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post #1 of 7 (permalink) Old 09-02-19, 06:49 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.

Renegades Saga contributions
(https://www.heresy-online.net/forums/...tions-cry.html)
(https://www.heresy-online.net/forums/...s-scarlet.html)
(https://www.heresy-online.net/forums/...lesh-weak.html)
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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