Into the Shadows
Exploring the Purgatory
Kingdoms on the Fringe
There was a somber mood about the fleet as it followed the suggestions of routes on the obscure star charts, each a poorly remembered course that might have led to worlds and civilizations long extinct, or nightmares forgotten by history. Though the ships maintained their regal bearing, and their crews were as dedicated and dutiful as ever, an uneasy atmosphere set about, permeating everything from Legion training decks to the normally carefree quarters of the remembrance cadre.
The mortals among the crew could not place the sentiment, and even the Legionaries struggled to point out what precisely happened on Terra, but one thing was clear to all – the strange, nearly fanatical focus that possessed Iskanderos and trickled down to his officers, to their men, even to the Imperial Army contingents assigned to serve with the Sixth Legion. This focus drove the Imperial Redeemers on, farther away from the light of the Astronomicon on Terra with every passing moment, leaving all trappings of Apella behind as an afterthought.
Miranda thought she could guess at the cause, but voicing it felt somehow ill-advised, as if she was privy to a dirty secret too dangerous to point out, too useless to give her any sense of accomplishment or closure. Whatever happened on Terra did not go well for the Conqueror, and mere mention of it was a reminder of something shameful, something that needed purging from the Primarch’s soul before it could be made whole again.
Still, life continued. New officers were promoted to take place of those slain in an act of sabotage. New works extolling the glory of the Imperial Truth and the lord of Apella had been commissioned, each intended with not-so-subtle jabs at those who saw the Imperial Truth in their own, divergent way. A new set of companions and lovers occupied Miranda’s time in between the bouts of writing, interrupted only by the infrequent visits from Iskanderos and his equerry.
Those visits did little to bring any sort of closure or comfort to her. The Primarch was tense, his moods unpredictable and often bordering on violent contempt. Miranda pieced together enough to understand the dilemma plaguing him, though all her words had little answer for the one of his kind.
Miranda was not particularly interested in history, but her education did include a number of classes on the history of drama, forcing her to sit through performances of plays that were old before mankind first left then-green abode of Terra for its destiny among the stars. Some of their themes brought Iskanderos’ plight to life in vivid imagery with their tales of scorned sons, fearful brothers, justice that could only be delivered by gods descending from clever machinery on their makeshift swings and ropes. There was no justice for the likes of him, only revenge, and Miranda dreaded the thought that he, too, may find himself with no recourse but to let the bitterness burn through him, leading him on paths that no man, let alone demigod, should walk.
For three months, the Imperial Redeemers sailed through the shadows cast by the ever-growing Imperium, passing beyond the borders of the Emperor’s domain and into the myth. Planets and stars left behind became stranger, each only nominally adhering to the tenets of Terra. At first, they enjoyed regular hails from the nearby system astropaths wishing them safe travels or offering gifts and tribute. After a while, even those stopped as the systems they encountered became more primitive, less populated, often barren as if the colonization fleets of humanity’s long-lost golden epoch did not consider them worth the trouble.
On the eve of the ninety seventh day, they were further from Terra than any Expedition Fleet before them, and the unknown welcomed them with open, if not eager arms. In the days before the Conqueror's fateful return to Terra, this would have been an occasion for a celebration, a great feast in recognition of the Imperial Redeemers' indomitable spirit, and, by extension, the reach of humanity's greatest warriors and protectors. Now, it passed with barely a whimper as the masters of the Sixth Legion were too preoccupied with their dilemma to care about any milestone they passed.
Already tempers began to flare, producing a number of minor altercations and more than a few honor duels in the Legion training cages. While so far, this uneasy inaction resulted in in little more than a collection of scars and an occasional tooth or earlobe, many sergeants and company captains began to assign their men extra hours on equipment maintenance duties.
The Legion needed an enemy to fight. Without one, its humors turned malignant, foul, dangerous.
Though Yusuf and el-Rahim pleaded with Iskanderos to address the Legion, the Primarch remained silent. No other officers were asked to join the Companions; when Yusuf asked Demetrios for the reason, the equerry shrugged noncommittally, telling him that some thing never happened without the Primarch's approval, and that Iskanderos did not wish it.
On the ninety ninth day, the first outriders sent to scout ahead of the main Legion fleet returned with the news of tachyon emissions from the direction of small cluster of dim, red dwarf stars. Though the outriders only found crumbling ruins several thousand years old, they were the first hints of a direction. Iskanderos finally deemed it worth his time to transmit a terse message to the fleet.
