“I guess the assassins messed up somehow,” Loken said. “The Mechanicum models say we’ve caught almost all of them.”
Abaddon shrugged. “They bit off more than they could chew.”
“You say that metaphorically,” Torgaddon observed, “but my power armor still has scratches from when one of them tried it for real.”
“That was an Ork,” Loken interjected.
“I’m almost certain it was, in fact, an assassin disguised as an Ork.”
Loken threw up his hands in frustration as Abaddon laughed. Aximand only slightly smiled; the levity was getting to him, but he still worried that it was misplaced. The Callidus assassins had more or less rolled over; clearly the Emperor hadn’t sent his best into this mission. Why was a completely different question.
He’d let the Warmaster worry about that, though.
The Mournival was meeting in one of the vast hallways of the Vengeful Spirit
, walking through the less grandiose parts of the Sons of Horus’ flagship. The meeting had somewhat degenerated, however, because it was too late for the Council of Catachan to achieve anything truly new, but too early to discuss future assignments. The next two weeks would be filled with bureaucracy, and then it would be back to a war of annihilation.
Aximand suspected the Sixteenth Legion had been sent to Catachan so that Horus could teach his sons some level of politics. It hadn’t worked very well. True, Abaddon had become somewhat less blunt , and Loken more open; but it wasn’t as if either of them were actually trying to act rather than react. Aximand himself was more interested in the Eldar, and the possibility of finally earning diplomatic relations with a major xeno race. Of course, that did rather destabilize the very concept of the Great Crusade….
Torgaddon, by contrast, had recovered well from his earlier disorientation to become an actual political force. The Second Captain’s nature suited it, perhaps, but Aximand could swear Torgaddon had never been quite so manipulative with his jokes before. But even that melted away among brothers; the Sons of Horus emphatically avoided scheming against each other. Then again, Horus would have to be mad to try and change that.
“Little Horus?” Abaddon asked, and Aximand realized he had been distracted for the conversation.
“What do you think about the – wait. Vox from Maloghurst.”
There was a burst of static, and then the voice of the Primarch’s equerry – the man known as the Twisted, who took the title as a compliment. “Lupercal in danger,” Maloghurst said. “Get to him – Owebor Statuary, near your position. Assassination attempt.”
The Mournival began their sprint immediately. “Is this from the Librarius?” Loken asked.
“I’m unable to contact them. This is from a convergence in threat lines. The Mechanicum refuse to see it because it doesn’t match their models, but Horus’ life is threatened.”
For a moment Horus Aximand had doubts; but then the Mournival burst into the Owebor halls, and it became obvious Maloghurst was right.
There were no statues in the statuary. Instead, men and women in black bodysuits, polymorphine obviously coursing in their veins, mobbed the Warmaster, doing their best to drag him down. Horus fought without a weapon, throwing the assassins into the bulkheads with his bare hands.
The Mournival were not unarmed; there was a reason Maloghurst had contacted them, after all. Not their battle weapons, ceremonial arms, but perfectly functional nonetheless. Abaddon carved into assassins with crackling lightning claws. Torgaddon and Loken wielded powerswords, glimmering with silver light in the darkened room. And Aximand’s chainmace, a unique combination of criss-crossing spinning rings, sprung into fury.
He smashed aside the assassins, but the Warmaster was far away, and being backed towards a corner. From the corner of his eye, Aximand noticed that Abaddon was making good headway towards the Primarch; and then one who could actually fight came up before Aximand, and with that long-term delay.
Aximand aimed his weapon at the assassin’s head, but of course he/she (it was impossible to tell even which the Callidus was at the moment, much less what was the assassin’s original state) transmuted that head, flowing out of the way. Aximand continued the swing downwards, but before he could finish it a stray air current warned him of enemies behind. The Space Marine spun while wrenching the chainmace in an arc, almost accidentally knocking away another assailant’s sword. The enemy he’d felt earlier, surprised, was simultaneously crushed and torn apart, becoming paste; but by this point Assassin One had fully recovered, and plunged a probably-poisoned dagger into Aximand’s knee.
