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Conqueror (Twisthammer Book One)

Alternate heresy Twisthammer fiction

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#26
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SEVENTEEN

 

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.”

 

“Such as?”

 

“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.


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#27
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EIGHTEEN

 

Sorcery

This World Shall Die

The Cloud Prophet

 

As the 54th Company fought their way through the ossified branches of the continent-tree, the battles became harder. Though the enemy still threw throngs of primitive warriors at them, they were now backed up by more of the unnatural creatures, which took their toll on the Imperial Redeemers. Some of the things were invisible to naked eye, sending fire and lightning at the Space Marines until detected through another vision mode; others would not show up no matter how Yusuf and his men attempted to adjust their helmet visual feeds. At the very least, the creatures did not make their presence known until their mortal escorts were slaughtered, a fact that did not escape Yusuf’s attention.

 

After slaying a particularly noisome monstrosity, Yusuf ordered his flamer-toting Marines to the fore. Fire seemed to harm the creatures, disorienting them for long enough to be dispatched with applications of brute force. Now, every time the Imperial Redeemers encountered a group of sword-and-shield-armed warriors, the locals were burned to a crisp before getting a chance to assault their betters.

 

Yusuf lost count of how many met their end at his hands. By now, the 54th Company was firmly into the forest; the bone-branches above them nearly completely blocked off the view of the sky. The enemy came at them in waves, as though their numbers were without limit. How could a culture so primitive maintain such a large population, Yusuf could not tell, but the results were evident. No less than ten thousand primitive knights were slaughtered by the Imperial Redeemers, and there did not seem to be any lessening in the fanatical intensity with which they threw themselves to their deaths.

 

There were other things with them too. Hulking brutes with too many eyes and arms shoved their human comrades away in their eagerness to get to the Imperial Redeemers. Gossamer-thin creations of maddened flesh and twisted bone sprouted from the branches of the continent-tree, each a pike blocking the path of the Space Marines, or skewering through their war plate. Deformed and monstrous things that might have once been human assaulted the 54th Company, dying in most gruesome fashion, but taking some of the Imperial Redeemers with them.

 

The auspex began to give out strange readings the closer they got to their objective. One moment it was shifting through countless modes of operation, suggesting that the company was in hard vacuum or under the kilometer-deep ocean; the other, it began to report enemy contacts everywhere even though the Space Marines just cleared another wave of assailants. The vox network was similarly erratic beyond the squad level. At times, Yusuf could clearly hear orders and updates from the Imperial Redeemers command in orbit; at other times, he had to struggle to make out what his sergeants were telling him.

 

Time and again, waves of static rolled over the vox-network, turning words into sibilant hiss and terse sounds of the Legion’s battle-cant into a distorted symphony of white noise. By the time the last vestiges of the sky disappeared, Yusuf thought he started to make out patterns in the noise, some ponderous lexicon speaking in a language he could not identify.

 

Another turn on the road made from a conglomeration of living branches; another throng of ululating fanatics with useless weapons, waiting to reveal the true menace amongst them. This time, the warriors of Pacal were led by a bone-thin man in filthy rags screaming something – perhaps invocations, perhaps curses or obscenities – at the Legionaries. As the promethium inferno engulfed the knights, the man levitated, seemingly unharmed by the flames or bolter shots that followed. A stream of lightning erupted from his outstretched fingers, enveloping the conflagration and jumping from one Legionary to the next, staggering them as their armor system struggled to contain the overload.

 

“Psyker!” screamed Ishmael, loosing a volley of shots in his direction. The sergeant of the Cleavers ran toward him, chainsword in hand.

 

The psyker’s attention shifted as the lightning arced to Ishmael. The Imperial Redeemer convulsed, the momentum of his charge carrying him forward and to the ground. That, however, was time enough for one of Telennios’ men to fire a well-placed lascannon shot, evaporating the psyker’s head in a brief instant.

 

Yusuf knelt down by Ishmael, small bits of lightning still dancing over the fallen sergeant’s body.

 

“I… will be… all right,” squeezed the wounded warrior through his teeth. “Just give me a moment.” He grasped Yusuf’s hand, pulling himself up and looking a little worse for the wear. “Where are the Librarians when you need them?”

 

“Still in orbit, playing with their divinations, no doubt,” grumbled Telennios. Something of a genuine concern flashed on his face. “Don’t get yourself killed too soon, brother, or I will have no one to complain about.”

 

“You mean, no one to complain to?” retorted Ishmael with a hearty laugh. The sound echoed through the continent-tree, louder and louder, becoming a cacophony. “What?”

 

It took Yusuf a moment to realize that the laughter was no longer coming from Ishmael. It acquired a hysterical note as the Imperial Redeemers recoiled; it grew and it grew, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once, following no law of physics they knew. It was a cacophony harmonizing with the white noise on their vox channels, a bestial wall of sound crashing into them like some esoteric sonic weapon.

 

This time, there were definitely words in the midst of all the noise, and they were almost intelligible.

 

Cloud… Pro-phet… Cloud… Pro-phet…

 

“Sorcery…” It was not clear which of the Imperial Redeemers spoke the words, but they spread through the ranks like wildfire.

 

“This is a psyker trick, nothing more,” shouted Yusuf, trying to refocus this company on the mission. “We know they use psykers. Is it hard to believe they would try something like that, now that they cannot stand up to us in an honest fight?”

 

The resulting cheers sounded hollow, but Yusuf supposed it was sufficient for the moment. “If the vox functions, we will request Librarian support, but for now, we do what we can. We are the Imperial Redeemers, and we are the best at this.” His voice turned into a powerful bellow. “Are we going to have some primitive witches and mutants get in our way?”

 

“Hell no!” Ishmael replied him, raising a chainsword into the air. “Hell no!”

 

Eighty eight throats seconded him as the Imperial Redeemers continued into the unknown.

 

* * *

 

Deep inside the tunnel made by the branches of the continent-tree, no natural light could penetrate. Yusuf could not shake the feeling that they were traveling inside a vein of some monstrosity whose size defied all comprehension. Here and there, obscene growths lit up with flashes of deep, arterial red which cast the bronze and the gold of the Imperial Redeemers’ armor in sinister shades. Something seemed to slither in the wiry undergrowth just outside the peripheral vision, as if shadows themselves were given to malignant, uneasy life.

 

The last of the primitive warriors opposing the Legionaries gave way to abominations of bone and muscle that could not have been produced by any sane evolutionary process. No two were alike, though they bore just enough similarities to the men and women they once were to cause the Imperial Redeemers to recoil in disgust as they blew the creatures apart with concentrated bursts of self-propelled rounds. The flesh on the creatures’ bodies seemed to flow into rough weaponry made of serrated bone, crustacean pincers or burning objects that should have caused the abominations immense pain, but did little to stop their mindless assault.

 

The psykers leading the attacks were now even more numerous, many clearly marked with the twisted influence of the Empyrean. Though individually they were no match for the Legionaries, after a while the sheer numbers of assailants began to take their toll on the 54th Company. No Imperial Redeemer was completely unscathed, even though most of their wounds were largely superficial.

 

The ground became sticky ichor that should have had no place among the continent-spanning trees. Bulbous tumors grew out of it, each erupting into a shower of filth when power-armored warriors stepped on them. The air was thick with humid, unclean sensation that permeated the Legionary rebreathers and settled upon the skin as if heavy war plate was barely there.

 

The enemies were a welcome presence, because at least they were a known quality. For all their unearthly appearance, they died under the guns and the blades of the Sixth Legion, though not without dealing their fair share of retribution. As Yusuf fought them hand to hand, or burned them to a crisp with his plasma pistol, he could almost disregard the oppressive, sickly atmosphere surrounding him and his men.

 

The opening in the continent-tree came unexpectedly like an abscess in the rotting flesh. One moment, the Legionaries fought their way through a tunnel; another, they were in a cavernous space where ossified wood became one with the flesh-like substance holding thousands of semi-transparent pods from its walls. Each pod was roughly human-sized, and each was occupied.

 

Yusuf caught a brief glimpse of tangled limbs, misshapen heads, twisted torsos that should have never been allowed to survive. Bestial eyes blinked from sacs of amniotic liquid; inhuman claws flexed and stretched in paroxysms of murderous energy. Beneath the pods, thousands of mutants howled battle cries with throats no longer capable of speech, waving clubs, swords, and axes at the Legionaries.

 

“Fire!”

 

In truth, the Imperial Redeemers needed no encouragement. Eighty one survivors let loose on full automatic, each shot sending the flailing figures to the ground with the force designed to penetrate the armor of light vehicles. Red mist descended in a shower of gore as the occupants of the pods were shredded along with the mutant horde on the ground.

 

The pods started to glow, at first with dim crimson of emergency lightning, then bright enough to light up the scene of slaughter as if it took place under the midday sun. Lightning arced between them, connecting the pods with webs of intricate weave that was death, change, and final damnation. As the disparate strains of electric discharge connected, they gave birth to hundreds of small floating infernos, like elements of unbound flame let loose into the wild.

 

Psychic fires danced across the entirety of the open space, striking out indiscriminately at friend and foe alike. Where they touched unprotected flesh, a surge of mutation resulted, muscles and fat bubbling into new and disgusting forms, birthing limbs, eyes, and horns before succumbing to uncontrollable tide of change. Where they touched metal and ceramite, the Legionary armor warped, running like liquid yet staving off the change for crucial seconds and allowing the Imperial Redeemers to target the enemy psykers and their deformed retinues. Howls and screams filled the thickening air.

 

It took Yusuf precious moments to realize that those were not the cries of pain, but those of pleasure, and by then it was too late.

 

The fog made of tiny droplets of blood did not dissipate. It thickened with each mutant slain, growing stronger with each psyker dying in its pod. A pattern started to emerge therein, a vortex of red mist hinting at a hulking shape, a horned, powerfully muscled beast twice the height of a Space Marine bearing an enormous axe, its skin bright red, its head reminiscent of a jackal or a hyena. It roared its challenge to the Imperial Redeemers, growing into focus as if it had to be anchored in this reality.

 

A loud cheer emerged from the surviving mutants at the sight of the monster. Now, it was almost entirely corporeal, standing on two goat-like legs and wearing an armor of brass and bronze adorned with lines of runic script. It hurt Yusuf’s eyes to focus on it, yet he forced himself to look on, refusing to admit that any foe, no matter how strange or devious, could force an Imperial Redeemer to bow down. The beast turned its horned head to him, perhaps recognizing an enemy commander, or maybe taking it as a challenge. It roared, shrugging off bolter fire as if it was little more than pinpricks. Then, it spoke.

 

“Not. Here. Not. You.”

 

The mutants were still cheering for their champion when the monster’s axe laid into them. Cheers became shrieks and hisses as it tore through their ranks, rending limbs and separating flesh from bone. Dozens died in an instant as the Imperial Redeemers recoiled in surprise, not sure of what to make of this unexpected ally.

 

The creature moved faster than even their enhanced vision could track, blurring in and out of sight like a trick of light and shadow. In all his life, Yusuf had only seen one being who could move like this – Iskanderos himself. The comparison sat ill with him.

 

The axe-wielding monster finished its bloody work in less time than it took the Imperial Redeemers to reposition themselves around the entrance, preparing to secure it. The creature stood straight, looking at and through them until its eyes settled on Yusuf. It let out a sound not akin to that of a bull readying itself for a violent charge.

 

“We will meet again,” the monster promised, raising its axe above its horns. The overlapping branches forming the ceiling began to part, coming to life with unexpected celerity. The thing rose up higher, losing mass as tiny specks of red dust started to flake away from it, dissolving like dust in the gentle summer breeze. The guns of the 54th Company followed it, though no Imperial Redeemer pulled the trigger until there was not enough of the creature left to fire at.

 

Yusuf let out a deep breath he did not realize he held. The Legionaries fanned out in a well-drilled formation, acting more out of instinct than out of any tactical necessity, but there was nothing left for them to do. The mutants and their psyker allies were slaughtered by hundreds, forming a veritable carpet of misshapen flesh and bloodied chunks of indeterminate origin blanketing the tangled roots of the continent-tree. Of the horned killer, no trace remained; for the first time in what felt like hours, the vox network was clear.

 

“Call the dropships,” Yusuf said haltingly, still shaken by what he had seen. What could the creature have meant? What was it, and why did it aid the warriors of the Sixth Legion? He hoped that there were at least some answers to be found back at the Hegemon.

 

* * *

 

The three surviving advisors to the Primarch surrounded Iskanderos in the Hegemon’s war room, dwarfed by the Conqueror’s presence though each was a battle-hardened hero on his own. Though el-Rahim was no longer fit for combat operations, the Astrologer still managed to dress for war, his armor modified to provide support to his weakened frame. Demetrios was fresh from operations on Pacal, his armor still bearing marks of fire and scratches where the primitive enemy weaponry removed the paint, yet otherwise looked as serene as though he was just arriving to some grand fete held in his honor by the grateful Imperial citizens.

 

Our brotherhood had changed, thought Yusuf. The 54th Captain’s war plate was hastily repaired after his latest combat drop, replacing damaged parts with pieces of unpainted gear, or elements of other armor types substituted for the sake of expediency. His augmetic hand itched; he forced himself to discount it as a trick of an overactive imagination.

 

“Interesting…” said el-Rahim thoughtfully. “Six more companies reported something very similar to your experience, Yusuf.”

 

“What do you suppose it means?” the 54th Captain asked. The feeling of discomfort in his artificial hand was growing stronger, though there was no way it could have happened with the inner workings of its mechanisms.

 

“The Ifreet,” the Astrologer noted in academic contemplation. “A denizen of the avici in the legends of…”

 

“I know the legends, Apollus,” Yusuf interrupted him, earning an amused look from Iskanderos. “Didn’t the Imperial Truth teach us of their folly?”

 

Demetrios laughed. “The Imperial Truth? Then what was it that you saw with your own eyes? A trick of imagination?”

 

“A psyker trick, probably,” Yusuf said, though his answer lacked conviction. “An illusion on a planet full of them.” His voice grew more resilient, even as the itching in his hand became a burning sensation. “The mission records do not show the creature I saw.”

 

“And yet they show the slaughter,” concluded Demetrios. “I do not suppose the mutants just killed themselves?”

 

“It sounds to me like you are… questioning the veracity of these events?” Yusuf suggested. He wanted to be shocked at the thought that the Primarch’s equerry questioned the central tenet of the Great Crusade, but somehow, he felt far less surprised than he expected to be.

 

“There are things in this universe, brother, that cannot be understood with reason alone,” said el-Rahim quietly. “The operations of psykers, for one.” He licked his lips, then continued. “As the first reports started to come in from the surface, I could not help but be reminded of Apella’s own mythology.”

 

“You are talking of the Ifreet,” replied Yusuf, thinking back to the stories he heard in childhood of malignant spirits born of fire and blood.

 

“The sons of primordial flame,” Iskanderos added. “The ones who offer bargains to the worthy.” There was something almost eager to him, making Yusuf wonder if the apparent revitalization of the Conqueror at the beginning of hostilities was but a poor disguise for his discontent. “Nevertheless.” The Primarch stood in the center of the war room, his already immense size elevated upon the pedestal reserved for generals and commanders giving orders. “The rot is deep on this world.”

 

“Aye,” agreed Yusuf. The sensation in his arm seemed to go away as he spoke. “Mutants, psykers, Emperor-knows-what.”

 

“Even the spirits turn against it,” intoned Iskanderos, though the smirk in his eyes made the words sound ironic. “Who are we to argue with the spirits? Or, for that matter, with common sense.”

 

“Indeed,” added el-Rahim. “A world so seeped in psykers and mutation is practically useless to the Imperium.”

 

“Add the likelihood that whatever caused the mutations may still have presence…” Demetrios’ words trailed off.

 

A thumping beat resonated through Yusuf’s temples, like rhythmic pulse of the drums. Something about it seemed familiar.

 

Thum. Thum-thum. Thum. Thum-thum.

 

“We shall do the thing we must, for a world so beyond redemption,” said Iskanderos with the air of finality. “This world must die. We will withdraw all units from the surface, and bathe it in fire.”

 

Was it Yusuf’s imagination, or did the pulse begin to form words in his mind? Cloud. Pro-phet. Cloud. Pro-phet. It felt like they were making some kind of a terrible error, though he could find no logical reason for it. The worlds deemed dangerous to the Imperium, but not useful enough to warrant lengthy pacification or resettlement with more suitable colonists, were burned as a rule, and even the more humanitarian Legions like the Peacekeepers kept to the practice. Why would the Sixth, the Emperor’s finest warriors, keep away from it for a useless, mutant-infested rock on the edge of the galaxy?

 

“Four hours,” said Iskanderos, his voice a counterpoint harmony to the words in Yusuf’s mind. “Then, Pacal burns.”

 

* * *

 

There were many ways to kill a world. Some weapons were designed to turn the atmosphere of a life-bearing planet into a raging inferno through continuous blasts of dispersed energy, igniting every bit of flammable matter and causing a world-wide firestorm. Other, more insidious means of destruction seeded the doomed world with a life-eater virus, eradicating every organic being in a cloud of rapidly spreading death until all that remained was decomposing slurry amongst the vacant ruins. For some rare cases when the rot of corruption ran deep, or the pacification effort was deemed infeasible with the forces at hand, cyclonic missiles and magma bombs penetrated the planetary crust, shattering the worlds into primordial asteroid fields that may one day coalesce into new planets no longer bearing the names or the sins of their predecessors.

 

Given the heavy evidence of psyker taint on Pacal, Iskanderos opted for overwhelming force over subtlety. The capital ships of the Imperial Redeemers positioned themselves over strategically selected points of both hemispheres, forming an overlapping pattern straight from the teachings of Apellene military academies yet remaining far enough from the planet's orbital space to avoid the inevitable aftermath. At Iskanderos' command, lance strikes pierced the atmosphere, burning kilometer-deep holes in the surface of Pacal, boiling the oceans and sending whirlwinds of disturbed atmospheric systems to roll wildly over the battered continents.

 

Though the weapons of destruction wielded by the Imperial Redeemers were powerful in their own right, they were only a prelude for what was to come. Missiles and bombs streaked through space, each arcing a path to its target. These were ship-killers, designed to burn holes in thick void armor and to bathe occupants of warship decks in deadly radiation rather than break open planets, but in sufficient numbers, and applied to the artificially created weak points in Pacal's crust within milliseconds of each other, they proved decisive.

 

Fire bloomed where ocean was only moments ago. Pillars of flame rose into stratosphere like fingers of buried gods struggling to escape their prison of magma and rock. Chunks of planetary crust, accelerated to escape velocity by the force of the explosions, battered against the fleet's void shields designed to withstand far heavier punishment.

 

Now!

 

A beam of light, brighter than a supernova concentrated in a needle of unstoppable energy, shot from the Hegemon's main gun. Alone, it would have shattered continents and civilizations, evaporated the oceans and turned forests to ash. Striking the already weakened crust at a precisely calculated vector, in the very moment determined by the best of Martian logic-engines built into the flagship's pre-Imperial core, it cut the planet open.

 

In throes of primordial fire, Pacal died.

 

* * *

 

The words in Yusuf's ears became screams of thousands of agony-wracked souls shouting at the top of their lungs in a sickening harmony. He stood at his Primarch's side, boots mag-locked to the bridge's metal flooring, trying to focus on the symphony of devastation playing upon Hegemon's viewscreens.

 

He wondered if anyone else experienced this. Upon Yusuf's induction into the Legion, his psychic potential was deemed to be negligible at best, not even enough to be sensitive to psychic phenomena. There was no reason he should have been hearing this; he wondered if anyone else heard the same screaming.

 

On the viewscreen, Hegemon's primary weapon was the final coup de grace administered to the doomed world. Cracks appeared on the tortured surface, slow at first, then multiplying like a web spun by a million insane spiders competing against their brethren, each pattern a unique, beautiful, and impossible design.

 

Something about the designs seemed familiar.

 

A hot summer on a world where the sea and the sky met somewhere on the horizon. Waves rolling over the breakers, meeting sun-baked clay of the seaside buildings. Cobblestone streets that remained the same for thousands of years despite every technological advance brought by the coming of the Imperium.

 

It was Apella, but not as he remembered it. Gone were the crowds, gone were the soldiers who marched down the streets in celebration of the Legion's achievements. Only the sea and the buildings remained, marked by the geometric pattern inherited through the ages, once adorning the primitive temples but now devoid of meaning and purely decorative.

 

Silence. He never realized how much he appreciated the absence of sound but for the gentle breeze, the soft murmur of the waves rolling by the docks where ships of antique design rested until they were needed, no longer the raiders of the ancient sea kings, but engines of planet-wide commerce under the Peace of Iskanderos.

 

The wind from the sea was colder than he expected, full of moisture, salt, and other, less familiar smells. Yusuf's eyes followed seagulls circling something in the water. It was...

 

He shook the vision from his eyes. He was a Captain in the Imperial Redeemers Legion, Iskanderos' chosen, the finest warriors in the entire galaxy, and he was on board the Hegemon, by his gene-father's side.

 

Cloud. Pro-phet. Cloud. Pro-phet.

 

The screams of the damned returned, clearer than ever as Yusuf watched the sphere of Pacal lose coherence, noticing the precise moment when solid matter became a collection of superheated rocks no longer bound together by gravity. The web-like patterns drifted; the lines of fire started to fade – some, but not all. Against all logic, against all reason taught by the Imperial Truth, the burning rocks of Pacal's destruction formed a sigil – a rough star with eight arrows pointing in all directions.

 

He walked the streets he remembered as a child, recognizing the places he had not seen in over a century as if his eidetic recollection somehow extended to the time before his induction into the Legion. Here was a vendor stall where his father used to always buy treats for him and his brothers, though the face behind it was unfamiliar. Here, a young woman hurriedly covered her face with a veil as befitted a nobleman's daughter, though not without a coquettish wink of an eye in his direction.

 

Yusuf looked down at his feet and legs. He was wearing a citizen's toga rather than the Legion's war plate, where the same geometric pattern he recalled continued, its angular sprawl achingly familiar to anyone who spent time on Apella. His hands were muscular and tan, far larger than those of any mortal yet otherwise fully proportional.

 

Hands. With a degree of profound shock, Yusuf realized that he could see two flesh hands. Amazed at the sudden discovery, he made fists, then clasped them together. It felt real, more real than anything else.

 

A blink of an eye, and he was again on the Hegemon, staring at the unnatural sigil forming out of the remains of the murdered planet in slow, orderly motion. He could feel the hairs at the back of his neck stand up, cold sweat giving his skin an unhealthy sheen. The air seemed to move in slow motion, growing heavier, jelly-like. Yusuf tried to turn his head to his Primarch's side, but found that every movement was labored, as if he was wading through deep water without the aid of his power armor.

 

He laughed, once again reunited with the sun and the city of his youth. The names and the places came back into his memory as if he had never left. He thought that he saw some faces in the distance as people inevitably trickled out to the streets, here to see the return of one of their heroes. Was it his imagination, or did some of these faces seem familiar?

 

A shadow fell over the city. Yusuf raised his eyes to see what affront could interpose itself between him and the sun on a cloudless day. The smile on his face was frozen as he attempted to process the vision before his eyes and failed to comprehend it, failed to see why there would be a Legion battleship not brandishing the colors of the Imperial Redeemers over Apella.

 

He was still smiling out of reflex when the ship opened fire.

 

The world exploded in a mosaic of confused pieces. Buildings which stood for thousands of years instantly crumbled as weapons designed to kill Titans struck again and again. A wall of fire came over the horizon like a second dawn in the midst of the day, red and orange like an infected blister oozing pus and blood. Explosions shook the ground as ancient columns and walls became tombs for the unlucky mortals trapped inside.

 

Yusuf was thrown to the ground by the force of an explosion, falling awkwardly among the rubble as his vision went spinning from disorientation. He felt industrial heat wash over him and dared to raise his head.

