And, it's alive
Chapter 3: I
I remember the days before Golan with painful clarity. I remember the Corinthian feast, the Witch-Princess, and I remember the training. Days upon days of soul-shattering, body-breaking training. Cooperation between the Companies was common; Gaelan's Fourth and Brennus' First training alongside us. I caught glimpses of Caderyn in these days, blinding Illuminos
in hand, defeating countless challengers. Until me
We had watched him, the assembled Companies, best Gaelan the Gold. The Captain was talented, his twin-blades striking out like vipers, but ultimately, Caderyn was better. They danced around one another, testing their defences, before Caderyn plunged into Gaelan's guard and scored a deep, squirting slice through the Captain's thigh. First-blood, Brennus announced, and the crowd cheered. Caderyn did not smile, he did not acknowledge his victory, merely stepped back and thrust his blade into the sand. Half-naked, lathered in sweat, his tattoos shining darkly - He was magnificent
'Is there anyone else?' He asked, after the cheers subsided.
'Swordsman,' Kaer called, from besides me. His arm was sleeved in a sac of amniotic fluids; the flesh beneath had began to rot. The arm had not taken to his bionic hand, the veins thick and black, like leaches. 'Aeron will take up the challenge!'
For a moment, I failed to comprehend what he had said. And then, arms were pushing me forwards, into the makeshift arena. Caderyn examined me like a wolf, eyes narrowed and teeth bared, and spat.
want this?' He whispered, having stepped closer. I noticed, dimly, that his breath stank like charcoal and meat. 'I will think no less of you, Brother-Sergeant, if you turn away.'
I grinned. 'A weapon,' I shouted, turning. I lifted my hands. 'Would you have me face Caderyn unarmed?'
'Of course!' Someone jeered. I laughed and shook my head.
'No weapon,' Caderyn said, gruffly, from besides me. 'No duel.'
'You shall have mine,' I heard, and turned. Brennus was standing there, wearing his war-plate, a scorched, ragged pelt wrapped around his shoulders. He dwarfed me, dwarfed Caderyn, both in size and personality. He was gargantuan.
From over his shoulder, he drew his blade, Soluis
. It was beautiful, six-hands long, glittering harshly in the light. The pommel was lacquered bone, inscribed with the names of the blade's previous owners - All the way back to Ancient Locrinus, our Founder. It was older, still, having been forged on icy Inwit. When activated, it glowed a cruel blue, a sharp contrast to Caderyn's flaming Illuminos
. Ice and fire
, I thought.
'A fine blade, my lord,' I said, reverently. 'But I cannot-'
'Oh, you can,' Brennus interrupted. The First Captain smiled. He was missing teeth, and others were plated gold. 'And you will.'
'I am not worthy,' I admitted.
'Look around, Stormcrow,' Brennus argued. 'Who else offers their arms? No-one. They are afraid - Afraid that Caderyn and his candlestick will beat you, and they too shall be shamed, if you carry their blade,' He snorted derisively. 'Bugger them. Either you take Soluis
, Aeron, or you forfeit. What would be worse?'
I pondered the thought, cursed myself for not having my own weapons, and took Soluis
. The crowd roared, blood drummed in my ears, and Caderyn smirked. That, of all things, terrified me.
Brennus rejoined the ranks, and in that tremendous voice of his, announced - 'Begin.'
Arete reclined, lazily tracing patterns in the pool, eyes unblinking. She had confined herself to the gardens, posting guardsmen at the doors, and ordering that no-one - Be they officer, soldier or courtesan, should be permitted entrance. Birdsong echoed around her, the chirping of bugs, the susurrus of the ornamental waterfalls. Her encounter with the Fire Lords had been startling, horrifying. Their grumbling voices, their sizes, their brutal honesty - It haunted Arete, like no phantom ever could.
She had barely eaten or slept, since. She had shook and wept aplenty, locked away in her chambers, in the dark, hair messy, eyes darkened with tiredness. Witch, witch, witch
'Sister,' A voice said. Arete leapt to her feet, clutching her blade in one shaky hand.
Her brother raised his hands. 'Easy, now,' He purred. He wore a scarlet cloak over white robes. Blood on snow
. 'Put the blade down.'
Slowly, Arete did. 'Hektor,' She stammered. 'I order-'
'My ship,' Hektor blurted out. 'I go where I want, regardless of orders,' He sat down on the grass, indicating that Arete should do the same. 'Your encounter with the Astartes,' Hektor said, slowly. He was angry, Arete noticed. He wasn't looking at her, but rather over her shoulder, at the fruit trees. His eyes looked guilty. 'Tell me everything.'
Caderyn flew at me, Illuminos
crackling in his hands, teeth bared. There was no anger in his eyes, no emotion, just cold, clinical determination. I backpedaled, Soluis
thrumming to life, and met the strike.
