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post #11 of 22 (permalink) Old 02-20-18, 09:41 AM
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I will rather prefer you write and complete this saga by yourself. As you should have known, your writing quality is...let's be honest, a strike above other co-writers. It is almost as if I read different work, so much so it losses internal consistency.
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post #12 of 22 (permalink) Old 02-20-18, 04:04 PM Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lunar View Post
I will rather prefer you write and complete this saga by yourself. As you should have known, your writing quality is...let's be honest, a strike above other co-writers. It is almost as if I read different work, so much so it losses internal consistency.
Short answer: not happening.

Long answer: no. Firstly, the saga - the seed idea, the setup, the initial incidents - all of those are not mine. To take over it entirely would be less than polite, and to give the full credit to me misleading. But more importantly, I can't possibly finish this myself. The structure is set up for multiple authors. Not just in the sense of there being too much for one person to do (there isn't - the series will probably be complete at ~50 installments, times 40K words, is 2M, which is a huge amount but not completely impossible), but in the sense that Renegades' idea density, which is a core stylistic element of the series, is as high as it is precisely because of authors playing off each other. It needs to be more than one person - really, it needs to be more than two.

I'm glad that you enjoy my writing - really, I am - and thank you for the praise. And it's a fair point that I should be working on more of my own projects - there's two fics I have in the early stages right now, but neither is 40K; then there's Heresy Apatite and Phoenix Imperium, one of which I want to start for NaNoWriMo this year and the other before that, plus original story ideas, but time constraints... I have too many story seeds for my own good, to be honest. But Renegades is not in the same category as all of that.

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post #13 of 22 (permalink) Old 02-25-18, 05:08 PM Thread Starter
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CHAPTER SEVEN

Bolter shots split the windy night of the small mining town called Meteres Heights. A Salamander strike force, led by one of the Pyre Guard, had come to the village in order to capture its people as human sacrifices for the Imperial forces' dark rituals. Their green armor shone in the storm that was the sky, seeming to reflect screaming faces. The town's stone walls, hastily erected, had been rammed straight through, sending the gun emplacements on them tumbling down.

Yet Klord Empion had known they would come here, and so the Salamanders' raid was not unopposed.

Three companies of Ultramarines - not three full companies, but the main part of them. They had followed Empion to one of the few remaining villages in the vicinity of the Ghanun desert, and with the locals' aid had established a trap.

Empion felt ashamed, in truth, talking to those civilians. So many of them were slaves, some of those half-lobotomized with implants to enhance focus and pliability. Not most - the implants were for potential troublemakers only, for their casualty rates were simply too high. Above them, the common miners were ever fearful of falling into slavery, and so they were brutal overseers. There was no one in Meteres Heights that was not poor - even without the threat of raids, there never had been.

This was a world of the Imperium, and had been a world of the Imperium at the height of the Crusade. Yet many of Meteres Heights' people did not even know the Imperium existed.

Well. Had not known. They knew now.

Bolter shells split the night, the surrounded Salamanders - perhaps a hundred of them - refusing to even attempt retreat. Their Terminator-armored leader, marked by a massive horn protruding from the back of his armor - Skatar'var, Empion read in a glimpse - yelled at them to hold, joining his voice to the cacophony of battle and his flamer to the stream of fire the Salamanders were putting down.

"Practical:" Empion said, putting down his magnoculars, "I'll take the Pyre Guard. We need to make this quick for the plan to work."

"Practical: I'd recommend that you take your honour guard along for that, Chapter Master."

Phrost's words made Empion frown. Not the reminder to tilt the scales - for he was right that this was no time for suicidal heroism - but at the form of address, and at the reminder that served as.

What was he Chapter Master of, with their Primarch gone? The psyker child, Gilloa, claimed that Guilliman lived. None of them wanted to doubt her. But command was fragmented. Of course there were theoreticals for this contingency, but the practical was that Odinathus was not quite capable of carrying them out, but close enough to that capability as to stubbornly forge ahead with the theoretical. The end result was that the seven active Chapter Masters (Aronion having received serious injuries in the campaign's first battle, and removed himself from command for the time being) were engaged in a constant debate about the speed with which the campaign should proceed. Radorakius advocated for an immediate massive assault, while Odinathus led those who preferred a war of attrition.

The Ultramarines were, by their standards at least, paralyzed with indecision. The theoreticals had proven lacking, and the practicals were held back by the hammer blow to morale that losing Guilliman had been. And, therefore, Empion had developed a daring theoretical and acquired Antoli's support for it.

All that remained was to, despite everything, execute it.

Empion called his command squad to him and checked his weapons one last time. Of the ten, Aerent was absent - a wound suffered during the explosion at Keir had festered, in a fashion that should've been impossible for an Astarte. The Apothecaries and Librarians had successfully saved his life, but the bionic had not yet set. His place was, for this mission alone, taken by Codicier Thorastus.

Estinus nodded to signal readiness, the Terminator armor giving it an impression of sageness that Estinus's personality didn't exactly justify, in the practical.

"We march for Macragge!" Empion said into the vox, and they took off, at a speed that, in the practical, was very far from a march. On every side of the surrounded Salamanders, Ultramarine squads did likewise.

The hab-blocks grunted under their weight, and despite Empion's best efforts in a few places plaster crumbled, but the jump-packs held. A dozen blue daggers struck at the Salamander encampment from every angle, and at the end of the last roof, Empion jumped over the edge and into the fray as the thirteenth.

The hulking Salamanders reacted quickly, of course. Empion swung his thunder hammer even as he landed, neatly decapitating the first of them by knocking away helmet and skull without damaging the body armor, but another was already bringing up his flamer at him. But Estinus was already slamming his chainsword into the Salamander's arm, revving it up and dropping the flamer onto the ground. It fell with a slight thud, but seemingly intact.

That was good. All according to theoretical.

Jussyd rammed aside another Salamander, emptying his bolter into the helmet. Empion was already charging ahead, Estinus at his side and laughing under his helmet, Thorastus lagging a bit behind as per theoretical - but Empion was only dimly aware of that from peripheral vision of his retinal display as he ran towards the leader, Skatar'var, who was even now yelling out orders. For a moment Skatar'var's head turned, and he locked lenses with Empion.

And the Pyre Guard yelled a challenge, one that could have been aimed at any of the warriors around him but that Empion knew targeted him.

He rushed forward, up the slight incline, and the Salamanders parted before him - some willingly, some due to being knocked down by his weapon. Skatar'var charged downhill to face him. Shells glanced off his armor, just as they glanced off Empion's. Both ignored them. All the same, this was a battle and not an honor duel, and so Skatar'var's companions were at his side, as Estinus and Rostasthex were at Empion's.

The Salamander swung his power maul at Empion, the seemingly graceless arc nearly taking the Ultramarine's head off. But Empion had ducked in time, swinging his hammer forward past Skatar'var's shield, forcing the Salamander into a desperate block as he swung the maul at Estinus. Estinus took the blow, crumpling but - according to the retinal display - quite alive.

Empion used the moment to weave sideways, dancing out of the Pyre Guard's way and striking down one of the other Salamanders, whose shoulder pauldron had been cracked by bolter fire, in the same movement. He shifted again, his pack knocking with that of one of his brothers, as Skatar'var's return blow was blocked by the Salamander corpse.

Around them, the din of battle was dying down. The remaining Salamanders were killed carefully, the Ultramarines trying to cut open their armor in a way that did not destroy it. They wouldn't have much time for the turnaround.

Empion dodged the maul again, striking again, this time scoring a glancing hit. The movement had left him a touch overextended, but the Pyre Guard winced with a blow to his leg - Estinus's work, due to a thrown knife - and could not take advantage of it. An instant later, having recovered, he swung his weapon in a wild sweep, collecting Ultramarines and Salamanders alike onto it in the mighty strike - but leaving himself open to Empion's shortsword digging into the crack his earlier hit had created in Skatar'var's armor, and the maul flew out of his hands as the Salamander fell, his helmet rolling away and clinking to a stop.

"Leodrakk...." the Astarte croaked out, before an Ultramarine sergeant Empion didn't know, with a helm marked red for censure, drove a powersword into the Salamander's exposed throat.

There was a heatbeat of uncertainty as the Chapter Master awaited the next enemy, and then Empion realized he could hear his own heartbeat. The plaza stank - stank so badly that he could smell it even in his helmet - but it was not ringing.

Every Salamander in Meteres Heights was dead.

"Thanks for the assist," Empion said, "Sergeant...."

"Aeonid Thiel," the sergeant said, "and you could've finished him off yourself, Chapter Master. I just thought it was best not to let him talk."

Empion shrugged - in the theoretical Thiel was certainly right, with both statements. "You're with the 135th?"

Thiel nodded. "Captain Taerone has command, but he won't be on the recon mission. My squad is due to be."

Empion looked the sergeant over. He didn't look to be a scout, but this wasn't really a scouting mission, and he trusted Antoli and Taerone to have picked someone fitting the mission. That being said.... "If I may ask about the helmet?"

"For running theoreticals about reconquering Ultramar if it fell."

Empion inclined his head in question - that did not sound like something that deserved censure.

"If the Ultramarines in it turned," Thiel clarified.

Empion nodded. On the one hand, such a theoretical was hardly good for morale, and Gage was not one to return to the Emperor's side; on the other, Thiel was correct in that they would yet have to fight brothers as well as cousins, for some Ultramarines had gone back to Terra. Deserving of censure, but also a sign of the creativity Empion needed. And, naturally, a source of plausible deniability for Sharad Antoli regarding his involvement in this operation, should it go poorly.

"Well met in any case, brother," Empion said, shaking Thiel's hand. "Now, as to those helmets...."

He walked around the field, looking over the dead. Most of them, fortunately, were Salamanders. A few seemed slightly rotten already, and those were immediately tossed out. Protocol was slightly unclear on what to do with them, except for applying sufficiently corrosive acids to destroy every trace of the bodies. Fire, which had been the theoretical for Word Bearer corpses in similar cases, did not work.

"Roughly thirty suits," Thorastus reported, "that are both intact and untainted."

Empion nodded, and set about collecting those suits that the Librarians pointed out. Techmarines were already at work to mask the damage, aiming to make the armor damage seem nonfatal.

The ruse wouldn't hold for long, but hopefully it would hold for long enough.

"You'll take the Pyre Guard's, I'm assuming," Phrost said as he came up to Empion.

"It's one of the pure ones?" Empion frowned, considering it. "Yes, I suppose that's sensible." He had limited practical experience with Terminator armor, but he had some, and since Skatar'var had been the leader it would preserve group dynamics to have him take that suit. "It's sized for someone half again my breadth, though."

"I'll ride on your back," came a little girl's voice.

Phrost turned with a long-suffering sigh, which Empion barely prevented himself from copying. Gilloa was an asset, and - like most psykers - wise beyond her years, but she was also a nine-year-old child, and sometimes that showed.

"Gilloa," Phrost said, "that's a terrible idea."

"I need to be there," she said. "I have to be concealed in some way."

"We'll hide you in the speeder," Empion proposed. "Their scanners would pick you up, but you said you can block them."

Gilloa pouted a little, but nodded. "That should work. But I'll need to get out...."

"A random girl stowed away on our speeder, probably looking for adventure or some such nonsense," Empion growled, "and I apologize for the oversight, but after the disaster that this raid was and barely getting out... with three-quarters of my men killed... we weren't exactly looking for stowaways."

"About that," Phrost said. "I understand why she needs to come, but my lord, you are a different matter."

"She said I need to lead the mission."

Phrost looked down at the girl. "Empion, I trust her, but not that far."

"I...."

Phrost was right, of course, in the theoretical. Gilloa seemed to be on their side, but there was no reason to fully believe her, and the Librarians' prophecies - while seeming to support Gilloa's point - were vague. And if prophecy was ignored, sending someone as highly ranked as Empion on this mission was far more risk than theoreticals advised.

But.

"The practical, Phrost," Empion said eventually, taking off his helmet and briefly glancing at the deranged sky, "is that I have to see this through. And in the worst-case theoretical, my death might at least serve to wake Odinathus up."