 

The street was a charred ruin strewn with skeletal corpses. Something enormous walked nearby, partially hidden by the collapsing buildings yet shaking the ground with every movement. Weapons of unimaginable destructive power roared their wrath upon Apella, from short bursts of volcano cannons to the unmistakable sizzle of heavy energy weaponry. Armored figures moved in the distance, advancing in well-drilled formations that spoke of precise coordination all but unreachable by mortal troops. Yusuf could see the unmistakable outlines of Mark IV power armor, could hear individual bolter shots as the warriors put down the meager resistance.

 

Something furious swelled up inside him. This was his world; these were his people. Most of all, he was still one of the Legiones Astartes, a killing machine trained from childhood to fight mankind's enemies and prevail where no one and nothing else would.

 

He crept through the ruins, careful to avoid the advancing Legionaries and attempting to minimize his target profile to fool their helmet sensors. As he got closer, he could finally see them clearly, cursing their name silently as he bid his time – the sons of Nihlus, the Iconoclasts in their plain, battle-scarred armor.

 

Without his armor, without his weapons, he was at an inherent disadvantage, but not entirely helpless. A terrible clarity came over Yusuf, the knowledge that he would not survive this engagement. Somehow, it did not deter him or made him hesitate. There was only the coming ambush, and the hope to take as many of the enemy with him as he could.

 

Some part of him wanted to know what happened, why would the Eighth Legion seek to burn Apella... how would they even be able to get past the defensive installations and system monitors patrolling all approaches to the Legion's homeworld, past the orbital platforms crewed by thousands of mortal soldiers and Legion fast reaction squads, past every countermeasure designed for unthinkable contingencies. Was he seeing the final ruin of his Legion and his world, a cowardly attack of extermination under the pretense of something far more benign?

 

Yusuf saw the Iconoclasts spread out as he waited behind a crumbling wall. If his ears did not deceive him, the enemy Legionary was just on the other side of the wall, only a short leap away. If Yusuf managed to use the element of surprise to his advantage, he would have just enough time to seize the Iconoclast's weapon and turn it against the invaders.

 

He stilled his breath in anticipation, then sprung up to his full height, using the fraction of a second before the Iconoclasts could reliably target him to get close. An impassive mask of Mark IV helmet met his gaze. Yusuf's fingers pushed the Iconoclast's bolter up, using the momentum of his attack to aid him.

 

The projectile hit the Iconoclast near eye lens, killing him instantly and ripping out chunks of Yusuf's flesh. He should have felt pain, but curiously, there was no sensation as he used the dead warrior's body as a shield, finally succeeding in ripping out the boltgun from the Iconoclast's hands and firing back at the enemy's squad mates. Something bright flashed near his eyes, making him lose focus, and...

 

He was down on one knee, magnetic clamps in his boots disengaged. Cold metal of the Hegemon's bridge was under the metal fingers of his bionic hand, vibrating with uneasy regularity like convulsions of a dying animal.

 

Yusuf willed himself to raise his head. The obscene sigil was still where, mocking the Legion's attack, challenging everything it stood for. Flashes of lance fire and swarms of ship-killer missiles struck it, causing no visible damage or deleterious effect.

 

“Enough!” growled Iskanderos, struggling to remain standing yet refusing to give in to the vision. Was the Conqueror seeing something as well, Yusuf wondered? What did his Primarch see? There was something in Iskanderos' voice that the 54th Captain had never heard before, not quite awe, not quite fear, but the kind of trepidation one may feel when facing the unknown.

 

The future is imperfect, a voice spoke in Yusuf's mind. It took the Imperial Redeemer a moment to realize that the screaming stopped, replaced by eerie silence. The future is mutable. The future is what you make of it.

 

Seeing his Primarch's efforts to remain upright reinforced Yusuf's own determination. Slowly, he rose up, reactivating the magnetic clamps and looking at Iskanderos for inspiration.

 

The future demands sacrifice, the invisible voice continued. At Grail, it is given freely by the Cloud Prophet.

 

Iskanderos' response was a wordless roar, not anything even remotely coherent, as if his rage at being held so powerless was a weapon all its own. Glass cracked on observation panels; a mortal attendant yelped in pain, covering her ears.

 

On the viewscreens, the sigil began to dissolve. The outer parts of the eight-pointed star lost their coherence, as if they were made of sand washed away by a tide. Pieces broke off, drifting into new orbits around Pacal's sun that were decided by more conventional laws of physics. The center was the last to go; for a fraction of a second, Yusuf could swear that he saw an eye staring him down through the prism of an intellect too vast and inhuman to ever be understood.

 

For the first time since Iskanderos gave the order to destroy Pacal, there was silence on the bridge – true, blissful, disturbing silence.


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NINETEEN

 

A Future Imperfect

Chasing Ghosts

Grail

 

“It is clear. We go to this Grail and get the truth out of this Cloud Prophet, even if we have to cut it out of him,” said Iskanderos. Away from the eyes of the fleet, he could afford to be animated and anxious, not the image of a larger-than-life leader and general he projected to the ranks.

 

The Companions accompanied the Conqueror to his personal chambers, avoiding conversation until they were sure they were alone. The vision had clearly impacted everyone on the ship, and, quite possibly, in the entire fleet. Mortal serfs wandered around in confusion; some found comfort in familiar rotes, while others broke down into fits of uncontrollable sobbing. Even the stoic Legionaries were not immune to the vision of Apella’s violent death, though their conditioning made them better suited to cope.

 

Yusuf replayed the vision in his head, focusing on every minute detail. Every time he blinked, the afterimage of the Iconoclast warship dealing death lingered in front of his eyes for imperceptible fraction of a second, superimposed over the peaceful sky of a world murdered by treachery.

 

The 54th Captain forced himself to focus on the present. “In all fairness, this could be a trap.” There was an ever-so-slight trembling tone to his voice completely unbefitting a Legiones Astartes officer, though he kept on telling himself that it was from rage he still felt, not from fear bred out of him by the Legion’s gene-wrights many decades ago. “We did not expect this enemy to be so… capable.” Yusuf was not sure if this was the right word, but he could not think of a better way to describe the surprisingly effective nature of resistance on Pacal. “The vision could be a psychic trick to force our hand.”

 

El-Rahim shook his head in disagreement. “You were there, Yusuf. You saw it too.” The Astrologer looked slumped, his thin face betraying the extent of injuries he suffered on Terra that could only be mitigated, but never completely healed. “This power…”

 

“I have only seen one being with a power like that, my sons,” Iskanderos agreed with him. “No mortal psyker, not even an entire planet of them, could have done this.”

 

“Then…” Yusuf stopped in his tracks, worried about the implications of what his Primarch said.

 

“My father,” elaborated Iskanderos. “The Emperor of Mankind. Make no mistake, my sons. The power we have witnessed was well on par with the Emperor’s own.”

 

Demetrios rubbed his chin in contemplation. “A power like that… could have destroyed us. But it chose to speak to us.”

 

“Indeed,” agreed el-Rahim. “The space is vast, and there are many things in it we do not understand.”

 

“Like fate,” added Iskanderos. There was a hungry gleam in his eyes. “Like fate.”

 

“Fate is decided, sire,” el-Rahim said. “Only savages like the Fourteenth believe that it can be manipulated. You know it as well as anyone else.”

 

“Perhaps…” Demetrios pondered. “But if fate is decided, then why bother changing it?”

 

“There is always another possibility,” Yusuf insisted. “It is certain that we faced an entity with great power, but it sounds to me like you are taking this… vision as a prophecy. What if it is… not?”

 

“And what if it is?” retorted Iskanderos. His voice grew to a bellicose snarl. “Hemri, or someone like him, already tried to have me killed on Terra. Is it too much of a stretch to expect a move against our homeworld? You know that Nihlus has little independent will on his own, but would he truly turn down an offer to burn a Legion homeworld, especially when the Legion is away or when he has overwhelming support?”

 

“If its fate is decided, then nothing we do shall save it,” said el-Rahim quietly. “In fact, Apellan history is full of examples when attempts to defy the prophecies only brought them to conclusion.”

 

“Bah, mythology!” exclaimed Demetrios. “Surely you don’t take the fanciful legends at face value, brother?”

 

“Our mythology, as you call it, also told us about the Ifreet,” el-Rahim also raised his voice. “You, Yusuf. You saw it with your own eyes.”

 

“That I did,” agreed the 54th Captain. “But it does make me wonder…”

 

“What?” said Demetrios mockingly. “Since when are you a natural philosopher like Apollus here?”

 

“Any power as great as the one we faced could have pulled knowledge out of our minds. Could it be that it molded what we saw to conform to our knowledge?”

 

“A power that great has little need for deception,” Demetrios countered. “If it was truly on the Emperor’s level, it could have forced us to kneel without the need to play games.”

 

Iskanderos rose to his full height, his face red with emotion. “No. One. Forces. Me. To. Kneel.” He breathed heavily, an enraged giant amongst his sons. “Even the Emperor’s power is not without limit, or He would not have needed the likes of us.” The Conqueror’s face visibly relaxed, now showing a degree of smugness. “I do not believe in benevolent interventions. Whatever force was behind this clearly wants something from us, or fears us. It means that we can either bargain with it, or…” He left the words trailing, but the message was clear.

 

“Then why would it show us the vision of Apella under attack?” Yusuf asked. “Was it trying to scare us, or warn us? Why would its minions attack us if it only intended to talk?”

 

“Sacrifice,” el-Rahim answered. “You heard the voice too. Do you really think that, as much as we sought a war, the Legion would have destroyed Pacal without provocation?”

 

“Are you saying that… Pacal was meant to burn?” Yusuf’s voice shook as he verbalized the idea. It felt wrong; what kind of species would play into such a convoluted scheme? What kind of insanity could have driven them into this?

 

Iskanderos nodded, now understanding. “Perhaps it was their intention all along. A proof of power to show that they are serious, and that they have something to give us or to threaten us with, at the cost of a meaningless planet full of primitives.”

 

“But… why?”

 

“Why?” Demetrios raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Our sire has enemies on Terra, that much is very clear, but he is not without the means to exact retribution. This must cause some of his brothers to lose sleep and wonder if their domains are at risk.”

 

“I mean,” elaborated Yusuf, “why would this entity, this Cloud Prophet, seek to communicate with us in this manner? Why would it be necessary when simple negotiations would have done it?”

 

“Power is its own goal, and its own reward,” recited el-Rahim. “Meditations by Ibn Firman, around the time of the Second Diaspora.”

 

“Yes, we all know that you are well-read,” jabbed Demetrios, though there was no malice in his tone. His expression grew more serious. “So anyone with power wants to demonstrate it, lest his position appears weaker than it should.”

 

“That is precisely what it was, my sons,” Iskanderos agreed. “A demonstration of power, to let us know what they are capable of, and to make us take them seriously. For this reason, we must go to this Grail, wherever it is, and ensure that this power is on our side, or…” He made a fist. The Primarch’s knuckles turned white from effort. “If it is friendly, we will learn from it, and perhaps even sway it to our side. If it is hostile, we will destroy it. Such is the Apellan way.”

 

* * *

 

Once again the scout ships sped through the faraway systems, traversing across dead worlds and primitive societies gazing up at the stars racing across the heaven like a sign of ill omen. The few asteroid ships of the Ascension gave them wide berth, pulling away from engagement and abandoning what seemed like crucial systems to the tender mercies of the Imperial Redeemers.

 

None of it mattered. Wary of further sacrifices, Iskanderos ordered his men to give battle only if they were attacked. If he managed to ally with the power that sent him visions at Pacal, it would be unwise to destroy its followers. If the Ascension proved to be hostile, or too corrupted to be allowed to survive, the Sixth Legion would be able to return in force to scour all life from the surfaces of the Ascension worlds.

 

The idea of traveling to Grail, wherever it was, to parlay with the unknown did not sit well with Yusuf. Psyker tricks, mutation, madness – that way lie something he wanted no part of, something slithering just beyond the boundaries of mortal and Legionary senses where myth and superstition were as valid a currency as hard science and logic. When he raised his concerns to el-Rahim, the Astrologer cautioned him.

 

“You saw our father,” the crippled Imperial Redeemer told him. “He thinks he is surrounded by enemies, and I, for one, cannot blame him. He sees a prize within reach, and thinks that with power such as this, he can stand up to the Council, or even save Apella. Don’t tell me that you did not consider the possibility.”

 

“I did,” Yusuf admitted, though it shamed him to agree. “If this vision was truly a warning, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to keep Apella safe. But what if it was not? What if we are being manipulated by something we don’t understand?”

 

El-Rahim shook his head. The Astrologer was sitting on a bench in the ship’s gardens, normally a compartment thronging with both laborers working to maintain the exotic vegetation and with revelers using it as a getaway from their worries and responsibilities. Now, the gardens were practically empty save for few maintenance servitors and robotic drones. A nervous mood settled upon the fleet after the brief relief provided by the destruction of Pacal, and few found it in their hearts to seek solace amongst the exuberant flora, baroque benches and fountains, and illusion of planetside serenity.

 

“The Primarch believes the vision was true, and nothing we say to him will make him change his mind,” the Astrologer said. “Believe me, I tried. It is hard to make a case to him when he is so… resolute.”

 

“Power alone is not a substitute for the truth,” Yusuf insisted, though he kept his voice down in case anyone else wandered nearby. “His logic does not make a lot of sense to me.”

 

The Astrologer spread his hands in a gesture of powerlessness and frustration. “He thinks that he is risking nothing by seeking to parlay, and that if Apella is threatened, it is his duty to protect it.”

 

“And truthfully?”

 

“Truthfully?” El-Rahim laughed, but there was no mirth in it. “He came close to death on Terra. Up until now, he had never lost a battle. That kind of history can breed arrogance.” His eyes darted back and forth to make sure that no one could overhear the conversation. “This was the first time he came close to losing, and I don’t think he wants to experience it ever again.”

 

“So this entire thing is about Iskanderos chasing ghosts because he feels threatened?” Despite himself, Yusuf could not keep his voice down.

 

“What do you think, brother?” retorted el-Rahim, looking worried despite seeing no onlookers nearby. “In his mind, he is Apella, and any affront against the homeworld is an insult against him. Remember the pacification of Suss.”

 

“Even if it means trafficking with mutants, psykers, and Emperor-knows-what?”

 

“Listen to me, Yusuf. Even if we had never gone to Terra, there is one enemy no one had ever defeated. Our history, or, as Tilsit likes to point out, our mythology is full of people challenging fate and only hastening it. Wouldn’t you think that given a chance to defeat fate, our father would turn it down?”

 

“You sound almost like you are… with him,” gasped Yusuf. “We don’t even know if what we saw was true. Even if it is, how do you know that we are not inviting disaster through our actions now?”

 

El-Rahim sighed heavily, as if speaking the words made him believe them. “If there is one man who can defeat fate, it is Lord Iskanderos. They don’t call him the Conqueror for nothing. Why else would we all see the same vision, every one of us, mortal, Legionary, all across the fleet?”

 

Yusuf found himself with no appropriate reply. Of all Legionaries, he thought that el-Rahim would have been the most receptive to his concerns. Demetrios was more interested in placating the Primarch’s irritable moods, while the other officers were not privy to the conversations in the Conqueror’s inner circle. Though Ishmael and Telennios witnessed the abomination on Pacal, both of them were too low in the Legion’s hierarchy, too far from the Primarch’s sight to have any chance of swaying him, or at least of making him reconsider.

 

His mood uneasy, he waved goodbye to the Astrologer, unsure of what the future would bring, or what kind of ghosts their reckless search would unearth.

 

* * *

 

The dreams started four nights after the destruction of Pacal.

 

At first they were little things, fragmentary pieces of a traumatic vision spruced amongst the expected dreamscapes, so small that they were barely there in any recognizable shape. A flicker of fire here; a still image of desolation there, all vanishing before they could be truly quantified yet leaving a residue of discomfort persisting through the rest of the night.

 

Over the next several days, the dreams got stronger, visiting human and post-human alike and replaying the destruction of Apella in vivid, sordid detail. Each night, new details appeared, expanding the devastation from the moment of the initial assault into the hours and even the days that followed.

 

Every Imperial Redeemer saw waves after waves of Iconoclasts break through the fortifications hastily erected by the few survivors of the Sixth Legion, giving no quarter to Legionary and civilian alike. Cities burned, all legacy of humanity's golden age that survived the Old Night perishing under the uncaring boots of Nihlus' sons.

 

This was not a war of conquest; this was a campaign of extermination, total and thorough. Where the Iconoclasts attacked, nothing remained but death.

 

When the Imperial Redeemers went to their Chaplains to seek spiritual guidance, little comfort was given, for the Chaplains saw the same dreams. All they could offer were tired consolations that no Legion, not even the one as brutal and uncompromising as the Iconoclasts, could have brought such ruin to Apella, for none were the equals to the sons of Iskanderos.

 

As if to answer these questions, the dreams changed. Now, they depicted the void of space where enormous fleets did battle. Threads of lance fire wrote litanies of apocalypse across high orbit, where the ships of the Sixth Legion met the enemy in strength. Many Imperial Redeemers could almost take pride at the sight of their brethren engaging in skilled displays of maneuvering, flanking the enemy vessels, reaping an enormous toll on the invaders while trading space for time.

 

And yet, it was not enough.

 

The fleet arraigned against Apella was at least three times the size of the Imperial Redeemers' own, with the unmistakable profiles of Legion vessels. There were forces of at least three, maybe even four Legions there, from heavy cruisers and battleships over ten kilometers in length with their nova cannons and planet-cracker missiles to nimble frigates and fighters dueling in the shadow of the leviathans. Swarms of boarding torpedoes and drop pods sped through space, each filled with crack squads of heavily armored killers, too many for the Sixth Legion to kill.

 

There were Iconoclasts amongst them, but also others – bestial Gargoyles ululating in the barbaric tongue of savage Argos as they streamed from the hull breaches like swarms of angry ants; eager Warblades in their sky-blue armor seeking to prove themselves the equals of other, more respected Legions; stoic Illuminators in their crimson and silver, each warrior a whirlwind of destruction accelerated to superhuman speed or strengthened beyond all reason through psyker arts.

 

Against these odds, the Imperial Redeemers died, and with them, Apella itself died.

 

Three weeks after the destruction of Pacal, the dreams crossed into the waking world.

 

The day cycles of the Legion's ships were no longer a safe refuge from the nightmare. Now, every blink of an eye brought forth the battle that would see the Imperial Redeemers wiped from the pages of history, their homeworld reduced to cinders and ghosts in a moment of fratricide so monstrous that no precedent for it existed in the entirety of the Imperial history.

 

The warriors of the Sixth Legion resorted to marathon training sessions, hoping that pushing their superhuman bodies to exhaustion would grant them a reprieve of dreamless collapse yet failing to escape their predicament. Even the most skeptical of them recognized that something momentous had happened, though the nature of it remained unclear.

 

When the scouts returned with the news the Imperial Redeemers sought, every living being on board the Sixth Legion's fleet hoped that it would finally bring their nightmare to the end. Instead, the nightmare was only beginning.

 

* * *

 

The fleet exited the Empyrean with a sense of urgency. There were few protocols observed as warships and transports alike woke their real-space engines, all eager to close the distance with their destination. Though the Imperial Redeemers’ training ensured the familiar procedure – screening forces in front and on the edges of the three-dimensional sphere, heavier ships spread out to avoid potential minefields and other hazards that would cripple the entire fleet with only few well-placed strikes – the hardened Legion commanders spent little time adjusting the fleet formation, or even waiting for few of the slower vessels to shed the last vestiges of unreality before resuming their journey.

 

In his command throne on the bridge of the Hegemon, Iskanderos brooded. The Conqueror grew even more gaunt, his eyes shining with a peculiar kind of madness that borders on determination, yet there was hidden strength to him born of desperation and hope.

 

He saw the visions at Pacal too; he also was not immune to the waking nightmare that replayed Apella’s destruction at the hands of other Space Marine Legions. As much effort as he expended keeping a stoic face of a leader, a general immune to things which would break lesser men, he saw the end of everything he worked for every time he closed his eyes, heard the whispers of the dying with every breath.

 

No one must know. It took a lot out of him not to mouth out the words as he felt the layers of confidence stripped away from him, one by one. No one must know – not any of his mortal attendants; not Miranda, who would write tracts to glorify his name and deeds to any who would listen; not any of the Companions, who were, for all their accomplishments, still his lessers looking up to him.

 

It did not befit a father to show weakness in front of his sons.

 

Next to his Primarch, Yusuf was clad in his battle-plate, as if ready for a combat drop or another rapid operation despite such things rarely taking place without exhaustive planning and preparation. The 54th Captain’s fingers twitched nervously, both his flesh hand and his augmetic one.

 

Even Apollus el-Rahim managed to put on a suit of modified power armor, though it was clear from his bearing that he was in no shape to fight. The Astrologer seemed to use his armor’s in-build systems to stay upright, his eyes betraying the lack of sleep that was excessive even by Legionary standards.

 

Demetrios was the only one of the Companions exhibiting a degree of calm, and even that seemed to be forced at best. As the Primarch’s equerry, he stood closest to his master’s side, his face composed as if he was about to lead some sort of lengthy negotiations, or if he had to face a trial of resolve and fortitude.

 

Before them, the ship’s viewscreens displayed the world of Grail.

 

Yusuf did not know what the outriders had to do to find it so quickly. Perhaps they were simply lucky, finding their destination in less time than it took most explorers to cross the wide gulf between planetary systems. Perhaps the psychic residue of the message the Imperial Redeemers received at Pacal left some hidden cues as to Grail’s location in the minds of the ships’ Navigators, or maybe another force, something so strange and inhuman as to defy comprehension, guided them through the Immaterium. Or maybe, the Imperial Redeemers were always meant to find it, echoing el-Rahim’s musings on the nature of fate and pushing them on to where they were intended to be all along.

 

That thought did not sit well with him. If finding Grail was predestined, what else lay hidden from him and his brothers in the murky, uncertain web of the future?

 

At least, he had to admit to himself, Grail was not an ordinary world.

 

Over almost thirty millennia since mankind first left the safety of Terra for the great unknown, it managed to colonize a wide assortment of worlds. The children of Terra lived in the midst of alien jungles teeming with savage life, and under the waves of ammonia seas upon the frigid worlds floating through the void rather than orbiting a main sequence star. They made their homes on scorching hothouse planets where atmospheric pressures threatened to crush the unwary in seconds while the temperatures outside the hive cities reached high enough to melt lead; they dwelled on worlds completely covered with oceans hundreds of kilometers deep, and inside the domed cities built on the airless moons. Wherever human ingenuity and unstoppable desire to expand met a new environment, that environment was conquered, becoming home for the next generation who would push further out yet.

 

Grail was a world more alien than almost any Yusuf and the Imperial Redeemers had encountered in the Great Crusade.

 

A gas giant in the habitable zone of a hot, white star, it should have been too large, too difficult to settle. Its radiation belts and powerful magnetic fields should have killed any would-be colonists long before they entered the narrow band of atmosphere where temperatures and pressures were conducive to human life, while its lack of solid surface would have made settlement impossible without technology far in advance of the Ascension’s own. Even if these challenges were somehow overcome, its atmosphere should have been a toxic compound inimical to human life, where even a slight difference in chemical composition would have made it unbreathable by ordinary mortals, and where no terraforming effort of the Dark Age of Technology could have had any effect on a world of its size.

 

Yet, in spite of all reason, Grail persevered, its white and gray globe taunting the Legion from the distance with its mere presence.

 

A fleet of Ascension vessels guarding the orbital approach parted at the passage of the Imperial Redeemers, making no attempts to engage them. A part of Yusuf wondered if there was some hidden meaning to it all, some monstrously complicated plan he failed to see, but even if the Ascension fleet was twenty times the size, it would have still been outclassed by the Legion’s expedition. Even if it was a trap, it would not have been enough to do more than anger Iskanderos and his sons.

 

As the Imperial Redeemers got closer to the planet, Yusuf saw the dreams flashing before his eyes every time he blinked fade. Certainly, they were still there, but no longer as strong, no longer as vivid as before, fading in intensity and power like a hologram proven to be a false image. Still, some part of him did not trust it, did not believe that the Legion’s trial was at an end. It would have been too easy, and if Yusuf al-Malik learned one thing in his life, it was that an easy path usually hid a trap.

