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."
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.
"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.