Renegades 13: Nucerian Sands
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, led by the former Imperial Warmaster Horus, are beginning their campaigns against the corrupted Imperium of Man.
Against them, the nigh-immortal Emperor of Mankind waits on his Golden Throne. Allied with him are the four Chaos Gods, eldritch nightmares thirsting for human suffering. The Space Marines, once the Imperium's finest soldiers, are divided. Some, such as the logical Ultramarines, have allied with Horus without submitting to the Warmaster. Others stand with the Emperor, but walk their own paths to salvation or damnation in his shadow.
Now, Roboute Guilliman, Primarch of the Ultramarines, hears that his home of Ultramar, the jewel of Imperium Secundus, burns, and hurries to reinforce it. Meanwhile, raging Angron and conflicted Vulkan, loyal to the Emperor, seek to create a symbol of a new age. None of the three wishes to come to dry Nuceria, a world whose history is written in blood. Yet it is there that they are fated to meet, for the galaxy as it is, not as they dream it to be.
The screams and pleas of the innocent will have no effect - not anymore. The age of debate and enlightenment is over. The dream of empire has ended.
The nightmare has begun.
Yes, this series is indeed back! Hopefully there's still someone left here to read it....
Previous installments at:
The shadows appear over Nuceria gradually, as if allowing its people time to accept the truth. They are dots still, at the moment, pinpricks of darkness in the noonday sky. The nobles and the slaves and the great masses of the ordinary Nucerian people do not look up, except by coincidence. They have no reason to: the heavens hold no secrets for them. The Imperium of Man came and exacted tribute and left; the skies, they know, are filled with beings much like themselves. They are mightier than the Nucerians, perhaps, but not mightier than the Nucerians can comprehend. And there is no reason for the shadows of Astarte drop-pods to sully the Nucerian skies that the Nucerian people can conceive.
The people of Nuceria do not look up, save for one.
I stand on the summit of Fedan Mhor, not far from the site of the battle that doomed Nuceria. It has been a slow doom, to be sure. Generations believed that their ancestors weathered the storm of the Eaters of Cities. Generations reassured their children that the Lord of the Red Sand had fled, never to return.
My parents had always wondered why I was not reassured.
My parents are searching for me now, I am sure. They have been searching for days by now, but they will not have given up. Perhaps they will not give up even when the city of Desh'ea dies. Perhaps my father's last thought, before being cut in half by Captain Delvarus' axe, will be a prayer or a curse for me. Both are possibilities that I have seen.
My pack is not yet empty - there is food enough for another week, and it is not hard to find water in these mountains. The doom of Nuceria is a slow one even now. It takes time, to end a world. Exterminatus would be quicker, but it is unsporting, and so its ring in the Immaterium is wrong.
The doom of Nuceria is here, though, in the triangular shadows that litter the salt flats on the lee side of Fedan Mhor. They are moving towards me, and past me. To Desh'ea.
To kill Desh'ea, and after to kill Nuceria. Perhaps by killing every person on the surface on the planet. Perhaps not. To devour a world does not preclude leaving bones behind.
My head is on fire, if only metaphorically. The land remembers its bloody past. It remembers the atrocities that led here, the massacres, the enslavement, the mutilation of bodies and minds. All of it, convergent on Fedan Mhor.
The Twelfth Legion is coming, to eat a world. To eat my world.
I knew they would, subconsciously, even before I was born. I was not a melancholy infant, though. My parents believed I cried because I was in pain all the time, and indeed I was. To live as a high-level psyker on a world as tortured as Nuceria... it is a sort of miracle I have survived to the age of nine, though I know that 'miracle' is a term reserved for fouler things.
The others cannot feel the pain. They do not understand what they do to their own people, above all with the Nails, but with lesser implants as well, and the sheer futility of petty conflict spilling non-petty seas of blood. They believe they merely make their victims less than human, and they do not see anything wrong with that. I know, as even they do not, what they do to the Nucerian people. I know how monstrous their actions are - and yet I understand those actions as well. That is the curse. Others would hate the warlords, but I can no more do so than dismiss the slaves. They all have their reasons.
The pain of those reasons, of Desh'ea, is with me even now, even as a memory. This is not the first time I have run away, for though the land remembers its bloody past, its aura is not nearly so sore as that of a human mind, even a peaceful one. It is quiet here, usually.
Not with the triangular shadows passing above, though. No, today is a day that Fedan Mhor remembers. But it is right nevertheless, for me to be here. This is the place where a world was condemned for brutality, and sentenced to death.
It is not that I believe the sentence to be unwarranted. There is justice, to be sure, in the doom of Nuceria. But - Nuceria is more than slavery and mutilation and countless, pointless wars. It is the forested marvels of the Laegeth Boulevards. It is the stoic beauty of Ulranen Mhor. It is dances in the merbehae taverns, and wild spaerhs racing across the deserts. It is books and forges and dreams, so many dreams, so many of them uncorrupted despite everything. It is the smiles of my parents, on the day that I first laughed.
I was born Gilloa Takealle, and my parents have given me nothing but endless love and support. What they have given others... well, Nuceria is an angry world. Even in moments untainted, directly or indirectly, by violence it is still angry.
Even now, it is angry. Gazing at its doom, plunging down towards it in triangular formation, it greets the inevitable end with rage. And, faint though it is, I suppose I feel some form of rage at this as well - not at the Astartes, any of them, or at anyone in particular, but only at the outcome.
But then, is not that outcome, the doom of Nuceria, the most important part of the world anyhow?
I stand atop a spur of rock and ice, the wind whipping my unnecessary jacket around me, and watch a flock of metal pyramids plummeting towards a city surrounded by sands. It is the city where I was born, as Gilloa Takealle.
I was never Gilloa Takealle, not truly, for all that my parents could never have comprehended that. I am not even Gilloa of Desh'ea. I am Gilloa of Nuceria.
And I am watching the Legion that will execute my world.
According to legend, the Knashchic Empire had once dominated much of the region now known as the Ultima Segmentum. Its mighty armies had been bolstered by sorceries unheard-of in this fallen age, and its fleets cut the Warp like a shell through paper, swift enough to fly from one end of the sizable realm to the other in a matter of minutes. But, supposedly, the Knashch had been threatened by enemies more powerful still, perhaps the ancient empire of the eldar, or perhaps an eldritch horror which could not even be named by human tongues. The Knashch held no hope of defeating this foe, seeing only to defend against it; and so they made a deal with the Dreaming Serpent, who dwelled beyond mundane reality, asking the Serpent to craft a defense against their enemy. And, so it is said, the Serpent obliged - yet not in a matter that the Knashch lived to appreciate. For he created a mighty and impassable Warp Storm where the Knashchic Empire had been, a great wall that sealed the Eastern Fringe off from the rest of the galaxy, and devoured the souls of the Knashch who lived in that empire.
Justinian Thexilev, Captain of the Second Company, First Chapter, Thirteenth 'Ultramarines' Legio Astartes, was not generally inclined to put much stock in legends. Nevertheless, this tale from his childhood - a common tale not only on Espandor, but on many of the neighboring worlds - now came to mind.
The Eastern Fringe was not sealed off anymore, if it had ever been. No conclusive archeological evidence of the Knashch's existence had ever been found. And the Great Crusade under the Imperial Truth, as exemplified by Thexilev's Primarch Roboute Guilliman, had been destined to prove the folly of myths.
Only with the Emperor's embrace of religion and the rise of psychic power throughout the galaxy, it was becoming clear that this destiny might never come to pass. It was not that the cosmology of the Imperial Truth was false, but it required... adjustment.
What sort of adjustment, Thexilev wasn't sure. Yet.
He suspected most of his Legion would disagree with him on this point. On Xaina, through the Linekere Cluster, and across the Tubs of Wrath, they had battled fellow Astartes, which had once been unthinkable, and his reaction to the matter had been contrary to that of others.
They had battled the Seventeenth. The Word Bearers. The Legion most devoted to the Emperor, to the point of once worshipping him as a god. Then the Emperor had not accepted such worship, and indeed had used the Ultramarines in rebuking the Word Bearers for it. Now the Emperor demanded all to call him divine, and in his madness punished all those who doubted him with death. Everything was turned on its head, and yet many of his fellow captains denied that the Imperial Truth was imperfect, even in relation to the Warp.
For all of that, Thexilev did not doubt that he was fighting on the right side. But then, he reflected as he walked the last few steps to the observation post, he had seen what the enemy had become.
"Any changes, Ixiosph?" he asked his sergeant, lowering his magnoculars. He couldn't notice any, at least.
"None," Ixiosph responded. "Final barrage incoming in two minutes. As best as I can tell, they're going to meet us inside."
Thexilev turned to the other figure at the observation post, whose blue armor was of a darker shade than his own, and topped with a psychic hood. Epistolary Bylolit shrugged. "My senses are still blocked, sir. All I can say is that they are using a substantial amount of power to achieve this."
"Power?" Ixiosph asked.
"Attention," Bylolit clarified. "And possibly blood."
The Seventeenth's newly acquired habit of sacrifice was well-known. Of all the aspects of the new Word Bearers, it was one of the few that had a distinct purpose. Fuel for psychic rituals, as prisoners had explained to them - fuel, in the form of human lives.
Thexilev couldn't trust Bylolit's power since that revelation, even if he trusted Bylolit himself with his life.
"Theoretical," Thexilev said, now speaking by a restricted vox-channel, "is to kill the Word Bearers first, worry about ritual later. Practical may be different." He turned to Ixiosph as he slipped his helmet on, counting down the seconds to the barrage. "Courage and honour, brothers."
"For Macragge!" Ixiosph answered.
With a nod, Thexilev hurried downwards to join the bulk of his men. The artillery barrage thundered overhead, ringing in his ears despite the protection of his helmet. The bastions, already battered and full of holes, nearly all its guns silenced, shook again with the additional bombardment. It was overkill, but not misplaced. Far better to waste shells than lives.
And then, with a cascading crush, a section of the wall that the fire had concentrated on came down. It had been calculated to, of course, but Thexilev felt relief nevertheless. Practical had too rarely matched theoretical, in recent times.
And in the moment that the guns fell silent, five hundred Ultramarines charged.
It was not exactly common, a situation where a foot charge (or jump-pack charge, as was the case for the foremost hundred Astartes) was the optimal resolution to a siege. But here the distance was short, the guns were quiet, and the Legion was operating with a deficit of vehicles of all sorts, maintenance being difficult in the heart of now-enemy territory.
Scattered fire pounded down around Thexilev. Some of his men went down. More bolters than heavy weapons, in that volley. Practical: they'd done even more damage to the guns than Thexilev had thought. If the Word Bearers had been short on personnel, they wouldn't be using small arms.
Another volley rippled through, a shell glancing off Thexilev's armor, chipping a crater of paint off. He continued without giving sign of noticing it. "Courage and honour!" he cried again, as the blue tide came up on the breach.
And then the first wave landed, jump-packs whining, and charged in. The fire coming at the rest of them died down almost entirely, only the odd shot coming at them. Thexilev tracked his men as they entered the besieged complex.
"Encountering high density of cultists," Heriamat voxed. At the least, that was what Thexilev inferred - abundant noise.