He took off his armor piece by piece, before allowing Phrost to help him into Skatar'var's Terminator plate. It was uncomfortable, as predicted, but the compensation systems helped him stay upright. Phrost handed him the Cornucopia of Katha, and with some hesitation Empion took it - the Librarians were still unsure of its purpose, but Guilliman had told him to keep it, and so he would. With Estinus injured, it was Rostasthex who stood next to Empion, picking up the plate of one of Skatar'var's companions - Vanzytar, if Estinus was deciphering the armor correctly.

The sergeants picked up armor of their own, Thiel and Reonaxan (94th Company), as well as their squads. Thorastus and two other Librarians were coming along as well, with two Techmarines. All of their movements were practiced, efficient, in a manner that Empion appreciated. It took only minutes for them to crowd into the repainted Ultramarine speeders - the Salamanders' actual speeders had been downed in the crossfire, and would not fly anywhere anytime soon.

And then ignition, and they were flying northward, first slowly along the downhill road and then, at supersonic speeds, across the flats of the Ghanun desert.

Empion was going behind enemy lines with a few dozen chosen battle-brothers, in a desperate but carefully planned mission to change the course of a conflict. The memories that dredged up were decades old - as a Scout, and as a Sergeant, he had done so often. As a Captain or Chapter Master, he fought on the front lines only rarely. Empion didn't exactly miss that past, but there was a certain romantic appeal in this recurrence. The importance of the mission had grown, to a point where it was entirely reasonable for a Chapter Master to be planning it, but... well, it was important not to forget past practicals.

The wind scourged the surface of Empion's stolen armor, the sand it picked up gouging out shallow eddies in the surface - not enough to be relevant in combat, but enough to paint interesting designs, Empion even needing to check with Thorastus and Epistolary Vezultyl to ensure it was not some sort of psychic test. The desert stretched out, nearly featureless except for a few forward forts that were too widely spaced to completely block the Salamanders' passage. The reason for this was simple, and evidenced by the ruins of several more half-built defenses in the spots in between.

The Twelfth and Eighteenth would do everything in their power to prevent an Ultramarine victory.

Not that this was a surprise.

The sands, yellow-white in principle but lit by a night that was pink and green and colors not of the rainbow, stretched before them. The madness of the sky reigned above. In between, a narrow horizon, and the great fortress that the Salamanders had constructed with unusual speed (Empion was increasingly doubtful that the World Eaters had been involved in that construction) - even from here Empion imagined he could feel its oppressive taint. It was gold and green and blue and white, shining, its towers being artfully arranged. Even where shells had written destruction into the fabric, somehow the Salamanders had managed to make that look intentional, like an ancient time-worn relic. The bastions wore those scars with pride. And yet, for all its beauty, for all that any individual piece could inspire admiration, taken as a whole the seven wings of the fortress made a different impression entirely. The narrow windows, the massive cannons, those could be justified as merely expediency, a concession to function over form... but they came together as more than that.

Empion wasn't sure how to describe that, but when Thiel pointed out the Librarians' discomfort, he knew it wasn't just in his own mind.

"They're creating something terrible," he said quietly. "And vast...."

Out of the very center of the star fort, a beam of golden light was being emitted upwards, slicing into the storm above, scattered by suspended sand grains to light the night. The same beacon as at Desh'ea, effortlessly piercing thousands of kilometers of rock and metal to emerge on Nuceria's other side.

Before Reonaxan could reply with the inevitable cutting remark, Empion's - or, rather, Skatar'var's - vox flickered to life.

"...Skar!" the voice said. "I had feared you wouldn't come back!"

"Most of us didn't," Empion said, with the metallic voice of his armor. "The Ultramarines were ready for us."

"Bastards," the voice on the other side of the link - Artellus Numeon, Empion read, the name of the Pyre Guard's leader - said. "I should have known.... I'll meet you at the south-southeastern gate."

Empion voiced approval and cut the link, then relayed the information to his men. The speeders continued to slice through the night air, sending up clouds of dust behind them as they passed between two Ultramarine forts, getting a few long-range shots. None hit, though one artillery shell impacted close enough to knock the slightly nauseous Thorastus off his feet.

"I'm fine," he said, waving his hand. "Maintaining the cloaking, without a psychic hood, is... not easy."

They pulled up at the gates without incident, Empion stepping off first, followed by Thiel, straight onto the parapet. The wall below descended ten meters past the desert's natural level, having been dug downwards for pragmatic purposes.

A Terminator-armored warrior stood before the speeder, his drake-hide mantle fluttering in the wind the speeders were kicking up, somehow undamaged by the sandstorms. He wore no helmet, his shaved head void-black with red flames for eyes. His open expression radiated some combination of concern, relief, and frustrated vindication.

"Skatar'var!" Artellus Numeon said, walking forward to embrace Empion, who slightly uncomfortably returned the hug. "What happened? Let me look upon your face, brother - "

Empion pushed his knife in even as the Pyre Guard said the last word, Thiel doing the same to Numeon's companion.

Numeon toppled before Empion could catch him, but the blade had struck true, and the Salamanders' First Captain fell from the wall, leaving a streak of blood along it, silently. Any screams from the other Salamander had been silenced because Thiel had choked him before decapitating.

"That'll buy us two minutes at most," Reonaxan said, stepping up beside Empion and Thiel. Gilloa was out of the speeder as well, but Empion didn't have time to consider the implications of that. "The way in?"

Thiel simply pushed on the door.

It swung open.

They passed along a lengthy hallway, focusing on speed over silence. A few seconds in it became a catwalk, and then, as they neared the center of the complex and heard the first alarm sound, Empion gasped. They had emerged onto a ledge overlooking what was presumably the fortress's grand hall, and in it-

Before and below them, arrayed in vast and orderly rows, were people. Men and women and children, slaves and freemen, all of them in the thousands, likely every soul that the Salamanders had captured in their raids. They stood, even hovered, without even the slightest motion, and Empion could see the telltale refraction of a stasis field above their ranks.

And in a separate position, but also presumably in a stasis field, at the head of those mummified ranks, hung the cobalt-blue armor and unconscious body of Empion's Primarch, the Cannon of Premioi still clenched in his right hand, colors dulled by the field.

"That...."

"Is what we came here for," Thiel gathered the will to say. "All Librarians exhausted from the taint, we need to lower the field... but to even get there...."

"No," Empion realized. "We need to lower both fields."

"Cause chaos," Thiel said, understanding. "The civilians will mostly die, but they're dead already. But how - "

Gilloa came up beside Empion and locked eyes with the Chapter Master.

"Be ready," she said.

Before Empion could ask for what, she raised her hand and clenched her fist.

And in an instant, both stasis fields fell.

The next instant, as Empion took the first step in his sprint for the Primarch, was when the screams started.

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The Emperor has turned to Chaos. The dream of the Imperium has become a nightmare. But Horus and his Coalition stand against the dark, here at the end of time.

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What was broken has been mended. And what was burned away can never be reforged.
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CHAPTER EIGHT

The screaming alarms signaled intruders, Ehung Zekhoros had realized the moment they woke him from dreams of blood and skulls. But he had not reacted, given the distance to those alarms, except to call his company together. The Salamanders could seal the breach, if by some chance the alarm hadn't been a false positive.

The screaming alarms signaled intruders. The screaming people, however, signaled that something was very wrong.

The remnants of his Company came to him slowly. A third of his men had chosen the suicidal boarding attempt against the Perfect Honour. The rest, ostracized by the Legion upon arrival for their choice not to, had charged the front lines of the Ultramarines at the dropsite first, raging to redeem themselves and throwing themselves headlong into the chance to at least die meaningfully. Zekhoros was first among them, and he was not sure how he'd gotten out alive - the first thing he knew after the Nails had receded was standing in the center of a circle of dead Ultramarines, a kilometer away from the battle. Some of his brothers had been similarly lucky. Most had not.

As far as Zekhoros had been concerned, that should have wiped away any accusations of cowardice. Kharn agreed, and Zekhoros suspected that so did the rest of the Legion, in their hearts. But for any World Eater who wanted a target to vent their rage at, the Thirteenth Company was easy to blame - and being locked up in a fortress meant that most of the Legion had spite in abundance that had nowhere to go but the undeserving. And of all the undeserving, the Thirteenth was closest to being deserving.

So while the Thirteenth was no longer despised for losing the Conqueror, they still tended to get into more than their fair share of sanguis extremis pit fights. Fortunately, this trend was petering out, mostly because they had also won more than their fair share of sanguis extremis pit fights. When a company lost four Astartes in five, the survivors tended to be hard to kill.

The previous night, Zekhoros had fought alongside Dranzytchon of the Salamanders' Pyre Guard, against two Astartes from Delvarus's Triarii, who somehow blamed him for losing the Conqueror. Given how easily he and Dranzytchon had won, Zekhoros suspected that those with genuine grudges against the Thirteenth Company were down to the dregs. (Alternatively, it could have just been that he was good, and Dranzytchon was better.)

Squads Limbeten, Zurvon, Unjasth. Squads Takena, Ainai, K'wex. Squads Redorey, Sakhai, Alimborushan. Squads Meryneitand, Orr, Ztenontex. Rampager Squad Breidan and Destroyer Squads Andelesot and Muil. Ancient Lofoporus, presently asleep. Apothecaries Kerenil and Dussadol. That was all that remained - in total, one hundred and sixty-two Astartes. In just one day, he had practically become a centurion instead of a captain.

It was still a force that could kill planets.

In Lofoporus' place, one Ancient did appear to walk with the Thirteenth Company, and Zekhoros gave a shallow bow to the war machine as it emerged.

"Legion Master. You're still awake?"

"Oddly," Lhorke said, his speakers set to low volume but still echoing, "I feel genuinely curious about how this campaign goes." He paused. "I awoke to find that half the Legions had rebelled against the Imperium, and what was stranger, that we were not among them. Angron is acting like a Primarch. And the stench of corruption hangs heavy over the entire Twelfth. Not to mention the ritual."

"More than half the Legions," Sergeant Takena put in. "It's ten to eight. Or nine and a half to eight and a half, if the Alphas really did split."

"Half," Lhorke said. "Ten, out of twenty. And from what I've heard, no one can tell what the Twentieth is doing anyway, except maybe their Primarch. Anyhow, that's why I'm in no hurry to sleep. Things are finally changing, and I want to see how it plays out. And if I do sleep, I'm not sure I'll wake up again this time."

"You're better-maintained than that," Zekhoros said with a frown.

"No," Lhorke said, "I mean that someone'll probably rip me out of - and this is what I'm talking about. What the hell is that."

As the Thirteenth Company emerged, at a jog, into the main hall, Zekhoros could not find an answer for the Dreadnought.

The middle of the chamber was still filled by a stasis field, but someone had evidently aimed to fix it by turning it off and back on, and Zekhoros's servo-arm twitched at the mess that resulted. The captured sacrifices were for the most part still within, but they had been caught in the middle of a stampede, their neat ranks having turned into a bloody mess. Among them were more than a few World Eaters along with some Salamanders, caught in the midst of attempting crude crowd control. Around this frozen centerpiece, perhaps a thousand humans who had escaped were trying to make their way out, being intercepted - mostly lethally - by Astartes.

And while his brothers and cousins were focused on keeping the sacrificial lambs corralled, Zekhoros saw that the other stasis field had also gone down.

"Where's Guilliman?!" he shouted into the vox, scanning the hall for a sign - no, of course he'd gotten out. Probably had been carried out by Ultramarine saboteurs.

The World Eaters wouldn't know. The Salamanders probably wouldn't either. As such, it was the tech-priests that Zekhoros tried to raise, failing three times. The Thirteenth Company stood back, firing a few stray bolter shells into the crowd when it became necessary but not wading in, mostly because of how obvious it was that wading in wouldn't help.

The aim was, in principle, to knock the baselines unconscious without killing them. Zekhoros estimated that this aim would be achieved for perhaps a quarter of them.

He felt the call of the Nails as he stood there. Not merely their song that he had known for decades, but the voices, the ones coming from the god called Khorne. They seemed to come from all sides, whispering of battle and of massacre, of the eternal need to kill. They had first come when the Emperor had modified the Nails, salving their curse; after Prospero they had receded, but now, with the storm above them, they returned. Some of his brothers worshiped the voices, an instinct Zekhoros did not quite understand. It was surprisingly unimpressive, to have a god whispering in one's ear.

