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post #1 of 13 (permalink) Old 09-02-19, 07:49 PM Thread Starter
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Default Renegades 14: Wyrd of Fringes

It is a period of shifting tides. The war between Warmaster Horus Lupercal's Coalition and the Emperor of Mankind's Imperium grows ever more complex.

The Chaos Gods, dark allies of the Imperium that are eldritch nightmares thirsting for human suffering, corrupt the monsters that are the loyal Imperial Space Marines. Xeno breeds follow their own plots in the shadows, as do those Space Marines that have backed Horus. Victory will not be determined by strength alone, but also by wisdom and cunning. Among the original allies of the Warmaster were the Legions of Roboute Guilliman's ordered Ultramarines and Leman Russ's savage Space Wolves. But they, along with the Raven Guard of Corvus Corax, have pursued a revolutionary ideal of Imperium Secundus that Horus rejected, leading to a peaceful schism in the renegades' ranks. Then, the Ultramarines' homeworlds, the Realm of Ultramar, were attacked by the full force of the Imperial Emperor's Children Legion, while Guilliman's path to reinforce them was blocked by a Warp Storm.

In the end, Ultramar held, reinforced by several Great Companies of the Space Wolves under Russ himself and offered unexpected and unasked-for aid by the Night Lords. The Emperor's Children have retreated in disgrace. Guilliman defeated the World Eater and Salamander forces that had deployed the ritual responsible for the Warp Storm, and cleared his path to Ultramar, though the Imperials had the true victory with the completion of said ritual. Returning, Guilliman intends to resolve his differences with Horus, but not everyone is happy to see him do so. Meanwhile, three separate alien species entwined with death threaten Ultramar, ancient xeno technology is awoken, and Leman Russ confronts his fate.

The age of the Great Crusade, of unending expansion, of relentless xenocide, of debate and enlightenment - that age is over. The dream of empire has ended.

Other dreams have not.


This story is also on Spacebattles (https://forums.spacebattles.com/thre...er-30k.758095/). Please contact me there if you're interested in writing an installment.



Previous Renegades installments:


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...resy-tale.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...es-belief.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...-prospero.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...rors-will.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...tions-cry.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...ht-swords.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...ath-calls.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...s-scarlet.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...lesh-weak.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...tten-sons.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...ll-legion.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...resy-lies.html


https://www.heresy-online.net/forums...ian-sands.html

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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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PROLOGUE


In a storm composed of every impossibility, a few small fragments of reality flew.

Their cobalt-blue hulls were under assault every moment by the denizens of the ethereal outside them, protected only by their fragile Gellar fields. And yet this armada, vast by any mortal reckoning but a mere blip in the spaceless realm known as the Warp, did not merely endure, but moved forwards, inasmuch as direction had meaning when dealing with this domain. Along a path cautiously mapped by the Navigators, who were ever unsure how much longer the Astronomicon would shine for them, the fleet led by the Perfect Honour continued its sole Warp jump to Macragge.

The jump itself was long enough, given the present turbulence of the Warp, to be difficult and even dangerous. Roboute Guilliman, known as the Battle-King or the Avenging Son, had carefully considered and weighed the probabilities of destruction against the expected intervals to arrival, though, and made his decision not to split the jump into two. Speed was of the essence.

Guilliman did not know the state of Ultramar. Yet now he led a fleet numbering in the tens of thousands of Ultramarines, and he would not be able to live with himself if they arrived too late to save his people from the Emperor's Children. Ultramar was his life's work and his home both, and yet when it had been assaulted by an entire Legion, he had been away, and even when he learned of Fulgrim's assault he had been further delayed by the World Eaters and Salamanders. Guilliman knew his own guilt was driving him forth, but then, he did not find that guilt misplaced.

He had left Marius Gage with enough forces to hold Ultramar against almost any foe, but an Astarte Legion was always an exception.

The ships, Guilliman knew, buzzed with much the same activity as they did in realspace, only with portholes bolted shut. An Imperial battleship (a Coalition battleship now, he supposed) was a city in space, and most of a city's activities were devoted to homeostasis. For his own part, he sat in a sanctum, focused mainly on reading and secondarily on reflection. There was not much to do in preparation, not until he knew what he would find at Macragge.

Guilliman was unarmored, but not unarmed. The Cannon of Premioi was at his side, an unwieldy-looking contraption combining a halberd and a gun. At his belt, the Cornucopia of Katha seemed a more benign presence. In truth, both were equally potent psychic artifacts, two of the five segments of the ancient Linearity. The third, Gilloa of the Line of Nuceria, was in an artificial coma in her quarters. Two remained undiscovered, supposedly located on Konor and Zilladil.

Guilliman strongly suspected that he was fumbling around in a realm that he lacked even the smallest inkling of comprehension of. He was using xenos psytech, which he did not even understand, in the search for the slightest of advantages. But then, he was desperate, and knew he was desperate. The galaxy had turned on its head, ever since the Emperor had proclaimed himself a god and made Warp pacts to enforce that claim. He had to keep at least a small island of order in this madness. The Linearity was part of that island.

Ultramar had been another.

Many of Guilliman's contemplations were occupied with the theoretical of the Ultramar campaign being resolved with something besides total defeat. The Coalition for the Restoration of the Imperial Truth was nominally led by Warmaster Horus Lupercal. It had been a leadership Guilliman had not challenged; Horus had been not the natural choice, but the only choice. Yet Horus had not agreed with Guilliman's intent to build an Imperium Secundus out of the ashes of the old, and in the end that had caused a rift. It was a petty one, of course, in the face of annihilational war, something that the Battle-King had to mend; but how was, as always, a problem.

Thus, Guilliman was quite relieved by the knock at his door. "Enter," he said, which Phratus Auguston did. The Captain had taken on the responsibilities of Guilliman's equerry during the latter campaign, as Marius Gage had been left behind to be Regent of Ultramar.

"My lord," Auguston said, "transition to realspace imminent."

Guilliman nodded, left his book (a collection of legends told throughout the Eastern Fringe), and followed Auguston to the strategium.

He instantly reacquainted himself with the situation once he did. Everything was nominal; everything was ready.

"Commence transition into Macragge system," he ordered.

And though he tried not to, he felt his hearts hammering with the trepidation of what he might find in his home system.

And then, silently, the stars clicked back.

Guilliman's mind reacted faster than the auspex. Macragge, unmarred by war. Warships in orbit. The largest was a damaged battleship: Fenrysavar, a ship of the Space Wolves. Lesser ships of the Sixth and of the Ultramarines.

None of the enemy. None of the Emperor's Children.

Relief. A world's worth of relief. Some of his brothers considered Guilliman bereft of emotion, but in this moment the flood of it threatened to knock him off his feet. He did not know why there were Space Wolves here - perhaps Russ had sent aid? He did not know the status of the war, either. But at least one world of Ultramar still stood.

"Incoming vox-hails," shipmaster Phor Zadrix reported. "From the surface."

"Bring it through."

The voice was loud, clear, and sounded half-drunk. "Is that you, Roboute?" it asked, with a partially joking swagger. It was a voice of the sea, a voice of winter.

It was the voice of Leman Russ, Wolf King of Fenris and one of the closest among Guilliman's brothers.

"It's me, Leman," Guilliman said, unable to help smiling. "How goes the war?"

"In Ultramar, won," Russ said. "Now come down here and take charge of fixing the bureaucratic mess your absence created. I'm the Regent of Ultramar at the moment, so you can imagine how bad it's gotten."

Guilliman smiled a bit at Russ's exaggerated disgruntlement - his brother was not nearly as barbaric as he pretended - before the full import of those words reached him.

"Gage - "

"Fallen," Russ simply said. "I'm being serious, brother, you need to come down and fix Ultramar. The Third, Fenris damn them, are gone, but that doesn't mean the damage is. Yes, the war in Ultramar is for now won." Russ gave a slight, involuntary growl of frustration. "But that just means it's time for the hard part."

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



Many wonders - most wonders, perhaps - could only be appreciated from outside, and moreso from afar. Exceptions existed: the wind that blows in one's face when running a world far outmatched the splendor of a circle in the starry void. But cities, monuments, guilds, starships - all those things could only be appreciated fully from their exterior.

And, perhaps, the same was true of empires. One could not escape the Imperium of Man anywhere in the galaxy, but on the frontier, it could be truly contemplated, the grandiose scale of humanity's achievement clear in the void. And the Sixth Legion of the Astartes - the Vlka Fenryka, the Space Wolves, the Rout - were therefore uniquely well-placed to consider it.

Of course, at present, Bjorn the Fell-Handed, a warrior of Tra and now its jarl, found that this removed vantage point mainly served to reveal more tongues of a waste fire.

When, decades ago, he had been inducted into the Rout, he had learned of the Imperium as a youth cast into myths. His departure from Fenris had been an ascent into legend, meeting heroes of history like Jorin Bloodhowl, but also those that Fenrisians called gods. The Allfather, the Emperor, was foremost among them. Yet it was his very assumption of that divine title that marked his descent into madness.

Fifty years ago - indeed, five years ago - Bjorn would have called his present self a traitor. But fifty years ago or five years ago, Bjorn had not yet seen the pyre Angron had made of Prospero. Any restraint, any nobility, even the very line separating Astarte from beast - the World Eaters had lost it all, and the Emperor lauded them for it.

There had been other battles after. Against the maleficarum of the Word Bearers across eastern Segmentum Solar, during that first great Imperial offensive; against the Imperial Army to open the Badab Corridor; and against various xenos throughout the galactic east to guard the Coalition's flanks, culminating in the battle at Eshara. Ogvai Ogvai Helmschrot's thread had been cut there, and Bjorn had been made jarl in his place, a rise he was still adjusting to.

Especially at moments like these.

"The first landing platform cannot be freed up," the bureaucrat said. "I deeply apologize, but the timetable is already set - disrupting it would cause cascading chaos."

"Did you really not build in the slack for one extra shuttle?" Bjorn asked.

"Everything's far over capacity already," the official - Overseer Caethe Gusevex of a subregional whatever - said. "The attempts to stabilize Calth, to rebuild the dozen other worlds that Fulgrim burned.... I'm sorry, Captain Bjorn, but it's impossible."

Bjorn resisted the urge to bear his fangs. This woman was, at least, not intentionally trying to impede him, unlike some of the officials he'd had to deal with over the past week. "Your Primarch's coming down in that shuttle," he instead said. "So find a way to do the impossible."

"Russ is coming in that shuttle?!"

"No," Bjorn said, unable to stop his grin at the overseer's realization. "Guilliman is. Er - that's classified, of course. But if the Regent of Ultramar does not reach Magna Macragge Civitas on time because of your subregion...."

Guilliman himself would have done it with inspiration instead of threats, of course. Even a high-ranking Ultramarine could have achieved the same. But Bjorn wasn't built like that. He could achieve something like camaraderie with the soldiers of the Imperial Army, at times, but they were at least not civilians, not unused to the din of war. He had nothing in common with this woman, and no time to build any connections.

And it was like that across Ultramar. The Vlka Fenryka were winning no friends on their current postings. For had spread out across Ultramar, hunting Imperial stragglers; Twa remained on Calth; Elva was skirmishing with the Vespid to the north; and Tra under Bjorn was on Macragge and the other Master Worlds of Ultramar, assisting Russ's impromptu regency. But they were the winter storm, not the temperate sun; the people of Ultramar, of Imperium Secundus, were grateful to the Sixth for having saved them, but that gratitude would fade with each day of their dubious reign.

