Major General Ser Tavio Archer squinted at his reflection and straightened his uniform again. The gesture was unnecessary; the black dress uniform was immaculate. Every line and crease was laser straight, every decoration was highly polished and hung perfectly from the breast, and never a speck or strand was to be found anywhere on the garment. Angled stripes of royal blue and white climbed his left sleeve from above the cuff and boasted more than nine decades of service in the Imperial Guard. At his hip, a power sword was sheathed in a scabbard of black leather, finely tooled and chased in silver and gold. The sword itself was ornate, but not overly so, and eminently functional. His trousers and boots were of the same midnight hue as his jacket, and also immaculate. Tavio scrutinised his reflection once more and grunted his approval at the state of his dress. But as his gaze travelled away from the uniform to his face, his satisfaction lessened. He had undergone juvenat treatments, but not quite as often as some of the more vain who sought eternal youth. Aging was a natural evolution of life – he would try to do it with some dignity.
Grey eyes, once bright and shining with boundless enthusiasm, had hardened to the colour of a storm-tossed sea. They remained as sharp as ever, even at his advanced age, but long years of endless war had hooded them and scored them with deep lines. His close-cropped hair was entirely silver now with only the palest hint of the red-gold of his youth. Copper freckles had browned, his mouth had tightened into a hard slash, and his ears and nose had grown overlarge. He cast his eyes down to his hands; one flecked with brown and cabled with thick blue veins, the other a master-crafted articulate prosthetic of hard shining metal. A plain ring of polished adamantium decorated his right ring finger, the only jewelry he had ever worn. Ceile had died almost twenty years ago, but Tavio would meet her again across the great veil someday, and he would do it with his ring still on.
He inhaled deeply, slowly. As he breathed out, the slight shudder that escaped his lips was the last concession to weakness he allowed himself. As his lungs emptied, he released his consternation at growing old, his heartsickness for his departed wife, and his burgeoning fears and doubts about the future he was soon to face. With his next breath he was back firmly in control. He took his swagger stick from its place on the wall, tucked it under his arm, and gave one last nod to his reflection.
"All right, Tav. Time to retire."
* * * * *
Two weeks earlier, the surviving remnants of the Persican 511th (Artillery) Black Lance were returning home in triumph, having aided in crushing a rebellion on Thuvia in the nearby Tarquin Sector. As the Matriarch-class transport Matron of Duty ferried the weary troops and their vehicles back to Persica, they rested and recuperated, healed and scarred, and regaled each other with tales of their exploits. When the transport neared Cassia, Tavio made a request of Matron’s captain, which the woman - a Persican native - was happy to grant. For three days the Matron orbited Cassia's moon Threnody. Rotations of troops were permitted to debark and shuttle down to the cemetery world, partly just to put their feet on solid ground and stretch their legs, but mainly to give the men and women of the 511th the opportunity to visit the Wall.
Tavio descended to Threnody in his own Valkyrie. The craft was not luxuriously appointed, and in fact was nearly identical to any other Valkyrie, with the sole exception that Tavio had a more comfortable seat installed for him. He exercised the privilege of his rank simply by having the craft set aside for his personal use. The Valkyrie was given first priority and the pilot was guided to a landing pad near the Wall. As the craft descended through the atmosphere toward the moon's equator, the pilot informed Tavio that the temperature on the ground was below freezing. That was good. It meant that the cemetery world's usual grim rain would instead be a more tranquil snow.
The Valkyrie touched down in a small hurricane of smoke and snow that billowed around the shuttle in the plasma-wash, bouncing slightly on its landing gear. A relatively small expanse of ferrocrete, the landing pad was bordered on one side by a flight terminal with a squat tower. The ramp lowered and Tavio made ready to debark. "I'm going to be a while, Thatcher. Consider yourself on leave until I return."
"Aye, General. Thank you, sir," the pilot replied.
Tavio marched down the ramp and headed for the smooth stone pathway that led to the Wall. An officer came hurrying from the terminal to greet him, leading a small contingent, but he waved them away. He wanted to spend his visit in quiet solitude, without a flock of guides and honour guards following him about. The officer halted, hesitated, then saluted and slowly herded the contingent back to the terminal. Tavio returned the salute with a small sigh of relief and continued along the pathway.
