Hive Jaarus was atomised in a retina-burning flash. The clouds parted, a lance of golden light - The Emperor's Fury, the Guardsmen called it - Spearing downwards, striking the Hive's poisonous heart. The light, utterly blinding, turned night into day for a brief moment - Visible for miles - Before fading away, leaving the landscape glowing an angry red, the ground a glassy, uninhabitable wasteland.
Caderyn watched the spectacle unfold, alongside his Captain - Antigonus the Black, Foe-hammer, Scourge of the Orks - Arms folded across his chest, helm locked in place. Two hundred other Fire Lords, a task force from the First, Fourth and Ninth Companies, surrounded them; weapons mag-locked to thighs, heads tilted skywards. Guardsmen of the Eliktoni Rifles, in their gold frogging and white shakoes, crowded around in their tens of thousands. Some moaned, blinded by the bombardment, others cheered and punched the air and some even twitched, where their hearts had given out, ignored by their fellow Riflemen.
'What of Captain Gaelan?' Antigonus grumbled, fingering his beard. He alone went without helm, his skin scrawled with fire motifs, painted a dark, near-black, blue. Clad in tactical drednought armour, Antigonus resembled a tank more than a Space Marine; his head dwarfed between giant, rounded pauldrons.
'Negative, sire,' Caderyn said, his voice bitter. He, along with the entirety of the Fire Lords, knew that Captain Gaelan and his fifty Astartes would not be returning from Hive Jaarus.
'Very well,' Antigonus returned, nodding his head. He turned away from the smoldering plain, marching towards the command tent of Lord Militant Drayvon. 'Walk with me.'
Caderyn complied at once, falling into step behind his commander, gauntlet tightening around the hilt of his blade, Illuminos. False-muscles in his armour tensed, expecting violence. Humans, Eliktoni and Cadians, Tallarns and Skyrans, moved aside as the two giants advanced into the camp - Past makeshift defences, messhalls and whorehouses - No-one, not even the most pious of Guardsmen, wishing to slow their revered angels. Tired, dust-rimmed eyes barely acknowledged Antigonus and Caderyn, following the Space Marines disinterestedly. Hive Jaarus had been a meat-grinder of a campaign, exhausting the lives of untold Guardsmen, and it showed. Vehicles were scorched and boots scuffed, many of the Guardsmen displaying bandages over their grey-green flak armour. An entire armoured Regiment - The Cadian something-or-another - Had been battered, routed and systematically destroyed at the Hive's monolithic gates.
A pair of storm-troopers, faces hidden beneath mirrored visors, stamped to attention as Antigonus marched into Drayvon's tent. The First Captain ignored them completely. The command tent was bustling with activity, Regimental commanders and aides crowded around the central hololith table; some were solemn and brooding, others sipping away at wine - Their faces set in cheerful, victorious smiles. At the head of the table, wearing snow-white and blood-red, was Lord Militant Drayvon.
Lord Militant Dravyon was a pot-bellied, bald-headed buffoon. He was balding, with a short, pugnacious nose and great white whiskers. He was a Scholam graduate, and Caderyn doubted that he'd ever been face-to-face with the enemy. The Fire Lords, upon arrival in the sector, had unanimously took a dislike to the arrogant, condescending Drayvon. Caderyn was no exception - He despised the man with a passion - And now both he, and Lord Antigonus, had every right to. Dravyon's orbital strike, Caderyn knew, would be his last blunder.
'Congratulations, Lord Militant,' Antigonus grunted as he entered. His hands clenched into fists, servos whinning angrily. 'You have just comitted genocide.'
Dravyon wheeled, piggish eyes narrowing further, and nodded. 'Necessary losses. The infestation is contained. Your presence here is no longer required, Lord Antigonus.'
'Fifty-one of my brethren were still within the boundaries of the Hive, Lord Militant,' Antigonus stepped closer and Dravyon visibly shirked away. 'They were given insufficient warning of the bombardment.'