For now, though, Guilliman's authority sufficed where Bjorn's had not. Gusevex stammered her resolution to do whatever she could, and Bjorn felt relieved to finally get back to training.

Training, because, like all of the Vlka Fenryka detachment at Calth, he knew he had nearly failed. For in truth, Ultramar had been saved by the Night Lords' arrival; until then, the battle had been in the balance. Legion against Legion, the Sixth could have defended a fortified world against the Emperor's Children without difficulty, but they'd been three and a half Great Companies, three Ultramarine Chapters, and the Lions of Chemos against an entire Legion's concentration. The Night Lords had settled it - but Curze had only wanted vengeance for the destruction of his homeworld by the mad Emperor. His intervention had been a stroke of fortune, not something to be relied on.

Russ felt the same, Bjorn knew, and the Wolf King said so again when he found Bjorn. "I could've had him," he told Bjorn, quietly. "Or he could've had me. You know how much it burns not to know...."

Bjorn nodded, wiping the sweat off - the training cages of Macragge were warm, by his standards. "Fulgrim was one of the strongest Primarchs even without maleficarum."

"He's fast," Russ said. "And practiced. But I was sure I could have taken him. Instead, we lost so many, and the Hrafnkel too, and all for what? For what? Fulgrim's hurt, scarred, but he'll recruit new warriors and burn slightly less-defended worlds, that's all. We could've taken them out of the fight, but only Curze... and Curze let them go. He thinks he's painting an elaborate design of his vengeance on the galaxy. Truth is, he's just mad." Russ shook his head.

Bjorn stayed silent. There was little he could say to his primarch's melancholy, in times like these.

"But who am I," Russ continued, "to blame my brother for his madness? It is who he is, his condemned wyrd. And I have mine. The executioner, the brawler, the lord of winter and war. And in the moment when I could have fulfilled that, I failed."

"Calth stands," Bjorn pointed out. "Imperium Secundus stands."

"What do you think of it all?" Russ asked, suddenly. "Of Imperium Secundus?"

Bjorn had no idea, and said it. Theirs was a challenge to the Emperor, but the subtleties of the difference between Guilliman and Horus escaped him. He knew them as people, and their sons, and overall he found more to like in the Ultramarines: they were so far unlike the Vlka Fenryka that their differences were taken as blood rather than flaw. The Luna Wolves... they were wolves too, or claimed so at least, and they were wolves that thought themselves greater, too.

Perhaps the Sons of Horus would be different. Perhaps they would grow used to them, the Warmaster's Legion, the greatest of them all. But Bjorn did not think so. They would not forget that the Sixteenth had once been only cousins, elevated by circumstance and the will of an Emperor they now defied. Guilliman's greatness, at least, was measured in worlds rather than words.

All the same, this was winter for all humanity, and an ill time for internal strife.

Russ nodded at Bjorn's description. "Apt," he said. "Apter is that even you don't know what Guilliman's dream is."

"I recognize my failing and will be sure to correct it," Bjorn said. It stung. True, the decision to side with Guilliman was the Wolf King's, but it was a poor hour to not know what he was fighting for.

"I'm not sure it's a failing," Russ said. "I don't think my brother ever decided that himself. The core of it - a change. A refurbishing of Imperial institutions. Use the opportunity to tear down what isn't working. But to us, what difference does that make? Roboute isn't changing the Legions, at least not until this war ends. If it ends. If we win."

Bjorn nodded. "Do you think we'll win?" he asked, before he realized what he was saying.

"When have you ever asked that before?" Russ asked, and despite all logic a smile returned to his face at that. "But we're winning. Right now, we're winning, and that's something to celebrate."

They drank mjod, and even played a round of hneftafl, absurd as it was to think that anyone could ever beat the Wolf King at it. And after, of course, Bjorn returned to his company, and checked their postings, and turned on the view-screens in time for the grand speech.

It was transmitted across Macragge, across a dozen channels, with only a modicum of warning. The form of the Ultramarines' Primarch, great, blue-robed, with a patrician's downcast face. Bjorn knew what to expect - praise for the courage of his people, and a combined commitment to the future. Platitudes that only a Primarch's charisma could make ring true, and even that only barely.

Instead, Guilliman silently sank to one knee.

"My people," he said. "Of Macragge, of Calth, of Saramanth and Occluda and Iax, of all the Five Hundred Worlds. I am sorry.

"In the hour of your greatest need, when the Emperor's Children, sunken into the darkest madness, burned a trail of torment across Ultramar - in that hour, I was not here. Leman Russ and his Legion were, and of course so were the Ultramarines under Marius Gage; and you, the people of Ultramar, defended your homes and each other's, both directly and indirectly. Every apple grown in the orchards of Macragge let a soldier on Calth fight on for just that much longer. And you succeeded; despite the odds, together, you succeeded.

"But I was not here, as I should have been. There is nothing I can do now to shift that. So we must move forward, but not without reflection on past hubris.

"I cannot, should not, erase those mistakes. But it is possible to move past them. We will rebuild Calth and Carenn and Zephath and all the other damaged worlds. And we will, also, rebuild the bonds between Ultramar and the rest of the Coalition for the Restoration of the Imperial Truth. Horus is a friend, not a rival, and we must not conceive otherwise, for otherwise the Emperor's madness will destroy us both."

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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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CHAPTER TWO


In these times, Alexios Basiniand - senior Fulmentarus Sergeant, 154th Company, XIII 'Ultramarines' Legion - was greatly reassured that the mountains of Macragge were just as he remembered them.

He was within the Crown Range, far above the death zone - Macragge was a thin-aired world, only its lowlands possessing enough oxygen to breathe. Legend held that the mountains had been raised by four-billed avian gods, who sought to preserve most of the world from human life. Basiniand had spent much of his youth in Magna Macragge Civitas, in the shadow of the great wall.

Now, as a Space Marine, he climbed these sky-paths without much difficulty. His demi-squad had ascended Sylopos earlier in the day, and now tracked downward; Nophras was above him on this stretch of rope. Below, the cirque from which the Archann Glacier flowed was coming into view.

And fifteen kilometers below that, the sprawl of the city Basiniand had been born of. Magna Macragge Civitas was distant, and partially cloud-covered, and one who was not Astarte would have been hard-pressed to make out any details at all. But Basiniand had been here before; he could see where the Fortress of Hera pushed the clouds upward and the concentric, segmented walls around it. Further, there was the great flatland of the landing fields, with great rockets already stationed atop it; further still, the blue waves of the Pharamis Ocean. And every second of looking revealed more intricate detail. There were the fabs, there the markets, there the preserved ruins of Prima Macragge Civitas.

And fortresses. A lot more fortresses than Basiniand remembered. He did not regret that fact. As far as he was concerned, the defense of Macragge should have been a priority earlier. The inability to imagine a serious threat to the realm's safety implied a failure of imagination.

Not that he would accuse Guilliman of such, but Ultramar was large enough for lesser people to make mistakes.

He stopped on the ledge for long enough to see Nophras slide down beside him. "You know," he said, "why can't we just leave the ropes here? If we ever come this way again, we could use them."

"That would defeat the point," Basiniand retorted. "The challenge is the entire purpose of this exercise."

"Understood, brother-sergeant," Nophras said. "Even so... could we not simply not use them, then?"

Basiniand rolled his eyes. Squad Basiniand was not known for its iron discipline, but they were Ultramarines. "Brother Nophras," he said, "you have your orders."

"Theoretical: I suppose picking up our litter is also part of the challenge. Which is fair, actually."

Basiniand nodded, and they got to work. Leorchan, Acexiones, and Remnev were several hours ahead of them. They were returning, now, returning in victory.

It was useful as physical training, and as bonding. In truth, Alexios Basiniand did not climb the mountains for either of those reasons, and not even because they had taunted him since childhood. There was something in this rareified air, something which could never be found below, in the world of brotherhood and politics and art and war.

"One more span, brother-sergeant?" Nophras asked.

Basiniand looked down. "One more span until the bottom of the wall. Practical: I don't see a camp yet. We'll have to hurry."

Then his eye tracked upward, finding a boxy shape moving across the sky - at this distance, it could have been a heron, if not for its unnaturally vivid blue color.

"Theoretical: or perhaps not," he added. "Prepare for extraction."

The gunship rumbled on, hurtling unerringly toward them. By the time it arrived, Basiniand and Nophras stood at attention to receive it. Indeed, it set to hovering next to the narrow ledge, before a ramp rolled out.

"Playtime's over," said Marius Drialai, captain of the 154th.

Basiniand bit back an acerbic reply as he stepped into the heat of the Thunderhawk interior. Drialai did not like him at all, for reasons that dated to a long rivalry between the two veteran sergeants that perhaps had led to both being passed over for the captaincy in favor of Eodobos Coufed, but when Coufed had been killed in action in the Linekere Cluster, Drialai had been chosen for the captaincy. Basiniand couldn't fathom why. Yes, Drialai was tactically astute and skilled in personal combat, but he bred enemies as if he was a farmer and they his crop, to say nothing of his mistakes on Ouratham, which had left -

Past feuds. Of no consequence in the present. Unable to stop himself from grimacing, Basiniand bowed to Drialai. "Do we have a new assignment, brother-captain?"

"Your squad does," Drialai said. "Where are the rest of them, brother-sergeant?"

They picked up Leorchan, Acexiones, and Remnev downslope, next to a boulder fall. As they did, Drialai explained the background to their mission, glacially moving over facts Basiniand already knew. "The rest," he eventually said, "will have to wait for a more secure location."

Basiniand made no comment - whether Drialai was trying to get a rise out of him was irrelevant. Acexiones, unfortunately, thought differently. "Seriously?" he asked incredulously. "Why lead us on, then? Or are you still bitter over - "

"Acexiones," Basiniand warned. "Stop."

Drialai condescendingly huffed. "The rest," he repeated, "we'll go over in the Fortress of Hera. But I thought I might bring everyone up to speed on the strategic disposition of Ultramar."

The strategic disposition was that the Ultramarines would be deployed mainly in breaking up Imperial pockets scattered throughout the galactic east. Above all, their goal was preventing an Imperial expedition from finding substantial support in any advance on Ultramar. Their mission, thus, was defensive.

The gunship lowered itself into the Fortress of Hera, where Basiniand was reunited with the other half of his squad and was hurried to a briefing room. Along with Drialai, there was a Mechanicum adept present, or - no, not a Mechanicum adept. Quite aside from the organ in question being absent in Ultramar, this man lacked the degree of augmentations the tech-priests bore. A bionic eye, certain cranial bio-augments, but mostly baseline human.

"This is the squad you've chosen?" he asked Drialai.

"They are," Drialai said. "The best I have, in fact. This is Sergeant Alexios Basiniand. Brother-sergeant, this is Conservator Omar Phessix."

"Conservator?" Basiniand asked, curious despite himself.

"We have to call ourselves something," Phessix said. "Open exchange of lore, free from Mechanicum constraints and with a very different Administratum policy... reviving the Conservatory seemed as good an idea as any, since that's what we're doing, exploring the past. Forms change, structures remain."

"I see," Basiniand said, although he didn't. "So what is this classified project?"

"Sotha," Phessix said. Basiniand wracked his memory for the name without success. "A minor world, a colony of Ultramar. Under ten thousand denizens. Home to Mount Pharos, believed to contain archaeotechnology. Sealed under writ of Lord Guilliman, but I've managed to convince the Primarch's administration to begin an investigation of the site."