Cultists. They had used more respectful names, at first. 'Enemy auxilia', for instance. But there were enemy auxilia, and then there were cultists. They were not soldiers, merely cannon fodder at worst.
Most of them, that is.
Thexilev felt the gravel beneath his boots, coming up into a bloodbath. Most of the cultists had been killed by chainsword, in single strokes. Some of their decapitated heads had faces contorted in pain, but Thexilev doubted that the Ultramarines had been the ones responsible.
He advanced more cautiously from there, checking in with his sergeants as he did. They were sweeping through the building, according to theoretical. Naxigum's wing of the assault had encountered Astarte resistance, and Onill's had met genuine enemy auxilia. Bylolit reported a cultist that had been swollen with... something, but something that enhanced his capabilities, proving considerably more difficult to put down than most. Niulth's squad had been stalled by that culltist, but the Epistolary had handled it. Nonetheless, for the most part the Word Bearers had provided at most scattered resistance.
Thexilev threw up a map of the complex onto his helmet feed, as it had been determined by the Ultramarines' progress thus far, in an attempt to see the Word Bearers' theoretical. He saw the issue almost immediately. The theoretical command node was slightly off from the practical one, but not by enough to be obvious. Possibly cleverness, possibly just an error on the Ultramarines' part. The tech-adepts were less than perfectly integrated into Imperium Secundus; many had left, others had come, and the result was a lesser degree of efficiency than Thexilev was used to. He knew this better than most, given his logistics expertise.
Thexilev gave orders, calling his command squad to his side, along with Bylolit and Squad Niulth. They passed down corridors of masonry painted with blood (no, not a metaphor, not a theoretical - Thexilev had seen Word Bearer strongholds before). Grooves in the floor flowed downhill; theoretical was that they sometimes carried blood down to one of the eight doors in the apparent command center, whose blast doors they were approaching.
Sealed. Practical: Thexilev could hear chanting from behind there. The Word Bearers were doing something.
Theoretical: when the Word Bearers were chanting, they were doing something it was best to interrupt.
Devastator Squad Niulth came up behind Thexilev, and opened fire on the door, no verbal orders being necessary.
"Theoretical," Bylolit said, as he walked to his captain's side, "is that they're escaping."
"That matches my theoretical," Thexilev said with a frown. "Practical is that we've won the planet, regardless of this assault's practical. But...."
But Astartes tended to retreat less often than suggested by theoretical. It was the cultural legacy of two centuries of victory.
Before Thexilev could say any more, though, the door exploded inwards with the charges Niulth's squad had set.
The scene it revealed would have caused Thexilev to vomit, Astarte or no, if he had not seen its like too many times in the past few months. Underneath perfectly octagonal walls lined with artifacts, as if this was a museum rather than a command center, the floor was decorated with an intricately carved labyrinth, red with blood that had run in through the ditches and with blood that slowly dripped off the corpses impaled on spikes in a ring within the room's perimeter, whose smell was... far worse than standard. Inside that, there were actual cogitators, and at the room's very center stood the Word Bearers - sixteen of them, in two concentric circles, chanting, around a seventeenth - evidently the leader - in the very center.
No, that wasn't actually all. There were wispy shapes of more Word Bearers throughout the room, as if they were not quite there, as if they were escaping - or -
"Practical: they're not escaping," Bylolit said, having come to Thexilev's conclusion an instant before the captain. "They're getting reinforcements!"
"Courage and honour!" Thexilev yelled, charging through the room towards the enemy Astartes.
The practical encountered complications, though. The ghostly warriors that lined the room, for all that they weren't really there, swung their blades at Thexilev as he passed. Hundreds of them, enough to turn the tide of the engagement if they joined it fully, enough to be formidable even in their mostly absent state.
One blade passed through him without effect, but then his knee guard clanged against that of a Word Bearer. Thexilev swung his blade at the figure, but it had faded from this place once again. Another moment, his power-axe was moving through a Word Bearer who was not there, only to lodge in very real flesh when it reached his spine. The Word Bearer collapsed seconds later, incapacitated, but it was precious seconds that Thexilev found it difficult to extract his weapon, before the Word Bearer was gone once again. Precious seconds that the blue-helmeted Word Bearers in the circles, who were not moving from their places, could chant uninterrupted during.
Thexilev communicated all of this to his command squad, Squad Niulth, and the other Ultramarines approaching the room from various sides. There was constant vox-chatter, audible over the sound of heavy bolter fire. While Thexilev had gotten out of the straight-line path immediately, the shells weren't actually reaching the Astartes in the room's center, interrupted by the half-present Astartes in between. Thankfully those Astartes couldn't fire at all - theoretical was that they couldn't control their phasing either, so any shots would be more likely than not to hit their own.
He winced as he saw Aclgan's heavy plate fail to save him from an armored fist that materialized inside his guts. But an instant later, Silielonioclus was first to reach the center of the room.
"Theoretical: grappling," Thexilev warned, not wanting to risk spilling blood in the first moments. The memory of Glaa Linekere was still raw in his memory.
Sil did just that, wrestling the nearest Word Bearer - Urargeo, Thexilev thought he could read from his armor - down and out of the circle. Bylolit mouthed something about instability, but it wasn't a shout to stop, so Sil continued, now assisted by Lisaul as the veteran came up behind him. Urargeo tried to get back up, but was silenced by Lisaul's Terminator-armored bulk wrenching his neck until it snapped, even as Silielonioclus grabbed two more Word Bearers from the circle.
And then Thexilev was there as well, and theoretical gave way to practical. As one of the two enemies tried to rev their chainsword, Thexilev fired a bolter at point-blank range into his helmet. Not enough to kill, but enough to disable, and give him time to pull the helmet off to get the kill. Sil emptied his bolter into the other. By now there was blood, but as Lisaul charged, a battering ram, into the circle -
As a chainblade suddenly materialized within Sil's head, chopping his skull nearly in half -
As the weapons of Squad Niulth continued to thunder, killing Word Bearers even if they weren't the Word Bearers on this planet -
As the fourteen remaining in the circle seemed to accelerate their chanting in desperation -
As all that happened, Thexilev grabbed a grenade from his belt and threw it, without setting it, at the 'Dark Apostle' standing in the ritual's center, with the fullness of Astarte strength enhanced by his power armor's systems. It bounced off the leader's helmet (which, like the rest of his armor, was black except where splattered with dried blood), knocking him off-balance. He toppled sideways, uninjured, but out of position, giving an undignified screech of surprise.
And in an instant, the apparitions vanished.
That was the better of the two theoreticals that could have come out of this. The other, from Thexilev's experience, would have been an explosion. Even that would have been preferable to allowing the reinforcements to arrive, though.
"Fire!" Thexilev yelled to Squad Niulth.
The Word Bearers were scythed down where they stood, by both bolters and Bylolit's psychic power, even Thexilev's armor being slightly charred by the energy being put out. Lisaul charged out the other side of the ring, mostly protected from friendly fire by his armor, though at a glance Thexilev could see his guard's arm was injured. Of the enemy, within seconds, none remained alive. Blood trickled into the pool in the room's center, but thankfully, nothing came of it.
Silence. Sudden silence, after the din of the preceding fighting. Bylolit knelt, taking off his helmet to reveal a bleeding nose. Squad Niulth and the remainder of Thexilev's command squad cautiously walked into the room, walking over the debris from battle. Aclgan stirred, Naius calling for an Apothecary. Silielonioclus didn't. Thexilev bowed his head to his brother's body.
"Tear the bodies off the spikes," Thexilev ordered. "I doubt there's any Warp-power left here, but it is better to be certain."
"There is," Bylolit said, standing up with effort and pointing at the walls.
"Tainted?" Sergeant Niulth asked. Thexilev didn't correct him. The technical term was 'Chaos-affected', but it amounted to the same thing.
"Most of them," Bylolit said. "A few seem like inert junk, or archaeotech. The gauntlet is weakly psychoactive, a psychic focus... similar to my hood." He stopped in front of a large artifact shaped like a curling horn. "This one's different."
Thexilev thought he could even feel its power, as he walked up to it. It was made of no material he could discern - a yellow-brown weave that seemed more ceramic than metallic, but with aspects of both, and that pulsed as if alive. There were rich decorations, geometric patterns but also depictions of what seemed like plant life. Perhaps also fungi. Its opening seemed to spew forth those plants, even though in practice that was also decoration, on the iridium band that surrounded the opening.
"Psychic, without being Chaos-affected?" Thexilev asked.
"I cannot detect Chaos influence, but it may be hidden," Bylolit said. "Theoretical: it's probably dangerous in either case. It's more strongly psychic than everything else in this room combined, and very expertly designed. I cannot detect its purpose"
"Surely we burn it all?" Niulth asked.
Thexilev pursed his lips, remembering his Primarch's words about legends and relics.
Few in the Legion agreed with him that there was something to look for in them, but Thexilev's most recent conversation with his Primarch - who was also his direct commander at the moment, owing to the absence of Chapter Master Gage or the Tetrarchs - implied otherwise. Roboute Guilliman had seemed more distracted than usual, though not so much that he couldn't keep track of a hundred streams of information at once. He had spoken of old tales, and of how even myths like that of the Knashch grew around cores of truth.
And if the enemy found power in those myths, there may be ways for the Ultramarines to do so as well. So long, that is, as they integrated that power into the Imperial Truth and not the converse.
"We keep it," Thexilev said. "The horn, and anything else untainted. Store it all under the best shielding, yes... but it may be a weapon, and one does not discard weapons too lightly."
Bylolit nodded; Niulth looked for a moment like he might protest, but nodded as well.
Before Thexilev could consider the situation further, a rune lit in his helmet. Before Thexilev could even process it, the voice of his Primarch was in his ear.
"Captain Thexilev," Roboute Guilliman said. "Congratulations on capturing Rav Teith. After securing the locations, depart the surface of Katha to orbit with all reasonable speed. Leave the cleanup to the Army."
"My lord?" Thexilev asked, not understanding. "What is happening?" They had been meant to stay on Katha for several more days, to ensure full compliance before moving on to the Inala campaign, confronting what was believed to be the main Word Bearer concentration in the eastern half of the galaxy. Confronting, quite possibly, Lorgar himself.
There was an uncharacteristic pause from the Primarch.
"I have received word from Ultramar," he said. "The full Third Legion has invaded. Communication difficulties... we are near enough to assist, if already late, and I will not stay away while Ultramar burns."
It was raining in Desh'ea.
Artellus Numeon could tell, by the land that surrounded Angron's home city, that this was a rare occurrence. Most of the water that fueled the metropolis had come from long aqueducts, for the river that it stood on was dry more often than not.
Had come. Past tense. For Desh'ea was a dead city.
There had been a time, once, when Artellus Numeon would never have stood aside and let the World Eaters butcher thousands of civilians. There had been a time, indeed, when his Primarch would not have allowed it.
Then again, even on Kharaatan they had not done much better than stand by. Unknowing, then, but how much difference did that make? So now two Chapters of the Eghteenth Legion stood, mustered, in the desert, watching the warm rain wash the blood from Nuceria's streets. And at their head, their Primarch, the warhammer Dawnbringer laid across his knees.
"Angron needed this," Vulkan said with a sigh, turning away from the grim spectacle to face his sons. "But I do not think it is good for him, much less good in principle." He frowned. "You agree on that, Artellus."