The centrifugal force of his spin threw the dagger, and the assassin, off a moment later, with the dagger having penetrated only about halfway through the armor. Looking around, Aximand noted between moments that Loken and Torgaddon were fighting back-to-back, exchanging quips as they did; but there was no chance of Aximand doing likewise with Abaddon, because the First Captain had advanced so fast in his desperation to reach the Primarch, who himself fought on.
They were winning. These assassins were infiltrators, not warriors; they had failed to kill Horus Lupercal immediately upon revealing themselves, even en masse, and they were unlikely to do so now. But if they had so successfully escaped detection, more easily could.
From now on, Aximand suspected, the Imperium of Man would have excellent information on the actions of the Coalition. Psykers existed, of course, but their attempts to pry into the Callidus riddle had always been frustrated, for unknown reasons. Did polymorphine interfere with the Warp in some unfortunate way?
He walked toward Lupercal, well-aware of how welcome this moment of respite was; and then Assassin One was on him again, extending a tendril into Aximand’s boot. The Son of Horus smashed his mace down, grinding off the limb. It stayed there –
And then it flew from Aximand’s hands, as Assassin One’s arm retracted to its original position with the weapon. A blow from behind; he kicked that assailant off, running towards A-One. He/she dropped the stolen weapon (his/her right hand a mess of scars from that grab, which really shouldn’t have been able to work) and gasped, eyes widening in alarm. With an Astarte barreling at them, even Assassin One froze up.
Only an instant of hesitation; but long enough for Aximand to jump at him/her, grapple him/her to the floor, and simultaneously squeeze his/her head off his/her body. He picked up the chainmace in one further motion, sweeping it to crush another one’s legs, and then took off towards Lupercal.
He wasn’t fast enough.
From the many-folded walls, a monster leapt into the center of the melee. A human monster, not severely misshapen; a photograph of this moment would barely even notice him. But his very presence caused pain to flare in Aximand’s forehead.
He held a golden sword that shone with runes of power. His left hand was outstretched, a shining ultraviolet skull held aloft; the significance of that, Aximand did not know. He wore a black bodyglove, and his long hair, striped black and white, swept behind him.
Even the Callidus assassins recoiled, the utter anti-psychic field a terrible assault on their minds. Torgaddon and Loken sagged to their knees, whereas Aximand himself felt the cold floor on his face. (When had he fallen? Did it matter?) Yet he still saw, barely, that Horus was toppling backward, eyes closed, before a single blow had been struck. Ezekyle Abaddon, despite all odds, remained standing, though evidently not with ease.
The pain grew, but Aximand managed to crawl onto all fours. Loken was even more severely affected. Torgaddon stood over his unconscious body, prepared to fend off the assassins that did not come. The battle had stopped. The only one that was truly unaffected by the Culexus was the Culexus himself.
That monster flew toward Horus, and Aximand’s eyes widened as he felt the aura of that weapon. (He was no psyker, he knew, but somehow the sword – the anatheme
– got through even to him.) It was a fragment of the time of ending, a position where the eternal died and the ephemereal stretched into eonal tones. A nightmare of collapsing towers.
“The battlefield recedes,” Loken muttered, “you blink: What happened here? What happened was, on this pink day, a sample mere.”
The assassin thrust his sword forwards, aiming for Horus’ heart. And then Ezekyle Abaddon was there, screaming in pain from the proximity to the Culexus. (The Callidus were already starting to recover; why such an end?) The anatheme hit Abaddon’s right shoulder, sinking slightly into it, and then the Culexus landed, slamming the First Captain of the Sons of Horus into the ground. The hall rang in mourning.
The Culexus pressed, and Ezekyle Abaddon’s right hand skid across the floor, the first casualty of a blade that could fell a Primarch.