"We have to grab every advantage we can in this war," Drialai added.

"So it's a ruin," Basiniand said, then raised a hand to forestall any response. "A ruin with arcane technologies, ergo valuable, but - why Astarte presence?"

"The Primarch ordered it," Drialai said. "Theoretical: the site has potential extreme strategic value."

"He also thought the Astarte perspective would be valuable," Phessix said. "Not to mention organization. The downside of rebuilding from scratch is time, and you're used to working quickly."

"We are," Basiniand said, bile rising in his throat. "Brother-captain, may I speak with you in private?"

When they were alone, Basiniand nodded, trying to center himself. "If I may speak freely - "

"You may."

"I know you're bitter about Ouratham," Basiniand said. "Maybe even more bitter than you would have been had I not saved the battalion. And I also know you have a litany of other reasons, some even justified. But for the Primarch's sake, Drialai, this is petty even for you. Sending my squad, a Terminator squad, to garrison duty on a nearly uninhabited world, over grudges from before everything fell apart? You're a captain now. You should act like it."

He knew immediately that he'd gone too far. Saying that in private to a commander that didn't hate him would be improper; Drialai was a step beyond that. He seemed on the verge of attacking the sergeant then and there, and his spittle prevented him from getting a coherent word out.

"Veteran Sergeant Basiniand," the captain eventually managed to say, the acid audible, "it is true that I assigned this mission in part to get you away from me. I hoped that some distance would smooth our differences. In the practical, that looks an increasingly faint hope. Theoretical: as one last indulgence, if your return from Sotha goes as expected, I will give my recommendation to have your squad moved to another company, with my best wishes and a very positive account of your ability. You've done a great deal for Ultramar, brother-sergeant; I just wish it wasn't under my command. As to this mission, since you didn't notice, it comes from the Primarch himself. If you disagree to its merit, you can petition him."

Basiniand had to fight hard not to recoil. If this was Drialai's attempt to settle their differences, it was a ludicrously mishandled one. But he should have expected nothing else from the captain.

"I apologize, brother-captain," he said, still unsure whether said captain was being entirely honest. "Regarding censure - "

"Waived," Drialai said. "After all, you did request permission to speak freely. Just... get out." His voice was as hostile as ever, but still Basiniand was struck by the fact that Drialai had been the accommodating one this time. It was something to reflect on, and avoid in the future at all costs - because being less reasonable than Drialai was not something to be proud of.

But for now, it seemed, his squad really would have to go to Sotha.

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CHAPTER THREE


The local star rose a deep crimson over the world that the Administratum clerks designated 40-410, and the Imperial Army 'the Red Pit'. The star was red enough intrinsically, but the dense atmosphere deepened the color further. It also prolonged dawn and dusk: the light, refracted over the horizon, was funneled across about half the planet before reaching an observer's eyes, and among each of the Red Pit's long days a full quarter was taken up by this dawn and dusk.

This ominous, hours-long sunrise was the source of several jests among the Vlka Fenryka, based on the epithet of their commander - 'Helsdawn'.

Varald Helsdawn, jarl of Elva, did not know what he made of this parallel. Sometimes it seemed to him that it was spoken in a half-mocking tone, and other times as an ironic honor. It was easiest to shrug and focus on the war.

The Red Pit had no native biosphere, but it had become a minor colony world for the xenos of the Vespid Empire. They had imported microbes and animals from whatever their own homeworld was, and built floating cities to extract the planet's mineral wealth. Leman Russ, fearing a major attack by the vespid that would threaten the Coalition's backs, had sent Elva to defend from the xenos' raids across northern Ultramar by launching raids of their own.

This one had gotten somewhat bogged down. If he looked up, Varald thought he could see the specks of light that represented ships battling in orbit, even now. Elva was hard-pressed, he had to admit. The aliens fought fiercely. And, perhaps, he had somewhat overextended.

Well, nothing to do about it but fight harder.

"Any news from Methran?" Vili's voice asked from behind him.

"His pack is gone," Varald said without turning, still looking at the helsdawn. "But they brought down the mining station."

"Was that really worth the blood?"

"No," Varald said, finally turning to face his subsidiary jarl. Vili's Terran features were twisted into something just short of a snarl. Varald knew already what his second would ask him.

Vili didn't disappoint. "Why are we still here?"

"Evacuation - "

"Is something we're going to have to do anyway." Vili spat. "Elva is dying for nothing, jarl. This place is a wasteland."

Varald thought carefully about his answer. On the one hand, Vili was right enough that they were caught in a trap, and it was better to get out while they still could, rather than escalating the conflict further. On the other, they were slowly winning the orbital battle, if at great cost, and if Shipmaster Quistallar kept this up, they could return to Ultramar having dealt the vespid a serious blow.

These tactical considerations would decide the success or failure of this war - but, alas, Varald could not allow himself to focus only on them. On the one hand, to stay the course risked a mutiny. On the other, changing it bared his weakness. Politics, of a style the Vlka Fenryka were usually mostly resistant to. But -

But though Varald Helsdawn was born of Fenris, the bulk of Elva were from the very Terra they were now at war with. And though Varald felt that his Great Company was mostly loyal, paranoia had deep roots.

It had to, in times like these. The Imperium was turned upon itself in the ouroboros of civil war. The Emperor had become a god-tyrant worse than the ones they'd fought in the Great Crusade, and so Russ had been one of ten Primarchs who had thrown down the gauntlet against their father. Unconditional trust, in such a season, could get a warrior killed.

But stubbornness could do that in any season.

"We might have to eventually," Varald ultimately accepted. "For now, I'd give Quistallar a few more days while we wreck some more fabs. He's been working miracles out there, and he just might keep it going."

"Fair," Vili agreed. "I just...."

"You just don't want to see many more threads cut for this worthless land," Varald said. "Neither do I."

That seemed to settle it, and so Varald went to give General Mosei Rivabar the news. He walked through the fortified camp, passing tired watches nearing the end of their shifts. The Rout's own camp was nearby, albeit a whole lot more rudimentary. The voidshields did most of the work, really.

The general was up already, or perhaps had never slept, wearily paging through a list of orders. "Battle Group Amaxes is gone," he was saying as Varald approached his tent. "Get an order to Lanet to pull back - I don't care what Osa has to do to the voxnet, we need them back here. And, ah, I have another uninvited - oh." Rivabar's eyes widened as he saw Varald enter his tent. "Jarl Helsdawn. My apologies." He immediately took another sip of what seemed to be recaf of some sort. To his credit, the general did not react in any other visible way, save for shrinking back a little in his seat, even if Varald could smell his fear.

"General Rivabar," Varald said. "How long will extraction of your forces take?"

"Two Terran days," Rivabar said, with a weary sigh that might have been relief. "Just give the order."

"Not yet. During the next dawn, perhaps." A Terran week.

"We'll lose - "

"A whole lot of warriors. But I'm giving the fleet more time."

"The vespid could have reinforcements."

"They don't want to die in this desert any more than we do. Else they'd have rushed in already."

"Who knows about that? They're xenos. Sometimes...." Rivabar shook his head. "But as per your orders, jarl. My men will just be happy to know there's an end coming."

Varald nodded, before his vox crackled. "Enemy force inbound," Thegn Bjalmaal said, giving the coordinates. "They're in Scum Valley."

"They got that close and we didn't notice?!"

"Not much heavy weaponry," Bjalmaal said apologetically. "Sensors from orbit were worthless, apparently. Or the ships are busy shooting each other. My patrol's two ridges over, we'll shadow them."

By the time he got back to the Wolves' camp, Varald could see them himself. They were hovering, as vespid did, one of them carrying what seemed to be a massive banner. No heavy weapons, and some of them seemed entirely unarmed.

Varald Helsdawn knew better than to trust appearances with the vespid. Especially ever since a single shot from a handheld blaster of theirs, seemingly the same ones that could barely penetrate power armor, had somehow brought down two Rhinos.

"Bjalmaal, move in from the back. Jorus, Ingodan, Krinid, Ve - with me. Vili, protect the camp. Thos, take the right flank, Rindim the left - flanks silent for now. I'll stop them head-on, once the artillery gets one volley in."

The volley fell without much effect - in air this dense, its range was as good as halved. Thos got spotted, his squad subject to a barrage from the vespid before cutting it back. And Varald Helsdawn charged forwards, at the head of a hundred and twenty warriors of the Rout, howling to the oppressive sky.

They were the distant wild, the wrath of the frontiers. They were the Vlka Fenryka, defenders of mankind, and they would beat back this attack like the dozen before it.

The vox crackled without effect. As Varald ran, it seemed to be mumbling increasingly loud, but incoherent, nonsense. Enemy interference, perhaps, though they hadn't shown that ability before. Expect the unexpected with the vespid, though....

It was growing louder, whatever it was. Comms were as good as down. Well, no matter. Varald shouted to the pack to form up on him, and led the charge as it struck the vespid lines. Blasts staggered him, one drawing red from his shoulder, though; he fell back among his warriors, shouting orders. The vox was growing in strength, white noise. Varald tried turning it off, but to no effect; he would have smashed it against the ground, but there was no time.

They were among the enemy.

Varald swung the axe at a vespid warrior above him, who fluttered upwards, neatly dodging another blow from Krinid in the process. His next blow, though, struck true, felling a lighter-carapace vespid warrior. Another strike, a parry, even as the vox noise grew ever louder -

And then, just as the enemy felt back (in good order), a signal amidst that noise.

"We offer a truce," it said in metallic Gothic. "Coordinates attached. We offer a truce. Coordinates attached. We offer a truce."

Varald growled, calling his warriors back. The vespid had been repelled, and they were getting spread out; no use fighting when he needed to think. Scattered, Elva was still effective, but the blood-price was not worth paying this time.

The coordinates were played again. Temporal and spatial, in the standard Imperial pattern. Half a Terran day away. As Varald mulled the offer, the vox interference died down, gradually reverting to white noise and then permeable silence.

"You were right, jarl," Vili said. "They must be getting desperate."

"Vili," Varald said, "use your brain. They just hijacked our voxnet like it was nothing."

"They have all our communications," Vili realized. "No wonder the Army's been torn apart."

Varald nodded. There was no telling if the Rout's comms had also been intercepted, but Varald found it plausible. Their climb had been steep enough, that was for sure. How much of that had been down to the enemy knowing everything about them, while they knew nothing about the vespid?

A solution did present himself, to all his problems. It was unorthodox, perhaps, but continuing to wildly smash into an irrelevant wall was no better.

"I'll take their offer," he said. "Come to the coordinates."

"They could try an ambush," retorted Vili.

"They're welcome to try."

"Yes," Vili said, "but - why?" He paused, to try and express the instinctive distaste at Varald's suggestion that the jarl also felt. "They're xenos. We're supposed to bring them low, not argue with them. And we're the Vlka Fenryka. No other Legion would treat with xenos, but for us to do so...."

Horus, according to rumor, had cut deals with the eldar; but that was something entirely distinct. The vespid were of no use. But then, they were also a much lesser threat.

"We need intel, above all," Varald said. "So that's the first strike. And the kill strike is that we'd be fine with leaving under truce. Objective completely achieved, done and dusted, without further losses."

Vili's face was a mask of outrage. He wheeled around to face Varald, almost snarling, in the center of their camp. Onlookers from across Elva stopped whatever they were doing to stare at them.