The Wall was less than a ten-minute walk away. Ivory flakes of snow drifted from the iron-coloured sky, covering the platinum grass and marble headstones, and muffling sound. Everything on Threnody was pale and quiet. Tavio passed innumerable markers, all uniform in size and shape and spacing, arranged in neat ranks and files with grassy walkways between and stretching away as far as he could see; each marked the resting place - actual or ceremonial - of a fallen defender of the Benelith Sector. Hills and depressions in the landscape had long ago been planed flat by Mechanicus earthshapers, the terrain of the moon rendered smooth and featureless. One could easily get lost among the fields and plains of graves with little to discern one site from another, but for the navigational gridposts set at regular intervals and silently displaying their locations on small cogitator screens.
Ahead, the Wall loomed up out of the snow. It was three metres tall and a metre thick and each section stretched for a kilometre. Between each section were five-metre gaps for walkways. The Wall was made of brightstone, pure alabaster in colour with bold veins of bright gold streaking through it. On each kilometre-long section, on both sides, was inscribed and gilded the name of every soldier in each Persican Black Lance. Far away to the west, near the Macharian Cenotaph, the Wall began with a section inscribed with the names of all those who served in the 1st and 2nd Black Lance nearly four thousand years earlier. Tavio walked near the opposite end, some two hundred forty-nine kilometres east of the first section.
The names were listed alphabetically, regardless of rank. At eye level, about three metres in from the end, was Tavio's name, inscribed in the section for the 498th Black Lance, into which he had been enlisted almost ninety years ago. He traced the letters of his name with fingers from his right hand, his organic hand, and was drawn back through a lifetime of memories. Battles fought, injuries taken, deaths cheated; enemies killed, friends made and lost. Homecomings and deployments, horrors faced and victories won. Tavio wandered down the length of the Wall, glimpsing names and remembering faces, flashes of memory washing over him in silent review. Many made him smile, some made him chuckle softly. One made him laugh, obscenely loud in the sepulchral hush. A few made his breath catch in his throat. At those, Tavio paused, blinked back threatening tears and swallowed, before moving on.
More than an hour later, when he reached the end of another section, Tavio rounded the corner and started down the other side, the side for the 503rd. Four metres on, he found the names of his two eldest children: his daughter Cambria, named for the younger brother he had last seen almost a century ago, and his second-born son Davian. Here he paused, tracing their names as well. This time he could not stop the tears, and he didn't try. Visions swam before him of two ginger-haired moppets with inexhaustible energy and wide grey eyes, full of questions about the feudal realms of northern Persica from which Tavio came and a determination to see them for themselves one day. Those moppets grew up too fast, all the more quickly when Tavio was deployed, until they were fully grown, tall and serious. Of his five children, only Cambria and Davian volunteered to serve, determined to follow their father's path. That path had led to the Cadian Gate and ended there. Tavio was so very proud, and he missed them so very much.
Tavio kissed his adamantium wedding ring and touched it to his children's names. "I will see you all again," he whispered. With a deep breath, he collected himself. He straightened his greatcoat and headed back to the terminal.
* * * * *
Even in a hive city the size of Vanovar, with mountains of hab blocs and spires that speared the stratosphere, Invictus Cathedral was monolithic. Rendered on a scale that would dwarf a grand cruiser, it was a triumph of engineering almost unmatched in the sector. Only Saint Lothar's Cathedral on the shrine world dedicated to the sector's patron saint could boast a more colossal edifice. Viewed from the air, it was even more impressive.
The Valkyrie angled towards the courtyard and began its landing sequence. To call the square kilometre of ferrocrete a courtyard stretched the definition of the word; smooth curtain walls half a hundred metres high contained the space with anti-atmospheric batteries artfully disguised with monstrous gargoyles that perched along the crenellated tops. Within, over ten thousand men and women awaited the assault carrier and the arrival of its sole passenger.
A landing space was clear at one end of the courtyard. The Valkyrie thumped down far enough away that the gales of its engine wash did not disrupt the assembly. A ramp lowered and its passenger deboarded.