 

In a matter of hours, Grail filled the viewscreens in hereto unseen detail. Storms larger than terrestrial worlds traversed its enormous surface, occasionally touching upper atmosphere in tentacle-like protuberances. Yusuf could almost imagine them as appendages of some enormous alien beast seeking prey; he had to force the fanciful image from his mind.

 

Whatever his reservations, he was still an officer of the Imperial Redeemers, and now that his Primarch needed him, he was going to do his duty.

 

The ships of the Imperial Redeemers took cautious positions around Grail, lances and virus bombs at the ready. Though the planet’s unconventional nature made it practically immune to being destroyed in the manner of Pacal, there was enough firepower targeting it to ensure that nothing larger than single-celled bacteria would survive the coming cataclysm if it came to that.

 

Twenty minutes after the Hegemon took its position in the blockade formation, the ship’s communication node buzzed into static-filled life on every channel. A message came through in slightly accented, though grammatically correct High Gothic, repeated for emphasis in the proper Apellene Gothic that would have shamed most worlds of the Network.

 

The Cloud Prophet awaited Lord Iskanderos on the surface of Grail with an explanation and a gift.


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TWENTY

 

A Gift and a Curse

Gods in This World

The Bringer of Light

 

The Cloud Prophet waited for the Conqueror on a large island floating high above the storms of Grail. There was something distinctly organic about the island, as if it was made from living matter; roots and vines crept down its sides, some falling into the murky, lightning-streaked depths below like anchors on a ship. The bottom of an island was composed of many bulbous sacs pulsating with alien life, expanding or contracting to stay afloat on the gale-force winds.

 

The Prophet looked old. Everything about him was white – his long hair, his beard, his robes of bleached silk devoid of any decoration or design. His skin was the wrinkly parchment that had seen ages come and go, yet there did not seem to be any frailty about him, and the staff in his hand, easily as tall as a Space Marine, seemed to be ceremonial rather than necessary in nature. A slight glow enveloped him, barely visible yet undeniably present even in the bright light reflected by the endless clouds of Grail. The only things of color were his dark eyes – lively, curious, questioning.

 

He stood on a wide-open platform decorated only by small obelisks with no discernable purpose. Just like the planet itself, the platform was white and light blue, inlaid with marble and mother-of-pearl. It was nondescript, almost without any notable features; from distance, it almost made an impression of the Prophet standing upon a cloud floating above the storms and basking in bright, incandescent sunlight.

 

“Welcome to Grail, Lord Primarch,” the human said, heedless of a demi-company of Imperial Redeemers’ Honor Guards fanning out to secure a landing site. To the Legionaries surprise, the Cloud Prophet was alone. No warriors hid on the platform; no elaborate invisibility cloaks or other devices detectable by the Space Marines were present. The only life forms detected through their auspex were the cowering attendants, all clearly mortal and casting awed glances at their post-human visitors.

 

“You said you had the answers,” Iskanderos replied impatiently. The torturous, persistent vision took much of his taste for diplomatic overtures, leaving him with little interest in word games. Against the counsel of his equerry, he left the Companions on the Hegemon. This was going to be his battle, his bargain, his accomplishment, whether they liked it or not.

 

“Yes, indeed.” The Cloud Prophet extended a bone-thin hand, inviting the Primarch to approach. “I must apologize for the means used to bring you and your men here, but they were necessary. Sometimes, words alone do not carry the gravity of the situation.”

 

“Who are you?” the Conqueror asked, subvocalizing an order to his men to step back. He made several cautious steps towards the mortal. As he walked on, he realized that the substance under his feet was not stone. It felt like it bounced ever so slightly with every step, almost like skin of something living yet so vast that it paid him no heed.

 

“My name is Pharn,” said the human, his voice aged yet not at all unpleasant. There was warmth in it, something resembling genuine conviction and comfort with his place in the universe. “The Ascension call me the Cloud Prophet.”

 

Iskanderos was quick to catch on to the turn of his phrase. “The Ascension, not we?”

 

“Aye, my lord,” Pharn laughed quietly, as if explaining something so elementary and basic that a child should have been able to understand it. “You must understand. They are united in purpose, yet they only understand a fraction of the universal design. It falls to the likes of me to guide them and others like them, so that they, too, fulfill their destiny.”

 

“There are others like you?” asked Iskanderos incredulously, thinking back to the awesome power he experienced at Pacal. A distinctly un-Primarch-like sensation of discomfort crept up his skin.

 

Pharn nodded with a smile. “Please understand, lord, I am but a disciple. A guide, if you wish, no more. Wouldn’t it have been an incredible coincidence that of all possible directions, you chose the one leading to this place where we can talk? Fate only exists when nothing is left to chance.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The galaxy is large. Had you taken a slightly different route at Heromar, you would have met the Technomancy of Zheram, and you would be talking to a man they call the Builder. If your travels took you towards the Ghoul Stars on the other side of the galaxy, sooner or later you would have been speaking to the Burning Prince upon the fields of Sarkanu. There are powers greater than I, greater even than the Imperium you serve, and they dictate the flow of fate.”

 

“You speak of worlds that cannot be reached, let alone communicated with, in a course of a mortal lifetime,” Iskanderos said incredulously. “And yet you lead the people who fight with swords and spears.”

 

Pharn’s face grew serious, somber even. “A human lifetime is but a speck of time. There were days when this speck was sufficient to cross the galaxy and to seed it with knowledge.”

 

“You are talking about the Dark Age of Technology!” exclaimed Iskanderos.

 

“Is that what you call it these days?” smirked the Cloud Prophet. “It was a naïve time but for the few like me who knew about the coming fall, and took precautions. The man’s hubris did not allow him to consider that there are powers in this universe operating on a considerably greater scale than human imagination could conceive of, and for that naivety, mankind suffered.”

 

“You talk of the Old Night as if it was some minute disruption!”

 

“Forgive me, lord Iskanderos,” Pharn offered apologetically. “It is easy to lose track of time over sufficiently long periods.”

 

Iskanderos gave the old man a worried look. “Suppose I would believe that you truly did live through the Old Night and somehow built this entire society of… primitives for the sole purpose of meeting me. Suppose I did not laugh at the idea that there are others like you who would have taken your place if the Legion went in a different direction. You still did not tell me why.”

 

“But that, my lord Primarch, is the hardest question to answer.” Next to the Conqueror, Pharn looked like a child, yet in that moment, he seemed to grow in bulk as if he was the Primarch’s equal. “It would be much, much easier to show. Would you be willing to humor an old man?” He extended a hand towards the Conqueror.

 

Iskanderos looked at the outstretched hand, frail and tiny in comparison to his own. Possibilities played through his mind; he was still no closer to the answer now than he was when he decided to answer the vision’s call. Pride and indecision struggled in his mind.

 

In a movement too quick for the naked eye to follow, the Conqueror grasped Pharn’s hand, and the universe exploded.

 

* * *

 

In the beginning, there was nothing. It was unlike the void of space, or the absence of vision and sound in the sensory deprivation tank; it was quite anything human or post-human mind could conceptualize. It was total and absolute, every possibility condensed in one burning point and spread across the entirety of existence in ways that were ill-suited for words.

 

In an instant, the nothing became everything. First stars coalesced out of the primordial atoms, giving birth to planets and joining together in young galaxies. First organisms took their tentative strides under the light of alien suns, some hinting at the familiar forms they would some day develop into, others strange and baffling beyond comprehension.

 

But even in the vastness of space, something else dwelled, another firmament of reality that sometimes intersected with it, and sometimes twisted it in strange and beautiful directions. It was a swirling ocean of thought and emotion full of possibilities which considered the laws of physics as mere suggestions easily broken and ignored, a sea where the waves were made of dreams and souls of the waking world.

 

The Warp. Iskanderos formed a thought, realizing that he continued to exist as a coherent presence in the impossible vision.

 

Such an imperfect term, another voice answered. He was surprised to recognize Pharn in this thought-scape, not aware until that time that he was not alone. Some cultures called it that, aye. Others named it the Sea of Souls, the Great Ocean, or the Empyrean. All had an inkling of truth, and none understood all of it. For this, Pharn’s thoughts acquired an adoring tone, this is where the gods dwell.

 

Iskanderos saw primitive creatures that would eventually rise to become mankind, running through the endless savannah in chase of prey. Something about these primitive hominids tugged at his ancestral memory – the scent of the hunt, the feeling of belonging that could only come from the species that knows it is alone against the hostile world. The lead creature, still more ape than man, howled to the sky in triumph as it used a crude rock to smash open the head of a wounded herbivore, hitting again and again until the prey was silent.

 

The first creations, commented Pharn. The beginning of the Chosen.

 

Just as the Conqueror experienced the animalistic hunger sated in an affinity with this distant human ancestor, the scenery changed. Snow and ice covered all he could see, blanketing the ground and the sky in a never-ending veil of biting cold. The primitive ape-like creatures were now fur-clad hunters brandishing spears of wood, animal bone, and stone. A troop of them moved through the frozen terrain, on the lookout for hungry opportunistic predators, convenient prey, or shelter from the unforgiving wind.

 

There! Iskanderos saw a cave mouth opening mere meters from the tribe, willing them to notice it. Though he clearly had no sway over their actions, eventually the stone age people recognized an opportunity, following inside to rest.

 

This tiny band that you see, voiced Pharn, is the first one to get a hint of the truth. Watch!

 

Inside the cave, the tribesmen relaxed their stances, though they were still wary of anything else that could share shelter with them. Women and children huddled over the hastily built fire as the hunters split to guard the entrance, and to explore deeper into the cave. A youth, barely older than a boy, separated from the main group, following a fork in the cave and ignoring the cries of his elders as he waded into the darkness, heedless of dangers it hid.

 

The boy’s hands and face started to glow. He stopped in shock, looking at his hands, then back into the darkness. With the vigor reserved for the youth, he ignored the calls from his tribespeople, venturing forth instead.

 

The human species had always been uniquely attuned to the Beyond, Pharn lectured. From the earliest moments in prehistory to the present, there were always individuals who were uniquely gifted. Second sight. Levitation. Clairvoyance. You know these things by many names, but suffice to say, they are gifts from the Beyond. The birthright of humanity, if you will, that led the development of civilization.

 

The vision changed. The boy, now a man approaching middle age, sat near the fire in a crude yet clearly man-made hut. Around him, the tribe gathered, observing him with reverence and awe.

 

There is great power to be found in the Beyond, continued the Cloud Prophet, for those who made compacts with the gods. They were the first seers, the first leaders of mankind, and their teachings ensured harmony between the Materium and the Immaterium.

 

It was a mountainous landscape baked by the sun, where only tenacious grass held on to life in spite of the elements. A small herd of beasts grazed upon the exhausted pasture, each animal wiry and malnourished. A boy watched over them, a child with the eyes far too old for his age carefully shepherding the flock and, with it, the tribe’s primary source of food.

 

Something attracted the boy’s attention – an otherwise unremarkable rock. The child approached it, examining it rather than keep his attention on the herd. Finally, he touched it.

 

Water burst from the ground, at first a small fountain, then a powerful stream. The child’s eyes widened with wonder; he knelt down by it, cupping his hands to take in as much water as he could and drinking it in wide gulps. The beasts in his charge took note, too, flocking around the newfound spring.

 

You are seeing the beginnings of the one you call the Emperor, explained Pharn. He, too, took of the power of the Beyond, and for a time, he led his people wisely.

 

Iskanderos tried to force his attention from the vision and on Pharn, wondering if he could spot the old man’s presence in this strange unreality. Why are you telling me this, old man? What does the Warp have to do with anything? Anger swelled within him as he continued. I did not come all the way here for some parlor tricks and lectures!

 

Please, lord Iskanderos, I beg for your patience, Pharn answered him, somehow conveying humility despite having no physical mouth here to speak the words. There is no deception here. You, of all men, deserve to know the full truth rather than condensed version befitting only your lessers.

 

The scenery changed again, now to that of a battle. Warriors armed with weapons of bronze and copper surrounded a walled fortress. Even at a brief glance, Iskanderos’ military mind could tell that the besiegers were at a severe disadvantage. There were too few of them to mount a serious assault; their siege engines were primitive and poorly made, not enough to bring down the city walls or to deliver their own warriors on top of the ramparts.

 

Watch!

 

There was a man at the head of the besieging army, a giant head and shoulders taller than others around him with long, black hair and bronze skin. The others clearly deferred to him as if he was their general, king, or prophet.

 

Iskanderos realized that he had seen him before.

 

The giant pointed at the city. The warriors surrounding him parted, giving way to a troop of musicians carrying enormous trumpets, too large and impractical to be used in battle. As he raised his hand, the musicians readied themselves.

 

When his hand fell in a universal gesture of readiness, the walls crumbled.

 

Iskanderos could only catch brief moments of the ensuing battle as the desperate defenders fell to their death with the walls which now became their doom. The besiegers swarmed into the city, now an unstoppable force slaughtering a demoralized enemy.

 

The Emperor grew powerful amongst the princes of Terra, continued Pharn. An array of images flickered into existence, each centered around the same man. Here he was leading an army of desert warriors on a daring raid against a heavily armed formation of knights under the cover of an unnatural dust storm; there, he stood with the learned men of the age, pointing out some minute details in a scheme written on parchment and getting enthusiastic nods of agreement in return. Elsewhere, he rose into the sky on a primitive airship, only to morph into a general on the field of battle where armored vehicles fought for superiority, laying waste to entire continents with chemical and nuclear weapons.

 

Another vision flickered into existence, that of some form of ceremony. The Emperor, or the man who would become the Emperor, knelt in an enormous cathedral, accepting sacrament from a member of clergy. The Emperor’s face was serious, content, even… pious.

 

You see, lord Primarch, the Emperor’s many conquests in his stewardship of the human race were done with the blessings of the gods, Pharn said. I venture this is not the story you have heard.

 

No… thought Iskanderos, not quite believing what he was seeing. How do I know you are not deceiving me? Anger crept back into his thought-voice. How do I know any of it had actually happened?

 

Pharn seemed to laugh. The story is not yet over.

 

The vision changed again, this time jumping thousands of years. Towers and arcologies rose into the sky of an otherwise pristine world. Technological marvels undreamt of flashed before Iskanderos’ mind’s eye. Impossibly advanced starships darted to and fro, carrying with them knowledge and bounty of countless worlds.

 

In the end, however, continued the Cloud Prophet with some sadness, he began to believe his own hubris. He led our species to such heights that have not yet been replicated, forgoing the harmony of the natural and the supernatural for the hollow promises of soulless technology. For a brief instant, a speck in the history of the species, it shone brighter than all. And then…

 

It was the same world, but now ruined, torn apart by centuries of war. Scavengers in filthy rags battled each other like rabid dogs in the alleys strewn with the refuse of the past. Chimneys belched dirty black smoke into the polluted sky, a far cry from technology of humanity’s heyday. A baleful light hung in the sky; though he had no physical eyes here, it hurt Iskanderos to look at it.

 

Another species made the same mistake on their own path, Pharn went on. You know them as the Eldar, the Children of Isha, and to this day you encounter their warbands and exile ships on your travels. It was not always so. Once, they too honored the gods, almost managing the harmony between the worlds yet failing, for they were not the chosen.

 

They turned inward, failing to honor the forces that could have made them more, and for that hubris, they brought forth their own doom. Now, their home worlds are gone, replaced with the place where corrupted nightmares spew forth into reality.

 

The backlash of Eldar falling sent shock waves through Materium and the Beyond, transmitted Pharn sadly. The Beyond became turbulent and impossible to travel. Worlds lost contact with each other, breaking ties going back to Terra itself. Barbarians and tyrants arose to splinter what was left of our species.

 

The vision dimmed, taking Iskanderos to a small room seemingly carved from rock with an elaborate portal carved into its middle. There was no clear destination for it; the portal simply stood in the middle of the room, neither here nor there, as if it was an afterthought of some mad architect.

 

Iskanderos recognized the Emperor there, but this time, the Master of Mankind was alone, surrounded by arcane objects that had less to do with science and more with… sorcery. Strange, colorless light emanated from every corner of the room, casting the Emperor in shades that seemed to move of their own volition. The portal lit up, too, pulsating with unearthly illumination. The Emperor took a step towards it. With every movement, a piece of him became invisible, incorporeal, as if the act of moving forward transported him somewhere else.

 

But the gods were merciful, elaborated Pharn. On the world of Molech, they listened to his pleas and forgave him his indiscretions. We are, and were, their chosen people. We still had a chance to ascend to the state of harmony, led by men of vision and nobility. To this end, the Emperor asked for power to reunite humanity, and the gods acceded.

 

Now, the vision transported Iskanderos to a laboratory. Hundreds of scientists hurried about, all under the watchful auspices of the Custodian guards.

 

Terra… The thought escaped the Conqueror’s mind.

 

Yes, Terra, agreed Pharn. The secret laboratories that were the genesis of the Twenty, and your own beginnings.

 

Iskanderos saw himself transported through the corridors, barely noticing irreplaceable equipment of ages past or strange specimens in the containment tanks, neither human nor animal nor xenos. Each level was guarded with more warriors; as he descended, the number of guards became greater than the number of scientists and workers.

 

He came to a stop before a large circular door marked with symbols he shockingly recognized. Crossed swords; lion’s head; an ankh; barbaric stylized rendering of jaws.

 

The Legion symbols, gasped Iskanderos, eliciting a knowing laugh from Pharn.

 

Yes, the Legion symbols, the Cloud Prophet agreed. It takes a lot of work to create a destiny. It has to be molded, shaped from the very beginning. Even a stray look or a stray word can send fate on a different route.

 

But, Pharn continued, it can be done. The nature of the Primarchs is but one example. Consider the alternatives.

 

Faces and names flashed before Iskanderos’ mind, almost but not quite familiar, as if those known to him were twisted and malformed, seen through the distorting lens until they barely resembled themselves.

 

An angelic being of golden light; a savage butcher with twin axes covered in blood of his enemies, screaming in pain as the crude mechanical implants drew him to slaughter; a shaven-headed warrior of noble bearing in the armor of sea-green, extolling his men to greater deeds against a vile alien foe; an oversized mechanical sarcophagus locked in struggle against a malformed beast of rot and plague; an ascetic plugged into ancient machinery, deliberating combat strategies across a thousand worlds.

 

The names were there too, though they were completely unfamiliar to Iskanderos. Horus the Warmaster. Lorgar Aurelian. Magnus the Red. Kossolax the Sun-Eater. Kayon Maturax. Alexandri of Rosskar. Janus. Simiador. Urgrond the Abyssal. Adrian.

 

They represent all the different possibilities, Pharn explained. Each is a story that could have been told, but was suffocated before it could happen. Each was a future imperfect, a path not taken, or… a path taken to a dead end.

 

Iskanderos pondered what he heard. The implications, if true, were staggering. He examined the door, taking in the minute details and wondering why their progress was stopped.

 

We cannot go further, lord Primarch, said Pharn, as if reading his mind. The process is… delicate. He knew that the presence of an unexpected observer could lead to vastly different results, and warded this room well.

 

The door slid open, though Iskanderos felt some sort of force repelling him, barring him entry. A tall figure emerged, flanked by squads of Custodians with weapons at the ready. The Emperor marched forth purposefully, the door and the secrets it hid left tantalizingly close yet unreachable.

 

In an instant, something changed.

 

The door was no more, replaced by a lightning-streaked vortex with strange, inhuman shapes seen inside. Warriors of the Custodes struggled to break through, unable to get close enough as the lightning melted their armor, threw them off their feet and formed an impenetrable barrier.

 

Iskanderos willed himself forward. Incredulously, he realized that he moved as if he had a physical form here; a look confirmed that he was now in his own body, armed and armored as he was upon his descent on Grail. Pharn stood next to him, a virtual child next to the Primarch’s bulk.

 

They cannot see us, said the Cloud Prophet. Not unless we do something to interfere. Here. Let’s go.

 

They walked to the vortex, finding that it did nothing to stop them despite resisting all attempts of the Custodians to get through. Lightning went straight through them as if they were not there at all.

 

Quick, whispered Pharn, a worried expression on his face. We don’t have much time.

 

Why? What is going to happen? Asked Iskanderos, not sure how their ghostly presence in a vision could put them in any danger.

 

Have you not realized that yet, my lord? Pharn looked like he was trying to rush them through the vortex as quickly as he could. This is no mere vision. By the power of the gods, we are there.

 

Iskanderos laughed. This is impossible! Even if the future is not decided, the past has already happened. How can we influence the past?

 

It can happen, said Pharn. These are not ordinary events, and not ordinary times. These are no parlor tricks, lord Iskanderos. The past and the future are inextricably tied into one at the fulcrum of history. Remember, my lord, I promised you honesty – and what better way to tell you the truth than to take you there, where it all happened, so you can see the power of the gods and understand why they chose you? Because of that, this moment is crucial. It exists simultaneously in all times, in all possible realities.

 

The Cloud Prophet’s voice shook as he continued. Horus saw this. So did Ceyec, and Lorgar, and Acton Vyrnnus. So did Hektor Cincinnatus. All of those fragmentary realities led to this point. Everything here is mutable.

 

They were now in a hall lined with twenty genetor-tanks, each bearing a numeral. Iskanderos felt a gust of freezing wind; this, he understood. His eyes quickly settled on the tank bearing the number VI, walking towards it until he could put his hand on top of the glass-like material. A pair of blue eyes looked back at him without fear or trepidation through the murky fluid; a hand reached out toward him from the other side of the glass, its palm mimicking his movement.

 

Quick, whispered Pharn. We must hide.

 

They crouched behind a machine size of a battle tank, its purpose too esoteric for Iskanderos to understand or care about. By now, the lightning reached well into the room. It encircled the genetor-tanks, dancing around them, blanketing each in rays of unearthly light.

 

The vortex shifted into the middle of the room, as if pushed by some unseen force. A sole figure stood at the entrance, golden and imposing, light of the rising sun emanating from him and forcing back the lightning-streaked chaos.

 

Father… mouthed Iskanderos. Pharn tugged at his arm, imploring silence.

 

The first of the genetor-tanks came free of their moorings, slowly, then faster as they accelerated towards the vortex. The first one disappeared in a flash of light, then the next, then the next.

 

There was something desperate about the Emperor’s movements, as if he attempted to stop the vortex from taking the tanks to their unknown destinations. Yet for his every step forward, another capsule vanished, torn from the restraints holding it and speeding into the unknown until none remained.

 

The Emperor’s radiance became almost too bright to look at, acquiring a crimson aura of deep anger. Something changed in the very air; Iskanderos felt light tingling on his skin growing stronger by the moment.

 

Quick, follow them, Pharn whispered and ran. Iskanderos followed him; some deep primal instinct told him that remaining here was unwise. The last thing he saw was the Emperor’s eyes chasing them, a fraction of the second behind as the Primarch and the Cloud Prophet vanished.

 

* * *

 

Iskanderos opened his eyes. He was back on Grail, Pharn still holding on to his hand. Again, the world was white and almost peaceful. He found himself breathing heavily, with sweat on his brow.

 

“So now you know,” said Pharn slowly. It was clear that the vision took much out of the old man. He looked slumped, as if the experience drained much of his life force away. “You know the means by which you were created, and the power that went into your creation. You know the harmony that could have been accomplished, had it only been done under the auspices of the gods rather than with the false idols.” The Cloud Prophet’s words sounded slightly slurred, as if he was completely exhausted, yet he pulled himself together, finding resolve to continue.

 

“You have seen what happened the last time mankind ruled the galaxy. The time is now to forge the union between the Materium and the Beyond, and to seal the bargain the Emperor made. After all,” Pharn must have found some other reserves of strength as he straightened, still looking up at the Primarch, “there are others who would stop it. Is it a coincidence that the Emperor allowed some of your brothers to rule in his stead? Is it because he was deceived, or is it because he knew that they would continue guiding our species on the path where he had once already failed? They are the ones who would burn Apella, lord Iskanderos, for they are afraid of you and what you represent, a free element, a man of true honor who could make good where his father was stopped.”

