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post #31 of 44 (permalink) Old 09-25-15, 05:57 PM
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bravo i apologise i have not been well of late that, and lack of inspiration lately has left me feeling a little berift...i will be getting back into this, just needed a break....

well done my friend.
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post #32 of 44 (permalink) Old 06-07-16, 07:54 AM
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I have no excuses for this delay, nor guarantees for future update schedules. But here's another chapter, at least.



CHAPTER TWELVE

The command barge of Overlord Anrakyr of Pyrrhia hurtled through the tunnels south of Noctis Labyrinthus, with every turn getting closer to the Dragon’s haven. On it, Anrakyr himself stood tall, a brilliant blue halberd standing adjacent and ready to be grabbed at less than a moment’s notice.

Srequi Lantrane, formerly a Magos of the Adeptus Mechanicus, stood next to him, exchanging information with the xeno artificial intelligence. It was an act utterly forbidden and antithetical to the Mechanicum’s ideals. Somehow, despite Lantrane’s clear guilt, she felt not a trace of doubt about this path. The times were too desperate, and the exchange of information too fascinating.

Perhaps she was a traitor to the human race, but withholding something wouldn’t change that, not by this point. Besides, Anrakyr was being increasingly open, himself. She respected that.

“Wait,” she said. “All those heroes are male. Was there a strong gender dichotomy in your species?” She was no xenologist, but she knew that a number of alien species had such a trait.

“Ah, gender,” Anrakyr observed. “A fascinating concept, but one foreign to us. Necrontyr biology made no distinction between male and female. Some Old One philosophers tried to explain that through the toxic light of our star, but there are other exceptions to the two-gender rule: the Swirenn were also unisex, for instance, and the Kinelux had three sexes. A minor species in the galactic northeast, known as the Eureur, had no less than five genders, with certain sets of three being able to produce offspring. I believe they went extinct due to underpopulation. Even the Orks were mono-gendered, though the Old Ones designed them themselves.”

“The Orks? Green, belligerent fungoids? They existed in your time?”

“Yes,” Anrakyr observed, “designed as weapons against us, during the War in Heaven. When I discovered they still plagued the galaxy to this day, I was extremely displeased. There were other species, too, though none of them were successful in stopping our advance.”

“The Orks were our strongest foes in the Great Crusade,” Lantrane said. “But why were they designed as a weapon? It seems illogical to create a weapon you could not control.”

“They were more unified, when facing a unilateral threat. Moreover, they have undergone a devolution over the epochs. West or east?”

“West,” Lantrane said. “And then we should emerge to the forbidden regions of the Labyrinth, which I have no data on.”

“I should be able to detect the Dragon soon enough,” Anrakyr said. “How big were the greatest Ork empires you faced during the Crusade?”

“Only a few hundred worlds,” Lantrane admitted, “though most of those were nomadic.”

“That is still likely to pose a significant difficulty, especially if those realms were left unstressed for some time. Which they would have been, from your tales of ‘Old Night’. If there were no major galactic powers, that is.”

Before Lantrane could reply, the barge screeched to a halt. It took a microsecond longer than it should have for Lantrane to realize why.

A man, an adept of the Mechanicum, was standing before them. He looked almost baseline human, if one could ignore the fact that he had no less than ten arms instead of two. He wore a work robe, and his hair – with only a few mechatendrils within it – was more truly silver than gray. There were blades in his belt, and he looked like he knew how to use them better than most skitarii. But his stance was not hostile.

“I am Adept Semyon,” he said. “Who are you, and what is your purpose here?”

“I am Anrakyr of Pyrrhia,” the Overlord replied, “and I desire to take knowledge from the Dragon, and prevent its escape.”

“You are not lying,” Semyon said, “and… any allies will do, I suppose. Come with me. I am the Guardian of the Dragon, and I dread that I will be the last.”

He beckoned them off the command barge, and then Lantrane and Anrakyr followed him down, through metallic caverns that were barely recognizable as having, once, been simple service corridors.

“Anrakyr,” he said. “You seem to be aware of what the Dragon is, but then you also know that it will not be cooperative.”

“If it will not, then I will kill it,” the Overlord said. “It is a mere shard. And I do have information of my own to offer it, if necessary.”

Semyon looked unsure, at that.

“I was being serious,” Anrakyr said, “about helping your defenses. They were hastily erected, and though I cannot help long, my race’s technology is superior to yours.”

“They were hastily erected, yes, because Kelbor-Hal would not have allowed any to pass here in the Order’s service. There was no need for severe defenses.”

“A risk like this deserved extreme defenses regardless,” Anrakyr observed. “But the trap will defend itself, better than much of what your people could achieve anyhow.”

“Well,” Semyon stated, “I can’t… I won’t refuse your aid. Thank you. And as for you, Magos Lantrane?”

“I was Anrakyr’s guide through the tunnels of Mars.” Lantrane focused her gaze on Anrakyr. “Anrakyr, may I accompany you into the Dragon’s haven? Take whatever precautions you deem necessary. I only want to see this fragment of malevolent power. And I have nowhere else to go, anyhow. Wrought Axis has fallen to the Iron Hands.”

“So be it,” Anrakyr stated.

Semyon looked somewhat flabbergasted, but chose not to argue with the ancient machine. “In… that case, follow me. Preferably on foot.”

Lantrane dismounted, and Anrakyr followed, after directing his barge to park itself in place. The hovercraft attached itself to the tunnel floor; given her prior awareness of the Necrons’ technology, she doubted it could was physically possible to dislodge it, at least without destroying it. They followed Semyon’s brisk pace through the branching corridors, most of which gently sloped either up or down. It was a labyrinth indeed, reproducing in microscale the terrain of the surface – or something similar, at least.

They walked in silence, and Lantrane again contemplated her three betrayals. Together, they had combined to turn her away from Mars and mankind. And yet she still could not wait to see the Dragon’s face (if it had a face), to encounter a being mortals were supposedly not meant to know. It was not, she was forced to admit, a question of whether she had turned to darkness. It was a question of whether she had always been doomed to do just that.

They came to a staircase, a winding helix cut from basaltic rock, and Semyon led them downwards, stepping carefully and occasionally skipping a dilapidated step. The circular wall was carved with intricate murals, perhaps crafted by Semyon himself and his predecessors during their endless vigil.

They descended hundreds of meters into the Martian crust, before at last the stair turned into a flat corridor. Anrakyr gave an appreciative hum.

“The spatial confounders were good enough to fool my sensors,” he remarked. “Impressive, for such a young race.”

“We aren’t that young,” Lantrane felt obliged to say. “Thirty thousand years is more than some other galactic powers.”

“Not infantile,” Anrakyr accepted. “But young.”

They walked into a large marble cube, which Semyon’s touch caused to slide apart to reveal a narrow second-order tunnel. They passed through that tunnel, and Lantrane was painfully aware of the turrets aimed at the party, stationed throughout the passage. Most of them were thankfully completely inactive, not even in sentry mode.

It was a dark place, barely lit at all by the occasional lamp. It was also almost bereft of metal, unlike most locations on Mars. A bizarre location, by the Red Planet’s standards. But perhaps it had to be such, to be a cage for this monster?

Srequi Lantrane did not pretend like she knew; but she chose not to ask, because she doubted Semyon would respond well.

They walked on, through three heavy and unmarked gates. The fourth was carved with binary, warning of doom to the one who entered. It presented a convincing argument for why the Dragon’s sanctum was not worth entering – a completely false argument, but a convincing one nonetheless.

Semyon pushed the gates open. They, unlike the previous ones, did not take in his bio-signature. Instead, they were protected by nothing except grandiose claims of destruction that, somehow, understated the true danger of what the vault contained. They merely promised death to the owner’s family, after all, not to everyone on Mars.

The three metallic humanoids walked across a hall towards the doors at its other end. Their path was convex, as if they were walking along a lying cylinder. Its sides dropped off into a gaping pit.

“Lantrane,” Semyon said, “once we pass the door, you will stay with me.” He clasped one of her hands in one of his own, quite firmly, to signify. “I have not forgotten your past membership in the Order.”

Holding her hand in one of his own right hands, and Anrakyr’s in one of his left, Semyon, the Guardian of the Dragon, passed through the final door without opening it, and entered the chamber of the Dragon.

It was like a primitive world’s cathedral, but instead of light reflected through glass, it was filled with darkness reflected through fiber optics. And in the center of the darkness, there stood a vast machine, roughly octahedral in shape, holding within itself a greenish, eldritch light that seeped through the cracks. It was as beautiful as any marvel of technology Lantrane had seen, intricate to the nanoscale and presumably beyond, combining the best of human technology with a slight sliver of xenotech.

“Oh Dragon of Mars,” Anrakyr of Pyrrhia said, in a voice far more assured than even the one Lantrane had heard him use previously. “Oh Great Shard of Mag’ladroth. Black hope, soul breather, sun farmer. I will have words with thee.”

And the green mist within the massive octahedron spoke in response.

“The human language, slave-rebel-prince?”

“The human language, false-god-shard.” Anrakyr had let go of Semyon’s hand, and moved to the front of the adepts, holding his halberd at a threatening tilt. “My question is simple. Where is our king?”

“Szarekh,” the Dragon of Mars said, and Lantrane shook with the strength of its hate. Her noocables, despite being specifically insulated against the Dragon, were picking up much from the eldritch being.

Why was she still here, standing, learning from the Dragon? Should she not be killing it, running from it, liberating it?

“Szarekh, the Silent King,” Anrakyr of Pyrrhia agreed, like an equal. And here, at this intersection, an equal he was, backlit by the green fire of the Dragon, and aflame with cerulean force himself. “Where is he?”

“Very well,” the Dragon said, purring like a mechanical feline, “but there shall be a price. A simple one. The female Adept.”

Her. Was that what she was, in the end? A price to be paid? She was… strangely accepting of the concept. It was poetically correct. The inhuman’s inhuman doom, for tampering with forces beyond her comprehension.

“No,” Anrakyr firmly stated. “No more sacrifices.”

“That is my price,” the Dragon replied. “My only offer.”

“Then I shall kill you,” Anrakyr said. Lantrane felt a shiver pass through her biological components. Anrakyr’s defiance was not for her, it was out of principle, but still it was wrong.

“She will not end,” the Dragon stated. “Merely die.” A common Mechanicum platitude, said to reassure adepts with the fact that their mechanical components would be recycled. Lantrane was not sure if Anrakyr knew that, but she could not interrupt at a point like this.

“No,” Anrakyr said, more furiously than before. “Nevermore. And you will end.”

“I would curse you, as the Flayer had.”

“You are a mere shard,” Anrakyr responded. “You may kill me, but you will not destroy our kind.”

“How certain of that are you? And how certain are you that you can kill me? Your weapons are mighty, but no Talismans of Vaul.”

Anrakyr was silent.

“You know it will take more than her to free me,” the being within the octahedron declared. “It would be a souvenir, nothing more.”

“No,” Anrakyr repeated, and slowly began to raise his halberd.

“Yes,” Srequi Lantrane answered, knowing well that it would be her last word.

She jerked her hand out of Semyon’s, running towards the Dragon’s prison. Semyon tried to hold his grip firm, but Lantrane’s cybernetics were too strong for that. With inhuman speed, she saw from behind as he raised an arm, the tip of a cannon emerging from it. But the Guardian would be too late; any shot would risk hitting the cage. Anrakyr, meanwhile, stepped aside. His facial expression was unchanged and unreadable; Lantrane had no idea what the Overlord thought of her sacrifice.

Probably that it was idiotic. Perhaps even that she was under the Dragon’s influence. But she was not, merely certain. She had betrayed everything, every commander, every ideal, except for knowledge. And now, allowing Anrakyr and the Dragon to clash would be a betrayal of that last thing.

She placed her flesh hand into a crack on the Dragon’s cage, almost muttering a prayer to the Omnissiah on reflex; and it slid apart, ever so slightly. Green mist poured out, disassembling and transforming her body and mind.

She was Srequi Lantrane of the Wrought Axis. And she would die as Srequi Lantrane of the Wrought Axis, for whatever Anrakyr had planned. An iron dawn, to avoid final dusk.

Her mind focused on that point. An iron dawn, to avoid final dusk. There were drums, she felt. She had never died before, but wondered whether it had always been like this. Eternity stretched out, and she was at the end of it all. The last black holes evaporated, as a world that had never been descended into the void of heat death. Nothing remained.

This was not real. This was not even a past reality. This was merely her mindscape, here at the end.

No. This was not apocalypse, she mind-pushed upon the world around her. This was her end, but the universe’s beginning.

And something was reborn. A vast metal sphere, built of nickel protected against proton decay by the energies of hope and fear combined. The radiation that fled those black holes, collected eons of information, entered and swirled, following equations Srequi Lantrane could not quite comprehend. The doctrines of chance assaulted it, trying to break pieces off by ancient law. This was right, the natural order of things. So all things ended –

“No,” she said, everywhere and nowhere at once. The end was but one last shadow. “An iron dawn, to avoid final dusk.”