'A great loss, yes, I'm sure,' Dravyon said, with a sad smile. 'But as I said, it was necessary. The Xenos infestation has been-'
'Contained? Exterminated? What?' Antigonus's voice was a volcanic crash, a clashing of syllables. 'Twenty thousand Guardsmen, over a million other Imperials and fifty-one of the Emperor's Astartes. That is the butcher's bill, Dravyon. You are an incompetent fool. You have condemned yourself, Lord Militant. The losses are unacceptable, your callous disregard for life has nigh-on ruined the crusade group. Blood calls for blood.'
And, with that, Antigonus drew his storm-bolter. Dravyon lost control of his bladder, pissing himself, as the huge barrel reared before his face.
'I am the Lord Militant, you'll never ge-' Dravyon managed, before his world ended in fire and noise. His headless body stumbled, striking the table, pulling it over with him. Blood was gushing from the Lord Militant's shoulders; a fine, crimson mist hanging in the air. Two of his aides cried out, fearing a similar fate, and made a run for it. The Imperial Guardsmen within stood, mouths agape, shocked.
Antigonus said no-more, spun on his heel, and left. Caderyn glanced one last time at the corpse of the Lord Militant, muttered a curse, and followed his lord. He caught him, pushing through the Imperial Guardsmen - Hundreds of which had gathered at the sound of Antigonus's shot - A murderous glint remaining in his eyes, like a whispered promise of violence.
'Tell me, Caderyn,' He said, as the Champion reached him, hand still locked around Illuminos. 'What do you know of the Feast of Blades?'
And so it was, that six months later, Caderyn now stood on the bridge of the strike cruiser, Fire-wyrm. It was an ugly vessel, three kilometres of warp-beaten ceramite and adamantium, shaped like a vast dagger. A city of cathedra rose up from the vessel's back, like a gargantuan spine, dotted with world-killer cannons and cavernous torpedo bays. The prow, a giant's cleaver, flickered in the distance - Starlight dancing across the scuffed, battle-worn surface. The bridge was, for once, quiet. All eyes, from the lowliest of serfs to the shipmaster, Keylon, were turned upon the behemoth before them. It was the largest starship ever constructed by the hand of man, resembling an uprooted city - All towers, sensorium domes and battlements - Rather than a starship. Caderyn had never before set eyes upon it, though he knew of the vessel's potent destructive powers, of her labyrinthine depths and proud history. The name was holy amongst the Imperial Fists and their descendants, one of Dorn's greatest achievements, perhaps his greatest.
'The Phalanx,' Caderyn breathed, after a moment of silence. 'Spectacular.'
'That's putting it lightly,' Keylon said, smiling coolly. He was a bag-of-bones, with hollow cheekbones and sunken, blind eyes. The Fire-wyrm was his, and had been his, for nearly a century. His tactical acumen, his prowess in naval combat, was legendary. And despite his detached, calculating nature, Caderyn had warmed to his company. Indeed, he would be sad to part ways with the shipmaster. 'It makes us look like a toy. Look, here,' He pointed, through the bridge's viewing ports, at a forest of cannons. 'This section alone outguns us. I wouldn't fancy our chances against her, nevermind the escorts.'
And, of the escorts, there was no shortage. Caderyn counted thirty - Strike cruisers and battle barges, frigates and destroyers - Most in the sun-kissed yellow of the Imperial Fists, though others bore the livery of son-Chapters proudly - A Crimson Fist frigate, a striker cruiser of the Black Templars and, more interestingly, a lone vessel in the colours of the Executioners. Caderyn licked his lips, noting down the presence of his brother-cousins. Less than a century earlier, on the Golan Orbital Plates, an Executioner by the name of Conric - A vicious, cunning bastard, - Had served besides Caderyn. Their ways, their morbid fascination with head-taking, had been all too familiar with the Fire Lord. Their frigate was, the Champion thought, a more-than welcome sight.
A strike cruiser, Titus, was maneuvering towards the Fire-wyrm with almost-gentle bursts of her secondary and tertiary engines.
'Fire-wyrm, Fire-wyrm,' The vox crackled, filling the bridge. 'Please stand down and prepare for boarding.'
'My vessel hasn't been boarded in half a damned century,' Keylon grunted to Caderyn. 'But the Fists suspect foul play? I hope Antigonus sent you to remove that stick from their arses, Caderyn.'