"This is ludicrous!" Vili growled.

"It is my decision," Varald said. "Do you challenge it?"

He could hear the sharp intake of breath by a dozen of the Astartes around them. If Vili escalated -

But he'd judged it correctly, in the end. Vili backed down. "You speak strangely, jarl," he said. "But, perhaps, wisely. Something's happened to the vespid - they weren't this clever before. Better to find out what, and come back later to burn them out."

Varald nodded, and yelled to the disappointed bystanders to get back to work. He walked to check on the rest of Elva as he did so, mulling Vili's words and actions.

Either way, he supposed as he glanced up at the sky, soon he'd know for sure.

And one way or another, they'd be off 40-410 before the dawn.

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CHAPTER FOUR


The air was oppressive'. Crushing': physically and emotionally. Inviting skies to soar' in. 'Painful ground to walk.

The 'equivalence of the two: according to some the 'essence of this world. Akalix-ztu-Liminality found that doubtful but did not voice her opinion. The locals knew' such things best. She of all vespid understood that.

The skies: a bright' tithonic. Local contaminants with peculiar' reflective properties. The sun' of the world they called :bel: a great red-calorific orb in its sanctum above. Akalix was glad of it: they were on the ground. Rains' here washed away the 'clayey terrain so much: the lower portions of the cities and factories above were built from metal alone to not dissolve'. But they created 'rainbows as beautiful' as any Akalix had witnessed. Cryonal and vitan and calorific and red and green and blue and actinic and tithonic and keratic: all bridged by subtle' gaps in bands just hidden enough to be inexplicably 'beautiful.

Many on the homeworld would ask: what the vespid were doing here besides staring at the rainbows' even in peacetime? That the strategic location of :bel was essential to the defense of the 'empire seemed to be of little relevance to too many of the Senate-vesp-Empire and the minerals it produced' mattered even less or else mattered in the backwards direction. When she had been younger she had believed the 'homeworld merely didn't care but now she knew that :vesp was afraid. Afraid in unison even though they were afraid of a trillion 'different things.

But that was not a soul-crack to display' in negotiations such as these with a swarm that was an enemy if it was a swarm at all. Akalix had been in enough negotiations to have internalized' such lessons.

The sun-bel-:bel was completing its long climb' to the mountain-riven eastern horizon'. To the west the shallow Lidba-bel-sea stretched' muddily into morning fog. And Akalix-ztu-Liminality stood at the head' of the vespid delegation to do something that she knew most of her forces still considered her mad for.

Only she held undisputed command' and was both known as a 'prodigy and beloved by enough of her troops to be followed willingly even into 'madness so long as that 'madness was not suicidal.

Because: she was Akalix-ztu-Liminality. She was the Marshal of the Vespid Empire. That still meant something. It was true that she was despised by many. Her birth was three 'strikes against her and her concept-name a fourth with dozens more coming in later storms'. And yet she had risen' because she understood those rivals as they could not understand her. The Cleansing-xaizn-Grief and Pacification-qe-Second had made her reputation as a commander'. But she had never been allowed to be 'merely a soldier.

And in the 'end that was what had led her here. Across: these tithonic skies and to the broken ground. Against: a foe that seemed implacable like no animals the vespid had encountered. Into: the maw' of the greatest external threat the Empire faced to the point that she received 'protests that the infestation' was 'hopeless to even impede.

"You cannot really believe they are vespid?"

Akalix knew the question Kethits-eu-Columnar asked was not posed in protest'. Kethits was too curious for that. But it would not hurt to scratch' her. "Do the voxsignals not convince you? After all you are here."

"I am here because I do not know." Kethits blinked all her eyes in sequence: an attempt to better focus them. "It may yet be this is another Meeting-vesp-Swarm or something stranger still. I merely caution my commander because I fear she is overoptimistic'."

"I am not sure that 'optimism is what I would call it."

The air was crushing': epiphany. Oppressive': physically and emotionally. It would be difficult enough to defeat the humans if they were seen as the mindless tide' they were 'clearly not. A war of kin against kin in present circumstances....

But the pressure around them also made it easier to push the air aside and fly.

As Akalix-ztu-Liminality felt the distant rumble of the human transport her wings beat faster. To the rapid rhythms of speech was added the stronger beat of flight. They had landed: to set up the translation equipment. But to remain on the ground when enemies were around was unthinkable.

And so they 'fluttered into the nigh-cloudless sky as the human delegation came towards them.

They certainly looked like animals rather than vespid. They had only one pair of eyes' and no natural carapace. But the greater concern was that they were wingless. They made noises: in a narrow' range with their mouths of all things. To call Gothic a language seemed somewhat of an undue honor' given its simplicity and inelegance. Perhaps it was a quarter-language that could simulate' another quarter with long expressions and could vaguely analogize the remaining half of language-function. The humans even 'manipulated the world only with their arms due to requiring their legs for motion.

And yet those weaknesses had not stopped them from turning half of :bel to ash. Underestimation: death in combat and 'worse in 'war.

They would 'converse in Gothic. The larger human type used among themselves their own language which the vespid had only partially decoded but used Gothic when dealing with the smaller. Some of the scientists had speculated that it was a gender difference. If they were vespid that was no longer the most 'obvious explanation. It was still possible. The differences were so extensive... but to focus on them cost similarities.

The Vespid Empire had encountered humans before. The 'herd known as the Spheres: split among themselves with the Vespid supporting the less aggressive' half. Despite the weakness' of the Spheres the histories would have to be rewritten should Akalix be 'right.

The party of humans: six as promised. Three of the larger type including their leader. Three of the smaller type whose 'hierarchy was more complex. Nevertheless the larger type held 'command here despite their smaller numbers. Therefore Jarlvar-al-Dhelsdawn was the overall enemy 'commander: the meeting was one of equals.

If it held any meaning at all.

The humans emitted their vibrations'. The machines 'translated them.

"So, xeno. I am Jarl Varald Helsdawn of the Vlka Fenryka, bane of Littoralli and avenger of Ashkhelon. What have you called us here for?"

The grammar was stilted' and the subtext' missing. But Akalix could not even be sure it was not the fault of the translation algorithm. These were something more than mimics' even though they were not vespid. Placing them more precisely was so difficult it was painful. The paradoxical' compatibility' of two contradictory' concepts'... or perhaps merely something betwixt them. She would talk to them as if they were fully vespid because that was the less dangerous' mistake to make.

"I am Marshal of the Vespid Empire Akalix-ztu-Liminality. I wish to discuss terms of truce' between our swarms'. You do not have the power to hold this world and further bloodshed is now pointless'."

The human ran his hands through the threads growing from his chin after the translation was announced. Akalix considered: were they 'symbiotic fungi? It was an irrelevant 'distraction from the immensity' of the possible situation and she knew it.

"You are xenos," Jarl-varald-Helsdawn said. (Helsdawn: a curious' concept-name if human naming happened to be similar to that of the modern empire.) "I care nothing for your lives. Neither have we lost this war. We will not surrender." The human was leaning' in and seemed to be baring' more of his teeth with the words. Imitation' of her own people? It was impossible' to know. The language barrier': likely part of the issue. "We are willing, however, to leave this world to your despicable kind for the time being, if we are allowed to leave peacefully and you release all prisoners."

"And you will release' yours?"

"They are dead."

Outrage' from the rest of the vespid delegation. Akalix did her best to suppress it despite personal sadness'. They had suspected this was the case and she was regardless plenty aware that 'customs varied. The fog' was broken regardless. The haggling began.

Akalix let Kethits and Zik-vesp-Capillary do most of the talking. The presence of Zik: itself a 'slight abnormality. Males were usually too rare to risk them in martial careers despite the enshrinement' of equal rights since the Revolution-vesp-Ravine. Zik was a noncombatant: formally here as 'observer from the nobles of :vesp. But his father had been from :ztu and he got along much better with Akalix than his formal 'superiors suspected. They had even discussed mating after this war ended. But his presence here was linked not to that but to the need to represent both genders of vespid (specifically of 'Imperial vespid) in the negotiation.

Terms were settled. The details mattered relatively little because there were no major details to adjust. Akalix instead paid attention to what the preferences of the humans said about their objectives.

The strategic sense was easy to decipher under the assumption that Jarl-varald-Helsdawn was at least a competent commander'. The Imperium was confident in the 'superiority of its armies but had other concerns. Other wars. The deciphered' communications had implied as much but much remained unknown.

Akalix attempted to 'clarify that. "So you intend to redeploy' to the galactic west."

"That is of no concern to you," one of the smaller humans said quickly. Quickly enough that Akalix knew she had 'guessed correctly.

"We will return to destroy you," one of the others said. "Once we strike through the core and slay the Emperor - "

"Shut up, Tegaran," Helsdawn said. His frustration for leaking' such information: easy enough to 'deduce. The 'protests Tegaran responded with that they had nothing to fear from the xenos did nothing to convince the commander. But those words: easy enough to connect with the other details Akalix had learned.

The 'Emperor of the 'Imperials: their own foe. There was thus a civil war. The core: the galactic' core?! Their domains' reached that far?!

The notion was more terrifying' than anything Akalix had foreseen before coming here. It was one thing for the humans to be an existential' threat'. This was something beyond that.

It could be a lie. But Akalix doubted it. The unequal prongs from all directions: consistent with this. The human Imperium was committed to its own civil war but would have the strength to burn down :vesp easily if that conflict ended.

Terrifying. But where war was hopeless....

The humans had called them xenos. It was an untranslatable 'word. But perhaps it referred to something like a class of 'dangerous animal. Akalix had not realized the humans were still vespid. Could it be they were likewise 'ignorant?

"We are intelligent." Her words were carefully woven': to not reveal any of her desperation. "Like you. I do not think either of us recognized this before. But we are more alike than we are different. We could negotiate a more lasting peace. An alliance in your own conflict." And perhaps such a deal could be better than stagnation even if it necessitated 'subsumption. If the Vespid Empire were to become part of a greater swarm'.... Unity of all vespid: a core tenet of the empire for a reason'. And Akalix would not grieve over :vesp forgotten.

Jarl-varald-Helsdawn seemed to consider the offer for an instant'. But only an instant'.

"You are xenos," he said with a rumbling' anger: the machines somehow managed to get it across even in the translation. "You are vespid, not human, and thus you have no place in the galaxy we are igniting, precisely because you are sapient. Be grateful we even allowed you to keep this pit. The Vlka Fenryka are not easy to bring to the negotiation table. We're done here, I think."

The concepts were nonsensical in part. Trying to fit humans somehow between vespid and beasts: it gave Akalix a physical pain. But the head was clear. The ideology of the humans demanded the obliteration' of the Vespid Empire.

Akalix-ztu-Liminality mourned' the lost chance for mutual 'understanding. Marshal of the Empire Akalix understood the only strategic solution. The Vespid Empire was doomed' if they did nothing. It was only a matter of 'time.

But they still had time. They still had time. And if it was not enough... one last flare. One last melody' of defiance'. The colonies would presumably fall first. It would be ironic for Akalix-ztu-Liminality to fall in a hopeless defense of the homeworld after all she had done to make voices of other planets heard. She nevertheless could not imagine a more fitting doom' for herself. And against a threat like this it would be 'beyond dishonor to give anything less than her utmost for impossible' victory'.

So perhaps the Vespid Empire was doomed. But it was not yet dead. And desperate hopes of a renaissance' had been the 'motive 'force of Akalix for a long time by now.