And in her acceptance and refusal, the metal shattered, flying out as iron embers, and igniting as copper stars. Light, physically impossible and physically inevitable, flared across a dark universe for the first time in many trillions of eons.

The universe was alive again. Different, eternal, stripped of weakness and initial power. But it would never know death again. It was death, but it was not the end, and would never be.

Metal multiplied, and she saw its promise. It would multiply, fill the entire universe. Block out the void, replace it with endless crystal. Block out the light.

“No,” she said again, with more certainty than before, and the universe shifted again, less willingly, but in rhythm with her dedication. Metal slowed, eroding and being recreated in rhythm. It was a universal-scale orrery, now. A calm and quiet home. Orderly. Safe from all possible dangers. Safe from –

Safe from knowledge, and newness, and identity.

She was Srequi Lantrane, magos of the Martian Mechanicum. She had betrayed everything for knowledge. She would never surrender that final, fatal quest.

“No!” she screamed. To avoid final dusk….

An iron dawn.

Srequi Lantrane of Mars did not open her eyes. She merely began to see through them.

Anrakyr stood before her, holding his halberd as stalwartly ever. Semyon was using four of his ten hands to scratch various parts of his head. And the green mist lit up the room, enough to let her see her reflection on the wall behind Semyon.

She was human once again – or, rather, she was thus at first glance, an adult human woman some would even consider attractive by baseline standards. Except this was only true approximately, in shape. For her skin was now built of the same silvery, flowing metal as Anrakyr’s, in every part of her body, not a touch of organic matter remaining within her. She had not regained her humanity, but instead surrendered it completely.

“Overlord Anrakyr,” she spoke in Gothic, though it seemed strange and half-forgotten to form the words. “This is how the Necrontyr concluded?”

“How we leaders were,” Anrakyr stated. “I am not sure if your retaining your mind was the shard’s intention; but you should have Szarekh’s location in your memory.”

“This… doesn’t feel so terrible,” Lantrane remarked. “Stronger, more intelligent, still sapient…. But there is something… absent?”

“There is,” Anrakyr said, as he motioned Lantrane and Semyon to leave. “Your soul.”

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post #33 of 44 (permalink) Old 07-01-16, 09:55 PM
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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Durak Rask fired the lascannon off his shoulder, the shot hammering into an Iron Hand Cerberus tank. Said tank appeared unaffected, but Rask risked aiming the next shot at a location where schematics, running through the display on Rask’s helmet, suggested a dangerous breach.

It hit, jamming the tank’s treads. Next to Rask, Atigrarin and Mnisen Ipharoj discharged their own weapons; the hits were good enough, disabling the tank’s primary cannon.

The tank’s crew appeared confused; one Iron Hand popped out of the tank, looking for the Death Guard. Ipharoj took the distant shot, and it was true; the Iron Hand sank back into the hatch with a severe head wound. Not immediately lethal, not against a Space Marine, but without immediate attention from an Apothecary it could easily become thus.

Atigrarin was already retreating through the tunnel where the Death Guard had positioned themselves, and Rask followed him alongside Ipharoj. The two tanks to the Cerberus’s side – Rask could not immediately discern their pattern, as they had been heavily modified – fired at them, but they lacked a clear shot. One did ensure the collapse of an arch, crushing a blasting station in the abandoned complex, along with the data within. Yet another piece of industry, and perhaps of knowledge, lost.

It was the sort of thing that would irritate the tech-priests, and for that reason alone Rask had trained himself to notice it. At the moment, it would be frustrating for the Iron Hands alone.

The three Death Guard retreated from their sally, footsteps muffled on the inevitably metallic floor. The tunnels evolved into a maze, albeit not a particularly complicated one, by Rask’s standards. At the fourth intersection, Omserg Rayubll and Zawarar Zawarco stood at the ready, Rayubll nursing a charred arm.

“This way of war is… unusual,” Rayubll remarked.

“Unusual, yes,” Rask admitted. “A defensive siege is far from Legion norm. But fighting a defensive war at all is far from Legion norm, even Crusade norm. And on a planet as full of power as Mars, with the odds against us as much as they are, we must utilize every advantage we have – and intuition, and through it unpredictability, is among the greatest of those. Thus, for instance, the tech-priests’ success against mechanical Iron Hand strategies before Ferrus Manus’s more creative mind took the reins of the campaign. The tech-priests had more computing power, and while both sides were using the same tactics, the tech-priests came out ahead despite a huge disadvantage in firepower.”

Rayubll nodded, with a bit of difficulty.

“Five minutes to the apothecarion,” Rask said. “Let’s go.”

His squad needed no further urging. They trod, quicker than Death Guard generally did, the path back to the Magma City.

Back to the forge they were here to protect, against hopeless odds. So far, the Iron Hands had not truly tested its defenses, concentrating on crushing the Order of the Dragon. This bought vast amounts of valuable time, but such a cornucopia was finite, indeed already ending. The first assault was coming, today.

Wernitian had already evacuated, as had the Fabricator-General. They had lacked a good reason to stay, having given over command of the siege of the Magma City to Rask. Koriel Zeth, however, had stayed. She was organizing the evacuation, endlessly optimizing and re-optimizing paths of saving knowledge, providing an inspirational presence to the tech-priests when it was necessary, and advising Rask on the siege. She did not fight on the front lines, although from the one time she did, Rask concluded that her augmentations made her approximately equal to an Astarte in close combat; her logistical position was more important.

And she had concluded that Rask and his Death Guard would be sufficient to save the Magma City from today’s offensive. Rask was not entirely sure that this was the case, although it seemed likely; the Iron Hands were not to be underestimated. For all their mechanical grafts, at the core they were Astartes.

Rask had lost almost three dozen of his men over the weeks of ceaseless fighting, nearly half of that in the single operation consisting of rescuing Kane and his men. One dead from his own squad – Min Vojjomer, a recent addition who had nevertheless possessed the makings of an excellent strategist, with the potential to rise to officer status in a decade or two.

Not that early death was unusual for Astartes. Rask’s concern was more out of uncertainty that anything would be left of the Legion as a whole, in a decade or two.

No. Mortarion remained, Mortarion led the Legion, and he would never allow true disaster to come to it. Rask had no need to worry about events above him. All that mattered was Mars.

The five Death Guard came into the Magma City through one of the tunnels. Those paths were constantly and randomly being modified by Zeth, attempting to ensure any intelligence on back entrances into the Magma City would be outdated within a day. When the ring of Iron Hands would close around the forge more tightly, the tunnels would simply be collapsed, as best as possible; but for now, they allowed a means of communication with Mars outside.

Not that there was much to communicate with, on Mars outside. But sallies, salvage operations, and the like retained their importance.

“Zawarco,” Rask ordered as they crossed a threshold into the Magma City proper, “accompany Rayubll to the Apothecarion. Brothers Ipharoj and Atigrarin, come with me.”

Zawarco grunted, and the group split. Ipharoj and Atigrarin flanked Rask as he ascended the Magma City’s catwalks, passing by the lava lake itself. They walked past marvelous monuments to human industry without comment. Rask, at least, had grown used to them. Indeed, he could by now see the saddened, weakened state of the machinery that the siege had induced. But for all of that, Magma City remained impressive, especially for one who had spent most of his life fighting on barely civilized planets.

Yes, Magma City remained impressive – even here, at its dusk.

“Commander, the Iron Hands are approaching weapons range,” Lgalun voxed to Rask.

“I’ll be at the command post within the minute,” the Master of Ordnance responded, even as he finished ascending the last staircase and entered the room occupying the uppermost position on the Magma City’s walls.

Countless displays, physical and projected, with knobs and buttons of all sorts. Rask had put days into understanding the details of the post, but he was fairly certain the time had not been wasted. An Adept, of course, would have put a number on that; Rask did not need to. Koriel Zeth stood ready, as did Zecusor Falenatak, Lgalun being on the complex’s other side. Zeth and Falenatak both greeted Rask with a small, efficient gesture before returning to coordinating their sections of the battlefield.

Rask took the scene in instantaneously. The Iron Hands were charging, tanks and Astartes and everything else, at a weak point in the walls. The shield had been weakened, and had no chance of holding the Tenth Legion off.

But it was enough to delay the Iron Hands, and easily thus. Responding shots from the Magma City hammered into the Iron Hand formation, even as it gathered in front of the shield. It would take long minutes before they broke through, and a retreat was already appearing more likely –

A flash, and the shield was gone.

The command post shook with the rest of Magma City as round after round, no longer blocked, punched without regard for accuracy into the complex’s walls. Zeth seemed to freeze, recalculating the situation; Falenatak did not, and neither did Rask. The defenders still had the advantage; Rask sent a servitor task force to slow the Iron Hands down, Sofev’s and Riolasa’s squads among them. Shortly before battle was joined, three land mines went off.

Rask’s hands were itching for a trigger or a sword. Glancing to his left, he recognized Zeth had recovered; with that in mind, he dashed to the firing slit and fired three shells into the Iron Hands’ midst, before returning to management.

“Readings bizarre,” Falenatak observed. “They’re using sorcery!”

“Warp anomalies – of course…” Zeth muttered in Gothic. She was likely unleashing a far more detailed tirade in binary.

The infantry ran into the Iron Hands, and that was when the Iron Hands’ infantry began to change. Hands turned to claws, titanic horns sprouting from hands. Spikes emerged from every conceivable position on the Iron Hands’ bodies.

By all rights, this mutation should have disoriented the Iron Hands. Of course, it wouldn’t. Sorcery was a unique form of affront to existence. Truly, they were imitating the tyrants….

But Durak Rask was no longer a useless child. He was a guardian of death, a son of Mortarion. And there had been a third squad among the infantry. A useless squad, almost, having lost its focus – but not its will.

Sergeant Mineceno screamed benedictions to order itself, to Barbarus and resistance, to Mortarion and resilience, and to all that was right in the world. His battle-cries were audible, even over the cannonfire, from Rask’s command post. They had been the ravings of a madman, not so long ago. But Rask had found the right words, and Mineceno was now a fanatic, not a weakness.

And Sofev’s and Riolasa’s squads, shockingly, followed him. They regrouped around him, blades shining in the early, blue Martian dusk.

They had attacked at dusk. Rask had not registered that before, somehow. They had attacked at dusk; and now they were paying the price. To sorcery-addled minds, the tricks of the light that the Fourteenth embraced became only more severe. The Iron Hands’ bodies were as strong as ever, but their minds were distracted.

And, even as Magma City continued to shake, the Death Guard continued to kill.

Rask did not fire, now. He did not need to. Tanks went up in smoke, artillery toppled, and demon-Astartes were rent apart by their cousins. Sofev’s and Riolasa’s squads were beginning a gradual retreat, for Rask knew well that – given time – the Iron Hands would regroup. They still had a real numerical advantage, and were Astartes. They had not despaired, either, even slightly; their mechanical components made sure of as much. The only reason that they were reeling was that Mineceno’s devoted desperation was unexpectedly effective against their sorcery.

But, before the Iron Hands could indeed regroup, the hammer fell. Sostoar’s squad had arrived on the Red Planet without tanks, intended to fight as infantry; but if there was anything the fourth world of Sol was not lacking in, now, it was tanks. Many had been broken, but Magma City possessed excellent repair facilities.

Sostoar’s squad charged in, one Astarte a tank (the rest of the crew was servitors, whom the Death Guard had extensively trained with beforehand, giving at least some semblance of coordination). The Iron Hands did not run, but their movements were instants slower, now. They no longer outnumbered the Death Guard, and their flesh recognized that the assault was lost with no true retreat plan.

Magma City’s guns fell quiet, all at once, when no Iron Hands were still standing. It took two more minutes for the last of them to stop breathing.

The battlefield was far from silent.

Distant guns and orbital bays deployed ruinous cargo into the forge complex’s heart. The shield remained down, after all. Rask glanced at Zeth with a side of worry; if the shield did not return, an immediate evacuation would be necessary.

The assault had been fought back, but the war for Mars would still be lost – and, quite possibly, lost far sooner than Rask had expected. Mineceno’s squad had suffered, too, as had Sofev’s; Riolasa’s, equipped with the best tech, had suffered the least but had still suffered four down. The servitors were almost all wrecked. And yet the Iron Hands had suffered far, far worse.

“It’s rebooting already,” Zeth said with a neutral expression, and Rask smiled. “Production will be damaged, but I’ve fixed the security vulnerabilities. If this had happened in a larger assault, Magma City would have fallen.”

Rask nodded. The assault was not one he would have described as small, but it was somewhat unpracticed, to his eye. And rushed – very much rushed. It seemed as if the Iron Hand leader had charged forward for political reasons, and underestimated the defending Astartes in the process. Politics, in the Tenth Legion, had generally been simple, but that was not to say toothless, and Rask did not know what feud had grown this time.