The Fire Lord laughed, a loud, raucous sound. Keylon was busying himself, tapping commands into his control panel, streams of data hovering before his face. The Titus drifted alongside the Fire-wyrm, extended boarding vestibules, and connected with a great trembling. Along the Fire-wyrm's length, armoured seals twisted open, permitting Imperial Fist boarding teams aboard. One, led by an Astartes garbed in the blue of the Librarium, strode directly onto the bridge.
He was tall and broad, with a shock of blonde hair and a nose that had been broken too many times. Dull, grey eyes flickered to Caderyn briefly, before returning to Keylon. He bowed his head, though there was little respect in the gesture, and asked for Keylon's permission to come onto the bridge.
'You're already here,' The shipmaster answered, with a tut. Caderyn grinned. 'Aye, come on. Close the door, you're letting the cold out.'
The Librarian, an Epistolary, curled his lip. For a moment, Caderyn expected a surge of violence; he saw it, in his mind's-eye - Keylon slumping, pierced by the warrior's blade, the bark of bolters echoing throughout the bridge - But, then, the Imperial First nodded.
'Cousin,' Caderyn interrupted, extending his gauntlet. He went unhelmed, teeth shining against blue lips as he spoke. 'I am Caderyn, Champion of the Fire Lords.'
The Epistolary's escort - A pair of dour looking Marines with bolters held across their aquila-bound chest - Bristled. Something flickered in the Psyker's eyes, the briefest glimmer, one that Caderyn knew all too well - Disgust.
The ways of the Fire Lords, were by many, considered damnable. It was evident now, Caderyn realised, that not all of his cousin-brothers would be welcoming. Hesitantly, the Epistolary took Caderyn's hand - His grip strong - And shook.
'Epistolary Varrick,' He drawled, though his attentions were back on Keylon. 'Lord Pugh has entrusted me with guiding the Fire-wyrm into her berths. Your helmsmen are no longer needed, shipmaster.'
'My helmsmen,' Keylon warned. 'Are not going anywhere, Epistolary Varrick. This is my ship. That,' He pointed a talon-like finger at the Phalanx. 'Is your Lord Pugh's. The Fyre-wyrm is mine. Now, you may aid my helmsmen, but there will be no restructuring of my command.'
'Lord Pugh is Chapt-' Varrick began. Keylon silenced him with a raised hand.
'I don't care. This is my ship. It's safe and secure, is it not?'
Varrick grunted a yes, begrudgingly.
'And that is what matters. Your Phalanx is impressive, Varrick. But my helmsmen are skilled. They have navigated the shipping lanes, and the depths beyond, for decades. I won't have you - Or anyone else - Stepping on their toes. I trust that you, and your Lord Pugh, will respect that.'
Varrick seethed, unlight dancing within his psychic hood, before calming. His companions hovered fingers over triggers, eyes set on the Epistolary. They were, Caderyn realised with a half-smile, watching the Librarian as much as Keylon.
'Very well. I will input the coordinates into the Fire-wyrm's noosphere.'
'Good. I am glad we could come to an agreement.' Replied Keylon, his tone unmistakably sardonic.
Caderyn never realised how much he respected Keylon until he was aboard the Phalanx.
He was accompanied, like a prisoner, by a pair of Imperial Fists. They fell into step on either side of him, a pair of golden sentinels, faceless beneath their helms. Neither of them offered conversation, speaking only to direct the Fire Lord down a new hallway, unto a new elevator, across a new gantry. Varrick had returned to the Titus after the Fire-wyrm's docking procedures were complete, dishonoured and embarrassed by a mortal. The size of the Phalanx was incomprehensible; swallowing the strike cruiser whole. Caderyn couldn't shake a feeling of claustrophobia - A smothering, hollow embrace - As he marched along the vessel's hallways. It was, he realised, an alien feeling; completely out of place, something distinctly human.
'How many souls dwell aboard the Phalanx?' Inquired Caderyn, after a while.
One of the Fists shrugged. 'Thousands, tens of thousands? Who knows?'
You should, thought Caderyn distastefully.
