According to legend, the Knashchic Empire had once dominated much of the region now known as the Ultima Segmentum. Its mighty armies had been bolstered by sorceries unheard-of in this fallen age, and its fleets cut the Warp like a shell through paper, swift enough to fly from one end of the sizable realm to the other in a matter of minutes. But, supposedly, the Knashch had been threatened by enemies more powerful still, perhaps the ancient empire of the eldar, or perhaps an eldritch horror which could not even be named by human tongues. The Knashch held no hope of defeating this foe, seeing only to defend against it; and so they made a deal with the Dreaming Serpent, who dwelled beyond mundane reality, asking the Serpent to craft a defense against their enemy. And, so it is said, the Serpent obliged - yet not in a matter that the Knashch lived to appreciate. For he created a mighty and impassable Warp Storm where the Knashchic Empire had been, a great wall that sealed the Eastern Fringe off from the rest of the galaxy, and devoured the souls of the Knashch who lived in that empire.
Justinian Thexilev, Captain of the Second Company, First Chapter, Thirteenth 'Ultramarines' Legio Astartes, was not generally inclined to put much stock in legends. Nevertheless, this tale from his childhood - a common tale not only on Espandor, but on many of the neighboring worlds - now came to mind.
The Eastern Fringe was not sealed off anymore, if it had ever been. No conclusive archeological evidence of the Knashch's existence had ever been found. And the Great Crusade under the Imperial Truth, as exemplified by Thexilev's Primarch Roboute Guilliman, had been destined to prove the folly of myths.
Only with the Emperor's embrace of religion and the rise of psychic power throughout the galaxy, it was becoming clear that this destiny might never come to pass. It was not that the cosmology of the Imperial Truth was false, but it required... adjustment.
What sort of adjustment, Thexilev wasn't sure. Yet.
He suspected most of his Legion would disagree with him on this point. On Xaina, through the Linekere Cluster, and across the Tubs of Wrath, they had battled fellow Astartes, which had once been unthinkable, and his reaction to the matter had been contrary to that of others.
They had battled the Seventeenth. The Word Bearers. The Legion most devoted to the Emperor, to the point of once worshipping him as a god. Then the Emperor had not accepted such worship, and indeed had used the Ultramarines in rebuking the Word Bearers for it. Now the Emperor demanded all to call him divine, and in his madness punished all those who doubted him with death. Everything was turned on its head, and yet many of his fellow captains denied that the Imperial Truth was imperfect, even in relation to the Warp.
For all of that, Thexilev did not doubt that he was fighting on the right side. But then, he reflected as he walked the last few steps to the observation post, he had seen what the enemy had become.
"Any changes, Ixiosph?" he asked his sergeant, lowering his magnoculars. He couldn't notice any, at least.
"None," Ixiosph responded. "Final barrage incoming in two minutes. As best as I can tell, they're going to meet us inside."
Thexilev turned to the other figure at the observation post, whose blue armor was of a darker shade than his own, and topped with a psychic hood. Epistolary Bylolit shrugged. "My senses are still blocked, sir. All I can say is that they are using a substantial amount of power to achieve this."
"Power?" Ixiosph asked.
"Attention," Bylolit clarified. "And possibly blood."
The Seventeenth's newly acquired habit of sacrifice was well-known. Of all the aspects of the new Word Bearers, it was one of the few that had a distinct purpose. Fuel for psychic rituals, as prisoners had explained to them - fuel, in the form of human lives.
Thexilev couldn't trust Bylolit's power since that revelation, even if he trusted Bylolit himself with his life.
"Theoretical," Thexilev said, now speaking by a restricted vox-channel, "is to kill the Word Bearers first, worry about ritual later. Practical may be different." He turned to Ixiosph as he slipped his helmet on, counting down the seconds to the barrage. "Courage and honour, brothers."
"For Macragge!" Ixiosph answered.
With a nod, Thexilev hurried downwards to join the bulk of his men. The artillery barrage thundered overhead, ringing in his ears despite the protection of his helmet. The bastions, already battered and full of holes, nearly all its guns silenced, shook again with the additional bombardment. It was overkill, but not misplaced. Far better to waste shells than lives.
