them down one at a time.
“It has been calculated that a defensive force lead by Captain Maxar of the XXI Legion with his company at full strength will have a ninety-nine per cent chance at victory against a greenskin invasion with-
“Enough,” declared Maxar, shutting down the AI and turning around from the simulator to watch his Champion, Quintus calmly dispatch of a third training servitor in the same hour on the main room below. “Third one already?”
“These machines are no challenge, Captain,” replied Quintus, turning his head around to his commander and removing his helmet. “Three months. No attack. No nothing. I feel like there’s a big war somewhere that we’re missing out on.”
“Then we can join it once this station is completed, Quintus,” Maxar said, before turning back to the machine. “Have you tried improving the difficultly settings?”
“Yes. Yet still, they get beaten.”
Then the alarms promptly burst into life, wailing throughout the entire Battle Station, and Maxar saw Quintus’ smile broaden. “Battle stations,” Captain Maxar announced to the twelve or so Astartes currently in this particular training room. “It seems we have something to fight.”
“Lord, we have an anomaly,” a white, shaven-haired, male human serf in his late forties turned to face the blue-armoured warriors that stood more than twice his size as they marched into the room. “This ship has just translated in system. It designates as The Winter’s End
. It belongs to the Emperor’s Children.”
“The Emperor’s Children?” Quintus said with a frown, observing the holographic of the strike cruiser before continuing. “They haven’t got any Companies in this sector.”
“The ship also appears to have no life forms on board, Lord,” the man continued, and then corrected himself, somewhat nervously – informing Maxar that he’d never encountered an Astartes before. “Lords. I beg your pardon.”
“I am not a lord, human,” Maxar said calmly. “I am a Captain. There is a difference. And Quintus is the Company’s Champion. You will address me as Captain in the future.”
“Yes, my – I mean, Captain,” the serf responded, clearing his throat. “My apologies. My name is Gerrad Shan."
“No life forms on board? This is interesting. Where’s the nearest fleet containing the third Legion?”
“Three systems away, Captain,” Shan explained. “The Dagroth Moons. Emperor’s Children Fourth Company are reportedly engaged in action with Eldar Pirates. They call themselves the Dark Eldar.”
“Whatever they call themselves, they’re still xenos,” this was from Quintus. “We could check the ship’s log. Send over a boarding party.”
“This could be some sort of trap, Captain. Xenos could have sabotaged the vessel... if it is destroyed in orbit now, it will wreak havoc with our defence grid and leave the planet vulnerable to attack,” informed another member of his command squad, the proud Julius Archemidus.
“Or, we could simply send out a communication through vox-link,” the Captain replied, frowning, before adding, “Are the alarms going to be raised every time a ship translates in-system?”
“Only if it poses a threat, Captain. I will see that the protocols are amended so that the appearances of Astartes ships in the system do no raise any alarms.”
“Do it, I will contact that ship. Get a serf to send a message to our cousins in The Dagroth Moons and inform them if they know of our wayward ship and what it is doing here.”
The Commander of the seventeenth company stalked across the main room, past several serfs at communications to the observation deck, which gave all figures present a view of not only the sea of stars, but also – their latest arrival. The Winter’s End
. A ghost ship? No life forms were displaying on board, and it was not unknown for ships to have trouble translating into the warp. Maybe a large amount of Fulgrim’s sons had been making their way to reinforce the contingent at the Dagroth Moons and had suffered from a warp accident. Like worlds escaping millennia without invasion, this was not unheard of. But for a Battle Brother who had served the Imperium loyally to be so dishonourably destroyed, without even a hope of survival? It was a fate that Captain Maxar did not want to happen to him, and he’d be damned if he allowed himself to die without even seeing the face of his killer. Not waiting a second later, Maxar opened the vox-link to The Winter’s End
, and contacted the seemingly empty battleship. “This is Captain Maxar of the fifth chapter, seventeenth company of the XXI Legion contacting any Emperor’s Children on board the Winter’s End. Make some response if you can hear my voice, cousins. Is anybody there?”
He waited for a few moments, listening to the static with growing disappointment as he raised them on the vox again. “I repeat, make some response if you can hear my voice. I am Captain Maxar of the Ultramarines... Is anybody there?”