It did not matter, not particularly. The Alpha Legion or Raven Guard would have exploited the division in the Iron Hands to their benefit, in Rask’s place; but then, they would not have still been here, to be aware of it. The victory had been a closer thing than it could have appeared; as the force shield shimmered into existence into Magma City, Rask allowed himself a glance back onto his Legion’s ideals.

They had won today by the true measure of perfection. The artists of the Emperor’s Children saw perfection as accomplished on the strategic level; but no plan could be perfect against a competent enemy. In the Great Crusade the Legions had steamrolled their enemies, only a minority of which qualified as competent. This war of cousins would not be like that.

There would be destruction, and attrition, but there would also be ever a place for individual brilliance. Perfection was not a goal, it was a method; it was not practiced, though training was of course essential, but done. And his Death Guard, both those on the front line and those manning the walls, had used that method to the end of destroying evil. The Iron Hands had embraced tyranny, and sorcery, and most everything that the Fourteenth stood against. And yet they had not eliminated weakness, by eliminating flesh.

For in a world of iron, where instinct was half-forgotten but still unfaded, flesh was not weakness. It was strength.

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The forces of the Order of the Dragon had been bled dry, in the sludge rivers of the Iapygian Sink and the chaoses of eastern Valles Marineris. They had lost countless servitors, skitarii, and pieces of machinery. Now they charged into the canyons of Noctis Labyrinthus, barely outnumbering the Iron Hands, having given up nearly every other stronghold on Mars.

But Ferrus Manus knew that the Martian Schism was far from won. For the Dragon was a lie, but not a fiction.

Column upon column of Titans and superheavy tanks were moving into the narrow valleys, bringing down much of the terrain as they walked or rode. There were other contraptions, too, bizarre and without known weaknesses. Such experimental designs were, of course, likely to have twice as many unknown ones.

Ferrus would leave the mop-up to his Legion, if Noctis Labyrinthus stood. The only potentially problematic fortress was the Magma City, defended by rebel Death Guard. There was a mystery there, some unknown method of interstellar transport, but it was unlikely to be retrievable, post-siege. Infiltrators would have a better chance; he’d discussed the possibility with the few loyal tech-priests, albeit they had in the main resisted, claiming infeasibility. But nothing in Magma City could compare to the Dragon’s danger.

Semyon was next to incommunicado, but had at least assured Ferrus that he was still loyal, merely retreating again to the realm of far legend. It was quite suboptimal timing. The defense around the Dragon’s tomb was under the command of Iron Father Sabik Wayland, with Iron Fathers Uninum and Dolgerigh taking up identical positions around two decoys. The rest of the Iron Hands were deployed around the Labyrinth, in positions that maximized mobility. It was an arrangement designed to take the Order’s assault apart, and to capitalize on their single-mindedness, leaving no opportunity for retreat. Nothing would remain of the Order’s army.

“But,” Gabriel Santar said, “your chase for total victory will only open the door for a total loss.”

Ferrus didn’t even twitch at the hallucination. It had remained remarkably consistent, though it usually talked more about the incipient schism with Branthan’s Ethereal Hands than the war itself. The schism may, however, have indeed been a greater problem. The Dragon – Ferrus was far from sure, even, whether the Order was capable of releasing it.

He could have set up a greater defensive perimeter, devoted more forces to preventing a breakthrough, but he had judged that possibility remote enough with the current setup. Now, standing on a rocky pinnacle towards the upper part of the Labyrinth and gazing upon the first shots, far below, Ferrus Manus wondered whether he should have been more cautious.

The distant sky, to a human eye, was simply the red of the pristine Martian soil. Ferrus saw in detail the fires rising from multicolored forge complexes, markings of battle. In reality, projectiles creating fire were only a small part of the destructive force the sides were hurling at one another, albeit the most visible one.

A large detachment of Clan Avernii, the Morlocks, surrounded Ferrus’s clifftop watch. They stood silent, but ever at the ready to follow him into the heat of war. Ranu Urgdosev, the leader of this detachment, handed his Primarch a data-slate, and Ferrus glanced at it. It described an experimental Mechanicum crawler, dubbed the Vanadium class by the Iron Hands, which the Order was using in large numbers. Ferrus assimilated the information in seconds and looked back at the horizon, where battle was drawing ever closer to him.

In fact, it was drawing closer too fast. The Order tanks’ speed was impossible, especially given that many of their models had specifications already known to the Iron Hands. But, regardless, each tank was dashing through the maze at half again, or more, the speed it was designed for.

“The Order has redesigned their tanks for speed,” Ferrus voxed to the relevant part of the Legion. “Assume all speeds to be approximately doubled.” Many were more than that, some less, but without more of an inkling about the mechanism Ferrus could not know for sure.

The enemy front, shooting forward, was far from constant. Indeed, Ferrus saw that the tanks that had been most sped up were concentrated in a few spearheads. One were approaching his position, by now, and he ordered the Morlocks to begin descent. For himself, he gazed at the traitors’ army for several more seconds before understanding.

It was bizarre, by non-Warp physics, but not technically impossible even in that regime. The Vanadiums, somehow, were more than fast themselves. They sped up the tanks, and even the Titans, around them. It was almost a segregated fast-time field, albeit a mild one. The actual mechanism was not obvious, but Ferrus had to respect the invention. He appended those conclusions to the Vanadiums’ dossier, recalling that this capability had never been shown before.

And then, as he began to contemplate redeployment, a Vanadium-led formation drove into the waiting Morlocks. Urgdosev’s Astartes unleashed a minor firestorm, even as mines took out the two leading tanks; but the Vanadium itself was unharmed, having hung back.

Ferrus did not hesitate, as the Morlocks began to assault the tanks. In battle, there was no time for contemplation; and it was long since time for him to enter battle.

He leapt down from the cliff, diving directly into the Vanadium. He tore its central cogitator apart with his silver hands, servitors tiny compared to him firing uselessly and inaccurately. And then, and only then, he unlatched Fireblade from his side and pointed it at the servitors.

The servitors froze, their flesh unable to deny a Primarch’s aura. It would only have been several seconds before their mechanical components would have pulled them into a lumber again, but with two strokes of the sword Fulgrim had forged him, all five of the mechanical homunculi died. Ferrus spared a glance for the strange add-ons on the engine, which he assumed were responsible for the speed increase, before sweeping his gaze around the battlefield. The Morlocks held, as he had known they would, and so Ferrus turned to face the Order’s column once again.

That was when the next tank fired at him.

It was a close shot, not enough to completely destroy Ferrus’s shoulder armor but enough to make him bleed. Ferrus skidded a few centimeters back, bracing, before the tank drove directly into the Primarch. Ferrus lowered his arms and, gunfire bouncing off his armor, raised the tank’s front end and sending it into the air, flipping it into the following one. They collided, creating an adamantium plug that entirely blocked the passage.

Another tank, its speed still augmented by the remnants of the Vanadium’s field, lost control and slammed into the roadblock. Further behind, the back half of the column crawled to a controlled stop. A number of them began firing into the rock, trying to excavate a tunnel around the charred metal in front of them; curiously, none tried to turn around. That was what Ferrus would have done, in their place, because the slower path would avoid engagement with a supported Primarch. Their road to victory was – but no, that was only a road to Ferrus’s defeat. To actually win, they would need to attack the Primarch. Or, was this simply a matter of fanaticism, of thinking that the miniscule chance of getting through Ferrus was preferable to the certainty of arriving to the Dragon’s lair late, if at all?

It was hard to tell, but as the Morlocks walked up behind him, Ferrus realized that it did not matter. His course was the same either way. He turned to face his sons.

“Squads Buahaan, Tadhesfaw – hold the slopes. Everyone else, with me! For the Emperor! The flesh is weak!”

“The flesh is weak!” the Morlocks echoed. Urgdosev himself was second onto the barricade, barely behind Ferrus himself. The Astartes breached the roadblock and leapt, from above, after their Primarch onto the tanks below. Bolter shots rang out, as did the sound of hammers meeting plate.

The Order’s tanks had been trapped, and now the Iron Hands swept them away. Ferrus Manus tracked every Morlock’s position as they fell onto the Order of the Dragon, but the majority of his focus remained in front of him. After wrenching a cannon off a modified Valdor, he sheathed his sword and used it as a massive club, gradually crumpling it as he continued forward, dodging regular shots. It created an illusion of savagery, which he was only happy to encourage. Indeed, to distant observers, Astartes were often seen as techno-barbarians. Whether that was true depended on one’s definition of barbarism.

Behind him, the din of battle continued. By now, despite their obsession, some of the rear tanks were beginning to calculate their doom. Only Urgdosev’s squad had kept up with Ferrus, but that was quite enough. Ferrus liked them quite a bit – it was a peculiar combination of strength and weakness, and a young one, but every one of them held promise well above Morlock average.

“For the Emperor!” Urdgosev bellowed, as the squad charged after its Primarch, towards the column’s back. Ferrus needed to win here, both the skirmish and the battle, in the most decisive fashion; and then, perhaps, his reputation, and more importantly pride, would somewhat recover. But in this valley, at least, the resistance seemed to be reasonably weak. He hoped that his temporary absence from command, having given over overall direction of the battle to Iron Father Wayland and Captain Sfacay, would not prove a mistake; but both those commanders, he trusted to be capable, and so he focused on the here and now.

Throwing away the cannon’s remnants, Ferrus once more unsheathed Fireblade and carved into an unknown tank’s engine. It sputtered, leading Ferrus to throw himself to the ground. The explosion duly came, washing over his back; it would have blackened his armor if that had not already been its color.

Several minutes of clashing metal followed, the Iron Hands by now massacring the tech-priests. It brought to mind the original massacre, the oil and blood turning the council room’s floor slick. Perhaps that had been suboptimal. Ferrus had always lacked patience, but if the massacre had followed lengthy negotiations, perhaps the resulting rebellion would have been lesser. And while Kelbor-Hal would never have accepted the Emperor’s terms, perchance Kane might have?

Most likely, however, it would only have shifted all these events back a few months. Ferrus Manus knew the Mechanicum’s factional rivalries fairly well, and he doubted any of the major ideologies would have simply accepted Imperial Chaos. Of course, he’d have bet several planets that the Order of the Dragon would remain an insignificant sect, too. Counterfactuals were difficult like that.

As Urgdosev yanked the last tech-priest out of his tank, and fired several bolter shells into the probable locations of vital organs, Ferrus Manus turned away from the empty canyon and towards his massively armored Morlocks. They stood, black silhouettes in Terminator plate, somewhat scattered, waiting.

They would follow him into hell, or out of it. Most of his Legion would, even now – that much, he had deduced from discussing the situation, without excessive trouble. But an open civil war would still be disastrous. The Iron Hands would fall on their own blade, which – while better than fading into an iron landscape – was a disturbing possibility. And the Coalition they were fighting had Marines and Primarchs of its own, even if the details of which ones remained unclear.

No, he could control the dissent. And therefore he would control it, and keep unity strong. Orth had proven he was invaluable, after all, and motivated by loyalty as well as fear.

The platform lowered itself to ground level, and Ferrus silently stepped onto it, beckoning Urgdosev’s squad to ride with him. Then they were rising, the opposite wall drawing away centimeter by centimeter. Dust, gray and red and green, swirled in vortices behind them, glimmering in the cold starlight.

Cables ground their way upward, accelerating, leaving a floor of death and dust and iron far behind. Not, of course, that there was any place on Mars one could escape from those factors.

Not, of course, that Ferrus Manus felt any desire to.

When they were at the command post again, Ferrus glanced around, taking in the physical view before looking at the data. That was sufficient for him to realize things had gone very, very wrong.

The mobile squadrons were successfully hunting the Order, tearing the traitorous tech-priests to shreds. Throughout Noctis Labyrinthus, the Iron Hands were winning by a wide margin.

The only exception to that was the region surrounding the Dragon’s lair.

Wayland’s guns stood silent, having been trampled by the Order’s Titans. Wayland himself, Ferrus saw on a display, had been incinerated by the god-machines’ guns. And, within minutes, the Order of the Dragon would roll into their dark god’s tomb, unopposed by anyone but Semyon, whose defenses – last Ferrus had seen them – were frankly mediocre.

“Sfacay,” Ferrus said, with a solar-temperature voice. “What happened?”

“Wayland fell,” Sfacay responded by the same private channel. “I redeployed forces to emphasize, as you commanded, the psychological devastation of the Order.”

“I commanded they be prevented from reaching the tomb!”

“But my lord, you said to ignore the lie of the Dragon, so… why does it matter?”

Ferrus Manus turned off the vox and let loose a cry of frustration and fear into the night sky. The only question, now, was whether it would be Ferrus or the Dragon that would end Sfacay. At this point, Ferrus suspected the latter.

“And you can do nothing, by this point,” Gabriel Santar said. “A brilliant strategist indeed.”

Ferrus turned to the waiting Urgdosev. “Get Numen’s section of the Avernii to reinforce Semyon. If the Guardian survives several minutes, we’ll stop the Order.”

Urgdosev relayed the order, then turned back to his father. “My lord,” he asked through a private channel, “is… is the Dragon real?”