Tavio paused at the base of the ramp and straightened his uniform one last time before tucking his swagger stick under his left arm and marching towards the other side of the courtyard. His path was defined for him by a wide ribbon of lush carpet, deep blue against the pale ferrocrete. To either side of the carpet were the men and women of the newly mustered 512th Black Lance in their black dress uniforms – five hundred files, each ten ranks deep.
Closer to the platform, hundreds of chairs had been provided for those attending Tavio’s retirement ceremony. Many flag officers from Persican High Command were there, though not nearly so many as might have been – a hard lesson was learned from the Battle of Tyrok Fields on Cadia. High ranking officials of the Administratum were there; bishops from the Ecclesiarchy; and a sizeable portion of Persican parliament was also in attendance, particularly those representing the conservative political parties, which tended to hail from Vanovar hive more than Califax. Even a few members of the royal House of Aquila were seated in the front row. Standing at the edges of the seating area were a very few selected members of the planetary media, all of whom were recording the event.
As his right foot touched the carpet, the servo-skulls floating just overhead activated. On the large stone dais five hundred metres away at the opposite end, the regimental sergeant major ordered the assembly to attention, his voice amplified and carried forth by the servo-skulls. Ten thousand knees bent to a precise angle and ten thousand boots thundered to the ground as one. With a softer rumble, clenched right fists thumped to chests in salute.
Tavio marched at as brisk a pace as his knees would allow. He noted appreciatively that the soft carpeting eased the impact of his steps. As he made his way to the distant platform he glanced at the faces of the Guardsmen in passing. They were all so smooth and pink with youth, as his face had once been. Even those wearing sergeant’s stripes and stern expressions seemed young to him. He didn’t wonder how many would return to their homeworld. He already knew too well. In the span of his long career he had deployed with seven different Black Lances, and seven times he had returned to Persica with only the barest handful of men and women. None remained from the first regiment he had enrolled in, nor did any from the following two into which he had been re-mustered. Only two survived from 506th: one was now a Mechanicus adept, more machine than man and happier for it; the other had just retired from her position as senator in the Persican parliament. Both were indelibly marked by their service to the Imperium.
Even so, Persica was uncommonly fortunate. The planet was wealthy enough that her military tithe mandated only one regiment be mustered for service in the Imperial Guard at a given time. Since M37, only five hundred eleven regiments had been required, costing only a little more than five million lives. Compared to some worlds like Cadia, Valhalla, or Mordia, Persica’s military losses were fractional.
Not that it lessened their dedication to the Emperor or any of their sacrifices for the Imperium. And it certainly didn’t lessen the pain of the families for those sons and daughters lost on distant worlds. It did inspire a fierce pride, however; Persicans were loyal, dedicated, and courageous defenders of the Imperium – a fact that became well known to those they fought beside.
It took nearly four minutes for Tavio to reach the dais and ascend the steps to the podium there. He was met by the commander of the Imperial Guard for all of Persica, High General Turcot Hax. The generals exchanged salutes and grasped forearms as the RSM ordered the assembly to stand at ease and the audience applauded. Tavio stood easy next to the podium as Hax addressed the assembly.
“Your Graces of House Aquila, lords and ladies of the Administratum, honourable members of parliament, Your Eminences of the Church of Terra, ladies and gentlemen of the Persican High Command, and soldiers of the 512th Black Lance: we are gathered here on this day to honour the long and unwaveringly dedicated service of Major General Ser Tavio Archer. Many years ago, General Archer was recognised for his exceptional service to the Imperium by no less a personage than Her Majesty Queen Rhiannon II, dubbed an Officer of the Order of the Aquila and a knight of the planet.
“Ser Tavio did not end his service then, though he was entitled to do so. Instead, he accepted command of the 507th Black Lance and has since led the 509th and the 511th. As we prepare the 512th Black Lance for deployment in service to the Emperor, we bid a fond farewell to a man who has given nearly his entire life in that same service.
“Indeed, he has almost given that life a number of times,” Hax continued. “For a man who once lamented that he had but one to spend for Queen and Emperor, he’s certainly proven reluctant to pay it!” He paused for the light laughter from the audience.