 

They did try to kill me, Iskanderos thought, considering the old man’s words. They would burn Apella. And yet, the very suggestion of the Cloud Prophet’s meaning was dangerous. When he set forth from Terra for the parts unknown, it was in the hope that the Emperor would return, and that all would be set right. But would it happen? Would the Emperor’s return change anything?

 

“The gods implore you to be their champion, my lord,” said Pharn, eyes earnest and bright with conviction. “They need you to sweep away the parasites who would drive humanity to ruin, and to restore harmony, so that the truly enlightened may lead our species to the next part of our evolution. There are no others better suited for it. No others are as brilliant in war or as honorable in peace. No others know as well as you do the characters of the men who would lead humanity, and no one else understands where they would lead all of us. Sire, I implore you. Would you join the cause of the gods, and be gifted with their power? Would you bring humanity on its chosen course as the champion and the leader of our species?”

 

“No.”

 

Iskanderos looked at Pharn with clear contempt, seeing shock in the Cloud Prophet’s face.

 

“No?” the old man seemed incredulous that anyone would turn down the offer. There were tears in his eyes, tears of disappointment or even fear.

 

Iskanderos raised his voice mockingly. “All I have seen is a story told by an old man on a strange world. If these gods you speak of are truly this powerful, why do they need a messenger like yourself? What use would the all-powerful beings have for the likes of you?” He shouted into the endless sky of Grail, a challenge to any beings who would dare presume themselves his equals. “If there are gods and they have need of me, they can talk to me face to face, or they are not worthy of my time!”

 

Pharn sighed, as if he was resigning. There was some despondency in his eyes, but no defeat. “Very well then, my lord. If so, you may then have your wish.”

 

The floor opened. Though Iskanderos at first moved to defend himself, he quickly realized that it was but a small ladder, possibly leading into some hidden alcove in the depths of the floating island.

 

“Please, my lord,” Pharn pleaded with him. “Stay your hand. Calling on the gods is not an easy task. After all, as you have seen, we are but mortal.”

 

A young woman ascended the steps, her slender shape clad in modest silk. Iskanderos supposed she could not have been more than twenty standard years old; only her eyes seemed to be far older, somber and more serious than anyone her age had the right to be. She bowed down deeply to the Primarch, then to the Cloud Prophet.

 

“I am Elvera,” she said in a melodious, slightly trembling voice. “I have been chosen as the vessel for the gods.”

 

“More mortals pretending to speak for something else?” sneered Iskanderos. “What do you take me for, a fool?” He spat on the ground, giving Elvera a disdainful look. “This one does not even pretend to have any form of secret knowledge.”

 

“You don’t understand, my lord,” said Pharn. “The nature of divinity is all-encompassing. The gods do not obey the whims of mortals, or even of immortals. To catch even a glimpse of great power, it takes great sacrifice. Remember Pacal.”

 

Something about his words made Iskanderos a bit uneasy. In the distance, the warriors of his Honor Guard targeted the Cloud Prophet and the girl, ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

 

“Remember, everything you will see is the truth,” Pharn spoke. There was finality in his words, as if he had little more left to say. “Do not be alarmed.”

 

Before even Iskanderos’ superhuman reflexes could react, the Cloud Prophet’s hand moved, but it was not directed at the Conqueror. Pharn’s fingers, seemingly frail and thin like those of an artist, turned into hardened pincers as they pierced the skin of his chest, penetrating bone and tissue.

 

The man’s hand pulled out, fingers opening to reveal a still beating heart. Pharn looked at Iskanderos, impossibly still alive and coherent.

 

“I beg you, lord,” he said, his voice still a measured, even tone rather than a pained gasp, “listen to what the gods will have to say. Do not let the sacrifice of my people be in vain.”

 

There was a change in the air. Out of the corner of his eye, Iskanderos saw some distant menials and servants fall on their knees; his superhuman vision made out enough to tell him that they tore their own throats out. A strange form of tension settled on the floating island, punctuated by silence.

 

Later, when the Imperial Redeemers fully explored the Ascension’s capital planet, the Legion teams would return with the tales of the same scene, repeating over and over in every dwelling or public place – bodies with self-inflicted wounds; men, women, and children slaughtered in cold blood with any implement that could be found; millions of murders and suicides that inexplicably took place within a few seconds of each other. The Legion’s Librarians claimed that in one instant, a scream emerged from the planet that only they could hear, a cry of millions of souls extinguished at once.

 

Iskanderos saw none of it. His eyes tracked the outline of Elvera as she became blurry, then started to glow with the light he had already seen – the boy in the cave, the Emperor in the genetor-tank room, the suppressed memories of his own journey through the Immaterium to Apella that came surging forth, one by one.

 

He swung in the girl’s direction, finding the movement difficult until his hand came to a complete stop. The light enveloped him, too, as he found himself paralyzed, helpless, unable to move.

 

There was no longer a girl but a cloud of pure light rising into the air. Colors stranger than alien mythologies reached out into the real world, one by one, morphing into the forms that were at once familiar and completely bizarre.

 

He saw the luminescence expand, becoming larger, easily equal to his size and growing. It started to coagulate, growing forms that were strange and beautiful, statuesque and angelic all at once. Iskanderos caught a hint of wings shining brighter than the sun, though they did not burn his eyes or force him to recoil; a face looked at him, neither masculine nor feminine but embodying the characteristics of both genders, the features considered beautiful in all multiple strains of humanity at once.

 

The world, too, was covered in light. The sky, the clouds, the floating island, the dead bodies and the outlines of Iskanderos’ Honor Guard began to glow, shifting the scenery into an impossible dimension made of many shades of light yet remaining anchored in this reality. This was no vision, no trick of a sorcerer but reality itself altered by the presence of a being summoned through the sacrifice of the entire population of Grail.

 

The angelic being’s eyes connected with Iskanderos, and the Primarch held its gaze, unwilling to bow down even before its unearthly presence. A slight smile crossed the luminous visitor’s lips, followed by a nod that spoke of recognition and perhaps even pride at the Conqueror’s resilience. When it finally spoke, its voice was the sound of trumpets and silk, honey and roses all condensed into one single aura of majesty.

 

“Our son,” it spoke like a choir singing impossible multi-part harmonies that still managed to retain enough direction to be perfectly clear. “Welcome… home.”


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TWENTY ONE

 

Visitors

Serenity

Burden of Proof

 

There was a strange sort of quiet on the Hegemon that defied conventional reasoning, the kind that is marked not by the absence of sound, but by the absence of a reason for such a sound. For all that the menials continued about their business, or the Legionaries went on with their drills and assigned tasks, the ship felt empty, as if its very soul was cut out, and all that remained was a husk going through imitative motions.

 

Yusuf took the bridge in Iskanderos’ absence, looking gloomily at the planet on the ship’s viewscreens and wishing he could be there. Though not the senior officer present on board the Hegemon, his status as a Companion afforded him a measure of gravitas that exceeded the reach of Chapter Masters and Lord Commanders outside of the Primarch’s circle, and when Iskanderos decreed that he would go without his advisors, the 54th Captain found himself temporarily in charge of the Legion’s flagship.

 

He supposed it was a great honor, though the task was purely administrative. If the Ascension intended to break the unspoken truce and to restart the hostilities, there were other officers were better positioned in the chain of command to react immediately, or to order maneuvers necessary for the void warfare. As it was, Yusuf’s command merely ensured that all communications with the Primarch would go through him.

 

Neither Demetrios nor el-Rahim remained on the ship. Though as the Conqueror’s equerry, Demetrios should have by all rights been with his master, Iskanderos ordered both other senior Companions to their own commands of Second and Ninth Jonds, leaving only relatively junior Yusuf to wait for his master on the flagship and to serve as his somewhat reluctant link to the rest of the fleet.

 

It has been at least four hours since the Primarch’s descent, and Yusuf began to grow worried. The orbital scans pinpointed the location of the Conqueror’s Stormbird and the All Clear signal it continued to transmit, but the atmospheric conditions made further scans impossible. There was a storm rolling over the floating island where Iskanderos met the Cloud Prophet, and without the ability to see what was happening, Yusuf could only guess at the events transpiring below.

 

Nothing could harm Iskanderos, he thought, voicing out the idea to convince himself more than anything. In addition to his own peerless combat skills, the Primarch had fifty Honor Guards with him, all seasoned warriors clad in the best war plate the Legion stored in its armories, and trained to deal with every kind of a contingency the alien world could throw at them. No effort of the Ascension, not even the Ifreet that unexpectedly aided Yusuf’s men on Pacal, could have stood against that.

 

Still, there was a nagging sense of wrongness tagging at Yusuf, as if he failed to grasp some minute but crucial detail that some day would pave the way for a future yet to come. He had the feeling of a precipice upon which entire wars and campaigns would depend, the same sensation that would come moments before the universe erupted into a storm of war, friends and comrades would be torn into shreds by esoteric weaponry and savage creatures, and he would once again be faced with a simple, terrible choice – to be killed, or to kill, kill, and kill again.

 

At least, the visions had stopped. When Yusuf closed his eyes, whether it was for a brief moment or for minutes at a time, there was only the blessed darkness.

 

Time and again the 54th Captain considered voxing the Primarch, or, failing that, seeking to make contact with one of the veterans in the Honor Guard. Under any other circumstances, he would have done so a long time ago, but Iskanderos’ orders were clear. Unless there was a clear and undeniable proof of deception, he was not to be disturbed.

 

Perhaps, Yusuf supposed, the threat to Apella gave his gene-father a sense of absolute urgency; perhaps it was something else. He replayed his reservations in his mind, wondering if there was any other path that would not have led them to Grail. If the Ascension intended a trap, it was as good as any, though the way of drawing the Legion here defied Yusuf’s comprehension.

 

It made no sense as a tactic of war, no strategic meaning or obvious advantage could be drawn from the death of Pacal. It did, however, have the trappings of something else, something utterly inimical to logic and the teachings of the Imperial Truth. It had all markings of a ritual.

 

Proximity sirens nearly jolted Yusuf from his dark thoughts, putting him into a state of instant alertness. Whatever else he might have thought, he was still an officer of the Sixth Legion, highly trained weapon in the service of humanity, and when duty called, it overrode everything. In a fraction of a second, he was scanning through the lines of tactical data streaming across the screens before him, identifying coordinates and vectors of approach.

 

“Frigate, Enceladus-Class,” a servitor wired directly into one of the Hegemon’s many instrument panels announced in a screechy, monotone voice. The servitor grew quiet for a moment as it gathered the ship’s identification data. “Designation Hunter’s Season. Assigned to the Sixteenth Legion.”

 

The Immortals? Yusuf had to hold his tongue to speak it out loud. What was the Sixteenth Legion doing here?

 

“Incoming hails,” the servitor announced. The ship was still several light-seconds away, and Yusuf marveled at the skill of its pilots and navigators, who successfully exited from the Immaterium so close to the gravity well of Grail and its primary star.

 

Either they are very skilled, or very desperate, he thought darkly, recalling his earlier mood.

 

“Put it through,” Yusuf commanded, rising to his full height. As an officer of the Imperial Redeemers, it was only befitting him to represent his Legion well before his cousins. His face adopted that haughty impassive quality that many of the other Legions associated with the Sixth.

 

A holographic projection sprung up to life in front of him, revealing a battle-scarred Legionary in full battle plate. The warrior’s face was badly scarred, clearly from a long life fighting the enemies of the Imperium face to face; what remained of his hair was shorn short, while his features were severe and noble in bearing. There was cocksure confidence in his movements, not unlike what Yusuf would have expected from his own brothers, the kind that only the least and the most experienced Legionaries possessed in spades. By the looks of him, he was clearly a veteran, and a formidable one at that – laurels of a Legion Champion were clearly visible on the pauldron surrounding his Legion symbol, a roaring lion’s head baring its teeth as if enforcing its dominance.

 

The Twelfth Legion. The Lion Guard.

 

Something cold and revolting slithered in Yusuf’s stomach as he realized the other warrior’s allegiance. Was he wrong to doubt his Primarch’s judgment that Rogr Hemri was involved in the assassination attempt back on Terra? Why else would one of Hemri’s sons be present here, at the edge of known space?

 

“Well met, cousin,” the Lion Guard hailed Yusuf. The distance between them produced unseemly distortion to the communication. “I am Acacius Martins of the Lion Guard, and I bring an embassy to Lord Iskanderos.” His voice seemed unused to the fineries of flowery, diplomatic language; if anything, it made Yusuf considerably more at ease despite Martins’ Legion of origin. After all of Iskanderos’ suspicions about Rogr Hemri and his intentions, a straight-talking Legionary officer was better than honey-worded liar of a diplomat. Still, suspicion remained; the Lion Guard’s presence was not only unexpected, but fit with Iskanderos’ accusations all too well. “We… humbly… seek an audience with the great Conqueror, the Lion of the Apellene Network, on behalf of the Council of Terra.”

 

* * *

 

The Primarch’s Stormbird landed in the Hegemon’s primary landing bay with little pomp or ceremony. The ship still bore the signs of passage through the atmosphere – discolorations of its paint, steam where flash-frozen water evaporated in the normalized conditions of the hangar – but there were no marks of war on its hull, no signs that Iskanderos or his entourage encountered any hostilities.

 

Yusuf stood guard at the head of a contingent of Imperial Redeemers, all dressed for war rather than parade grounds. He had to admit a degree of anxiety, though, as all of his kind, he would never admit to true fear. His decision to let the Council embassy on board, though under heavy guard, weighed heavily on his mind.

 

He wondered what would have happened had the Primarch been present. Would he have ordered to fire at the Hunter’s Season rather than parlay with it? Would he have attempted to board the frigate and to take all its secrets for himself?

 

The hatch opened, and out strode the Conqueror.

 

As much as Yusuf tried to read his master’s mood, the Primarch’s humors were impossible to discern. There was no obvious elation at a victory earned by military or diplomatic means; no fury at the attempted betrayal or failure of any particular stratagem. Instead, Iskanderos radiated something very much like serenity, total acceptance of his self and place within the universe, the kind of confidence that strangely did not drift into arrogance, but simply was.

 

Instead of reassuring Yusuf, his Primarch’s appearance made him wary.

 

“Sire,” the 54th Captain greeted his liege with an aquila salute. Iskanderos turned his head, slowly, as if brought down to reality from some kind of impossible reverie.

 

“My son,” the Conqueror acknowledged him. Something resembling interest flashed in Iskanderos’ eyes.

 

“We have… news. Visitors,” Yusuf blurted, forgoing the diplomatic approach in favor of bluntness. “From the Council.”

 

Somehow, Iskanderos seemed neither surprised nor amused. There was something distinctly cat-like in his eyes, blue like the swirl of clouds on Grail. A corner of the Conqueror’s mouth curved, just enough to suggest a knowing smile.

 

“The Hunter’s Season,” Iskanderos said, by the way of recognizing the fact. “A rather pitiful embassy, but a useful one.” He motioned Yusuf to walk by his side as the two warriors strode through the corridors from the hangar bay to one of the ship’s great elevators.

 

Had Yusuf been mortal, he would have been shocked at the Primarch’s admission. As a post-human, he did not have the same emotional capacity for surprise, honed as he was for the celerity of response to a multitude of threats the galaxy could throw at his kind. He gave the Conqueror a quizzical look.

 

“Do not act surprised, Yusuf,” said the Conqueror. “The machinations of the Council hold little secret for me.”

 

“Then… you knew? How?”

 

Iskanderos laughed, though it somehow felt half-hearted, as if there was a dark undertone of sarcasm to it. “Let’s just say that we have… allies.”

 

Yusuf took a deep breath before asking his next question. “Does it mean that… your mission to Grail was a success?”

 

“A success?” Iskanderos pondered, though probably more to himself than to Yusuf. “Perhaps… depending on one’s definition.” Seeing that Yusuf was no closer to understanding, the Primarch elaborated. “I have learned much on Grail that I must ponder. Gather the other Companions. Then, we will talk, and all shall be explained.”

 

* * *

 

The scenery in Iskanderos’ quarters barely changed, and one could have been forgiven for thinking that it was but a routine meeting of the Companions. The ornate and exquisite furnishings were still positioned in ways that maximized the already enormous space; the tables were still bent under the weight of food and refreshments, while not even servitors were allowed in the Primarch’s presence now that important Legion business was being discussed.

 

Even then, Yusuf could not help but feel that in some subtle way, the room felt different. There was a strange kind of energy in the air, unnerving serenity coming from the Conqueror, whose impulsive nature and desire to dominate any conversation he was involved in made for a peculiar atmosphere wherever he was present. He had a strange quality of pent up energy waiting for release, a thunderbolt waiting to strike at the most strategic moment, and Yusuf did not like it.

 

The other two Companions seemed to be ill at ease, too. Demetrios wore the loose-fitting garments of an Apellene noble rather than his combat gear, and for a moment he almost looked the part, too, despite his clearly militant bent and post-human proportions. The Primarch’s equerry looked nervous, his fingers twitching with anxious energy as he looked from side to side, either unwilling or unable to meet his gene-father’s gaze.

 

The Astrologer was in his combat gear, though the appearance was clearly ceremonial; his back was bent at an angle that suggested he would never find the fluidity in combat that was expected from the Legion’s senior officers. He sat down as soon as the proprieties were observed, and even a reinforced couch bent under his armored weight. Yusuf wondered if el-Rahim’s appearance was intended to send a message that he, too, was still a part of the Legion, even if no longer fit for front-line duties.

 

The Primarch did not bother to change from his armor. Standing tall over his sons, a goblet full of Apella’s finest wine near his lips, Iskanderos was the very picture of majesty as intended by the Emperor’s gene-smiths. Though there was only a slight breeze from the ship’s internal ventilation systems, his golden curls waved just enough to suggest continuity of motion, or perhaps to frame the face of absolute resolve, the mask of a warrior-king from a civilized yet martial world. Golden light radiated into every corner of the room, low enough in intensity to make it possible to see Iskanderos, yet visible enough to clearly differentiate the Primarch from lesser beings. This, here, was a god amongst the Angels of Death, and Yusuf could not help but recall the first time he saw the Conqueror as a child, all those decades ago, leading a parade through Apella’s busy streets. Somehow, the memory brought a bout of nostalgia, a desire to see Apella again, a resolve to keep the world of his birth safe.

 

“We are at war,” said Iskanderos without much of an introduction, his deep baritone resonating through all corners of the room. “Make no mistake about it, my sons. We are at war.”

 

He waited for the Companions to think over the import of what he was saying, then continued.

 

“Our conflict did not start here.” It was clear to Yusuf that the Conqueror intended to give a speech rather than seek counsel; both Demetrios and el-Rahim seemed to come to the same conclusion, and wisely decided not to interrupt or ask questions, for now. “And our conflict will not end here.” Iskanderos gave each of the Companions a long look, though there was no menace in it, only strength of conviction, as if he was asking them – are you with me? Can you do what I ask of you? Some deeply repressed emotional response in Yusuf’s chest struggled to yell his assent, raising his hand into the sky as a salute to his gene-father’s majesty. The 54th Captain had to force himself to stay still, subduing the innate awe even his kind felt at the sight of a Primarch.

 

“By now, you all know the perfidy of certain members of the Council of Terra,” Iskanderos continued his oratory, as if speaking to an audience much larger than the one before him. “And,” he paused, his expression dour and knowing, “it is all true. Many truths have been revealed to me on Grail, and many more await in the years ahead. The choice before us will be hard, my sons, and I will only ask you once if you will make it.”

 

“You have all seen the Emperor,” he went on. “You know how he withdrew from the government of Terra and of the Imperium. Some of you might have thought that he abandoned the Great Crusade for some kind of a self-aggrandizing goal, or worse. Here, I will tell you the truth.”

 

Iskanderos stopped for emphasis, observing the effect of his words. Yusuf was a stone-faced statue, waiting for the meaning of his Primarch’s speech to be revealed. El-Rahim, though infirm, leaned as far forward as his crippled frame would allow, latching on to every word. Demetrios, ever stoic, managed to keep his wit about himself, nervous energy emanating from his tense stance.

 

“The truth is, the Council of Terra has been subverted.” The Conqueror nodded, meeting the eyes of each of the Companions in turn. “Yes, it is true. The Council of Terra, though intended as a noble regency, has been subverted by those with nefarious agendas to suit their own ends.” He raised his voice, a semblance of passionate riposte entering his speech. “The Emperor’s conquest of the galaxy was only a prelude to his true endeavor, the ascension of the entire human race towards the next stage of evolution. This is the reason why he withdrew, for no other could be trusted with a task this vital.”

 

“But,” Iskanderos’ voice lowered to an almost conspiratorial whisper, “do you know what this means?”

 

There were questioning looks cast his way from the three Legionaries.

 

“If he is successful, there will be no more need for the Council.” He almost whispered these words, accentuating the syllables as he spoke. “No more need for politics. No more need for intrigue, or plots, or squabbling about whose borders infringe on whose.” Each word was louder than the last, easily conveying the Primarch’s dismay with his brothers on Terra. “They would be obsolete.”

 

“And thus, some on the Council hatched a plan. They waited for the Emperor to retreat to his own projects, waited for the words of oaths on their lips to grow cold, and then did the unthinkable.” Iskanderos’ eyes briefly grew haunted, as if he struggled with the very concept. “They deceived my father. Betrayed him. Used machinery from the Dark Age of Technology to keep him prisoner while they get to keep the Imperium as their own plaything.”

 

“With this, the Emperor’s plan for the ascension of humanity may never come to pass. And, my sons, pass it must, for without it, our species is doomed.”

 

The Legionaries were too well-drilled to gasp in shock, but their body language betrayed enough surprise to give Iskanderos an indication that they were incensed. After the visions depicting the death of Apella, all of them were considerably more sensitive to his words.

 

“For you see,” Iskanderos elaborated, “there are gods in this universe. No mere psykers, or xenos who dwell in places where human mind should not wonder. No, my sons – there are gods, beings older than mankind and infinitely wiser.” The Conqueror waited for the initial shock to dissipate; decades of indoctrination to atheistic Imperial Truth were hard to break through, but all he needed was a spark rather than full acceptance at this time. That would come later, when the truth was undeniable.

 

“My father’s plan involved a bargain with them that could only be complete after the subjugation of the galaxy. Universal harmony, my sons. Think of it! One species, chosen for greatness yet undone by its own hubris if the Council’s plan succeeds. One species elevated to a state of divinity, if it only lives up to the bargain its leader made.”

 

“What proof, you ask, is there for these assertions?” asked Iskanderos. “The scattering of the Primarchs; the origin of the Emperor himself; the powers that he wields, far beyond those of even the mightiest psyker. Do not tell me that any of those events were natural!” He leaned towards his men, the very image of a prophet about to reveal some hidden truth to his followers. “It is, therefore, our mission, our duty to remove the Council, and to free the Emperor to complete his task, by any means necessary.”

 

“And if he… reneges?” the words that came from Yusuf were shaky, not for fear, but for the enormous implications of what Iskanderos said. The 54th Captain felt that some of the foundations of his entire being, the sum of all his beliefs were being challenged, with no alternative provided. Gods, conspiracies, bargains… That was a lot to take in one moment.

 

“If he reneges, we would have to remind him of the consequences, not just for us, but for the entirety of our species,” Iskanderos replied. “But he will not. He is, after all, the steward of humanity. How could he?”

 

“How do we know we are not the ones being deceived?” Yusuf pressed. Something flashed in Iskanderos’ eyes – anger, doubt? The moment passed very quickly; Yusuf was no longer sure if he saw anything in his Primarch’s expression other than genuine concern. Was it always there, he wondered?

 

“There is an easy way to gain proof,” the Primarch answered him, now smiling as if he was anticipating the question. “Molech.” He turned away from his sons, finding a data slate amongst his belongings, then bringing it to life. “The place where the Emperor’s bargain was made.”

 

Yusuf’s eyes briefly strolled through the lines of data, widening as he saw the implications. “Is that…”

 

“Yes, indeed,” Iskanderos said. “Knights, Titans, and an entire Grand Company’s worth of Legionaries stationed on a world with negligible strategic value.” He paused for import. “That alone is suspicious. With the knowledge I obtained from Grail, it is telling.”