"I do," Numeon admitted. "To stand by, to allow Angron to kill a city's worth of civilians...."
"They are not, in the main, innocents," Vulkan noted, his eyes glinting with fire. "Their civilization is an abomination, and should have been rendered far more thoroughly compliant than what the Empreror demanded in his first visit here. Mutilation of underclasses, internecine warfare, inhuman conditions... it would be right, for us to fight here." The fire cooled, the Primarch's eyes returning to a cool equilibrium. "But this, you are right about, Artellus. This is an atrocity, if far from the worst in the World Eaters' history. It is monstrous. And we must not forget that."
Left unsaid was that they were all monsters now. There was only room for one faith in their hearts - and faith in humanity had defeated faith in humanism.
They had killed those among them who would not follow Vulkan and the Pyre Guard to any ends necessary. They had fought the White Scars on Chogoris, and Vulkan had killed his own brother just like his sons had on Maragara. They had all acknowledged, in the end, that they were killers, that they were the Emperor's nightmares, as all the Astartes were.
But it was essential for a monster to recognize themselves as such.
The Pyre Guard stood around him. None had died or betrayed the Imperium on Maragara, but on Chogoris Ganne had been killed by the Keshig, and Leodrakk had been left in a sus'an membrane coma. Ganne had been replaced by Dranzytchon, formerly a Captain, but as Leodrakk retained his place, only six Astartes were formed up around their Primarch now.
Six was enough. Zero would have been enough. Vulkan was a Primarch; he didn't truly need a bodyguard, especially not on a techno-barbaric world such as Nuceria with nothing to challenge them.
"They are not being sacrificed as ritual," Varrun noted. "Would it not be better, if they must die, for their deaths to serve our purpose here?"
"Do you know our purpose here?" Vulkan asked.
None of them did, of course, Primarchs aside. Even Angron had been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about that. "Whatever it is," Atanarius said nevertheless, "it does not seem to be a military objective."
"It is not," Vulkan accepted. "And as you might also surmise, it is a ritual. A ritual that requires blood."
Skatar'var growled. "Why, then?"
Skatar'var had grown more confrontational, since his birth brother Leodrakk had been injured. He had always been the quieter of the two, before, but now he seemed to combine the rage of both in a single body. All the Pyre Guard had the fires of Nocturne within them, moreso than most Salamanders, but now Skatar'var's temper exploded far too often.
Numeon, though, realized the answer.
"Their deaths do serve the ritual," he said.
"Blood sacrifice is required," Vulkan said with a sigh. "And this is a blood sacrifice. The assault was timed quite precisely. Spirits do not demand microscopic precision. Sacrifice is an art, not a science... and the subject of this work is enough to make up for flaws in technique."
"Vengeance," Varrun said.
"Vengeance," Vulkan agreed.
They all knew the tale of Angron's finding, if only in broad strokes. He had been a slave on Nuceria, and led an uprising of his fellow gladiators. But they had been cornered and, on the brink of defeat, the Emperor had saved him from being killed together with those he considered his brothers and sisters. Angron had never entirely forgiven that. Now, he returned to the city that had chained him and had driven the Nails into his brain.
"Come," the Lord of Drakes said. "Pyre Guard, with me, save for Skatar'var - you have command over the muster if anything occurs."
And following his Primarch, Artellus Numeon walked into the murdered city. The rain washed away much of the smell, but it did not wash away the bodies. It pooled on the ground and on the roofs alike, for the city was not built to withstand storms. It was built to withstand sieges, though - high walls, mighty cannons, vast warehouses. Against the Twelfth and Eighteenth, it hadn't lasted a day.
Bodies lined the streets, lying where they were killed. Chainaxes, bolters, more arcane technology - it mattered little. But as they advanced into the city, Numeon noticed something strange.
"They're lying in patterns," he noted. "Octeds and seventeens, clearly geometrical. But I can't see the World Eaters caring enough to move them."
"They haven't been moved," Vulkan said. "This would seem to be accident, but the Pantheon's power is strong here. Spiritual patterns become real ones. And this ground has been touched by Chaos for a long time." He knelt down before one of the corpses, a young man bisected by a chainaxe, and took a piece of gravel from the pavement. "A very long time."
The piece of gravel was very nearly a perfect octagon. Vulkan crumbled one of its vertices, leaving seven unequally distributed points.'
"Come," he said, straightening and quickening his step as he walked towards the center of the city.
There were World Eaters that they passed on our way. Arranged in companies, for once, instead of being lost to the Nails and scattered across the battlefield. No auxilia - this was a Legions-only operation. One of the clear indications that it was not a normal compliance.
In the central plaza, Angron stood, surrounded by paintings of blood and the Eighth Company of his Legion. He was a dreadlocked god, but a broken one. His face was marred by erratic tics, anger he could not control even now. His face was pale in a way that suggested a skin disorder. His armor was splattered in blood, and his entire aura shone with a desperate fire that he could not still.
He had been worse, before the Emperor's ascension. Then, he had been an animal to pity. Now, though, he stood face-to-face with Vulkan's stoic, onyx visage as an equal. As a brother.
"Brother," Vulkan said, simply.
"Hhngh," Angron said. "Brother. Well, you are, I suppose." Kharn walked forward, and Numeon shook his hand in the way of Unity, while the Primarchs greeted each other with a much less codified grip. Kharn, like Numeon, was equerry to his Primarch, the one who most often spoke with a Primarch's voice.
Vulkan looked around. "They are dead. Do you feel satisfaction at that, Angron?"
The tone was respectful, but Angron still spit on the ground, only Kharn's touch restraining him from further displays of aggression. "Satisfaction? No. But I hated them, and now they are dead. That is all there is to it."
Vulkan nodded. "True enough. And now their power lingers. Kharn, Numeon, slice open your palms."
Kharn looked to his Primarch for confirmation, only to receive it. "Do as he says, Kharn. He knows this witchery better than me."
"Yet this is your part in it," Vulkan said.
Kharn lifted his head, and Numeon fixed his opposite number with a stare. Then, simultaneously, both brought knives to their palms and sliced them open. Neither winced at the pain, nor gave any sign of it. Blood dripped onto the ground.
As it did, Angron spoke syllables. They were in no language Numeon knew, and they came out as sounds no human could have made, but their meaning somehow suffused the air. Vulkan added notes, at times, but generally allowed Angron to say - spit, really, in a voice full of hate - the words. They were words of blood spilled from guillotines, of literal backstabbing, of great warmachines clashing.
And then Angron drove his black blade into his side, and before Numeon knew it, his own Primarch did the same.
Simultaneous as well, and far more blood was spilled this time; but not enough to truly wound the demigods, even if Angron was in visible pain. The bright red blood, Primarch blood, spilled out of them, around them, and -
And it seemed to infuse the world around with red, and a great blade of golden light was shining out of the ground until it vanished in the clouds above.
In a single moment, the rain stopped.
Numeon helped his father rise. Angron struggled to do so alone, waving aside Kharn's motion to do the same. The beacon remained, a cylinder of light rising from the plaza's center.
"Father?" Numeon asked.
"Don't worry," Vulkan said. "We will easily heal." Nonetheless, he held out a hand to prevent Atanarius from walking near the light, signing mortal danger for any caught within it.
"I did not want to come here," Angron said. "You asked if I was satisfied with vengeance. I lived for a century without vengeance! I could have come here, could have purged Nuceria. You know that the Emperor would not have objected. But for a century I did not. I returned for the same reason you arrived, brother. Orders, to do what we are doing here."
"So what are we doing here, sire?" Kharn asked.
"We're getting the Emperor out of our hair," he said.
Numeon stood, shocked. What -
"It's not quite that," Vulkan said softly. "Though it is possible that the Emperor will take a lesser role in the Imperium should we succeed. The Emperor wishes to take his rightful place as a god in full, as a god of the Empyrean as well as in realspace. And in igniting this fire with the ghosts of two cities, we are lighting the way for his apotheosis."
Thirteenth Captain Ehung Zekhoros did not know what he had expected of the world responsible for his Primarch, but this was not it.
Then again, the circumstances were bizarre. Angron had performed some sort of psychic ritual, of all things, and in eighty-five Terran days Vulkan would complete it. That was it - the only reason why fifty thousand Astartes had been sent to an irrelevant world in the middle of the Eastern Fringe.
Irrelevant, except as a historical note. For it was Nuceria's fault that the Twelfth Legion had degenerated into bloody madness.
Yet the world itself was... pathetic, really. For the most part. It was at least a world of war, and a world in many ways skilled at that. And it was also a world, in the mountains, of clear and beautiful skies.
Or, rather, it had been one before his Primarch had done whatever Throne-taken sorcery he had performed.
Zekhoros had been born on a desert planet, Mnamia, and clear skies were Mnamia's sole positive trait. Before the Legion, before the Nails, he'd looked up at the sky with wonder, both with his naked eyes and through the great telescopes that stood on Mnamia's mountains. Despite everything, he'd never entirely stopped. True, now his cognitive work had more to do with interfacing with the Navigators and the tech-priests, but even if the skies held no more awe - the Nails had stolen that, and to a lesser extent familiarity - they still held the memory of awe.
Zekhoros had thought he couldn't feel awe anymore, but what Angron had done to Nuceria's sky stole his breath away.
Where the beam of light coming from Desh'ea's ruins intersected the celestial sphere, a splotch had grown, a splotch of violet-tinted insanity. It was hard to describe what was inside it, because Zekhoros was fairly certain that it wasn't anything that his eyes were seeing with the normal rod and cone cells, even Astarte-version, but rather something that was directly imprinted onto his brain. But roughly, it was a striped vortex, swirling turbulently at impossibly rapid speeds.
"A Warp Storm," he said. "They've created a damned Warp Storm."
Urgara Ferran - the human shipmaster of the World Eaters' flagship Conqueror - nodded, with more rage in his eyes than even Zekhoros felt.
"We're stuck here. They kept me grounded since Prospero, and now this. What am I supposed to do, sit at anchor for ninety Terran days?"
'Kept him grounded' was an exaggeration. Lotara Sarrin, the Conqueror's previous shipmaster, had been injured at Maragara, and First Officer Ivar Tobin killed, by rebels on the crew that had declared for Horus. So Urgara Ferran, appointed from Terra, took command of the Conqueror for the battle of Prospero. By the end of that battle, he was in a coma, and it was miraculous that he had returned to active service.
Not unchanged - the right half of his body was more machine than biological now. But his mind was intact. A better bargain than Zekhoros... but that was another matter entirely.
Zekhoros resented his Primarch, true. But that did not mean Ferran's rage was unjustified.
"I have no idea what anyone is supposed to do," he admitted. "We have barely a dozen Librarians, and most of them aren't even here. Even the Eighteenth is going to be bored. Even the Seventeenth would be!"
Ferran nodded. "My boredom is a small thing, compared to yours. Which is why I'm even more surprised by your decision to stay behind."
"I didn't stay behind," Zekhoros said. "I came up when you asked for Delvarus back, because the I didn't think Desh'ea was even going to fight us. Which it didn't. It just died. Waste of time." He spat. The Twelfth might not believe in the same form of honor that other Legions did, but they understood respect for a worthy opponent. That, and brotherhood - that was what mattered, in honor. Everything else was self-delusion. Killing Desh'ea... he didn't even know if it would have sated the Nails, so pointless it was. Albeit, in these days, perhaps it would have been enough. None of them really knew how the Nails worked anymore.