“Ser Tavio came to us from the Garden, from one of the feudal realms in the north, after having fought an infestation of orks to a standstill with little more than a strongbow and a spear. The first such instance of xenos encounters on this world. Shortly thereafter, he was enlisted into the Imperial Guard and, having demonstrated a talent for leadership, was enrolled in the War College where he graduated with honours. From there, he was immediately assigned to the 498th, his name inscribed into the Wall on Threnody, and deployed to Cadia to battle alongside our Imperial brothers against the Arch-Traitor Abaddon and his unholy crusade. There he earned a number of battle honours and that shiny hand.” Hax gestured to Tavio’s augmetic limb. “Against long odds he survived to return home, bringing many of our children with him.
“Ser Tavio again battled orks on the far distant world of Octarius – these ones bigger, much more numerous, and with guns. Again he managed to lead survivors homeward, but was re-assigned to Pan Arcadia where he helped a mixed regiment of Imperial Guard put down an insurrection perpetrated by traitors and heretics. Under his leadership, a handful of Persicans were eventually able to come home.”
A spontaneous burst of applause came from those seated and High General Hax paused again. When it subsided, he continued.
“It was at that point that Ser Tavio earned his knighthood, but as I mentioned, his service did not end there. He went on to battle rebels and traitors, and even a band of elder, before recently returning once more. As you can see, we’ve pinned a lot of metal on his chest. Ninety-four years of service: we can ask for no more from a loyal son of Persica.”
Hax looked to Tavio, beaming his best public smile. “Major General Ser Tavio Archer, Persica cannot thank you enough. It gives me great pleasure to say: you are finally relieved of duty.”
The audience applauded enthusiastically, whistles came from the media section. The soldiers of the 512th shouted as one, “HAAAAA-OOOOOH!” Ten thousand voices made the martial cheer into a thunderous roar. At that, the assembled guests and dignitaries stood and clapped harder. Hax grasped Tavio’s forearm again and clapped him on the back before surrendering the podium to him.
As Hax stepped back and to the side, the applause subsided and the guests sat down again. A cherub with a pict-captor implanted in its eye socket floated by just above Tavio’s head. He set his swagger stick on the podium, cleared his throat, and spoke.
“First, I’d like to thank the High General for his kind words, and all of you gathered here just to see an old soldier stand down. I decided it was time to do so when just the other day I conducted an inspection on myself and found that I was unfit for duty.”
Polite laughter rolled from the audience.
“You do me great honour with your attendance today, and I am very grateful for it because service in the Imperial Guard often seems a thankless duty. Why, then, would one choose to serve at all? Well, mainly because the commissars tell us to.” He paused for another brief burst of laughter and a smattering of applause.
“I say that, but the fact is that our regiments need conscript only eight percent of our Guardsmen. Ninety-two percent of the men and women that enlist and enroll are volunteers. There are just as many reasons for choosing to serve – even beyond what is mandated – as there are soldiers, so I can only speak to mine.” Tavio cleared his throat.
“As a boy in the northern realm of Bridon, I thought the world was very large, with vast forests of duskwood, broad rivers, and great jagged mountains that pierced the sky high above. It wasn’t long after I boarded the transport to Fortress Telamon that I realised the world was much bigger than I had imagined. The forests and rivers and mountains shrank outside the viewport, faded into the background of the continent of Kaea, and then disappeared over the wide, curving horizon as we flew over the Abartic Ocean. Previously, I had never seen anything move faster than small birds or a charging destrier, but there I was on a transport moving faster than sound. When we arrived at the fortress I couldn’t believe how massive Telamon was. Bridon could have fit snugly into one of the parade grounds, and there were more people than I had thought even existed, and those were just the people I could see.
“I trained for a year as a line soldier, then for three more at the War College. In that time, my perspective was expanded further. I came to learn about my home in terms of it being a planet, circling a primary star more than a hundred million kilometres distant, and then as a planetary system – just one system among the thirteen in the sector. My perspective continued to expand as I learned that the Benelith Sector is quite small compared to many, and that there are thousands of sectors in Imperial space. In each of these sectors are a dozen worlds or more, and each of them populated with billions of human souls. There are more men and women comprising the Imperium of Mankind than can be counted, across a galactic span that cannot be traversed within a thousand lifetimes at the speed of light. Billions of people die every single day, and billions are born.