The again, he'd had the call to battle squatting uninvited in his brain long before that call became divine.

"So," came a voice behind Zekhoros, a powerful yet strained one. "Have we found the Ultramarines yet?"

Zekhoros did not have to turn around. He could tell when his Primarch was present.

"Are we sure it's Ultramarines?" Muil asked.

Zekhoros just looked at his sergeant, trying to make it clear exactly how stupid that question was. Lhorke did the same. Somehow, despite the lack of facial features, he was successful.

Before Angron could say anything more, the fourth adept Zekhoros had tried to raise replied. It was Lebet-Nix, a scrymaster who had been attached to the Legion for three decades and whose loyalty to the Legion and the crew had outweighed his loyalty to the Mechanicum.

The same had been true of Legio Audax, but the Emperor had not trusted the Titans enough to send them on this mission. That, in retrospect, had been a mistake.

"The south-south-western gate," Lebet-Nix said. "We brought down their speeders - they're retreating on foot. Twenty-five Ultramarines in Salamander armor, and Guilliman."

Angron grinned, baring his teeth.

"A hunt it is," he said. Then, yelling out to the Legion: "I'm going to chase my so-called brother! Try and keep up!" He gave a slight chuckle at that, even as he took off in his loping gait.

"Speeders!" Zekhoros ordered. There was no way to keep up with Angron on foot, but he was not passing up this fight. The voices called to war, and the Thirteenth Company answered with the sound of boots on ceramite.

They grabbed a few speeders quickly enough, and set off in formation. Most of the trailing pack didn't. There was more than a thousand of them, some grabbing speeders and bikes, others moving out on foot. Someone had grabbed a Rhino, whose front was carved with a massive rune of Khorne. Every vehicle and suit of armor was, beneath the dust, white and blue. Vulkan, it seemed, had ordered his Legion to work on crowd control, entrusting the hunt to Angron - likely at Angron's own insistence.

They caught them a few kilometers from the fortress. It was far enough away that the guns couldn't block an extraction, and far enough away that the World Eaters had spread out. But Zekhoros and his company were there, their speeders trailing opposite those of the Forty-First Company, behind and to either side of the Primarch. Between their two unequal formations, twelve Terminator-armored Devourers struggled to keep up. They did surprisingly well - they were actually close enough to see their Primarch.

Ahead, Guilliman was ordering the green-armored Ultramarines (and... a little girl, since apparently Zekhoros was not just hearing voices because of the damned Warp Storm but hallucinating as well) to take up defensive positions. He pointed to the horizon, and Zekhoros followed his gaze to see approaching gunships, blue gunships, enough that they would block out the storm when they arrived.

They had minutes.

Angron, realizing this, leaped at Guilliman, and the Avenging Son swung his halberd-like weapon to block it, the horn at his belt seeming to follow the motion. The metal rang, and the rest of the field seemed to freeze for an instant as the Primarchs began their duel.

Zekhoros had seen his Primarch fight before, but never like this. Never against an enemy that could actually challenge him. There was no way to see the individual blows: Angron was everywhere, the Blackblade and Gorefather surrounding Guilliman from all sides. He beat on Guilliman like waves on a seashore, and like waves each blow was turned aside.

But - Guilliman was tired, not yet recovered from his imprisonment. With each blow his defense was being eroded away, a little bit of it washed off and carried back by the waves. It was not about whether Guilliman could win, but only whether he could hold out for long enough. His halberd flashed and fired, but Angron dodged every blow that struck true, and endured through the glancing ones.

"We shouldn't have left him that halberd," Zurvon said.

Before Zekhoros could reply, his seat lurched and he was tossed from the speeder, as it went down in a ball of flame, colliding with a speeder of the Twenty-Ninth in the process. Well, it was the pilot's own fault for trailing that closely behind.

He landed on his feet, setting off in a run at the Ultramarine line. The Nails sung, but he pressed them back. Losing himself here meant getting shot down by those gunships, which were far too close now. Squad Orr was mowed down around him (down, not deceased, though Zekhoros wasn't sure about Sergeant Orr himself, the totems on whose armor fell scattered across the sand), and it was Lhorke that tore into the Ultramarines alongside him. Zekhoros's armor was cracked in five places, at least, but as he revved all three chainswords he couldn't quite care.

The first Ultramarine went down easily, his blade only able to parry one of Zekhoros's three swords as the other two carved him up. The Nails sung, but Zekhoros still pressed them back as another Ultramarine came up. All of a sudden, Zekhoros found himself surrounded by fire, as if it really was the Eighteenth he was fighting. It was Lhorke that saved him, strafing the Ultramarine in question - Rostasthex, Zekhoros thought he could discern - and pushing the flamer stream skyward.

In his peripheral vision, the captain watched the Primarchs duel, in a silence that belied the storms raging behind both of their sets of eyes. Guilliman was being worn down quickly, until finally, a strike from Gorefather connected. As Zekhoros simultaneously struck through the last two Ultramarines on the barricade, and looked forward to the next one - as he watched Breidan's squad and their speeder impact against the next barricade, spilling out directly onto the Ultramarines - as the gunships' thunder became audible, still several minutes away - as Lhorke raised a fist in salute for the taken barricade - as all of that happened, Guilliman half-jumped, half-fell back, laying prone on the ground and screaming for Gilloa, whoever he was -

As that happened, Gorefather bore down on the Ultimate Warrior, Zekhoros realizing that Angron had never had any intent of taking Guilliman alive again, and the girl he was hallucinating ran to Guilliman's side, throwing out a bolt of invisible lightning (Zekhoros was not sure how he was seeing it in that hallucination, and he didn't know if he wanted to know) that incinerated Rampager Steosp on the spot -

As all of that happened, an Astarte in green Terminator armor, with a drake's horn protruding from his back, leapt in Gorefather's way and took, albeit glancingly, a blow meant for a Primarch.

The Ultramarine crumpled, instantaneously, but Angron hummed in appreciation of the courage. It was the briefest of openings, but that was the moment that Zekhoros surveyed the battle. The front two barricades had been overrun, while on the long rear one, green-armored Astartes were still holding out. A dozen speeders had been downed, which would be a major hassle to repair - but then, the Salamanders were here, maybe they'd be so kind as to do it for them. A mass of World Eaters was charging in a long tail pointing towards the fortress. And in the center of it all, Angron, looking down on the crumpled Astarte and at the prone Guilliman beyond that like the god of war he had been meant to be.

"Hnngh," he said. "The 'honor' may be nonsense, but I guess your sons do have courage after all."

That was the moment of the World Eaters' victory.

In the next moment, Guilliman brought the horn in his right hand and the halberd in his left into alignment with the girl who, apparently, was not a hallucination after all, and there was light.

Not golden light, as the beacon above their fortress; not the Warp-touched light of colors unknown. It was simply light, which would have been pure white had it possessed any color at all. It shone in a line from the halberd to the horn to the girl, and its path went through them, as a lance that pierced Angron's head.

The world seemed to freeze in a moment of stasis.

"You know nothing of honor, Angron," Guilliman calmly said, as if he was on parade instead of just having had the wind knocked out of him by one of his brothers. "Honor does not depend on birth - and our own births, I might note, are equally noble. We are the sons of the most powerful transhuman known to history. Fortune gave you less than me, but it gave you far more than the people that make up the vast bulk of our galaxy. Honor is the limits we set for ourselves, to be better than... than primordial hate. Than your god." He stared at Angron, holding the girl in place with his free arm; the Red Angel did not move. Zekhoros tried to, bringing up his gun even though it was like pushing through sludge. "Honor is not war. Honor is what we hold onto despite war. It is the opposite of the power you have embraced since the Nails were first hammered into your head. And yet as war breaks men, honor can yet break war. Such is the alignment. This taint of endings - it ends now."

And the ray of light became a blinding beacon that outshone both Vulkan's beacon and the storm above.

Zekhoros was faintly aware of the gunships landing, of a limping Guilliman carrying his Terminator-armored son in his arms, of the remaining dozen Ultramarines making their stoic retreat as artillery shells were lobbed in their vague direction (more as warning shots than anything else, for the gunners, he hoped, would not wish to hit Angron). He saw his Primarch on his knees, howling in impotent rage, and Lhorke alone running to his gene-father's side as a thousand and some World Eaters twitched on the ground. Captain Ehung Zekhoros was among them. The pain was like nothing he had ever felt, like half his head had been cut away. He felt something in his hands, and turning it around through the black spots in his vision, he realized what the spikes were.

It was the Nails. The Nails had been removed from his head. According to every experiment that had ever been run, death would come in three to four minutes, and unconsciousness in seconds.

"The sky...." he mumbled, knowing those were his last words, as he rolled onto his back, for it seemed the storm itself had recoiled from Guilliman's ritual; and then darkness claimed him.

When he awoke, still lying atop that barricade with Ultramarine corpses scattered around him, the blood-covered Nails still clutched in his hand, it was because the sun was directly overhead.

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CHAPTER NINE

One Terran month later

Klord Empion swam into consciousness through a sea of pain.

He could not see, at first. For a few moments he was alone in the dark, before his senses reconnected. He was on the deck of the Omega Unbowed, Nucerian terrain speeding past a porthole.

It looked strangely distorted, most unlike what it had appeared as in life. Everything looked strange now, when compared to what he had seen with his own eyes. There would be a period of adjustment. He knew that, intellectually.

It was still strange, being dead.

Guilliman had offered him, for his heroism, the choice to die in truth. Some Astartes preferred that, preferred oblivion to a frozen life, and two years ago Empion had been among them. But he had refused that offer, for two reasons. One was that he knew he still had more to offer the Legion, and he could no longer consider giving it less than everything. The other was that, with recent revelations on the nature on the universe and the Word Bearers' claims specifically, he doubted that oblivion was actually possible.

And so his broken body had been placed in the sarcophagus of a Contemptor Dreadnought. He was compatible, physically and psychologically. So the tech... not tech-priests anymore, not in Imperium Secundus... the tech-adepts, anyhow, had claimed. At first he had feared they'd been wrong.

But while in orbit around Nuceria, the other Dreadnoughts were having nightmares as well.

"Hi, Empion," said a voice that the Dreadnought recognized.

Empion - he'd probably have everyone referring to him as Empionus in a few years, but if that happened that would mean he'd have survived a few more years, which he would consider a success - slowly lowered his angle to make the impression of glaring at the psyker girl.

"Gilloa. Did you wake me?"

His dubious attempts at intimidation, unsurprisingly, did not work. "You shouldn't be sleeping right now. It's not safe."

"Due to the storm?" All things considered, though the tech-adepts would have disagreed, she might well have been right.

"No," Gilloa said. "It's because of the battle that's going to happen today. The assault on Ghanun. And also, Guilliman is coming and he was going to wake you anyway."

That child was altogether too comfortable in the company she was having.

Then again, she was as terrifying as any of them.

"Chapter Master - ah." That was a new figure walking into the room. Blue armor, fitted with new insignia. Phrostus, Ninth Chapter Master of the Ultramarines. "Gilloa - "

"Phrostus," Empion said. "You are Chapter Master now. Not I."

"Yes, but...." Phrostus frowned. "It still feels wrong. The title is new, but I will adjust to gaining it. But you never did anything to lose it."

"How fares the Ninth?" Empion asked, changing the subject because he too felt strange about the previous one. He had never been one to obsess over promotions, but his being simultaneously one of the honored dead and still conscious was awkward in a number of ways.

"Well enough," Phrostus said, before taking a heavy breath. "The assault begins tomorrow."

"On the main fortress?" As Empion talked, he walked forward, taking a few thunderous steps to look out the porthole at Nuceria below. Unfortunately, at present the Omega Unbowed was on the opposite side of the planet to Ghanun; instead, slightly off-center, he saw the ruins of Desh'ea and the mountain of Fedan Mhor.

"The secondary fortress has been taken," Phrostus confirmed, "but theoretical artillery setup has not been achieved. However, there is no time in the practical. According to the vox traffic, the Imperials are due to begin their ritual in a Terran day, and we must break them before them."

Empion rumbled non-vocal assent. He had been told, already, that he would not be part of this final assault. His sarcophagus was simply not set, not yet. He nevertheless itched to go to war, to test the seismic hammer, storm bolter, and heavy conversion beamer built into his chassis, less because of a general bellicosity and more because of the desire to do something.

