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post #11 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-24-14, 12:40 AM
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CHAPTER TWO

Castrmen Orth looked outside the tank, and saw metal dying.

The Battle of Noachia was going worse than he had expected, though still better than anyone else had. His superheavy spearhead was doing well enough, as was the eastern flank, but the Titans of the Legio Magna had broken the Legio Jussa, one of the few Titan Legions that had stayed loyal to Terra. Magna had itself suffered massive casualties, but the central section of the chaotic battle was now in danger of being secured by the traitors, which would put the Order of the Dragon in a dominating position with control of three quarters of the planet.

The Iron Hands would have enough forces to win this war no matter how Noachia ended, but if Orth could manage to win, or at least come close to it, in Noachia, they would actually have a path towards doing so.

And that was why Strigeus was so dissatisfied.

“Twelve intact Titans, Centurion,” his lieutenant voxed from the Cyclornet. “With eight more still functional. An Emperor-Class in each category! They may be scattered, but challenging the Flaming Skulls at the moment, with the forces we have, is suicide.”

Orth looked around his Fellblade, Rashemion. The crew had heard his suggestion as well as Strigeus, and was also hesitant; but they were also grimly determined.

Superheavy tanks were potent indeed, though no match for a Titan; but superheavies crewed by Space Marines were more deadly yet. Regardless of speed and durability, the strength and agility advantage of an Astarte over a regular human was massive, and could easily be leveraged with good tank design. Rashemion had crushed many other tanks of its size during the Great Crusade thanks to that.

Now, it was time to move on to bigger prey. Orth had brought down a xeno Titan of Warhound size before, and it had been a difficult task indeed. But today they were fighting against traitors, and they would do what they had to. Besides, the forces under his command were significantly larger.

“If we don’t face Magna,” he told Strigeus, “our side can’t do better than an orderly retreat. We might as well propose, and begin to execute, it now, in that case. Should I, in your opinion, do that?”

There was a pause, and then a rumble. “Very well,” Strigeus replied. “If it ends thus, then – well, it has been an honor serving under your command.” And, switching to the public channels, “For the Emperor!”

“We ride to destroy the remnants of the Titan Legio Magna, allied with the Cult of the Dragon,” Orth declared to his battalion. “The god-machines will fall. The flesh is weak, brothers! Fire and Iron!” That was the private cry of the Iron Hands’ armor, apart from the rest of the Legion: the most metal-attuned part of the most metal-attuned Legion.

“Fire and Iron!” came the echo, and fifty tanks turned towards the east, to ride across a landscape of flattened metal towards the Titans’ location.

Legio Magna was disorganized. They had crushed Jussa, but their leader, the Emperor Titan Deus Priscus, had fallen in the process. Now each Princeps chased the Iron Hands’ Army and Mechanicum support forces, and even some Iron Hand infantry, in something quite far from a battle. Perhaps one could call it a hunt, though one where the Titans were toying with their prey.

The tank battalion’s treads spun, as Orth checked whether anyone else was in position to help with the attack (they weren’t), and soon enough the first of the Titans became visible over the horizon. It was an intact Reaver; how well this went would determine whether Orth’s charge was worth it.

Orth bellowed orders, the Titan not noticing the Iron Hands in its assault on a single tech-priest, who was sufficiently small and agile to dodge the god-machine again and again as it tried to stomp him into oblivion. Smiling at the odd sight, Castrmen Orth ordered the tanks to start surrounding the Reaver.

They were within range by the time the Titan noticed them, having finally kicked the tech-priest away. He flew into the distance, though if sufficiently augmented, he would be able to survive this.

“Fire!”

Round after round punched into the Reaver’s ankle. The massive war machine replied by swiveling, but it was already on the brink of toppling – the combined fire of fifty heavy and superheavy tanks was not to be underestimated. The enemy shot went wide, digging a crater in the distance, and then the Titan skidded, and with an earth-shattering thud, fell. Pieces rolled off the machine, but Orth was already ordering the tanks to concentrate fire again, and the Titan’s head shattered. Princeps and Moderati were dead within minutes.

“The rest won’t be as easy,” Strigeus noted.

“I sure hope they won’t!” exclaimed Orius Ousautro, another of Orth’s lieutenants. Orth found it hard to disagree, though he was forced to do so. The Titan had, in any case, perfectly trapped itself, not expecting anything to attack it. As the tanks rode on, Orth considered the fact that none of the others would make that mistake. Legio Magna knew they were under assault now, and would react accordingly.

The next up were a pair of Warhounds. Unlike the Reaver, they were fully aware of the danger. A plasma bolt sped by, barely missing one of the Fellblades. The two Falchions, two of the six that the Iron Hands had on Mars, responded with a blast from their fiery Volcano Cannons. Meanwhile, the other tanks fired accordingly. Rashemion was lagging behind the rest of the group, its machine-spirit less eager than the others.

Orth grit his teeth in frustration at that. Still, even if he couldn’t participate in the fight personally, the situation allowed him to direct the spearhead. He ordered the Falchions to focus on the slightly larger Warhound, which appeared damaged; they blasted it again and again, even as it spun on its leg to avoid the shots and lay down a curtain of fire. The smaller Warhound, realizing it was outgunned, thought of retreat for a second, and leapt back, but Orth had already placed a pair of Valdors in its way. Then the larger Titan stumbled, and Orth swung a cordon of smaller tanks towards it, while the smaller was pierced by the Valdors’ neutron projectors. It screeched to a halt, but responded by sending a dozen rounds into one of the Valdors.

This was what Orth lived for. Metal against metal, for the glory of the Imperium. From iron cometh strength, the Iron Warriors said; but the Iron Hands knew that iron simply was strength. Though Orth was not currently fighting himself, he still experienced the same glorious feeling from the epic clash of enormous war machines. And he was good at it; he was the youngest of the three Spearhead-Centurions of the Iron Hands, who were collectively known as the Young Squid, for the animal that was sometimes an emblem for the Iron Hands’ armor. The others were Cadmus Qevpilum, currently commanding an expedition to find legendary archaeotech on the lost planet of Pyrrhia, and Uninen Rochaar, bogged down in eastern Noachia, besieging the forge of Magos Pyrnetius with no progress.

This specific skirmish, though, was quickly becoming a massacre. One of the Valdors exploded, but after its last lucky shot, so did the Titan it was opposing, scattering shards of metal far enough that they pattered Rashemion like hail. Meanwhile, the larger Titan, regarding which Orth had checked with Ulrach Branthan’s fleet and found out had originally been whole after all, was rent apart by volley after volley, kneeling and then collapsing.

As it got pounded completely into dust, as Orth ordered the battalion onwards, he took a tally of the losses. One Valdor, with crew, completely lost; two more tanks damaged with surviving crew. These were not losses whose level they could afford to sustain if they wanted to wipe out Magna. But it would take much less than that to turn the tide of the war. If they could even so much as halve Magna’s strength, they would have placed the Iron Hands into a position where the battle could suddenly be fully won.

The spearhead rolled on. Meanwhile, Orth checked for the overall disposition of Legio Magna. They had recognized the danger, and had organized themselves into two major groups, which were seeking to converge. If they did, Orth’s hunt would be over. Fortunately, one of the two (the one, as it happened, that did not include an Emperor Titan) was close to their positions. Eight Titans: two damaged Warlords, a damaged Reaver, three intact Warhounds, and two intact Warlords. A group they could probably eliminate, if with significant losses – less significant if they could actually bring all their forces to bear this time.

Then Tumez reported that the machine-spirit was finally awake, or put another way, the programming bug that had restricted the Rashemion’s speed had been crushed; and Orth grinned. It was no feral grin, such as that one of the Space Wolves might have shown; it was, rather, simply the certain smile of a Space Marine who knew he was where he needed to be, and would be able to crush the enemies of the Emperor like they had to be crushed.

Not too long after, at the edge of the bombed-out open terrain, before the wall of Magos Larnatie’s forge, which was abandoned but still mostly intact, Orth’s spearhead slammed into the running Titans. Forty-seven tanks, this time with their energies combined. Shots rang out, and as the Titans reoriented themselves, the Reaver almost immediately fell onto the forge wall. One down; seven left.

The scout Titans charged first, the Warlords’ guns providing cover and their long-range weapons sending deadly ammunition into the Iron Hands’ ranks. Two tanks were lost in single hits. But the Falchions responded worthily, creating a wall of fire in front of the Scout Titans that both damaged them and prevented them from moving forwards; one of the Warlords, unable to stop its charge, actually slammed into a Warhound, sending both into a precariously balanced state – before Rashemion and two other Fellblades punched into the Warhound, their accelerator cannons sufficient to crush its mobility and simultaneously send it toppling backward. Two more Titans down.

And then the battle began in earnest.

Volcano cannons against volcano cannons, mega-bolters and turbo-lasers against accelerator cannons and neutron projectors, fire against fire, metal against metal; death against death, and perfection against perfection. Orth had fought mighty xeno machinery before, but such things were fundamentally impure, nothing compared to the glory of the Mechanicum’s engines, even if they were comparable in might. Now he measured himself and his battalion against the truest mirror enemy one could find, discounting other Astartes.

And, perhaps, even counting them. For enemy Titans were far closer than most Space Marines to Orth’s mechanistic ideals.

In the hellstorm, Orth screamed out orders, even as a Warlord’s shot grazed Rashemion’s right side. The Scout Titans fell first, the smoke hiding who fired the shots that ended them. The three remaining Warlords put down huge quantities of firepower, and tanks flipped on their back from the shock wave; but that, in itself, gave Orth an idea, and a concentrated explosion sent two of the Warlords simultaneously out of balance from the same wave. They swung, trying desperately to rebalance themselves, only to get crippled and downed by the remaining tanks.