“And so in this unfathomable mass of humanity, what is one life worth? Absolutely nothing. We are all of us dust and a shadow, barely here at all before we are forever gone.”
The audience was stone still.
“Why then would anyone choose to spend their one infinitesimal life serving the greater Imperium? Not for gratitude; the galaxy doesn’t know us and likely would not care if it did. Not for medals or awards or glory; they’re just as mortal and evanescent as we are.
“We choose to serve because our life is not something we spend; it is something we invest. We invest it into the greater community of the Imperium. One human alone is a gravitic particle. The billions of Imperial Guards comprise a void shield, an aegis protecting the uncountable citizens from heretics, xenos, daemons, and worse; providing each of those citizens the ability to spend or invest their lives as they choose.
“And though I speak to you who honour me today, my words are for the ears of those fresh faced defenders of Persica arrayed behind you. Hear me, soldiers of the 512th Black Lance! When you find yourselves on an alien world, assaulted by monsters and with your friends dying around you, remember why you serve.”
“HAAAAA-OOOOOH!” bellowed the regiment, as the audience stood and applauded thunderously. Tavio took a half step back from the podium and smiled his thanks.
From behind one of Invictus Cathedral’s immense towers a large flyer passed in front of the sun and cast a shadow across the courtyard, screaming like a diving hawk as it came. The craft banked and slowed, wheeling on ceramite pinions as it fired retrothrusters and hovered. Painted in alabaster hues and trimmed in shining gold, the large boxy craft bristled with large-bore guns and hung menacingly above the ferrocrete.
A Thunderhawk gunship – for that is what the craft unmistakably was – was a rare sight and it immediately caught the rapt attention of everyone assembled there. Aides and adjutants frantically voxed for information even as their generals barked demands for it. The civilian audience gasped or shouted wordlessly. Some shrieked. Hands strained to hold hats to heads in an engine wash that rocked the Valkyrie on its struts. The ranks of Guardsmen looked uncertain, but stood their ground.
All activity ceased when the forward ramp lowered.
Thick plates of metal unlocked along the ventral hull and a walkway angled toward the ground. Every eye locked onto a figure that moved down the ramp. It was clad in the same white and gold as the gunship, and cast in heroic scale. An Adeptus Astartes of the Arkangels chapter – a grandson of the Emperor – had arrived. For what purpose, no one knew.
Without hesitation, the Arkangel stepped off the edge of the ramp, dropped a dozen metres, and landed on the ferrocrete with an impact that could be felt at the podium. He drew up from flexed knees and moved towards the ribbon of carpet as the gunship lifted, wheeled, and thundered away.
The regimental sergeant major had the presence of mind to bellow, “Kneel!” and the soldiers of the 512th dropped to one knee, right fists over hearts and left fists pressed to the ground. The civilian audience followed suit, even the nobles of House Aquila. All paid respect to the Emperor’s Angels of Death.
The Arkangel appeared to take not the slightest notice as he advanced; the blue lenses of his helm were locked on the podium. The only sounds in the courtyard were the heavy tread of the Astartes and the growling buzz of his armour’s powerpack.
The sight of the alabaster giant brought back a flood of memories for Tavio. In an instant he was sixteen again, his leg pinned beneath a sabreboar carcass on the field of battle, and desperate to find his brother. An Arkangel had found Cambrius and carried him away. “He is chosen,” the angel had said to him, and he never saw his brother again. Tavio found himself panting raggedly with barely contained emotion.
In his long years, he had never encountered another of the Emperor’s grandsons, even on Cadia. He had heard many tales recounted by those who had, and seen the apocalyptic evidence of their passing, but hadn’t been in their presence again after that first time at the base of Pomma Hill. Why was one here now?
The Arkangel halted before the platform steps. He was two and a half metres tall and at eye level with Tavio, who still stood at the podium. With an economy of movement, the Astartes reached up and removed his helm, mag-locking it to his hip. Tavio stopped breathing altogether.