And then, with a cascading crush, a section of the wall that the fire had concentrated on came down. It had been calculated to, of course, but Thexilev felt relief nevertheless. Practical had too rarely matched theoretical, in recent times.
And in the moment that the guns fell silent, five hundred Ultramarines charged.
It was not exactly common, a situation where a foot charge (or jump-pack charge, as was the case for the foremost hundred Astartes) was the optimal resolution to a siege. But here the distance was short, the guns were quiet, and the Legion was operating with a deficit of vehicles of all sorts, maintenance being difficult in the heart of now-enemy territory.
Scattered fire pounded down around Thexilev. Some of his men went down. More bolters than heavy weapons, in that volley. Practical: they'd done even more damage to the guns than Thexilev had thought. If the Word Bearers had been short on personnel, they wouldn't be using small arms.
Another volley rippled through, a shell glancing off Thexilev's armor, chipping a crater of paint off. He continued without giving sign of noticing it. "Courage and honour!" he cried again, as the blue tide came up on the breach.
And then the first wave landed, jump-packs whining, and charged in. The fire coming at the rest of them died down almost entirely, only the odd shot coming at them. Thexilev tracked his men as they entered the besieged complex.
"Encountering high density of cultists," Heriamat voxed. At the least, that was what Thexilev inferred - abundant noise.
Cultists. They had used more respectful names, at first. 'Enemy auxilia', for instance. But there were enemy auxilia, and then there were cultists. They were not soldiers, merely cannon fodder at worst.
Most of them, that is.
Thexilev felt the gravel beneath his boots, coming up into a bloodbath. Most of the cultists had been killed by chainsword, in single strokes. Some of their decapitated heads had faces contorted in pain, but Thexilev doubted that the Ultramarines had been the ones responsible.
He advanced more cautiously from there, checking in with his sergeants as he did. They were sweeping through the building, according to theoretical. Naxigum's wing of the assault had encountered Astarte resistance, and Onill's had met genuine enemy auxilia. Bylolit reported a cultist that had been swollen with... something, but something that enhanced his capabilities, proving considerably more difficult to put down than most. Niulth's squad had been stalled by that culltist, but the Epistolary had handled it. Nonetheless, for the most part the Word Bearers had provided at most scattered resistance.
Thexilev threw up a map of the complex onto his helmet feed, as it had been determined by the Ultramarines' progress thus far, in an attempt to see the Word Bearers' theoretical. He saw the issue almost immediately. The theoretical command node was slightly off from the practical one, but not by enough to be obvious. Possibly cleverness, possibly just an error on the Ultramarines' part. The tech-adepts were less than perfectly integrated into Imperium Secundus; many had left, others had come, and the result was a lesser degree of efficiency than Thexilev was used to. He knew this better than most, given his logistics expertise.
Thexilev gave orders, calling his command squad to his side, along with Bylolit and Squad Niulth. They passed down corridors of masonry painted with blood (no, not a metaphor, not a theoretical - Thexilev had seen Word Bearer strongholds before). Grooves in the floor flowed downhill; theoretical was that they sometimes carried blood down to one of the eight doors in the apparent command center, whose blast doors they were approaching.
Sealed. Practical: Thexilev could hear chanting from behind there. The Word Bearers were doing something.
Theoretical: when the Word Bearers were chanting, they were doing something it was best to interrupt.
Devastator Squad Niulth came up behind Thexilev, and opened fire on the door, no verbal orders being necessary.
"Theoretical," Bylolit said, as he walked to his captain's side, "is that they're escaping."
"That matches my theoretical," Thexilev said with a frown. "Practical is that we've won the planet, regardless of this assault's practical. But...."
But Astartes tended to retreat less often than suggested by theoretical. It was the cultural legacy of two centuries of victory.
Before Thexilev could say any more, though, the door exploded inwards with the charges Niulth's squad had set.