'The Emperor Himself walked these halls,' The other laughed, a deep-chested, warm noise. He swept a gauntlet out, indicating the marbled expanse before them. Hundreds of serfs and pilgrims thronged here and there, under the scrutinous eye of Imperial Fists. A lone Black Templar, in the black and white of his Chapter, was kneeling before a statue of Rogal Dorn; lost in prayer. 'And you are concerned by mortals? You Fire Lords are a strange breed, cousin. Is it true? What they say about your Chapter?'
Caderyn smiled beneath his faceplate. 'That would depend on what is said, Imperial Fist.'
The Imperial Fist snorted. 'The flames, cousin. They say that you are one with the flames - That you breath fire and drink promethium.'
'Ah, yes,' Caderyn nodded. He, personally, strayed from the more extreme of rituals - But there were those, the Fire Lords more closely tied with their Chaplaincy - That engaged in wild, pyromaniac rituals. 'We also eat children.'
There was a moment of silence, the Imperial Fist trying to decipher fact from fiction, before he laughed. 'I like you, cousin. I am Tyrias, called the Strongarm.'
'The honour is mine, Tyrias. I am Caderyn. Are you to take part in the Feast of Blades?' The Fire Lord was appreciating a bust - That of the legendary Camba-Diaz - Stroking the hilt of Illuminos.
'Me?' Tyrias laughed for a third time. It was as loud and as lively as the first. 'Throne, no. I am no swordsman! I do not possess the finesse or the patience for sword-work, cousin.'
'A pity,' Caderyn sighed, disappointment evident in his tone. 'I was hoping to cross blades with you.'
'That's not a mutual feeling,' Another laugh, another grin. 'Here, look. There's the Narthex. Enter and sign your name, cousin. I must take leave - Duties, duties, duties - I wish you luck in the tournament, Caderyn.'
The Narthex was impressive. It was well lit, a ceiling of plexiglass revealing the void - Distant stars and nebulae glittering - Casting the chamber's inhabitants in a myriad of colours. Caderyn recognised the colours of the Invaders, having served alongside them almost two centuries before - Standing in conversation with Marines of the Iron Knights - Boastful and loud. There was a scattering of Black Templars, armour draped in battle honours and purity seals, watching their cousin-brothers with that passionate, religious zeal of theirs. He noted a Celestial Lion, gauntlets ending in wicked, barbed claws - His stance all confined rage; an expert warrior, Caderyn noted down. Perhaps, were the fates kind, Illuminos would cross those claws.
Hammers of Dorn - Caderyn knew them by reputation alone - Were present in large numbers. Five of them surrounded a lone figure in blue, bearing a great, double-headed axe. His armour was chipped and stained, like that of a beserker, but Caderyn knew these were honour-markings rather than damage. He was unmoving, still as stone, fury bristling beneath his plate. The Fire Lord knew him instantly, recognising the smallest of movements, the tiniest of scratches. Caderyn had saved and been saved by this warrior a dozen times - He was a bond-brother, a brilliant warrior - Though, Caderyn admitted, more of a brawler than a swordsman.
Conric, the Executioner. Grim bastard. Always causing trouble. Illuminos will be red before the Feast begins.
As though hearing his thoughts, the Executioner turned and nodded. The Fire Lord returned it, knowing it well-
Sutured-shut eyes, a mouth pulled open far too wide, tendons glistening beneath raw, red meat. A writhing, blackened tongue. Pincer-claws that were crusted with blood. Hellbrute.
-It was a nod, that upon the Golan Plates, had begun their friendship. At least in his loneliness, Caderyn thought, he was not alone.
The Feast would begin. And Caderyn now had another tough bastard - This one a brother-in-arms - That needed beating.
Nyctophobia- Fear of the Dark Angel.
"No one ever spoke about of those two absent brothers. Their separate tragedies had seemed like aberrations. Had they, in fact, been warnings that no one had heeded?"
'Killing a man is like fucking, boy, only instead of giving life you take it. You experience the ecstasy of penetration as your warhead enters the enemy's belly and the shaft follows. You see the whites of his eyes roll inside the sockets of his helmet. You feel his knees give way beneath him and the weight of his faltering flesh draw down the point of your spear. Are you picturing this?'
'Is your dick hard yet?'
''What? You've got your spear in a man's guts and your dog isn't stiff? What are you, a woman?'