“No,” Ferrus lied. “But there are horrors, in those vaults, nonetheless, and they must be contained.”

Urgdosev, more reassured than he should have been, signaled affirmation, and Ferrus turned to look at the battle once more. The Order’s last battalion marched and rode towards Semyon’s fortress, Titans and tanks and infantry united in desperate faith – indeed, in the worst of desperate faiths. They were close, now, on the brink of weapons range.

And then the night was green.

Viridian beams impacted the Order’s forces from all sides, a trap of turrets snapping shut. They did not push the heavy machinery away, but rather somehow pulled it towards itself. Squinting, Ferrus considered how the effect may be achieved. It seemed to be a deconstructor beam, pulling materials apart layer by layer; but such weaponry was believed to be effectively impossible, and had never been seen even in xenotech.

Except Semyon, it seemed, had somehow cracked the problem, and with insane efficiency too; and now he stood, personally, ten-armed, on the rocky walls, directing servitors armed with more conventional weaponry into the Order. The turrets continued to fill the canyon with green light, flesh and iron being disassembled identically. The Order focused its fire on the turrets and Semyon himself, but the Guardian of the Dragon had already, singlehandedly, brought down three Titans, and most turrets were still firing.

Semyon was silhouetted against the green glow, and in those moments, Ferrus Manus felt almost as if he was looking at his own father, in early days, or perhaps at the Omnissiah of Mechanicum myth. His gestures, transhuman, were occasionally interrupted by exploding shells, and Ferrus intellectually knew that the Guardian was unlikely to survive. But it did not matter, at this moment.

Titans fell into each other, crucial circuits missing; tank guns misfired, damaged by the deconstructor beams; individual skitarii shot each other in trying to get to Semyon. The Guardian danced on the cliff’s edge, a ruinous shadow between stormdrops.

And then Numen’s Morlocks charged in, from a side canyon, even as the turrets slowed their fire. The Order was surrounded, now, but asking for no quarter, because they were well aware it was months too late. Black Astartes, against green light, Semyon’s turrets avoiding the sons of Medusa; Mechanicum forces painted a thousand shades, mostly blue and silver; and the canyon walls, crimson and gray, rusted both as primordial Mars and as dilapidated industry. Ferrus could no longer see Semyon – had the Guardian fallen? – and the turrets had altogether stopped.

“Turrets have self-destructed,” Numen explained by vox. Ferrus nodded; it appeared that Semyon did not want to share his technology. In the aftermath, Ferrus would consider letting him get away with it. If not for the Guardian, they might all have been doomed by now.

And now? Now, from a distant clifftop, Ferrus Manus watched the Order of the Dragon die. They died, trying to unleash a horrendous apocalypse that they, in their eternal quest for knowledge, had embraced in an entirely false way. They died, as fanatical devotees to unreality, while thinking they were princes of rationalism. They died, pathetically, and weakly despite all of their metal. Indeed, they provided an excellent example of why metal was not necessarily any stronger than flesh.

But – and this Ferrus Manus had to accept, with, perhaps, a twinge of jealousy – they died standing, without doubt, and having (after they had chosen their path) never knelt again, to anyone.

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post #35 of 44 (permalink) Old 07-17-16, 04:53 PM
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INTERLUDE: IRON

Sabik Wayland, former Iron Father of the Iron Hands Legion, stood armorless in the rune-inscribed chamber, looking on the shattered body of Guardian Semyon.

“I won’t survive this,” Semyon stated, confirming what Wayland had already suspected. “I’m held conscious by short-acting chemicals, right now. Still, I believe even you Astartes would consider that a worthy end.”

“Most certainly,” Wayland said, bowing his head. “Primarchs have had dimmer falls.”

“We won after all,” Semyon said with a chuckle that was most unlike him. “The Dragon remains imprisoned. And I have a few secrets to pass on, before omega point.”

“A data wafer?” Wayland was curious, despite everything. Despite his place in the Legion being lost, as part of Semyon’s grand plan.

He suspected Ferrus Manus might, if plans were optimally executed, welcome him back, if he knew that Wayland had pretended to die in order to aid Semyon’s defense. Only he did not quite want to go back to the Legion. It had changed, the last year, mutated into something altogether different. He did not want to betray his Primarch and his Emperor, but Chaos was more madness than progress. It had twisted Branthan and his Ethereal Hands, and though Ferrus was attempting to keep a lid on it, Wayland doubted even the Primarch could manage such a deed. He was not even sure of the Emperor.

There was a different hue to everything the Legion had done since embracing religion, and it was not a hue Wayland could quite define. Perhaps that was why he could not accept it, either. Others did not have the same problem; perhaps he had joined Semyon because the Guardian, despite everything, did.

“No, speech first,” the Guardian said, still smiling. “There are data where archiving would have been an excessive risk.”

Wayland nodded. He supposed he was to pass the data on to the next Guardian, whoever they were.

“Declaration: The Dragon is half of a god,” Semyon said, switching to the binary language of Mars, a more efficient language than Gothic. “Explanation: Long ago, a few-numbered race of extremely powerful xenos, who fed on vast quantities of energy, were broken into pieces after losing a war. Fear: If they were to reunite, each might be no weaker than the Emperor.”

“Query: Why were those xenos not simply destroyed?”

“Confusion: I had assumed it was impossible, but some information indicates it is feasible. Hypothesis: Destroying a xenos or shard might lead to unknown, severe consequences.”

“Comprehension.”

“Explanation: The Dragon is the most powerful of its parent xeno’s shards, and was imprisoned here by the Emperor. Declaration: The Order was correct in that it assisted Martian technical progress, but not in why. Explanation: The Dragon is malevolent, and seeks to be freed.”

“Comprehension.” All of that seemed, thus far, fairly intuitive.

“Curse: The Dragon is not the only shard of its parent xeno. Explanation: The silver arms of your gene-father are another, weaker shard. Fear: If Ferrus Manus’s mind is weak, the shard will seek to possess Ferrus’s mind.”

“Comprehension,” Wayland said, though he was far from it.

Ferrus’s arms – Asirnoth – that had been but another shard. One that would seek to reunite with the Dragon of Mars, perhaps. One that desired to kill his gene-father and take his body, just like the forces of Chaos. Ferrus was doomed twice over.

“Intent: We must warn Ferrus.”

“Disagreement: We must not. Explanation: If Ferrus even suspects, his resolve will be lost, and his loss more certain and earlier.”

“Affirmative.” There was no escape for Ferrus. Just as there was none for Wayland. The truth was a heavy burden, sometimes, but it had never weighed on Wayland quite like this.

Because, he knew, despite all of what Semyon had said, that Chaos was an even greater threat than the Dragon to his Primarch’s mind.

“Declaration: The Dragon is not the darkest secret in the heart of Mars,” Semyon continued. “Explanation: Some things, I dare not say, and you must discover for yourself.”

With those words, something finally combined. “Query: Do you intend me to be the next Guardian of the Dragon?”

“Affirmative,” Semyon answered. “Explanation: I needed a transhuman not loyal to the Order or to Chaos, with sufficient intelligence and lore. Hope: This data wafer should be enough to begin, plugged into yourself.”

Wayland took the wafer from Semyon’s trembling mechatendril.

“Memory: I was the Guardian of the Dragon for over three millennia,” Semyon said, a bit of white noise seeping into his statements. “Hope: You may well surpass my tenure, if Mars survives long enough. Recommendation: Do not reveal any of this to anyone, of course, and position yourself simply as the new Guardian. Explanation: With the resources of my forge, it will not be overly difficult to turn enough of yourself into iron to prevent Ferrus identifying you.”

“Comprehension.” That, Wayland would do eagerly.

It was a final turn away from his Primarch and Legion, of course, but he had a greater duty now. And duty was what being an Astarte was about, was it not?

Sabik Wayland plugged the wafer into his shoulder, and all at once, he understood the layout of the complex, and a million linked, tiny secrets of Noctis Labyrinthus. Primed by Semyon’s speech, he saw many of those details in an utterly different light, a deeper and brighter layer of what the Grand Lie of Mars, and other Labyrinthine secrets, truly were.

A mere data wafer could do this. Truly, this place was a wonder, a relic of the Golden Age of Technology.

And it was being left to him, because there was no one else.

Semyon smiled wider, and Wayland could even hear the ragged mechanical breathing.

“Greeting: Welcome… to… Noctis Labirynthus,” Adept Semyon stated, “Guardian of the Dragon.”

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Note: this is the second update today, immediately preceded by an interlude (see above).



CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Cadmus Qevpilum looked at the grim, spiraling peak of the Magma City, rising from the volcanic shield of Arsta Mons. Despite its helical patterns, on the whole it was a cylindrical wall, with irregular and complex structures within a heavily fortified enclosure (which, according to Qevpilum’s plans, itself hung over a lava lake). Artillery from within its shield lobbed shells towards the attackers, but lazily; the defenders were short on ammunition, and the forge had sustained significant damage throughout the siege, especially from Ulirrben’s failed assault.

In response, Qevpilum’s own cannons, tank-mounted and otherwise, rained fury on the Magma City. Most impacts were absorbed by the shield, but enough came through to render the rebel forge a thoroughly inhospitable place. In time, the shield would fall, and a full assault would be mounted; until then, any direct attack would share the same fate as the previous one.

Ulirrben…. The Captain of Clan Evaeseph, the 49th Company of the Iron Hands, had fallen on the front lines of his charge, leaving the siege to be transferred to Qevpilum’s command. Some would rage at Ulirrben for his failure, but after a briefing about the situation, Qevpilum understood why the late captain had acted as he had. Magma City was highly desirable to take intact, and its defenders likely had archaeotech that allowed a retreat in certain cases, preparation probably being helpful in that task. Besides, those defenders were Astartes. So he had gambled, and gambled unwisely.

No, it was the Death Guard that concerned Qevpilum. Space Marines turning against the Imperium was a concept unheard of and inconceivable. Primarchs turning against the Imperium – and Qevpilum was well-aware that those were precisely the rumors percolating through the Legion – was far, far worse.

And though Magma City did not hold a Primarch, it wasn’t as if Qevpilum had Ferrus Manus available either. This was a lesser battle, compared to the clashes that would singlehandedly decide galactic fate, but it was still likely to be one of the greatest conflicts in Qevpilum’s life.

It was wise, of course, to approach such a battle cautiously. But Qevpilum’s hesitation was also born of the memory of Pyrrhia, and of the schism that had been revealed to him as soon as he had landed on Mars. He was off-center, right now, capable of thinking strategically but not in optimal condition for hand-to-hand combat. Perhaps mechanical attachments were capable of fixing that, but though the Grand Cogitator had not permanently damaged Zerondem’s mind, Qevpilum retained a firm skepticism towards severely altering one’s brain. A touch of stabilizing iron was quite enough.

And so, instead of staying in the Apothecarium and undergoing cerebral surgeries, he was standing near the base of Magma City’s shield, protected by a scattering of rocks, and looking at a town of heresy.

“Brother-Centurion,” Venth Zerondem said, walking up beside Qevpilum. “I’ve received the answer – no second attempt at infiltration is sanctioned.”

“Good,” Qevpilum said, still wondering about the treasures held within Magma City. “So the spies will finally stop trying to interfere?”

“Indeed,” said a voice that Qevpilum had to turn to confirm. It was the newly promoted Sergeant Amax Hierrth, standing adjacent to Zerondem. “Biresteon’s team has been confirmed dead, and they don’t want to keep throwing their men at the problem, at least until they know what went wrong.”

“And when they do?” Qevpilum clarified, still not entirely focused on the conversation. Magma City could hold wonders, it was true – or, like Pyrrhia, it could hold horrors. Who knew what forces the Death Guard had invoked, that they believed they could stand against the Emperor’s wrath?

“They’ve cut all personnel and funding from the mission,” Zerondem clarified. “And any outside investigation will take months. They’ve cut their losses, and left us to do our work.”

Qevpilum nodded. It would have been nice to actually know what was inside the forge, but the tech-priest spies had effectively stalled the siege for the past week. Only now could Qevpilum actually direct munitions towards places where they could effectively bring down the shield, with minimal damage to recoverable assets, instead of focusing on clearing tunnels and avoiding Biresteon’s team. Which had probably been turned into servitors, by now, or else just disassembled for scraps, despite the Spearhead-Centurion’s best attempts to help.

“Understood,” Qevpilum said. “Hierrth, convey my gratitude to whoever approved this. Or denied it, rather.”

The sergeant nodded and left. Zerondem stayed; Qevpilum looked at his uncertain face from the corner of his eye.

“What is it, brother?”

“Brother-Centurion,” Zerondem said, less certainly than his previous speech but not by much, “I intend to submit a request to join the Iron Father corps.”

Qevpilum blinked. He had not expected that. It did make sense, of course – Zerondem was brilliantly logical, and inspiring when he tried. He was precisely the sort of person Qevpilum would have liked to see as an Iron Father, and although he despised the quasi-religious approach to technology many of them shared (the only avatar of true divinity being the Emperor), Zerondem could work with it even as he tried to displace it. Perhaps, in time, he would even succeed, and the Iron Fathers would stop trying to imitate Chaplains.