The scene it revealed would have caused Thexilev to vomit, Astarte or no, if he had not seen its like too many times in the past few months. Underneath perfectly octagonal walls lined with artifacts, as if this was a museum rather than a command center, the floor was decorated with an intricately carved labyrinth, red with blood that had run in through the ditches and with blood that slowly dripped off the corpses impaled on spikes in a ring within the room's perimeter, whose smell was... far worse than standard. Inside that, there were actual cogitators, and at the room's very center stood the Word Bearers - sixteen of them, in two concentric circles, chanting, around a seventeenth - evidently the leader - in the very center.
No, that wasn't actually all. There were wispy shapes of more Word Bearers throughout the room, as if they were not quite there, as if they were escaping - or -
"Practical: they're not escaping," Bylolit said, having come to Thexilev's conclusion an instant before the captain. "They're getting reinforcements!"
"Courage and honour!" Thexilev yelled, charging through the room towards the enemy Astartes.
The practical encountered complications, though. The ghostly warriors that lined the room, for all that they weren't really there, swung their blades at Thexilev as he passed. Hundreds of them, enough to turn the tide of the engagement if they joined it fully, enough to be formidable even in their mostly absent state.
One blade passed through him without effect, but then his knee guard clanged against that of a Word Bearer. Thexilev swung his blade at the figure, but it had faded from this place once again. Another moment, his power-axe was moving through a Word Bearer who was not there, only to lodge in very real flesh when it reached his spine. The Word Bearer collapsed seconds later, incapacitated, but it was precious seconds that Thexilev found it difficult to extract his weapon, before the Word Bearer was gone once again. Precious seconds that the blue-helmeted Word Bearers in the circles, who were not moving from their places, could chant uninterrupted during.
Thexilev communicated all of this to his command squad, Squad Niulth, and the other Ultramarines approaching the room from various sides. There was constant vox-chatter, audible over the sound of heavy bolter fire. While Thexilev had gotten out of the straight-line path immediately, the shells weren't actually reaching the Astartes in the room's center, interrupted by the half-present Astartes in between. Thankfully those Astartes couldn't fire at all - theoretical was that they couldn't control their phasing either, so any shots would be more likely than not to hit their own.
He winced as he saw Aclgan's heavy plate fail to save him from an armored fist that materialized inside his guts. But an instant later, Silielonioclus was first to reach the center of the room.
"Theoretical: grappling," Thexilev warned, not wanting to risk spilling blood in the first moments. The memory of Glaa Linekere was still raw in his memory.
Sil did just that, wrestling the nearest Word Bearer - Urargeo, Thexilev thought he could read from his armor - down and out of the circle. Bylolit mouthed something about instability, but it wasn't a shout to stop, so Sil continued, now assisted by Lisaul as the veteran came up behind him. Urargeo tried to get back up, but was silenced by Lisaul's Terminator-armored bulk wrenching his neck until it snapped, even as Silielonioclus grabbed two more Word Bearers from the circle.
And then Thexilev was there as well, and theoretical gave way to practical. As one of the two enemies tried to rev their chainsword, Thexilev fired a bolter at point-blank range into his helmet. Not enough to kill, but enough to disable, and give him time to pull the helmet off to get the kill. Sil emptied his bolter into the other. By now there was blood, but as Lisaul charged, a battering ram, into the circle -
As a chainblade suddenly materialized within Sil's head, chopping his skull nearly in half -
As the weapons of Squad Niulth continued to thunder, killing Word Bearers even if they weren't the Word Bearers on this planet -
As the fourteen remaining in the circle seemed to accelerate their chanting in desperation -
As all that happened, Thexilev grabbed a grenade from his belt and threw it, without setting it, at the 'Dark Apostle' standing in the ritual's center, with the fullness of Astarte strength enhanced by his power armor's systems. It bounced off the leader's helmet (which, like the rest of his armor, was black except where splattered with dried blood), knocking him off-balance. He toppled sideways, uninjured, but out of position, giving an undignified screech of surprise.
And in an instant, the apparitions vanished.