Silence was all that greeted him. Grimacing, Maxar turned to his fellow Astartes and said, “It looks like we’re taking the more direct approach.”
Three hours after the first sighting of The Winter’s End
, The engines of the Ultramarines Thunderhawk bearing the designation Macragge’s Justice
gave a deep hiss as its expert pilots lowered the machine into the hanger of the purple-coloured spaceship. There was of course, evidence of two other mighty craft in the hanger itself. Two belonged to the Emperor’s Children. The third on the other hand... “What would a lone Alpha Legion vessel be doing with Fulgrim’s sons?”
“I am not privy to such information, Quintus. If I knew, then rest assured – you shall be the first to know,” Archemidus informed him as the Thunderhawk descended. The Command Squad had been outfitted with full armour for this boarding mission, and once they were on board, co-ordinates would be established so they could bring in the squad of Terminator astartes in for backup. Just because it bore the heraldry of an Emperor’s Children battle barge, did not mean that it had to be occupied by a member of the Third Legion.
The Five Astartes on board Macragge’s Justice
descended down the boarding ramp and out onto the hanger unopposed, but still... there was nobody there. There was an eerie sense of silence hanging over the craft, and Maxar got the feeling that he didn’t belong here. He was far more used to standing watchful over Heaven’s Guardian and it had felt like a long time he had lead a boarding mission. But nonetheless, after the months of constant training and the scouting of the planet’s surface, Maxar felt that he could do this just as well as an Astartes that had been fighting on board a ship yesterday. They were, after all – The Seventeenth Company. They were Ultramarines.
And they knew no fear.
So what on The Winter’s End
could possibly surprise these veteran warriors? What had caused an Emperor’s Children spaceship to randomly translate out of warp space with no recorded life forms? There were so many questions, and so little answers. Everything about The Winter’s End seemed to be pointing to the fact that it was an older Strike Cruiser that had no doubt seen many battles in the Imperium’s name. “Garrus, Lexon, guard the Thunderhawk. Quintus, Archemidus, with me."
The responses were all affirmative, and they set off without further delay in an arrowhead formation, Maxar leading with his bolter raised. He hoped he wouldn’t have to fire any shots today – not in a ship belonging to one of his fellow legions. By all accounts, he shouldn’t need to.
But was this the end of the calm? How long would it be before the storm clouds opened over Heaven? Would they open over Heaven?
The answer was unknown, and Maxar hoped that he would find out sooner or later. One thing he shared in common with many of his company was just sitting there, doing nothing important, whilst the Great Crusade continued apace. It would not wait for him, and for the tiniest of seconds, he wondered what would happen if it finished before he got the chance to rejoin it.
What would happen to warriors in a universe where there is no need for them? There will always be need for Astartes, was normally the answer to that question. Even just as glorified policing forces in the Imperium at large.
It didn’t take long for the Ultramarines to reach the bridge, as they encountered little resistance and had the benefit of not having any enemies to slow them down. They weren’t used to this sort of thing, embarking on a boarding mission where there was not just any resistance, but also there was no life form on board. No matter how much they searched the ship... there was nothing.
That was what unnerved the captain of the seventeenth. What horrible fate had befallen his cousins in the third legion? There were no signs of a fight when they reached the bridge, no signs of anything that screamed trap. He’d walked into an ambush before, one that had cost the lives of twelve of his brothers, and he vowed that for the rest of his career as an Ultramarine, he would never lead men to their deaths in one again. No self-respecting warrior deserved to meet their fate without seeing the face of one who had killed them. It was just... not right.
“Captain!” Archemidus said, addressing his commander from the other side of the bridge. His two battle brothers had not been idle whilst he was observing the room, and he didn’t expect anything less of them. “These work stations... they’re all still active. Whatever happened here, the crew didn’t shut them off. And I don’t know about you but this... this feels wrong. As if we shouldn’t be here.”
“I know what you mean,” replied Quintus before Maxar could speak. “Has anyone encountered anything like this before?”
“I don’t recall any similar encounters such as this, no,” Maxar said. “The ships log will tell us what we need to know.”
A moment passed where nobody spoke, only searched the room. It didn’t take them long to find the log, a single data slate with options for an enhanced holographic video display near the captain’s main chair. A human captain’s chair, of course – it was too small for an Astartes one. Maxar typed in a few commands, but before he could get any further, something dropped on his shoulder. Recognising it instantly as blood, Maxar turned his bolter upwards at the source. There was something on the roof of the bridge that he couldn’t identify. “Archemidus! Flamethrower!”