Besides, Hemcasi was Qevpilum’s designated successor, and though Zerondem was not intensely ambitious, he deserved a more independent post.

“You have my blessing,” Qevpilum said. “Nusaamnius will take your place as lieutenant, after you are accepted. Which you will be, despite the politics. How does the training on Mars function, in the current… situation?”

“There are loyal tech-priests,” Zerondem explained, “and the senior Iron Fathers will take a larger role in training. An expansion is necessary in any case, because of the diminished future role of Mars itself.”

“Sensible,” Qevpilum agreed. “Primarch’s order?”

“Or something similar.”

“Good. Brother, I wish you the best of luck; you are the sort of Iron Father we need more of. Do not forget that you are an Iron Hand above all; and, of course, do not even contemplate sinking into superstition like so many Iron Fathers have. Rough calculations show that, in a few decades’ time, if the Great Crusade continued as normal, you would have a significant chance of restoring the corps away from them; and you are closer to the ideal Iron Father profile than almost anyone in the battalion. Fire and Iron, brother.”

“Fire and Iron,” Zerondem replied, as a shell boomed nearby.

Zerondem walked away, and Qevpilum was left alone before the siege. The centurion did not feel particular regret, for Zerondem would find his place yet. And yet there was some… nostalgia, perhaps. He recalled a time when he had himself been in Zerondem’s position, and concerned himself with finding his place, more than finding others’. He had passed that phase as a young sergeant, though – or had he?

At times like this, and doubly so with Pyrrhia still echoing, Cadmus Qevpilum tended to contemplate destruction. He knew, of course, that the devastation sometimes left by the Great Crusade was necessary. Often, what was lost was obsolete anyhow; they were not Thousand Sons, to archive false paths. Even more often, it was tainted by xenos or hateful men. But even when, as today on Mars, neither was the case, the shock wave of truth was sometimes deadly.

What bothered Qevpilum had more to do with inefficiency. How did they know that they were incapable of doing better? Did even the Emperor, in finally turning the Imperium religious, have any certainty that today was a better day for such a shift than a year earlier, or three years later?

Those thoughts were somewhat blasphemous, of course, but with Primarchs rebelling Qevpilum doubted his own path would much concern the god of mankind.

A movement in the corner of his viewfield caught Qevpilum’s eye, and he turned his gaze to the parapet, behind which a decorated Death Guard had come up to survey the battle. Qevpilum focused his enhanced vision on his figure –

And he froze, as he recognized the warrior.

Cadmus Qevpilum had first fought alongside Durak Rask in the ice towers of Valenitr, both saving the other’s life in the process. They had been brothers, in the aftermath, and had fought alongside each other several more times along the course of the Crusade. Rask was among the few who understood, perhaps even more than Qevpilum did, the raging melody of fire and iron, the pounding of artillery and the mechanistic arts.

And so, of course, it had been Rask that had been sent to defend Magma City against the forces of the Imperium. Qevpilum supposed he should have known that Rask would follow his Primarch into rebellion, if that was where Mortarion went. Rask’s love of his Primarch had always been severe. But for all that rumors talked about a war of brothers, this was the first time Qevpilum had felt the concept in truth. And – if this was how it weighed on him, how bad was it for Ferrus Manus?

“Durak,” Qevpilum voxed along the private channel, standing up by half-forgotten instinct. Perhaps he could understand – not for intel, though he supposed he could couch it in such terms, but simply for knowledge.

“Cadmus,” Durak Rask answered from the wall of Magma City, locating his now-foe with his eyes. Either could decide to fire, now, try to decapitate the enemy in a firestorm. Neither did, of course. “Why?”

Qevpilum’s mind spun, somewhat, from the question, because it was the precise question he had intended to ask his friend. “Because I am loyal,” he eventually said. “Because I fight for the Imperium, and that has not changed. It is you that I should be asking – why? Why betray the Great Crusade and everything we fought for?”

“I follow Mortarion,” Rask said, “as always. And I fight against tyranny, as I always have. Against blind religion, and against those that would order planets destroyed for one false word, and against darkest sorcery. Against unnecessary atrocity, in sum. We have done enough damage as it is, in the Crusade, when it was to unite humanity against greater threats. Now, your loyal Legions battle for the Emperor – but against every idea of the Imperium.”

“We fight for progress!” Qevpilum exclaimed. “As we always have. Perhaps some have taken the destruction too far, yes. The Twelfth and Eighth in particular have always had such a tendency. But our cause is to lift the human race to new heights. Our warpcraft is merely another frontier of science. And religion – you know well the majesty of Primarchs, Rask. And the Emperor is as far above them as our fathers are above us. What is he, if not a god?”

“A tyrant,” Rask quietly said. “A monster. The sort of being we fought on Crusade, but with more power by orders of magnitude. But the worth of leaders is not primarily determined by power.”

Qevpilum’s head was shaking, even more, from incomprehension. He had expected the loyalty to Mortarion, perhaps, but certainly not the devotion and conviction. The Primarchs were rebelling in a moment of convenient weakness, not simply because they were misguided – right? They were beyond such errors, after all. Or should have been, at least.

But Qevpilum allowed, too, a glimmer of hope. Perhaps his friend could yet be convinced to negotiate.

“We’re all monsters, of a certain type,” Qevpilum said. “We’re all soldiers, after all.”

“But that can only be redeemed by fighting for ideals. For something more important than the lives we end. And a single being, no matter how wise or strong, cannot be that.”

“We fought for the future,” Qevpilum explained. “For a new golden age. That was my ideal. And your rebellion is likely to break the Imperium, to at most shatter humanity back into Old Night. To counter the Crusade.”

“And that is better than the Emperor’s tyranny would be,” Rask insisted.

“And what was before, that was not tyranny, then? We burned worlds too, and your Legion especially has often been accused of atrocity.” They were arguing in circles, it felt like.

“We killed when necessary,” Rask said, “like any Legion. But the Emperor’s rule, on worlds already integrated – such as Mars – was always an understanding one. And now, he has lost his last connections to the people he rules, and fallen back on godhood.”

“And the rule of anarchy, will that be preferable?” Qevpilum asked. “A billion warlords, will that be better? And the knowledge, the technology, that we have painstakingly begun to recover over the course of the Imperium, will be lost. The new dark age will be darker than the last one. Or do you deny that there will be one?”

“There might,” Rask admitted. “But humanity will rise again, as it always has. And sooner or later, dips are inevitable. No doubt, there will come a new dusk – hour infernal. But such is the cycle of our rust. Such, our arc eternal.”

“So you will burn it all,” Qevpilum said, understanding coming along with bile deep in his throat. “Then I have no more to say, brother.”

“And you surrendered choice for faith,” Rask retorted. “Farewell.”

Rask cut the link before Qevpilum could respond. For a second the centurion was silent, contemplating Rask’s movement along the parapet, and then a rocket fell on the boulder of scrap metal he had been standing on.

He was thrown off, barely avoiding another rocket. He could barely process what had happened, hurtling through the air, but it was clear enough: Rask had ordered him to be targeted.

He landed lying down, skidding head-first away from the shield. Rask was still there, on the wall, solemnly watching.

“Brother-Centurion?” Hemcasi voxed. “Should we target the visible Death Guard?”

“No,” Qevpilum said, scrambling for the bunker. He would make it; Rask had stopped firing. “Not this time.”

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post #37 of 44 (permalink) Old 07-23-16, 08:24 PM
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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Castrmen Orth walked towards Cassini Forge calmly and slowly, sweeping his eyes around the surrounding terrain. It had once been built in manufactorial rings; with the war, the rings had become concentric defensive trenches.

And with Ulrach Branthan’s inexorable advance towards Cassini Forge, they had been flattened entirely, to the point that Orth could cross them without trouble.

Branthan, and his Clan Erigez, were mopping up Magos Ahotep’s remaining men within the forge’s core complex. Orth expected the battle would be over by the time he – along with Strigeus, who was at his side, and the Morlocks that Ousautro was leading through the lower tunnels – would arrive at the center. Already the guns on the walls had fallen silent, allowing Orth to walk up to the slanted walls without difficulty.

That significant achievement was, in fact, why Branthan had judged Cassini Forge effectively secured, and had summoned Orth – along with the rest of the Ethereal Hands’ central cabal – to Cassini Forge. It would not be a mass assembly of the Ethereal Hands’ followers – that was planned to elapse later. It was merely a planning meeting.

One that would end, one way or another, in death. Branthan’s treachery had to be stomped out quickly, and at an unexpected time. The later assembly would be a perfect time for attack, if Ferrus’s reasoning was what Branthan expected – the suppression of dissent. But in truth, he wanted – like his primarch – the salvation of the Legion; and so a strike today would be both less destructive and less expected, a limited purge followed by a renewal of the Legion under Ferrus.

That, at least, was the model Ferrus’s mind had come up with, using Orth’s information. It was far from clear whether everything would work, and Orth would have preferred a better understanding of the precise machinations involved, as well as certainty that Branthan did not suspect him. This political confusion was not his preferred battleground, especially when it interweaved with rapid violence; but he was in a position to help protect the Legion from an internal rot, and so he would, if possible.

There was little honor in his intentions, but they were for the Legion and for the Imperium, and so he had no misgivings.

He looked around the waste as he walked, searching out traces of Branthan’s experimentation. He had not augmented himself aetherically in a direct fashion, but his current eyepiece had some psychic enhancements, enough to allow tracking of other Warp effects. There were not many, but two or three rituals had evidently taken place in his vicinity. And there was something related to – the Morlocks below?

Orth had no way of knowing for sure whether that was part of Ferrus’s plan or one of Branthan’s traps, but the impression – for the vision was not quantitative, or at least not at the current state of development – was one of light strangeness, with no aether involved. Besides, if it was a severe problem the Morlocks would have broken vox silence.

With that in mind, Orth focused instead on the walls ahead, tilting outward at their tops. They were close enough to be in their shade, by now. Sounds from within, still, but most of them were that of construction rather than gunfire. Repair work, presumably, or else ritual.

“Brother-Centurion Orth!” Captain Gabriel Ikttagaaq said in greeting, as he ran up to Orth’s side. “It is good to see you again. I see you chose to visit this conclave after all?”

“I always planned to be here,” Orth said. “It would be pointless to disagree with Branthan’s speed if I did not argue against it.”

“But that speed brought us to aether-flesh and the Xi Vertebrae,” Ikttagaaq said. Then he shrugged. “Anyhow, argue as you wish – I merely doubt many will listen.”

“It’s not a reason to stay silent,” Orth said with a shrug. “Captain Ikttagaaq, this is my second-in-command, Ashaafit Strigeus.”

Strigeus, looking rather less comfortable than Orth, nodded his assent. Before any more words could be exchanged, though, the looming wall opened before them, and the Iron Hands walked into Cassini Forge.

The interior was like plenty of other Martian forges that Orth had seen. Rather less scarred than a recently conquered building had any right to be, because of Branthan’s gradual approach – and even more than that. Perhaps Branthan had used his warpcraft to get in with less damage.

They walked to the left, and then down a jagged stair, following Branthan’s directions. Strigeus exchanged a few words with Ikttagaaq, imitating general uncertainty – well, the uncertainty was real enough, though Strigeus could hardly reveal the reason for it.

The reason was ultimately, as for so much, the Xi Vertebrae. They were a new implant Branthan was in the process of developing, one that plugged directly into the nervous system. The Xi Vertebrae provided increased reaction time and pain tolerance, and occasional flashes of brilliant insight, but came with the massive weight of sometimes – unpredictably – losing control of one’s body. It was unclear what entity, if anything, took over in those periods, though it generally did not do much of anything with the host, except ensure their survival.

And Branthan was proselytizing the Xi Vertebrae with a zeal that bordered on suspicious, evangelizing their use for all Legion members – and the Ethereal Hands bought it. Ferrus Manus did not, in the least. Orth knew both of them had far more knowledge than himself of what the implant actually did, so he merely went with his general judgment, and sided with the Primarch privately while speaking his instinctual view – a moderate position – publically, including among the Ethereal Hands. He had done this on quite a few issues related to Branthan, though before they did not call for fratricide.

But those thoughts were only distant in the back of Orth’s mind by the time he reached the room Ulrach Branthan had turned into a council chamber. It was a cylindrical space, with six doors along its sides. The ceiling was richly decorated with designs that seemed to flow with liquid metal. And the opposite door to the one Orth had entered through resounded with the sounds of gunfire, the last such sounds in Cassini Forge.

“Magos Ahotep’s sanctum is not far in that direction,” Branthan said, by way of both welcome and explanation.

Orth nodded, taking in the other Astartes present. Twenty of them, including himself and Strigeus, at the moment. Four more were due to arrive. Of those twenty-four, thirteen had the Xi Vertebrae in them, including Branthan’s three lieutenants – Urannih, Marmtzan, and Imrsadyaved – and Branthan himself.