There was a strange noise, a warbling, as the blades met. Their energy fields overlapped, I felt the vibrations run along my arm, and shimmered. Light blossomed, a kaleidoscope of colours, wavering like oil on water, and I turned the attack aside. Caderyn regained his footing before I could press my advantage, rotating on his heel, and came back at me. He was unrelenting, hammering Illuminos
, and I realised then, as I retreated, that he was trying to kill
I couldn't win. Caderyn was unrivalled. He had banished the Daemon Prince, Afang, singlehandedly. He had led the Fire Lords to victory, against the Black Legion, upon the port-world, Vimbaar. He had beaten back Gaelan the Gold, effortlessly, and was now going to beat me. No, I couldn't win. But, I would
give him a challenge, I vowed, as I stabbed and parried.
invigorated me. It fed me with ambition, with power. Illuminos
, aflame from point to guard, was a fine blade, a masterpiece. Caderyn had forged it himself, a hundred years ago, on Mundus Pyra. It was his pride and joy, his closest companion. He loved that blade, and everyone else admired it, lusted for it.
was legendary. We circled, we struck. It was intense, it was exhaustive. Not only was I combating Caderyn, but also my own body. I could feel my muscles cramp and burn. How long had we dueled? Time had blurred. The Fire Lords, their chanting, had become one endless, tuneless cacophony.
And then- Shaking, rumbling, the entire ship straining against itself. The lights dimmed, darkened and then cut away completely. I went at Caderyn, unthinking, and thrust my sword into his forearm. It parted flesh, scorched muscle and jarred against bone. In turn, the swordsman buried Illuminos
in my neck, a finger deep, and I slumped over; my chest slick with blood, turning sticky.
'What happened,' I heard Brennus bellow, furious, as the emergency lights tuned in - Bathing everything in a dull, pinkish red. Fire Lords were picking themselves up from the deck, most unarmoured and unarmed, and rallying into their units. 'What was
Kaer was at my side, very suddenly. I was holding my throat together, spitting blood, thinking that I was going to die. Brennus came to me, plucked Soluis
from my side, and continued to shout orders and demands. He didn't spare me a second glance, there were no congratulations. In that moment, he was the uncompromising warlord, terrible in his armour.
I propped myself up, onto my elbow, and glanced at Caderyn. He was standing, alone, Illuminos
thrown at his feet. 'Well done,' He said, after a moment of glaring. His voice was everything but
congratulatory. 'You have won.'
I laid back down, smiled and everything went black.
There was an explosion, somewhere deep in the Hyperion
, and Hektor was on his feet. He dragged Arete up with him, iron-hard fingers digging into her forearm, and looked around. A statue of the Emperor had fallen, snapping an outstretched arm and shattering the skull. An ill omen, Arete thought, as she stared at the wreckage.
'Something is wrong,' He hissed, as alarms began to wail. 'Sister-'
Arete pressed a finger against his lips. 'Go, now,' She urged, with a worried half-smile. 'I will await in my chambers.'
'No,' Hektor said, quickly, and let go of her arm, turning in a flourish of silk. 'Mine. I will send Machanidas to you - You will
obey him, Arete.'
And with that, Hektor left the gardens, and his sister behind. Agathon and an escort of storm-troopers, in their overlapping plate and plumed helmets, waited for him outside.
'What's going on, Leos?' Hektor asked, as he jogged along a marbled hallway, past women and children and their soldier-husbands. 'What was
Agathon, taller and broader and uglier than Seleucus, shrugged. 'No idea, sire,' He said. If Hektor's voice was poetry, Agathon's was a death-knell. 'We are getting mixed reports. Leucon's led a platoon of men down to the kitchens - Someone reported rioting. Hipponax and Orestan are mustering the rest of the men, on deck eighteen, to repel boarders.'
'Boarders?' Seleucus sneered, with narrowed eyes.
'We all felt the explosion,' Agathon reasoned. 'It's just a precaution.'
Seleucus pursed his lips and nodded. 'Very well,' Ahead, the bridge loomed. The doors were thrown open, and beyond Seleucus could see the tiered deck. The floor was reinforced glass, and beneath it were streams of water - Corinthian
water - Filled with coins. An old custom, older than the Imperium, perhaps. The coins were for the dead, to buy their way into the otherworld, where all must go.
Tiades stood, in the centre of the bridge, receiving reports. His face was creased, angry and concerned, his remaining arm resting on his basket-hilted blade.
'Shipmaster,' Seleucus greeted, as he stepped besides him. Agathon and his troops milled about, weapons slung. 'Care to tell me what that was?'
'Away with the formalities, Hektor,' Tiades said, not once looking at the Lord Militant. 'We exited the fugging warp,' He looked up. Great, armoured shutters were lifting upwards, casting starlight onto the bridge. 'There was an explosion on the starboard side, damage reports should be coming in soon - At best, it was external. If we have been hulled..'
The shutters ground to a halt. It revealed a starscape, and interestingly, planets. Seleucus recognised them - He had studied them ever since leaving Ryza. 'Is that...' He started.
'Golan,' Tiades said, his mouth crinkling into an uneasy smile.