The victory had lasted a week.
Ferrus Manus had wanted to bring Mars into the Imperium intact, and eventually decided to offer amnesty in exchange for a message swearing loyalty. All of Mars had sworn it, and with his father calling for new conquests, many of the Iron Hands were sent away. Ferrus himself stayed on Mars, cleaning up the sole forge that had refused to admit defeat.
Then, he had walked into Magos Ahotep’s forge, which had
surrendered, and had faced weaponry strong enough to drive away even a Primarch.
War spread across the Red Planet once more. And though the Legion was fighting it well enough, it was doing so without First Captain Gabriel Santar. Santar, whom Ferrus Manus had killed. Santar, the only one besides the Primarch and Semyon the Guardian to have known half the truth about the Dragon of Mars (and only the Guardian knew the other half), who – despite that – had nearly ventured into its chamber, for reasons unknown. He had been driven mad by dreams. Did dragons dream?
Did gorgons? Ferrus, at least, did not. He did not see lies at night, nor did he bear hopes for the future. Much of his Legion was descending, falling into Lorgar’s and the Gods’ waiting arms. Surrendering, even in victory. Some others were murmuring about the Imperium’s new direction in the same way that Santar had, at the end. Many simply fought the Martian War, or wars elsewhere, and blotted out the progress they once lived for. Worst of all, Ferrus wasn’t sure which was which. He had lost his Legion, as well as Mars and Santar.
Most of the new Martian rebels were in a loose alliance calling itself the Order of the Dragon. Not all – Koriel Zeth of the Magma City was the primary exception, and there were a number of others. Even the rebel Fabricator Locum, Kane himself, had not officially committed to the Order. What worried Ferrus most was that the object of their worship was, indeed, the Dragon of Mars, a being – so Semyon had described it to him and Santar – of hunger and devastation.
Semyon had that said he despised Chaos, but that it was not his war. And indeed, the Iron Hands still controlled Noctis Labyrinthus. That was not the problem.
The problem was what came after.
The Iron Hands would win the war on Mars, though with heavy losses, and raze every forge of this second rebellion to the ground. Afterwards, they would fight, perhaps even against their cousins – and, at this rate, their brothers. Mars would be placed under a loyal tech-priest’s administration, and be rebuilt, though it would of course never be the same. It would take more than the tech-priests he had to lead the rebirth of Mars. Still, they could return industry, if not progress, to the second heart of the Imperium: it would produce enough, with the loyal Forge Worlds, to supply the war effort. And he would return to the field of battle, if he could.
But Santar, and Lorgar, and the state of his Legion, and the Gods of Chaos, and his general despair at what he had done and what the Imperium was becoming – those were powerful poisons, strong enough to keep him from successfully warring. And so he sat in the strategium, broken (he was well-aware of that), defeated, and thinking about things other than the strategy for Mars.
He gazed at his iron hands – the body part, not the Legion – which even he did not fully understand. Gained by drowning a wyrm, Asirnoth, in lava. And his Legion, in the days when it was loyal (in the days when it had reason to be loyal), chose to replace their left hands with bionics. The custom remained, of course; he didn’t even know whether Medusa was aware of Santar’s death and Ferrus’ seclusion. But the meaning behind the concept – a familial bond, expressed in a somewhat absurd way – had gone.
And, of course, his plans to cleanse the Iron Hands of metal were fading too. He believed, had always believed, that humans must triumph through their own strength. That was why he had not asked for help, now, though it could’ve been given without shame. And that was why he had grown to despise the prevalence of bionics in his Legion. Flesh was weak, but weakness was real
. And strength, ultimately, came from flesh and weapon – not the fusion of the two.
It was easier for him to say that; he was a Primarch, with some of the strongest flesh in the Imperium. But that didn’t make it false.
But the Iron Hands had embraced the way of the tech-priest, and he could hardly deny that it was an advantage in war. So he, uncharacteristically for himself, had waited; and now it was too late, at Crusade’s end.
Because there was rancor between the Primarchs, and very possibly civil war, an eventuality he preferred not to think about. But if Angron had been sent to Magnus’ homeworld of Prospero, and was not recalled, then the fate of the galaxy hinged on whether anyone would back the Cyclops. And, truth be told, though Ferrus had little love for Magnus, he had less for Angron; and of all the Primarchs, only Russ and Mortarion might have disagreed with him on this.
The Emperor had erred, perhaps, in only initially revealing his plans to seven of them. But that level of strategy required information he had no idea about. From what he did know, of course, his father’s actions seemed borderline insane; and though he would never betray the Emperor, he did not exclude the possibility that things were not going according to his plans. One way or another, the board was almost certainly already set, and play had definitely already begun. As Mars showed.