He nodded to Feifdun as the Iron Father came in, second-to-last. The Iron Father was the only other outspoken opponent of the Xi Vertebrae called to Cassini, and the only other council member that Orth had told the Morlocks to spare. Feifdun took Orth’s offered spot next to him.

“Let’s begin,” Branthan said. “I am not sure whether Brother-Apothecary Ellitu is coming, but –”

“I am!” Ellitu yelled from beyond the door the gunfire was heard from. A few seconds later, he burst in, knee plates cracked. “Was it absolutely necessary to have the conclave on the edge of a war zone?”

“Apologies, again,” Branthan said. “My decision was made from a geomantical standpoint, but I suspect I did not weigh realspace considerations enough.”

Ellitu nodded.

“In any case,” Branthan said, “let’s leave ideological arguments – that includes you, Brother Feifdun – to the end of the meeting. We expect to hold the rally in Argyre, in eleven Terran days.”

“That soon?” Ikttagaaq inquired.

“Ferrus seems less reasonable than I had thought,” Branthan explained. “We need to show strength –”

And then the sheen of the ceiling changed from black to gold, an instant before it fell.

The Morlocks, heavy-angled armor smoking, descended in the fashion of an avalanche, and even the fractional seconds they spent dropping to the floor were not wasted. Storm bolters and rotor cannons filled the air with shells, one of which whizzed disturbingly near Orth’s ear.

Orth himself took the instant to fire on Ikttagaaq, who was already raising his own weapon. Others were slower to react, Branthan among them; Orth fired again, as Ikttagaaq’s face melted into dead shock, this time at Iron Father Rachan Roonsaind. Roonsaind’s cybernetics blunted much of the impact, but it was enough for him to drop his own weapon, leaving perhaps five of the rebels still firing. Orth spared a glance for Feifdun, caught in a restraining hold by one of the Morlocks –

And then the Morlocks stopped motion, instantaneously, in a manner that might have violated physics and certainly opposed their will – stopped, and began sinking to the ground.

Orth looked at Branthan, as Strigeus raised his bolter to fire – but Branthan, with his helmet on by now, simply swept his hands aside, sending a shockwave through the room. Strigeus’s shot went wide, slamming into a back wall, and the Morlocks…

They were dead. Every last one of them. No rasping last breaths, either, their lives cut short in a sorcerous instant. Feifdun was breathing, but still immobilized by the Morlock on top of him, looking some mixture of frustrated and confused.

Roonsaind and Xage Urannih, both wounded, stumbled to Branthan’s side, though Urannih toppled before getting there, sorely wounded despite being fated to heal in time. Roonsaind gnashed metallic teeth as Branthan stared, impassive. Strigeus was at Orth’s side, drawing his blade. Two against two.

“So you betrayed us after all,” Branthan growled. “I suppose I should have expected as much, but I’d held hope that you would restrain yourself to reasoned debate.”

“You call me the traitor?”

Branthan swept his head around the room, filled with its groans of dying Astartes – and of the silent Morlocks. Whatever Branthan had done, Orth had noticed the obvious, namely that it had affected only the Avernii. Presumably, that was because of the Warp-taint he had sensed earlier – a mark, on those who would enter uninvited. Though Branthan had not been suspicious, at first – so perhaps it had been when they fell through the ceiling?

“This room shows clearly enough,” Branthan said with barely constrained fury, “who betrayed whom.” Roonsaind, in the momentary truce, bent down to a Morlock body, loosening its arms to unlock Feifdun – before falling on his back.

Feifdun raised his spear out of the gaping hole in Roonsaind’s body, one that had pierced the other Iron Father’s body vertically from head to left toe, and slid it back into its casing. Roonsaind had had enough organs replaced that even that had not been a guaranteed kill, but apparently it had worked.

“I’d always suspected you, Rachan,” he muttered to his fallen comrade. Then he turned to face Branthan, lowering his spear, as Orth and Strigeus began to charge, while his opponent lowered his gun – what sort of bolter was that anyhow? – and shot, blindly and accurately. Feifdun stumbled back, severely wounded. Branthan used the distraction to duck out of a door.

Retreat? Though Branthan would understand, now, that such truly was his best choice. He could yet inspire a rebellion, after all, with or without the others; plenty in the Legion had the Xi Vertebrae installed, if nowhere near a majority.

Orth ran after, Strigeus following – no, there was no telling what would happen to Feifdun, like this. “Watch the wounded!” Orth yelled, Strigeus nodding without satisfaction. Orth was far from certain that he could take Branthan alone, but then neither of them was a duelist.

Branthan did not spare a glance back as he ran through the corridor, but Orth had no doubt he heard the pursuit, even if his armor’s sensors were for some reason non-functional. The Ethereal Hand did not pause, however, to fight, instead grabbing what appeared to be a cable and swinging forward. Orth thrust his hand forward, grasping the same cable in one fluid motion, an instant before it jerked upward.

The cable, and the two Space Marines on it, soared upwards through a shaft Orth could barely distinguish the top of – one that clearly led to the very top of Cassini Forge. Orth made to climb upward, but spared a look downward as the heat sensors recorded a river of molten metal, rushing perpendicular to flood the corridor he’d left Strigeus in.

There was no time for regret, though, nor worth, and his lieutenant would probably notice the stream anyhow. The cable flew up, through a particularly thick level – and then the two Marines were passing what seemed to be a hangar floor. And on the floor, mounted on massive rockets, a ship. A grand hemisphere, its lower part supported by solidified fire, festooned with cannons – big enough that by all rights it should have been constructed in orbit, even if it was only frigate-sized.

Shots bounced off Orth’s armor, Branthan receiving the same reception; only a few skitarii, though, were actually shooting. For the most part the hangar, like the ship’s exterior, was deserted. The inside was immune to Orth’s surficial scans, but from appearances Ahotep had simply converted much of his forge’s volume into the vessel – the Dragonwing One, Orth could now see.

“Did you even fight Ahotep?” Orth screamed upwards, through the fading hail of gunfire.

“The blockade will,” Branthan replied as he repositioned himself, swinging his sword to cut the cable and drop Orth into the skitarii or the melt – but he’d waited too long for that. Orth swung and leapt, landing on a ceramite platform hanging near the Dragonwing One’s mass, once presumably used to machine the ship from outside. It had not been removed – Ahotep wasn’t done yet, that much was clear. Branthan made a similar jump, flying towards the same platform.

“We have seen gods’ perfection,” he screamed far too loudly to explain physically, “so surrender your metal!!”

“Not surrendering anything,” Orth replied, gripping his sword and adjusting his stance against the future Astarte impact.

“Aether-flesh is the zenith – and we’ll prove it in battle!!”

Where were Branthan’s men, anyhow? Were they even in the forge? Certainly there was little sign of struggle – Ahotep had, it seemed, executed an orderly retreat, and Branthan hadn’t risked his men. If he had them, that is.

Branthan landed, and swords met, even as the platform swung and tried to throw them both off. Both kept their balance, but only just, as it tipped far to the north, Orth pushed back into one of the cables holding the basket up.

“Why betray the Legion?” Branthan taunted, as he pressed forward; Orth defended, parrying, but Branthan’s strength was clearly greater. The platform reached its apex, and blades met again and again, sparking in the air, only the cable preventing Orth from falling off the platform. But the platform swung back, and the acceleration began to reverse.

Branthan was focused, abnormally so. What drug he was on, Orth had no idea. For his part, he observed, as the platform swung south, the sparks in the air, the intricate microstructure barely visible in the walls outside that was now scarred by hurried servitors, the first tongues of red below the edifice of the ship.

“I chose not to abandon our past,” Orth said as he pressed, now with a brief advantage, though Branthan seemingly didn’t even notice the platform’s swinging. “Aether, but not before iron!”

“Aether is stronger!” Branthan intoned. “We will not back down on progress!”

Stronger, but not wiser. Branthan did not react to the acceleration, his vastly augmented strength making it unnecessary. As the thundering fire below turned from a dim red to an incandescent orange, Orth twisted the platform, combining it with a strike to Branthan’s legs. The opposing Hand’s reply would have been lethal if it had happened on flat ground; instead, it merely carved a deep gouge into Orth’s armor, as the captain of Clan Erigez plummeted down into the first beats of inferno.

“Progress requires caution,” Orth quickly muttered, as his brother turned foe fell. “A blind rush just as easily leads backward.”

A survivable plunge for a Space Marine, of course, under normal conditions. But as Branthan fell, the Dragonwing One lifted off, at first so slowly Orth feared it would fall back down. Then it accelerated, rising higher and higher on heat and fury. Branthan met the exhaust head-on, as the ceiling above simply ceased to exist, phased through by Ahotep’s ship carrying the last of Cassini Forge.

Orth realized a touch too late that he was himself far from safe from the launch. The scalding gas washed outwards over his armor, penetrating beneath to burn his Black Carapace. The cables did worse, disintegrating, dropping the Iron Hand onto a northwards arc.

Orth barely felt the impact with the northward wall, the punishment nearly enough to send even a Space Marine into unconsciousness. Still, he rolled into position, as the smoke clouds reduced visibility to a matter of centimeters. He lay there, breathing heavily, trying to gather his thoughts.

His vox crackled.

“Strigeus here,” his lieutenant noted. “What happened up there, Brother-Centurion?”

“Branthan is dead,” Orth muttered with some effort – his lungs were clearly damaged, all three of them. He could already feel the regeneration beginning, though. The smoke was clearing, white wisps going… somewhere. The hangar around him was a charred mess, the spot where Branthan’s body had melted barely recognizable. Microsculptures hopelessly ruined, the Mechanicum escaping – but that was Branthan’s fault, and there was no shortage of blockading ships in the Solar System at the moment.

The ceiling, it seemed, had somehow vanished entirely (an illusion?), and the white sun, tilting towards setting, was visible over the walls. It illuminated fire and iron.

And Castrmen Orth, struggling to his feet in the graveyard of a mad dream.

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post #38 of 44 (permalink) Old 07-29-16, 12:15 AM
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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Durak Rask stood on the wall’s top, by now protected by the parapet alone with the force shield overwhelmed into uselessness, as Magma City shook from artillery fire, perhaps ten minutes away from the final mass assault by Cadmus Qevpilum’s Iron Hands, and wondered at just how similar Koriel Zeth really was to Qevpilum.

Perhaps, he knew, it was more correct to wonder the converse. Zeth was an adept of the Martian Mechanicum, and her dedication to progress, if occasionally above wisdom, was an intrinsic part of both her selection and her creed. But the Iron Hands had been just another Legion, before. Close to the Mechanicum, yes, but it was Zeth that Rask would have expected to choose submission to Imperial madness over the risk of losing largely idle information.

Though, of course, if that had been the point of disagreement, Magnus and Perturabo would have been enemies now, while Angron and Vulkan would’ve been allies, while rumor had indicated the opposite. No, not all Astartes saw the war as Rask did.

A ping on Rask’s retinal display, as a fireball bloomed uncomfortably close to the Death Guard’s position, caused him to frown. Neither of them were ones much for social excesses, but he did wish to say goodbye to Koriel Zeth before the Forgemistress left.

Especially since, in defiance of the plan he had informed Zeth of, he would not be seeing her, nor the accompanying Squad Sofev, again.

He walked down from the parapet, barely bothering with a glance back. He had given overall command to Falenatak for this period, while he and Lgalun were taking some long breaths, in the minutes before Magma City’s fall.

Because it would fall. One way or another, it would fall.

He passed empty staircases, as well as manufactoria, idle for the first time in – decades, perhaps? Centuries? He did not think it was millennia, but if someone told him it was, his reaction would not be disbelief. Mars was an old world, and the Mechanicum an old culture. Albeit a changing one, which was the reason for his skepticism. The recent rise of the Order of the Dragon was ample evidence of as much.

The floor holding the portal was, by contrast, full of ant-like activity, but even that was winding down. Servitors carried the last boxes into the tunnel, biological components straining, as the first members of Echalo Sofev’s squad vanished into its darkness. Rask emerged onto a catwalk above as Zeth, herself, took the first step after the last of her human tech-priests.

“Adept Zeth!” Rask exclaimed, voice amplified by his helmet’s systems.

The Forgemistress turned, showing perhaps some slight surprise. “Ordnance Master Rask?”

“Farewell,” Rask said, wondering if he should take his helmet off. Yes, there was not much risk – he unclasped it and looked at the scene below with his own, if augmented, eyes. “And good luck in the Mechanicum’s reconstruction.”

Zeth paused. “You’re not planning on surrendering, are you?”

It took Rask a moment to process the notion before violently shaking his head. “Not even Qevpilum would accept my surrender. But he might get my head.”

“Then farewell,” Zeth said, “and may he not receive it.”

Zeth nodded, Rask nodding back, and then she was gone with the chain of servitors, and then Sofev saluted farewell as Rask responded.