"How can you win?" Zik-vesp-Capillary wondered after the negotiations were concluded.

And Akalix-ztu-Liminality looked at the cloudless sky with the mercilessly' stark silhouette of rising calorific over unbroken tithonic and her eyes widened in 'dark joy.

Because for perhaps the first time in her life her path was truly clear.

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INTERLUDE: TROOPER


Calth was ashes. Trooper Bale Rane knew that much intellectually. He knew that it was like this everywhere, that his own home city of Numinus had suffered worse than most. He tried not to think about it, because that was the whole point of the Sixty-First's assignment to the other side of the planet, not to make them think about it. It didn't really work, but it probably worked better than having to look at the ruins of buildings he actually knew would have. He knew it could've been worse, too. A rookie he might have been, but he had ears enough to get something of the big picture. Calth had been on the edge. They were all heroes, now, not so much the Ultramarines and Space Wolves for whom this was their day job, but the Imperial Army who'd been thrown into the grinder and done well enough.

And it felt like nothing, being heroes. Because Calth was ashes. Not the kind of ashes where there was nothing left, but the type where there were all the wrong things left. They were on cleanup duty now, trying to restore something of the fabled Ultramar order to Mneubonde City, the southernmost arcology on the whole planet. They were on cleanup duty, because there was no one else organized left to do it, not in numbers. The sergeant had said they'd been left behind because they'd deserved a break.

It sure didn't feel like a break.

"There's nothing to worry about," Bale said again, trying to keep his voice steady. "The... they're gone. It's over."

The woman whimpered and stayed put. She looked enough like Neve that Bale felt distracted by that too. He didn't know what'd happened to his crush. He wasn't sure he wanted to. Numinus had been evacuated, but not of everyone.

He still had family members alive. He didn't know the details, because he wasn't allowed to know the details. Maybe that was for the better, right now, because some of the things he'd seen -

Later. Later, if at all.

Bale grunted and physically pulled the teenager out of the rubble. She flinched, but seemed too terrified to resist. He didn't know if he was doing the right thing, for her psychology or anything. He wasn't anything close to a doctor - he'd been taught how to kill people at the accelerated muster, nothing else, and even that he did only barely well enough to survive.

Sergeant Hellock found him in the street, dragging the woman who still wouldn't tell him her name, along to the rendezvous point, which caused her to try again to wriggle out of his grip before slowly fainting. They got her to the refugee camp more easily, now that she was unconscious. The camp was walled off, of course, and not just against the outside. That was the thing about the aftermath. The - the enemy had marked some of the people they'd met. Less than one in ten, maybe even less than one in a hundred, but the ones that were tainted, nigh-impossible to discern as they were... they were bad news. Real bad news.

"The building's clear, sergeant," Bale stated. Calmly, professionally. He was a soldier of Ultramar, and he'd survived the Battle of Calth, and he'd somehow not besmirched that during the battle, so he certainly wasn't going to now.

"Good," Hellock said with a reverberating sigh. "I'll need to yell at the adepts to get there. They're all in an uproar from the politics of it all, but Kembt seems to still have enough of a head on her shoulders to do her job."

"Is there something in particular the adepts are upset about, sir?" It was curiosity, partly, and also partly an invitation to talk, because they kind of did need that nowadays. Silence always seemed more ominous, these days.

"Such as?"

"Such as, say, the Wolves."

It was always about the Wolves. Wolf Lord Holmi Longganger was basically in charge of Calth at present, though many of his Marines were sent to the nearby worlds to fight the remnants of the - of the Imperials. (Rane didn't like to think about it in terms any more specific than that. None of the folk that had seen combat did.) He ran things by telling people to do things and, if it turned out that he was asking the impossible, refusing to ever back down, up to threats of violence that were on extreme occasions carried out. Some of the brass said that the Wolf Lord was upset at being stuck here instead of fighting something, but no one really dared to make those comments to his face.

Such were the rumors, at least. It was all gossip that ran down the chain of command, which meant passing through a lot of mouths before reaching Bale's ears, but it certainly explained a lot of the issues with Calth's reconstruction, the ones past the stuff the Emperor's Children had left behind and the mess that the war had evidently become towards its end.

"It's not the Wolves this time," Hellock said with a sigh, unconsciously fingering for a lho-stick and unable to find one. They had supplies, but they didn't have excess supplies, not with the Anchor down. "It's the speech the Primarch gave when he got back. You recall it, Trooper?"

Bale nodded.

"The adepts are furious at it," Hellock said. "They don't get along with the other cogboys, the ones under Horus, and there's some others too that want to 'preserve the independence we fought for'. I get it, I guess Not that I care that much - far as I'm concerned, it's all the Emperor's fault in the end, and that's who we should be trying to fight. Not unless the Luna Wolves show up to mess with Calth like the Space Wolves have."

"They're the Sons of Horus now, sarge," Krank - the other survivor of their squad - pointed out.

"Same difference," the sergeant said with a wave. "Point being, everyone's complaining about the - the sons of Leman Russ, I guess - but if they hadn't been here we'd all be dead. Or worse. So far as I'm concerned, they've earned the right to be assholes for a bit, until we actually get stuff running or the Ultramarines get back. Which they're supposed to do soon, maybe. Anyway, it's the same with Horus - he's on our side, and the rest of it is silly."

Bale nodded, and the conversation petered out as they got back to the Army camp. But lying awake that night, he realized what had been bugging him about it, underneath the surface. Because the way Hellock had talked, he'd made clear that this wasn't something like the Wolves, where everyone agreed Holmi was doing a bad job but also felt some respect for having been saved by the Astartes. No, this was something that people disagreed on. Perhaps half and half, perhaps not quite. And bureaucratic structures... they didn't just go away like that, not easily. Not in Ultramar. Not unless they were hit by a metaphorical hammer like Calth had been.

The Primarch was back. Bale reassured himself with that. The Primarch was back, and surely he'd do something about all that. Surely Roboute Guilliman could not have made a mistake in all this, couldn't have caused disunity by striving for unity.

But after seeing Calth, Bale Rane couldn't quite trust that perfectly. Or - trust remained, perhaps, but not faith.

Then again, given the sort of things faith had shown him on Calth, maybe this was the least bad option.

And that thought only caused Trooper Bale Rane to shiver even more as he slipped into unconsciousness.

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CHAPTER FIVE


The blow seemed like a wild swing, and Lysimachus Cestus, Captain of the Ultramarines' Seventh Company, chose not to block it. It was a split-second decision that he had cause to regret very quickly. The fist curved just to the right of where he'd expected, crashing into his gut and knocking his own punch off. It almost stunned him for a moment, or perhaps it was his own ill-timed analysis of the situation. Whatever the case, he was off-balance for just an instant, and his opponent wasn't. A headbutt later, Cestus stumbled back, and his opponent grappled him to the floor.

"I yield," he said, breathing heavily, and took his smiling opponent's offered hand as he got back up.

Brynngar Sturmdreng, of the Vlka Fenryka, looked at him with undisguised bemusement in his one eye. "You hesitated."

"I guess I did," Cestus acknowledged.

"I'm disappointed, I have to say. I expected you'd get better since Carthis."

"I'm still up fifteen-twelve, Brynngar."

Brynngar chuckled, well-aware of his intentional hypocrisy. "Eh, who cares about the score?"

Cestus shrugged, the adrenaline of the spar draining out of him. It had been good to meet up with an old comrade-in-arms again, even - or, perhaps, especially - one as different from him as Brynngar. The years had changed them both, of course. For the better, in the main. Brynngar's beard was more elaborate, and he had advanced in rank like Cestus had, becoming one of the Varagyr, Leman Russ's own honor guard.

Of course, fittingly for a Legion with more names than they had companies, that wasn't the only position he held. He was a subsidiary jarl of the Third Great Company while simultaneously being a thegn, that is, sergeant, with respect to training initiates. As with so many things about the Sixth Legion, it wasn't clear how it could possibly work, but as with so many things about the Sixth Legion, it did so magnificently.

"So," Brynngar mused after a brief pause, "a drink, then? I've sniffed out a nice place on the Leticatti deck - well, nestled below it, really. Excellent alcohol, though the music's a bit... earsplitting. Intentionally, mind you."

Cestus, even knowing Brynngar's character, couldn't help but boggle at his cousin's priorities. "I've served on this ship for years, and haven't heard of that spot - though I admit I haven't spent much time searching for such. Brynngar, do you actually do anything besides drink and fight?"

"All the time."

"...Do you do anything besides drink and fight, except concurrently with drinking and fighting?"

Brynngar shrugged, looking down the hallway as they made their way towards the Leticatti deck. "Occasionally."

Cestus shook his head in disbelief, even knowing that Brynngar was exaggerating.

"But really," Brynngar continued, "drinking... well, it's far from my only means of entertainment, but it's involved in most of them. And battle is what I was built for - what both of us were built for, really. Our duty from the first launch, and our wyrd for all time. Some of my brothers have more diverse interests, some less, but we know well our purpose. Do you?"

"Of course!" Cestus turned to Brynngar with a spark of fury, though one caged by the knowledge that the provocation had been his. "Our first priority is war. For now, it has to be, and perhaps it will remain so until the end. But that is not all we are, it cannot be all we are - both because we are human, still, and because we must know what we fight for."

"We know," Brynngar said. "That we are outside it does not mean we are ignorant."

"You know Fenris," Cestus countered. "As I know Macragge. But the rest has to be learned deliberately, and preferably not while drunk."

"I've learned a great deal while drunk. Forgotten half of it by next morning, admittedly...." Brynngar shook his head. "Look, I get it, you're mad about the mess we've made of Ultramar. But we both know it would've been even worse without us."

"I didn't mean that," Cestus backbeat, aghast at what he'd accidentally implied. There were those in the Thirteenth Legion who took offense at the Rout's aid in reconstruction, and the last thing Cestus had wanted was to sound like those ingrates. "I'm grateful for your presence here, Brynngar. But to think of everything but war as mere distraction - "

Cestus's words were interrupted by a loud ding from his vox, indicating a summons.

"...Anyhow," Cestus said, his train of thought of lost. "Until we meet again?"

"Of course," Brynngar said. "We're still friends, Cestus. And perhaps in a few moons, we will see where our different paths have brought us. I am concerned that yours will lead you false, that is all."

"It hasn't so far," Cestus said. "Though neither has yours."

They embraced, and then Lysimachus Cestus hurried to meet his Primarch. Seven companies of the First Chapter had departed with Guilliman's great fleet without their Chapter Master, reporting directly to the Avenging Son in that duration. Upon returning to find their Chapter Master dead, the remnants of the First had retained that temporary status, no new Master being appointed, because Guilliman had so much else to reorganize first. Indeed, when Cestus arrived in the sanctum, he saw his gene-father surrounded by a number of screens and charts exceptional even for him.

"Captain Cestus," Guilliman acknowledged without turning.

"My lord."

"Essarkomium is refusing the treaties with Empioea," the Primarch said as he swiveled in his somewhat inordinately complicated chair, rotating in all three dimensions to finally face the captain, "citing grudges that supposedly predate all records of human settlement in the segmentum. Carenn is rebuilding several standard deviations ahead of projections, likely because the projections were deliberately sabotaged. Five Imperial Army commanders are independently petitioning me about Calth. A hundred other crises requiring weeks of genius to solve. And none of them are what really matters." He shook his head, handing Cestus three stacked dataslates.