Gaunt, his voice almost cracking with strain of emotion, Iskanderos spoke of the need for the Legion to continue its march, and of the undeniable proof that the hand of man touched even these distant stars. The Imperial Redeemers were to pursue the traces of their distant predecessors and to expand the Emperor's dominion even to this distant part of the galactic fringe, reuniting these wayward cousins with the majority of the human race. If they were to find humans suffering under the yoke of the alien or, worse yet, slaves to abominable machinery of the Dark Age of Technology, they would bring them the light of freedom. If they were to find only the remains of a civilization gone extinct, they would avenge their death against any inhuman invader or xenos monstrosity that dared to befoul the galaxy with its presence.
This was as clear a direction as the Imperial Redeemers got. For some, it was a clear order to prepare for battle, to renew efforts to keep their war gear in peak condition and their combat routines sharp. For others, it was just enough of a promise of battles to come, the means to stave off the sense of anxiety that permeated every soul on board the fleet.
On one hundred and twelfth day, the outriders found the first inhabited worlds, though their people were primitives wearing animal skins who fell on their knees before the metal-clad gods. From them, the Imperial Redeemers learned of another breed of sky warriors who came once in a lifetime for their tithe of slaves and riches. Thus encouraged, the Legion continued their search for a worthy conquest.
On one hundred and thirty fourth day, the Imperial Redeemers had found it.
* * *
They called themselves the Ascension, and though once sprung from the seed of Terra, they refused its offer of peace and unity. The first ambassadors and iterators were sent back with a polite but firm rejection of Iskanderos’ offer of reunion. Their successors would have been sent back in pieces if not for the prowess of a combat squad of Imperial Redeemers led by Tarnac Wali, the Legion’s foremost diplomat and one of the few outside the Companions who held the Primarch’s confidence.
Where in the decades past some Legionaries might have expressed disappointment at this unreasonable refusal to integrate into the Imperium, now the sons of Apella saw the coming war as a relief from the tension of their travels. There was a new, frantic kind of energy about as the Legion prepared for the campaign.
Orders of battle were composed and rewritten to suit the operational requirements of planetary climates and conditions. Landers and combat transports were loaded with all equipment necessary for prolonged operations in hostile territory, from superheavy tanks and Mechanicum war engines to water purifiers, mobile power generators, and frames of prefabricated housing for the Legion’s hordes of mortal attendants and serfs. Iterators and remembrancers studied the glimpses of the Ascension culture, identifying peculiarities found through observation, and venturing wild guesses as to what they could mean, and how they could be exploited in an effort to sway the hearts and the minds of this wayward culture.
Yusuf felt relieved once he was able to rejoin his company and to lose himself in planning of the assault. His target was the world called Pacal by the locals, a massive sphere twice the circumference of Terra yet poor enough in metals to produce comparable gravity. It was a hot planet with deep oceans where all manners of aquatic abominations cavorted away from the light of its yellow star, where continents – little more than islands compared to the world ocean – were overrun with sprawling growths of dark, ossified bone trees spanning the entire land surface and serving as a home to strange creatures.
Some of the more scientifically minded members of the fleet theorized that the bone forests were an introduced species running rampant as a result of earlier terraforming gone wrong. Others thought they were artificially modified species made to serve a specific, now forgotten role by an extinct, highly technologically divergent culture. The one thing they could all agree on was that the current inhabitants of Pacal who made their homes inside the hollowed out trunks of continent-trees could not have possibly produced them with their meager technological base.
For despite all its boasts to the contrary, the Ascension was primitive by almost any standard.
Its ships were hollowed-out asteroids thousands of years old, covered with growths that suggested organic origin and containing biospheres of strange, symbiotic life forms propagating with little input from the crew. The crew of the ships, at least those interrogated before the hostilities started, had little understanding of how the ships worked, or even what the disparate pieces of flora and fauna were supposed to do. The crew’s garments brought to mind feudal-age cultures on many pre-gunpowder worlds, while their weapons were no more advanced than polearms and crossbows.
There were some among the Imperial Redeemers who openly wondered if the Ascension was dominated by some unseen xenos, or if they happened upon the relics of another, more advanced civilization without true understanding of how they worked. And to think that they would have the temerity to stand against a Legion of Emperor’s chosen!
Above the blue-and-brown globe of Pacal, these questions became academic at best.