The peaceful future they had believed in had included a place, precarious as it was, for Astartes. Empion was not sure how much of a place it had for Dreadnoughts. Yet the issue was now academic. The paths of the Expeditionary Fleets had diverged, and then reconverged in a fashion that hopelessly scrambled them together, no longer parallel but anti-parallel. And some were angled - neither fully supporting Horus nor remaining loyal to the Emperor. In a sense, Imperium Secundus itself was... not orthogonal, far from it, but deviating.

But none of them were orthogonal to the Emperor. In the end, they were all either with him, or against him. That fanaticism allowed no other choice.

"What about you, Gilloa?" he asked.

"I don't know," Gilloa said. She paused. "Nuceria is wounded, severely so. But it is not dead yet."

"We won't let it die," Phrostus said firmly.

"No," Gilloa clarified, "it has to die, and die in the right way. My people can be saved, the planet can be saved, its technology can be saved. But the union of those three things needs to die. It almost certainly will, but if its existence is prolonged it will only bring a worse ending." Empion was not sure, as his cameras were not perfectly calibrated, but he thought that Gilloa, the nine-year-old that had seen her family and her entire city die before being thrown into a maelstrom of galactic war and rescuing a Primarch from another Primarch, all without flinching, shivered at that possibility.

"Do you feel their suffering?" Empion asked, seeking clarification.

Gilloa walked to the porthole, Empion very carefully laying his hammer on her shoulder in such a way that she did not actually have to support any weight. "Yes, but that was always there. Nuceria is suffering less than before. It's only the storm."

The storm. They could only see Nuceria's surface as they looked nearly straight down. But Empion could imagine what lay outside their field of view.

Empion tried hard not to think about the nature of this madness, the mirages it summoned forth, for those were conjured as much by imagination as by the Warp. But even the strategic implications of summoning Warp Storms were cause for nightmare. If the Imperium had been able to bar the way of any ship it wished -

Though the Imperium was not able to do so. If they had been, the course of this war would have been carved entirely differently. No, whatever the World Eaters and Salamanders were doing here was unusual. It was, moreover, a ritual that they seemingly had not wanted interrupted.

Neither side wanted this war - the Imperials wanted to complete their ritual, and the Ultramarines to return to their domain, which they still had no word of. The irony of all this was not lost on Empion, even if the humor in that irony was.

The sound of footsteps shook Empion out of contemplation, and he carefully turned to see, for the first time with his augmetic senses, his Primarch.

Roboute Guilliman was armored for war. Intricately decorated power armor gave a sense of stark majesty even beyond that of his face, but the compulsion to kneel was no longer overwhelming. Empion's attention was instead drawn to the Cornucopia of Katha, still attached to the Primarch's waist.

"Empion, Phrostus," the Avenging Son said. "And Gilloa, whose handlers are searching for her even now."

"Let them," Gilloa said. "This is important, and I've wasted too much time on things that are not. Also, they try to make me sleep."

The Primarch frowned. "Just how much of a problem would that pose?"

"That depends on the amount. I've been napping some, because at some point I can't stay awake anymore even with the trances, but a full night risks me, and regular full nights would risk the fleet."

"I'll talk to Uneli." Guilliman shook his head. Empion could emphasize - during the Crusade, most psykers as powerful as Gilloa were found to be mad, and this was one of the reasons why. According to some protocols, Gilloa should have been mercifully executed.

In these times, no one had even brought up the idea, a reticence born of practicality as much as morality. They needed every ally they could get. The time for paranoia about purity was long gone, except where it had been proven justified.

"Anyhow," the Primarch continued, "you're not going to have to deal with this for much longer. Empion, the Mark of Ghanun is at minus eight hours. You will transfer to the Perfect Honour and take command over the fleet from mark minus four hours."

"I am honored," Empion said. "You intend a full deployment on the surface?"

"Every able Ultramarine," Guilliman said.

"Understood. What of the Linearity?"

"Ah." Guilliman smiled. "I've finally figured the Cornucopia out. It does encourage growth of sufficiently simple organisms when correctly blown, so mainly a farming and terraforming aid with secondary utility as battlefield control, but the details... it's a magnificent piece of craftsmanship, if an intentionally opaque one. The Cannon is a weapon, and the third part is Gilloa, the sensor and the thermoregulator. The fourth and fifth... a nexus and a transport, I imagine."

"Gilloa?" Phrostus asked. "My lord, what do you mean by that?"

"He figured it out during the escape," Gilloa said glumly. "I am Gilloa of Nuceria, but I always knew I was not the first of the Line of Nuceria, that this Line predates humanity's presence on my world. And this makes perfect sense. We are part of the Linearity, a weapon crafted by some race forever ago." She gripped her knees. "I'm... I'm getting worse, aren't I? I'll need to sleep for a very long time when this is over."

"Not much longer," Guilliman said - kindly, but honestly.

"I'm not so far gone," Gilloa insisted. "So, when the Linearity is aligned, it aligns unreality to its rhythms."

"And taint is burned away," Empion guessed. He had heard the first part of the explanation before, but not the second. It was illuminating, and it gave him hope that whatever these things the Emperor had allied himself with were, they could yet be defeated.

It had been too easy to doubt that, with their enemies seeming to win even in defeat.

"More or less," Gilloa said. "Whorls straightened." She walked up to the very edge of the porthole, brushing her hand across the surface, tracing out the curve of the Edear mountain range up to the Narkha Plateau, and slightly off it, the great massif of Fedan Mhor. "It is a good thing, that the Linearity exists, that it is in just hands. It is just that... I do not know what to think about it. I do not know what to think of the knowledge that I was born as an engineered weapon."

Roboute Guilliman walked up to her, putting his gauntleted hand on her shoulder. Unlike Empion's attempt to do the same, it visibly calmed her, the orbital motion of the Omega Unbowed slowly pushing her hand off Fedan Mhor westwards, into the coastal plain and the Perraila Sea.

"Neither do I, Gilloa," he said softly. "Even after two hundred years.... Neither do I."

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INTERLUDE: VULKAN

War had come to the Ghanun desert, and it was just on time.

Vulkan, Primarch of the Salamanders, was still uneasy with viewing the world in a frame of reference that involved such concepts. War could be necessary or inevitable, but it had never been desirable. It was the outcome of a failed compliance negotiation, or else the defense against a xeno threat. In the former case it was tragic, in the latter, at the least, inconvenient.

But such was the way of the universe now. Humanity and his father both required him to be a being that could use war as a means for manipulation of the ether. Lorgar described it as playing a symphony. To Vulkan, whose youthful spirituality had been of a more practical bent, it was smith's work like any other, save that instead of metal it was the Immaterium he hammered into shape.

Warpcraft was a craft, in the end; and like any craft, it had tolerances. And the Ultramarines' attack, while not coming at the most fortuitous time, was comfortably within the tolerance of this ritual.

As he slipped his gauntlets on, he took a brief glance around. Varrun had arrived. Atanarius, Igataron, Dranzytchon, and Artellus Numeon, who had recovered from the injuries he had sustained the night of Guilliman's escape. A new Pyre Guard would yet be inducted to replace Skatar'var, but not until the campaign had been completed. Yet the sacrifices that escaped that day had not all been recaptured, and Ultramarine redeployments blocked further raids in brilliant designs that could only have been his brother's. To complete the ritual, Vulkan had been forced to redesign it.

"The barrage has begun, my lord," Varrun said. "Onto all walls simultaneously, aimed mainly at the third angles of each."

"The storm is coming," Vulkan accepted, walking up to clasp Dawnbringer. "Good."

"The west-northwest pocket," Numeon said. "It seems too lightly defended. I suspect the Ultramarines will know it for a trap."

"They will," Vulkan confirmed, "but they will spring it nevertheless. Carefully, at first, seeking to limit potential losses, but when we do not respond they will seek to exploit the gap. And they will, but the losses they take when we do close the trap will be enough to put out the beacon."

Grasping Dawnbringer in his hands, Vulkan tried a few experimental swings before twirling the hammer one-handed. That was a substantial exertion, even for him, with his armor powered off. He could feel his own heartbeat, intermingled with the heartbeat of the world below him. It was not a literal quake, but a swaying in rhythm with the storm above.

The beacon that Angron had lit in Desh'ea by the power of Khorne and death would be put out in Ghanun by the power of Nurgle and life, and in the resonance in between enough power would be generated to begin the Emperor's ascension, with the favor of two of the Warp Gods. It would be Fulgrim and the Lion who would complete the ritual, likely on Caliban or Cadia, by lighting and putting out a second beacon for the other two and concluding their father's apotheosis. For now, the beacon passed through the planet's very center, and all Nuceria was suffused with its energy.

This ritual was necessary. It was also dubious. What would come after the Emperor's ascension was not an alluring topic to broach. But Vulkan had made his oaths, and besides, what would come without that ascension would be even worse.

And above all, his father had saved his life and his mind, after his failure on Chogoris. Vulkan had to repay as much of that as he could.

"Come," he told his Pyre Guard without looking back, and walked to war.

The command center was located above the fortress's center, a ring that surrounded the great beacon. The modules were manned by the few loyal tech-priests present, or else by Salamanders. One was taken by Captain Zekhoros of the World Eaters.

Somewhat surprisingly, Angron was there. Even more surprisingly, so were the Devourers, though the Primarch paid them as little attention as usual.

"Brother," Vulkan said.

"Brother," Angron answered. "They're coming. At long last, they're coming."

Vulkan took a moment to look over his brother. After Guilliman's ritual, whatever it had been, had ripped the Nails from the Primarch and a thousand of his sons -

He did not look completely healed. The skin was still pale, the eyes still yellow. The Nails had been removed, but the damage they had done was still there. A quarter of the affected World Eaters had never woken up after the attack, and if not for the modification to the Nails, Vulkan doubted that one in ten would have survived. Whatever sorcery Guilliman had delved into to support his rebellion, it was undoubtedly mighty. Even after the Emperor's changes, the Nails should have been impossible to remove.

Some of the World Eaters had spoken of hammering them back in. But Angron had forbidden it.

For if he still bore his scars, then it was because he'd at long last stemmed their bleeding. His sunken eyes darted with a newfound curiosity, and his movements had a newfound elegance to them, that of a hunter - not quite a feline grace, perhaps, but the ursine kind at least. And he stood not as a broken slave that wished to be dead, not as a wounded soul whose greatness was in equal parts glory enduring and glory lost, but as a proud Primarch, a son of their divine father, a general that could not merely break worlds but forge them. Alone of all of them, Angron of the Red Sands had not lost himself in this war, but rather been made whole.

And yet, in his eyes, Vulkan could read the same doubt he saw in mirrors.

"They are," Vulkan acknowledged. "We have fifteen minutes, if they keep to their theoreticals. Which they won't."

"I look forward to it," Angron admitted. "Even without the Nails, I still look forward to it. If nothing else, to avenge my defeat."

"You may not have the chance to duel him," Vulkan warned.

"I am aware," Angron said, glaring at him. "You plan to break him by sorcery. But I tell you, it's not so easy to break a Primarch by sorcery. Magnus tried that against me."

And Guilliman had succeeded, Vulkan silently noted. Though he was not wrong, but.... "It is not a psychic attack, Angron. It's a psychic... distraction, in effect."

He walked to the edge of the command center, and looked westward, at a sky aflame with Ultramarine munitions and behind that with the raw potential of the Warp. At sand millions of years old, untouched, holding the broken ruins of civilizations that predated humanity itself; at Mount Keghil bridging that sand and that sky, crumbling, the last memorial of a dead hotspot, layers of increasingly desperate lava flows and ashfalls vanishing towards its summit. He felt the breathing of Nuceria below him, and the pulsing of fire through his veins in beat with the blood. Warp-fire, far beyond reality but still bound to him. It was approaching - the window of opportunity was opening.

His part in this ritual was the part of Nurgle. A god of perseverance and compassion and rebirth, but also of disease and decay and fear. A god, like every one of the Four, that was a force of nature rather than even a remotely human-like being. And among the things Nurgle was the god of was despair.