"Except for the Warp Storm," Ferran pointed out.
"Except for the Warp Storm." The vortex filled a quarter of the sky by now, and it was still growing, in great pulses. There was a narrow bubble forming around Nuceria of space just real enough for the Conqueror and its fleet to survive without Gellar fields.
"That - "
And suddenly the storm pulsed, and Ferran gasped.
"Lehralla!" he yelled, already running, in his awkward gait, towards the bridge. "Is it going to hit us?"
"The entire planet!" the reply came, loud enough that Zekhoros could hear it.
The Conqueror could currently survive without Gellar fields. Zekhoros was very glad that Ferran had ordered the Gellar fields turned on anyway.
While the storm's coming drove a spike of pain into his brain, the itch for violence in his head, strangely, dimmed. Or - perhaps it was more accurate to say that his perception of it dimmed. As he went to clean his armor, he could tell that the song was still there, in his head, because it was difficult for him to concentrate.
He tried anyway. It may have been futile, but he tried. What kind of Astarte would he be if he did not fight the impossible? The others did too, all in their own ways. Some tried to keep kindness, some joy, some self-control. Kharn tried to keep brotherhood. From watching those who had worn the Nails the longest, Zekhoros expected that all of them would fail. Many would die in battle before that point. Some part of Zekhoros hoped he would be among them.
Nonetheless, in the midst of the Warp Storm, he felt some semblance of relaxation, even as he imagined the thundering impossibilities that surrounded the small island of reality that the Conqueror sat in. Enough so that he actually lost himself, for a few short minutes, to something besides the Nails, namely the repair of his left pauldron.
Eventually, when his wargear was gleaming enough that any further improvements would be worn away the instant he stepped on a world, Zekhoros relented and set off in search of his sergeants. Some part of him considered searching the fighting pits, but he'd already fought two matches today, and surely not all of them would be there.
As it turned out, it was barely half.
He found Limbeten and Zurvon in the mess hall, along with bits and pieces of their squads and, in the far corner, a Librarian.
Codicier Esca. Kharn's company. Strange.
"Any news, Ehung?" Limbeten asked.
"Warp Storm's all around us now," Zekhoros said with a shrug. "We're stranded in the middle of nowhere above our beloved Primarch's homeworld, for nearly three months, I'm told. Sealed in."
"It's not his homeworld," Jaelenest, from Limbeten's squad, opined. "Not in any way that matters."
Zekhoros nodded. Angron would no doubt disagree, but the records spoke for themselves. Of all the other Primarchs, only Alpharius had abandoned his world as Angron had. Even Curze, who had let Nostramo rot for decades, had come back to restore order in the end. Nuceria's past might have held significance, but its present....
When they had burned out the traitors on Prospero, Magnus had surpassed even Angron in rage. Though that hadn't saved him from being crippled, nor his world from being destroyed. If someone had ended Nuceria, Zekhoros wasn't sure Angron would even have noticed.
"Doesn't matter," Zurvon said. "Shame, though. Ninety days is enough to take back a few worlds, then come back."
"I doubt the Primarchs would have wished that," Zekhoros pointed out.
"Since when did Angron care?" Zurvon challenged.
"Since Prospero," Zekhoros said. "Any of you know why Esca's here instead of with his captain?"
The reply was mostly disinterested shrugs, so Zekhoros went to check, Limbeten trailing along out of either curiosity or boredom. Inevitably, the Nails spiked in their heads, resuming their song of pain. Librarians had that effect, always.
"So," Zekhoros said. "Any reason you're here and not down there?"
Esca frowned. "The ritual they're doing down there.... The Nails cause pain to me, Captain Zekhoros. Whatever they're doing is a hundred times worse."
"Worse than the Warp Storm?" Zekhoros asked.
"The Warp Storm is a diffuse pain, and I'll grow used to it," Esca said. "What they're doing.... Lorgar spoke of four powers in the Warp, and the Twelfth has embraced worship of Khorne. Deity of war, honor, blood and skulls."
"Sure," Limbeten put in. The new cult wasn't ubiquitous in the Legion, but it was becoming increasingly common.
"I think Khorne doesn't like psykers," Esca said with a thin, forced smile. "And whatever Angron is doing down there... it's connected to Khorne. I can tell that even from here."
"Khorne's a Warp God," Zekhoros pointed out. "How can he not like the Warp?"
"Not the Warp," Esca said. "Only the majority of its uses. If I could, say enhance my strength with psychic power, that wouldn't trip the wires. More than that, and it's the same as the Nails, only worse." He paused. "I think the Nails are - "
The Codicier's words were cut off by sirens.
The Nails pounded in Zekhoros's brain. "To stations!" he yelled, running to grab his helmet. "To stations! We're under attack!"
He ran to his chambers, for his part, to put on full wargear before heading to the bridge. The three chainswords hooked to his belt were only useful in conjunction with the servo-arm that rose from the pack on his armor. It was an unusual combat style, to be sure, and required more repairs than most in the Twelfth would have accepted. But Zekhoros didn't mind standing out, and he'd tried to instill that spirit in the Thirteenth Company. They were chained by brotherhood, same as the rest of them, but if you were all the same there was no point in brotherhood. Even Breidan, who'd worn the Nails for so long he could feel nothing but rage, retained his ponytail hair and his pre-battle tattoos, even if he probably only did so by reflex.
Breidan didn't have long left. The Nails were degenerative: they'd kill him eventually. But Breidan had experienced the same resurgence as the rest of them after - logic said it should have been after the Emperor's modifications, but really the turning point was Prospero, as if breaking a Primarch was enough to satisfy the Nails' bloodthirst.
No one in the Legion actually expected it to last.
When he entered the bridge, he found it on exactly the level of alert that he had expected given the sirens. It was a storm of activity, all carried out in a state of panic.
"Captain Zekhoros," Ferran said. "You're actually here?"
"Never," Ferran said. "Though the situation generally wasn't that dire back then."
And when Zekhoros walked up to the sensor screens, his eyes widened under his helmet, because he realized exactly what Ferran was talking about.
Awe, once again, an emotion he had thought forever lost to him. That was the first thing. The second was that this fleet -
The viewports were closed, because staring at the Warp was generally unadvisable, but the screens made it clear enough.
They were Legiones Astartes.
They were Ultramarines.
And they had them outgunned them four to one, with more ships still arriving.
The Perfect Honour, the second ship in the Ultramarines' fleet, shone at the assembly's center. That was good - they weren't facing Guilliman, at least. Then again, Vulkan hadn't brought the Flamewrought.
If he had, maybe they'd actually have had a chance. As it was, the only reason they were still alive was that the Ultramarines' fleet seemed as surprised by this encounter as their own. The Ultramarines, being Ultramarines, were nonetheless reacting much faster.
Another bout of jealousy, and rage at his Primarch for not being Roboute Guilliman.
It was probably his last one, unfortunately.
"Well," Zekhoros said, "we'll fight to the last. For the Emperor."
Then he took a look at Ferran's face, and the Nails spasmed in his head.
"Wait. Don't tell me you're -" His rage spiked, from merely incandescent to white-and-blue-hot, and a chainsword immediately sprung to life in his left hand. "I didn't take you for a coward, Master Ferran."
"Not cowardice," Ferran said, with surprising calm. "The fleet will fight. But we'll also lose. You know that, Captain Zekhoros. So it's best to prepare for losing, and save the most important thing on the ship before we do so."
Zekhoros frowned, still spiking with pain. "Which is?"
"Your Company," Ferran said.
It took all of Zekhoros's finely tuned willpower, perhaps the strongest in the Legion, for him not to kill Ferran then and there.
It took all the assistance given to that willpower by the changes in the Nails for him to even partially agree.
"They'd be fools to let us board," Zekhoros agreed. "Some of my men will want to try anyway, and I won't stop them. But some will evacuate to fight on the surface.
"And if we're evacuating non-essentials... then the first priority doesn't go to my Company. It goes to the Dreadnoughts, and above all the First."
They broke into reality around Nuceria in a state of shock, insofar as such a state was possible for Ultramarines - and the events of the past year had proven that it was quite possible indeed.
The Warp was erratic and unpredictable. Warp Storms grew and shrank and moved, and even appeared from or vanished into nothingness.
But not on this scale.
Klord Empion, Ninth Chapter Master of the Ultramarines, suspected it was enemy action. He didn't know how, though perhaps the Librarians knew the theoretical, but with the Imperium evidently abandoning Nikaea just as much as Imperium Secundus had, it was the most reasonable explanation. Accident would not have been an easy explanation even without the Imperial Civil War. Enemy action... there was no shortage of either transhumans or xenos who held a grudge against the Ultramarines.
Then again, enemy action was too often used as an easy excuse, a rationalization, when accident was unseemly. So Klord Empion only suspected it was enemy action.
Until, that is, they broke into the Nucerian system.
A point of relative quiet in the storm. The entire fleet could make it, even if many of the ships were seriously damaged. They had been in transit when the storm had come, so the fleet hadn't been wiped out.
The fleet was an impromptu one, clobbered together from the units nearest Guilliman, who had been able to join him in a jump back to Ultramar. A hundred thousand Astartes. Nearly as many remained behind, under command of Chapter Master Vared, much to Chapter Master Kaen Atreus's disappointment (but acceptance - Atreus was not one to even contemplate arguing about chains of command, he merely made his opinions clear).
They had survived. That was the good thing.
What they saw in the Nucerian system was the bad.
A fleet, in high orbit around desert Nuceria. A fleet far smaller than Guilliman's, but less battle-worn, and filled with Astarte vessels.
A fleet led by a Primarch's flagship. The Conqueror hung in the void, hateful and bristling with guns. Around it, lesser World Eater vessels and Salamander ships.
Once, Empion would have greeted them as brothers. Now his course of action was far different, as was that of the Omega Unbowed.
"Courage and honour!"
"Enemies at thirty, conic formation!"
"Fire the Mauxineos!"
"No contact with the Primarch yet! Continuing hails!"
Around him, the ships of the Thirteenth Legion blinked into reality. A fleet of war, a fleet of Ultramar.
A fleet now stranded five sectors away from Ultramar. But a fleet at war, and that practical wiped any and all irrelevant theoreticals from Klord Empion's mind. He directed the Omega Unbowed and the nearby ships to fall into formation, theoreticals flying to his mind from decades spent studying the doctrines of war and implementing them in practice. Empion was the youngest Chapter Master of the Ultramarines, and he knew that his temperament sometimes accentuated that, but no one became Chapter Master without a great deal of experience.
Nevertheless, he was quite relieved when the Perfect Honour slid forth from the void, and Empion's Primarch took command of the engagement.
The early arrivals, led by the Omega Unbowed, formed a scout formation. They would swing around Nuceria and the enemy fleet, obtaining crucial information about the situation, and attack it from the back after Guilliman's main force had begun the engagement. Additional reserves under Chapter Master Sharad Antoli were singled out, but they were tactical reserves rather than the strategic kind. There was no way into Nuceria, and no way out. The two fleets were engaged in a struggle that would end with only one surviving, and despite the numerical advantage Guilliman could not be certain that it would be theirs.