* * *
Yusuf’s Stormbird descended through the atmosphere as if expecting anti-aircraft fire, darting from side to side in an attempt to confuse the enemy sensors. Though so far, the enemy had not displayed any countermeasure technology or even understanding of three-dimensional warfare, the 54th Captain decided to err on the side of caution. Some part of him almost expected the Ascension to reveal their hand at any point in time, displaying cleverly hidden weaponry and abilities befitting a star-faring civilization, but so far, nothing happened.
“This is going to be a slaughter,” grumbled Ishmael, strapped into his chair and going through the last weapon checks.
“This sounds familiar,” remarked Telennios from his own chair, grinning. The sergeant of the Strikers was in a good mood for once, clearly relishing the prospect of battle.
“Except that this time, it is a good thing,” Ishmael retorted.
“How so, Mukhtar?” Yusuf asked, one eyebrow raised. “I thought you wondered about the pointlessness of their resistance?”
Ishmael shrugged. “Pointless it might be, but anything is better than this sitting around waiting for something, hell, anything to happen.”
“That is… quite a change of heart,” said Yusuf. “Last time we were on a mission together, you sang a different tune.”
“That was the last time,” Ishmael answered. “Things are becoming… much clearer to me now.”
“You have been away from the company for a long time, Captain,” added Telennios. “Things have been changing.”
“I didn’t think that a few months would make that much of a difference?” inquired Yusuf. “What happened?”
“I did a lot of thinking, Captain,” spoke Ishmael. “About everything you said at the Primarch’s table. About our own role. And I came to a few conclusions.”
“I am sure you know them,” Ishmael said. “Especially after sitting in space for Emperor knows how long. It is ill-fitting for the likes of us to be at peace. You know how we wondered about the end of war?”
“Ah, the end of war…” Telennios seconded him. “That one thing that would never be.”
“We tasted a few months of peace, and found it wanting,” the sergeant of Cleavers explained. “Out there, in deep space, we were like caged beasts spoiling for a fight. Out here, on the battlefield, our humors are balanced once again.”
“So…” said Yusuf thoughtfully, “are you saying that we were starting to turn upon ourselves?”
“We were on our way there,” Ishmael answered him. “You would not believe how many honor duels me and Haroun here had to settle – and all over the most trivial of things. It would have only been a matter of time before someone made a debt that could not be paid in a training cage.”
“I can see that,” admitted Yusuf with grudging recognition. He nodded in understanding. “Perhaps I spent too much time dealing with the matters of Primarchs and Councils.”
“That you have, that you have,” laughed Ishmael. “How does it feel to be back at the front lines?”
“It feels… good,” Yusuf said, realizing that it truly did feel good. It felt like he belonged in one place where his particular skills and talents could have been used to the fullest. There was no deception but that of the enemy. There was only the unshakable faith in his battle-brothers and in his Primarch, in whose name they would carry out the conquest of the known universe.
“I like the certainty,” added Telennios contemplatively. “Things are very clear in war. I thought that I was prepared for the peace that follows, but it is… confusing.” His voice became earnest. “The likes of us were never meant to be at peace.”
Though Yusuf turned to look at his sergeants, another face was before his mind’s eye, the battered visage of the Thunder Warrior from Terra. Were they meant to see the universe they brought into being, he thought? What of us?
“And this,” said Ishmael with some unexpected bravado, “is why we fight.”
* * *
The Stormbird deposited them near the top of a continent-tree. The low clouds threatened rain, and the grey band of the ocean a kilometer or so away was just barely visible from the humidity. Creatures large and small hurried through the weave of bone-like branches extending hundreds of meters into the murky depths where barely any light penetrated.
The warriors of the Ascension waited for them in a formation reminiscent of a boarding action, shields at the ready, standing shoulder to shoulder and wearing armor of bone and wood. Archers and crossbowmen were interspaced within the formation, picking out their targets as their officers shouted commands, threats, or promises.
“They cannot be serious,” laughed Telennios in disbelief. “They… brought bows and arrows to a gunfight?”
“You better savor every moment, Haroun,” Ishmael teased him. “This will be a battle to add to the Company rolls of honor.”
“Show them what modern warfare is all about,” Yusuf grinned, taking aim with his plasma pistol. “On my mark…”
The Imperial Redeemers fired.
The front rank of the primitive warriors was vaporized before they even knew what manner of foe they faced. Body parts and shredded organs splattered over the continent-tree as the screams of the wounded reached a fever pitch. Few arrows bounced ineffectually from the Imperial Redeemers’ power armor, failing to penetrate even when the shots were perfectly aimed at the helmet eye lenses or joints. Yusuf laughed at the absurdity of this one-sided battle.
He was still laughing when the Imperial Redeemers started dying.