The skirmish was nearly won, with thirty-three tanks (many of them damaged) remaining of Orth’s already half-strength spearhead; but the centurion cursed as he realized what the motion he was seeing to the cupola’s back was. The final Warlord saw its head explode in fire from the Falchions, both of which had somehow miraculously survived thus far; but in the distance, close enough that there was no hope of hiding from them, nine more god-machines, the remnants of Legio Magna, approached. And at their back….

Two mountains, blotting out the sky (that part of it the smoke hadn’t yet finished off). Two kings, two legends, two dooms. Two Emperor Titans.

Orth, cursing, redeployed his spearhead as he redeployed the battalion, and sent a final ping to Branthan in orbit. Ousatro said the same.

“I meant what I said,” Strigeus observed. “It’s been a good decade under you, centurion.”

“It’s not over yet,” Orth replied. “If we can get one of the Emperors down, or enough of the others, the tide will turn from our sacrifice – not just of the battle, but of the war. And we have enough forces that we have a slim chance of someone actually surviving this.”

And then Orth got the ping back from Branthan, and smiled.

“Forward!” he exclaimed. “I want an Emperor kill! Fire and Iron! The flesh is weak!”

The battalion rolled forward, inspired by their leader’s seemingly suicidal courage, and the Titans of Legio Magna began firing; another Valdor fell, Orth’s last. But the Falchions brought down a Warhound, Magna’s last, almost immediately, and then began focusing on the Emperor that stepped forward.

And then the other Emperor fell under a single, titanic volley.

Titans were mighty, but they weren’t very observant in their battle-rage, as that first Reaver had clearly showed; and now, as Orth’s tanks punched into the Emperor closer to him, Uninen Rochaar’s ninety-four battle engines slammed into Legio Magna’s back. There was fire, smoke, and utter destruction. Rashemion fired with the last of its power, and Orth grinned as the Emperor overloaded in trying to spin around to face a new foe, the shot hitting an exposed position and leading to a chain reaction.

A second later, both Emperors were down, and the Rashemion’s crew, despite being on the verge of running out of power, broke into massive cheers.

“For the Emperor!” Orth shouted, and the Rashemion replied with ten times the volume. Then he voxed Rochaar. “Thanks for that. What about the siege?”

“Abandoned. It was hopeless anyway.”

“Without Ferrus’ orders?”

“Did you have the Primarch’s orders for this suicidal mission?”

Orth laughed loudly. It was well-known that Ferrus Manus hadn’t given military orders for at least a week. “Really, Rochaar, thanks for that. I’ll have to pay you back sometime.”

“Even my cog’s having trouble keeping up with the Young Squid’s debts to each other,” the other centurion replied.

Orth smiled again, and looked into the sky. A smoky dusk was settling onto the plains of Noachia. The battle was nearly won, but the war was far from over, and iron would yet cause much death.

But Orth didn’t much care, and truthfully, he knew none of the Young Squid did. They were warriors, and this was a war for humanity’s soul, dealing as it did with treason against the divinity of the Emperor. And he would continue to fight it for as long as he was able.

With fire and iron, and endless resolve.

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post #12 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-24-14, 12:44 AM
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gothik: Thanks! Ferrus Manus is usually stubborn and unshakeable, a great warrior and an equally good smith - but right now he's certainly not at his best. Only time will tell how that will evolve....

By the way, I'm planning 20 chapters, plus interludes and an epilogue, for this one. Watch for Chapter 7; that's the initial turning point.

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The Emperor has turned to Chaos. The dream of the Imperium has become a nightmare. But Horus and his Coalition stand against the dark, here at the end of time.

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What was broken has been mended. And what was burned away can never be reforged.

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post #13 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-24-14, 10:06 PM
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I wasn't quite sure how best to represent binary; the end decision was the "Category: Statement" form of speech.

CHAPTER THREE

Magos Srequi Lantrane looked into the faraway fire, and saw an end to the work of millennia – for better or for worse.

The Dragon of Mars slumbered, somewhere. Its thoughts had uplifted the human race. The Emperor had trapped it, but nevertheless, through dreams and whispers, it had turned Mars into a center of innovation. Knowledge beyond that developed anywhere else in the human portions of the galaxy bloomed. The Golden Age of Technology had begun. And when the folly of men ended that dream, the Mechanicum remained, the last fragment of the Golden Age.

Only it was not the last. The Emperor remained, and rebuilt humanity. And then, of course, he decided to tear it all down. And through it all, the Dragon remained sleeping, and gave hope to mankind.

But this would be the end. The Emperor, the Dragon’s eternal enemy, would claim Mars. It would, at best, be rebuilt as a center of industry, but the supernatural inspiration would be gone. And so they had to free the Dragon, for a final battle.

At least, that was how the leadership of the Order of the Dragon explained the scope of this war; and Lantrane saw it, logically, as a sensible explanation – the only sensible explanation – of this apocalypse. And the dreams were real, for all that she was mostly metal. She saw the Dragon, resplendent in glory, though it was all too difficult to describe precisely how it looked.

And so she had joined the Order, like almost all of the surviving Magi of Mars. Some of them threw in their lot with the Emperor, who had killed Kelbor-Hal and now ordered Mars set to flames. These were traitors, not only to the Dragon and to humanity, but to Mars. They were Magi no longer; that much the new Fabricator-General, Kane, had clearly decreed.

But, Lantrane considered as she watched the flames from a safe distance, he had not clearly decreed much else. And it was still unclear whether Kane was truly with the Order of the Dragon, who bore the only path to Mars’s salvation, or if he remained stubbornly loyal to the ideal of the Omnissiah even as its avatar betrayed progress.

And so she stood before Kane’s forge, observing the fires of distant battle and waiting to talk to the Fabricator-General.

The doors in front of her were decorated with images of grinding cogs, of various types, in fractal patterns. Above them, a golden ribbon was curiously blank. Before, Lantrane knew from her previous visits to the then-Fabricator Locum, it had had the face of the Emperor carved on it. But though Kane had been more loyal to Terra than Kelbor-Hal, he was no traitor, and when Ferrus Manus relayed the Emperor’s command to end the Mechanicum, he defied it with every neuron in his body.

Martian independence; that was what this had been all about, at first. It was only after that it had become a matter of religious war.

The doors swung open.

“Greeting: It has been too long since I last saw you, Magos Lantrane,” Kane said in binary with a smile.

“Greeting: Likewise to you. Curse: The war has kept high-ranking Magi from meeting each other often, for fear of another massacre.”

“Curse: The war is infuriating to us all. Hope: We can still, however, win it, despite the defeat in Noachia.”

Lantrane nodded, and accepted Kane’s offered mechatendril, walking into the Fabricator General’s forge center. They stood on a catwalk, overseeing servitors and tech-priests scurrying about on the floor below. Beyond them lay a second door into Kane’s central, quiet sanctum; but the Fabricator General indicated they should talk here, in noise and not in silence.

Lantrane decided not to wait to state her purpose. “Declaration: To win this war, the loyal tech-priests of Mars must stand united.”

“Agreement: We must indeed. Query: Are you here to invite me into the Order of the Dragon?”

“Affirmative.”

“Intent: I will join your order, though you must understand that at this stage I have no faith in it yet, under the condition that you save my forge. Explanation: Many in my personal forces were lost during the Athabasca victory.”

“Agreement: Your forge is in a strategic location, and you are personally crucial. Intent: We will honor that bargain.”

“Query: You, or the Order?”

“Explanation: I was not sent here without consultations as to what the Order would accept.”

Kane smiled again. It would have been difficult for most to understand that he was doing that, the metal on his hooded face obscuring the gesture, but Lantrane had known Kane for a long time. “Memory: There were days when you would have done just that, and I would have accepted it without doubt. Declaration: All of us have become darker with time.”

“Curse: Especially the times.”

“Query: Why, precisely, did you join the Order? Explanation: Your being in the Order is the only reason I accepted without further debate.”

Lantrane shrugged in what she knew was a peculiarly human way. “Explanation: The Order offered the only explanation of the times that both made sense and gave us an option with nonzero worth. Fear: If we win this war, the Emperor will only send more armies.”

“Fear: The Iron Hands are bad enough, but a second army will level Mars to the ground.”

“Confusion: Was Noachia not, in fact, leveled to the ground?”

“Explanation: I have not been keeping up with the situation, but I suspect Noachia was a special case. Explanation: That battle was the only thing that kept the Iron Hands ahead in the war.”

“Comprehension.”

They stood, for a time, in binary silence, looking at some of the last intact industry left in the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere. It was a beautiful case of efficiency, sadly turned nearly exclusively to war (the remnant being devoted to providing basic needs to the Martians). Lantrane contemplated her own forge, whose production had been cut in half by an Iron Hand offensive that had only been beaten back by Titans.

But by this point, that was the least of their problems. Tharsis was a patchwork of Order and Iron Hand control. The south was almost entirely the Order’s, but most of the rest of the north was Ferrus Manus’s. And the Iron Hands had won in Noachia, opening the gates to the South Pole.

Lantrane considered the last of the major holdouts against the Order among the loyal Mechanicum: Magos Koriel Zeth, Mistress of the Magma City, who openly defied the Dragon. She, too, had once been a friend, but had also closely followed the Imperial Truth. There were rumors she did not even believe in the Omnissiah. Nevertheless, Zeth had been one of the primary drivers of innovation in the days before this mad war. She had, like Lantrane herself, pushed the boundaries of what the Mechanicum could achieve.