In the aftermath of the beacon being snuffed out, the power of Nurgle would permeate the fortress. And in that moment, if he poured that fluid power into a mold, if he could convey to Roboute Guilliman what was happening in the galaxy outside....

Then, a moment of despair would become an eternity, and Roboute Guilliman would either die or understand, as Vulkan had on Maragara.

This was the only way. It was not a good way, and indeed it was a terrible way; but humanity was lost in a terrible universe, and so they would all have to become monsters. Continents would shift and worlds would die, both literally and metaphorically - but the Salamanders would walk through hell itself if necessary, and emerge damned, but unbroken. And when this time of trials came to a close, Vulkan trusted - he had to, for there was no other way he could keep moving forward - that new growth would sprout from a galaxy's worth of ashes.

Outside, the barrage stopped, and the ground came alive with a new melody - the thunder of Titans.

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CHAPTER TEN

The Titans led the way. Around them, columns of tanks and troop transports. Some of the artillery continued to fire, namely that part of it that could be certain to hit the walls and not the advancing Ultramarine columns.

Justinian Thexilev was not enormously fond of being locked in a Rhino - especially not when engaged in a war as ritualistic as this one. It felt restricting. Nevertheless, he was an Ultramarine, and the theoreticals made it clear enough how to approach this specific situation. They were not, no matter how it sometimes felt, the heroes of legend; they were the heroes of reality, and that generally meant following protocol.

Of course, against another of the Legions, it was always good to keep some surprises in store. That was not even a philosophical point; it was, if anything, a rather obvious theoretical. Whether or not one held to the Imperial Truth, whichever master or cause one fought for - it was a universal law of warfare that predictability was a losing strategy.

Which was to say, in the practical, that the Ultramarines had prepared surprises for their foe, as that foe no doubt had for them.

The citadel's walls had been built well, but even so they were crumbling under the barrage. There was no single, massive breach, but there were numerous weak points. It was to one of those, in the northwest protrusion of the fortress, that Thexilev's column now advanced.

The Salamanders had gathered to meet them, under a wall of guns that was backlit by that eternal golden beacon. Yet that fire was scattered. The Titans - two Reavers and five Warhounds in their column - buckled under the blows, but did not come close to toppling. The Rhinos, especially those near the front line, fared worse. One exploded in a small fireball, taking the Astartes inside with it.

Thexilev nodded, mentally honoring those brothers and knowing they would not be the last. They were fighting a cornered foe today. Their objective was nothing less than the extermination of every World Eater and Salamander on Nuceria. And with that, perhaps, the Warp Storm that raged above them would dissipate, and they could return to whatever was left of Ultramar. It could not have been destroyed, not yet. Not so quickly.

Unfortunately, though, Thexilev knew exactly how easily the impossible could become reality in this war.

The Titans slowed as they neared their walls, turning their guns on the enemy emplacements. Those broke, but not easily. The Titans' pace allowed some of the Rhinos to ride ahead, charging towards the wall in a mad dash to dispel their cargo.

Thexilev smiled in the knowledge of exactly what that cargo was.

The void shields were down - had been down, for a time - but the Salamanders built well. For all that the Eighteenth was not a siegemaster Legion, walls and roof alike had remained mostly intact despite the barrage. And now, the Salamanders stood on those walls, laying down a field of fire. Yet the Rhinos kept charging, because of course the theoretical of Salamanders using fire was well-known, and abundant insulation had been added to the transports' interior.

Still, eventually one went up. The explosion was brilliant, rattling the ground below, and the Salamanders switched to ballistic heavy weaponry as quickly as they could, because they realized that Rhino engines were not nearly that volatile, meaning that these were not piloted Rhinos, but rather explosive rams. Bombs, driven at the walls to craft a breach.

They were quick enough to down four more at a safe distance. But the remaining transports sacrificed themselves, slamming straight into the wall and going up in great bursts. Rock and metal and more complex composites caved, in avalanches that dragged green-armored Astartes out of the safety of their alcoves and into range of the Titans' strides. It was like a rockfall unearthing veins of green ore - a metaphor that the Salamanders would appreciate, Thexilev considered.

The Titans stepped on the Salamanders, grinding them beneath their feet, and laid down a curtain of fire in front of them before lifting it to fire over the walls at the roof in the citadel's center. As they did so, Thexilev received and belayed the vox order, and the second line of Rhinos opened to reveal their Astartes.

Four thousand Ultramarines charged. Modoleo, Damocles, and Cestus with their Companies remained in reserve. The Salamanders' defense was scattered, unable to keep up. Monaxi drove hardest, his ceremonial crest (pierced by two bolter shells) already visible at the top of the rocks as he directed his company from the height, a shieldwall ahead of him. Ventanus and Auguston led their companies up as well.

Thexilev called the Second to him. "Third breach from the edge," he ordered as he jumped out of the Rhino. Then it was the climb, fire washing down around the Ultramarines, though Thexilev was shielded from the worst of it by the bodies ahead of him.

The schematics were rough, but from the exterior of the citadel it was easy enough to work out likely chokepoints. Easy enough, too, to see that many of them would be useless due to the sheer number of breaches. Coordinating with Ventanus, who held the adjacent breach, Thexilev ordered Pezanzan and Onill to lead simultaneous teams on two levels, to link up with sergeants from the Fourth.

"This seems too easy," he voxed Ventanus.

"It's bloody work," Ventanus said. "Though you might be right."

Thexilev wasn't sure of the theoretical that made this a trap, though. They had the foothold, and while he ordered Ixiosph to remain near the breach and construct counter-barricades, it seemed almost too much caution. They were taking casualties, after all, albeit fewer than the defenders, and it wasn't usually a bad sign that everything was going according to theoretical.

Still, for the sake of completeness, he tried to check in with the other attack vectors. Not much came back. From what little he got, though, the Ninth and Tenth Chapters were finding progress substantially more difficult than they were.

"Theoretical:" he voxed to the other captains, "it's a trap."

"It's gone according to theoretical," Auguston protested.

"Exactly."

Auguston, of course, understood immediately. "But the most likely theoretical if this is a trap is that we should advance quickly, to break out."

"Agreed," Monaxi said, once the aggressive captain was out of the thick of it. "Alternative theoretical is that they're concentrating in the center, for ritual purposes."

Both of those were reasonable theoreticals that agreed with their current practical. But then, that was exactly why Thexilev remained suspicious.

He called up Modoleo regardless, now that the walls were silenced. And he ordered Ixiosph to lead the further advance, while he fortified the foothold they'd earned. He briefly helped with a barricade himself, before leading Squad Idospev up a staircase in shooting down sentry turrets from a distance. As he did so, he saw Pezanzan and Onill finally link up with the Fourth, as Ventanus's men cleared the outer point of the fortifications.

And as all that blew around Thexilev in a great gale, the traditional whirlwind of battle, the Ultramarines' Second Captain walked up to the wing's abandoned command center. It was well-armored enough that doing so posed no danger, but upon entering, Thexilev observed that it had already been disconnected.

Still, the visual at least was still available, a view of the top of the spoke leading centerward, the sound of bolter fire even now marking Monaxi's and Auguston's position along it. And at the end of it, kilometers away, a dome, and from it a golden knife slicing the heavens, and making them bleed with the foulness of the Warp.

And backlit by that knife, charging down a walkway from it, at the head of a green-armored column of Astartes and vehicles -

Thexilev shouted out a warning, but it was too late. Monaxi's and Auguston's companies would take the brunt of it. The Titans were coming up, they could respond, drive them back, and against almost any number of Astartes they could have held the line even without them.

But not against a Primarch.

Vulkan had always been physically largest of the Primarchs, but now he entirely dwarfed the Astartes behind him, less a warrior and more a war machine. His hammer seemed undersized for his crackling hands. Around him, the air seemed to spark with, presumably, his psychic power. Yet his onyx form and viridian armor also seemed protean, shifting to and fro like the Emperor or the Crimson King, in a matter most atypical of the most grounded Primarch.

Around him, psychic imprints swirled. To Thexilev, they seemed to etch scenes into the air. Faint images, of a sallow-faced man holding out on his hunger strike despite his captors' indifference, of a woman's face as she slowly realizes her lover has betrayed her and taken everything she had, of bioengineered faceless swarms causing worlds' worth of painful death. Thexilev did not look at them for long - he'd fought Chaos before, he knew procedure - but he still saw, before Vulkan's column descended under cover, as they screamed and stretched in rhythm with the blows of his hammer. Ultramarine bodies flew away, throwing up bursts of sand as they fell. Monaxi was the first, buying time for his company to retreat.

A shell exploded on the roof above Thexilev, but the ceiling held. He ignored it, focusing on voxing commands to Ixiosph. The barricades would hold for long enough - there would be a slaughter before them, but the Titans were already near. Ixiosph, and Auguston who had retreated into position, would hold. That was the theoretical - but practicals with a Primarch around were never certain. Thexilev took in a deep breath, waiting for the wedge of green to drive itself into the defensive line.

It never did. The Salamanders, as Thexilev learned from vox-traffic, focused on mopping up stranded squads. "They saw the Titans coming," Auguston hypothesized.

"They're hemmed in," Thexilev said. "They needed the breakthrough."

"They're trying something," Auguston said. His voice was sore. The runes indicated that half of the First Company had been lost within minutes, and more of the Third. The Second had fared better, but Thexilev still had to restrain himself as the reports came in. Naxigum and Onon's deaths, along with their entire squads, stung worst.

What had they died for? Thexilev strained at the schematics, averting his eyes from the great golden beacon, in search of an answer. Nothing emerged, no strategic aim, and so his attention wandered. What had they died for? Not what they had died against. That was a question of an elementary answer. But what the Coalition stood for... that was why Guilliman's Imperium Secundus had been meant to define. Only it had not had time to do so.

Was this how primitive natives felt when the Imperium came to their worlds? A new world opened, one they did not have the base of knowledge to understand. So the savages continued according to set patterns, even when those set patterns were obsolete.

If not for Guilliman, Thexilev might even have believed that.

It was something in the air, perhaps. An ululating thrum of despair. But Thexilev knew, trusted, that his Primarch had the solution. Not all of it, not yet, but where minds like Thexilev's recoiled at all their assumptions being overturned Guilliman's was already processing the way to victory. As to Thexilev and the Ultramarines, it sufficed to hold the line in the meantime.

But still, Thexilev was too good a student of the Imperial Truth not to doubt. Yet training took over. He kept up the vox-chatter, even as Vulkan bore down on one last isolated band of Ultramarines -

And then, suddenly, it was dark.

At first Thexilev thought it was the power, but there had been no power in this room in the first place. Then, an absurd thought, that it had been the sun. It had not been, as one glance up and into the storm proved.

No, the skies above had not changed, and it took Justinian Thexilev a few moments to realize what had.

Ahead, in the center of the enemy complex designated Ghanun Fortress, the beam of golden light that had pierced through Nuceria's very core, that had shone undimmed for nearly three Terran months, had in one instant gone out.

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

The skies were clearing.

Multicolored wisps faded from the heavens, coming apart in swirls as if they were sinking underneath the surface of the cerulean skies. The Warp Storm that Vulkan's ritual had summoned was collapsing, its structure coming apart and crumbling into mere reality.

"Did Vulkan plan this?" Ehung Zekhoros asked Dranzytchon of the Pyre Guard, both looking up at the sky in the brief respite from battle.

"I don't know," the Salamander answered. "The Primarch keeps his own counsel. But I believe he did, yes. I think the forging was always meant to have a finite duration, and that the lasting product of this ritual will be found in the Warp."

Zekhoros nodded. It wasn't much of an answer, but getting much of an answer would have meant that Dranzytchon was guessing. No one knew what they were doing here, except the Primarchs themselves.

It was frustrating, that this war was being fought for a purpose they didn't know. They were not owed an explanation - not from their Primarchs - but Zekhoros nonetheless regretted that they would all die without knowing why.

"Let's hope that the lasting product was worth two Legions, then," he said.

Dranzytchon frowned. "Numeon said there'd be a way out."

"Did Vulkan?"

"No."

"Then you have your answer," Zekhoros said.