"Is that not what delegation is for?"

"Quite," Guilliman said with a smirk, even as his left hand continued sketching something with a luminescent stylus on one of the screens. "Top two are for two of your sergeants, choose according to fit. Bottom is for Ventanus."

Cestus couldn't help but believe his Primarch when he said the situation was fine. But for all of that, the cracks were showing. Even Roboute Guilliman's capacity for processing information was clearly straining at the number of fires in Ultramar.

"You seem skeptical," Guilliman said.

"I admit I am, lord. You still seem to be delegating less than usual. We were away, but we are here now... all the Legion and auxilia, not only you."

Guilliman, amused, shook his head, making Cestus feel unmanageably silly. "As it happens, Captain, I am delegating a great deal more than usual. At the moment, in fact, that is my main focus, and the reason for the state of this office. There is much left to do, but I've put all the immediate fires out. I am leaving Macragge tomorrow, for Konor."

"Another campaign?"

"No," Guilliman said. "The Linearity. Everything else is necessary, but not sufficient, and does not require me - may even benefit from my absence. This is not a conventional conflict, and never was."

Cestus shifted. He'd heard the legend, had witnessed the power underlying it. And he felt he understood his Primarch in the moment, more than ever. Brilliance could be inscrutable, but vision carried others in its wake. Yet there seemed also a certain fragility in Guilliman's eyes when he described it, even if Cestus told himself he was imagining it.

"Regardless," Guilliman continued, handing Cestus one final data slate, "your orders, Captain Cestus."

It was a set of areas of concern, of which Cestus's choice for his first task was an inspection of several targets in the Narchaima district, coincidentally (or perhaps by the Primarch's design) close to his childhood home. Cestus went alone and unarmored without consciously considering it - this was Macragge, after all, and his home city at that - but upon touching down, he couldn't help but feel the gladius at his belt.

Narchaima district was on edge. Not the edge of inchoate rioting, not here, nor distrust for his person (indeed the civilians showed practically no sign of transhuman dread, decades of acculturation meaning he received autograph requests instead of fearful glances), and not something Cestus could immediately place from aura alone, but it was reminiscent of something besides home, and after a few minutes he realized what.

It was a peaceful compliance. A world suspended in the moment of profound transformation, not truly knowing what was to come even though they chose it willingly.

That was, he realized now as he should have understood years ago, what rebellion did.

The arena was what hammered that in. It was a monumental project, the tethers and scaffolding already majestic as they stretched weblike across the middle levels of the city. Its primary purpose was as a center for several dozen types of athletic and intellectual contests, and Cestus could intuit the spectacle that would be seen from both inside and (in less detail) outside the stadium. The design was unusual, though, far from fitting into any of the classic Nine Styles. It was almost organic, as a whole, but built of clean curves on the midscale. Not unlike the towers of the Xebbet Consortium on Attip, his first campaign as a sergeant, melded with the style of Pitohn, a recent diplomatic compliance in western Tempestus. The last, in fact, before Greffikh, reassignment, and the recall to Ultramar to hear impossible news.

Astarte would never fight Astarte, so Cestus had believed with a certainty that went beyond knowledge. It had been axiom, not theorem.

And yet, in the end, less than Cestus had believed had relied on that axiom.

"Who is the architect?" the Ultramarine asked of a policeman - a sergeant, though one with some nonstandard insignia - when he got the chance.

"Inoir Stambixis," the sergeant said, and nodded at Cestus's half-recognition. "Latest genius of that family, yes. It is an honor to meet a son of Guilliman; if there's anything else I can aid with.... I'm Cato Cepileo."

"Lysimachus Cestus," he answered, grasping Cepileo's hand in the warrior's grip. "It's certainly an unusual design. Is she on site?"

"She's somewhere deep within the scaffolding, I believe," Cepileo said.

They continued the discussion as they walked, Cepileo very eager to respond to Cestus's questions about the project and the city. He paused for a moment when asked about his insignia, though. "Sigmaethate officer position," he said.

"Sigmaethate?"

"It's effectively a... well, a workers' association," Cepileo said. "Among, chiefly, the emergency responders of Narchaima, or really all of the western districts."

"For what purpose?" Cestus did his best to avoid showing any sign of concern, but he did not have a great optimism, in the present moment, for secret organizations with strange sigils.

"The ability to negotiate as a group," Cepileo answered. He shrugged. "Both with our superiors and with other industries." Cestus listened to Cepileo continue his explanation, relaxing as he did so. The Sigmaethate was a guild, more or less, an organization dedicated to advancing its members' common interests, such as wages. Nothing especially sinister or secret.

"Do the government channels not manage that?"

"They've been in disuse for years, and even some of the bureaucrats don't know, much less care, how they work. Easier to go around, most of the time."

"It does seem like it might get in the way of efficiency, though," Cestus acknowledged.

"Maybe for you it would," Cepileo said. "But down here, there's a lot of doors one officer can't open that a department united can."

"True," Cestus acknowledged. "Factionalism is hard to keep down even in the Legion." Especially now. The individuality of the Astartes had been reasserted by the rebellion; it had been thrust into stark clarity that they too had a choice. And so, even when it would have been most efficient to win the war by adhering to strictest discipline, Cestus had seen his subordinates more prone than ever to questioning him.

But Cestus welcomed that, in the abstract at least. They were fighting for freedom, and freedom of thought most of all. To tighten discipline would be prime hypocrisy, and that was toxic to an army and lethal to a cause. Imperium Secundus meant that they walked their own paths, even if they were not all the same.

"A lot of the industries have organized, since the initial Imperium Secundus declaration," Cepileo said. "It's all entirely legal."

"Have the advocates organized as well, by any chance?"

Cepileo's grin was rather cheeky, perhaps not undeservingly.

Since the Imperium Secundus declaration - changes that would not be easy to roll back, even if that was decided. A realignment of that sort was a rather seismic change, even if it was limited to western Magna Macragge Civitas. But it wasn't, was it? Different reforms in different regions -

But Guilliman knew this, doubtlessly, and his inaction indicated tolerance at the very least. And Cestus saw the value, too, in social experimentation, so long as such things were kept above board. It was not the Ultramarine way (despite how some viewed them) to see systems as perfect - and besides which, the Imperium's imperfections were made very manifest, now.

They walked through the inchoate corridors, with a few precarious jumps that somewhat concerned Cepileo, and Cestus took note of the fact that despite its civilian purpose, the building was not bereft of weaponry. It wouldn't stand up to a dedicated siege, or to Astartes, but it would be a useful strongpoint in the case that Macragge saw war. Cestus wished he could see that precaution as baseless, but he could not.

"Do you happen to know," Cepileo asked casually, "about the Regent's speech on Horus, after his arrival - what, exactly, does he intend to do?"

Cestus searched his memory for the broadcast. "You'll have to be more specific. Lord Guilliman always intends a great amount of different things, most of which I am not privy to."

"The rapprochement with Horus."

"That is not my concern," Cestus said. "Nor yours."

"Forgive me for presuming, lord Ultramarine," Cepileo said, "but in these days, dubbing those affairs other people's concern seems implausible."

And Cestus understood that as well. The relations of primarchs had a way of affecting the lives of many others, and the shadow of classified information frequently hid a great many sins. For the moment, though, Guilliman had not made any grand gestures, and he told Cepileo as much before they found Stambixis.

The architect brought ethereal memories to the fore of Cestus's mind immediately, memories of blonde hair just like her own rippling in the air of Manuch Tzeo Crater. Inoir would be Nachikae Stambixis's - granddaughter? Great-granddaughter? She looked all too much like her ancestor, regardless, even if Cestus remembered almost nothing, except in gossamer threads across his subconscious, about the girl who he'd thought he loved, in the halcyon days before Imperium Primus came to Macragge.

"What is it, Cepi - oh." The architect gasped. "My lord, is there a problem?"

Cestus moved to reassure her immediately. He did not enjoy being feared. "No, routine inspection," he said. "I was curious about the design, I will admit."

"It wouldn't have been accepted two years ago," Inoir said, "but after the coup - "

"The coup?"

"At the planning board. Not a literal coup, but, you know. Politics. Some people were convinced to vote for some others' premature retirement. I don't know the details, Emi said that it was dirty, but less than half as dirty as what the old guard had done to stay in power." Stambixis's speech seemed to be accelerating geometrically as she got into her subject matter. Cestus's processing remained a heartbeat behind, but now that she said it, he noted that she really was young, for this sort of commission, barely any older than the teenager in his pre-memories. "Anyway, Macragge can't remain fastened to the Nine Styles forever just because it's what the Regent grew up with."

"From what I've seen," Cestus put in when Stambixis took a breath, "Primarch Guilliman is hardly bound to any architectural formalisms. He designed Ul Leiut, for one, on Paiyra." That was a campaign he remembered well, mainly for the locals' bizarre and not particularly effective magmatic weaponry.

"Paiyra?"

"It's in Tempestus - "

"Could you sketch it?" Cestus, bemused, picked up the data-slate he was handed and began to draw the arcology from memory. "But, I mean, a lot of the structures attributed to the Primarch were innovative for the time. He practically reinvented the Bezic from scratch! It's just that there's a lot of old fools who think that the best way to honor that today is by blindly imitating what he did two centuries ago. Substantially worse materials back then, I may note. And Macragge is a planet, and a capital at that; with our immigration figures syncreticism should be the goal rather than something to fear. Not that I want to import styles wholesale. Sometimes you have to start from first principles. Tradition mangles that, obscures it."

Cestus couldn't claim to understand the full context of every word Stambixis said, but he knew enough to see the direction. "The blank slate."

"Precisely," Stambixis said. "A blank slate, like Imperium Secundus."

"Ultramar is hardly blank."

"Ah!" Stambixis raised a finger, uncannily like an iterator. "That's a debate all of its own - do we rebuild Ultramar from the ground up as well? Metaphorically, I mean, obviously not literally, that would be stupid. And how much do we do now, as opposed to when the war is over, though of course we're never going to get around to it if we wait until there's no crisis, there's always a crisis somewhere, it's the crisis itself that we need to use to break down the old. I mean, but you know all of that better than me, of course, you're one of the people deciding it." She looked slightly bashful, flipping back to deference in a heartbeat.

"I'm not sure I do," Cestus mused. "I've seen a great deal of data, but I'm a warrior first, and even aside from that - you're the one that actually lives here."

Stambixis took that as the invitation, and began speaking twice as fast as before, mainly about the architectural inspirations and insights that made up the arena but with digressions into strongly held opinions of Ultramar, from time to time abruptly dumping a dozen qualifiers into her speech - afraid of sounding seditious, perhaps. In truth, many of the structures she discussed had little commonality with anything Cestus had encountered in the past century, but he did feel a slight tinge of tribal distaste at her casual dismissal of the achievements of his generation. He remembered the jubilation when the Algac - but then, it had been more than a century.

It had been more than a century; and, he realized, Stambixis did not know, and would likely not have been candid if she had. But at the same time, he had not spent the fifteen decades since his induction on Macragge, and so he could, to some extent, look upon his homeworld analytically. There had been plenty of time for things to get worse.

"But I'm exaggerating that aspect, really," Stambixis said in the end. "Macragge was never the problem - things have gotten better the last couple of years, and that's no coincidence. It was the rest of the Imperium holding us back. The Administratum, especially, and everything associated with it. Designed for Terra, redesigned for the Imperium, but still enriching Terra at the cost of absolutely everything else, and only certain castes on Terra at that. And Macragge's a Legion homeworld. It's so much worse outside Ultramar - well, so I've heard, at least."