Abaddon slumped, his breath spent, destroyed by a blow meant to kill Lupercal himself. Horus Aximand stood up, only barely in time to elbow away a Callidus; but there were too many others. The Warmaster, meanwhile, raised himself once more, but his eyes were still closed, and though his face was contorted in fury, it was also contorted in pain.
Loken rattled on, speech rushing faster and faster but remaining perfectly coherent and even comprehensible. Nonsensical, of course, but still. “A monstrous, evolving, consuming and alien sentience; still coexistence. The presence of sapience, maybe, and also the goal of corruption? Regret is the water; the plant is redemption. Monstrosity is independent of time and morality’s mantle. The pure incarnation of entropy’s promise, though forged in defiance. And yet if we cannot communicate, enemies horrid. A wormhole, a planet of cities but only a single such world in a giant republic. And heroes, they come to the time of their essence. Collision. But never. I won’t say the future. I’ll never explain it. For foresight is evil – he said that himself, the ideal of humanity, fallen, unfallen, are they not the same in the wake of apocalypse?”
Loken spoke on, but by that point the words were too fast even for Aximand’s hearing. So he looked, instead, to the Culexus, who was raising the anatheme for a final stab –
A whirlwind of garnet and gold smashed through the wall, and a spinning Sanguinius slammed a speartip into the assassin’s back.
The Blood Angels’ Primarch landed, raising his spear, on which the Imperium’s finest was impaled.
The black skull and anatheme dropped out of his hands, falling, unbroken, onto the floor.
And the world was covered in platinum light.
Moonlight, stardust. The lamps above twinkled. A wall of white fire, searing the Callidus’ flesh from their bones; Aximand barely noticed it rush past. Calm compassion, combined with spiritual fury. Unity. More than that – humanity.
In the center of it all, Horus Lupercal, Warmaster of the Coalition, stood, eyes frozen fire. Next to him was Sanguinius, an angel at the side of a god.
Aximand did not understand, and he knew that, if anyone asked him the next day, he would at best describe these moments in incoherent mumbling. But he knew he felt at peace, not simply with the universe, but with truth. The snow-like flames reached the room’s walls and faded into the greater brilliance.
And then a tendril of molten sky swept from Horus’ hands at the black skull and punched into it. For a moment, there was nothing, and then the skull was gone, as was the platinum glow and the rest of the power-figment. There was only the Owebor statuary (bereft of its statues), two conscious Sons of Horus, one unconscious, one possibly dead, and two Primarchs in the center of it all.
“You could’ve kept the skull,” Sanguinius observed. “Battle.”
“Corruption,” Horus answered. “Probably. And more certainly, I am not divine.”
that?” Aximand inquired.
“A psychic amplifier,” Lupercal said. “The Culexus are mighty weapons against those with psychic potential; but the potential of most humans is weak. The skull increased the psychic abilities of its surroundings – abilities which could not be used, because the pariah’s anti-psychic powers were also vastly inflated. Until, of course, Sanguinius speared him.”
“So that power is gone,” Aximand said. “Dependent on a destroyed artifact.”
“No,” Sanguinius answered. “That power is part of Horus, but indirectly.”
“Primarch metaphysics,” Horus said. “Even I don’t get it.”
Sanguinius grinned. “If you think I do….”
Aximand nodded, but it still felt, to him, improper to laugh when the assassination attempt had in fact, claimed one casualty with that Primarch-slaying sword. Torgaddon evidently felt the same. “And Ezekyle?” he asked, having finally shaken Loken half-awake.
“Almost conscious,” Lupercal said, and the knot in Aximand’s soul dissolved. They had made it. Somehow, they had all made it, and the Mournival remained unaltered.
Only a few seconds later, as the Sanguiniary Guard ran into the hall, Abaddon’s eyes opened.
“So,” he asked, blinking. “What happened here?”
“What happened was,” Sanguinius said, “on this pink day, a sample mere.”