The fatalism he was feeling was not necessarily due to the circumstances alone. In the last minutes before the battle, when the Titans were already walking towards their lines, there'd been a war council. Vulkan had brought the Pyre Guard and two captains; Angron had picked eight Astartes, chosen seemingly at random. Some of the names were predictable - Lhorke, Delvarus, and of course Kharn. Dreagher, responsible for the Legion's name. Captains, of no special distinction, Nordas Vyre and Edrenyyn Upiliz. Borgh Buktal, a mere sergeant, if one renowned for valor. And Zekhoros, the disgraced captain of a destroyed company, who had ended up the unofficial second-in-command, after Lhorke, of those who had survived the Nails being rent from them by Guilliman's... whatever it was. Sorcery, anti-sorcery, it made little difference, given how little of it Zekhoros understood. It had left Zekhoros ostracized from the Legion, but had also left his mind his own again - a trade he was more than happy to make, even if many in the division were not.

Yet despite this, he had been there when Vulkan had described, in vague and possibly misleading terms, exactly what he planned to achieve. They had stood, at the corners of a seventeen-pointed star, tensely waiting for the chance to go to war, and Vulkan had spoken of Nurgle, who of all the Warp Gods seemed to Zekhoros to be the least appetizing. A god of disease and morbidity and of enduring beyond one's natural end as a pale mockery of past vitality....

And, also, a god of despair, one whose distant influence they had been warned would wash over the battle.

This was Vulkan's attempt to gain the favor of Nurgle for the Emperor's ascension. A petition, written in gore. Zekhoros couldn't claim that this made any sense to him, all this talk of hammering at the Warp, but it was evident enough that it was real.

And then they had been dispatched to the walls for the desperate defense, which they were presently engaged in.

"Vulkan has said little," Dranzytchon said after a pause. "If there's a way out, it's to Numeon I'd look. But Numeon is also an optimist, that's true. Still, he wouldn't claim to know an escape route if he didn't have one."

"Yet he did not inform us what this route is."

"He didn't." Then Dranzytchon narrowed his eyes. "They're coming."

Zekhoros swept a look down from the parapet. The Ultramarines were indeed coming, on Rhinos, on speeders, and on foot. As were the Titans. As were Army auxilia, laying down covering fire with impressive resolve for baseline humans. It wouldn't have done them any good without the Ultramarines there, but in the circumstances they were in....

It was a coordinated dance, every movement carefully orchestrated. Zekhoros could see some of the patterns, but not how to break them. It was less a scalpel and more a great power maul, but it was a spiked maul where each of the spikes were scalpels. In sum, a chainsword.

Still, they were going to stop that blade, no matter if they took a mortal wound in the process. Even if Zekhoros had wanted to run again, there was nowhere to run to. Every wall was overrun, and the great clashes throughout the inner courtyards spilled in every direction.

And the beacon that had lit their way was out, as was the storm that held their daemonic allies. The skies had cleared.

There was nothing left except to fight.

"World Eaters!" Zekhoros yelled to his men - a ragtag collection of Thirteenth Company, other warriors caught in Guilliman's act and exiled from their own companies, and World Eaters that had been carried here by the whims of the Nails. "Or War Hounds, if you prefer! We haven't got long, so all I'll say is - it's been an honor." He paused.

This defeatism was unbecoming of him.

"It's been an honor," he continued, "but we all know exactly how much honor is worth in war." Some laughs at that. Good. "So let's try and not die yet, and kill as many of those traitors as we can in the meantime. For Angron and the Crusade, brothers!"

The cries came back. For Angron, for the Crusade, for the Emperor, for Terra, for Bodt, for blood, and for the Blood God. They all fought for their own reasons, but they were still brothers. In blood, if nothing else.

Dranzytchon took the left, while Zekhoros got the right. Those with the Nails would rush forward to meet their enemy anyway, so he had them hide in the intermittent walls, to counterattack the Ultramarines and hopefully break their lines. Conveniently, this also ensured they were far enough away from the shooting that they wouldn't get immediately get hit by friendly fire.

Of course, all those plans were affected by several Titan-sized complications.

"So what are your plans for dealing with those, Captain?" Limbeten asked.

"Hope Legio Audax uses the opportunity to teleport straight from Mars to here." Zekhoros shrugged. "My hope is that we can board them. They can bring down the walls, but if we fight in the ruins the Titans will have to stay back anyway."

Limbeten nodded. "We're making this up as we go along, aren't we?"

"The Ultramarines have it all calculated," Zekhoros said. "And we've been able to match them anyway. War isn't an equation to be figured out, it's an experience to be lived."

"Yes," Redorey put in, "but there's also a whole lot more Ultramarines. And they've lived through a whole lot of war as well."

Zekhoros couldn't help it - he laughed. Then he took up a long, thoughtful glance at the clear sky. "Just fight. We've done it plenty of times before. For once, it's just that simple."

He had wanted this, he considered as the Titans came closer, met by scattered fire from the emplacements. And he'd received it, miraculously enough. Freedom in his own mind, even if it was only for the last month of his life.

But none of them were immortal. Under a sky of horrors, or under a sky of blue....

He didn't hate the Legion anymore, not now that he was freed from its main curse. He hadn't even recognized that hate before, of course. He'd thought he merely despised Angron, though it'd never been so simple. Now, though, Angron was reborn, and Zekhoros was free. Free to fight - and it had been no accident that he'd been selected for the Twelfth Legion, there. They were all born of the dust of war, not the lines of a map that generals and Ultramarines took pride in but the mad uncertainty that was all most soldiers ever knew. Others fought for great dreams, or against great nightmares. World Eaters, and War Hounds before them, fought only for each other. They could have betrayed the Imperium with the others - no one could have stopped them, not even Angron. They had not. And that, too, was a choice.

Zekhoros took a deep breath of the sandy air, taking up and revving his three chainswords, and then the Ultramarines slammed into them.

Zekhoros and the squads with him were holding a chokepoint, in principle. In practice, the Titans could make holes in the walls wherever they felt like, despite the clumsy attempts to board them by Zekhoros's Nails-driven brothers. Nonetheless, he waded into the fight, parrying with two blades as the third eviscerated an Ultramarine sergeant, surrounded by enemies for a moment in a spinning circle, jumping back once Limbeten opened up a passage -

It was war. But it was war experienced in a way Zekhoros had not in a very long time. Every moment, every kill, weighed heavily on him. The sensations surrounded and suffused him, every moment poignant, every stab of panic desperate. Without the Nails to calm him, he could experience everything. Most humans would have collapsed from the shock.

Zekhoros was a Space Marine, though. He just kept fighting, stabbing and parrying and slashing and dodging. At one point he had the space to look over at Dranzytchon's section, completely bemused as to the fact that they were both still holding, and saw what looked like very large gobs of mucus charging forth at the Ultramarine lines, spewing, presumably, pestilence. A few of Dranzytchon's warriors, though distinctly not the Pyre Guard himself, fought alongside them; their armor was pitted, as if heavily corroded, something ceramite didn't do. Zekhoros didn't react to it; their allies' choice of patron was their own.

The next moment, Zekhoros realized that he was surrounded. Four Ultramarines, stabbing directly at him. Zekhoros parried their first blows, one per chainsword. The teeth of his servo-arm's blade scratched as they tried the block, and teeth flew out as shrapnel, one by sheer coincidence (or, as the case may be, by the gods' will) striking the remaining Ultramarine in the helmet seal and knocking his own strike off-center. As it did so, Zekhoros wrenched his left-hand sword, decapitating one of his foes. The other two let up for a moment, circling Zekhoros defensively. The World Eater crouched, his blades spun in a vague imitation of preparation.

Then the Ultramarines disengaged. Breathing heavily, Zekhoros walked over the pile of bodies to his company. They'd fared better than he had suspected - a solid majority was still alive, especially among the Nailless.

"Did we seriously drive them off?" he asked Limbeten.

Limbeten pointed to their left, where the Ultramarines and Titans had breached an undefended section of wall and were spilling past, leaving the meaningless chokepoint to the Twelfth and Eighteenth.

"Well, that's something at least," Zekhoros said. "We weren't the path of least resistance."

That was when his vox, inert for some time except within his and Dranzytchon's detachment due to dust-caused interference, beeped.

It was Artellus Numeon.

"Form up on my position," the First Captain of the Salamanders said, in a deep voice made scratchy by interference. "To - *khhk* - off of Nuceria."

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CHAPTER TWELVE

The colors of dusk were beginning to paint the horizon. In the absence of clouds, the sunset was decorated only by dust. That dust, or rather the sand that caused it, crunched below Artellus Numeon's foot.

Yellow sand, stained red by blood. This was how Angron had earned his epithet.

They were contracting to an ever-smaller ring. Sentry turrets and barricades and walls and layers of void shields - all cracked, broken precisely along the weaknesses of the material. It was beautiful, truly. But it was also too late. If the Ultramarines had attacked two weeks earlier, they would have taken far more losses, but Nuceria would have been theirs. As it was, Vulkan had completed the ritual, and the victory was already predestined to fall to the Salamanders.

Numeon still felt sadness and resolve both, of course, at the horrendous losses that his Legion had suffered. But he also recognized those as partly external, as caused by the spiritual imbalance that ruled over Ghanun. Leftover heat, from the fire Vulkan had stoked.

He doubted, of course. Knowing why didn't prevent it. This was tainted earth, and the edifice in the Warp that Vulkan had built was hardier than its real-world analogue built by the Lord of Drakes' sons. And besides, faith was nothing without doubts to overcome. Numeon had always been able to keep in mind the ways in which he could be wrong, and keep fighting for his beliefs nevertheless.

And Numeon clenched his fists, choking that last moment of weakness. He would do what he needed to today, and what he needed to do was insure the retreat.

"Atanarius," he called to the wall. "How is it up there?" The swordsman was one of two Pyre Guard to have answered Numeon's call, Igataron being the other. Varrun and Dranzytchon had not responded, and as to Skatar'var... Numeon felt the month-old knife wound stab at the memory.

The power of Nurgle could resurrect. Numeon had sworn an oath of moment to find, when he had the opportunity, a way to bring the Pyre Guard back to life, even if Skatar'var would never truly be the same Salamander he had been. Not for their brotherhood, deep as it was; death was a part of the Circle of Fire. No, his resolve was driven by a need to atone for his failure.

He hadn't protected his battle-brother when he had needed to. From, admittedly, himself, but that too was part of his duties as a leader.

"Ultras are getting closer," Atanarius yelled back. "It'll be tooth-to-tooth soon. Varrun's voxed in."

Numeon nodded, and with one final nod to the shrine and a reverent brush of the athame at his belt, walked up the staircase towards Atanarius's position.

"Artellus...." Atanarius frowned. "You're dwelling on Skar again."

Numeon stayed silent.

"It shows on your face. Numeon, we all return to the earth. Skatar'var's death wasn't your fault, or his. It was a well-executed ambush. It could've been any of us."

Numeon shrugged. "Perhaps I would have done the same for any of you."

"Any of us would give our lives for each other," Atanarius said. "All of us would love to have Skar back. But you're letting your emotions drive you. The dead do not come back easily, nor as they were." His voice turned suddenly pleading. "Let us help, First Captain. It will be a mountain road, but if there is a way... Skar is not the only brother we have lost. Nor the only one we will. Just, please, don't rush this."

He was right, wasn't he? He was First Captain. His duty was not to Skar alone. With a sigh, Numeon relented.

"We will talk when this is over," he said. "You likely have the truth of it. For now there's a battle." Numeon looked up at the sky, which now seemed somehow drained and empty. "Eye-to-eye, Atanarius."

"Tooth-to-tooth!"

Before them, the Ultramarine forces were arrayed in an elaborate grid, beyond a no man's land that occupied only by spaerhs - local three-horned lagomorphs - that refused to move from their burrows despite the war around them. The enemy's armor was dusty and scratched, but their formations and discipline were still immaculate. From this vantage, as indeed from any vantage, the full scope of the enemy could not be seen. This was not a set-piece battle - or, insofar as it was, it was a battle where Guilliman understandably preferred to keep the arrangement of his pieces secret from the Salamanders.

Numeon had carved wards into the walls precisely to counteract that, but only so many of them remained intact. The Ultramarines had targeted them, going out of their way to disrupt the energies of the fortress. They knew what they were doing - if they had not, those very flows would have erupted like volcanoes, and buried the Ultramarines instead of crumbling before them.