 

“There we will find the undeniable proof,” continued Iskanderos. “We will follow in the Emperor’s footsteps, no more and no less.”

 

“So… the Legion goes to Molech?” asked el-Rahim, speaking for the first time since he got to the Primarch’s chambers. There was little hesitation in the Astrologer’s normally questioning nature, despite the subversive nature of the Primarch’s words.

 

“No,” Iskanderos answered him. “The Legion is to make haste to Apella.”

 

“How…” Yusuf barely managed to start the question before the Primarch explained.

 

“You all saw the vision,” intoned Iskanderos. “Apella is in danger. Only your presence there may keep her safe.”

 

Your presence…” remarked Demetrios. “Not our presence.”

 

Iskanderos laughed, this time sounding genuine. “You are very observant, Tilsit. Perhaps this is why I made you my equerry.” The humorous spark in the Conqueror’s eyes went out in an instant. “The Legion will go to Apella. The Hegemon will go to Molech.”


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TWENTY TWO

 

Conqueror’s Throne

Truth or Deception

With or Against

 

“Let them in,” commanded Iskanderos, waving on the Legionary Honor Guard. The Conqueror chose to hold his court in the Hall of Brotherhood, under the auspices of the stone Emperor and his sons, taking a seat at his customary place at the Emperor’s right hand. The message was clear – this was a powerful warlord, favored of the Emperor, a great man even amongst the demigods.

 

The Conqueror’s throne was made of weapons and likenesses of many enemies his Legion defeated during the Great Crusade. Primitive power armor of Terran techno-barbarians coexisted uneasily with swords and halberds of primitive worlds, or exoskeletal carapaces of alien creatures immortalized in gold and bronze. Laurels and signs of distinction were partially visible through the landscape made of dismantled energy guns and blades, the screaming heads of mortal foes encased in once-molten copper or stasis fields. It was not often that Iskanderos decreed that this particular throne be used; it alone communicated the gravity of the situation. This was not a Primarch receiving embassy from his brothers – this was the master of a Legion, the lord of a thousand worlds dressed and prepared for war.

 

The Companions’ own seats were to the sides of their Primarch, el-Rahim and Yusuf on his left hand, Demetrios on his right. The seat next to Demetrios was occupied by Tarnac Wali, the Legion’s foremost diplomat; though not a member of the Companions, his presence was requested by the Primarch himself as someone who would parlay with other, potentially hostile civilizations on his behalf.

 

Two hundred Imperial Redeemers in full battle gear stood guard under the shadow of the stone Primarchs, all with weapons at the ready. Auspex drones and servitor-crewed defense turrets lined the way, hastily assembled and moved to the Hall of Brotherhood by the Legion’s Techmarines. This, too, was a message. Iskanderos had little trust for the Council and its ambassadors.

 

Yusuf was uneasy. All the talk about the gods, the great master plan, and the ascension of humanity did not sound like Iskanderos he knew. The Primarch was not the one given to superstition, unless it served to further accentuate his exceptionality. He was not the man who would worship another, or who would kneel before any power save, maybe, that of the Emperor.

 

Yet, the sense of power at Pacal was undeniable, and even Yusuf could not deny the draw of Grail. Something must have happened down there, he thought, something that would have given the Conqueror a reason to consider going against the Council of Terra.

 

The Council’s embassy walked on, heedless of two hundred bolters pointed at them at every step of the way. Yusuf could almost admire them for it; the Lion Guard at the head of the procession seemed particularly unperturbed.

 

There were six of them, all warriors of different Legions and, Yusuf surmised, not all the progeny of Primarchs who had seats on the Council. A Gargoyle; a Consecrator; a Hellhound; a Lion Guard; a son of Kthuln, one of the savage Jaws of the Deep. Yusuf’s eyes lingered on the last one of the six, the Iconoclast. Did he see that brutish Mark IV helmet looking him in the eye as Apella died around them?

 

“You may stand in the presence of the Conqueror, the son of Emperor and Apella, Iskanderos,” blared the servitor-mounted speakers like a triumphant harmony of angelic choirs. Mortals were known to lose conscience at the sound, equally awed and terrified. Even the Legionaries were affected, despite trying their best to hide it.

 

The Lion Guard was the first one before Iskanderos, while the rest of the group stood behind. The Primarch looked them up and down, though it was impossible to tell if he was interested, amused, or insulted by their presence.

 

“Son of Rogr Hemri,” Iskanderos said in lieu of a formal greeting. His very tone conveyed his inherent superiority before these men. “It is a long way from Terra.”

 

The Lion Guard went down on one knee, followed by his companions. It looked painful, as if neither him nor his fellow ambassadors were used to it. Good, Yusuf thought, noticing that they were willing to observe the Apellan protocol in the presence of their social betters. He did not want to think of what would happen if they were to somehow insult Iskanderos.

 

Perhaps, there is a way back from this madness, contemplated the 54th Captain, recalling his Primarch’s words about opposing the Council. Can this situation be defused? He did not know the answer, and it made him anxious to learn of the ambassadors’ intent. Were they disposable enough to suffer the Conqueror’s wrath if the message was not to his liking, or were they truly the best of their respective Legions sent to placate the master of the Sixth, and to bring him back to Terra?

 

“Aye,” the warrior of the Lion Guard agreed. “A long travel through uncharted space, following rumor and visions of the Navigators, to come here.”

 

“That sounds like a lot of trouble to find us,” Iskanderos mused. “What, pray tell, is the reason for such an… interestingly timed visit?”

 

“I am Acacius Martins, the Legion Champion of the Twelfth,” said the Lion Guard. “These men with me are Captains, Champions, and Commanders in the service of humanity. We were sent by the Council of Terra to pay homage to your court, and to implore you to return.” His words were blunt, the message not covered with flowery language or rhetoric of the academically minded, though Yusuf could not tell if it was by nature or by design.

 

Iskanderos raised one eyebrow, either questioning or amused. “Return… to Terra. Isn’t that right, Acacius Martins?” Yusuf thought he saw his Primarch’s face flash red, on the verge of losing his composure, but the Conqueror got his temper under control before continuing. “The last time I was on Terra, I did not receive a particularly warm welcome, from your own father, in fact.”

 

Martins did not seem to rise to the bait. “My father, Consul Rogr Hemri, and the rest of the Council would plead with you to reconcile. Though my father regrets that Council business keeps him on Terra…”

 

“Council business?” Iskanderos interrupted him sardonically. “Does he mean that he is too afraid to show his face here, where his actions may catch up to him?”

 

Though the vein near Martins’ temple started to pulsate with suppressed anger, the Lion Guard Champion managed to keep his cool. “Lord Iskanderos, I give you my word as a Space Marine of the Emperor’s Legions that Lord Hemri knows nothing about an attempt on your life. He humbly asks that you hear him out, as a great leader of men, and as one brother to another.”

 

Yusuf had to admit, Martins had more to him than he had originally suspected. Though a blunt and unassuming warrior in appearances, the Lion Guard had a way with words that would have made the likes of Tarnac Wali nod in appreciation. Demetrios leaned towards his Primarch, whispering something into the Conqueror’s ear. Iskanderos nodded, then answered.

 

“Very well. What does my brother, the Consul of Terra, have to say?”

 

Martins produced a holographic emitter, which he then situated in front of him. The guns of the Imperial Redeemers followed his movements, even as the hereto invisible shield built into the Conqueror’s Throne made its presence known through the crackle of the electrical discharge.

 

An image flickered to life. It was a tall, broad-chested, bushy-bearded man in the robes of high office, every bit a statesman that Yusuf remembered, though this time, the sight of Rogr Hemri filled him with some hidden loathing. Did Iskanderos’ dislike of his brother have that kind of an effect, Yusuf wondered, trying to suppress the unwelcome feeling.

 

“Brother,” the holographic image of Hemri said. “I thought that his message is best served by delivering it to you myself rather than relying on other tongues.”

 

“I know not where you are when it reaches you, but I trust that the war was good to you, and that you have added even more victories to the rolls of honor.” Hemri slumped somewhat, just enough to suggest humility, though not enough to detract from the natural presence of a Primarch, obvious even in the holographic form. “I wish we were talking under better circumstances, perhaps over a glass of fine Apellan wine while sharing tales of our conquests, but this would have to do.”

 

“I can understand why you would be hesitant to trust anyone on Terra,” Hemri continued. “There is not much I can do about the past. I can, however, promise you one thing. The attack on you was not of my doing. Alas,” his expression conveyed something akin to sadness, “I was unable to prevent it, but rest assured – I will not stop until I learn the identity of the culprit.”

 

Yusuf could not be sure, but he thought Iskanderos’ lips might have mouthed something.

 

Liar.

 

“We need you, brother,” Hemri went on, the recording blissfully ignorant of Iskanderos’ reaction. “The Imperium’s conquest of the galaxy is nearly complete, but there is still much to do. Many worlds must still be taught the Imperial Truth, and many deviant societies must be reformed. Imperial institutions, which were built for war, must now adapt to peace. All of our domains – all of them, must be taught the benefit of our lessons in the Great Crusade.”

 

“Only with unity on our side can we do it. Only thus can we keep the Imperium we fought so hard to create, and hand it off to our father when he chooses to return.”

 

“Already there are rumors of dissention, Iskanderos,” the hologram said. “It is not for myself that I ask. It is for the sake of the Imperium itself. We need the Conqueror, the one undefeated on a thousand battlefields, the master of the Apellene Network. We need you with us, for the sake of building an Imperium which would endure. We need you, brother.”

 

“If you come to Terra, I will guarantee your safety and that of your men, personally if I have to. The Imperium needs you. Will you give in its time of need?”

 

It was, by all accounts, a great performance, Yusuf thought, however, Iskanderos did not seem particularly pleased with it. In another time, he perhaps would have been far more receptive, but the vision of Apella’s death, the proximity of defeat at the hands of the Thunder Warriors hardened the Conqueror to his brother’s pleas. Iskanderos appeared thoughtful as the recording went dark, his eyes wandering off into the distance.

 

Yusuf held his breath. Whatever the Primarch decreed next would decide on the course of the Legion, if it would go to Terra to reconcile with the Council, or to Molech, and possibly into the unknown?

 

“Son of Rogr Hemri,” Iskanderos finally decreed, his voice loud enough to carry to every corner of the room even without the aid of many speakers hard-wired into the floor at strategic locations. “You have given me much to think about.”

 

Martins made another awkward bow. Yusuf’s eyes went to the Iconoclast once more; the warrior seemed to meet his gaze straight on. For a moment, they were on Apella of vision again, scent of burning sky behind them.

 

“Before I can consider this… message, the Sixth Legion has business to attend to,” said the Conqueror. “In the meantime, I would like to extend an offer of Apellan hospitality to you and your men.” By his Primarch’s tone, Yusuf could tell that it was less of an invitation, more of an order. “You and your companions should stay with the Hegemon until the conclusion of our business.”

 

“But… the Hunter’s Season…” Martins tried to ask, only to be stopped by Iskanderos’ steely gaze.

 

“Your ship can travel alongside the Hegemon,” the Conqueror said, clearly not expecting an argument or a refusal. “I am certain that the accommodations on this flagship are considerably superior; it is my right as a host to offer these to you.”

 

Great, thought Yusuf. He invoked the laws of hospitality. If Martins knew anything about Apellan customs, he would have known that to refuse such an offer was an insult to the host – an easy invitation to a duel where honor could only be satisfied with blood. Luckily for him, Martins appeared to know when protestations were useless.

 

“I… we thank you for your hospitality, Lord Iskanderos,” the Lion Guard replied, though he did not seem particularly happy about it.

 

“Very good,” the Primarch nodded. “We will see more of each other in the coming weeks. I have much to think about.”

 

As the Lion Guard and his men were escorted out, Yusuf could not help but sense the uneasy feeling return in strength. Though Iskanderos did not refuse the offer of reconciliation outright… he also did not accept it. The future was still unknown, imperfect, in balance where any moment could have far-reaching consequences. Yusuf only hoped that whatever they found on Molech brought a semblance of sanity back to his Primarch.

 

* * *

 

Things were always much simpler in the training cages. Yusuf moved with the agility befitting a student of mubaka, a uniquely Apellene style of unarmed combat which relied more on counteracting the enemy movements and using the opponent’s strength against him than it did on brute strength. For a Legionary, this was a rarely used skill, however, Iskanderos once insisted that all new recruits spend some time learning the basics of the style, and the Imperial Redeemers, the dutiful sons of their father that they were, rose up to the challenge.

 

His weaponless hands and feet danced across the body of the fighting servitor, each blow easily strong enough to fall a mortal man, yet carefully struck against the measure of balance Yusuf tried to keep. In truth, the servitor made for a poor sparring partner, but no others were available at this time on the ship’s night cycle. Had he been with his company, he supposed that either Ishmael or one of the other sergeants would have risen to the challenge, but for now, Yusuf had to contend with less than ideal means to keep himself in fighting shape.

 

“Not getting much sleep?” A voice almost made Yusuf lose concentration and suffer a heavy blow to the head; the Imperial Redeemer barely managed to react in time, using the servitor’s momentum to throw the cyborg on the ground.

 

The servitor shut down the moment it hit the floor, though it was nothing of Yusuf’s doing. The cyborg’s limbs went limp; its metal joints locked in a nearly fetal position.

 

“Apollus?”

 

“Who else, brother?” The Astrologer limped forward, stepping into the light by Yusuf’s training cage. He leaned on a walking cane, his neurological functions irrevocably damaged on Terra.

 

“I can say the same thing about your sleeping habits,” Yusuf replied to him. “Anything on your mind?”

 

“Many things,” el-Rahim admitted. “Our last conversation was not, perhaps, as conclusive as I would have liked. You gave me a lot of things to consider.”

 

Yusuf existed the cage, drying his upper torso and face with a towel. The touch of his metal hand on his skin felt strange; despite losing a hand in combat many months ago, he still could not get used to the augmetic replacement, as ugly as it was functional.

 

“If you wanted to talk, I am here,” the 54th Captain said, breathing heavily after the exertions of the training cage. “An interesting time and place for a conversation.”

 

El-Rahim shrugged. “As good a time as any to keep things private.”

 

“Never thought you would be this concerned with private conversations,” replied Yusuf. “What is with all the secrets?”

 

“I was doing a lot of thinking, brother,” the Astrologer explained. “Something had happened on Grail. We both know that we are dealing with something we don’t understand. You have seen what happened at Pacal.”

 

“Parlaying with the creatures of Apellan mythology, isn’t that what you are thinking of?”

 

“That,” el-Rahim admitted, “and then some. Let me ask you this. What did you see when you started dreaming?” From his tone, it was clear that el-Rahim was not talking about conventional sleep.

 

“Apella,” the Astrologer remarked once Yusuf told him. “Apella burning at the hands of the Iconoclasts. How interesting.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because of what I saw,” the Astrologer answered. “Krosis IV. The ice world, we called it, though of course the planet had more biomes than that. It is only that the ice was the only part where humans could live. The rest got too much radiation from a secondary star in the system.” His voice was somehow contemplative, pensive as he recalled the world long lost to memory.

 

“Imagine fields of ice as far as the eye can see. Two suns, one big and red, another small and white-bright, always near the horizon. Orbital peculiarities, they said.” He coughed, then shook his head with a bittersweet smile. “Levels upon levels of structures, all built into the ice until they touched the ground, half a kilometer below. Nothing like Apella, really.”

 

“But it also burned.” He spoke with intensity that reminded Yusuf of Iskanderos at his most volatile. “A thousand stars in the sky, each a ship. Grim Angels dropping from orbit in their thousands. Lion Guard fighting through the hive levels. Hellhounds and Jaws, tearing through the mortal militia.”

 

“Do you understand what it means, Yusuf?”

 

“That you saw a different vision?” the 54th Captain asked, not understanding.

 

“More. Much more than that, brother,” el-Rahim said. “I have not seen Krosis IV, not even in my dreams, in over a century. I did not think of it. I did not miss it. I did not long for it. But whatever sent the visions… it must have read my mind, my thoughts, my entire history. It must have tailored the images I saw, just for me.”

 

“Why are you saying that?” pondered Yusuf.

 

“Because Krosis IV is unimportant,” el-Rahim answered him, momentarily losing his practiced eloquence. “It is a world on the ass end of nowhere. No one in their mind would want to kill it, not even for its association with the Apellene Network.”

 

An understanding dawned in Yusuf’s mind. “So you are saying that because the vision appeared to be made just for you, and there is no reason for Krosis IV to die… it might be false?”

 

“You doubted it, brother.” El-Rahim nodded, swaying back and forth as if a strong gale kept him imbalanced. “If there is anyone I can talk to about it, it has to be you.”

 

“Yes,” Yusuf admitted. “I don’t know where these visions came from, but I do know one thing. Our Primarch is pushing us close to a civil war.”

 

“Precisely,” el-Rahim looked away, contemplatively. “And yet, I wonder. This is too much of a coincidence. The Council embassy finds us just after our business at Grail. Iskanderos knew about the Hunter’s Season, though he did not tell us. And, Hemri, a consul. What do you make of it?”

 

“I don’t know,” Yusuf admitted. “This entire business with Molech stinks to high heaven. What if we go there and find nothing?”

 

“Or, worse yet,” the Astrologer retorted. “What if we do go there, and find something?”

 

“I suppose it would depend on what we find,” said Yusuf. “The Primarch seems to think that there is some proof that the Emperor made a bargain. What I am worried about is, what would happen if he wants to find something, and will find any excuse to conform to it?”

 

“What do you mean, conform to it?”

 

“If he wants to find a sign that whatever allies he found at Grail were telling him the truth, he will find a sign,” Yusuf elaborated. “And then, he will start his war, avici be damned.”

 

“And yet, he will not listen to any of us, save for perhaps Demetrios, and even then only with great hesitation,” agreed el-Rahim. “At the same time, what can we do?”

 

“What indeed,” Yusuf mused. “But… what if he is right?”

 

“You can’t be serious!” said el-Rahim preposterously. “Are you telling me that for all your skepticism, you are seriously considering it?”

 

Yusuf shook his head. “All I am saying is that I feel uneasy about this entire business. I do not want to get involved in a war. I don’t want to see Apella burned to cinders.”

 

“Then you are with me, brother?”

 

Yusuf chose his next words carefully. “I know our Primarch, as do you. He might be many things, but he is not a fool. Consider this, Apollus. He did not take whatever he heard for granted. He did what any sane, sensible man would have done. He decided to play it smart, to go to this Molech, and to see for himself if the allegations are true.”

 

El-Rahim considered his words, though he still seemed pensive.

 

“If the allegations are false,” continued Yusuf, “then he can reconcile with the Council very easily. If they are true…” He shrugged. “I do not claim to know a Primarch’s mind. All I know is that it makes me uneasy about our course.”

 

“Not quite the end of war you were expecting,” the Astrologer concurred.

 

“Or a continuation of war by other means,” commented Yusuf. “All we can do is our duty, and support the Primarch in his endeavors, no matter how distasteful they are, or where they take us. Remember the words of the oath.”

 

“If our father calls, we answer, no matter the call, no matter the deed,” el-Rahim recited. “I remember. I took your oath as a Companion.”

 

“Then this is what we must do.”


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Conqueror - Book One of Twisthammer (novel)

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#32
Midgard

Midgard

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PART FOUR – EIGHTEEN MONTHS BEFORE STARFALL

 

TWENTY THREE

 

Molech

A Clandestine Mission

Guests and Prisoners

 

The Hegemon exited the Immaterium, Hunter’s Season in tow, to find a world in arms. Battle stations and orbital fortresses circled the planet’s globe, each bristling with every kind of weapon invented during humanity’s long, tortured history. A fleet of warships was moored in high orbit, easily large enough to bring small sectors to heel with little effort.

 

Perhaps, there is something to this place, Yusuf admitted to himself, studying the tactical readouts and marveling at the sheer scale of fortifications. Only Legion homeworlds, or planets of immense importance to the Imperium, could boast of such defenses. And defenses, he reminded himself, are built to protect things of importance.

 

The ship’s records on the Molech system, however, were entirely unremarkable. Brought into the Imperium by the forces of the Lion Guard, Consecrators, and Imperial Redeemers in the early years of the Great Crusade, it was only notable for producing a number of Knight war engines for Imperium’s many campaigns. It was not until Iskanderos re-read the chronicles of conquest several times that something odd became apparent.

 

“I do not remember being here,” the Primarch said, poring over the terse tactical data several centuries old. “See, here.” He pointed at a casual string of code as he leaned over a table where holograms of tactical simulations played through multiple scenarios of approach. “This indicates that the Sixth Legion was led by a Primarch, and the date…”

 

“Very clearly after your recovery by the Emperor, sire,” Demetrios finished. The Companions gathered in the strategium, standing apart from the more junior officers, who kept a respectful distance out of earshot.

 

“Perhaps… an error in records?” suggested el-Rahim hopefully. “These files are two and a half centuries old. Surely they would be subjected to data corruption?”

 

“Here,” Iskanderos pointed. “If these records are to be believed, Hemri and Rulf were also here. Does it look like a mistake to you?”

 

El-Rahim said nothing. In the months since Grail, Iskanderos grew more distant, as if he was struggling with some kind of inner deliberations he was neither willing nor able to share with his advisors. With every day, the Primarch was ever more prone to darker moods, his temper short and fraying.

 

The Companions learned to deal with this new incarnation of their master, though it was not easy. Already a somewhat mercurial and dominant personality, Iskanderos bore even less tolerance for dissenting opinions. If at one time he would at least consider the thoughts of naysayers, now he would demand complete submission.

 

“It says that second and fourth Jonds were here in their entirety,” Iskanderos continued, visibly inflamed. “You would have been a sergeant then, Apollus. Is that not right?”

 

“Aye,” el-Rahim squeezed out, unwilling to be drawn into the focus of the Conqueror’s ire.

 

“Tell me that you remember Molech. Tell me!” The Primarch practically shouted the last words, his face red with anger.

 

The Astrologer slowly shook his head. “I have no recollection of this place.”

 

“We all have eidetic memory, my sons,” said Iskanderos fervently. “Why is it that I can recall my youth on Apella in perfect detail, or my first meeting with the Emperor, or my first conquest in his name, but not this? Can any of you give me an answer?”

 

“Is there… anything else of interest in the records?” Demetrios tried to diplomatically reroute the conversation, appearing as thoughtful as he could possibly be under the circumstances.

 

The Conqueror threw him the datapad. “Here. Take a look.”

 

The equerry’s eyes scanned through the lines, looking surprised. “You would think that an effort requiring three entire Legions with their Primarchs would have left more of a mark than this. Especially during that point in the Crusade.”

 

“Something is missing,” Yusuf ventured. “Something big.” He cast a sideward glance at his Primarch, attempting to judge Iskanderos’ mood at that moment. “Sire… what did you learn about Molech?”

 

The Conqueror frowned, as if thinking whether or not he should answer. Finally, a loud sigh escaped his lips. “This is the proof,” he said slowly. “The proof that there are gods in this universe, and that the Emperor knew.” In that moment, he looked impossibly tired. “If we spent all this time killing and dying for a lie…”

 

“Don’t say that!” implored el-Rahim. “We crusaded to reunite humanity. That alone is a worthwhile goal.”

 

“But to what end?” growled Iskanderos. “What is the Emperor doing? Why do I not remember being here?”

 

“Perhaps…” Demetrios said cautiously, “there are no memories because they were… erased?”

 

“Who would have the ability to do that?” asked Yusuf, incredulous. “Two full Jonds and a Primarch?”

 

“There is one who has the power,” Iskanderos said quietly. He let the implications sink in as the conversation died down.

 

“The Emperor,” Yusuf’s lips formed a word before he realized he was speaking it.

 

“Yes, the Emperor.”

 

On the cogitator screens, orbital stations continued their stately path around Molech. Already, there were multiple hails from the system defense monitors, some polite, others outright demanding.