All of this was delivered in concise and clear commands, in a calm and composed cast, and received in the same manner. The contrast with the situation six Terran months ago was obvious, and Empion took a moment to appreciate it during a brief pause in preparations.
Back then, they had not known how to fight Astartes, much less the creatures of the Warp that many even among the Legion dubbed daemons. But the theoreticals had been missing on the enemy's side as well, and they'd learned them with the practicals, along the way. They had been bloody lessons - they'd lost thousands. But not tens of thousands. Astartes could survive a lot, and an Ultramarine that was still alive would make the enemy regret wounding him.
No, the greater difference was the calm. This was normal now. Gradually, fighting Astartes and the xenos of the Warp had been assimilated into XIII Legion strategic doctrine, becoming a fact of martial life. Yes, it was abhorrent, something that had been meant to be an impossibility. But now that it was necessary, it was possible, and - despite what had been feared - it had not somehow tainted the Thirteenth's efficiency or brotherhood. They had come through the crucible, to use a Salamander metaphor despite the circumstances, of the Linekere Cluster, and they had come out as Ultramarines still.
The Omega Unbowed swung past Nuceria on a slingshot, fast enough to avoid the enemy fleet despite passing close enough to get detailed readings. There were no surprises there, though. The surface of the planet was what the reconnaissance really concerned.
Comparing the maps to the charts recorded from a hundred years ago, Empion noted significant changes, which he knew was unsurprising. The Imperium had kept a light hand on Nuceria - too light, evidently, for some of those ruined cities had clearly been destroyed years ago, long before Angron had killed Prospero. With others it was uncertain.
The locations of Astarte landing, however, could be determined with a fair bit of precision.
"City of Desh'ea, former Imperial designated capital of world," Shipmistress Inio Klevex said. "Estimated twenty-two thousand Salamanders, twenty-six thousand World Eaters. No auxiliaries. Ghanun Desert, uninhabited. Two thousand Salamanders. No auxiliaries. No other concentrations of Astartes detected."
"An impressive concentration for a desert," Empion said. "Any clues as to why they're there?"
Klevex only shrugged, causing Empion to bring up the data himself. Ghanun was quite far from Desh'ea - nearly opposite. In fact....
"Sixty degrees and twenty-two minutes north, seventeen degrees and two minutes east for Desh'ea. Sixty degrees and twenty-two minutes south, one hundred and sixty-two degrees and fifty-eight minutes west for the Ghanun muster. It's the antipodal point, Shipmistress. It's a ritual." He frowned. "As to what.... Incidentally, I don't see the visual record."
"Warp Storm," Captain Phrost pointed out.
"But we're in realspace, so it doesn't cause insanity for short exposures."
Klevex, in agreement, signaled a set of portholes to be opened up. They rolled -
"How the Taert did we not see that on the sensors?"
It was a beam of light. A beam that seemed to arise from the city of Desh'ea and rise into the sky, directly perpendicular to the planet's surface. It was blindingly bright, but it did not actually emit electromagnetic radiation.
"Close the portholes!" Empion ordered, the very moment they had opened fully.
It did not emit electromagnetic radiation, and unknown Warp phenomena were not to be dealt with lightly.
But it was guaranteed, Empion noted once the view had been shut off, that although they could not see it the beam cut straight through the planet and came out on the other side. That Desh'ea (the city, Phrost helpfully - actually helpfully this time - remembered, Angron had been kept as a slave) and its antipodal point were the locations that would be of import in the surface war.
And there would be a surface war to come. That was becoming patently obvious. A surface war, Primarch against Primarch, Legion against Legion(s). The terrain data, updated this time, for the region surrounding Desh'ea and (as best as could be determined) for the Ghanun desert was acquired, compiled, and sent to the Perfect Honour, as well as being distributed throughout the fleet, as the slingshot maneuver wound down. It had been successful, preserving the Omega Unbowed and the accompanying ships from attack, but it had also stranded them far from the battle, for the time being.
The Conqueror did not move to engage the Ultramarine fleet, Empion curiously noted. He would have expected, from theoreticals for the Twelfth in particular... but then, the Primarch was presumably on the surface, leaving a baseline human in command. Or perhaps an Astarte, but a more phlegmatic one. The Conqueror did have a shipmaster according to the records - or at least had possessed one prior to the war's beginning.
Regardless of who was in command of the fleet, they clearly controlled both sets of ships, which slid into separate but mutually supportive formations. It was a textbook tactic, but skillfully executed. The Ultramarine fleet replied with a formation interwoven on several levels, some of which Empion only knew about from the vox traffic.
A stream of fighters was the first into the fight, released rapidly after having been shielded by the bulk of the Esperian. A moment later, the stream had split into two, and then the firestorm started in earnest.
Guilliman didn't manage everything, but he directed the bulk of the fighting, down to squadrons of attack craft. He would have been capable of micromanaging further, but there was no need, for he trusted the men under his command. That trust was repaid in full. Streams of fire intersected at the precise sites of enemy capital ships, and Ultramarine and allied ships dodged munitions by mere meters. It was beautiful to witness, a cascading dance of destruction. Yet in the midst of it, Empion did not forget his own duty. The Omega Unbowed turned around and, as the minutes of engagement ticked on, prepared to enter battle.
But it seemed like it wouldn't be needed. At Nuceria Mark three hours, Empion reviewed the battle and came to the conclusion that it was, barring major impact from the ritual, already won. The enemy fleet had been cut to pieces, ships thrown about like leaves. A few of the smaller ones fell, as a rain of devastation, to the world below. Others had fled to the Warp Storm; all of those had been damaged, and it was implausible that any could survive even without the storm's own dangers, though given the pacts the Imperials had made Empion could not claim to be sure.
The last major engagement, at mark seven and a half hours, was between the Conqueror and the Perfect Honour. Demands for surrender were thoroughly ignored, not that the terms were especially gracious. No love on either side, in this war. Perhaps to an even greater extent than the Great Crusade, this was a war of Humanity against Other, and so a war of hate or at the least disgust.
The engagement between the flagships took place at a point in the Conqueror's orbit when it was approaching the beam at Desh'ea. Deviating from that orbit, the Conqueror attempted to close, but that ship's capabilities were known - at least to Guilliman. And the World Eaters were known to prefer boarding. So the Perfect Honour stayed at a distance, enough to shred the Conqueror with its gun batteries but not enough to risk anything like ramming. Of course the Conqueror was firing back too, but -
It was a minor mistake, but one an experienced commander would still not be expected to make. The Perfect Honour feinted, and the Conqueror fired its Ursus Claws, seeking to pull the other battleship towards it. But the reaction was slow enough that the claws missed, by a wide margin, and spun the Conqueror so that its main gun decks faced away from the Perfect Honour. At that point Guilliman did close, unleashing a volley that left the Conqueror nearly stranded in space.
In a last gasp, the Conqueror launched pods - both drop-pods and boarding torpedoes, respectively to the planet and against the Honour. If the Perfect Honour had been alone, the latter might even have worked, depositing a squad or two onto the Honour's lower decks to kill a significant number of crew members before being annihilated. But now, at last, the Omega Unbowed made its contribution, as did its escorts. The volley came from above, following a carefully timed command by Empion, and it knocked the boarding torpedoes out of the sky. Their burnt remnants fell to Nuceria, and the Perfect Honour retreated again, firing shots that gradually crippled the remnants of the Conqueror. Additional artillery ships came in, beginning the process of pounding the flagship into scrap.
"Incoming communique from the enemy!"
"Patch it through," Klevex ordered, and so they did. The signal was a human with a noble face and a well-kept uniform, standing in the middle of a frantic bridge, wearing an admiral's insignia signed with his name and his house - old Terran nobility, Empion's training suggested from the comportment, though the 'Terran' part of this was only speculation.
"My compliments on the victory," Urgara Ferran said. "We couldn't raise the Perfect Honour, so convey those compliments to whoever your commander is."
"Are you looking to surrender?"
"No," Ferran said. "I won't let it be said that the Twelfth Legion's flagship surrendered. For the Empe-"
The link was shattered as a volley from the Perfect Honour hit the Conqueror's bridge head-on. The bridge exploded, and Empion thought he could see, on the sensors, its fragments falling as a rain of debris onto the world below, to burn up in its atmosphere.
The Conqueror itself did not meet the same fate. Even as guns were broken off and engines were pounded into scrap, it sailed on in its orbital track. Even as containment was breached and the atmosphere vented into space, even as the Gellar Field was broken, it continued unswervingly on its path through the void. It would remain there, a new artificial moon in the skies of the world its destiny was tied to, for thousands of years yet if it was not salvaged. The Conqueror did not die quickly, even with the firepower of the entire Ultramarine fleet pounding at it, and it did not die at an especially high cost, but it died with all the grandeur that befitted a flagship of a Legio Astartes.
The Ultramarines secured Nucerian orbit for Imperium Secundus and the Coalition in the span of eleven hours, twenty-nine minutes, and thirteen seconds.
The planet itself would be harder.
The skies were dusty. He was not surprised by this. He'd known the climactic data of these lowlands, and he knew their relation to the current weather. Nonetheless, it was one thing to know it and prepare for it in terms of communications equipment and the like, and another thing to feel the scouring wind on his skin.
Not that it was anything worse than discomfort, even with the gunships throwing up still more dust into the air.
Roboute Guilliman walked across the dropsite, directing the erection of the first ring of defenses. The Titans were late, albeit not far outside tolerances. In itself, this was merely inconvenient.
In the minutes before battle, it was potentially disastrous.
He'd ordered a landing near Desh'ea, on the banks of the intermittent Desh River, precisely to provoke the World Eaters. Battle was inevitable, and better to be the defender in an even slightly fortified position than the attacker. Besides which, it would be easier to limit collateral damage.
It was a risk, but it was a calculated risk.
Around him, ninety thousand Ultramarines were stationed in concentric rings, the inner ones incorporating Army units as well. Not skitarii - too few of those. The Mechanicum had not responded well to his recommendations of reform, and moreover Kane had thrown his weight behind Horus in the Warmaster's disagreement with Guilliman. But by the same token, many of those within the Mechanicum who had their disagreements with Kane - often Kelbor-Hal's allies in the old factional struggles - and who had doubts about its dogma in principle flocked to Ultramar. That set, in the practical, contained a number of Titan Legions. The entire affair was a delicate balancing act, and it could well have crippled the Thirteenth's ability to fight if not for his and Archmagos Butaran's dedicated attention.
Which was not to say that the Mechanicum's outrage at any interference surprised him. After the Emperor's repudiation of the Treaty of Mars, they were naturally suspicious of the Astartes, Primarchs, and all other symbols of the Imperium as threats to their sovereignty.
"Thexilev, Ventanus," he said, greeting his captains as he came up to the outer ring. "The Titans are still behind schedule, unfortunately. Has Monaxi run off again?"
"He's around, my lord," Ventanus said. "Just at the very front of the barricades."
He didn't have the easy camaraderie with Thexilev and Ventanus as he did with the Chapter Masters, even now. Too many layers of command between them, even if none of those layers were present now. But they meshed well enough, nevertheless.
"Impatience?" Guilliman asked.
"Irritation, I think," Ventanus said. "It's the sky."
Guilliman nodded, understanding.