That left only five squads in Magma City – Rask, Rurgon, Falenatak, Lgalun and Mineceno. Five squads in theory, but in reality four and a half, as Leskos Rurgon and several of his men had fallen during one of the earlier clashes. Falenatak would be last to leave – Lgalun was already relieving him, Rask noted on his visor with some surprise. That was only meant to happen when Qevpilum made his move. Were things evolving that fast?

He therefore rushed down the staircase – well, rushed in a relative sense, he wasn’t in battle after all. Lgalun knew everything, Falenatak only most of it. But Lgalun had been uncomfortable with leaving no record of their reasoning, and Rask supposed Mortarion would agree.

He paused as he reached the clanging stairs’ bottom, facing Zeth’s abandoned command throne. Mortarion would agree – but he only partially did. Was his devotion fading?

No, he realized. It was merely that talking to Mineceno had redirected it. Changed him, as he had changed the infantry sergeant; perhaps that was why he walked so readily towards death. He was still fighting for Mortarion, yes, but Mortarion as a symbol. Because Mortarion was a symbol. All the Primarchs were, he supposed, or at least many of them. And what Mortarion stood for –

Preferable death. Preferable destruction. And determination, and individual excellence, and all the other fragments of war, and that eternal dusk.

No doubt there would come a new dusk… hour infernal.

“But such is the cycle of our rust,” Rask muttered. Even past war, some things did not yield readily to the Mechanicum’s dreaming. “Such our arc eternal.” And that was not necessarily malicious, nor indeed was it necessarily unfortunate.

It was merely what the world was. Part of its fabric, like the stars themselves.

“Brother Durak Rask?”

“Brother Zecusor Falenatak,” Rask said, raising his head to meet the artillery sergeant and the squad and a half with him – Squad Rurgon’s remnants had been summoned as well. Falenatak’s own moved a fraction of a millimeter back, and two of his Astartes’ eyes widened. Not enough to indicate something was actually wrong, however, as Rask confirmed with a ping.

“Brother Falenatak,” Rask repeated as he extended his left hand and the object therein, “the Almenis key.”

He felt Magma City shake again. Differently than the previous artillery strikes. One of the last strikes, he would estimate.

Cadmus Qevpilum’s task force would be inside within the next minute.

Falenatak, understanding the urgency, took the key and ordered his squad forward.

“Squads Rask, Lgalun, and Mineceno will remain in the Magma City,” Rask stated. “You will close the portal behind you – merely say ‘close’ in any language as you touch the key within the lock – and we will fight a delaying action against the Iron Hands. We will then detonate the reactor, drowning Magma City and all industry and archives therein in, fittingly, magma, to ensure maximum damage to the Iron Hands and minimal Imperial recovery potential.”

“So you did lie to Zeth,” Falenatak noted, inserting his cube into the door’s mechanism.

Rask shrugged. Lies were far down on the hierarchy of sins, by now, and it would not impede future working relations, given how this would end. “Necessary.”

“No,” Falenatak said with genuine anger, “merely convenient.”

Rask made no comment.

“Close!” Falenatak exclaimed, and then they were gone.

Rask walked in the reverse direction, away from the command throne, away from the closing portal. He paused, Falenatak’s words echoing in his head, then broke into a sprint.

Falenatak did not understand. Perhaps that was for the better – Falenatak, after all, was to live.

Most of his squad were manning the walls, alongside Lgalun’s and Mineceno’s, but Mnisen Ipharoj and Rulvon Atigrarin were waiting for him behind the door. Both fell into line behind him with a nod.

They knew everything. Every Death Guard that had stayed behind had been well-aware how this would end. Lgalun and Mineceno had both refused, despite Rask’s objections, to leave and let Rask’s squad alone make the sacrifice. With Mineceno that had been expected; with Lgalun, it had not.

Lgalun was managing the battle now, and Rask made no move to intervene. His duty was different. The first Iron Hands were over the walls, clashing with disposable servitors and the Astartes of Mineceno’s and Lgalun’s squads. Too little, by far, to protect Magma City. But they would keep it for long enough.

Magma City would fall. But Rask would yet have the chance to determine how.

Rask jogged, Ipharoj and Atigrarin at his sides, westwards through the complex. Toward Magma City’s reactors, taking an arcuate path by the cone’s ceramic walls, helically moving upward. The forge had not been designed for fastest internal movement, merely for efficient transport of materials. Another reminder that Mars had not been built for war, merely refitted for it at the last moment.

Or not for civil war, at least. Bombardment… the Mechanicum had planned for large-scale conflicts, but had neglected individual heroism by comparison. As usual.

Rask knelt by a firing slit and took up a shoulder cannon, of the Rinikkir experimental design. He let off several volleys, coordinating with Ipharoj and Atigrarin. Apart from brief pings to synchronize time, they did not speak. But they had fought together for long enough that words would be merely, as the Adepts phrased such things, inefficient.

Iron Hands fell under their aim, though most of them would ultimately live. Still, they were close enough to Magma City that the volcano’s collapse had a decent chance of ending them nonetheless, excluding evacuation.

Then a shell hit the wall to Rask’s left, tossing Ipharoj backwards and causing Rask to instinctively shield his eyes despite his helmet being secured. Shrapnel scattered itself through the air, and Atigrarin was already running. Rask pulled Ipharoj to his feet before following. Ipharoj, Rask noted as he ran, took a moment to scramble fully upright, regaining his senses; but he was following along normally after that. Perhaps some minor damage, but Rask wasn’t an Apothecary, and it didn’t matter in context.

So they rushed northwards along the wall, Rask counting down the meters to the reactor rooms. Lgalun’s analysis said the Iron Hands were already within the complex, and –

And Durak Rask’s thoughts were rudely interrupted by an Iron Hand directly in front of them.

Atigrarin was the one to run forward against him, slamming bodily into the enemy and pushing him to the ground. Rask ran up to assist, but it appeared to be unnecessary as Atigrarin grabbed his sword and stabbed the Iron Hand, again and again. His hearts should have been gone already, but it was taking the Iron Hand an embarrassingly long time to die.

“Go!” Atigrarin yelled, and Rask and Ipharoj ran past, heading towards the iron maintenance door that led to the reactors. Wrenching it open, he stepped into the unlit room, Ipharoj covering. Calling it a room was an oversimplification, of course – some of the upper vats vanished into the dark.

Ipharoj still covering, Rask intently walked towards the south reactor. He knelt by the control panel, entering the first digits of the code Zeth had given him, with everything else, but instructed not to use.

And then the shot, and Rask involuntarily glanced back.

Ipharoj was immobile, and for an instant Rask almost thought he had imagined the sound. But then the gun slid out of his loosened grip, and a few drops of blood trickled out of his neck clasps.

And Cadmus Qevpilum stood in the doorway, surrounded by a ring of light from the burning outdoors, smoking gun tightly clasped in his left hand. Rask had not thought Qevpilum would beeline here, but he supposed it was not surprising, in retrospect, that the Squid had foreseen his plan.

They had been so similar, after all, once. Yes, Rask had a spark of dedication to his Primarch that was far less pronounced in Qevpilum’s mind, but they had warred side by side for a reason. Blunt instruments on a tactical level, far from it on a strategic, total devotion to their craft, and a fondness for heavy weaponry; but also a philosophy of determination through the dust.

A philosophy that had been nothing, for either of them, compared to Primarch loyalty. That they were faced with each other was chance, but Rask doubted that Qevpilum would ever have taken the right side in this war, at least unless Ferrus did.

Rask’s right hand entered the last digit of the code, and the Death Guard ran north, to get to the other reactor – but Qevpilum was there, and Rask was defending, parrying blow after blow from Qevpilum’s power pike. No words – Qevpilum was personally angry for some reason, and Rask was generally so, and had no questions besides. Two of Qevpilum’s men followed their commander into the chamber, but Qevpilum waved them backward.

Shots in the gallery. Atigrarin, Rask supposed. But most of his mind was dedicated to the fight with Qevpilum. If the other reactor did not blow soon, Magma City would still drop into the lava lake, its supports unable to hold its weight for long. He had already done his job. But Qevpilum would have time to evacuate, making the last stand somewhat of a questionable exercise.

The southern reactor’s blast rang out in the distance, a boom that disturbed both Astartes’ senses of balance. Qevpilum was worse-affected, and so Rask’s blows pressed his once-friend backwards, northwards, towards the panel that would end it all –

And then Rask felt a fire in his gut, and a glance down confirmed it was Qevpilum’s weapon.

He tried to respond likewise, to drive his chainsword into Qevpilum’s chest, but he could not force it forward through the pain. Qevpilum indented a button, and Rask slid to the ground, unable to even scream. It seemed quiet, somehow.

Perhaps, Rask groggily realized, it was that his heart wasn’t beating.

He tried to close his eyes as Cadmus Qevpilum raised his pike for the final blow.

For Mortarion, he thought as the light he could see despite his best efforts came closer. For humanity, and for the dusk that is inevitable, no matter how hard Cadmus will struggle.

And, after we have together burnt it all to void, for the fresh dawn after.

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post #39 of 44 (permalink) Old 07-30-16, 07:37 PM
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INTERLUDE: TRAVELER

As he ran through yet another collapsing building, Anrakyr the Traveler had to admit that he should really have planned the excursion better this time. Though he had, at least, secured almost all of his objectives.

Except for, thus far, survival. Rather important, that.

“Do you have the gate’s precise coordinates?” Srequi Lantrane inquired, running at his side, a half-step behind.

“Yes,” Anrakyr said as they rounded a batch of metal boxes, “but they predate this complex.” As Lantrane should really have realized. Well, Anrakyr supposed she was still adapting to her new body.

Lantrane had been a surprise. Anrakyr had taken her along because companions tended to make travel more interesting, but her behavior with respect to the Mag’ladroth shard… that had been unexpected. Its outcome, moreso.

Anrakyr’s circuits still burned with fury at what the Dragon of Mars had done. He recognized, though, that Lantrane did not feel the same. Bereft of context, bereft of betrayal, he supposed the transformation could indeed be interpreted as a blessing. Of course, that was not to say he would forgive the C’tan for what they had done.

Nor that it would affect his actions much if he did, considering the star-gods’ nature as devourers of worlds.

Still, Lantrane was a Necron now – the equivalent for her own race, at least, but the same thing in all relevant ways – and he had an unexpected apprentice. Anrakyr found he rather liked humans, when compared to most of the races now inhabiting the galaxy. Young, yes, but determined, rational, self-modifying, and… well, how many other species would be willing to fight their own god-emperor for their moral qualities?

And though Anrakyr’s loyalties were ever with his own species, he knew the humans had a critical role to play in this last war. What that role was, of course, was a different matter. They did not share the Necrontyr’s homeworld, after all, but rather that of their ancient enemies. Not that such omens mattered except with respect to the Warp, as homeworlds could spawn quite… diverse sapients.

“There!” Lantrane exclaimed, causing Anrakyr to swivel his head for a fraction of a second, before realizing that Lantrane’s vantage point was allowing her to see something he did not. Therefore, the gate was… down.

Without thinking much, Anrakyr used his momentum to grab onto the catwalk’s handrails and jump over the edge, onto the metallic floor far below. Lantrane hesitated, still subconsciously assuming she would break something – or correcting for uncertainty about her new body, more charitably.

She jumped a few seconds later, as Anrakyr landed in a roll, sending clanging sounds through the factory complex. Now he saw the portal, even blocked as it was by the empty command throne. Lantrane landed seconds after, as the forge complex tilted with the aftereffects of the explosion. Both stayed on their feet, though Anrakyr saw that for Lantrane it was not without difficulty.

“It’s closed!” Lantrane yelled, running towards the portal.

Disappointing, again. Though it was a high-stress situation, and Lantrane would be used to chemical impediments in context – and then, confirmation bias. Or a psychological quirk. It was hard to know, since Anrakyr had far too little information on the transformation, what with the original one being simultaneous.

“Not to us,” Anrakyr said back, without screaming but loudly enough for Lantrane to easily hear over their footsteps.

They came up to the Dolmen gate together, a ceramic circle built into the rock, with seemingly more sandy rock within it. Anrakyr stepped first as if through air, as the floor slanted dramatically in the other direction, and then he was himself barely on his feet, standing half on the Webway fragment and half in empty space. Lantrane did not have that, dropping towards the lava lake below –

Her fingers closed around his, and Anrakyr pulled Srequi Lantrane into the Dolmen gate, which flickered permanently shut behind them.

“Apologies and thanks,” Lantrane said. She looked around, in genuine awe, if Anrakyr’s interpretation of human facial expressions was correct. “So this is what Zeth was hiding.”

“I suppose,” Anrakyr admitted. “But only the least fraction of the Dolmen paths, which is itself far lesser than the Old Ones’ Webway.”

Lantrane nodded, as they walked along the unchanging corridor. At the first closed gate, Lantrane stared into its unlit depths and nodded.

“My map is up-to-date,” she said. “Though these paths have changed from your time, no?”

“They have,” Anrakyr admitted. That the Dragon had fresh intel was, indeed, disturbing, if not unexpected. “Should we change to binary?”