"Some of the tithes were excessive," Cestus acknowledged. "Although nothing approaching human sacrifice, before."

"The tithes weren't even - well, what am I saying, of course they weren't an issue here. Point is, we can't just go back, only with Horus on the throne. Even if Horus is as good a ruler as Lord Guilliman, we've begun building the future we dreamt up. Despite all the petty politics and the architectural debates, we're all still... I mean, you can feel it too, can't you?"

And Cestus nodded, because he could. Because even between the formal reports and the snippets of conversation, he felt a spirit - not a spirit of the Imperium, but more than just a spirit of Ultramar patriotism. It was -

It was an analogy he returned to, the peaceful compliance. The best of the Imperium, perhaps. Not what came after, when worlds were turned towards a purpose, but that moment on the frontier, that promise of a better world which was self-fulfilling.

The promise that the Emperor had betrayed, and which Cestus had chosen - because he'd had a choice, a real one, and he had known it even then - to place above all his other loyalties, at the beginning of this war.

"Lord Guilliman knelt to us," Stambixis softly said, sounding as lost as her own thoughts as Cestus was in his. "Not to any one citizen of Ultramar, not even to any one organization. He is above them all, and it would be improper to imply otherwise. But he knelt to the people of Ultramar whole, and that was right. And to try to step back, with a new emperor, to bring back Administratum and Mechanicum and Astronomica and the rest - that would be wrong. And I won't -" She broke off for a second. "I won't be happy to see that."

That hadn't been what she'd wanted to say. She'd wanted to say that she would not accept it, that she would fight it. And normally, Cestus would have noted the hint of possible disloyalty and moved on; and, on the whole, that was what he did, save for two things that held his thoughts.

The first was that he was not sure that Inoir Stambixis was wrong.

The second was that he was absolutely certain that she was far from alone.

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CHAPTER SIX


Though Alexios Basiniand was no closer than ever to true satisfaction with his posting at Sotha, he could not deny that Mount Pharos was impressive, even by Macragge's standards. Perhaps especially by them, even. On his homeworld ranges piled upon ranges, in craggy nets, and though that generated nearly every terrain imaginable somewhere on the planet, proportions varied. There were freestanding massifs on Macragge, but none half as grand as this.

Then again, few worlds had anything quite like Mount Pharos. Twelve kilometers of unnatural rock rose straight from the shoreline, and as if that were not enough, the mountain was riddled with titanic caverns visible even from Basiniand's current vantage point near Sothopolis. They were a fractal, though, smaller and smaller tunnels coalescing and dividing upon themselves. There was a world within the mountain, silently waiting for sapience to return and plumb its secrets.

And far above the tree line and the snow line, at the summit of Mount Pharos (Basiniand was not concerned by notions of defiling nature, but for the sake of honour as well as defensibility he ensured that the approach to the summit remained lengthy and impassable by vehicles), a cobalt-blue outpost oversaw mountain, cave system, city, and planet. There was nothing elsewhere on Sotha, after all. Not because the planet was deemed undeserving of colonization, but because Mount Pharos took priority.

Yes - in these moments, Basiniand was not merely accepting, but smug about this assignment. With the ten Ultramarines of his squad, between fortification, position, coordination, and weaponry, he felt he could take on an army of ten thousand.

But then, he also knew full well where these emotions came from.

"It really is intoxicating," Rayzenus Tigasian said, walking up beside his sergeant. Tigasian had been born on Armatura, surrounded by the industry of war, and had excelled in studies and sport so early that he'd apparently been noted by Legion recruitment at age five. Despite his youth, Tigasian would have made it to sergeant and perhaps beyond had he been more ambitious, and had Drialai not -

Well, not the head of it now. It was good to have a second he could rely on fully.

"It is," Basiniand said, smiling at the aura of glory swirling around them.

"Does that not concern you, brother-sergeant?" Tigasian asked.

"It does not seem to impair decision-making," Basiniand said, tracing the light through the spongelike edges of the Bay Face. At dawn there would be a rippling interplay that the locals called the light song. At other times, the black of the tunnels instead unnaturally darkened all around them. "And we could all use some optimism nowadays."

"It's consciousness-changing...."

"No more so than mead. Well, Fenrisian mead at least." Basiniand had to suppress a gag reflex at the thought of the taste, the one time he'd drank with the Space Wolves, but it'd certainly done the job of intoxication.

"Yes, but mead is brewed by humans. Or, failing that, Fenrisians. This is of xenos design, and it is designed. The Conservators have made progress, and so have we, but we don't understand it even now. I know Librarian Ulmaukeran has cleared it, but any mind can be clouded."

Basiniand felt resistance rising in his muscles, and stopped himself forcefully. This was turning into an argument, and an unnecessary one. "It's not general concern, is it, brother? This reminds you of something specific."

"It does," Tigasian said, and uncharacteristically hesitated. "It reminds me of being near the Emperor, on Kliim."

"You were there?"

"As a Scout. I was half a city away, but when I saw him - it was like being near the Primarch, but even greater. I could not conceive of the idea that this being had flaws, that he could err even in the slightest." Tigasian shivered. "Then, I thought it an honest joy, but now it's clear enough that my mind was clouded, as were those of everyone else there."

Tigasian showed no discomfort when speaking of the Emperor's betrayal, not like most Ultramarines. His gaze was clear, even when contemplating civil war. Basiniand thought himself inured to the pain of fratricide, but he was not dispassionate about the matter as his second. To him, as to many of his stronger brothers, it was an old wound that had become a scar, the pain gone but unforgettable. To Tigasian, it was a tragedy, but an impersonal one, like a world dying halfway across the galaxy.

This, though? This was personal to his brother. Basiniand could have heard it in the ring of his voice even if he could not have seen Tigasian's face.

He clapped his brother on the shoulder. "The Pharos doesn't seem to be telling us anything," he said. "It stokes our own dreams, disparate as they are. But you are right that we need to be careful."

"And I suppose we can't do anything more," Tigasian admitted.

They couldn't. Their path was as constrained as ever. Walls of duty to guide them, forcing them to defeat the obstacles in their way with cunning, rather than simply going around.

"Courage and honour, Ray," Basiniand said. "Always. Even missions like this."

Tigasian nodded, his doubts calmed. He was not wrong that caution was obligatory, of course. Basiniand would have to not forget that. Still, he couldn't help the ghost of a smile as he looked at the slopes.

"We should head back to the castellum, I think," he said after a warm pause. "Everything seems to be in order - "

Which was when the explosion rang out.

It was high on the slope, though still nearer them than the summit. Standard melta explosives, Basiniand mentally noted as he ran downhill. Nothing even slightly exotic, or even difficult to synthesize. Even so, the asymmetry of the blast indicated imperfection somewhere within the setup.

"Half of that is still unexploded, isn't it?" Tigasian asked.

"I'd say two thirds."

Basiniand turned out to be right. He had an eye for those things, as befitted his experience. Because of the rather inaccessible location, the flyers weren't able to get all that close, and by the time the Ultramarines were on-site the perpetrators were long gone; but they left their charges behind.

"The arrangement was immaculate," Remnev said, looking around the chamber. "But the smell's off. These are homebrewed explosives, nothing like even an Industrial World army would accept. I'm surprised our mysterious opponents didn't blow themselves up while making them."

"Theoretical: a traitor in Sothopolis," Basiniand mused. "Or a cell thereof. Military experience with demolition, but few resources. Practical: there's less than three thousand people on the planet. We'll check for any sign of hidden orbital traffic, but it's unlikely."

"No one above suspicion?" Nophras asked.

"Anyone who has access to better explosives is, including us. Besides that, no." Basiniand shrugged. "We'll find them. Hopefully before they can do any more damage. That's not what I'm worried about; the damage to the mountain is."

The black material that made up the tunnels was preternaturally resilient, but the damage was still easy to see. Leaving his brothers behind for the moment, Alexios Basiniand walked into the gaping dark.

Back on Macragge, he had expected a ruin. Conservator Phessix, for that matter, had expected a ruin. But whatever Mount Pharos was, it was certainly not a ruin. There was even a sense of life, in these caves, but they understood it to be an illusion. The Pharos was not an organism, but a mirror, reflecting the emotions of those who gazed upon it.

It was also dark enough, even to the senses of Terminator armor, that there was little to be gained right now besides an intuition of place. Basiniand suspected that the damage was not terminal, that whatever the device did, it could still do; but in the practical, he had no proof even that this had been the case when the Ultramarines had arrived.

"We'll see from Alpha," he told his brothers when he returned.

Primary Location Alpha was the command center of the Pharos - at least, such was Basiniand's perception. Conservator Lex Limmar, one of Phessix's colleagues, had collaborated with Adept Hoursch, formerly of the Mechanicum and still with some loyalty to Fabricator-General Kane, to link human and xeno technology and control the device, allowing 'empathetically catalyzed quantum entanglement'. At least, that was what the improvised (from impressively expensive components) monitoring equipment said. According to Limmar, this meant the mountain was capable of doing everything, even if it wasn't currently capable of doing anything.

But Hoursch, who greeted Basiniand when the Ultramarine climbed down into Alpha, was rather more dour about it all.

"Now the thing's sent us seismics," he said with a shake of his head. "Did you feel the quake? I swear it's trying to kill us, just inconspicuously. Not that we should be offended by xenotech doing that."

"The quake wasn't xenotech," Basiniand said, and explained.

Hoursch was impassive. "Nothing's changed," he said, and gave his alibi too. Basiniand hadn't actually suspected it was the adept - he'd have set the bomb off higher up. But as he turned the dials, unsure if they were connected properly and unsure whether it would make any difference, he thought of the distinct pessimisms of Hoursch and Tigasian, and of why he didn't share them.

Because it was true - this was xenotech, psychic xenotech, and that was two outsized reasons to tread with more than caution. Because it was unclear why Guilliman had approved this project, and mistier still was whether the Primarch would have done so if he knew what Basiniand now knew. Because while the conservators' excitement was understandable, they were half-playacting the scholastic heroes of their youth, in the hope that eventually the mask would become reality.

But -

But Alexios Basiniand, unlike the conservators, unlike to some extent even Hoursch and Tigasian, was not a visionary. His concerns had always been practical, in places shoring up the mistakes dreamers made, in others merely refining their choices. And practically, he knew he was - they all were - too deep in to shrink back now. If the Pharos was affecting them in whatever fashion, it would be up to others to make the judgment. And so they could only press on, and hope to find something that justified all this desperation. Basiniand would not bend easily, but he was not an Imperial Fist, to cleave to dogma no matter what. (And the fate of the Fists showed clearly enough the ills of blind obedience.)

Yet that was not the essence of it, not truly. The essence was this: Alexios Basiniand understood mountains. Mount Pharos was grand, it was mysterious, it was possibly psychic - and yet when Basiniand had walked the Lerr Ledges on the northern slopes, away from Sothan civilization (such as it was) and looked away to isolate the aura, it had been just a mountain; and in those moments, it had been a worthy one.

And as he understood that, a mountain grew from the floor of Primary Location Alpha - a replica, in fact. The surface and outermost caverns of Mount Pharos, including several the excavation had not yet reached, were mapped in clarion detail.

Hoursch and Basiniand stepped back as one, taking in the hologram.

"Huh," Hoursch said. "I guess it does do something."

