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.”
? 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.”
“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.”