That was the better of the two theoreticals that could have come out of this. The other, from Thexilev's experience, would have been an explosion. Even that would have been preferable to allowing the reinforcements to arrive, though.
"Fire!" Thexilev yelled to Squad Niulth.
The Word Bearers were scythed down where they stood, by both bolters and Bylolit's psychic power, even Thexilev's armor being slightly charred by the energy being put out. Lisaul charged out the other side of the ring, mostly protected from friendly fire by his armor, though at a glance Thexilev could see his guard's arm was injured. Of the enemy, within seconds, none remained alive. Blood trickled into the pool in the room's center, but thankfully, nothing came of it.
Silence. Sudden silence, after the din of the preceding fighting. Bylolit knelt, taking off his helmet to reveal a bleeding nose. Squad Niulth and the remainder of Thexilev's command squad cautiously walked into the room, walking over the debris from battle. Aclgan stirred, Naius calling for an Apothecary. Silielonioclus didn't. Thexilev bowed his head to his brother's body.
"Tear the bodies off the spikes," Thexilev ordered. "I doubt there's any Warp-power left here, but it is better to be certain."
"There is," Bylolit said, standing up with effort and pointing at the walls.
"Tainted?" Sergeant Niulth asked. Thexilev didn't correct him. The technical term was 'Chaos-affected', but it amounted to the same thing.
"Most of them," Bylolit said. "A few seem like inert junk, or archaeotech. The gauntlet is weakly psychoactive, a psychic focus... similar to my hood." He stopped in front of a large artifact shaped like a curling horn. "This one's different."
Thexilev thought he could even feel its power, as he walked up to it. It was made of no material he could discern - a yellow-brown weave that seemed more ceramic than metallic, but with aspects of both, and that pulsed as if alive. There were rich decorations, geometric patterns but also depictions of what seemed like plant life. Perhaps also fungi. Its opening seemed to spew forth those plants, even though in practice that was also decoration, on the iridium band that surrounded the opening.
"Psychic, without being Chaos-affected?" Thexilev asked.
"I cannot detect Chaos influence, but it may be hidden," Bylolit said. "Theoretical: it's probably dangerous in either case. It's more strongly psychic than everything else in this room combined, and very expertly designed. I cannot detect its purpose"
"Surely we burn it all?" Niulth asked.
Thexilev pursed his lips, remembering his Primarch's words about legends and relics.
Few in the Legion agreed with him that there was something to look for in them, but Thexilev's most recent conversation with his Primarch - who was also his direct commander at the moment, owing to the absence of Chapter Master Gage or the Tetrarchs - implied otherwise. Roboute Guilliman had seemed more distracted than usual, though not so much that he couldn't keep track of a hundred streams of information at once. He had spoken of old tales, and of how even myths like that of the Knashch grew around cores of truth.
And if the enemy found power in those myths, there may be ways for the Ultramarines to do so as well. So long, that is, as they integrated that power into the Imperial Truth and not the converse.
"We keep it," Thexilev said. "The horn, and anything else untainted. Store it all under the best shielding, yes... but it may be a weapon, and one does not discard weapons too lightly."
Bylolit nodded; Niulth looked for a moment like he might protest, but nodded as well.
Before Thexilev could consider the situation further, a rune lit in his helmet. Before Thexilev could even process it, the voice of his Primarch was in his ear.
"Captain Thexilev," Roboute Guilliman said. "Congratulations on capturing Rav Teith. After securing the locations, depart the surface of Katha to orbit with all reasonable speed. Leave the cleanup to the Army."
"My lord?" Thexilev asked, not understanding. "What is happening?" They had been meant to stay on Katha for several more days, to ensure full compliance before moving on to the Inala campaign, confronting what was believed to be the main Word Bearer concentration in the eastern half of the galaxy. Confronting, quite possibly, Lorgar himself.
There was an uncharacteristic pause from the Primarch.
"I have received word from Ultramar," he said. "The full Third Legion has invaded. Communication difficulties... we are near enough to assist, if already late, and I will not stay away while Ultramar burns."