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CHAPTER SEVEN


As a master world of Ultramar - indeed, the master world of Ultramar - Macragge's orbit was naturally filled with docks, factories, and habitats, all arranged in plates packed tighter than even Terra's. The Throneworld's orbital plates had always been more numerous, but they occupied dozens of radii to out past Luna, whereas around Macragge they were arranged in only three layers and cities whizzed past each other close enough, at times, to jump from one onto another. Bjorn found it rather ostentatious, the Ultramarines taking pride in their own precision - though they'd earned it, to be sure.

Now, with the war and all those things, orbital traffic was half again as frequent as before and ten times as panicked, and all the captains needed to be informed and directed and reassured. The Ultramarines and the humans took care of most of it, of course, but with Guilliman off a few worlds over and Russ still here, some things were left to the Rout.

"And I take it you're not happy about that, jarl," Aeska Brokenlip told Bjorn as they walked the corridors of Xossix Plate.

"It's fine," Bjorn said. It really was, too. It was true that he didn't like dealing with panicked crowds, except when said dealing was of the death kind; but by now Ultramar had learned quite firmly that you didn't send the Wolves to calm children down. Captains tended to be interesting people, in their own way, and the words they carried from other worlds tended to be more interesting still.

Especially with the war and all those things.

"Still," Aeska said, "you know you can send another to do this for you."

"And what would I do instead, Aeska?" Bjorn shook his head, hair swinging wildly in the awkward artificial gravity. "I might as well make some captains feel regret for their self-importance, when there's no blood to be shed. Not like we're going to do anything to Macragge without Guilliman's direct orders, even with the planet rumbling as it is." Because Macragge was unquiet, though it wasn't the blood-promising type of unquiet. Land did that sometimes, even on Fenris. Just a little nudge, to let you know it wasn't dead. People were the same.

"Jarl...." Aeska thought-foraged for a few steps, then shook his head. "Bjorn, you're jarl now. Of Tra. You've been absent too often."

"We're training plenty."

"Sparring, sure. But in all else, you've been aloof, Bjorn. And that troubles people."

Aeska didn't need to spell it out past that. Bjorn'd been promoted young, seemingly on the Primarch's whim. He was of Tra, that contained things, the disquiet wasn't disobedience or anything, but command was an awkward fit still and he needed to wear it in. To give a nudge, so that they knew he wasn't dead.

But he didn't feel much like feasting at the moment, and what sort of time was it for feasting anyway?

He recognized his failing. But he wasn't sure how it could be corrected.

"We're all troubled," Bjorn said, shaking his head. "Too long on our haunches. We're killers - if we're not killing anyone we should be planning it. Once Russ decides where we're going next...."

"And will the Wolf King decide soon?"

Bjorn shrugged. It wasn't his place to tell, and he didn't know anyway. Not even Russ did.

With the Ultramarines back in force, they didn't really need the Rout in Ultramar anymore. Bjorn had advocated hunting down the Emperor's Children as they retreated, chasing them back and finishing what they'd started at Calth. They couldn't do it alone - they'd need to gather an armada, and those'd be mortals, not Astartes. But they could do it, and it was their place.

Others among the einherjar disagreed. Kva wanted to make back for Fenris, to replenish their ranks - for though they were given arms and armor in Ultramar, they did not take recruits. Grimnir spoke for a more general offensive, to link up with the Raven Guard in their wars near the galactic south. With growing Warp Storms, the nature of interstellar travel, and the general disorder of civil war, there weren't really fronts as such, but there were concentrations of force, and they held their purposes too. Lufven spoke for breaking up into smaller forces for a time, and pacify the space northwest of Ultramar, world by world. Holmi poked holes in everyone's plans, but remained stringently neutral between them.

But the decision belonged to none of them. It belonged to Leman Russ, the Wolf King.

Tra was unsettled because Bjorn was unsettled, but Bjorn was unsettled because his gene-father was.

Bjorn flipped through the logs once he came up to them. He was supposed to meet with Captain Kamui of the Lebeten Symphony, a Mechanicum freighter coming from galactic north with supplies from Tigrus. But looking at the borderline binary descriptors, and thinking of the fact that he was indeed jarl (no matter that he didn't feel like it), and Macragge stretching its dreams -

"You know, Aeska," Bjorn said with a smirk, "if you're so concerned about me, you can go meet with Kamui and the tech-priests. I'll find something else to do."

It didn't take long for him to do so. Rogue Trader Ngomar Ordoker had recently docked on the other side of the same plate, back from a scouting voyage further to the Fringe. The Ordoker family was poor by Rogue Trader standards, so it hadn't been assigned to an Astarte, but the rule with Rogue Traders was that they knew things others didn't. That was, after all, somewhat their point. They'd been the descendants of those who only reluctantly knelt to the Imperium, who had been exiled to the fringes of the Great Crusade, given freedom in exchange for a dramatically lessened power base. Unsurprisingly, most of them weren't too happy with the exchange, and so they'd gone over to the Coalition in bulk - those that weren't too far off in wild space to notice the war, at least. But their role in the Great Crusade had been scout and herald, and the design had been such that they'd be fulfilling that role no matter what.

Ngomar Ordoker looked a harried, gray-haired man when Bjorn came to the dock, and his entourage was fewer in number than the jarl had expected; but looking at their clothes made Bjorn wonder at what the rich Rogue Traders had to wear. He whipped around immediately as soon as Bjorn entered the room, and bowed deeply to the Astarte well before the clerk had time to do so. Said clerk was, of course, very quickly very confused.

"What - oh - deep apologies - my lord - is there a problem?"

"I was merely curious," Bjorn clarified. "It's not so often that Macragge receives traffic from the southeast."

"To whom do I have the honor of speaking?" Ordoker asked.

"Bjorn, jarl of Tra, Sixth Legion." Bjorn wasn't in the habit of reminding people of his rank, but he knew he needed to remind himself. "How was the journey?"

"As I was telling Lady Alita here," Ordoker said, "tumultuous and troubling." Bjorn inclined his head to indicate Ordoker should continue. "Do you wish refreshment? It is a long story. Though I can shorten it if you wish."

Bjorn accepted food and water - Ordoker didn't have any drinks stronger than urine anyway - and soon was sitting in the great hall of the Witching Hour, hearing the report of Ordoker and his elderly first mate Isaian Turuth. The tale was mercifully quick, and surprisingly well-told. The human worlds of the Eastern Fringe, especially those used to the Imperium's hand, were cut off and weak, but they were not so dependent on the Imperium as to truly be suffering famines and shortages. Warp travel was always risky, so far out.

"But xenos are another matter," Ordoker continued. There were a dozen pest species causing trouble. Some worlds were overrun, more holding. "The biggest concern, though, is the hrud. The rest aren't existential threats, and half of them are probably running from the vermin themselves. You know how old Turuth is?"

Alita answered assuming no rejuvenat. "Eighty?"

"Forty-three, and with two rejuvenat treatments," Turuth said with a sigh. Bjorn, familiar with the hrud, nodded. He'd guessed lower, frankly. Even a brief exposure could turn a twenty-year-old into an elder - or, for that matter, into dust. The xenos' weapons were terrifying, but the terror caused by the entropy their mere presence generated was somehow even greater. Xenos killing you was to be expected, perhaps; crippling was worse. Well, there were Fenrisians who thought likewise. "There's a lot of activity. They're everywhere."

'Everywhere' was an overstatement, but the pattern made sense to Bjorn instantly. "It's a migration," he said. "Incipient, but it's going to be huge, and headed for us."

A moment's silence, at that.

The void was big, of course. The migration was unlikely to do more than graze Ultramar. But even that was a concern to say the least, and with xenos you never knew.

Bjorn relayed the information to the Wolf King by private cipher. Russ did not respond immediately, but two days later, the einherjar, the inner council of the Sixth Legion, was called together. Kva Who-is-Divided for the rune priests, Tobias Heimdall for the wolf priests, Grimnir Blackblood for the Varagyr of Russ, his companions in battle. Varald Helsdawn was fighting xenos to the north, but Bjorn and Lufven Close-Handed were on Macragge, and Holmi Longganger had come from Calth with his company. Reconstruction had been handed over to calmer, Ultramarine hands - Chapter Master Phrostus and the core of his command. Holmi seemed substantially less battle-tense than he'd been during his briefer visits from Calth.

"Kva," the Primarch began abruptly once they had gathered. "What say the runes?"

"Little clear," the rune priest, appearing surprised by the question, answered. "War, of course. Death. Rebirth. The moments after ending, but before beginning. You know how portents flow, my lord; I cannot tell you what to do, and you would not listen if I did. All I can say is that we should not remain here."

"We don't need runes to know that." Grimnir's one eye was fixed immovably on the Primarch. "Give the order, Wolf King. Give the order, and we will follow you back into war - or back to Fenris, if you wish, or even into the Underverse itself. Our blades are rusting."

Leman Russ stared into the distance above Grimnir's head. His speech sounded careless, though whether that was true or feigned Bjorn could not say. "If your blade is corroded, Grimnir, then you should have words with its smith. It has not been so long. But there is red snow to our every side, true, more every day. Bjorn has heard word of a hrud infestation to the east."

Bjorn took his cue to describe the migration. "I do not think they will strike for Ultramar itself," he said.

"Bjorn," Lufven said with a tinge of exasperation, "listen to yourself. You don't gamble Ultramar on predicting xenos. Especially not hrud."

"The Ultramarines can handle it," Grimnir opined.

"Fixed defenses are poor in wars against time. But," Lufven quickly continued, "you're not wrong. Guilliman will ruin them, unless this warren is bigger than the fleets we've seen all Crusade combined."

They listened because Lufven had alone of them fought hrud before, in the Qleeni Trails, though that migration had been small compared to what this was shaping up to be.

"I suppose we have a new path for the debate, then," Tobias said.

"No," Kva said suddenly, and all eyes save the Primarch's turned to him, because there was something of the stars in his voice. "Because the Wolf King has finally decided, hasn't he?"

Baited breath. Half a moment's baited breath, silence that made mundane silence a storm. And then Russ's voice, not careless now, not casual, but the distant howl of tomorrow's gales.

"I have said before, to each of you separately, in one context or another, that my wyrd is the executioner's. That I failed against Fulgrim. Guilliman tells me it is superstition, but he thinks many things are superstition. Sometimes he is right in that, aye. But I cannot be Roboute Guilliman, nor should I be. We are not who we pretend to be, we are not caged by nature - but we are caged by ourselves. I cannot turn back now. I do not think many of us can.

"So we could offer surrender to Ultima's warlords, or build higher the walls of the Aett. We have done such things, in other days. But to do so now would be a step off the path, and wyrd is not toothless fate. The wolf hunts. And so my soul yearns to give chase to Fulgrim, or to track down the Lion. There are debts yet to be settled, and the war cannot match that.

"But, of course, that is not what we will do. That is not what we must do. We will fly east, to the edge of the galaxy, and there we will turn aside the hrud migration before it can reach Ultramar, or other worlds that we would be oathbound or strategy-bound to defend."

Silence. Bjorn knew how these speeches worked, and he had understood that they would not follow his plan. But he had not expected this particular choice, to fight an enemy that was not their first threat, at stars' end.

"Why?" someone asked, as they had to, and only afterwards did Bjorn realize it was his voice.

"Because fate must be driven by duty," Russ said. "Not the reverse. Never the reverse. And to protect mankind from the night has been our duty from the first day."

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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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