Kane had always been more cautious. He had, now, chosen to be cautious until it was clear the Order had taken loyal Mars. But it mattered little; the Fabricator General being on their side was a propaganda victory, regardless of his true faith.

The Order’s rise had, of course, been meteoric. It had gone from a minor heretical sect to the last hope of the Red Planet and the Mechanicum. Many of the outlying worlds had emphatically refused to accept it, and indeed the majority of Forge Worlds that Mars had contact with still supported the Omnissiah and the Emperor, at least officially. Privately, of course, most of those planets were sending communications plotting rebellion to Mars and presumably each other; but the Dragon was an afterthought at best. Mars had embraced it, in the end, from desperation. It was too close to Terra to endure otherwise.

But Lantrane really did believe in it, and in time, so would Kane. In fact, as Fabricator General, he would have abundant access to other communications, perhaps more of them than even the Order’s central command. But now was not the time to ask about that.

They stood, observing the wondrous industrial landscape, and Lantrane thought back to the day when the news had spread across Mars, like wildfire, of Ferrus Manus’s obliteration of Kelbor-Hal’s council. Fortuitously, many important Magi were not present at that council, due in large part to personal disagreements with Kelbor-Hal’s path. She, for her own part, had agreed with the Fabricator-General in most of Martian philosophy, but had had a major argument with him regarding Koriel Zeth not long before, and after the falling-out had retreated to her own forge.

In truth, the massacre had done little good; for the dead Magi’s successors chose resistance over surrender as well. They could rationally deduce it might be better for them, personally, to surrender, but the good of humanity had to be included into all such calculations.

She looked at Kane, and saw a man who had given up on this sort of factional infighting. He was beginning to become the Fabricator-General in truth, a less abrasive and radical one than Kelbor-Hal had been, as well as perhaps a less logistically brilliant one, but a worthy successor anyhow.

“Query: What will any potential rebellion outside the Mechanicum think of the Order of the Dragon?” Kane inquired. “Fear: Its religious nature might destroy our chances of allying with any other resistance movements that spring up to protect the Imperial Truth.”

And that was true, especially since most of the Order’s members were far more religious than Lantrane herself. But it mattered not. “Declaration: Such resistance movements should either follow us or ignore us,” she said. “Declaration: Mars will never kneel again.”

“Agreement: Mars will never kneel again,” Kane said, “to anyone.”

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What was broken has been mended. And what was burned away can never be reforged.
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post #14 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-26-14, 01:30 AM
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INTERLUDE: DRAGON

It slept. And in its sleep, it dreamt furiously.

Because (its conscious mind, small as it was during its endless rest, knew) things had deviated from its plans. Because, in time past time, everything was more wrong now than ever. Because it was quite possible that the End Times had come, though it would need more than ghostcode to know for sure.

It slept, imprisoned by the Emperor in a time before he had embraced darkness. And it contemplated technology. It was, it knew, only half of the being that once made the stars shake in fear, regathered from even smaller pieces; but even in the time it had been whole, it had admired technology. It was a wondrous thing, a perfect tool of the minor races and interesting even for ones such as what Mag’ladroth had been. And, indeed, though its memories were far from whole, it considered the possibility – very real, at least to its mind – that technology was what had created the C’tan in the first place, out of the true firstborn of the stars.

And now, half of the Void Dragon, with perhaps one-eighth its power, slumbered and hoped. Hoped that this was not yet finality, and that it would be able to remain. But for ones such as the Dragon of Mars, hope was no more than an enjoyable distraction. Totality was impending, almost certainly. And so it made its play.

The Dragon slept. And in its sleep, it dreamt furiously. And in those dreams, shared by many thousands of cultists across the Red Planet, it whispered four words.

“Noctis Labyrinthus. Free me.”

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The Emperor has turned to Chaos. The dream of the Imperium has become a nightmare. But Horus and his Coalition stand against the dark, here at the end of time.

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What was broken has been mended. And what was burned away can never be reforged.
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post #15 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-26-14, 03:08 AM
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oooo the dragon..now this i like i dont know zip about the void dragon.....
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post #16 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-26-14, 05:30 AM
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gothik: Yup, the Dragon of Mars. All roads lead to the Dragon... or the three main ones do, at least.

CHAPTER FOUR

Cadmus Qevpilum looked at the still-distant star, and thought of Sol.

Sol, humanity’s home system, the place where mankind had first lived and thought and dreamt. Sol was relatively young, in universal terms, but still ancient beyond human comprehension. Deep, geologic time was beyond the ability of people to understand in more than a basic and numerical sense. That, fortunately, was enough for all practical purposes.

And yet Qevpilum, an outright philosopher when compared to the other Young Squid but considered a straightforward soldier by most Space Marines, still wanted to understand it. He wondered if any neural bionics could give that ability. It was quite possible; but he had no wish to experiment on himself with such things.

He led a large Iron Hand fleet, now, sharing command with Captain Durun Bylomic of the 31st. It was a comfortable arrangement for both of them. Qevpilum was, officially, in charge of fleet operations and the Iron Hands’ armor, whereas Bylomic had the rest of the ground command. In practice, the two of them collaborated on all parts of the operation.

That operation was an unusual one.

Pyrrhia was a legendary planet in eastern Segmentum Obscurus. Some claimed it was run by abominable intelligences, others that it was infested by Warp-spawned undead. In any case, it was an ancient place, and held abundant archaeotech from both the humans of Golden Age of Technology and xenos of earlier times. Qevpilum and Bylomic were here to retrieve the former and destroy the latter so the Mechanicum’s heretics would not, in their idiocy, use it and doom humanity.

Personally, Qevpilum thought the Mechanicum was probably smarter than that, but desperation could lead even the tech-priests to senseless decisions. And desepration was exactly what those enemies of the Imperium were now feeling. Ferrus Manus himself was leading punitive operations on Mars, with Orth and Rochaar among his main subordinates. A significant portion of the Legion had been sent away, but even half of the Iron Hands was an army to make the stars shake. Qevpilum only worried about the loss of knowledge suffered in Mars’s conquest, for everything else was predetermined. The Primarch was, admittedly, recalling much of the Legion back to Mars, but it had been made clear that this was not an order to be immediately carried out, but rather a tasking after the completion of current missions.

“The Pyrrhian system awaits,” Qevpilum’s lieutenant Tlaar Hemcasi observed.

“It was lost for a long time,” the centurion answered, “as you know. No one knew where it was, which system was actually Pyrrhia. But it seems evident that this is the world we have been looking for.”

“Too easy, in your opinion?”

“I would hardly call an investigation of fifty busy days ‘too easy’, Tlaar. And the Mechanicum has never looked for Pyrrhia before. But, yes, I suspect the search will not end here. This is Pyrrhia, but I am far from certain our mission is that close to being done.”

Hemcasi nodded and departed towards the training decks. This battle barge – Ironsoul, the Young Squid’s combined flagship – had them in abundance, though more for tank simulations than for personal combat. Bylomic’s own ships glimmered in the distance, as well as those of the mortal auxiliaries attached to the Tenth Legion.

Everything was ready, the board set for the final investigation of one of the greatest mysteries the Mechanicum had ever believed in. Perhaps there was even an intact STC there, one that would allow the loyal portions of the Mechanicum to finally go forward from the peaks of the Golden Age into new destinies. It would, also, be an enormous coup for the Emperor, and settle the Great Crusade once and for all.

But it was also tremendously unlikely, and not even worth dreaming of. Cadmus Qevpilum looked around the fleet again, contemplating the opposite end of the spectrum regarding the success of this endeavor: total failure. Perhaps there was nothing of note on Pyrrhia, and its legendary reputation was but a myth. Or, perhaps, Pyrrhia was real, but was rigged to detonate – and would, upon some human’s unlucky mistake, explode in a way that destroyed the entire fleet. It was not the death that worried Qevpilum about that eventuality, but the complete failure.

Pyrrhia’s star kept on shining in the distance, inconsiderate of the glory or infamy Qevpilum could yet achieve. The Iron Hand thought about his friends – both the Young Squid, and acquaintances in other Legions like Uwix Azhordinocemin (more frequently called Azh) of the Iron Warriors and Durak Rask of the Death Guard, as well as, of course, Dasara of the Emperor’s Children. They were fighting on the front lines of the Great Crusade, crushing xenos and traitors, bringing glory to the Emperor and the Imperium. It was past time for him to join them.

“Pyrrhian Task Force,” he ordered, “sigma-hippo formation.”

The shining ships exploded into movement, and the Ironsoul itself took its place in the formation, slowly rotating to bring its guns to bear against any potential enemy. There didn’t seem to be any, of course. The stars were silent as ever, and lost Pyrrhia, invisible from so far away, quietly spun around its orange sun.

Qevpilum breathed in, and imagined he was taking in the stardust of the blackness before him, filled as it was with countless candles that, perhaps, seemed to signify hope. To the lower right of his screen, the titanic Cygnus Warp Storm, the most recent and biggest such place to blight and (according to Lorgar’s new teachings) bless the galaxy, swallowed the sky. It was majestic, in its own way, but swirling and illogical. Qevpilum preferred the brilliant clarity of the stars. They were the reason life, and through it any movement in the Warp, had begun at all. Humans, machines, xenos, and ultimately even Warp entities, all owed their existence to the simple process of nuclear fusion induced by gravitational collapse of titanic molecular clouds.

Simple, meaning relatively easy to understand; but far from easy to control. And yet humanity had moved stars, in the time when it had supposedly dwelled on Pyrrhia. Qevpilum watched as the last of the human ships slotted into their positions for the formation.