 

Iskanderos’ brow was creased as the Primarch mulled his options. His officers waited, not ready to provoke his wrath.

 

“We answer their hails,” he finally said, beginnings of a plan forming in his mind. “We tell them that we were seeking to resupply after going off-course. Yusuf! Make sure that something important is in short supply, as long as it does not stop us from leaving if we must.”

 

“Yes, sire!” the 54th Captain saluted, his thoughts heavy. What if they were on the precipice of making a decision from which there was no turning back? What if this was the last moment before they could stop something terrible from happening?

 

“Then it is decided,” said Iskanderos. “Apollus! You will keep them out of our business for as long as necessary. Is that understood?”

 

El-Rahim nodded, though his expression remained unreadable. For a brief moment, his eyes connected with Yusuf’s.

 

“Tilsit,” Iskanderos finally called on his equerry. “I want an insertion craft ready within two hours.”

 

“Honor Guard?” Demetrios inquired, business-like and calm.

 

“No,” the Primarch shook his head. “You, me, and Yusuf. Full battle gear.”

 

* * *

 

The raider was a stiletto in the dark, a nimble silhouette designed to fool the scanners and confuse the sensors for long enough to deliver its cargo and escape undetected, or hide until the storm had passed. Inside its confines, Yusuf, Demetrios, and Iskanderos were the only living souls, squeezed into a space intended for single operatives, or lightly armored small sabotage teams at best.

 

The Primarch insisted on piloting the craft himself, and threw himself into the task with wild abandon, exercising his seemingly supernatural reflexes and skills to skirt the edges of Molech’s sensory stations, or to create an illusion of an asteroid drifting aimlessly through space, courtesy of in-built devices obtained at great cost from the Warblades’ homeworld of Laodice. The illusion would not have been sufficient to mask the raider from a dedicated scan, but it would have – should have been enough to deliver Iskanderos and his men to their destination.

 

The Conqueror’s eyes seemed unfocused, as if he was following a set of directions which made sense only to him. Occasionally, his face displayed flashes of recollection, which then gave way to vacant glances or questioning looks.

 

They did not speak much. Something about the journey felt momentous, every second filled with meaning Yusuf could not begin to grasp. Was this what it felt like to see fate in the making, he wondered?

 

Both Imperial Redeemers and their Primarch wore camo cloaks, their armor anointed in photoreactive paint to help them blend in. Their destination, as far as Yusuf could tell, lay on Molech’s night side, a cavernous complex that seemed entirely abandoned to the elements outside of the planet’s bustling cities. A perfect place to hide something in plain sight, thought Yusuf; any invader would have attempted to seize the world’s Knight engine factories, or to give battle against its ruling noble houses in their war walkers rather than search through the wilderness.

 

There was something within him that hoped their flight would come to nothing, a delusion, a Warp-tainted hallucination, or something so inconclusive and vague that the Legion would return to its former path. It would, perhaps, mean the salvation of Apella, too, though as the memories of his visions receded, Yusuf was no longer sure if those sights were the promise of oncoming fate, or if they were some kind of a delusion he could not trust, a residue of power he did not understand with some nefarious agenda.

 

In the years past, the mere thought that the Conqueror considered it would have been enough. Now, after Terra, after his experience on Pacal and beyond, he was no longer sure.

 

“Orbital scanners ahead,” said Demetrios cautiously. “We got this far without being detected, but I would not count on it now.”

 

A wolfish grin distorted Iskanderos’ face. “An astute observation, my son.” The Primarch looked like a man possessed, like a mighty predator who smelled blood and would not let go of the scent. For a second, something on his face suggested recognition, familiarity. “If this is similar to how I would have designed it, we have about three minutes before we are in range.”

 

“How… are we going to get by?” asked Yusuf before instantly regretting the question. It does not behold to get between a lion and his prey, an old saying came to his mind.

 

Instead of expressing anger, Iskanderos smiled. “You might want to secure those restraints.” The Primarch’s hands danced over the raider’s consoles; each touch made several lights go out. “It will not feel good.”

 

As Yusuf belatedly realized what Iskanderos had in mind, the last of the systems went dark. Inert, just like a piece of rock left over from the primordial material composing the asteroid belts of Molech system, the raider fell towards the globe on a carefully plotted trajectory.

 

* * *

 

The maneuver attempted by Iskanderos would have been deadly to ordinary mortals, and even battle-hardened, genetically modified Legionaries in full battle gear would have been pushed to the limits of their tolerance. Falling out of orbit at several kilometers per second, the raider would have appeared to any observers on Molech as a piece of space junk harmlessly burning in the planet’s upper atmosphere, clearly destined to fall too far from any inhabited area to be worth shooting down. Once inside the perimeter of planetary defenses, the Primarch would have only few seconds to burn the engines, siphoning just enough power to the raider’s artificial gravity to prevent the g-forces from tearing its passengers to pieces. Wait too long, and their journey would end in a crater somewhere in the planet’s wilderness. Initiate the burn too soon, and they would be spotted by Molech’s formidable defensive arsenal.

 

In the last few seconds of stomach-churning freedom induced by free fall, Yusuf clenched his teeth in trepidation. This was truly it; there was no turning back now.

 

With a roar of a thousand angry lions, the engines sprung to life, and with them, the extreme force of gravity denied its due sacrifice. As blackness rolled over his eyes, Yusuf’s last thoughts were the sea breeze of distant Apella, and the Mark IV helmet of the Iconoclast warrior staring at him with murderous intent.

 

* * *

 

Iskanderos practically dragged the two Imperial Redeemers out of the craft, urgency in his movements evident. Though the Laodicean masking devices could, in theory, keep the ship obscured from the eyes of Molech’s satellites, there was no telling how long the disguise would last; the power requirements were too great for it to remain unnoticed for more than several hours, a day if they were extremely lucky.

 

Every muscle in Yusuf’s body hurt, but he resolved not to show weakness in front of his Primarch. The 54th Captain was already beginning to recover his strength, aided by liberal helpings of combat drugs injected by his armor’s machine-spirit. He looked warily at the desolate landscape, noticing the cliffs, the ruined remnants of some abandoned buildings that once formed a small town, the forest that grew tall enough to suggest no recent human habitation.

 

“At least two centuries old, these trees,” Demetrios remarked. “Maybe more.” The Lord Commander moved through the undergrowth, following Iskanderos’ lead. “Either this entire endeavor is… questionable,” he tried to use as diplomatic a word as possible, “or someone might have deliberately attempted to conceal this place.”

 

Looking at it, Yusuf could not help but suspect the latter.

 

Even in the low-light conditions, his eyes could make out the lack of damage consistent with battle on the buildings, the lack of barricades or other signs of prolonged combat through the streets of a settlement abandoned to the wilderness. There was something almost entirely artificial about the ruin of the settlement, noticeable only to the eyes trained to recognize advantages and disadvantages offered by the terrain, and to question the obvious assumptions. No buildings looked to be in considerably better or worse shape than the others, suggesting that the town was abandoned in prompt order rather than die out gradually. The trees, all tall cypresses and oaks, did not spread out in a chaotic manner of a naturally grown forest, but seemed to be planted almost deliberately, as if they were there to give an appearance of natural formation, but the very act of planting them was done in a haste, arranged within days rather than centuries.

 

The two Imperial Redeemers followed Iskanderos through the dead streets where only wind blew and sounds of Molech’s wildlife resonated in the star-lit darkness. The Primarch seemed to know where he was going, as if every step brought back some memory, some recollection of having previously been there.

 

Did Iskanderos plan this once, Yusuf wondered? Was he simply retracing his steps, or seeing this place for the first time?

 

It took them almost an hour to get to the caves, and another two hours to get through the winding twists and turns that made navigation practically impossible for any but the Legionaries with their augmented senses. Even then, Yusuf nearly lost track of directions through dozens of passages splitting off into different paths, some undoubtedly leading to dead ends, others to chasms that even the enhanced vision modes of his helmet could not penetrate.

 

“A brilliant scheme, if it is indeed what I think it is,” remarked Demetrios on a secure, low intensity vox channel. They kept their helmets on, both to aid them in the nearly perfect darkness of the cave passages, and to prevent the echoes of conversation from spreading through the cave systems in ways hereto unforeseen. “You have to know exactly what you are looking for, and even then, you have to know how to get here.”

 

Iskanderos did not reply, too intent on his advance. The Primarch unerringly led the Companions through the passages, not hesitating once at any crossing or split in the tunnels. In some places, the caves were large enough for a main battle tank to ride through; in others, they were barely sufficient for the Legionaries to pass.

 

“These caves…” Iskanderos breathed heavily, concentrating. “I remember…”

 

“What?” asked Yusuf, not certain he understood.

 

“Digging them,” the Primarch answered wistfully. “Changing the natural course of the passages. Making the pathways impassable for those who were not here all those years ago.”

 

“Then… you remember, sire?” Demetrios ventured forward.

 

Iskanderos shook his head, still moving forward; only the in-built helmet lights guided his way through the subterranean labyrinth. “It is… some things are coming back. Others are not. I cannot remember the details. Only small parts.”

 

“How so?” wondered Yusuf. “Do you remember… what these paths lead to?”

 

Iskanderos’ voice had more of his customary arrogance in it now. “If I did, perhaps this entire trip would not have been necessary.”

 

Yusuf took it as his hint to remain silent. Perhaps, he wondered in the privacy of his own thoughts, something did change in him. The demigod he saw on Apella as a youth, a memory that shone brighter than that of his own birth family, was above doubt, above criticism, above the trappings of humanity. As a Companion, he got to see Iskanderos at his most unguarded, finding arrogance where previously was only strength and resolve, finding pride and hubris that could not be seen from the distance.

 

Was Iskanderos always like this, he wondered? Was it simply that Yusuf was no longer affected by the same awe the Primarchs inspired in their gene-progeny, and he could now see the Conqueror’s flaws as if they were those of a lesser man? Or was it some unseen change brought on by the Primarch’s near-death on Terra, augmented by his self-imposed exile and strange, oblique events at Grail?

 

These were dangerous thoughts, heretical thoughts, yet Yusuf embraced them, even as he followed Iskanderos into the darkness.

 

“And… here… we… are…” Iskanderos intoned as the Imperial Redeemers came to a door.

 

To call it a door would have been as gross an understatement as there had ever been. The wall of adamantium rose at least thirty meters high, completely sealing off the path. By the looks of it, it seemed strong enough to deter assault by Titans, let alone beings of flesh and blood. Arcane symbols and sigils were carved into its surface.

 

Demetrios whistled in surprise. “This is… not what I would have expected. It has trappings of…”

 

“A ritual,” Iskanderos finished for him. The Primarch took off his helmet, then approached the door. His fingers traced the nearest sign, a wolf’s head by a crescent moon. He seemed almost surprised to have come this far, to see himself denied by the edifice.

 

“I remember these symbols,” he said, examining them in more detail. “I have seen this before.”

 

“Where?” Yusuf asked warily. “Is… your memory returning?”

 

“Terra,” the Primarch explained. “These are sorcerous wards.”

 

Yusuf gasped in surprise. “Surely, the Imperial Truth…”

 

“The Imperial Truth omitted many things, it seems,” Iskanderos growled. “All the more reasons to get inside.”

 

“How?”

 

“A door has but one purpose,” explained Iskanderos, as if talking to a child. “It opens. All it takes is the right key.”

 

His eyes became vacant for a moment as something – a reminiscence, a vision – came upon him. He looked at the door, then at his gauntleted hands. In an instant, a decision was reached.

 

Iskanderos disconnected a gauntlet, revealing flesh underneath. “Your combat knife,” he called to Yusuf, who proffered the weapon before realizing the significance of what was about to transpire. The Conqueror smiled. “Here goes.”

 

The Adeptus Astartes-sized combat knives were larger than swords wielded by most mortals, yet in the Primarch’s hand, Yusuf’s weapon looked like a child’s toy. Iskanderos forced the knife into the palm of his hand, then pressed it against the door, leaving a sanguine mark. He did it seven more times, each at a different spot; all eight formed a pattern.

 

Even despite his helmet’s rebreather masking most of the cave’s smells, Yusuf felt the intoxicating scent of rich Primarch blood. The blood stains, black in the artificial lightning of the Companions’ helmets, started to move.

 

Yusuf had to convince himself that his eyes were not deceiving him. The blood started to move, converging into a singular shape against every law of physics or biology, as if it was given life through the effort of Iskanderos’ indomitable will. Yusuf took a cautious step back, his plasma pistol at the ready as if it could deal with this violation of natural law, or perhaps as the only kind of reassurance available to him.

 

The symbols on the door started to glow. Some came to life as soft, green-blue runes that illuminated the cave like captive emeralds cast into a field of fallen stars; others glowed angry red, or other colors that could never hold the eye, changing with every fraction of a second until only a suggestion of color or shape remained.

 

In the shape made by Iskanderos’ blood, something started to writhe, something made of incorporeal shadows and complete absence of light, the kind of primordial darkness that existed before the beginning of the universe, and would exist again after all surrendered to entropy. Yusuf looked to Demetrios for reassurance, but found none, the Lord Commander as fascinated or shocked as he was.

 

Iskanderos seemed unafraid. The Primarch stretched out his hand, touching the shadows. Tendrils of nothingness erupted from the door, weaving around his arm yet cautiously retreating back, dissolving the hardened metal as if it was ice evaporating under a torch.

 

Something shimmered in the distance, something that could not, should not have been here. As the passage finally widened enough for him to go through, Iskanderos stepped forward, his sons mere steps behind.

 

* * *

 

“This is it,” said Iskanderos in something resembling awe. “The gate. The very thing I learned about on Grail.”

 

The gate was not a manmade structure, or, for that matter, anything wrought by sentient hands, defying the words Yusuf tried to summon to describe it. No matter from which side he looked, it was simply there, a tear in the very fabric of the universe that suggested impossible depths behind it, yet seemed to defy conventional dimensions. At one glance, it seemed to fill the entire cavernous hall; at the next, it was barely a pinprick.

 

“What… do we do now?” Demetrios asked, keeping his voice cold and pragmatic. “We don’t have much time before the lander is discovered.”

 

“Is this… the proof you were seeking, sire?” Yusuf added. An uncharacteristic sensation took hold of his chest and stomach, a trembling that had no familiarity for a Legionary warrior. Was it… fear?

 

Iskanderos did not listen to them. The Primarch walked on, each step harder than the one before it, yet his resolute will drove him on. The gate appeared to respond, growing larger with each moment until it expanded to accommodate the height of a Dreadnought… or a Primarch.

 

“Sire!” Yusuf shouted, now understanding what the Conqueror was intending to do and attempting to rush forward.

 

He was too late. Before Yusuf could even finish the motion, Iskanderos disappeared.

 

* * *

 

“Whoresons!”

 

Amrit Sarkisian slammed his fist into the bulk, drawing another annoyed look from Acacius Martins. The Hellhound took ill to the Imperial Redeemers’ hospitality, and Martins was starting to grow tired of his complaints. Every day since their fateful audience with Iskanderos has been the same, producing no further breakthroughs or changes, and forcing them to spend most of their time in the large, but ultimately confined quarters reserved for the guests of the Sixth Legion. To the Champion of the Lion Guard, the rooms were pleasant, clearly designed to provide mortal dignitaries or visitors with every kind of comfort they could desire, but not a substitute for the kind of freedom an emissary of an allied Legion should have had on board another Legion’s flagship.

 

“We are not guests here, Lion Guard,” Sarkisian raged, spitting on the floor in frustration. “We are prisoners by another name. Is this not the proof that they can no longer be trusted?”

 

“Patience, that is all I ask for,” Martins replied, though in truth he had to admit to the point in Sarkisian’s words. For months, their days were spent in confinement, interrupted only by occasional visits from the officers of the Imperial Redeemers, and trips to the practice cages, where Quao Zhan in particular had acquired a fierce reputation amongst the Sixth Legion. Their hosts were reasonably polite, civilized – and unwilling to share any worthwhile information with them. Martins still did not know where the Hegemon was, what was its mission, or what Iskanderos’ intentions were.

 

“They did not kill us, which is a good thing,” ventured Faust. The Gargoyle was perched on the catwalk near the common area, clearly converted from a training facility and still maintaining some aspects of its more utilitarian design. From his vantage point, he was able to look down at the rest of the emissaries.

 

Sarkisian sneered. “You seem awfully sympathetic to them after all the time you spent talking with, what’s his name?”

 

“Demetrios,” hissed Faust. “Not a bad man, him.”

 

“An arrogant upstart,” Sarkisian retorted. “Their entire Legion, so high and mighty that I don’t know how they can stomach themselves.”

 

Krast Herod of the Iconoclasts laughed harshly. “They earned the right, cousin. Perhaps once your own accomplishments match theirs, they will talk to you like an equal.”

 

“You dare?” the Hellhound nearly flew toward the laughing Iconoclast. “We should go to the dueling cages, and I can show you right then and there who is more accomplished.”

 

“They treated me like a warrior, Kars-born,” rumbled Herod. “Which is all I can ask of them.”

 

Enough!” Though Quao Zhan was never a loud voice in their conversations, when the Legionnaire of the Jaws spoke up, the rest of the embassy listened. Some part of Martins was incensed at the seeming respect the barbaric-looking, yet soft-spoken son of Kthuln commanded; another part thought that it was a useful tool to have in this mission.

 

“We were sent to parlay with Iskanderos, honorably,” Zhan continued. “This is what we will do. Until such parlay becomes impossible. Or until a parlay becomes dishonorable.” He looked at his comrades impassively yet making sure that his eyes met the eyes of each ambassador. “At this time, negotiations are still possible. We have not been mistreated. Is it not our mission to see it through to the end?”

 

All fight seemed to have gone out of Sarkisian. “I suppose… you are right,” the Hellhound said, though he did not seem particularly happy to admit it before shifting the subject. “All this waiting with nothing to do is… difficult.”

 

Faust laughed. He had a laugh that was at once higher-pitched than his Legionary bulk suggested, and predatory like that of a carnivorous bird. “I found that the Sixth like to fight.” He seemed to be very smug and satisfied with the thought. “They are, however, not as good one on one as they think. Perhaps you should work out your frustrations there, like Quao Zhan. Is that why you are always so calm, cousin?”

 

The Jaw merely looked at Faust with something vaguely resembling contempt, as if thinking the barb to be beneath him to address.

 

“The Argosian has a point,” said Herod. “You can learn much more about a Legion in the training cages than in reception halls.”

 

Martins pondered on the Iconoclast’s words. His own bouts were rather unremarkable, pitting him against minor captains and sergeants, but neither challenging his skill, nor forming any lasting attachments. They certainly could not match the easy companionship Faust shared with Tilsit Demetrios, or the grudging respect earned by Quao Zhan.

 

“It is not like we are doing anything else,” Herod added. “My own Primarch, Lord Nihlus, would be far more willing to bring to his confidence a warrior than a diplomat.”

 

“Your words merit consideration, cousin,” said Martins. Perhaps, with enough victories in the training cages, the Imperial Redeemers would once again take notice of the visitors. Perhaps they may even consider letting Martins and his men have another audience with Iskanderos, where the Conqueror would be more receptive to the Council’s proposals.

 

His mind made up, Martins managed a curved smile. If diplomacy alone produced no results, perhaps fighting skill would succeed where the words had failed.


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TWENTY FOUR

 

The Gatekeeper

Fratricide

The Golden One

 

A vast plain spread out before Iskanderos, curving in directions that did not suggest the presence of a visible horizon before fading into swirling madness in the distance. Eddies of multicolored energy danced across the sky that seemed at once solid, liquid, and thoroughly reflective if looked at from a certain angle. The ground under his feet was made of sharp rocks, tangled roots, and what appeared to be writhing worms burrowing through decomposing vegetable matter.

 

There was no sun in the sky, no stars or other celestial objects to give it a sense of permanence, to serve as reliable reference points or to hint at a direction. Of the portal that brought him here, there was not a sign.

 

Anger swelled within him. For all the effort he expended getting here, he thought that he would encounter some grand revelation, some ultimate proof of the allegations he heard on Grail. The creature that claimed to be an emissary of the gods told him many things, inklings of what it claimed to be terrible truths and secrets that made the universe turn, but even then, Iskanderos was not quick to trust it. True, the power it offered was awe-inspiring… but nothing and no one offered that kind of power without wanting something in return.

 

His pride did not let him accept it as a superstitious primitive would have; though he had seen enough to question the Imperial Truth, some subconscious part of his soul kept him from stepping fully over the edge. If he could not trust his own brothers, who could he trust?

 

If there were truly gods rather than some manner of abominable xenos or incredibly powerful psykers, he would speak to them as an equal, not as a supplicant.

 

“I am here!” he shouted into the unknown, a challenge as much as an announcement. “Show yourself, whatever you are!”

 

It was a nearly imperceptible darkening of the sky; the gust of the wind that carried the smell of feces and roses with the coppery undertone of freshly spilt blood. A sense of undeniable presence made the hairs at the back of Iskanderos’ neck tingle.

 

Something coalesced in front of his eyes. It was enormous, larger even than the Primarch’s own prodigious bulk, bull-headed and horned, with backwards-jointed legs resembling those of a goat and with powerfully muscled arms. Its skin was the crimson of liquid vitae criss-crossed by white of healed scars; not the kind that hinted at nearly mortal wounds, but the kind earned in battle by warrior-born slayer, treated as marks of honor amongst the carnage. Chains hung from the creature’s wrists, though they looked less a measure of captivity and more a bizarre decoration. The armor covering its torso was covered in runes that hinted vaguely at skull-like shapes, adorned with bleached skulls human and xenos, or decapitated heads in various stages of decomposition. Its leathery wings were tattered and spiked through with bony growths and scales. The thing bore twin axes, each the size of a mortal man and now pointed at Iskanderos as a challenge to the Conqueror.

 

An Ifreet, thought Iskanderos, recalling Yusuf’s tale of battle at Pacal. A daemon, another voice whispered, something suppressed yet turning uneasily in his memories. Somehow, the latter word seemed more familiar, more… appropriate.

 

The creature cocked its head to a size, examining the Primarch, then roared with a mocking growl.

 

“Is this the one who would seek the favor of the Powers?” The creature snorted, yet its movements were considerably warier than its boasts, as if it was taking in a measure of its opponent. “I will offer your skull to the Lord of Blood.”

 

Iskanderos drew his own blade, activating its power field; the glint of captive energy reflected in veins of webbed lightning arcing across the sky. “Mighty words from a daemon,” he retorted, thinking back of what he learned on Grail. “What do I call you before I put you down?”

 

“You shall scream the name Skarbrand, the Rage of Kharnath, the Destroyer of the Worthless, the…”

 

Iskanderos did not wait for the daemon to finish its soliloquy. With a swift movement, he stepped into an attack, swinging his blade in a narrow ellipse that forced Skarbrand to reel backward and frantically parry.

 

“I will drink your blood and feast on your flesh,” the daemon promised as it tried to defend itself.

 

Now that the creature survived Iskanderos’ initial attack, it proved to be a fast, agile combatant despite its prodigious size. It rose into the sky with a mighty jump, soaring above the Primarch on its tattered wings, then launched itself at him like a blood-red missile.

 

Far from avoiding the onslaught like common sense dictated, Iskanderos met it head on. Hellforged axes met Apellene adamantium in a flurry of blows as the daemon’s speed and strength encountered its match. The creature’s momentum almost threw the Conqueror off his feet, but Iskanderos persevered, unstoppable force finally meeting the unmovable object.

 

The Primarch pushed the daemon back with the full strength of his armored arms. Bereft of ground to anchor itself against, the daemon lost balance, its wings flapping ineffectually as it strove to regain control. Eyes of pure red fury regarded Iskanderos with otherworldly hatred.

 

The Conqueror used the moment’s distraction to lurch forward while his enemy was out of position. He hit Skarbrand on the side of the head with the flat of his blade, and watched the daemon’s flesh burn where the energy field touched it. The creature roared in pain, hissing curses in language so foul and inhuman that their mere sound would have terrified many mortal warriors.