Beams of multi-colored light shot at the Legionaries, piercing their armor, melting the hardened ceramite and burning the flesh within. Balls of blue and green fire coalesced in the air, then flew towards the Space Marines, undeterred by bolter shots until they found their targets, enveloping them in a halo of incorporeal energy.
“What?” was all Yusuf could manage, cycling through his helmet’s vision cycles to find the source of the attacks.
“There! Infrared!” screamed Telennios, letting loose a volley of shots at the empty space. An unearthly howl answered him as the body of a scrawny bipedal thing materialized from the air, holding on to its side with a clawed hand.
The thing was almost the size of a Legionary yet only humanoid in the most loose sense. It looked like a metal statue of a goat-headed monster with a wrong number of limbs melted, then refroze in an imperfect imitation of its previous shape. A splattering of misshapen eyes blinked at the Imperial Redeemers from places where they served no ostensible evolutionary purpose, and several bestial mouths opened and closed at random, emanating sounds that resembled no living creature.
A hailstorm of fire met the thing, blowing chunks of its abominable flesh and staggering it, yet failing to destroy it or even to make it fall. Yusuf added his own plasma weapon to the attack, but the creature’s wounds closed as soon as the superheated plasma exhausted its energy.
“Get back!” shouted Ishmael, trying to pull Yusuf back. “We need heavier weaponry. It should take care of this thing.”
Something about the otherworldly allies of the corrupted Abominable Intelligence made Yusuf think of the enemy in front of them; though only partially harmed by conventional weaponry, they were easily susceptible to close attacks. “Remember the last time we fought together, Sergeant,” Yusuf yelled back, pointing at the creature with his power sword. “Blades. Blades.”
“I hope you are right,” grumbled Telennios as the monster started to wade through the curtain of firepower, closing in on the Imperial Redeemers.
Yusuf charged at the thing, swinging his blade in a wide arc. He saw the creature’s eyes light up, perhaps conjuring another attack; the air shimmered with unnatural energy.
The sword connected. The creature tried to block it with a claw, but the energized blade sliced straight through, making short work of flesh and bone. It felt like pulling a hand through a whirlpool; the sensation was unlike that of cutting through any conventional material. Yusuf pulled the sword up, letting the energy field rend through his enemy.
The creature howled in obvious pain, surprised at the hurt inflicted upon it. Before it could retaliate, Ishmael set upon it from the other side, his chainsword ripping chunks of foul flesh and mushing the vital organs. The monster began to liquefy, its tissue and muscle turning black and viscous, then raining down in a tide of small insects. In a matter of seconds, it completely lost its shape, dissolving as if it was never there as its individual components combusted, leaving behind empty chitinous shells.
Yusuf breathed heavily, leaning on his blade as he turned off the energy field. Seven runes flickered amber on his helmet display; three more had completely vanished. Still, he could not afford to become complacent, not here, not now.
“Transmit a warning to other Legion forces,” he ordered the Company’s vox-operator. “Use infrared to locate these things, then close in for the kill.” He gave one final glance to the remains of the primitive warriors slaughtered by his men. “Beware the use of soldiers as a decoy.”
Yusuf checked his mission parameters. His target, a settlement believed to hold the enemy command structure, such as it was, remained one kilometer to the south, and several hundred meters deep into the continent-tree. “54th Company,” he spoke loudly over the vox-network. “Now we know what we are up against. These… xenos…” he had to force himself to this conclusion, “are not to be underestimated. Consider anything not of the Legion to be a hostile, and show no mercy.”
“What…” Ishmael started saying something, but was silenced with a quick gesture.
“We will discuss it after the mission,” Yusuf subvocalized to him on a private channel. “For now, we go out there and we kill these things.”
* * *
After the Jovian shipyards finished creating the great flagships demanded by the Legions, after the Mechanicum craftsmen put their finishing touches on the battlecruisers and the star fortresses designed to keep the peace amongst the Imperial systems, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the forges would grow silent, or even be given to the more prosaic demands of civilian engineering. Now that the Great Crusade was for all intents and purposes over, the Imperium needed fewer grand cruisers and system monitors, and more transports, colony ships, terraforming probes, or grain haulers.
Even so, the great orbital structures encapsulating much of the giant planet’s ring system and some of its smaller moons kept to their initial purpose, though in a manner very different from the peak years of the Crusade. Where in the ages past they would have churned out larger and more powerful vessels to satisfy the needs of the Legions and the Primarchs’ demands, now their skilled engineers were employed on different tasks, building the vessels which would unite the galaxy-wide Imperium while incorporating the technologies recovered during the Legions’ exploits beyond the Sol System. Where the forges had once manufactured thousands upon thousands of copies for each produced design, they were now given to much more unique, experimental arts, each vessel created and modified for a singular purpose.