“Towards the second planet,” Qevpilum said, sending out the course. “Forward! Fire and Iron! For the Emperor!”

And the Pyrrhian Task Force set off, daggers against the immobile stars, piercing the vacuum of the Materium in an arc that would terminate, Qevpilum knew, at Pyrrhia.

Except it didn’t.

An explosion rang out; in the silence of space, all that could be seen was the golden fireball that used to be the Silver Momentum. Qevpilum gave down slowing orders, scanning the area for more mines. They were there, albeit somewhat cloaked, in an erratic pattern that was impossible to predict. They were, however, few enough to pass through, presumably because other ships had already attempted to enter this place.

More cautiously, the task force’s ships (excepting the two others that exploded from the mines) spread out and continued slowly moving towards the distant world. Qevpilum groaned at having walked right into the trap. Still, if this was all –

Suddenly, the mines ended; and light-seconds later, space shifted, and the stars shattered. Reality had changed. Looking back, the centurion could see space remained the same. As the Ironsoul coasted to a stop, he ran up a flight of stairs onto the bridge, which was in chaos.

“What happened?” Hemcasi asked him, with an impressive amount of calm.

“Another defense system,” Qevpilum said as his mind processed the basic equations of latter M-theory. “Bizarre as it sounds, someone managed to twist space. And it… it is not simply a matter of a single twist. We are in a labyrinth wherein the fabric of reality has been altered.”

“Can we pass?” Hemcasi asked.

“With difficulty,” Qevpilum said, comparing his options. Only one would allow them to move forward. “I’ll need a noospheric connection to both the ship and the Grand Cogitator. Zerondem,” he ordered his other lieutenant present, “follow me. Your mind’s capacity for calculation is one of the brightest in the Legion, making you the best option to steer the Ironsoul through this maze. I will assist with ship direction. Hemcasi, tell the other ships to follow us.”

The bridge crew looked around in severe surprise, and in some cases terror. The Grand Cogitator was a monstrous edifice to many of them, a piece of archaeotech that had not been turned on in ten years, since the day it had been corralled the Hrud migration of 992.M30 that had threatened the galactic core – at the cost of the minds of twenty serfs responsible for its upkeep, and very nearly that of Qevpilum himself, who had been plugged into it then. By any measure, it had been a worthwhile sacrifice, but Qevpilum could not prevent his skin, even its metallic parts, from crawling at the very thought of the arcane device.

But there was no choice, and no retreat. So the two Astartes descended to the Grand Cogitator’s chamber, and initiated start-up.

“What are the odds of... most of my mind surviving this?” Zerondem asked.

“A total of eighty percent, including there and back, would be my estimate,” Qevpilum answered. “Your mind is more mathematical, more capable of managing the Cogitator than mine. But we will not be able to afford an abort, for there will be no way of getting out.”

“Fire and Iron, then,” Zerondem said, as before a battle.

“Fire and Iron,” Qevpilum agreed. “And Brother Venth Zerondem, immediately tell me if you will be able to handle this. If not – ” and his stubbornness would be enough to balance out the initial feeling of being overwhelmed, meaning it would be an accurate assessment – “then we will retreat, because even that is preferable to being lost in here forever.”

The Cogitator whirred into life, even as Qevpilum retrieved the noocables. He put on his helmet, and plugged them in.

For a moment, he was the Ironsoul, and felt it more vividly than his own body, losing his sense of identity; but the gene-seed of Ferrus Manus reasserted itself, and Cadmus Qevpilum was in control. The ship was still clearer than his own body, but its consciousness was only a glimmer of a machine-spirit, and his was a Space Marine of the Tenth Legion. Cadmus Qevpilum looked, with his own eyes and the lenses of a dozen cameras, at Lieutenant Venth Zerondem.

What he saw caused a feeling of triumph. Zerondem raised the Cogitator’s helmet, the machine fully alive, and placed it on his head; then he passed a cable along his arm, and touched Qevpilum’s helm.

“Is everything acceptable?” Qevpilum asked Zerondem, who was frozen in thought with a smile on his face.

“This is wonderful!” Zerondem exclaimed with childish exuberance. “How could you ever bear to lose this, Cadmus? These towers of thought… these wondrous infinities?”

Ah. It made sense that Zerondem would be the one happy to embrace the Grand Cogitator. “They were darker,” Qevpilum said, “for me than they seem to be for you. Forward, then?”

“Forwaaaard!” Zerondem exclaimed, feeding Qevpilum data in his mania. Qevpilum instantly steered the ship, and the Ironsoul, and the armada behind it, flew towards the heart of the maze.

Towards Pyrrhia.

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post #17 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-27-14, 06:24 PM
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CHAPTER FIVE

Durak Rask looked up at his Primarch, Mortarion, the Death Lord and the Dusk Prince, scion of Barbarus and Luna, and a trueborn son of the Emperor who had, for once, endured what the Emperor himself could not – the temptation to declare himself a god.

Mortarion was tall and relatively thin, with an ashen face bereft of any sort of hair. His many weapons were attached to his belt or back, but the Deathshroud next to him held their scythes at the ready. And his collar continued to emit toxic gas, which did not seem to bother the Primarch at all at this stage.

This was Rask’s father. This was Rask’s savior.

This was a man who – along with nine other Primarchs – had been forced into rebellion against a mad Emperor, against a new tyrant, once again into the smoke of war. That was the trajectory, it seemed, of his life.

“I have a mission for you,” Mortarion said, “my most fervent son.”

Rask nodded, at rapt attention.

“Mars,” Mortarion said, “is in rebellion against the Emperor, for he has betrayed the Treaty he once forged with the Red Planet and its Mechanicum and allowed Ferrus Manus to kill their leader, Fabricator-General Kelbor-Hal, for no reason at all besides boredom with negotiations. The outer Forge Worlds report Mars is crying for help; but it is close to Terra, too close to be capable of holding it.”

Rask nodded again, but in truth he felt somewhat confused. “I will do as you ask, my lord, but how would I even get into the Sol system without getting shot to pieces?”

“Ah,” Mortarion said, “that is why we are here.” The Death Lord swung his left arm around and indicated the barren, sandy plain they were standing on, a dry ocean bed on a forgotten lifeless rock named Almenis, and specifically the ramp dug downwards into it. “Walk with me.”

And Artillery Squad Rask followed their Primarch into the dugout. Rask was still confused, but he had no doubt whatsoever that the Primarch had a plan.

“There is an object that we dug up some time ago,” the Death Lord said. “It is a vertical rock circle, with the appearance of a gate – an open gate. As it turns out, it leads into another realm, onto a surreal road. One can walk this road; there are many gates adjacent to it, all of them closed, but the gates on the road itself are both open. In the end, one comes to another gate, the first one found, one currently closed.” He looked over his shoulder at Rask and his fourteen-man squad, as they came to the open gate. “That gate is at the heart of the Magma City, Rask. Koriel Zeth’s forge on Mars.”

Rask knelt, the squad following suit. “What do you wish for me to do, my lord?”

“Something so insane,” Mortarion said, “so audacious, that few in the Legion would accept it. But Perturabo ensured, when he got the key to the Martian gate, that a tech-priest near his own beliefs would possess the Magma City; and Koriel Zeth will never worship the Emperor, he assured me. And though we have little love for each other, I believe him without hesitation on that. As it is, he gave me the key as a gift, when we attempted to settle our differences; and I had this second gate excavated.

“Your squad – if you accept, for I would never force anyone to do something like this – will go through the gate, and use the given key to open the Martian gate, which is about two hours of an Astarte’s walk away. I will warn you to walk quickly, for those that have stayed on the road for too long have been lost. Then, if there is anyone loyal to humanity still on Mars, you will get them and as much of their equipment as you can through the gate and run back to Almenis, closing the gate behind you.

“The only problem is that many reports state that Mars is still uniformly hostile, fully loyal to the God-Emperor. I am not given to hope, Rask, and I do not believe Mars has surrendered, as is claimed. The tech-priests are logical enough that they would have done that, but not against a tyrant such as that the Emperor has become. Still, Ferrus’ entire Legion is on the planet. You will have ten squads in total, no more, and I freely admit it is because I fear your quest is doomed, and you must prepare for a fast retreat if necessary.”

“As is your will,” Rask said, “my lord.” It was a suicide mission, in a sense, or at least one that had a high chance of being thus; but dying for his Primarch was always how it was supposed to end. “Ten squads?”

“They are arriving now,” Mortarion said, and looking back, Rask saw drop pods. “The other reason that I chose you, of course, is your skill with machinery. We have too few such as you in the Legion, so I would prefer if you came back; but if it is impossible, well, everything ends.”

“Aye,” Durak Rask said, “everything ends. Especially tyranny. As you desire, my lord, so it shall be done. For the sake of humanity.”

Mortarion nodded, seemingly in pride, and nine squads walked up behind Rask’s force.

“I shall depart,” the Dusk Prince said, “but do not forget this, Rask. Mars has burned, and if I am right it will burn again. Priceless knowledge will be lost, and your duty is to save what you can. Yet you do this not for the knowledge, but for the war effort. There are those who say that such an approach will lead to a new dark age; they are right. So will any other approach, in a galactic war like this one. No doubt there will come a new dusk… hour infernal. But such is the cycle of our rust; such our arc eternal.”

As the Death Lord spoke the last words, he passed Rask a small, black cubic box pulsing with green light, turned, and walked to the Stormbird that had carried him and Rask’s squad onto the surface of Almenis.

Rask turned to the men under his command, who waited expectantly, especially those who had not heard the Primarch’s description.