The skies were dusty. Guilliman had expected they would be dusty, for Nuceria was a desert planet. He had not expected to be glad of it.
Because beyond the slight haze of dust, the noontime skies were a tapestry of madness.
He caught glimpses in it, from time to time. He was far from Magnus, but all of the Primarchs had some psychic ability. In this storm, he saw cramped corridors, dripping with the blood of slaves crushed within a furnace, their blood aflame with the pain of ages of torment that had to be paid to prevent the cannons of the equal and opposite enemy from -
Warp phenomena were not to be dealt with lightly. But Roboute Guilliman knew that the misaligned horrors of the storm were, in some sense, real. The grid defined by his psychic sight buckled and tightened within it, but it did not break entirely.
It was different from what happened within the Warp, or near the minor Fearenel Warp Storm. It was as if the storm was weaker, less absolute. That, however, only made its discomfiting effect worse, for it added a degree of familiarity to its inhuman depths.
"My lord?" Thexilev asked. "There is something we recovered on Katha."
"An artifact," Ventanus clarified, as Thexilev brought up a large leaden box.
And as Guilliman opened it, he realized that, somehow, Thexilev had found the Cornucopia of Katha.
The second piece of the Linearity.
Five systems, aligned nearly perfectly in three-dimensional space (so that a single line passed through all five stellar cores) and moving at similar velocities. The Linearity had, according to the astronomers, existed for two hundred and ninety thousand years. According to the legends, it had been longer, and each of the five systems housed a powerful psychic artifact, the five being capable of being combined into something greater.
The myth, one that had appeared on multiple worlds of the Eastern Fringe but was everywhere considered secret knowledge, had appealed to Guilliman, but he had always dismissed it as just that. With this war, though -
He had done his best to approach perfection by the logical standards of the Imperial Truth. Yet in this war, that was not enough. And so he had sought to hedge his approach, to train his own psychic power and also to delve into those aspects of improvement he had not before.
That meant the Linearity; for Guilliman could tell that some myths were evidently only myths, but about the Linearity he had always had suspicions, even if he had surpassed them. The alignment was not implausible by random chance, but it was improbable. That was why he now wielded the halberd-gun amalgamation that was the Cannon of Premioi, the first piece of the Linearity that he had found. That was why he had searched Katha top to bottom, and perhaps would have found something if news from Ultramar had not distracted him.
And it left only three worlds of the Linearity. Konor. Zilladil.
That coincidence had other explanations, but Guilliman was increasingly skeptical of coincidences where the Warp was involved.
He brought the Cornucopia up to the Cannon, but there was no interaction. Moreover, he did not truly understand what the Cornucopia did - the legends contradicted themselves on this point, as they tended to.
"Have Chapter Master Empion hold onto it," he ordered. "It'll be useful, but it's not a weapon, and we don't have much time for that at the moment. Ventanus, stay here; Thexilev and the Second, with me. We'll join Monaxi with the Third on the front lines - we'll need that, to break the Twelfth's charge."
Ventanus squinted. "They're coming already?"
"They are," Guilliman confirmed. "We have minutes before I have to kill my brother."
"My lord...." Thexilev frowned. "Will Magnus thank us or blame us if we kill him?"
"The former," Guilliman said. "It's his kill, you're right about that. But sometimes tactics isn't compatible with vengeance, and Magnus knows that."
He didn't mention the confidence in Thexilev's tone about the battle's outcome. In a sense, he shared it. True, Angron had nearly killed Magnus.
But unlike Magnus, Guilliman would not be fighting a duel after having exhausted himself in Navigating at improbable speeds. He would have a defensive position, and support that outnumbered the enemy two to one while outgunning them five to one.
Nevertheless, for all that Angron approached a mindless berserker, he was a strong one even by Primarch standards, not to be underestimated; and though Guilliman, like everyone else, wondered what could have been had the Red Angel not been broken by the Nails, in combat the breaking only made the Red Angel more lethal.
He walked to the rampart at the very front of the outer ring, facing Desh'ea. The golden beacon was shining ahead, as if a flashlight vanishing in the storm, even if in truth it had seemingly ignited the storm; and as Guilliman took the Cannon of Premioi into his hands, he finally caught a good glimpse of the heads of the two columns, one in green and gold while the other was in white and blue, that were charging towards them. The first wave was in the main Astartes with jump-packs and vehicles - speeders and bikes alike - but at the very head of the World Eaters' column, a figure that towered over the Astartes around him ran forward, axe and sword already in his hands, spittle flying from his mouth, strands of hair swaying behind his unhelmeted head - Angron, the Red Angel. At the head of the Salamanders' column... six warriors in plate that even from kilometers away Guilliman could recognize as that of the Pyre Guard, and an onyx-headed god holding a titanic hammer in his hands leading them, a god whose eyes burned with red fire that seemed to lock onto Guilliman's own eyes: Vulkan, Lord of Drakes.
He gave no other outward sign of the realization that there were two Imperial Primarchs present rather than one.
But inside, he knew that he had made a very big mistake.
A/N: Incidentally, does anyone have any comments at all on this? I know there's some people still around....
The charge hit the Ultramarine line, as it was always going to, despite the storm of bolter and cannon fire that threw up enough dust to shield it from view. The plain ahead of them was littered with debris - the ceramite of power armor, but also the metallic wrecks of vehicles that had been brought down by Ultramarine artillery.
Not as much as theoretical would have predicted, though. The Ultramarines had not had the time to fully fortify their position, and both enemy Legions seemed to have gained resilience beyond Astarte norms. And so the brunt of the World Eater charge hit the line ahead of Captain Justinian Thexilev, even as the Salamanders' own charge, slower but more heavily armored, approached the section of the line to his left.
Thexilev himself was standing some way back, on a natural rise. The hill didn't really deserve the name, but it was enough to give Thexilev some much-needed perspective on his company's section of the fight. Unlike on Katha, he was not fighting on the front line to start with, although he knew he was likely to see combat soon - less tolerance for deviation from theoretical, here. Besides which, the practical was that he was facing a much more complex battle, one whose shape he was not yet sure of.
His men buckled under the assault. They did not break, but Thexilev could see a point where they might. "Practical: take your squad and Onon's," he told Ixiosph, pointing to the segment of the line in question, "and help Ikiusido hold."
Ixiosph responded immediately, calling his men together without aid from the vox. Thexilev, for his part, saw the World Eater tide ebb for a moment - according to theoretical, for long enough to get the Nails activated - before rising again. The enemy, from what Thexilev could see, was frenzied, their blows erratic. But at the same time they fought to the full extent of their abilities, without even the slightest instinct for self-preservation, and that was a powerful practical. And what was more, those abilities were enhanced beyond reason, presumably by the power of the Warp and by the storm above them.
Ikiusido held, but in Lixas's section to Thexilev's right a few World Eaters managed to vault over the line. They might have effected a breakthrough if they'd just turned around, but instead they charged forwards, and Thexilev was able to vox Pezanzan to block their way. The World Eaters, who had been busy slaughtering Army troops, were taken off-guard by the sudden reinforcement, and quickly killed.
The same scenes were replaying themselves all across the line, the charge everywhere beaten back, if often at heavy cost. In some places gaps did open up, especially where there were concentrations of armor; Ultramarines fell back, encircling the enemy Astartes - by now the Salamander charge too had hit, though that section Thexilev couldn't see clearly - and none of those holes, of what Thexilev could see, were truly threatening.
None except one.
Thexilev called his command squad to him and headed towards the gap, but he already knew he would not be able to plug it, at most to mow down the Astartes who rushed in after him. For who could stop the charge of a Primarch?
Angron roared as he ran forward. Here and now, he appeared less a dreadlocked humanoid and more a literal bloody storm, and stopping him as absurd as Feral World shamans' attempts to control weather with ritual chants. The outer walls of that hurricane were body parts being tossed aside like refuse from the meatgrinder that was the Red Angel's advance.
Behind him, though, mere Astartes poured into the breach. "Practical: fire at Marines at will," Thexilev ordered, and the World Eaters fell, as careful shots hammered into the damaged parts of their armor - or, in some cases, simply their unhelmeted heads. Yet others, even bleeding from a dozen wounds, remained standing - and every World Eater that remained standing continued fighting. They charged, and Thexilev's squad - now joined by others, Thexilev suspecting that he saw Captain Monaxi's crest to his right, if only for a moment between the clouds of dust that were being kicked up and his own focus on the battle - stepped back, Thexilev yelling orders to ensure that they kept firing as they slowly retreated.
There were Imperial Army soldiers around, he saw, and he hadn't imagined Monaxi's presence either. The might of Ultramar, scything down the World Eaters, whose disregard for their own safety was no longer an advantage - though it would become one if they impacted the line.
They never did. Artillery shells, from some machine that had presumably just been set up, fell on the main bulk of charging Astartes, the last few being cleaved apart by the wall of Ultramarines without casualties. Most of them were not dead yet, but incapacitated was enough. Thexilev took a deep breath in the moment of respite, trying to glance around to see the state of the battle. The front line had stepped back, in many places, leaving Thexilev's company dangerously exposed. "Theoretical: fall back to second line," he voxed his company, in the certitude that he needed to say no more.
And then there was a shadow above them that was not like the others, and Thexilev looked up to see Angron's own charge. He was yelling something, perhaps about his sons being butchered by Thexilev's brothers - whatever it was, it wasn't in Gothic, or any other dialect that Thexilev knew. His axe and sword were swinging wildly like codes on a chain, and behind him the World Eaters rallied, even the ones with grievous injuries. "Fall back," Thexilev yelled, but he knew it was not enough, that he would die here. Angron bounded to the line -
And the red storm was met by a blue one, the axe blow that would have executed either Thexilev or one of the Ultramarines standing next to him intercepted, impossibly quickly, by another axe.
"Guilliman," Angron yelled, as the Astartes spread out around the two Primarchs. "I'm going to enjoy killing you, and all your Legion. Arrogant high riders, the lot of you."
"You call us the tyrants?" Guilliman asked incredulously, almost but not quite masking his own fury. "With what you've become, with what you did to Prospero?"
And the Ultimate Warrior attacked. His halberd met both of Angron's strokes at once, turning them aside, and let forth a beam - not lascannon, something stronger, really - into the Red Angel's armor. Angron was forced to his knees, but parried Guilliman's blow, feinting only to see Guilliman turn and slice the armor on his arm open. With every blow the rage in Angron's expression grew, and even through the thunder of battle all around them, Thexilev thought he could hear the click as the Nails turned on and Angron's expression turned to a drooling rictus, even as his blows came faster. It was an onslaught, every blow a killing one, and it was unfathomable how Guilliman had lasted even seconds against Angron - yet he was not only parrying but weaving his way between the blows, with every step turning the Red Angel's movements against him.
Around the dueling Primarchs, their sons continued to fight. Thexilev was carried away from the duel, as he fired his bolter again and again. He crossed blades with a World Eater, parrying his attacks twice before finding an opening and carving him open; the enemy's chainsword saw its teeth catch on Thexilev's knee armor in the process, but he'd moved so that it didn't damage anything except the paint job. The Second rallied to him, at least those parts of the company not still engaged in holding the line; more Ultramarines came up from the dropsite.