As it was, only some of those flows were venting, assisted by the fog Vulkan's ritual had spewed. Only some - but some was enough.

It had to be.

And having resolved that, Artellus Numeon waited. He waited, at first, for marksman Varrun and silent Igataron to join them, and after that for Dranzytchon. "We did not hear your vox, at first," the Pyre Guard's newest member said.

"We?"

"Myself and Captain Zekhoros, and our forces," Dranzytchon explained.

Numeon liked Dranzytchon - of course he did, the hammer-wielder would not have become a Pyre Guard otherwise. Everyone liked Dranzytchon. There was no doubt to his combat skill, or his experience, but it was his geniality that had earned him that spot. It helped, too, that Dranzytchon was Terran. The Pyre Guard had always been selected from their ranks, though it would not be long now before a Nocturnean was inducted. Skatar'var's place, most likely, would be filled by the first.

The Legion was changing. But not quickly. No, it would not do to rush Skatar'var's return. The tempers of the Pyre Guard could run hot, but building... building always took more time than destroying.

And then, at last, the true leader of the Pyre Guard came forth.

Vulkan looked bigger than he had ever been, and even to Numeon's eyes it was clear why. The energies of the Warp surrounded him, blazing inside him with a quiet but grand fire. He was not ascending past reality, as some beings did; it would not do, he had said before. If he ever became a god, it would be in realspace. He would not abandon the ground, even if he now walked it with a new lightness.

"My sons," he said. "So we have come here. An ending, and a new beginning." He turned to the Ultramarine advance, even while handing Numeon a datapad with corresponding schematics. "All lines are in a lull. Seven courtyards are still holding. Guilliman is preparing for a final push... and he is here. In the wing to our right."

"You can sense him?" Varrun asked.

"The sands can sense him," Vulkan said. "The sands... they are Angron's by right, but he has rejected them. Until he returns to that inheritance, the Nucerian sands are mine. Ready yourselves, Salamanders. Into the fires of battle!"

"Unto the anvil of war!" they chorused back.

And with that, Vulkan jumped over the parapet.

Not alone, of course. The remaining armor began to roll out upon his signal. Lines of guns began their firestorm, slicing the neat Ultramarine lines apart. And the Pyre Guard, on Numeon's unsaid command, leaped after their Primarch.

The Ultramarines had meant to unleash a final push. This was the Imperium's answer.

Vulkan's stride through the battlefield was calm. Nothing around the Primarch was. The counterattack, seemingly suicidal, had stunned the Ultramarines - but not for long. In every direction Numeon could look, he saw the clash of blades, bodies falling, storms of projectiles, and fire.

And sand. For even as Vulkan swung Dawnbringer with his right hand, slamming Ultramarines into the ground, his left gestured to make the ground of Nuceria obey his command. Prepared faults opened, cleaving vehicles in half. Foundations the Ultramarines had destroyed rose back up in pillars that blocked their line of fire. And in great, scouring gales, sand rose in every direction, blocking the auspexes and distant views. It hammered at blue armor like countless shells, leaving some Ultramarines in cratered armor. Those were the survivors. Others felt sand crawl into every bodily cavity, choking them and carving them open at the same time. It consumed them, like a great amoeba of some sort. The world itself swallowed them.

Yet the Ultramarines fought back. Numeon thrust his pike again and again, stabbing and blocking every blue-armored Astarte that tried to lay hands on his Primarch. Around him, the Pyre Guard did the same.

The Ultramarines tried to lay into them, knowing that the Pyre Guard presented softer targets than Vulkan, but they fought for each other as much as they fought for their Primarch. Stepping on a spaerh, Numeon pushed Dranzytchon out of the way of a heavy bolter shot, moments before Varrun's shot took the emplacement out. As he did, Igataron took out a powersword-wielding Ultramarine that had swung at Numeon's newly exposed position.

In the distance, Numeon heard the klaxon of a Titan through the sandstorm. It seemed hoarse, perhaps because of that sand, perhaps because of the distance.

"Roboute!" Vulkan yelled, as he swept aside an entire squad with one swing of Dawnbringer - injured, not killed, but World Eaters now rushing in (if in small numbers) for support would change that. "Let us settle this!"

"Very well," came a voice, and then, suddenly, he was there.

Roboute Guilliman was surrounded by a dozen of his sons - not a formal honor guard, merely Astartes who had been nearby. One of them, a sergeant - Aeonid Thiel, Numeon read - even had his helmet marked red for censure. Numeon knew he'd seen the Ultramarine before, something in his movements... something he couldn't place.

Roboute Guilliman was surrounded by scattered warriors, his once-shining armor pitted by scratching sand, his eyes blazing not with hatred or hope but only cold determination. He raised his halberd, even as Vulkan raised his hammer, and the Primarchs began to circle each other. The Astartes to either side made no movement, mute spectators to the confrontation before them.

"Angron is not coming," Guilliman said.

"I know," Vulkan quietly answered. "He's holding in the southwest. But he was the one that needed me, not the reverse."

"I've beaten you before," Guilliman pointed out.

"In spars," Vulkan said. "But I held back."

"As did I."

"As did we all. But it does not matter how this ends, Roboute. While we have been fighting for Nuceria, your dream has already died. Imperium Secundus is gone."

Guilliman stumbled. It was a minute thing, one that even Vulkan could not take full advantage of; in the moment after, Guilliman leveled his blade and, inexplicably, shot a lasbeam at Vulkan, but the pulse seemed to bounce off the Lord of Drakes' plate, or rather off the Warp power beneath it. Vulkan answered with a blow of Dawnbringer, which Guilliman dodged, but which prevented his return stab from connecting. Metal rang as the two weapons clanged against each other and held, and suddenly, the Primarchs had disengaged and were once again circling.

The entire clash took only seconds. The watching Astartes did not even react until it was done, a flurry of desperate shots rebounding off both Primarchs' armor.

And then, with each other's measure taken, the Primarchs resumed their conversation.

"Ultramar stands," Guilliman insisted.

"Ultramar stands," Vulkan agreed, "but it is already doomed, and Imperium Secundus is lost. Let me show you - "

He raised his gauntlet to his face and blew, swirls of sandy air coagulating into images. Of proud Terra. Of mighty battlefleets.

Of Catachan's skies. Horus Lupercal and Sanguinius stood before charts, planning their path forwards. The Council of Catachan would succeed. The Coalition was plowing onwards without Guilliman's input, a new rebellion taking shape that firmly rejected his dreams. A rebellion that acknowledged the Mechanicum's monopolies, that placed Astartes in a place of only war, that made willing compromises with xenos. Horus had made Guilliman unnecessary.

Images of the Olympian chokepoints. Images of eldar treacheries.

Images of Calth.

Calth burned. The world that had been meant to signify Ultramar's future was lost to the fires of war. Fulgrim had come, and brought devastation. And Marius Gage, waging a desperate defense for a city no longer named in Guilliman's honor, cursed his Primarch's name for abandoning him and Ultramar. On every lip beneath the deep blue helmets of Calth's defenders, there was only scorn for their Primarch.

"You have lost your home," Vulkan said. "You have lost your Legion."

The darkness, the nihilism, were palpable. Numeon could barely remember that Vulkan was on his side, such was the pressure of the end of a dream. The Ultramarines had been meant to be the best of them, but instead their own ideals had split them apart. That was the nature of the galaxy, to answer kindness with cruelty. That was why the Salamanders had become what they had.

And then the lord of Ultramar laughed, and the spell broke.

"You think to scare me with this?" Guilliman asked. "Aye, Terra stands, and some of my sons are dead. But I never thought otherwise. Horus, for once, has listened to my advice. I will need to set things right with the Warmaster, after... but the Coalition is now built on a foundation that is not quicksand. In these days, that is enough. And Ultramar stands. Calth burns, but it stands, and my pride is nothing compared to that. And you did not show me Macragge."

Guilliman smiled as he spoke, leveling the halberd-like contraption. As he did, his other hand delicately drew the horn hanging from his waist, and he blew.

Numeon's flamer was already in his hand for whatever Guilliman had summoned, but there was nothing. Only a little girl, running out of the sandstorm -

And for an instant, Numeon hesitated. Because there was a time when Salamanders had not killed children. Because his first instinct was not to shoot.

By the time Numeon saw that the girl's eyes were sparking with psychic power, it was too late.

The child and the two artifacts in Guilliman's hands aligned, and there was light.

The fog of despair seemed to boil away in bubbling clumps, the fog of sand doing the same. And, Numeon realized with growing horror, Vulkan was doing the same. He seemed to be pulled into the light, the Warp-power clinging to his body diving in and dragging the rest of him along with it. It was as if watching a vortex drain, Numeon seeing his Primarch's body vanish into - where?

He did not know. But Vulkan lived. Surely, he lived.

Numeon still had faith.

But at the moment, that was not enough.

Guilliman lowered the relics in his hands, letting the light go out, and the sand settled to the ground. The sounds of battle returned. Numeon took only one glance around the field before knowing it was lost. The Ultramarines were scattered and scarred, but their formations had held, and the Titans were now walking forth unencumbered once again. Beneath them, tanks and transports.

Numeon took a final glance at the Ultramarines' Primarch, who was breathing heavily, and the psyker child at his side.

"Retreat," he ordered the Pyre Guard and the Salamanders.

They did. Only there was nowhere to retreat to.

Reports came in, scattershot, through the voxnet. The Ultramarines had broken through in the southeast. Even Angron was being pushed back, by a concentrated Battle Titan assault. And Vulkan was gone.

Numeon knew it was not over. Not the war, not Vulkan's tale. But Nuceria -

Nuceria had never mattered, so it did not matter if it was lost.

The athame seemed to almost fly into Numeon's hand, and he cut a hole in reality.

"Varrun," he ordered. "You have command of the Pyre Guard until I return. The portal leads to Bodt."

"You want us to leave you?!" Dranzytchon exclaimed, incredulous.

"I'm the only one who can lead us out," Numeon said. "Now go!"

They clambered through the wound in reality. Igataron was first, giving only a nod to his commander. Then Dranzytchon, with a "good luck", and Varrun with an embrace, and last of all Atanarius.

"We endure, Artellus," the swordsman said. "From the ashes of this battle new hope will spring. For the Emperor."

"For Vulkan," Numeon said, but Atanarius was gone.

Other Salamanders followed them. The evacuation was calm, despite the storm of battle behind them. Numeon cut again and again, as realspace sealed itself; he made longer incisions, allowing for squads to return to Bodt at once. Desperation fueled his cuts, but still they were too slow. Hundreds of Salamanders were coming through every minute, but they only had minutes.

But then, there were so few left.

They came through, ever more wounded, ever more scarred. The 22nd, 23rd, and 24th were holding the line, and the World Eaters - mainly the World Eaters. Angron had ordered a retreat, for perhaps the first time in his life, but many of his sons were in the grip of the Nails.

Numeon cut like the paintwork of some demented artist, even as shells fell around and above him. Armor was abandoned, bikes at most being taken along. He did not see the Red Angel come through, but Kharn reassured him, as he passed through, that Angron had done so.

"Khorne's call or no, we can understand when a battle is lost," he said. "We'll take more skulls in later days. I'm sorry about Vulkan."

"He lives," Numeon insisted.

Kharn only shrugged as he stepped through to Bodt.

Numeon turned away, starting a new incision -

And, suddenly, pain in his shoulder, and the knife falling helplessly from his hand. The world spiraling around him - trying to get up, but it was too late -

"How?!" he tried to yell. It came out as a whisper. "How did you get in?"

He saw, on the floor - no, on the ceiling. It was him lying on the floor, upside-down, in a pool of his own blood. The evacuees were getting massacred, far too many Ultramarines mowing them down. Those that remained... would be surrounded.

Some had gotten away. Thousands. Perhaps as many as ten thousand, overall.

Ten thousand, out of fifty thousand that had come to Nuceria.