Ferrus absentmindedly moved Orth’s tank spearhead, wondering at why the position in the south was so terrible. They had a better-than-even chance of having to retreat from Noachia entirely. If the retreat happened, the war would last another three years; if not, only another year and a half.
Though by that time, the Emperor would insist on reinforcements. Yet another failure to note, yet another point when weakness had defeated him.
“There is no strength without weakness,” he repeated to himself, but the words rang hollow.
“Primarch?” It was Vedumar, his Equerry and Captain of the Twenty-Third Clan-Company. The Space Marine stood behind an iron screen, invisible; Ferrus had not seen another sapient being since Mars caught on fire the second time. He could not bear to, this deep in despair.
“Cybus is requesting an audience again.” Vermanus Cybus wanted leadership of the Avernii Clan-Company, the fabled Morlocks, in the wake of Santar’s death.
“I’m not giving him the Avernii.”
“I’ve told him that already,” Vedumar said, “but he asks that you appoint someone
. The First Clan-Company is in a state of total disorder.”
Ferrus paused. “Fine. Numen, Desaan, Urgdosev, and two others from the Morlocks, to be chosen by the Morlocks themselves. Let them form an Avernii Council, and command together somehow. One cycle every Medusan year, perhaps.”
“My lord, that is… highly irregular. When should this order be executed?”
“I know full well it’s irregular!” Ferrus bellowed. “Execute it as soon as the Morlocks give up on my naming someone to Santar’s spot. If I change my mind later, the Morlocks can adjust. But I’ve told you before, Vedumar, and I’ll tell you again – Santar was the last First Captain, and there won’t be another while I command this Legion!”
“I am aware of that, my lord,” Vedumar said. “The Morlocks are another matter.”
Ferrus mumbled a dismissal, and Vedumar departed.
That was done. Perhaps Vedumar would not bother him for a while, now that Ferrus had stated his decision. Vedumar, at least, knew the moods of his Primarch. And Ferrus Manus’ mood right now was that of nightfall, even more than was recently standard.
His will was iron, but iron rusted. And right now, it was stuck in acidic rain. Santar. It had all peaked with Santar. But it had begun far, far earlier. It had begun before he had come to Mars, before his father had gathered together seven Primarchs; it had begun not with his weakness, though it had come to just that. It had begun with the weakness of the Imperium.
Chaos, some called the pantheon that was the new Imperial Truth. In truth, no matter what the ancient names involved were, chaos was what they were giving everything to prevent. Chaos was what had been growing, before the Emperor had embraced the doctrine of any means necessary. Sedition, really; even the remembrancers bordered on it. There was a desire to decrease the power of the military, which Ferrus ultimately understood. But beyond that, the old Imperial Truth had been questioned, and in the end had been too weak to stand up to the questioning that it had, itself, encouraged.
The Imperium’s foundation, he saw now, had suffered a partial collapse. And did that not mean it had been weak all along?
Had there been any point in anything he had done?
He had no doubt the Emperor’s new path was right, though he did not exclude the opposite possibility entirely. But if he had wasted two hundred years of his life, and had, if anything, hurt humanity in them –
He had restarted the Crusade full of fire, a fire of desire for atonement, and had almost saved Mars. His first great mistake had been to fail there. His second, Santar’s fate. His third, the disastrous track of the Martian War. And his fourth, in truth, had been secluding himself and thereby losing what was left of his Legion.
Mars and the Legion, Mars and the Legion. Bound together, perhaps forever, by what Ferrus Manus had initially assumed was merely luck and a love for robotics. Had it in fact been the chains of the Dragon’s scales?
He did not know, could not be certain. Not of how much of his Legion’s path had been determined by dark fate, and not of anything else. All he knew was that any such fate was indeed dark.
Lorgar’s star was rising. Ferrus Manus was well-aware of that much. And Lorgar was not the brother that Ferrus wanted to see as second-in-command of the Imperium. Not that Ferrus Manus had anything against Aurelian as a person, or complained about his relative lack of fighting skill, or doubted the Urizen’s knowledge of the Warp; but the Word Bearers’ Primarch was more focused on bowing to the Warp than ruling it. His father was more in the right, declaring himself and the Primarchs gods. But how could a god be a pope?
They couldn’t, of course. Lorgar did not want apotheosis. Lorgar preferred to be a servant, and Father did not need a servant as second-in-command. Malcador had been more than a servant. He wondered where the Sigillite was now. Or Horus, for that matter.
His thoughts tumbled like an endless house of cards, touching brothers and enemies, daemons and xenos, iron and mind. Horus was at war, winning true victories. His own victory had lasted a week. The Red Planet was once more aflame with war, and it was not alone.
Ferrus Manus, Primarch of the Iron Hands, sat unmoving in his strategium, his eyes directed into the past.