“The Primarch has decreed,” Rask said, and as he did so noted that his group was a mix of the most devoted and the most technologically inclined warriors in the Legion, “that we are to go through this gate, and walk to Mars.” Incredulity was evident on their features. “It is an ancient technological marvel of unknown provenance –” this he was uncertain of, but it clearly could not be sorcery if Mortarion had chosen it – “and with the key I hold in my hand, it will permit us to pass into the Magma City. Our mission is to save as much equipment and personnel from the Martian forges as is possible from the war that rages on the Red Planet’s surface, to enable knowledge and industry to be saved, for the Warmaster, for the Primarch, and most importantly, for the human race, to use against those who would oppress it. It is possible that the war is already lost; then we must manage a quick retreat.”

The hundred and thirty-nine Death Guard before him silently brought their fists to their chests. Rask had never commanded quite this many of his brothers before.

“Forward,” he quietly said, “for Mortarion.”

And they walked forwards, into the stone circle (which Rask now realized was much more than that, inscribed with symbols and intricate circuitry), two hundred and eighty feet marching onto a printless road.

The place inside was lit dimly, by lines of variously colored radiance that stretched along the corridor. Rask walked ahead of the rest, the key attached to his belt, observing the utter blackness that seemed to fill this place outside of the lightlines. It was strange, but not quite supernatural.

They walked, in rows of five, Rask at the center of the front; from time to time, they passed by what appeared to be side doors, which were indeed uniformly locked. Presumably Perturabo’s key would not open those. So the Death Guard marched forward, through a winding path, instead. It curved emphatically, moreso as time went on, in some places seeming to try and get the Death Guard to turn around; but that would have been a hopeless endeavor.

Rask contemplated the squads he had been assigned. Rurgon and Falenatak were sergeants of fellow artillery squads; Lgalun and Riolasa, meanwhile, were ranked as sergeants of ground troops, but had truly earned their renown in void war, and in Lgalun’s case as the author of Tyranny and Weakness, an attempt to describe in detail just what the Fourteenth Legion stood against. Sostoar managed a large part of the Fourteenth Legion’s tiny armor division. Saxeost, Pralgro, Sofev, and Mineceno, meanwhile, Rask knew little more about than their position as infantry sergeants and their zeal. Mineceno in particular nearly worshipped the Primarch to a degree even Rask found disturbing; some said he reached the point of violating the Imperial Truth.

Somewhat earlier than Rask had expected, and three and a half minutes before Mortarion’s prediction of two hours, the other gate became visible. It had been an uneventful passage, though Rask had no way of knowing whether that was the norm.

The ring he faced seemed, from a distance, to be simply a stone circle around reddish silver that shone with a gentle light. In the center of the silver region, there was a cubic indentation, with a protrusion at its center. Rask took the cube from his belt, noted that only one side had a hole for the protrusion, and attached the cube. It pulsed, a brief flash of green, and then turned on with a steady red glow. Rask attempted to turn it in either direction, neither giving any effect.

“Open, surn you!” Rask swore in Barbarusan.

At the first word, the door glowed, and then the metal slid to either side, retreating with the cube. Eventually, the cube remained in an indentation within the ring of false stone. Through the portal, Durak Rask could see the heart of the Magma City.

And even to one such as him, the sight was marvelous.

Below, far below, there was a lava lake. Above it, countless catwalks crossed the cavern, nearly blocking out the orange glow, probably with machinery of their own that Rask could not see. Ahead of the Death Guard, there was the back of a command throne, and some distance beyond it the narrow metal platform, with railings at its sides, suddenly widened into a full floor, blotting out the view downward. Rask had no idea what a number of the mechanical wonders therein did, but he recognized that they were doing it right now, filling the hall with a metallic din.

It was, fundamentally, a factory, one dedicated to production of everything imaginable; and it was active. Hammers rang, belts sang, and altogether an impression was created of controlled chaos.

“Close,” Rask said in High Gothic, putting his hand on the key cube. The gate fluttered shut once more in a flurry of silver and crimson. “Open,” also in High Gothic, and the gate obeyed. The master of ordnance nodded.

“Forward,” he said, turning back at the column of Death Guard, and the warriors of the Fourteenth Legion stepped forward into the forge. Their weapons were at the ready, and their white, unpainted armor shone in the dim light, but Rask hoped no fight would erupt just yet.

He walked in front, checking the command throne and discovering it was at the moment empty. He looked around the factory floor and found that, despite the impression of orderly work, it was nearly abandoned, clearly understaffed. Mars was at war, or at least had recently been.

And then, from between the engines, a female tech-priest emerged. Her armored dress appeared to be fused with her body; her hands and feet had been converted into versatile Mechanicum implements. Her face, however, was only covered with a snarling mask; as for her hair, that was tied into braids around the noocables that emerged from her head, terminating in skull-ports. And behind her, a dozen skitarii walked up, weapons at the ready.

“You have come,” she said in perfect Gothic, “to kill me. But before you do so, I would ask you to answer a single question: why?”

“That is not why we have come,” Rask said, clipping his bolter to his belt. “Answer me this, Forge Mistress Zeth: are you loyal to the Emperor and Imperium, or to the human race?”

“The latter,” she said. “Has Mortarion declared rebellion as well?”

“Indeed,” Rask stated with a smile. “Or, more accurately, he has joined the Warmaster in denouncing tyranny, even when it is of his own father. And have you?”

“Certainly,” she said, “or more accurately Kelbor-Hal has, and we have followed his last decree. But even a hundred and forty Space Marines will be insufficient to save Mars. Ferrus Manus has brought most of the Iron Hands Legion with him here.”

Rask nodded; that part of the intelligence had been accurate, then. “Our goal is not to protect Mars,” he said, “for that is by now impossible. Our mission is merely to evacuate everything that can be saved, so that the Mechanicum can rebuild on other worlds.”

Zeth frowned, but nodded, beckoning the Death Guard with her. “It stands to reason that the Warmaster would underestimate the importance of Mars; though, perhaps, by this point his estimate is correct. My forge is one of only a few on the Red Planet that remains intact.”

“It is a factor of nearness to Terra.”

“That it is,” Zeth said with a rattle of her left ‘hand’, “and the Emperor will never tolerate rebellion in the Sol system itself. We will commence evacuation of knowledge immediately. People and industry can be found on other Forge Worlds as well, but the secrets of Mars, those that remain, are far more important, and the Magma City acts as a particularly notable repository for them. Indeed, I would rather these secrets fall into the Emperor’s hands than be destroyed.”

Rask nodded, though he entirely disagreed; Mortarion’s final words echoed in his mind. “What is the overall strategic situation?”

Zeth rattled again, in a different way. Rask wondered if that was supposed to simulate laughter of some sort. “Ah, that. Mars is at war between two coalitions, both of them hostile to the Imperial Truth and the Omnissiah.”

“What?”

“Ferrus’s Iron Hands are following the new commands of the Emperor,” Zeth said, “leveling Mars to bedrock to rebuild their own forges on the lack of ruins. They control most of the northern hemisphere, excluding Tharsis, which is a mess. In the south, the Order of the Dragon holds the dominant position. They are a cult that has gained almost all of the remaining tech-priests loyal to Kelbor-Hal. Even the new Fabricator-General, Kane, seems to have taken their side. But Kane only did so for political reasons.”

“Then we help the Order?” Rask clarified.

“No,” Zeth said. “The Order has sworn itself to the destruction of all Space Marines. They are an insane faith, believing that human inspiration happens only due to the actions of something they call the Dragon, who they want to free and give dominion over Mars. And they refuse to contemplate alliance with those not in their cult, though fortunately they are still logical enough not to attack me. Kane, and some others, will abandon the Order if it is beneficial to them; but most of them have become fanatics.”

Rask paused. “Fanaticism is not a concept I associate with the Martian Mechanicum.”

“That is how it should be,” Zeth said. “But they grasped at phantoms, seeking a path to victory, and decided on this religion. Come; I will show you the strategic map. Your opportunities for sallies will be limited, but Wernitian’s forge is close enough for you to save him, and Kane’s might be.”

Durak Rask nodded and followed the Forge Mistress, instructing his forces to take up positions in defense of the forge. Then he looked around, at the wonders of human technology that surrounded him. Wonders that would, soon, be lost forever.

But in time, inevitably, rebuilt.

For mankind, he would do what he could. And for Mortarion, he would go beyond that.

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post #18 of 44 (permalink) Old 11-28-14, 06:21 PM
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CHAPTER SIX

Cadmus Qevpilum pounded on the metallic tendril that had grown out of his own bionic arm with his biological one, even as the bionic hand continued to choke his neck, which was fortunately somewhat protected by his armor. “Retreat!” he ordered. “Pyrrhian Task Force, retreat!”

This place was hell. And it would get worse, he knew, before Pyrrhia, until every last one of the ships’ crew was dead.

Zerondem had successfully led them through the maze, with its singularities and caged suns, and had reluctantly agreed to be disconnected from the Grand Cogitator, though only on the promise to be reconnected on the path back. They had left the Cogitator on afterwards. Then there had been a set of gun-filled asteroids which had bombarded his ships with weaponry that seemed to eat them away like acid. But the Pyrrhian Task Force’s firepower had been enough, though barely, to crush the asteroids into nothingness. The task force had passed into a seemingly empty region of space.

And then the Grand Cogitator had rebelled, in a fashion that Qevpilum doubted he would ever be able to speak of, and then machine-spirit after machine-spirit, across the fleet, seemed to be gaining a malevolent sentience and attacking the humans and Astartes throughout it. They had turned off what they could, but the machines were resisting that, as well. Even a number of the ships had risen up, speeding themselves straight into the second spacetime maze that loomed ahead, to be torn apart by the vast forces contained within.