 

Even enraged, the daemon twisted in mid-air for another attack. This time, it learned from its mistake and landed before breaking into a run, accelerating as it came closer. Black smoke trailed from its wings, covering its shape in a cloud of abyssal mist.

 

Iskanderos answered it with a charge of his own. No creature of this world or the next would ever call him a coward; no mere daemon would be a match for him, who conquered half of the galaxy and whose aid was solicited by the gods themselves. Holding his sword one-handed, the Primarch ran at the creature, faster and faster by the moment.

 

He avoided the daemon’s first axe swing, using the flat of his blade to deflect the second, then lashed out with a fist. Though the creature was at least a head taller than Iskanderos, it shrieked as the punch connected, caving in the side of its bestial face and sending yellow fangs flying.

 

In an instant, Iskanderos circled the daemon, moving faster than it could respond. He let go of the blade, now using a mubaka move to topple the creature, one foot making it stumble, both hands making sure that Skarbrand ended flat on the writhing ground. The Primarch put his foot on the daemon’s neck, forcing it down in an unmistakable gesture of dominance and not letting it go despite the daemon’s struggles.

 

“Tell your masters that I will not be bothered to deal with their lackeys,” declared the Conqueror loudly, one foot on Skarbrand’s neck, the other on the unnatural ground of this strange realm. “If they want to parlay with me, they must do it themselves.”

 

With these words, Iskanderos pressed his foot down. Bone and vertebrae cracked; black bile and foul blood gushed from the wound. The daemon convulsed once, twice, then grew still.

 

“Hear me, all who would listen,” shouted Iskanderos into the sky. “I have no time for games or riddles. Show yourselves!”

 

The daemon under his foot began to dissolve. First came the great curved horns and the tattered wings, whittled down to mere sticks like sand barely held together in the face of the hurricane. The skin began to dissolve next as a swarm of scarab-like beetles, then as a pool of reflective, red-tinged mercury. The axes were the last to go, evaporating like black smoke that got lighter and lighted by the second, turning luminescent and somehow coalescing against every law of physics.

 

The smoke formed a shape; this one, Iskanderos knew.

 

“You were at Grail,” he told the angelic figure clearly visible through the remnants of the daemon’s passing.

 

“That I was,” the apparition agreed, its voice strangely melodic against the whistling of unnatural wind. “Not all gods are… patient,” it said, and Iskanderos could detect a hint of something in its voice – sadness? Regret?

 

“What are you?” the Primarch asked suspiciously. “Another daemon?”

 

The creature of light did not reply. Instead, it pointed into the distance. There, the swirling chaos coalesced into something that was almost recognizable – a cloud, no, four of them, each suggesting something hidden within. Iskanderos thought he saw glimpses of brass citadels, gardens overgrown with strange life, elaborate and ever-changing architecture, tiny figures of mortals baying in unearthly delights. The clouds kept changing, each a hurricane of planet-like proportions yet somehow remaining stable in the vast, alien landscape; no image seemed to linger for longer than a moment; no image repeated.

 

“All shall be revealed in time,” the apparition sang, floating over Iskanderos like a spectral guide. “The gods are ready for you.”

 

Before the Primarch could question it further, the being of incandescent light dissolved, fragments of its essence floating on the impossible winds of this place. Only few pinions of concentrated luminescence remained, and even those bled into the unreality like remnants of a poorly remembered dream. Iskanderos caught one in his hand; it felt soft, like a feather of an angel.

 

The Conqueror looked at the slowly dissolving pinion in his hand, then at the cloud-like structures in the distance. It was impossible to tell how far away they were; one moment, they seemed days away, the next, they seemed as if he could almost touch them. The wind carried on a hint of the rain, though something about it felt odd, as if every tiny drop of moisture was laced with electricity, making tiny sparks dance across his armor. Of the daemon he defeated, not a sign remained.

 

His face hardened. Now, there was certainly no turning back.

 

With wind at his back and sparks of captive lightning on his armor, Iskanderos walked forward.

 

* * *

 

“Stop!”

 

Demetrios had to hold Yusuf back from passing through the same phenomenon Iskanderos just went through. It took all of the Lord Commander’s mechanically augmented strength to keep Yusuf from forcing his way through.

 

“Lord Iskanderos knows what he is doing,” the equerry said in a hoarse, troubled voice. “He knows more about it than we do, and is better suited to deal with whatever is on the other side. It is our duty to guard his back. Here. Not… wherever he went.”

 

Slowly, the fight went out of Yusuf. The 54th Captain slumped, turning his head back and forth to look at the gate, then at the passage the Primarch’s ritual had created. Strange shadows twisted and turned across the entire cavern; not all of them could be traced to a specific object, as if patches of inky darkness came to independent life in defiance of all reason.

 

“We guard our master’s back,” Demetrios repeated. “He will need us here when he returns.”

 

Yusuf cast a wary glance on his auspex. The device was practically useless; the data readouts changed every few moments, making little sense. It brought his mind back to Pacal, and the battle in the corridors of the continent-tree.

 

Frustrated, he took his helmet off, trusting in his enhanced biology more than in the mechanical aptitude of the device. A plethora of smells and sounds filled his senses, some familiar, others strange. He heard some small critter scuttling in the distance with its prey of blind, stunted insects; felt the stale air of the cavern laced with native moss and lichen; smelled the faint scent of water dripping from arched ceilings somewhere far, far away.

 

“What if he needs us,” questioned Yusuf, not caring much about the acoustic properties of the cavern anymore.

 

“He would have brought an entire company if he needed that,” replied Demetrios. Following his younger colleague’s example, the Lord Commander unclamped the seals holding his helmet in place, still keeping a wary eye on the portal. There was just enough light for the two of them to see comfortably here; perhaps, Yusuf ventured, even a mortal would have been able to see without artificial augmentation now.

 

The air changed. Yusuf’s first instinct was to look at the tear in reality, as if expecting that something would come through. He crept backwards, hunched, his hand on the trigger of the plasma pistol.

 

Demetrios shook his head, pointing a finger towards the entrance. Yusuf took it as his cue to find cover behind a jagged piece of rock, making sure that whatever came through the metal door could not see him. The Primarch’s equerry followed suit, almost exactly opposite to Yusuf. His military mind recognized the significance of positioning; it was tailor-made for a pincer movement.

 

A point of dark metal came through the passage, resolving itself into a familiar shape of Mark III power armor – brutish, inelegant plate designed for combat in the narrow ship corridors, underground tunnels of dead worlds, or streets of sprawling, alien cities. The shadows hinted at the presence of another similar form, perhaps an entire squad advancing in well-drilled formation, weapons tilted to provide maximum fire coverage. In the flickering unlight of the gateway, their armor colors were unmistakable, dark blue and black, adorned with leonine motifs and pelts of predatory felids.

 

These were the sons of Rogr Hemri, the Lion Guard, clad for war.

 

At least, Yusuf thought frantically, the auspex is useless here. He hoped that enhanced vision modes built into Adeptus Astartes armor would be similarly confounded.

 

Yusuf almost completely missed another figure next to the Legionaries, a smaller, slender, human-sized one. It was a mortal woman remaining safely behind the wall of ceramite and gene-forged flesh, brandishing some kind of an antique gun in one hand and a portable light in another. Something about her did not feel right; she was almost too confident, too sure of her steps in this place.

 

Realization hit him. She was here before. She knew what they were facing.

 

The woman pointed at the gate, then said something to one of the Lion Guard. The warrior of the Twelfth Legion nodded, then motioned his men forward. Nine more Legionaries came into the room – a full squad by the looks of them, armed to the teeth and ready for anything.

 

From his vantage point, Yusuf saw the woman walk towards the rift. A sense of disquiet came over him, though he could not place it. He saw the woman examine the anomaly, then draw a long, pointed dagger from her belt. Yusuf felt the bite of frost on his exposed face, as if an arctic chill suddenly paid a visit to the cavern. Her saw her lips move; though his enhanced hearing should have been able to hear the sounds, there was only silence.

 

There it was, the silence. Not the sound of the cavern’s creatures, not the noise of his armor’s servos, not even the sound of his own breathing managed to penetrate it. It was not natural, though, in all fairness, very little here was.

 

The rift pulsated in tune with the woman’s words, though Yusuf could not hear what was being spoken. The colors of it changed, acquiring more consistency, almost becoming more… ordered. The woman put a knife to her hand, cutting a long slit; her blood looked oily black in the light of the portal.

 

A ritual. Yusuf recalled the means by which Iskanderos opened the door, the implications of it all, the uneasy coexistence of his indoctrination to the Imperial Truth with his new experiences. And with that, he finally understood what the woman was doing.

 

If she were allowed to complete the ritual, the rift would close, trapping Iskanderos on the other side, wherever that was.

 

Duty and conscience fought in Yusuf’s mind. Was this the event horizon, the one point after which even light itself could not return from the edge of the black hole? Was this the moment he dreaded as much as his post-human mind could feel something akin to fear?

 

The plasma pistol felt heavy in his hand. Yusuf al-Malik, the 54th Captain of the Imperial Redeemers, the Sixth Legion, born of Apella and the youngest of two sons. He was the boy who once beheld a god and resolved to join the sons of that god in their crusade; he was the man who openly questioned the reason for his being, the end of war that would never end.

 

Is this what a man feels like when he is about to die?

 

Yusuf heard about life of the condemned flashing before their eyes, and saw the moments of his own. Once again he stood on a water world, awkwardly answering a child’s question; once again he was a child in the crowd, daring to catch a glimpse of something far greater than a man. Once again his eyes connected with those of the Golden One, the Conqueror, the words of someone from his distant past ringing in his memory.

 

Maybe, some day it will be you.

 

His aim sure, Yusuf pulled the trigger.

 

* * *

 

The woman became a flaming torch, flailing in front of the portal for a fraction of the second before collapsing in a burnt out husk before it. In an instant, the Lion Guard reacted.

 

A volley of bolter shots broke off pieces of a boulder hiding Yusuf; shards of rock flew in all directions. The 54th Captain fired blindly in the direction of the sounds, rolling over to change position before the weight of Twelfth Legion’s fire destroyed his cover.

 

Is this it, then? The thought simmered in the back of his mind, pushed down by the more immediate struggle to survive. He fired as he rolled on the ground, presenting as small of a target profile as he could; at least one Lion Guard fell forward, finger still on the trigger and spraying bolter shells everywhere.

 

Demetrios joined in, his Volkite Serpenta pistol cooking the Lion Guard sergeant alive before the sons of Rogr Hemri even realized that there was another enemy in the room. For a moment, the ranks of the Lion Guard broke cohesion as some of them tried to reposition themselves to face the second attacker.

 

This brief instant of confusion was enough for Yusuf to let loose another shot, though he did not see if it hit, hiding behind a thick stalagmite rising from the cavern floor. His plasma pistol started to flash angry red of overheating as white smoke vented from the exhaust ports; it would be at least another thirty seconds before it would be ready to fire again.

 

Thirty seconds seemed like an eternity to Yusuf now. Even if every one of his shots dealt a mortal wound to the Lion Guard, even if Demetrios managed to back him up, they were still outnumbered, the element of surprise no longer on their side. The Lion Guard would slaughter them here, though at a great cost to themselves.

 

Was this how it was meant to be, Yusuf asked himself, frantically trying to think of ways to win this battle and to safeguard his Primarch’s return. With every passing second, the implications began to sink deeper.

 

The blood of the nameless Lion Guard was on his hands; the life of another Legionary, taken.

 

Now, there was truly no turning back.

 

With a flash of multicolored light, the portal came to life again. Colors swirled within, traces of something no human language had adequate words for. Though the cavern grew as bright as midday under a desert sun, shadows remained, twisting, screaming, growing more elongated until they did not resemble anything borne of Terran stock.

 

The shadows screamed, and the sound reverberated through every cell of Yusuf’s body. He dropped his weapon, covering his ears, yet the scream was not deterred by such pitiful countermeasures. His vision began to swim as blood vessels burst in his eyes, covering everything in a haze of crimson. A gale stronger than a hurricane rushed through the stagnant cavern air, lifting Legionaries off their feet, smashing them against the rock, pulverizing their hardened armor and bashing the softer flesh within against the stone.

 

Yusuf did not know how long it lasted, or if he could even keep an adequate track of time. For a moment, he imagined that his transgressions had finally caught up with him, and it was him threshing in pain, screaming curses at the cold reality as he was caught in the forces he could neither understand nor control. He closed his eyes as he held on to his cover for dear life for as long as he could.

 

When he opened his eyes again, he beheld a golden god.

 

There was a figure floating several meters above ground, wrapped in an auric glow, terrible and awe-inspiring. It was proud and regal, towering over the shadows and Legionaries alike in a display of unequaled majesty, as if the essence of its being could only barely be contained within the shell of a living being. There were outlines of spectral wings in its golden halo, traces of divinity being born into the world that could not bear its visage, like the ancient prophet who went blind after finally witnessing the majesty of his god.

 

There was only one being Yusuf had seen who could compare, who gave the same sensation of impossible, awesome power by the mere fact of his existence, but this time, the face he saw was that of his own father, Iskanderos of Apella.

 

Then, he looked up again into the eyes of a god, and for the first time since Terra, for the first time since the façade of Imperial unity shattered, Yusuf al-Malik knew peace of singular, dedicated purpose.

 

* * *

 

The two Imperial Redeemers knelt before their Primarch. Though proud men and warriors who subjugated countless worlds, the being before them was no ordinary mortal, not even a Primarch, touched in the passing by the Emperor’s own arcane gene-craft, but something more, something primal and impossible to comprehend with the mortal or even post-human mind.

 

“Rise, my sons,” the golden figure spoke, though it was impossible for Yusuf to tell if he was truly hearing Iskanderos speak, or if the words simply appeared in his mind, as if spoken softly by his own fantasies and delusions. Slowly, Yusuf dared to look at the majesty before him.

 

The Conqueror was changed. Though the intensity of the golden glow had already receded, and the Primarch assumed more of his customary bearing, there was a subtle difference about him, as though the very air seemed to retreat from his presence, surrounding him with a nearly imperceptible veil of unreality. Even though Iskanderos stood on solid ground, Yusuf could not escape the feeling that his gene-father was not entirely there, and that a part of his essence remained forever in flight, too ethereal to touch the cave floor and too strong to be contained inside any flesh.

 

There was a tired look in Iskanderos’ eyes, a new set of wrinkles that was never there before, a measure of cynical callousness that only came with age. Yusuf could see a crease in the corner of the Conqueror’s mouth, a harsh twist in his jaw that could only come from having seen the sights that would drive lesser beings mad. Whereas the Primarch who had entered the rift mere minutes ago was a young prince, a champion of humanity in the prime of his physical accomplishment reflected in the flowering of youth, the figure before the Imperial Redeemers was a man of dignity and solemn pride, a warrior-king who embraced both the vigor of adolescence and the experience and maturity of early middle age.

 

Truly, he was the Conqueror, the breaker of worlds and the general without peer.

 

“It does you much credit to still remain here after all this time,” the Primarch said, to confused looks.

 

“Sire…” Demetrios finally spoke, breaking the spell cast by Iskanderos’ presence. “You were only gone for a few minutes.”

 

“Minutes?” With every second, Iskanderos looked more and more like his old self, a being of flesh and blood with only a hint of something more in his regal bearing, or the faint glow that trailed his every movement. His eyes narrowed in surprise. “But…” The Primarch shook his head, as if remembering something from a distant past that even his eidetic memory had difficulty recognizing. “No matter.”

 

A moment of reverie had passed. Iskanderos’ eyes examined the mangled bodies of the Lion Guard on the cavern floor, briefly giving credence to charred heap of skin and bones in front of the portal. Recollection danced across his features, turning into resolve.

 

“So this is it, then,” he mused. “The first shots in what is to come.” He had a contemplative and oddly reflective look at his face. “Not much, but this will do.”

 

The walls of the cave began to rumble. At first, it was a distant sound of rolling thunder, so far away that it might as well have been a trick of imagination. Then, the first whiffs of dust came in – one by one, growing stronger and stronger until a veritable storm came from the tunnels toward the rift. Stalactites fell from the ceiling like missiles, each larger than the one before, twisting in the unearthly colors of the gate.

 

Iskanderos laughed as Yusuf began to understand. Cold blood raced to the 54th Captain’s head at the realization.

 

“How…”

 

The Conqueror said something, though it was in no language Yusuf could comprehend; the words sounded as though a thousand voices spoke at once, some in perfect unison, others in bizarre harmonies using scales written by the insane. Iskanderos looked at his sons, triumphant glint in his eyes, as the entrance began to collapse on itself, a mass of rock sealing the cave in for all time and burying all evidence that the Imperial Redeemers had ever landed on Molech.

 

The ground beneath their feet began to glow, slow at first, then growing brighter and brighter until Yusuf had to close his eyes. A rumbling sound, like that of the world ending, deafened him as the dust started to penetrate his nostrils.

 

“Close your eyes!”

 

The voice sounded inside of his head, though there was little need for the warning. Still, the last shred of defiance in Yusuf forced his eyelids to open, just enough to catch one last glimpse of the Golden One parting the dust storm before the madness of swirling, impossible chaos.

 

Then, there was only the blackness of utter absence, the embrace of the void like that of final death.


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TWENTY FIVE

 

Passengers

War Council

Kas-Pin

 

Consciousness returned slowly, each heartbeat a tremor that resonated through his temples, pounding behind the open eyelids to resolve the sterile light into shapes. Shapes became objects, though for a while they remained a disjointed assembly before his eyes, a collection of parts and devices that made no sense together. Objects resolved into a room, a trio of halogen lights shining brightly and nearly obscuring the faces behind them.

 

Yusuf blinked. The first time was hard, as if his eyelids were glued in place by some unexpected force; the next one came easier. A groan escaped from his parched throat.

 

“He is alive. He opened his eyes, didn’t he?”

 

It was a familiar voice, strewn with concern and worry, deep and rumbling though not entirely without sophistication.

 

“Interesting…” Another voice was now speaking, a rich baritone that seemed genuinely amused or surprised. “Yusuf, can you hear me?”

 

Yusuf forced a weak-sounding yes through cracked lips, trying to move. Each motion felt like he had to struggle through some immense weight. Did the artificial gravity malfunction, he wondered?

 

“Are you… sure about that, sire?”

 

“I am, Tilsit,” the second voice said. Something in its tone suggested smug satisfaction, as if he observed something unexpected but not altogether unpleasant. “Disengage the locks.”

 

The locks, Yusuf wondered? Why?

 

“Here.”

 

Yusuf grabbed an extended hand, pulling himself up. Now, it came easily; whatever force held him in place before let go of him. He blinked several more times, trying to resolve the faces in the brightly lit medicae room.

 

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Captain,” smiled Iskanderos with a vigorous shake of his head. Behind him, Demetrios examined his fellow Companion with what seemed to be an almost academic interest.

 

“What… happened?” stuttered Yusuf. “Where are we?”

 

“You are on board the Hegemon, brother,” Demetrios answered, “and among friends.”

 

Yusuf stood up, stretching his arms and legs. He was out of his armor, clad only in his training undergarments and feeling sore, as if every muscle in his body was subjected to every kind of physical exertion known to man. The world swam before him as he moved. He shook his head, trying to bring his eyes into focus.

 

“Last I saw…” Memories kept flooding his brain – collapsing cave on Molech, the vision of imposing deity-like figure that Iskanderos had become, the figure of a woman in front of the portal, dead by his hand as he…

 

“I killed them,” he said, his eyes lowered. “The Lion Guard, didn’t I?” The terrible realization made his jaw tremble with anxious knowledge. “I killed the Legionaries of the Twelfth on Molech.”

 

“That you did, my son.” Yusuf raised his head to look into Iskanderos’ eyes as the Primarch put a massive hand on his shoulder in a comforting gesture. “If you did not, we would not be standing here now. For that, I am thankful.”

 

Not a suggestion that anything was wrong; not a glint of remorse.

 

The thought should have made him uneasy, thought Yusuf, but for some reason it did not; it was as if whatever event horizon he crossed in that cave had made him immune to conscience, or at the very least inured him to the implications of his actions.

 

“You did the right thing, brother,” Demetrios said from the distance. “You did the Legion proud.”

 

“Does it mean…” Yusuf struggled with the words, “I might be responsible for the death of Apella?”

 

He no longer questioned the visions he saw after the destruction of Pacal; he saw enough that he could no longer explain or understand but with the primitive, reptilian part of his brain that sought comfort in ritual and superstition. What were these visions next to his inexplicable escape from Molech, or next to the powers exhibited by his own gene-father? Was it really a difficult concept to accept now that he had seen the strange underbelly of reality, witnessed an apotheosis, and slain men that, though they could have never been his brothers, were supposed to be his once-equals?

 

Iskanderos laughed, though there was genuine mirth in it. The Primarch hunched over, bringing his head almost to the level of Yusuf’s. “No, my son,” the Conqueror answered him, mischievous sparkle in his eyes. “You will not be responsible for the death of Apella. You will be responsible for its salvation.”

 

* * *

 

The officers of the Imperial Redeemers assembled in Iskanderos’ command room were a motley bunch. Sergeants and Lieutenants mixed with Captains, Chapter Masters, and Lord Commanders; Mechanicum representatives stood awkwardly side by side with fleet officers and Imperial Army generals. An odd remembrancer joined in the proceedings, though their numbers were limited. Iskanderos wanted only those whose persuasions proved amiable to his cause.

 

The Primarch stood tall, dressed for war. His armor of gold and silver was adorned with pelts of beasts he had slain on his journeys and jewels captured from the crowns of a thousand fallen kingdoms. His weapons were utilitarian rather than decorative; the sword had tasted the blood of tyrants, and his archaeotech pistol was worn from long use, though its function remained undiminished.

 

This was no politician, no Terran fop pretending to lay claim to martial glory. This was the king of a warrior race, the master of the Legion, who would decide the fates of civilizations at the edge of his blade. The Companions standing at his side, clad in their battle plate, were the harbingers of coming doom to all who would defy the Conqueror – Yusuf, gaunt yet hopeful in the knowledge that he would yet save his home planet; Demetrios, stoic and noble of bearing, undiminished by the events on Molech; el-Rahim, straightened up just enough to give an impression of strength yet thriving within his ravaged frame at his master’s command.

 

“My friends,” Iskanderos raised his hand in regal greeting once the assembly had gathered, and the ornate double doors were closed. “I come before you with the truth.”

 

He paused, accessing the mood in the room. It was deathly quiet; though only few among the Legion had any inkling of what was about to transpire, there was little denying that his announcement was going to be momentous for them all.

 

“You are here because you are the only ones I can trust. Nay,” he spoke in a rich baritone, injecting just enough pathos into his voice to match his dramatic posture, “you are the only ones who could be trusted with the fate of mankind.”

 

An array of looks, some confused, others – and he was pleased to see there were more of these – proud. He did well to play to their ingrained obedience, but also to their pride, the pride they felt at serving the greatest general of the Great Crusade, the pride that those born of Apella and its subject worlds felt in the certain knowledge of their superiority over the other scions of Terra.

 

“You may have wondered why we were here,” he continued, wild passion in his eyes. “I will tell you this. I am a warrior, not a politician, not a poet, so I will talk to you like one, not as your commander, but as a brother in the arts of battle.” That brought faint smiles and glints of satisfaction in the eyes of his men.

 

“You already know that the regime holding sway at Terra is no friend of ours,” Iskanderos intoned slowly. “I am but one man in the service of humanity, and their attempt at my life is but a regrettable transgression. No, it is not me that I am concerned for.”

 

He raised his voice into a martial bellow. “On Pacal, on Grail, and now on Molech I have received proof of their true intentions, and their path would lead us into death!” He breathed heavily, letting the impact of his words wash over his men. “What we saw after the destruction of Pacal is what would come to pass if the Council of Terra succeeds. Apella. Krosis IV. Symachea. Ignis. All of your worlds, and more, burned so that their grasp on the galaxy is absolute, all consumed in their thirst for unlimited power.”

 

“But what of the Emperor, you say? Surely, he could not have let it come to pass? Why would he tolerate the presence of such serpents under his wing?” Iskanderos’ face grew hard, somber. “What I will tell you now will not be easy for you to hear, but it is the truth.”