Lantrane turned and stared, for long seconds, down the open path. Towards her past species’ rebellion, towards her friend Zeth, towards the life she could have had. Anrakyr supposed she was deliberating leaving him. Not unreasonable, and if she transferred him the coordinates he would allow it. It would take long minutes to decide, anyhow, for one such as her. Anrakyr supposed he would spend the time deciding how to best phrase his response. Not to Lantrane, but rather to the Silent King. He did not like going to the summit first, he would have preferred to assist in awakening Tomb Worlds himself, but there was far too little time. After far too much. How much of this had been planned? And by whom?

Four and a half seconds after Anrakyr’s question, Srequi Lantrane stepped through the locked gate with her left foot, and turned her head towards the Phaeron of Pyrrhia.

“Let’s go,” she transmitted in Necron binary.

Four and a half seconds, to leave her born identity behind. For Anrakyr sixty million years had not been entirely sufficient.

Well, he supposed that was evidence he, too, had room for improvement.

Throwing his cloak around himself as if it was eternity, Anrakyr of Pyrrhia followed Srequi Lantrane of Mars into the pulsating darkness.

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post #40 of 44 (permalink) Old 07-31-16, 05:34 PM
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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The battle for Magma City had been won, but Cadmus Qevpilum knew that the things more important than battle had been lost.

He stood on a platform, the forge’s high point, which had once housed the Death Guard’s command post. The body of Sergeant Lgalun lay at his feet, though it had been Zerondem who’d killed the Death Guard commander. Qevpilum had thought that Rask had led the defenders… but the importance of that was null, now. The third Death Guard squad, Mineceno, had been the first to fall, though Nusaamnius had worriedly mentioned not all of their bodies had been found. Deception aside, there were no Astartes of the Fourteenth Legion left in Magma City, or on the rest of Mars.

And he’d killed Rask. A traitor, of course, the action had been necessary. But they had been brothers, once. That did not vanish for him as easily as, by appearance, for Rask.

That was only the third-greatest defeat of the day, however. The second was that the Death Guard had apparently been evacuating Mechanicum personnel, as well as data, throughout the war. Lgalun, Rask, and the others had stayed behind, to kill loyal Astartes, but those – Adepts, mainly, Qevpilum expected – who had fled were far from irrelevant. And they would yet frustrate the Imperium.

The first was that Magma City would fall into the depths of its volcano within the hour, and its numerous archives with it.

“Brother-Centurion?” Tlaar Hemcasi asked, walking up to Qevpilum.

Hemcasi’s leg was mangled, and Qevpilum knew he should really see an Apothecary. Less due to triage, and more for separating commanders within a collapsing forge complex. Magma City, dropping off, piece by piece, with nothing he could do –

But no, this was not Pyrrhia. Still not a battle, perhaps, but not unwinnable. Even when limited to the current setup.

Qevpilum listed through the schematics, trying to find the biggest block of archives that would be relevant and might be intact, assuming the Death Guard had not intentionally moved them (there were far too many to steal everything through whatever magic transportation Lgalun’d had). 02B – no, those were restricted military schematics, dangerous enough that perhaps they would be best drowned in magma. Moreover, the traitors and adepts would have raided them. Far from sure that they would be intact.

No, 12L was the better bet. Marginally smaller, dealing with medical technology and evolutionary biology. Much of it incompletely understood, yet. And he could see the region, twisting walls colored orange and silver – 12L would still be intact, at the moment.

“Brother-Centurion?” Hemcasi inquired again.

“Brother Hemcasi,” Qevpilum answered. “Set up cranes. We should be able to raise Block 12L onto the slopes.”

Hemcasi tilted his head in surprise. “I was going to say… wait. Remove Block 12L? Why?”

Did Hemcasi not see, or was it Qevpilum?

“To save the information within,” Qevpilum explained. “The Death Guard have been extinguished; this is the best commitment of our time.”

Hemcasi cautiously nodded. Qevpilum opened the vox channel to Venth Zerondem, repeating his order to Hemcasi; again a pause, albeit a lesser one.

“I will contact the Mechanicum,” Zerondem said, “but will the block hold together?”

That was unclear – as Qevpilum jogged down the complex’s edge, he could understand Zerondem’s skepticism. If merely lifted from above, the holes in 12L would shatter it, and maybe a tenth could be lifted. It would need to be separated from its neighbors, and even after that the bottom half lifting would not be a sure thing.

Best shot they had, though. “Squads Hemcasi, Hierrth, Nistrlaq – under Brother Hemcasi’s command, cut all physical connections between block 12L, coordinates appended, and surrounding Magma City blocks. Command squad, squad Ixeutyi – under my command, support block 12L from below. Squad Zerondem, work with the tech-priests to raise the block from above. Use all available machinery.”

He descended into the Magma City on foot, ever cautious of errant movements as the forge flaked apart from below. A few murals and filigreed sculptures worked into the walls lined the corridors, but for the most part the abandoned complex was a monument to humanity in stark, utilitarian fashion. Qevpilum preferred that – it was fundamentally honest, and more importantly did not waste resources. Art had its place, perhaps, but this was not it.

It was strange, that some in the Mechanicum did not seem to recognize that. Their perception of beauty may not have been the same as baseline humanity’s, but they still placed significant weight into it.

But then, that was part of what they fought for as well, was it not? The freedom not to be limited to survival. It was not as if humanity would go extinct, if Mortarion’s like won. But life was more than… well, servitor status. And complexity, in its inconstant arc, sometimes turned to strange eddies.

Eddies, here, of presses and of channels, of iron etched with the promise of sublime destiny, a promise that was not destiny’s to keep. Qevpilum traced a hive of pipes and cables into the depths, a nest that changed color and anastomosed as he jogged, but led unerringly down, to the base of 12L.

Qevpilum nodded to Hemcasi as he passed his lieutenant, the latter sawing angrily while fastened to one of the complex’s many divided ceilings. Anwiter was waiting with Ignition Grasp below, and in the corner nest –

Qevpilum had time to scream a warning, as he raised his own bolter. Hemcasi did not have time to hear it.

Qevpilum’s lieutenant fell, even as the centurion dashed into the hall. Hemcasi’s armor impacted the floor on its back with a grinding crunch, but the fall was not fatal; the headshot, however, was. A halo of blood surrounded Hemcasi’s ruined head, its central ray pointing straight towards the nest from which the killing shot had come.

Nusaamnius was next in line, now, if Qevpilum died here. But as the centurion ran past his brother’s body, he realized that such an outcome was unlikely. The Death Guard within wore a sergeant’s armor, but pitted and mangled to the point where one would at first think the Astarte within was dead. Likely Hemcasi had thought so, too.

Sergeant Mineceno began to raise his bolter again, but he was far too slow. Qevpilum had unlatched and extended his pike with his left hand, and now drove it forward like a javelin with his right, impaling Mineceno’s head on its tip in one movement.

The bolter dropped from Mineceno’s gray-armored fingers, and Qevpilum waited for a few seconds to ensure the traitor sergeant had not somehow survived. Kicking the Astarte to confirm in full, he walked back to Hemcasi’s body, kneeling to his lieutenant.

His gene-seed was intact, at least, and so Qevpilum raised Hemcasi’s body onto his shoulders and walked down the few remaining steps, meeting Anwiter’s unhelmeted gaze, his squadmate’s head plugged into cables and mechatendrils that snaked down his armor.

“Hemcasi was killed by a hiding Death Guard,” Qevpilum clarified. “Mark Sergeant Mineceno’s body as found.”

Anwiter frowned and nodded, looking at Eulemaz and his bike. Qevpilum handed Hemcasi’s body over as he climbed up Ignition Grasp’s side, noting the newly repainted Legion sigil on the tank’s side.

“Apothecarion, and come right back, Brother Eulemaz,” Qevpilum ordered. “We need all hands.”

Qevpilum climbed into the hatch, Anwiter following him.

“Zerondem suggested modifications to your plan,” Anwiter said, “for efficiency’s sake. He plans to redirect –”

“Accept them all.”

They drove through the forge complex, occasionally bulldozing a particularly stubborn support. Ixeutyi’s team marked the remaining two Death Guard bodies, meaning Magma City was now provably cleared. Well, unless Lgalun had brought along Astartes not from the three squads here destroyed, just for this purpose. Qevpilum couldn’t be entirely certain.

The plascrete above began to infinitesimally move, as Zerondem began to wrench 12L free of its mooring. Qevpilum tossed a few disc grenades into a hole below, watching them explode and send another doomed chunk of the Magma City into the fire. Then they drove onwards, across this boundary floor, dark except for what the Iron Hands provided, full of abandoned metal. Ever westwards, towards the crater wall.

He didn’t talk with Anwiter, in those minutes, except to declare targets. Qevpilum did order the rest of his squad, in accordance with Zerondem’s calculations. But the rate of collapse was on the high end of those expectations.

Ahead, Qevpilum could see the wall of dark pink rock, the complex’s end. The ceiling above began to buckle, Zerondem accelerating his work to counter the collapse below.

They didn’t have time for the initial plan, Qevpilum recognized. He was no tech-priest, but he had studied and seen enough of mechanics to know the building wouldn’t hold, even if Ignition Grasp continued moving at full speed. Moreover, Ignition Grasp could well fall through the floor and into the lava lake below – and the tank’s loss would be almost as tragic as its crew’s in that case.

“Park Ignition Grasp at the wall,” Qevpilum told Anwiter. “I’ll set up the second support point on foot.”

Anwiter looked at Qevpilum with uncertainty, but obeyed. “The flesh is weak!” he said.

“Fire and Iron!” Qevpilum responded, with a brief nod to the veteran.

Ignition Grasp’s hatch sprung open and Qevpilum jumped out, running northward along the wall of barely modified stone. Circuits built into some of its surface, yes, and supports that Qevpilum chopped through with strokes of his pike, but that uneven red curtain still separated transhumanity’s world from that which existed for billions of years before the first sapience on Earth woke.

But then, was not Mars a dead world before humanity’s arrival? Deep time may not have been humanity’s, but humanity’s echoes would linger through it, even if all Earth-descended life vanished in one impossible instant.

Qevpilum shook his head to evade the grim thoughts, tracing the rough rock, and chopped through a final nail before walking to the point where the second support had been meant to be.

And above, the ceiling creaked and slanted.

It was too early, still. But Zerondem had accelerated, trusting in his centurion to keep up… or he’d had no choice. Below, Qevpilum saw decimeter-scale fragments of Magma City pouring like sand into the furnace – cables, supports, electronics, screens, and weirder industrial dust.

Without time to think, Qevpilum stood on a bump in the floor, bending to support the complex’s weight and pushing upward. Too much for a single Astarte to hold, of course, a thousand times too much… but then most of the weight was Zerondem’s and Anwiter’s, and Ixeutyi’s, at the third support point. So Qevpilum held the ceiling, and the sky above.

Perhaps 12L had been a bit too much, he thought as his teeth grit against each other, as he felt flakes of bone leave his vertebrae; but then, when had Astartes settled for merely enough? And he was not merely an Astarte, but an Iron Hand.

The weight began to lift, Qevpilum’s cracking knees extending into verticality. The pain did not go away. He’d need surgery after this, need to turn more of his body into iron, effectively rebuild himself entirely. Still, he felt the going get easier, as he pushed the bump he was standing on flat, as the gray floor above lifted, lifted –

And then he felt the crack.

It was deafening, and at first Qevpilum though that he had failed 12L. But the ceiling continued to rise, even letting light in. Reddish white light from above, reddish orange from below –

That was when Qevpilum recognized that the crack had been below him, and that he was falling.

There was a circle of fire, his exhausted eyes recognized. Not a ring, but a splotch of certain scorching doom, whose heat he could barely feel, warming his feet from below. The fall would be mortal, even without the lava. Around him, more dust… well, a macroscale version thereof. It drifted down, like hail into a lake.

Above, 12L’s rise revealed a fragment of dusty sky, Ignition Grasp’s side visible on a solid ledge. Below… below, Qevpilum knew he was falling back-first now, looking upward towards the sun, cresting in the sky. Qevpilum would not see another dusk.

He wasn’t particularly bothered, by that.

No doubt there would come a new dusk… but no doubt, either, that the last dusk would come, and quite possibly soon. One way or another. As in all things. Death would die; the only question would be whether it would be before or after it had destroyed all else.

The principles of Chaos which Ferrus spoke about… they were merely one more step. Driven first by death, perhaps. But sworn, brightly, to life. All of them were, or at least had to be.

The heat was scalding, now, but Qevpilum did not close his eyes in those last instants before the impact came.

Instead he opened them as wide as he could, taking in the iron – and not only iron, but then for the Tenth iron had only ever been a shorthand for creation – hail and 12L, by now safe above the crater, partially eclipsing Sol; taking in the red sky and the redder walls, webbed with humanity’s legacy. And taking in, not physically but with his imagination’s brightest parts, the heroes of Mars gazing at smoking foundations of marvels like few yet known.

And smiling. Because the foundations were enough.

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