And in the distance, the duel raged. Guilliman had lost his weapon, but his gauntlets proved enough to parry the remaining axe's blows. The black sword, which seemed to radiate an aura of doom, had likewise fallen. Angron seemed wounded, his strikes still fast if raw, but no longer quite as elegant as they had been, and though he was holding out against an inhuman storm, Thexilev knew his father was winning the duel -
But then a green beast slammed into the Battle-King, and Roboute Guilliman fell.
Briefly, of course. He jumped to his feet immediately, turning aside the fatal blow from Vulkan's hammer. But he was fighting alone against two Primarchs, and gauntlets were ill-suited to stop hammers - and now Angron, too, picked the Blackblade up and charged.
There was another moment that Thexilev lost sight of the Primarchs for, as he linked up with Ixiosph again. "They've been split apart," his second-in-command reported. "The assault's contained. Left flank reports the same from the Salamanders." He took a shot in between sentences, at a Dreadnought that was tearing, in a berserk fury, at an Imperial Army gun emplacement that had long since been abandoned. Unsurprisingly, the shot bounced off from the armor ineffectually. "The command center is at Height AE-1. There's a tree."
The walk there was calmer, as they rotated off the front line. Around them, Apothecaries and human medicae tended to the wounded, as Ultramarines and Mechanicum adepts cleared the route for the armor columns. Everything was proceeding with the utmost efficiency, but also with unmistakable urgency.
There was indeed a tree at the command center, of sorts: it was a scraggly, half-dry thing that had been knocked over by some especially strong gust of wind and responded by growing new roots at its tip, even as its barely connected stump grew new shoots, creating a tree that looked like the product of a teleporter mishap. There was also Chapter Master Arceas Odinathus of the Tenth.
"Captain Thexilev," he said with a nod, turning from his conversation as the latter approached. "I've assumed operational command while Guilliman is fighting. Your Company?"
"Retreated to the second line in good order, currently split between Guilliman's position and segment 23," Thexilev reported.
"Actually, a large portion has slid over to 24," Ixiosph corrected.
Thexilev nodded. "What's the practical, Master Odinathus?"
"They hit us faster than theoretical," Odinathus said, "but while they caught us less than fully ready... well, my point is, they didn't have time to get their full force. Theoretical: this is maybe half of them. Assault's been beaten back everywhere except for 21, which is Guilliman's position. Practical: as to that duel, you'd know better than me."
"Practical: Guilliman's losing," Thexilev admitted. "Vulkan is here."
"Also Angron. That's the problem."
Odinathus didn't seem to know what to say to that besides continuing to direct the unloading, even as Thexilev sat down, breathing heavily. His company was being rotated off the front lines, replaced by the Ninety-First. While he and Ixiosph had not suffered more than armor damage and scratches, other squads had fared worse, and Thexilev had to get back up and direct triage. Sergeant Onon was dead, though his gene-seed had been recovered; after a brief consultation with the squad's survivors, Thexilev promoted Zan Emedekron, a young warrior who kept his black hair in a long braid, in his place. Sergeant Lixas had lost both arms, but the Apothecaries had managed to stabilize him, and he would return to duty as soon as the bionics had time to set - which, however, would not be in this campaign, leading Lixas to give his squad to Imant Lamogor for the time being. Others checked in with casualties among line Astartes. Naxigum, Onill, Niulth....
This was far from the first time Thexilev had lost men under his command. But that didn't prevent him from mourning, in the few moments that he had to spare for it. Too many good Astartes, fallen in a campaign that should never have been. Fallen sectors away from home, from Ultramar, even as that home burned, never to learn whether their sacrifice had meaning.
The fighting in 21 did not die down. Ventanus came back, a faint cut on his face and tears running along it.
"Practical: they took him," he said without preamble. "Guilliman has been captured."
Thexilev had no idea how to react to that. It was unthinkable, for the Primarch to be defeated. Unthinkable... yet more thinkable, perhaps, than for two Primarchs to be. And yet captured did not mean dead, which was what every Ultramarine who knew had silently feared. Captured meant there was still, in the practical, hope.
Even if the theoreticals for this war said that death was preferable. Surely, Thexilev thought, even Angron and Vulkan would treat their brother with a modicum of respect. They may need his blood for a sacrifice, but surely they would not stoop to torture until that time.
"Captured," Odinathus said, softly. "What... by Ultramar, what do we do?" He fell silent, as his communicator beeped in his hands.
"We fight," Ventanus growled. "That's the practical. The theoretical, which is more involved, is that we push those bastards out of our dropsite. We outnumber them five to one, not counting auxilia. They may have two Primarchs, but we have a hundred thousand Ultramarines. This attack was an error in judgment on their part, and it's our duty to prove that."
Odinathus stayed silent. The comm kept beeping. Thexilev walked up and grabbed it out of the Chapter Master's hand.
"Captain Thexilev of the Fourth," he said.
"Princeps Antileth of the Finis Gentibus, Legio Vulcanum I warleader," the metallic voice replied. "We are ready to walk. Where are we needed?"
"Segment 21," Thexilev said, before handing the communicator back to a recovering Odinathus.
The Chapter Master shook his head. "I... practical: the shock must have gotten to me. You're right, of course, Captain Ventanus. We need to keep fighting."
"We do," said a new battle-brother as he came up. Chapter Master Klord Empion, of the Ninth. "Are you fit for command in the practical, Master Odinathus?"
The question was asked politely, pragmatically, asking only whether Odinathus wished to remove himself from the field in case he was still in shock - but Odinathus didn't take it that way. "Yes," he said coldly. "Master Empion, if you will - "
His next words were drowned out by the sound of thunder.
They came down the cleared highway, towards the sound of fighting, those Ultramarines who were on the path scrambling out of their way. Ten engines - ten titans, painted olive-green and white, the first wave of the seventy-eight the Titan Legion contained. Four Warhounds didn't just walk, but ran across the field, at a speed completely incongruous with their being five Astarte heights tall. For a moment, as they passed, there was - not silence, for the noise of the Titans was still a din that rang in Thexilev's ears, but a respite of the shaking that made the Ultramarine feel like he was solid ground once more, instead of what felt like sand.
And then the ground fell away entirely. Four Reavers and one Warlord, the former round where the latter was blocky, towered into the corrupted heavens. And bringing up the rear, taking Thexilev's breath away -
It was a castle on legs. It was a set of conjoined spires whose every pore bristled with firepower, except those which supported the firepower of others. It was a marvel of Martian engineering as well as a work of art, and a herald of a new age, even as the superstitious added it to their pantheon of war. And to Thexilev, who had not seen Finis Gentibus walk before, it simply seemed to be too big to be reasonably supported by the ground below.
None of that was why it took his breath away. It took his breath away because of the sheer volume of dust it was throwing up.
The first salvos were fired, but it seemed unlikely that many of them would be necessary. For alongside the Titans marched Imperial Army units and newly disembarked Ultramarines, most of them keeping a more respectable distance from the Titans.
"Theoretical:" Thexilev said, "we should not have situated the command center here."
(Of course, the theoretical was precisely to have the command center at an intersection of hgihways, and if they'd had the time to erect a covering that would even have been correct. Everything was more rushed than theoretical. They'd been complacent, Thexilev supposed.)
As the Titans moved on, and the dust cleared, Thexilev turned around to see his brothers' armor - and, presumably, his own - covered in a thin layer of gray-brown, not enough to block out the blue but enough to give it a strangely ethereal sort of tint. Three figures standing near him - Ventanus, Empion, Odinathus - and his company, and -
And a little girl that certainly should not have been here.
"Hey!" Thexilev yelled, walking towards her carefully (because who knew what hid under the visage of little girls, in the practical). "What are you doing here?"
"Captain Justinian Thexilev," she said. "Captain Remus Ventanus, Chapter Masters Klord Empion and Arceas Odinathus of the Ultramarines. I am Gilloa of Nuceria - "
"Where are your parents?" Ventanus asked, walking down with open arms and making a rather more friendly impression than Thexilev had.
"Dead in Desh'ea," she said. "But that doesn't matter, relatively. You need to listen to me."
"What on Terra - "
"She's possessed by a psyker," Thexilev guessed.
"No," the girl - Gilloa - said, and her eyes sparked with a flash of apparent lightning that left Thexilev, despite his Astarte vision, blinded for a second and a half. "I am a psyker. And you need to listen to me, because the Titans are going to win this battle, but your Primarch is going to be killed unless we save him. And if he does, then Nuceria will not only die without rebirth, but drag the galaxy down with it."
That is a magnificent story. How about upload it on other sites?
Two Terran months later
Artellus Numeon watched the fortifications rise, an eight-pointed star in the heart of the Ghanun desert. Unlike in Desh'ea, one of the points had been replaced with a tri-circle, leaving seven equal arrows that led in any direction but one.
Any direction but backward, as Numeon saw it.
On this path, they could yet become anything, except for what they had once been.
But the fire of faith still burned in Numeon's chest. It was faith in the Emperor, but it was also faith that they would win the war. And most of all, it was the faith that destiny lived. That this new path would bring about the final triumph of humanity that the Crusade had always promised.
"So," Skatar'var said, walking up to the commander of the Pyre Guard. "You're sure I have command of the raid?!"
"Yes, of course," Numeon said with a sigh. "Listen, brother - you know you've not been yourself lately."
"None of us have," his brother observed.
"No," Numeon admitted, "but most of us have been closer to it than you. I'm not angry at you, Skatar'var. I want to help you."
"Leodrakk - "
"Is on Terra, and getting the best care possible. He will recover."
Skatar'var paused. "Yes, but we can't be certain of anything, Numeon. Not anymore. And even if he fully recovers someday... I miss him. Especially in these times."
Numeon could only nod at that. "Just be careful out there, Skar. Your brother will not want to awake only to see you injured in his place." He did not mention death, but he knew that his brother would see the implication.
Nonetheless, Skatar'var only gave a laugh. "Into the fires of battle, brother." The implication there, too, was clear - a Salamander lived or died by his own merits.
"Unto the anvil of war," Numeon said, and saluted as the other Pyre Guard descended from the parapet to take command of the raiding party.
A raiding party. For captives. Numeon understood the dusk-wraiths now much better than he had ever expected to. They had raided merely to survive, of course, rather than - as the Salamanders now did - sacrificing a few to save the many. This had ever been what the Eighteenth did. They had always been killers; they had always been monsters.
But, as with many aspects of the Primordial Truth, that knowledge was both bitter and difficult to accept.
Numeon stood on the parapet for a few minutes, time he'd had free, to look at the ground they would fight the Ultramarines on (and that they would fight was by now clear). It was important, to know the land they would fight in, both for tactical and practical reasons, even if he'd seen it many times before in daytime rather than the present night.
Ghanun was not, all in all, a complicated land. Their fortress, at the exact antipodal point of the Desh'ea central square, stood near the edge of a great plateau. Here there was little of the dust of the lowlands; but there was still sand. Sand, in rolling dunes that came up to the wall that rose above them several kilometers to the north. The top of that escarpment held a secondary fort, so as to prevent the Ultramarines from the obvious theoretical of placing artillery there. There the ground had long ago moved, breaking the underlying layer of granite - one half thrust into the sky, the other dropped into the earth. The softer rocks above had eroded into the sands that swirled around them, but the fire-born granite - old rock, a billion years old, and tired, but still holding on to its cohesion - endured. Below that cap, Numeon could trace the layers of sediment, laid down in the seas of a world that was then still young. Those times were forever gone, but the earth did not forget.