Archemidus handed his Captain a flamethrower, that was seemingly just lying there. Astartes issue, Emperor’s Children colours. Something was clearly wrong, and Maxar had a feeling that he was about to uncover the root of the problem. A short burst of fire to the roof above caused the problem to erupt into potentially life-changing solutions. The blood-covered ceiling contained not only one message, but also...
“No...” the realisation of what the message meant shocked the Captain of the seventeenth company to his very core. He had never, in all his entire life, expected to find this on board the Emperor’s Children strike cruiser. Five words, written in blood, changed the course of Maxar’s life forever -
DEATH TO THE FALSE EMPEROR!
And underneath those words, also in blood – was the symbol of the Emperor’s Children. “Captain!” sudden realisation dawned Archemidus he was also starting to take into account the situation on board. “Life signs detected on board! Five... Ten... Fifteen.... They’re fellow Astartes! All over the ship. Emperor’s Children!”
Maxar wasted no time in leaping into action. “We need to get back to the Thunderhawk. Warn Garrus and Lexon. The Emperor’s Children... The Emperor’s Children may be hostile.”
A moments silence greeted those words. An Astartes, betray the Emperor? Such an idea was unthinkable, surely. Nobody in their right mind would ever turn their back on the Imperium of Man, and... if such a betrayal had come from The Emperor’s Children? If the message was not written by some alien attempting to cause infighting between two Legions, of course. But then, how would that explain the fact that the Emperor’s Children had just teleported onboard? How? “Captain,” Archemidus responded after a moments of vox-communication. “The vox-links are down. I can’t contact the Thunderhawk.”
“That is because there is no Thunderhawk,” a voice said from behind Maxar. Turning around, he watched a fully armoured, sword and bolt-pistol wielding member of the Emperor’s Children. Someone who Maxar didn’t recognise. A... traitor? “And Garrus and Lexon are no longer among the living.”
“Tell me that this is a mistake, Cousin,” Maxar returned. “Tell me you didn’t...”
“I did,” the warrior of the Emperor’s Children said, and although his helmet was on, Maxar could tell he was smiling underneath. “Or... I didn’t, but my men did. I am Jeras Klynor, Fifteenth Captain of the Emperor’s Children. You will be no match for my blade, Captain Maxar. I can assure you that you will not escape this ship.”
“Why? Why do this? Why would you turn against your fellow legionaries?” this was from Quintus, who was advancing, weapons raised.
How had it come to this?
“Because our Primarch instructed us to,” Klynor smiled. ‘No... Lord Fulgrim? Turn against the Emperor? This must be madness.’
Maxar couldn’t hold back his anger then, and unsheathed his sword. “You dare accuse your Primarch of treachery! What madness is this?”
“It is not madness,” assured Klynor. “It is, quite simply... the truth. And he is not the only Primarchs to forsake their oaths in the Emperor. Magnus, Alpharius, Angron, Mortarion, Perturabo... Lorgar. This universe is not one that you know, Maxar. We have been keeping your Company in the dark for months. A blockade. Any ship that tries to enter Heaven gets blown to smithereens by our fleet. You see, Captain – this is the Long Game.”
Maxar couldn’t speak. Until Quintus voiced his opinions. “I thought that the Emperor’s Children were always ones for the direct approach?”
“We had some... outside assistance,” Klynor admitted, but refused to go into more depth. “Now, Captain Maxar. You are outnumbered, surrounded on all sides with no hope of contacting reinforcements. If you were to... say, rebuke your faith in the False Emperor, then I might consider allowing you to live.”
“You’re going to have to kill me first,” replied Maxar, snarling, and lashed out with his sword, only to find his attack easily parried by Klynor’s own blade. The man was clearly a superior swordsman, Maxar began to realise with reluctance. They not only had the advantage of numbers, but also – of skill. “Archemidus! Use that flamethrower! Keep an entrance clean. Quintus, cover the other side. I’ll deal with this traitor!”
“I don’t think you will,” Klynor taunted, parrying another attack from the Ultramarine. “I have been holding back so far, cousin, can you say the same?”