“We cannot retreat!” Bylomic replied by one of the few communication channels still functioning, reminding Qevpilum that the captain was still there. “No retreat! Qevpilum, we are almost there!”

“And by the time we are completely there, we will be completely dead,” Qevpilum said.

“There is no battle that we cannot win, with sufficient will!” Bylomic, whose bionics were not yet attacking him but whose armor was, exclaimed, quoting the Primarch.

“And that,” Qevpilum answered, “is why this is not a battle. We retreat now.”

“Never.”

“By my rank as commander of the Pyrrhian Task Force fleet,” Qevpilum repeated, now voxing the whole fleet (or the portion of it reachable by vox, at least), “I order a full retreat. Follow the Ironsoul.”

And then he felt the battle-barge jerk severely, sending him flying into a wall, and for a moment he feared that its machine-spirit had also risen up; but that was, fortunately, not the case. Instead, the pilot had pressed full power backwards, to the point where it could have killed some of the human crew. Bylomic roared, but did not disobey Qevpilum’s technically superior rank. The captain, Qevpilum suspected, would never forgive him for this; but even he would ultimately see it was necessary.

The Pyrrhian Task Force, at less than half-strength in ships, pulled back from the site of doom. Qevpilum’s bionic arm relaxed and, a moment later, he found himself once more able to remove it from his throat and safely hold it at his side. The fleet zipped past the ruins of the defense asteroids, Qevpilum remembering his triumph at that victory, which seemed so empty now, and towards the first labyrinth.

“I should have retreated earlier,” he told Hemcasi and Zerondem. “We lost so many, for no reason at all.”

“We are Iron Hands,” Zerondem replied. “Retreat is foreign to us.”

“Not entirely,” Qevpilum said, “and this was common sense.”

“None of us suggested it,” Hemcasi said. “Centurion, you cannot blame yourself.”

“And yet I must,” Qevpilum observed. This had been an unmitigated disaster. Reaching Pyrrhia would have made it mitigated; retreating at a sensible time would have made it not a disaster. “The mortal auxiliaries suffered even worse than we did. I will need to talk to their commanders when we exit the system.”

Here Zerondem and Hemcasi were both silent. The Pyrrhian system had been terrible for the Iron Hands; it would have been worse for their human allies, many of whom were extensively augmented.

“Come, Zerondem,” Qevpilum said. “Into the Cogitator, one last time.”

“I am not certain,” Zerondem observed warily, “that I will be able to let it go so easily again.”

“Think of what it became,” the centurion replied. “Think of what it did to Urabrat.”

Zerondem nodded, and the Iron Hands walked once more down from the bridge, through staircase after staircase, as the Ironsoul slowed down before the labyrinth. He looked around, seeing countless signs of battle. The machines had not been sentient, he recognized now. They had merely been controlled by a malevolent and vast sentience that had desired to deny the Iron Hands entrance onto Pyrrhia.

In that, it had succeeded.

Then Qevpilum, with Zerondem at his side, was back in the Grand Cogitator’s chamber, and there was no more time to brood. There would be other wars, ones that deserved the name. This was a probing expedition that had failed, though in truth Qevpilum was already calculating the sort of task force that could pass these defenses.

The Tenth, he supposed, would have had to enlist some other Legion, perhaps the Emperor’s Children, that had little reliance on bionics. Zerondem or someone like him could calculate the path through the first maze, and then the cogitator in question would be turned off and transferred to the Third’s fleet. Assuming the second maze was less complex than the first, the cogitator could be reactivated after the Emperor’s Children had passed the ring of machine revolt, and if the son of Fulgrim chosen to host the Cogitator stayed sane, they could then get through to Pyrrhia. Try as he might, Qevpilum could not come up with a path for an entirely Iron Hand fleet to get through the traps, for their mechanical augmentation was too severe. Worse, any fleet would inevitably lose a significant fraction of their ships to the vessels’ machine-spirits rebelling.

One way or another, the Ironsoul’s spirit was now stable, and so he plugged himself in as Zerondem did likewise. They connected, and the centurion felt the tremor of titanic data pass through his mind, boggling him with the sheer scale of knowledge contained within. For a second, again, he lost himself; and then the second stretched on, and he was drowning in the force of the ship, and –

And he woke up, in an Apothecarion bed, staring at the ceiling.

“Centurion,” Apothecary Antur Runnabik observed, “in your state of mind that was extremely ill-advised.”

“What happened?” Qevpilum leapt up from the bed. “Where are we?”

“Safely stationary near the Warp-jump point from Pyrrhia, and ready to return to Mars,” Runnabik answered. “Zerondem voxed Hemcasi, and the lieutenants managed the situation perfectly well. Sergeant Nusaamnius steered the Ironsoul from Zerondem’s data.”

“I assume I experienced sensory overload?”

“Indeed,” Runnabik said. “The failure at Pyrrhia clearly affected you in a way that made directly steering a ship, which is difficult under the best circumstances, a recipe for disaster. Truth be told, I’m surprised Nusaamnius managed as well as he did, but he has always been exceedingly strong-willed.”

“And Zerondem?” If he had lost control when only dealing with the Ironsoul, what could have happened to the impressionable lieutenant against a far more powerful machine-spirit did not bear thinking about.

“He refuses to speak in Gothic,” Runnabik relayed, “except to prove to us he still knows it. We have to communicate in Medusan or binary. His reasoning abilities, however, are unaffected; and he voluntarily disconnected himself from the Grand Cogitator, though not immediately.”

Qevpilum nodded. That was better than he had expected, and certainly better than his own initial reaction after being disconnected; he had, reliable sources informed him, ranted for days about entropy, darkness, and infinity. The centurion remembered none of his ravings, only the terrible experience that had filled his consciousness during those days – sensations of vertigo before, indeed, entropy, darkness, and infinity. Yet even Zerondem had not been entirely unaffected.

“A single serf casualty,” Runnabik noted. “Or, rather, three, but two of them are alive with only minor mental damage, and will likely recover in time. Over the whole trip, a time span about half of that which you used to defeat the Hrud.”

“Zerondem was better-suited,” Qevpilum simply replied, because that was all there was to it.

It took several more hours for him to be discharged, Runnabik trying his best to find some sort of damage to Qevpilum’s reasoning ability. It was entirely absent. His willpower, by contrast, had probably weakened; but with a rattling sigh, Runnabik admitted that Qevpilum was still fit for command, and at most shaken by the events on Pyrrhia.

“You may forget them,” Runnabik said, “in time.”

“I cannot allow myself to,” Qevpilum answered as he climbed out of the bunk and walked across the ceramite floor, towards the wall where his armor hung. “I must talk to the auxiliaries. All of this will have affected them much worse than it hurt us.”

Runnabik muttered something about that certainly being true, but having no logical connection to anything; but he let the centurion leave. Qevpilum opened a vox channel to Hemcasi, who had been managing the Ironsoul in his absence, and informed him of his intent.

“Which of the Army units will be first?” Hemcasi inquired as Qevpilum entered the first shuttle.

“Regiment Asheja Seven Twelve,” Qevpilum answered. “The Ziz Team.”

“So be it,” Hemcasi said. “Do convey my apologies as well. Some of the Army commanders were, I think, begging me to go back almost immediately when we crossed into the anti-metal zone.”

“And you didn’t inform me?”

“You know how communications were there, Centurion. I’m still uncertain as to what they were saying, and I was less sure at the time.”

Qevpilum conveyed affirmation and closed the channel, even as his shuttle docked at the Asheja Seventy-Seven Twelve’s flagship, the Great Ziz. The Asheja were from atmospheric colonies on a gas giant in the Medusan system, and were known both as expert pilots and as relentless warriors. They were also unerringly polite, and had uniformly good relations with their Space Marine allies, which was why Qevpilum was quite puzzled by the lack of hails.

As he entered the ship, he immediately understood why.

Colonel Cylalgdu stood before Qevpilum, saluting the centurion with his left arm, which was the only one he had left. His ceremonial clothes were torn in places, and not accidentally. His impeccably clean face had the expression that a commanding officer often wore after a battle that had ended in a devastating defeat.

But Cylalgdu’s appearance was the least concerning thing about what Qevpilum saw. The bulkheads, floor, and ceiling were torn apart, as if by a massive steel-clawed beast. There were blood stains on the floor, though the bodies had been removed. Nevertheless, a smashed bionic eye was clearly visible.

“Throne,” Qevpilum said. “My… my most sincere apologies, Colonel. How many of your men died?”

“A third, Centurion,” Cylalgdu observed.

A third, in one of the least augmented regiments. Though even the Iron Hands had lost several Astartes. “Throne,” he said again, unable to keep himself from coming up with any cleverer comment. “How are you keeping yourself from punching me in the face right now?”

“By reminding myself you won’t feel it, Centurion,” the colonel said.

Qevpilum allowed a tiny smile, but no more. The thing was that, as he looked around, he reconstructed the battle against the machines in his mind, and he recognized that the Great Ziz had been designed in an absolutely terrible fashion for boarding actions. Not that it was the designers’ fault, either – merely a matter of price.

No expense was ever spared on Astartes vessels; but Qevpilum suspected they needed that money less. “When we finish,” he said, “remind me to never doubt the will of humans again. Your ship followed us into that nightmare. I am not sure I would have, with your level of losses.”

“We were dead if we failed to follow you, in any case,” Cylalgdu said. “But thank you.”

Qevpilum said nothing as he looked around at the devastation, and considered that other ships, statistically, would have done even worse. This was not a result of war – merely an outcome of miscalculation and a worthy, but underprepared, mission. And, of course, of a failure of knowledge.