A strong face, square-jawed and high-browed, looked back at Tavio. There were differences: the youthful complexion was of the same pale hue as the armour; the features were morphed into superhuman scale and bore scars. Collar length hair, white as virgin snow but for one defiant streak of raven black, framed those features. The eyes were a much paler blue.
But there was no mistaking the face of his brother.
“Cambrius?” he rasped.
The barest hint of a smile graced the Arkangel’s lips. “No,” he said.
Confusion furrowed Tavio’s grey brows. A question hovered on his lips, but the angel spoke again.
“At least, not any longer. Now I am Cambriel.”
A hiccup of almost-laughter escaped Tavio’s open mouth as a thick tear crashed upon his cheek. His mind formed a thousand questions and exclamations all at once but he couldn’t put voice to a single once. All of the air in his lungs was gone, crushed out by shock and joy and horror and pride.
Cambrius – no, Cambriel – stood silently with that bare smile, apparently content to wait for Tavio to regain his composure.
With an effort, Tavio took a deep and steadying breath. He cast his eyes down, brushed the moisture from them and straightened his uniform before looking up again. Everything fell away but the man in front of him; in a space filled with thousands, the brothers were alone together.
Cambriel broke the silence. “You have aged well.”
Tavio burst out laughing at the absurdity of such a statement from a nigh-immortal post-human, and released some of his remaining nervous tension.
“Thank you, Cambriel. You’ve aged rather well, yourself. To think I once called you little brother.”
Cambriel’s smile fully bloomed. “I have had many brothers, Tavio, all Astartes warriors of my chapter. Save one.”
Tavio opened his mouth to speak, and found he had no words. Cambriel stepped up onto the dais next to his brother, towering over him.
“We are strongly encouraged to sever the ties to our past while we undergo the process of becoming Astartes. But I have followed your career over the decades when I could, both victories and tragedies. In particular, I noted your response to adversity: after the loss of your platoon, your hand; following Cadia and Pan Arcadia; after your children. After your wife.”
Half-formed tears stung Tavio’s eyes again.
“In spite of each of these seeming defeats, you persevered, overcoming them by the simple virtue of your indomitable spirit. And you set an example even an Astartes could follow.” Cambriel laid a ceramite-encased hand delicately on Tavio’s shoulder. “Of all those I have named so, I am most proud to call you my brother.”
The Astartes’ gauntlet covered his entire shoulder and upper arm and rested heavily upon him. Tavio stared up at Cambriel. Freckles that once dusted his brother’s nose and cheeks were nowhere to be found on the spectre-pale complexion of the face that looked back at him. The once delicate features had been fortified with a bone structure much more dense. Eyes that had been a deep blue and warm with laughter were now as icy in aspect as they were in colour. The ramrod posture, the effortless predatory grace, even the soft booming of Cambriel’s voice: this was not the slender lad who had eagerly followed Tavio into the army of Bridon so long ago. Standing before him was a demi-god, representing all the mythical glories of war, and almost entirely removed from the travails of common humanity. Tavio had not overcome the losses and grief in his life; he had endured them, taken them as deep wounds, found the tenacity to survive, and borne them thereafter as indelible scars. The pains had faded but were never forgotten, pain that Tavio imagined was alien to the warrior grasping his shoulder. With a flash of insight – and a pang of sadness – Tavio understood why Astartes dissociated from their former lives.
“Thank you, Cam,” he said quietly. “I’m very proud of you, too.”
* * * * *
Sergeant Cambriel of the Arkangels returned to his duties training scouts. Over the next three centuries, he rose through the ranks of his chapter, eventually taking command as Grand Master.
Major General Ser Tavio Archer died six years later, of advanced age and in his sleep – the single least common cause of death among Imperial Guardsmen.
In the courtyard of Invictus Cathedral a brightstone statue was erected, commissioned by Countess Gianna Aquila, who had attended the retirement ceremony. Immortalised in the pale gold-veined stone was a towering Adeptus Astartes laying a hand upon the shoulder of an old Imperial soldier. Engraved into the plinth was a phrase in High Gothic: Par Nobile Fratrum.