“You lost the right to call me cousin when you betrayed your oaths in the Emperor,” Maxar declared, and through his HUD, he was informed that there were three enemies approaching the bridge on the left corridor, the one which Quintus was covering, whilst three were making their way down the right. Emperor’s Children. The enemy.
How had it come to this?
“The Emperor,” Klynor spat, adopting the offensive for the first time, forcing Maxar to become more conservative with his attacks, dropping back, deflecting – now he was starting to get a full idea as to what the Captain was capable of. “Betrayed us first.”
Maxar was pushed back across the bridge, thankful that Klynor was the only traitor in the room. Watching his brothers fight their own battles with pride, that pride changed to horror as a snarling beast was caught bounding its way down the corridors towards Archemidus, pushing aside his own enemies in an attempt to reach his prey.
Archemidus managed to resist the onslaught of what would later become known as a Possessed Astartes, fuelled by the unholy gifts that the ruinous powers had to offer, for a total of five minutes. That was all it took for the purple-skinned abomination that still wore chunks of its Astartes armour to overwhelm one of the finest fighters in the seventeenth company. He even managed to set the beast alight, but it had continued anyway, full of anger, flame and fury.
Maxar couldn’t watch when the animal, for no other word could aptly describe it, ripped apart his battle-brother’s armour and tore with a relentless thirst at the geneseed inside. He was wrong. Dying without seeing your enemy was not the worst way to die.
“What have you done?” Maxar exclaimed at Klynor, not having time to mourn Archemidus’ death, realising that it now left Quintus, who was still fighting, alone and heavily outnumbered. It would not be long before he died, too.
And then Maxar would be the only one left.
“I have done nothing, Captain,” replied Klynor, taking off his helmet to show Maxar what had become of his face. It was still recognisable as an Astartes face, but only just. What Maxar’s eyes saw was a horribly mutated, deformed flesh that no Astartes should ever have the right to be subjected to. “I have achieved... perfection. And now, you – my friend. Will pay the price of rejecting my offer. But before you die... there is something you should know. Two things, in fact.”
“The first is that our fathers are defeatable. The loyalist ones are mortal, and therefore – they can be killed. The Iron Hands leader... Ferrus Manus. Lies dead. Decapitated by his brother, and my father. Lord Fulgrim killed Ferrus Manus.”
“No... he can’t be. Ferrus Manus can’t be dead.”
“And know this, as well. Emperor’s Children operatives, assisted by members of the Alpha Legion, are deep striking into various parts around the planet, completely bypassing your orbital defences. All we needed was a distraction, and The Winter’s End provided us with one. Whilst the eyes of Heaven are turned skyward, we will strike. For the Emperor. The True Emperor.”
Maxar blanched. Could that mean that they were planning to kill the Master of Mankind? Could the rebellion go that far? He said the last two words with open distaste, and Klynor revelled in it. “Who, then. Is this True Emperor? Who has the power to dethrone the father of Mankind?”
. The Warmaster. He will lead our forces to Terra and there we will drag the false Emperor from his throne and show the fools that they put their faith in nothing more than a madman and a fool,” Klynor smiled, the helmet that Maxar still wore denying him the pleasure of taking into account the shocked face of the Adeptus Astartes. “But that is not what matters now. The Alpha Legion have been busy of course, planting operatives in your legion. Yes, that is right. The Ultramarines have been infiltrated. Some of your brothers are no longer... your brothers.”
The clear sound of a teleport could be heard from behind Maxar, and he turned, dreading what he might find behind him. As it turned out, he only managed to get two words out. “Lexon... Why?”
“I never was Lexon,” the traitor replied, his helmet off so Maxar could see the taunting smile on his face. “I am, of course – Alpharius. But Before you die, I think you have the right to know that Garrus remained loyal to the very end. Truly. I offered him allegiance but he denied... so I took the utmost pleasure in killing him. And now, I shall kill you.”
Maxar couldn’t move. He was rooted to the spot, shell shocked, giving Lexon all the time that he needed to slit his temporary commander’s throat with his blade, piercing the armour and ending Maxar’s life in one swift blow.
The Winter’s End
was back under Emperor’s Children control. And they had held all the cards. If the world below them had not fallen, it would soon. And then, they would rejoin their legions. And set course for the Solar System.