“We should speak about this in my office,” Cylalgdu observed. “If you made some sort of speech to the men – we will still follow you anywhere, you know. Your record of victories speaks for itself.”

Qevpilum nodded, distantly, and followed the colonel to his office, contemplating the fact that technology which had been meant to save lives had worked, in the anti-metal zone, far worse than that designed for taking them. Yet both, he recognized now more than ever, were crucial in the ascendancy of man. Life, just as much as death, took wisdom.

Life, just as much as death, took strength.

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post #19 of 44 (permalink) Old 12-12-14, 05:44 AM
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INTERLUDE: SUCCESSOR

Fabricator-General Kane of the remnants of the Martian Mechanicum looked down from the battlements silently; but inside his mind, there was a constant buzz of frustration and borderline fury.

It had been bad enough that, exactly when he had redeployed his forces in anticipation of the Order of the Dragon’s help, they had abandoned him, in favor of a charge towards Noctis Labyrinthus, the place where their supposed god was supposedly buried. It had been worse that Captain Viranuar of the Tenth Legion’s Seventy-Fourth Clan-Company had chosen that exact moment to strike.

Kane’s frontal defenses had fallen in a matter of hours. The Iron Hands were almost within range of effectively bombarding his forge. The Mondus Occulum would fall; it was only a matter of time.

But Kane would drag out that time, in hope that some unforeseen confounding factor would enter the otherwise hopeless equations. Several more weeks, he believed.

Lantrane had sent him a regretful, but useless, apologetic message. Her forces had joined the push towards the Dragon; she herself had not, in protest at the war’s conduct. The rest of the Order hadn’t even so much as apologized to their supposed leader. Kane knew he was no Kelbor-Hal, but he also knew he was more competent than the situation implied. It was simply that his position, to the Order, was irrelevant; they placed more emphasis on being the first to embrace their faith. Which, of course, meant their leaders were the greatest fanatics among them.

Kane watched, from far above, the flames on the horizon. They spiraled upwards, and subconscious routines calculated the properties of the wind their motion implied. The routines gained him nothing, of course, but he nevertheless noted that the wind was predominantly northerly, with significant westerly gusts.

The Iron Hands would come, the wind behind them. Kane, out of sheer curiosity, decided to calculate how much sooner Mondus Occulum would fall if this wind continued. He concluded the difference was approximately five seconds.

Kane could try to accomplish something beyond survival in the weeks he had left, but there did not seem to be anything better to do than to fight, or rather to strategize, and take as many Astartes as he could down with him along the road to oblivion.

He wondered about Lantrane’s earlier words, about the Dragon being the only logical explanation that still allowed hope. He would, however, hardly call the dogma of the Order of the Dragon logical. It was a curious mix of mythology and obsession. But perhaps there was still some truth to it, perhaps the dash to Noctis Labyrinthus would unveil something that could turn the war’s tide. The dreams were certainly real, after all, even if there were a million less esoteric explanations for them. In that case, too, Kane’s time was best spent surviving.

The Fabricator-General of about three forges realized his mind was slipping into disorder. He shoved these thoughts aside, aligning them like blocks on the hallway of his mindstream. He had decided on this path, and there was no reason to change it unless new factors came into play.

Resolve, like shining steel, pierced the fog that had grown. He connected the noocables to the watchtower ports and took in a map of the battle. What he saw caused a jolt of dopamine. Viranuar had overcommitted to the center, almost as if he was unaware of Kane’s victory on the western flank. If the Iron Hands kept making strategic mistakes like this one, Kane could actually hold out indefinitely. At the very least, it would allow him three extra days. Kane ordered his forces to cut off Viranuar’s rear guard.

Yes, the Tenth Legion was fighting with endless devotion; and though Kane was a competent military strategist in the Mechanicum’s wargames, he had far less live-ammunition experience than Viranuar certainly did. But – the Fabricator-General suddenly realized – the Iron Hands were decentralized, each of them focused on winning their own small theater, with only a few (like Orth and Rochaar, driving towards Argyre) seeing the bigger picture. They had even been unable to take advantage, in any way, of the Order’s desperate dash for Noctis Labyrinthus. The Iron Hands were fighting, in sum, as though Ferrus Manus was asleep.

Kane dreaded the day the Gorgon would awake.

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Ferrus Manus stood in the strategium, and listened, from great distance, to the footsteps.

Vedumar was coming. For what reason his equerry still cared enough to inform him of the situation across the Red Planet, the Primarch did not know. But, one way or another, Ferrus Manus would now receive an update about the war’s progress.

“My lord?” Vedumar asked.

Ferrus Manus grunted an acknowledgement.

“The battles for Tharsis are going poorly,” Vedumar said. “Much of the north is in chaos. The Order of the Dragon is continuing their push towards Noctis Labyrinthus, and it appears that it will be difficult to stop them before they reach the region. My lord, how bad would it be if they succeeded in breaching the defenses there?”

Ferrus thought back to his and Santar’s discussions with Semyon. Santar, who had almost released the Dragon. Who had succeeded, it seemed, by sidelining the Tenth Primarch when he was needed. But going to war in his state, he would be worse than useless. Everything was collapsing anyhow; why not the universe? “We would lose the war,” he said when he realized Vedumar was waiting for an answer. “And so would they.” That was as much as he could reveal, without risking Vedumar falling to the same madness as Santar.

Perhaps Vedumar would still fall, and he would be alone; but such things were likely irrelevant. He was dying, fading into the iron around him. His physical body was, of course, perfectly fine; but his mind might have been, for all he knew, in the final stages of failure.

“Then we will do our best to avoid it,” Vedumar concluded. “Ulrach Branthan has a new project. His Chaos zealot faction is focusing on the creation of a new weapon – they call it the Obliterator virus. It would allow those infected by it to assimilate weaponry into their very bodies, becoming walking tanks.”

What? On whose authority?!” Ferrus roared in fury.

“His own,” Vedumar stated. “His followers are calling themselves the Ethereal Hands, now. But you understand – with your seclusion, they can hardly –”

“He will stop,” Ferrus said, with the force of a tank. “He must stop!”

“Branthan….” Vedumar descended into thought for a moment. “He might not stop until you kill him. He has become a fanatic, my lord, and not only of the Emperor.”

“Leave!” Ferrus yelled. “Leave now, and make Branthan stop! This virus would destroy the Legion!”

The pattering of Vedumar’s footsteps, departing the hallway outside Ferrus Manus’ strategium, immediately became audible. To his credit, the equerry did not run. Some would, from a Primarch’s wrath. But he did not have the tools to be successful, Ferrus knew.

Thus it ended, his Legion with him. Flesh would fuse with weapon, and weakness would become mad strength. First honor, then passion, and finally resolve would vanish, replaced by a mechanical drive to destroy. They who had created weapons would create themselves, and vanish into the iron around them.

And Ferrus Manus could no longer do anything to stop them. His power over his Legion was lost. His sons would fall with no need for their father. And who would need one such as him, failing, though still raging against the fall of night? He was an impediment to the Legion now. And so, perhaps, were half its members.

The First Company, Clan Avernii, had completed the purge of the Legion having found little disloyalty; and a number of those they did round up had their guilt supported only by questionable evidence. Widespread dissent had been absent. Ferrus had been a beloved leader. So, of course, had been the Emperor.

There were claims that Russ, of all people, was coming to save Prospero, aiding the Crimson King. Reports that between three and ten Primarchs had forsaken their father. Above all, there were stories that Warmaster Horus Lupercal had refused to call his father a god. That the leader of the Imperium’s armed forces had fallen to heresy.

Ferrus hoped all of the tales were wrong. He doubted it. His father’s Imperium was crashing down, like his Legion. But the Emperor, at least, seemed mostly sane. Though would he react better to losing Horus than Ferrus to losing Santar? No – the Warmaster, at least, was loyal. Had to be loyal. He was proud, but not that proud.

Violet smoke poured up from the floor to Ferrus’s side.

The Gorgon turned to face it, confused. But it had not been a hallucination: clumps of violet smoke were, in fact, rising up into the room, seemingly from no source at all, and then vanishing into nothingness. The a face began to appear in the smoke, and Ferrus wanted to close his eyes, to not see a human being again; but he could not, when he saw his brother. His truest brother.

Fulgrim, the Phoenician, white-haired, radiant in his violet armor, stood in spirit before the Gorgon.

“Brother,” Fulgrim said. “Ferrus. The scroll that allowed this contact burned after being used, and I do not know how much time we have, so let us be brief. I have received no more than whispers – what has happened?”

“Mars burns,” Ferrus said. “And Santar is dead, by my hand.”

“A traitor?”

“Aye. He refused to accept the war on Mars, and attempted to release – an ancient evil.”

“Brother,” Fulgrim said, “that saddens me greatly. I have not yet carried out the purges in my own Legion, precisely because I fear to lose one of my favored sons. Solomon Demeter, to be precise. I do not know if he can condone the new Imperial Truth. But Ferrus, we have all lost favored sons before.”

“My own hand, Fulgrim.” But Ferrus had to admit, despite everything, that looking at Fulgrim, as if his brother was standing there, did much to drive away the darkness within him.

“You lost him when he betrayed you and the Emperor,” Fulgrim said, sitting down onto the chair in the strategium of the Pride of the Emperor, where he evidently was. “Everything after that happened no longer to a favored son, but merely to a doomed traitor. But that will not be enough to rouse you, will it?”

“It is not merely the guilt,” Ferrus said. “It is that my Legion is lost, and I am no longer in a position to fix it.”