In every other direction, where the seven arrows pointed, there were dunes, stretching out near the horizon. In the south and southeast, the distance held snowy mountains, which Numeon knew blocked the entire basin of Ghanun off from the winds off Nuceria's shallow seas. The sand was for the most part yellow quartz, but to the even drier east it faded to white gypsum that winds scoured off the mountains. The volcano of Mount Keghil rose in the west, a solitary black cone surrounded by a large patch of black and darkened sand, of magnetite and ash. Only blue holdfasts, all far in the distance, broke the monotony of the landscape - five of them, and two more on the plateau, signifying the Ultramarines' preparation for the siege. Over time they would creep closer to them, but at the rate they were advancing the ritual would be done long before. And above, everywhere, the vortex where the gods' realm intersected that of mortals. Unlike some of his comrades, Numeon did not avert his eyes from the Warp Storm, but neither did he stare into it. It was a sacred place, but not one meant for humans, and to gaze too deep into it invited revelations that broke minds. And though Astarte minds did not break easily, this test was not one Numeon believed worthy.
But the sky would change; the ground.... Ghanun would bear the scars of this war for millennia, but in the terrain and not its people, for it was a desolate place, the dryest land in a dry world. Not, like Nocturne, a land that killed with its rage, but one that killed with indifference. No one lived here, not because they would die in eruption or quake, but because they would perish of hunger or thirst.
It was a land most unlike its Legion... except it wasn't really its Legion, was it? Until this campaign, not a single World Eater had ever set foot in the Ghanun Desert, and their rage at its qualities was far from hidden.
But regardless of such conceptual connections or lack thereof, the land was desolate, and raids to the north - conducted by Salamanders and World Eaters alike - were required, for the thousands of souls required for the second sacrifice that would conclude the planetary-scale ritual.
As Numeon walked from the parapet, he saw the promise of that ritual, in the heart of their fortress. It was hard not to - already ten thousand baseline or near-baseline humans, arrayed like a great army on parade, clothed in a million shades of randomness, a pure sample of the Nucerian population... unmoving and frozen in time, bringing to mind some demented museum.
Vulkan refused to have the people he would have to sacrifice suffer through prolonged confinement. Instead, they would wake only for moments, until the day came and the statis field would turn into an entropic one, killing all of them painfully but quickly. But until then they stood there as a solemn reminder of the Eighteenth and Twelfth Legions' duty.
"Mercy," a voice said out of the shadows. "That's what your Primarch calls this."
Numeon turned to face the intruder - his armor blue and white but splattered with blood, his head bearing a pair of rectangular crests that game the impression of horns. Kharn, Eighth Captain of the World Eaters and the foremost Astarte of the Legion.
Numeon's equivalent. They got along surprisingly well.
"And is it not mercy, relatively speaking?" Numeon asked. "Better this than to herd them into slave pens."
"You can call anything good if you choose the right evil to compare it to," Kharn said, taking his helm off. "How do you truly believe it, Numeon? That we're on the right side of this war?"
Numeon frowned. "Do you not?"
"There's no right side in any war," Kharn said. "Never has been. All that matters is fighting for whatever side you fight for honorably and well."
"So how did you pick a side?"
Kharn shrugged. "One side's the loyalists, the other's the traitors. And some of us are fighting for faith, now, but we never really needed a reason."
Numeon nodded. It was a foreign mindset to him, but so much about the World Eaters was.
"And I think...." The Eighth Captain frowned. "In the grip of the Nails, we follow the path of least resistance, in a certain sense. So many of us survived the assault on the dropsite because we spent our time chasing after fleeing Army troopers and wound up lost in the scrub, but alive instead of being blown up by the Titans. And you couldn't call anyone who did so a coward, unlike the Thirteenth Company. Though I get why Zekhoros dropped either way - didn't want to die in a boarding torpedo. I can't even blame him." He paused. "When the Nails have you in their grip, modified or not, you don't have a choice. Sometimes, even when they don't, you don't realize that you do."
"Erosion of responsibility," Numeon said. "That explains a lot." None of it was good, but then the Twelfth Legion did so often - their entire history was a tragic demonstration that even the Emperor had limits. At the same time, Numeon had to remind himself not to pity them too much. They were still Astartes, and quite possibly the strongest of all the Legions.
"You never answered my question," Kharn pointed out, as they walked past the rows of motionless bodies. "Which is Lhorke's question, really."
"The former Legion Master?"
"And current Dreadnought," Kharn said. "He was recently awoken, and is cantankerous about being at war with half the Legions."
"He's not - "
"He's loyal to the Legion," Kharn interrupted, answering Numeon's question before he could ask it.
The two Astartes turned left as they descended a stairway leading below the stasis field, shoes and bare feet floating above their heads. Numeon stroked his chin as he considered his answer. "I believe. In the end, that's not a logical reason. But I believe in the Emperor, and in His grand plan. And Horus's Coalition lacks that faith. They lack any faith - any dream, except for the one of Imperial Truth that its architect has dismissed. Their goal is a contradiction."
"A Warmaster fighting for 'freedom'," Kharn said. "It's almost funny. I suppose their hypocrisy will suffice, for Lhorke."
Numeon shrugged, as they walked on in companionable silence. Above, arches stretched across the ceiling. This complex was utilitarian, but with so many Salamanders locked into a fort for a month (as the rest of the planet was under tenuous Ultramarine control, the Imperials having rapidly repeated after being repulsed at the dropsite) carvings were growing like vines across its walls and other surfaces. They were still artisans, whatever else they had become.
The World Eaters spent their free time in pit fights. Of course the Salamanders did too, but they had other pursuits as well.
As Numeon came up to the great doors of his destination, he gave a look to his companion. "My Primarch summoned me," he said. "Though he is unlikely to be angry at seeing you as well."
"I'll stay and watch then," Kharn said.
Numeon nodded acknowledgement and knocked on the door, the clangs echoing in the distance.
"Enter," Vulkan said from within, his voice deep and echoing, and perhaps a touch mournful.
Numeon stepped forward into his father's darkened sanctum, lit only by the seven dim braziers that surrounded the Primarch, carefully, with Kharn remaining outside the door. The chamber was unbearably hot, even moreso than usual. The floor was carved in stone and covered in trails of sand.
"Sand," Kharn was muttering. "Damned sand. The joints can go years without maintenance, but drop a few grains deep enough...."
(The correct resolution to this issue was to not go years without armor maintenance.)
The designs were varied, and Numeon could feel the spiritual power of those carvings and paths. The ground seemed to hum with them. At times, he had stood in this room with his Primarch and the rest of the Pyre Guard, chanting litanies to turn Nuceria against their foes. Its fury, and the fury of the gods, were turned against the Ultramarines. The ground exploded into lava, or simply crumbled beneath their feet; great swarms of insects assaulted them, to inject disease into their veins or to clog the intakes of their engines. The rituals safeguarded the Salamanders' position, the disruption giving the Imperials the time they needed to finish their plans for the world, yet they could only be done so often. Even the endurance of the Pyre Guard had its limit, and the toll that the rituals took, both physical and mental, was not easy to bear.
As he stepped gingerly over the sand, as well as the occasional design in glass or bone, Numeon felt his armor systems switch to cooling. He wanted to put his helmet on, to seal himself off, but of course he endured. He was a Salamander.
Before him, the bulk of the Lord of Drakes emerged, onyx skin covered in glistening brands of victories past. Maragara was not on there, nor Chogoris. Numeon did not know if Nuceria would be. Around him, the complex geometry of the diagram stretched in rings and heptagons and arrows, but in Vulkan's immediate vicinity there was only the steam and the smoke.
"Artellus," Vulkan said. "And I see Kharn is waiting outside."
He turned to face Numeon. His face, black as if the radiation had physically charred it, was the face of a smith, an artisan, a father. It was also the face of a warrior, a guardian, and a monster. Vulkan's red eyes were no longer clouded, as they had been between Maragara and Chogoris; they shone like stars in the night.
Numeon welcomed that, for there were no stars in the Nucerian night anymore, and he strangely missed them.
"Father," he said, kneeling.
"Rise," Vulkan said. "I only meant to speak to you briefly. To you, and you alone."
"Apologies," Kharn said, and bowed before leaving. The great doors, or perhaps more accurately gates, gradually swung shut, leaving only the braziers and Vulkan's eyes glowing in the darkness.
"You're off-balance," Vulkan said. "No, don't deny it - you're disturbed, by our course. As I am."
"It reminds me of the dusk-wraiths," Numeon admitted after a pause. "But I have faith in you and the Emperor that our purpose is just."
There was a longer pause at that.
"It is easier to have faith, perhaps," Vulkan said, "than to deserve it.... Angron described our purpose here as getting the Emperor out of our hair. Perhaps there is something to that."
"You doubt," Numeon guessed.
"Horus doubts, and doubts enough to rise in revolt," Vulkan said. "But no, I do not doubt our purpose. Nor do I doubt Nurgle. He does not represent the Circle of Fire - he is the Circle of Fire, every good and every bad aspect of it. To doubt him would be like doubting a volcano."
Numeon stayed silent.
"I doubt my father," Vulkan eventually said. "That is the dark truth, Numeon. I am sure that the Emperor started off on this path for righteous reasons. But he has been sacrificing pieces of himself as he advances along it, and I am no longer sure he even trusts himself. He has damned himself for humanity's sake. And with the toll it has taken even on him, I do not know whether even I am strong enough."
"The Emperor is going mad?" Numeon did not know what to say. Vulkan surely did not truly believe Horus and the renegades, else he would not be continuing this ritual, but this felt eerily like hearing one object of faith speak of heresy to another. Numeon felt the tension between his two hearts.
"Not in the sense you think of," Vulkan said. "But he has become erratic, and he knows it. He claims becoming a god will stabilize him, but I don't think he is sure." So it was as when Vulkan bore the hammer Ferrus'd forged. Or, perhaps, as a metastable state during a reaction. There was only one answer, either way.
"We just have to have faith, then," Numeon said.
Another pause. "I suppose we do," Vulkan said, bowing his head. "I did not mean to make you my confessor, Numeon. I apologize for this candor. But since you believe so truly... I have a gift for you, as it happens."
Vulkan pressed into his hand a blade - a shard of flint, simple and not especially sharp, with a delicately worked golden hilt. The blade itself looked like little more than a savage's tool, to be frank, but Numeon knew appearances could deceive in these things.
"Erebus of the Word Bearers found the blade," he said, "and Lorgar broke it in half lengthwise, creating two lesser athames. The hilt is mine, and the partner weapon belongs to one of my brothers - Lorgar did not say which, but I suspect it is the Lion, as a matter of balance."
"What does it do?"
"It cuts things." Vulkan gave a faint smile. "But it cuts in the spiritual realm as well as the physical, connecting the disconnected even as it disconnects the connected, a reversal of bridges of sorts. It can be used, for example, to cut a path through the Warp, from one world to another."
Numeon took his Primarch's words in silently.
"It is not the easiest tool to use," Vulkan said, "but I still believe it is better for it to be in hands other than my own. For this athame may yet become the Legion's only escape from Nuceria."
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