He saw, on the ceiling, mag-locked to it, two dozen Ultramarines, who had opened the gates to their brothers. And - that was how they'd gotten in initially. If one used spaceship boarding tactics, and - perhaps they'd left a way. The Ultramarines had been far in enough, and with Vulkan's disappearance -

No. He needed to focus. Numeon grunted and got up, forcing himself to keep going, grasping his spear. He stabbed at the closest Ultramarine, who hadn't been expecting it, piercing the helmet, as his Terminator armor's servos struggled to keep him upright. He opened his mouth, to vox a call for reinforcements - there were less than a hundred Ultramarines here, they still could -

He saw the red helmet an instant before Aeonid Thiel drove his powersword through the First Captain's skull.

Thiel started to say something, but Artellus Numeon did not live to hear it.

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The Emperor has turned to Chaos. The dream of the Imperium has become a nightmare. But Horus and his Coalition stand against the dark, here at the end of time.

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What was broken has been mended. And what was burned away can never be reforged.
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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The war for Nuceria had ended in a tactical Ultramarine victory.

The Ghanun desert had been subjected, afterwards, to a localized orbital bombardment. Theoretical was that the Salamanders and World Eaters had left some surprise behind, or at least some form of 'taint'. The Librarians detected little of it, and none after the bombardment.

But if Nuceria was at peace, what that peace meant had yet to be defined.

Justinian Thexilev stood on the slopes of Fedan Mhor, alongside his Primarch and the other surviving captains of the First Chapter, looking at the scattered bones of the ancient gladiators. Angron's comrades-in-arms, in a time before the Imperium. The wind was still. That would not last; in the distance, to the west, Thexilev already saw thunderstorms.

Yet they were the only storms in the sky. The great Warp Storm that had stranded the Thirteenth Legion on Nuceria had all but entirely dissipated.

Their Stormbird waited on the slope, like a gem vein hidden in the rock. Within hours, it would depart, headed, surely, to Ultramar. Thexilev yearned to see it again, above all to see for himself that it still stood, to feel the air of his home realm on his skin. The monuments of Macragge, the seas of Talassar, the ruins of Setterane, and above all the forests and farms of Espandor - distant, half-forgotten, but his birthplace. Gilloa had said that Ultramar stood, and there were astropathic signals that implied as much, as well as the vision Vulkan had supposedly shown Guilliman... but none of those sources were fully trustworthy, and more importantly, while all said that Ultramar stood, all also showed it under siege.

Guilliman was most eager of them all, even though he did not easily show it. Ultramar was Thexilev's birthplace, as it was for most of the Legion, and for all of the Legion it was their home - but for Guilliman, it was not just his world, but also his life's work.

Yet for all of that, in these last hours while the machinery of war was being loaded onto the ships in preparation for the battle to come, it was to Fedan Mhor that the Ultimate Warrior came.

"We don't know any of their names," Guilliman said. "The Nucerians did not care to record them, and Angron did not speak of his past unless prompted."

"You still respect him?" Modoleo asked.

"I pity him, or rather what he could have been," Guilliman said frankly. "He was a shattered ruin of a Primarch, and even now he is broken, fundamentally, because of what happened here. I learned of his tragedy, and I put it out of my mind. There was nothing to be done, it was not my concern, and it seemed hardly a worse case than Mortarion or Curze. No, I do not respect Angron. But while I forgot Angron, as did many of my brothers... the Emperor did not. And we should not have, either."

"The Eaters of Cities...." Cestus paused. "They are remembered as monsters, and not for no reason. Their cause may have been righteous, but they were monsters, even if it was not by choice."

"They fought against a tyrannical regime," Lusbraeth, Auguston's second-in-command, said. "But they didn't really fight for anything, did they? Only to destroy, with no consideration of what came after. Because they were incapable of that consideration."

"And that," Guilliman said, "is the reason I came here."

There were always imperfect echoes, and fundamental lessons, to be found in the bloody scrolls of past monstrosities. That was no surprise to Thexilev. History rhymed - but it did not repeat.

"Justinian," Guilliman said, presumably because Thexilev had been silent for some time. "What do you think we should do with Nuceria?"

"Practical is straightforward," Thexilev rattled off, as he had been thinking about precisely that for the past several minutes. "Treat it as newly compliant, leave an Astarte garrison, end slavery, integrate into the Imperium... perhaps even Ultramar. Theoretical for analogues is a different matter. Allying with monsters is a line we have crossed before, and will cross again. Doing so without becoming monsters is often trivial, but far from always."

Guilliman nodded. "We will need," he noted, "to leave half a Company to garrison the planet - and the surrounding subsector - and protect them from Imperial retaliation. There is the additional purpose, however, of observing for residual taint. Some of the archaeotech is suspicious. So, Captain Thexilev, would you take the honor of leading this garrison?"

To stay behind. To build a rampart instead of reinforcing Ultramar. The theoretical was clear in that someone needed to take command. Thexilev wished it had been someone else, but he knew his duty. Less clear was why him, and that he asked.

"It had to be someone from the First Chapter," Guilliman said, "and someone with a low but nonzero respect for Nuceria as it was." So he'd be able to work with them, but without letting them forget that he was part of an occupying force.

Well, it would not be the first time.

Memories of the Great Crusade played out in Thexilev's mind as they returned to the Stormbird, and took off once more, heading to orbit before Thexilev and half his company were to be dropped to Iela'kamm, the city designated as Nuceria's new capital. This was a compliance - theoreticals were well enough established. There were goodbyes, and Ixiosph's assumption of command for the portion of 2nd Company that was remaining on the Perfect Honour, and funerals for the far too many brothers Thexilev had lost in the war for Nuceria, and Gilloa briefly waking up from her enforced hibernation to wish Thexilev good luck and give him a gift, a shell carved in the shape of the Linearity - five stars, and the ray connecting them.

"It carries some part of my power," she said, "some measure of sensory ability for the worst or best of the Warp."

"It senses taint?"

"It senses power, and something of that power's nature," Gilloa said. And when Thexilev clasped it to his neck armor, he found that indeed it did - Gilloa seemed to blaze with a brilliant white flame, whistling through chimneys as light to illuminate the world around. Yet there were dark cracks in that fire, flaws introduced by the girl's exhaustion.

"Thank you," Thexilev said, unsure what else to say. "For the gift, but mostly for your aid to Guilliman. You shouldn't have had to...."

"You don't think you should have needed my help," she said. "But all of us need each other." At the moment, with her eyes shining with that silver gleam of the furnace inside her, her diminutive size felt like a lie - she stood her ground with the aura of not merely Thexilev's equal, but his superior. "I feel like I shouldn't have needed you all either. But I did, and more importantly, I will again."

Thexilev nodded. "And I thank you for all of that. You're leaving with Guilliman. Leaving your world behind." He thought back to his own induction into the Legion at that, wistfully, though of course the circumstances were different.

"No," Gilloa said. "My world is dead."

But it wasn't, not really. As the gunship carried him down to the island city of Iela'kamm, shining with its golden flame-shaped towers, black beach sand scattered to every side, with people even now visibly crowding those beaches - both to catch a glimpse of the Ultramarines' departure and simply to swim - and the plazas under giant screens, as the sea breeze caused the gunship to gently sway in its descent, Justinian Thexilev knew he was not looking at a dead world. The lords of Nuceria were terrified of the Astartes, as Cestus had promised, and its slaves looked forward to freedom, but Nuceria lived.

He was greeted with an honor guard, as he walked up the steps of the Union Hall. Thexilev suspected he could kill them all alone, if necessary - the soldiers standing to either side were armed with clobbered-together guns, and some were visibly trembling. Iela'kamm had surrendered to the Ultramarines willingly, but only because some of its surrounding villages had not.

That would have to be fixed. Thexilev did not actually want to be overly feared. Obeyed, yes, but there was much more to leadership than fear. Then again, for this moment of revolution, perhaps fear was inevitable.

The carpet they had rolled out to him was silver and blue, the latter color being recently painted in long stripes. President Mavangar, the ruler of the city-state, prostrated himself and all four of his chins before the Ultramarine captain once the latter had ascended the steps to the palace.

"A bow is sufficient," Thexilev noted.

"As you wish," Mavangar said, clambering to his feet. "As you know, Iela'kamm has never practiced Nails implantation - " it did, of course, have its own, admittedly lesser, slave implants - "but we have captured several slaves from nearby states who were fitted with the Nails. They are in the basement of the Union Hall - you understand, they're uncontrollable. After a while they always become so. The sorts of monsters who would do that for simple entertainment - why, if only we could...."

Thexilev blocked out most of Mavangar's droning. The president was doing his best to deflect blame, and Thexilev would not stop him from doing so. If Mavangar had not been among the best of Nuceria's petty dictators, he would not have been left in charge. And while insufferable in supplication, he was supposedly a competent administrator.

"They're held in stasis," Mavangar said.

"Was there no other way?"

"Not reliably," Mavangar said, and Thexilev thought he caught a glimpse of real regret behind the false sadness.

Thexilev looked at the four pods. The humans within did not, even when so frozen, look to be at peace. Their closed eyes seemed to blaze with pure hate, and their unmoving lips seemed to tremble with mute curses.

And there was an itch at the back of Thexilev's neck, one that took a few moments to identify.

He came closer to the pods, to check. The itch strengthened, and with it came emotions. Not felt - seen. It had not just been his imagination, when he heard curses from those silent lips.

The Butcher's Nails stole away peace. But they did more than that. They instilled anger and hate, war and death -

Blood, and skulls.

"Throne," Thexilev said on reflex. "How the Warp did you people make those things?"

"We didn't - "

Thexilev tuned out the rest of Mavangar's words, as he was too focused on the implications of what he had learned.

The Butcher's Nails were more than monstrous. They were directly tainted by the power of the Warp - by the power of the false god that the Seventeenth called Khorne.

For how many centuries had that power waxed, on Nuceria?

For a moment Thexilev wondered about Exterminatus, but... but the Line of Nuceria had not failed. But Gilloa had still been born, here, and surely many others that deserved to live. Most of them, in frankness.

There was still something to be saved.

Even if Nuceria truly did have to die.

"Practical," he told Mavangar. "All implants will be removed from every slave on the planet, as soon as possible, and any future attempts to use slave implants will be punished by death, effective immediately."

"The end of slavery must be a gradual process - "

"You've had three months to prepare, and short-term disruption is inevitable and even desirable. But I'm not talking about economics right now. I mean specifically the implants."

"They cannot be removed," Mavangar noted.

"Many of them can, at least hypothetically," Thexilev said. "We'll get together teams to find the ways for those. But the Nails, and perhaps a few of the other worst ones...." He looked at the bodies in the stasis pods. They were stuck in time... but he was not sure that the Nails were. "They may have to be killed. There is no other way."

Mavangar blanched, but nodded. And as he did -

As he did, Justinian Thexilev understood the truth he had been searching for, subconsciously, those past months.

There were daemons in the universe - whatever one preferred to call them. There were heroes, too, including psykers like Gilloa, but also scholars, artisans, and warriors that did not have any special link to the Warp. There existed, in them, the ability to hold the powers of hell at bay. But the line between the realms of good and the realms of evil, while not a thin line, was from a distance clearly visible, as the line between good and evil themselves was not. It was a great struggle at the outer rim of civilization, against treachery and entropy. And myths... myths were nothing more than forgotten legends, which were themselves forgotten histories. They had power, because knowledge was power, but for that same reason their power was nothing compared to the clarity of understood truth.

The daemons themselves... they understood, in their alien way, what they were doing. Perhaps some xenos did, as well. And Guilliman and Horus and the others had in the days of the Crusade, and would, in time, even in these mad hours - at least Thexilev hoped so. But the Word Bearers and the Salamanders and all the others, who sook refuge in myths, were doomed by that very fact. They fogged their mind with superstitious devotion, and expected that devotion to be rewarded. It never would be. They looked to the past, and were thus blinded to everything that mattered in the future.

"Should I convey that order to every city on Nuceria?" a recovered Mavangar asked.

"Not yet," Thexilev said. "I'll deliver a formal address this evening, to every city...." He paused. "No, not on Nuceria. That world is dead. I will speak to the people of Empioea, about the future that we have not yet lost."

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The Emperor has turned to Chaos. The dream of the Imperium has become a nightmare. But Horus and his Coalition stand against the dark, here at the end of time.

Lorgar's Betrayal
(https://www.heresy-online.net/forums/...te-heresy.html)
What was broken has been mended. And what was burned away can never be reforged.
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