The Hunter’s Season was one of such ships, a marvel of engineering created with one mission in mind – to be fast, to deliver its crew and cargo to the other side of the galaxy before more ponderous transports, to serve as the ultimate courier and blockade runner. With the technology supplied by the recent discoveries of the Tambora Combine, the project to design the ship had the blessing of Primarch Leto himself, and it was only fitting that the Immortals Legion received the prototype vessel before any others.
Now, however, the ship did not bear the colors of the Sixteenth Legion, but those of the Council – a white stripe upon the field of royal purple, signifying the temporary nature of the regency and its deference to the Emperor’s authority. The crew was also not of the Combine, but selected from Terra’s finest naval academies, while the Navigator, Elaine Essengen by the name, was a scion of a proud line of an ancient House of Navis Nobilite.
To Acacius Martins, the Hunter’s Season still felt like a Sixteenth Legion ship. Perhaps it was the utilitarian, nonintrusive design devoid of ostentatious decorations or proud mementos of battles won, or the business-like attitude of the crew which did not seem to be awed by its Legionary complement, but the vessel was the epitome of cold, clinical efficiency, and the Lion Guard warrior hated it.
He could tell that the ship’s nature did not sit entirely well with at least some of his companions. They were gathered in the mess hall, ostensibly to be formally introduced to each other, but in reality taking the time to assess their cousins, to judge their real and perceived weaknesses, and to evaluate their worth in a fight should one come.
Faust, the savagely tattooed butcher from the Gargoyles, was in the corner, trying to dig something from under his fingernails with a long, elaborate carving knife. The Argosian’s hair was long and braided, parts of it positioned to disguise the metal plate where a portion of his skull had to be replaced with augmetics. In all of the time since his arrival, the Gargoyle said only few words, making Martins wonder why he was even on board. It was certainly not for his diplomatic skills, the Lion Guard told himself as his eyes moved to the next member of their uneasy fraternity.
Amrit Sarkisian was supposed to be a hero of some renown amongst the Hellhounds, rising to the rank of the Legion’s Champion – an equivalent to Martins’ own. The warrior was thin-lipped and dark of face, with lively eyes that seemed unable to remain still. Sarkisian leaned against the wall, his arms crossed and fingers rapping a beat against the vambraces of his armor. The Hellhound looked like he was a spring full of pent-up kinetic energy eager for release into action.
Though Quao Zhan and Krast Herod hailed from different Legions, the Captains of Jaws of the Deep and Iconoclasts were engaged in a lively and, Martins noticed with amusement, friendly conversation about some campaign the Lion Guard did not know of. The scion of the Second Legion was a hulking brute of a man with long, flowing hair tied into a topknot and a splattering of facial tattoos harkening to some primitive abstract pattern. Here and there, the straight, angular design reminded Martins of jagged teeth of the Legion’s namesake. In contrast, Herod looked strangely civilized in his unpainted yet meticulously maintained armor, mask of golden alloy hiding his face. The Iconoclast was vividly gesticulating while making some sort of a point, while the son of Kthuln was as still as a statue, yet listening with intent interest.
The last member of the group, Saim Vitallius, hailed from the Consecrators Legion, and Martins already found him to be a cold, emotionless character with less personality than a robot. There was something distinctly mechanical about the Consecrator, as if he evaluated every interaction through a prism of programming more befitting one of Steel Wardens or their machines, speaking only when spoken to, yet observing everything he could lay his eyes on. If anyone seemed at home on the Hunter’s Season, it would have been him.
They were a strange crew, brought together by circumstance and designed to appeal to the warrior sensibilities of Iskanderos – an embassy in all but a name, bearing all matter of conciliatory gifts from the Council of Terra. Though it chafed at Martins to think of it this way, they were a force sufficiently humble not to give slight to the Sixth Primarch’s ego, while possessing of enough grit and reputation to earn an audience.
Bring him back, or, better yet, get him to accept the Council’s authority as regency. Martins understood the orders from his Primarch, the new Consul of Terra, and hoped that this was going to be enough. Whatever events forced the Conqueror to leave Terra in haste had to be addressed, his unexpected hostility against the master of the Lion Guard mitigated. After that… it was going to be a job for politicians and Primarchs.