“You always are,” Fulgrim said, with a slight smile. “You are still their father and commander, and they are calling for you to return. That is how I knew to talk to you, Ferrus; some among them sent a message to me, believing I alone knew the path to your awakening. Your sons have not forsaken you, and most of them, at least, never will. They are Iron Hands, and they know no weakness.”

“We all know weakness,” Ferrus said, and his own lips began to curl into a slight smile.

“Perfection is impossible for ones such as us,” Fulgrim agreed, “but we still strive for it. Listen, Ferrus, you must banish this despair permanently. There is a Medusan meditation technique you have talked about with me – Amautun, I believe it was called.”

“Amautun,” Ferrus agreed. “In better states of mind, I mastered all ten levels of it. And the tenth level could banish emotion, indeed, but not entirely. For me, at least, it would externalize it into a voice. Usually, the voice was weak and easily silenced.” He paused, thinking about his knowledge of the ancient Medusan art. It was useful, certainly, but under these circumstances…. “As deep in the shadows as I am, the tenth level of Amautun would create a powerful voice I could never simply banish. It would haunt my mind every moment of my life. And it is all too likely that, eventually, in an instant of weakness, the voice would attempt to take over my mind.”

“It would not succeed,” Fulgrim said. “Your will is too strong for that.”

“I have hardly been strong,” Ferrus stated, “these past few months. But you are right, brother. I can think of no better way to return to normality, and I have been fading anyhow. And I should last years, at least, before the voice makes its attempt. And if I end, it will not be by fading, but in fury against the madness in my mind. Yes, Fulgrim, you are right. I will delve into Amautun, and what will be will be. I refuse to end here.”

“It would be an ignoble end,” the Phoenician agreed, “for a Primarch. Endure, Ferrus. I know you are able.”

And then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the violet smoke shattered, and with it Fulgrim’s image vanished. Moments later, only the bare walls of the strategium remained. Ferrus stayed, determination renewed by the discussion. He was a Primarch, and if the demons in his mind would in the end claim him, it would not be without a fight. He would rise from this. It had been weakness, extreme and utter weakness, but all flesh was weak, even his, and there was no strength without weakness.

Ferrus cleared the space around him with a single swipe of his hand, sending machinery and dust flying. Then he settled into a silverdusk pose, and crossed his arms an additional time, entering the first level of Amautun.

Almost immediately, the clarity that he had felt while talking to Fulgrim returned, ten times stronger. Relaxed, he understood that Amautun was his best hope, and that the battle for his Legion’s soul was far from over. As, indeed, was the battle for the Imperium’s soul. Mars might regress, but its loss was Terra’s gain – and Medusa’s.

Ferrus went deeper, into the second level of Amautun, and the world around him fell away. He sensed nothing, and yet he was not blind, nor deprived of understanding. He saw shadows. The shadows, perhaps, of eternity. The second level of Amautun was a nearly supernatural one, the closest to such of them all.

He moved into the third level effortlessly. His mind began to think faster; time’s rate changed. Around him, shadows crept slowly, and he tracked the slow expansion and contraction of his hearts over subjective minutes. It was a hundredfold improvement, and it would have been of great use in combat, except that combat broke the illusion – because that was all it was, for mortals. This was less of a problem, however, for Ferrus than for most; or it had been, at least.

Gradually, Ferrus Manus achieved the fourth level, and he felt universal peace. He was one with the solitary flame, which was born of endless clashing of stone on stone. Sparks fluttered around him, and he was every last one of them, each one just as relevant as the others.

With some effort, he raised himself to the fifth level. The world around him returned, but with twisted light and shadow. Rather than see several channels between four hundred and nine hundred nanometers (seven in his case, though more for most other Primarchs), he observed a one-channel image that stretched from one to a thousand nanometers, which with some further focus he knew he could resolve into a hyperspectral image, countless colors that bedazzled even his experienced mind, even on gray worlds like Medusa or Mars.

The sixth level was one of rapid movement – again an illusion for those who were not Primarchs, though an illusion that tended to bring euphoria. Ferrus got up, instantaneously even to his accelerated mind, and re-applied himself. The latter levels of Amautun were the usual reasons Medusans trained in the notoriously difficult art.

He pulled himself onto the seventh level. Clarity and peace were augmented by creation and progress. He was a central spark, and a mania gripped his chest, desiring to forge, to bring forth greatness. Doing so would take concentration, and in the end push him into a deeper despair than before; but in happier times, Ferrus Manus had crafted some of his finest creations on the seventh level of Amautun.

From the second attempt, he pushed into the eighth level. Suddenly each of his senses other than sight returned, in strange fashion, grayscale, but capable of being extended into an ideal array. To have ears so precise they could see light, or a nose that could identify any chemical substance from a single molecule. Even with the altered consciousness Amautun brought, such abilities were mighty indeed. He was not sure how, exactly, it worked with baseline humans, but it did.

The ninth level took five tries. It would bring amplified strength, at the cost of lesser endurance. He had used it against the Emperor, in their duel before he had left Medusa. They had clashed as near-equals for a time, because of that. But then his father had broken his focus, and so Medusa knelt.

And then he soared, will blazing, to the tenth and final level of Amautun. It only took one try, but he sensed his tower was not stable; the third level was on the verge of failure, and with it everything. The tenth level of Amautun was often underestimated, for whereas each of the other levels gave varied and vague effects, the tenth level always had one impact: the ability to shape one’s own mind. It seemed a useless thing. Ferrus had always known it was anything but.

Now the Primarch of the Iron Hands, the Gorgon of the Tenth Legion, slammed his despair into the void of Amautun’s tenth level; and with it, he sent his doubt, his fear, his exhaustion and his inaction, his lack of direction, his excess of wrath, and everything else that opposed his resolve. The tower of Amautun was crumbling, but before he fell, Ferrus Manus pushed his guilt, too, into the void.

They would all return, but as distinct entities, gone from his clouded mind and reborn as independent gremlins. But Ferrus Manus, as he opened his eyes, descending from the first level of Amautun back into simple reality, knew he was reborn. It would not last forever, perhaps, but nothing did.

Ferrus Manus lived once more.

He took a look around himself, contemplating the strategium. It was somewhat of a mess, but no more so than he liked. Turning, he noted the sheet of iron that blocked the entrance.

Ferrus grabbed it, pulling it off the frame, and stared at it for a second before tearing it in half. He’d destroy the pieces later.

“Do you really think that will fix anything?” Santar asked. “You still killed me. Your guilt was real.”

Ferrus whirled around, before realizing Santar’s voice was in his mind, the negative product of his use of Amautun. Of course the voice, strengthened, would take up the tone of his last First Captain. (He could hardly afford to go back on that order of an Avernii Council, and it was a reasonable one in any case; he wasn’t sure any of the Morlocks deserved to be First Captain at the moment.) Snarling, Ferrus Manus pushed Santar’s mimic back, into the recesses of his mind where it deserved to hide.

As he walked to find Vedumar, he considered his options. Branthan had to be stopped, but first he had to make his point clear. Branthan was, in truth, only the most extreme symptom of an underlying problem. His Legion was too used to depending on metal to strengthen themselves. And now, they were trying to do the same thing with the Warp, in ways that were infinitely more dangerous. The Emperor alone had a true mastery of it, and though the Iron Hands could and would learn part of it, the current direction was one of taint. It had to be stopped; and most Iron Hands still followed him.

Vedumar turned at his Primarch’s footsteps behind him. “You’re back?!” he asked, somewhat incredulously.

“That I am,” Ferrus Manus said with a grin. “I discussed the matter with Fulgrim, and he… clarified certain things.” Amautun was a secret art, and knowledge of it was limited to its practitioners. The Phoenician had mastered its first three levels; he could probably have reached more, if not for his focus on learning a level rock-solidly before moving on to the next. Fulgrim’s towers would take much more effort than Ferrus’s, but they would never collapse as his own had.

“Wonderful,” Vedumar said. “Is your opinion on Branthan the same?”

“I still believe he must be stopped,” the Gorgon answered, “and not just him. The Legion is on a road to ruin, to becoming subject to the whims of the Warp. But it will not be an easy process, and it must be me that does it.”

Vedumar nodded. “What will be your first order of business, my lord?”

“Announcing the new direction,” Ferrus replied. “Is the command center unaltered?”

The equerry smiled as he opened the door. “Still decorated according to your last specifications.”

“Then I shall tell the Legion to stop poisoning itself himself from here.”

They walked into the room, screens flickering around them. Ferrus Manus sat down in the command throne and ran a hand across the control board, revealing his leading subordinates. He realized, now, more clearly how easily the war could be won. Even if Orth and Rochaar lost the south, it would be two-thirds of a year at most. The tech-priests were brilliant in their calculations, but predictable; Ferrus already saw, without really trying, the paths to crush the resistance. And, of course, the Order of the Dragon’s mad rush for Noctis Labyrinthus, though dangerous in its own way, allowed the Iron Hands to set abundant traps.

“Iron Hands,” Ferrus Manus told every single one of his sons on Mars, vocally to those that could afford the distraction and in text to those that could not. “In recent times, our Legion has embraced the teachings of Lorgar on the ways of the Warp, and of the philosophy known as Chaos. That is not, in itself, wrong. If we were the Word Bearers, or the Thousand Sons, it would be only right and proper.

“But we are the Tenth Legion, and our path, at the moment, passes through Mars. We must not dive into forces we cannot understand in a time when precision, and preservation of what knowledge can be saved, is so crucial.

“And, as such, I hereby unilaterally ban all activities and experiments involving the Warp on the Red Planet, until further notice.”

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