 

“The Emperor has abandoned us. He left the Legions to do as they please, because we accomplished the purpose we were created for.” Iskanderos lowered his voice, now almost a conspiratory whisper, yet bitter and angry. “He left us, after we conquered the galaxy for him.”

 

“He left us when there were no worlds left to conquer, and all of humanity was under his thumb. He left us with fools and cowards for regents. But,” he paused, seeing shock on the faces of the assembled, “why?” The Conqueror spoke up, louder and more firm now that he was finally saying what his earlier words had insinuated.

 

“Why would the Emperor do this? Why would the Emperor, beloved by all,” he spat out the words like a curse, “leave his people without guidance, in thrall to the very kinds of tyrants he once sought to extinguish?”

 

“I will tell you why, my sons, my friends,” Iskanderos answered his own question, not letting enough time pass for anyone else to speak. “The truth has been revealed to me. But I do suspect you already know some of it."

 

“You, Cassian,” he took a step forward, addressing a Legion Captain. “You saw Ferrica destroyed, its people slaughtered with no mercy or distinction. Did you not?”

 

“What of you, Baseo?” Now, the Primarch was talking to a Legionary, who beamed at the Primarch’s recognition of his name. “Did you not see the Sunset Shore Academy at Apella crushed to slag by orbital strikes, for the sole crime of breeding strong, proud people who would not be deceived?”

 

Anger crept into Iskanderos’ voice, the fury of a cornered wolf.

 

“You saw a sacrifice at Pacal, and then at Grail. You understand that there are powers in the universe that can be manipulated with it. Do you see now why Apella would die?”

 

“I will tell you. Apella, and all of humanity with it, will die, one by one, to feed the Emperor’s apotheosis.”

 

“Yes, this is true,” said Iskanderos, his face somber as his words hit the assembly with the force of a nuclear explosion. “The Emperor has betrayed us. He has betrayed humanity. He has even betrayed the fools who would reign in his name, though they believe that their hold on power would remain absolute.”

 

“Even now their agents are among us, sent here under the guise of friends. But are they friends? Are they spies? You have all seen the Iconoclasts burn Apella, the Gargoyles tear through the defense platforms in the service of their callous masters on Terra. You know them. You know who they are. You know who they serve.”

 

“The Lion Guard…” a voice came from the crowd, quickly lost in the baying of the assembly.

 

Iskanderos shook his head, as if accepting an unpleasant revelation. “That, indeed, is true. My brother Rogr Hemri was quick to take power, and to subvert everything we had worked for – with the full knowledge and consent of the Emperor. They would see humanity extinguished to create a godling; they would sacrifice all in their path.”

 

“And for that, they must be stopped.”

 

The cheers were a wall of sound accentuated by the rhythmic clanging of armored vambraces on chest, the rhythm of war that was inherited from some other, savage time. The sounds formed syllables, then a word – a name.

 

Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros.

 

“I know I am asking much of you, my friends,” the Primarch continued, motioning for the cheers to subside. “For our entire lives, we pushed the boundaries of humanity forward. None of us expected this. None of us wanted this. And yet, here we are.”

 

His face contorted with anger. “But unlike those on the Throne World, I am a man of honor. If there are those among you who would not follow me in this endeavor, say so now, and I shall let you depart in peace.” He looked at his men; each who would meet his gaze straightened up, as if on parade. “But know this. Should you depart, you shall no longer be brothers or sons of mine. Should you choose to leave, no scion of Apella would give you shelter or break bread with those who would not stand for it.”

 

“Know,” his voice filled the room, stronger and clearer than ever, “know this. Those of you who stand with me in humanity’s hour of need, you shall be heroes. Your names shall be sung on a million worlds as liberators, as the saviors of humanity. Though battles will be many, and blood will be shed – we will prevail!”

 

He let the cheers die down before continuing.

 

“We will take the fight to the Council and, if we must, to the Emperor himself. We will fight in the orbitals; we will fight inside the ships; we will fight in the streets of hive cities and under the waves of the oceans. We will fight every force our enemies throw at us, and we will smash them to pieces. We will fight on Apella, and on Krosis, and on every world between here and Terra until we stand at the walls of the Imperial Palace and proclaim victory. We. Will. Never. Surrender!”

 

Iskanderos examined the room. If there was any doubt they would be receptive to his words before, there was none now; there was a nearly religious fervor in the crowd centered around him. Golden light came from his armor and body, stronger by the moment; more than a few mortals dropped to their knees in awe as even the Legionaries realized their Primarch had changed, becoming a being of a wholly different order.

 

“And trust me on this,” he said, every word a choir of angels singing in unison. “We will have allies in our war. We are not the only weapons used and discarded by the Emperor or his lapdogs in the Council.”

 

“There are others who would be used as executioners or honorless killers, abandoned and despised yet brought forth to do the dirty work. It is them who would be persuaded to turn on their deceptive masters, and who would stand by our side as warrior brothers.” He smiled, a beatific expression on the face of a golden angel. “The misunderstood. The deceived. The ignored. They would stand with us – I know this. I have seen it.”

 

“The tools intended for our destruction may yet become brothers in our mutual salvation.”

 

* * *

 

Acacius Martins prepared himself in the dueling cage, stretching his muscles and going through the motions of several fighting styles he had learned in his three centuries of war. The Lion Guard was out of his armor, his only garment a pair of trousers short enough as not to impede his movement. Under the soft yellow lights, his many scars and tattoos signifying allegiance to the Twelfth Legion looked like a gathering of snakes cavorting in the brief glimpse of cold sun of his home planet.

 

Slow, steady movements, a flow like that of water hiding his prodigious strength until the time was right. His style was a synthesis of several favored by the Lion Guard, relying on graceful, fluid motion that could burst into a flurry of strikes the moment he sensed the advantage – a patient, conservative tactic that would tire out more aggressive enemies, taking advantage of their blunders while remaining methodical and structured.

 

Martins reflected that in this respect, he was not too different from the Imperial Redeemers. The mubaka emphasized reaction, using the opponent’s body and momentum against him and punishing undue aggression or berserk rage. The same restrained mindset governed both philosophies, placing more emphasis on a thinking warrior over a mindless savage.

 

Over a sufficiently large sample size and over sufficient time, as Rogr Hemri’s teachings went, a civilized thinker would always prevail over a crazed barbarian.

 

And yet, there were differences.

 

A fighter using mubaka would wait for the enemy to come to him, trying to force his opponent into a mistake. Not so with the way of kas-pin, where movement before contact was as much an art as science, where the warrior would strike at the exposed nerve centers of the enemy with his fists, fingers, or puukko knife.

 

Acacius Martins did not have a puukko with him, but he would not need it to impress Iskanderos and his court. He was surprised to learn that the Primarch himself would pay visit to the training quarters; it was not an opportunity to be missed, he told Sarkisian and Quao Zhan. While the stoic Jaw of the Deep only shrugged, the Hellhound seemed to grow even more visibly animated at the prospect of some action after weeks or even months of idleness.

 

For the rest of their party, the reactions were even more varied. The Consecrator, Saim Vitallius, was his typical unreadable slate; if anything, Martins could swear that the other Marine took the trip to the fighting cages as another opportunity to observe and take clinical, detached notes on the state of the Imperial Redeemers. Krast Herod of the Iconoclasts only laughed, though it was hard to tell if he did so from genuine desire to fight before the eyes of a Primarch, or if he was somehow attempting to mock the rest of the ambassadors. Only Faust, the Gargoyle, looked genuinely happy at the prospect of being in the fighting pits, ever the savage.

 

A barrier of steel separated Martins from his opponent, not to be lifted until the bout started. The Lion Guard wondered what kind of a champion the Imperial Redeemers would deem worthy of standing against him. Another sergeant, or Captain? He expected better; no mere line warrior or officer would be a match for the champion of the Twelfth Legion.

 

There were close to a hundred Imperial Redeemers watching from above the training cages. Martins pondered if they took wagers, and if so, what kind of odds they would make of him. Pretentious fops, all of them. He smiled slightly, taking care not to appear too arrogant to them. Though he, like all of his trueborn brothers – not the dregs only suited to die while drawing the fire away from their betters, thank you very much – had always looked down on the mongrels of Apella, he would not let his personal feelings jeopardize his mission. After all, this was why he, and not any of the others, was chosen. A warrior with a diplomat’s tongue and quicksilver mind, his father told him, would tame even the wildest beast. And the sons of Apella, for all their pretense of culture and sophistication, were but another form of beasts.

 

Sure, they were more dangerous, and perhaps even occasionally worthy of respect and recognition, but no other Legion was as petulant and self-absorbed, no other was as trusting in its own legend. The golden boys, thought Martins derisively, turning the phrase into an insult as the steel barrier began to withdraw.

 

“What is the meaning of this?” Martins demanded, seeing a pair of Terminator-armored Imperial Redeemers instead of an opponent. The warriors, armed with storm bolters and power fists, said nothing; he could hear the clicking noises as their weapon targeting systems locked in on him.

 

“It speaks!” shouted someone from the crowd. Martins felt cold sweat on his body. The sounds of the audience, which he first took for excitement, were instead jeers; as he stood still, not sure what brought on this sudden change, he tensed, readying himself to move quickly should the unthinkable happen.

 

++BE STILL, MY SONS++

 

The words were spoken directly into his mind, overpowering any vestige of independent thought Martins had. He felt his knees touch the ground as his vision swam.

 

There was only the golden light in his eyes, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, shading the two Terminators in hues of early autumn. Martins tried to regain his balance, forcing himself up to his feet.

 

The power in the words was absolute. Martins had no will to resist, no ability to protest.

 

++THIS MAN IS AN AMBASSADOR FOR TRAITOR TO HUMANITY++

 

Was it his imagination, or did he truly see the figure of auric illumination above him, watching him like a god observing unworthy prey? Each word was a hammer pounding the remnants of his will into submission, as severe as it was unexpected.

 

“Rogr Hemri tried to orchestrate my murder on Terra.” Now, the words were spoken out loud, and Martins recognized the voice of Iskanderos through the haze. “He did it because he could not let me in on his inconvenient truth – the truth that the Council of Terra is a sham, and that our conquest of the galaxy is secondary to the Emperor’s plan for all of humanity. Do you, Acacius Martins, deny these charges?”

 

Martins spat out a gob of blood and phlegm. Though he did not experience the pain of physical contact, the strange, unexpected power emanating from Iskanderos managed to cripple him with a mere thought. A part of him was horrified at the Conqueror’s accusations; another part was awed at the awesome majesty that was now killing him, a professional recognizing the existence of a greater power than even his own.

 

“You may return to your bastard master,” Iskanderos continued sardonically. “You may return to him with the refuse of this Legion and tell him this.”

 

I am coming for you, Rogr. I am coming, and no wall would protect you. No army is large enough, and no weapon is strong enough. I will come to you and break you, your worlds, your Legions.”

 

The last thing Acacius Martins saw before consciousness mercifully fled him was the golden glow.


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#35
Midgard

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TWENTY SIX

 

New Prophet

Messengers

Together

 

Miranda Iagos was alone in her room when the Conqueror paid her a visit.

 

The remembrancer was lost in a day’s reverie, writing little notes that may some day turn into observations or even stories, then abandoning them to the tender mercies of the incinerator. Something had changed since Pacal, and the Primarch’s latest announcement had only confirmed that things would never be the same again.

 

A part of her felt strange tingling excitement at the prospect of being at the genesis of a rebellion, a civil war that was taking shape before her very eyes. There was a nihilistic sense of abandon that came with it, the desire to see the galaxy burn no matter the cost. Something about it was new; it tugged at the heart strings that were buried deep before the nightmare of Pacal.

 

“Good day,” said Iskanderos by the way of greeting. The Primarch was out of his armor, and for a moment, he looked almost human. He walked carefully towards Miranda, bending down to carefully take an apple from her table.

 

He was different, too. Though Miranda was long wise to the fact that the Primarch’s boyish looks hid a being many centuries old, not even his traumatic experience on Terra managed to age him. Now, he had a certain gravitas about him that only comes with dignified expertise of age-proven wisdom, as if in a brief instant, he underwent the trials and the tribulations of adolescence and youth to emerge a true adult. She could not place it to a single defining characteristic; the very air about Iskanderos was changed, for better or worse.

 

“Lord Primarch,” Miranda replied. She felt strangely hollow, her life’s work promoting the Imperial Truth and the ideals of Terra now rendered questionable or even useless. Her fingers fiddled with a piece of paper, folding it, then unfolding it again, never quite making a distinctive shape.

 

“May I take a seat?” A long time ago, in another lifetime, Miranda had several of her couches and chairs modified to accommodate the greater bulk of Legion officers or even the Primarch himself. As Iskanderos sought her aid in creating ever more elaborate opinion pieces, meeting with Legionaries became an unspoken condition of her job.

 

She shrugged. “It is your ship, my lord.”

 

He lowered himself into a couch opposite to her; for a second, she could not help but reflect how much larger he was than her, how much more grandiose he appeared than any mortal or even post-human being. Iskanderos bit into an apple; in his hands, it looked tiny.

 

The Primarch was the one to break the awkward silence. “I sense that something is bothering you.”

 

Miranda was slow to reply, pondering on the same topic. What was it that made her uneasy? Was it her conscious mind trying to rationalize what had just happened, or some instinctive part of her reptile brain that craved comfort and stability over everything? She nodded ponderously, avoiding the Conqueror’s eyes.

 

“Do you think I have gone mad?” There was no challenge in the Primarch’s words, only good-humored inquiry. “You can say so. Some of my own sons are probably questioning my choices this very moment.” He made a wry, slightly self-deprecating smile.

 

“Not mad, sire,” Miranda answered him, struggling with the words. “It is just that… this is sudden.” Words poured out of her, as if some barrier broke, letting go of all caution. “You are starting a war. That alone is a lot to take in. There is only one Legion with you – no matter how well-led, well-equipped, or fully crewed the Imperial Redeemers are, it is still only one Legion. You will have nineteen arraigned against you. What are you hoping to achieve?”

 

Iskanderos smirked. “We have allies. I think that the biggest misconception in all of this is that we are facing the Council of Terra alone.”

 

“Allies?” Miranda looked at him incredulously. “But that would have meant… you made some alliances before leaving Terra?” Her brow furrowed in anger. “You’ve known this was going to happen all along!”

 

The Primarch shook his head in denial. “Aye, there will be others among the Legions who would yet join us, but that time is not yet upon us. No, I am talking about something different.”

 

All color escaped Miranda’s face as she pondered his words. Non-Imperial humans? Xenos? What else could he mean?

 

As if reading her mind, Iskanderos smiled. “Nothing as mundane as you may think. You see, there is something you must understand.” He paused, as if to stress the meaning of his words. “Everything I have said in the gathering of officers was true. Everything. And I mean it.”

 

“This is why we were at Molech,” he continued, explaining. “There are powers in this universe beyond the keen of mortal understanding. At Pacal, at Grail, we have seen the inkling of their capabilities. But the true proof,” he laughed bitterly, “the true proof was here all along.”

 

“What… do you mean?”

 

Iskanderos looked at her intently, as if judging, evaluating her reaction. Finally, seemingly satisfied, he explained. “I am the proof. My brothers, even the bastards like Hemri or Nyxos. We are the proof.”

 

His voice grew stronger by the second. “The Emperor knew it all along, too. Do you know the significance of Molech?”

 

Miranda shook her head. Had it not been for the Primarch’s declarations of rebellion, she doubted she would have been able to stomach everything he was telling her. Now, instead of being impossibly shocking, it only seemed to reinforce what she had already suspected.

 

“I am the second one to make a pilgrimage,” said Iskanderos.

 

“The Emperor…” the words escaped Miranda’s lips as understanding dawned on her. “He was the first, wasn’t he?”

 

“Yes, the Emperor,” Iskanderos agreed. “He walked the same steps as me. He made the same bargain with the gods beyond the veil. But,” his brow creased with worry, “he went back on it.” The Conqueror went on to explain. “He sought the means to conquer the galaxy, and promised the gods that he would bring about the union of the Materium and the Immaterium. The next step in the evolution of humanity. The alliance that would see us avoid the fate of the lesser species who had failed. What do you know of the fate of Eldar?”

 

“The Eldar?” Miranda sounded confused. “They are… xenos…”

 

“Xenos,” nodded Iskanderos. “As much as they look like us, they are inscrutable, alien, dangerous. But in them, there is a lesson. You see, a long time ago they stood on the same precipice as we are at now. They ruled most of the galaxy, and what they did not rule, was no threat to them. They were nearing the pinnacle of evolution.”

 

He shook his head in disgust. “And then, they pissed it all away.”

 

“How?”

 

“The gods of the Immaterium are… not kind,” he said. “They have great power to give, but they also demand much in return. The Eldar wanted the power… but did not want to pay the toll.”

 

Miranda leaned forward toward him. She suspected that not even most of the Conqueror’s Companions knew the entirety of the story. “What happened then?”

 

“They fell,” answered Iskanderos simply. “They brought on their own ruin. The hearth worlds of their empire were dragged into the Warp. Most of their people were extinguished, and the few who remain are now but exiles on worldships drifting through space. They are a dying race, Miranda, and it happened because they, in their hubris, believed that they too could deny the cost of their rise.”

 

“I look at my father and see the same hubris,” he continued, eyes lowered, voice cracking with emotion. “I see the Imperial Truth we brought to a million worlds, and see a void of belief. I see a void of knowledge.”

 

“Did you know that some among the citizenry already begin to worship him? There is a void of belief, Miranda, and we made it all the worse. Do you know the importance of belief?”

 

“We are talking metaphysics, sire,” the remembrancer replied, confused look on her face. Never in her wildest dreams did she expect the Conqueror to lecture her on topics of faith and belief. “Or do you mean the importance of ingrained beliefs to cohesiveness of a society?”

 

Iskanderos laughed. “No, Miranda. This is not metaphysics. This is reality.” His head rolled back as he examined the ceiling above him, pastoral scenes blending one into another in an imitation of a noble’s palace on some terrestrial world. “All of this. Blood begets belief. Belief can create miracles. There is power in it. Power enough to create or unmake a god.”

 

“I will not stand to see another deceive us all, use us all to make himself a god. Do you understand, Miranda? Do you understand?”

 

Comprehension dawned on the remembrancer’s face. “Are you saying that… the Imperial Truth is simply a way to eradicate existing beliefs, so that it would be easier to replace them with a new belief system?”

 

“Exactly!” the Primarch exclaimed. “In the absence of a structured faith, the people flock to that which they know. They already began to do it. Just ask my brother Zaeed, or any of his followers.” He frowned. “Fools, all of them. We spent five hundred years eradicating religion and knowledge, only so that we could supplant it with a religion of our own making.”

 

“That is…” Miranda could not find the right words.

 

“That is a way to create a god,” Iskanderos finished for her. “Not just an object of worship – a real god who would challenge the cosmic order and sacrifice the majority of our species to fuel his own ascent. You have seen the visions. You know what would happen.”

 

“Death… of all…” Miranda squeezed through her teeth. Sights and sounds danced in her mind, her own private vision of the end.

 

Torn bulkhead venting air and gasses into the void. A vacuum suit, fitting uncomfortably over her, the only thing between her and the ravages of the void. In the distance, where the armor had been peeled away to reveal interstellar space, flashes of light – each signifying the end of a thousand souls as their ships die.

 

Miranda does not as much hear as feel the vibrations, different from the hysterical hum of the dying vessel’s engines. It is a rhythmic beat – thump, thump, thump, thump, spaced just enough to suggest heavy, plodding footsteps. She turns from the desperate scene of the void war, and stares at the barrel of a gun.

 

She wants to say something, anything, to proclaim innocence as a mere bystander. She wants to have a moment to make her farewells, to ask for forgiveness of anyone she might have wronged in her life, to finish every endeavor she could not complete, to finally create the true piece of literature rather than the endless stream of propaganda she had been tasked with doing. There is so much left unfinished, she thinks, a gasp of terror on her face as her eyes rise to see the bringer of her end, a Terminator-armored warrior in utilitarian, unpainted war plate.

 

Miranda sees flayed skin frozen by vacuum exposure in place of the warrior’s tabard, and wonders if it belonged to anyone she knew. A scream rises through her throat in certain knowledge that there is no escape, that there is no chance of mercy for the crime that was never hers to commit. She throws one hand in front of her face in an instinctive gesture of futile self-preservation.

 

The gun fires.

 

“You know what will happen if we do nothing, Miranda,” Iskanderos said, breaking her out of the thrall of memories. “All who could oppose the plan will be the first. The Apellene Network; the Red Star Collective; the Tambora Combine.”

 

“Then, the hunters will become the hunted themselves. The Legions without empires of their own will be thrown into senseless campaigns and ground down to nothing as they kill world after world, only to be destroyed in turn by the Council and their stooges. The Council, too, will turn upon itself over territory, or over some petty grudges, or for the sake of power – for they will continue to accumulate it, even as the Emperor keeps himself hidden to play them against each other.”

 

“You know what we are dealing with, Miranda. As long as the Emperor is away, the rest of the Council will play straight into his hands, so that when he is ready, they will be easy prey for him. Worlds, systems, sectors will die. Trillions of lives, Miranda. Trillions. And every single one feeding his ascension.”

 

“So…” Miranda said, shocked, “he is willingly inviting the war to… become a god?”

 

Iskanderos smiled sadly. “Now, my friend, you understand. The war we are starting is a necessity. I have seen it. You have seen it. We must do it, lest the others do it first. Do you want to see a future where we are akin to the Eldar, without a home, without a future, worshipping a god who sacrificed our race to himself? For then, even the gods of the Immaterium would not be able to help us reach the balance.”

 

“Our choice, Miranda, is evolution or extinction,” explained Iskanderos. “We have no other options.”

 

Miranda stood up. Even seated, Iskanderos towered over her. She looked down at her hands. They were thin, fragile. In the ages past, writers would use their fingers to create works of beauty and sophistication. Now, they used an array of advanced devices – memo-quills, dictaphones, secretary-servitors who would record their thoughts and spit out page after page of print.

 

It was curious how much power there could have been in her fingers, even if they would never wield a weapon in anger.

 

“What do you need of me, sire,” her eyes met his as she spoke. Somewhere in the back of her mind, the ship still died around her, and the explosive shell moved toward her in slow motion like the harbinger of impending fate.

 

Iskanderos nodded, as if satisfied at her acceptance. “We have allies in this war to save humanity. The gods themselves are on our side. We will have even more – Legions, planets, fleets. But none of it will happen if we cannot convince them of our righteousness. None of it will happen without the truth of what will happen, the truth of the gods and the blessings they would bestow upon the human race.”

 

“For this, Miranda, I need you. I need your art, your skill, your way with words. I need you to speak for me, to speak for the gods themselves, so that the universe itself may tremble.” He gave her a fatherly smile. “You may never fight by the side of my sons, but your role in this war will be far more important than any one warrior, for you will save humanity itself. I ask you now, Miranda Iagos of Absolom Nonus, will you accept this task for the sake of our entire species? Will you become the new prophet the humanity, and the gods themselves, desperately need?”

 

Slowly, Miranda nodded.

 

* * *

 

The catwalk overlooked a hangar large enough for a respectably sized courier ship to fit in. Cranes and lifters moved about with the air of feverish determination, as if the anxious energy of the ship carried over into their primitive processors, infecting even the servitor operators.

 

Banners hung from the sides, some so far that only those with enhanced Astartes eyesight could make out the details. Each one had once belonged to a company of the Sixth Legion that was stationed on this vessel in the years past, though many were worn out with time and elements.

 

Yusuf could see them clearly from his vantage point; some were the companies he witnessed in action, others were long extinct or reorganized after suffering heavy casualties. Somewhere in there was the banner of the 54th, a rising sun that brought Apella to his mind every time.

 

“So that was it,” said Apollus el-Rahim, leaning over the parapet and watching as machines loaded a small transport with minimal supplies. As he looked on, the fueling tubes disconnected; even at a cursory glance, there was barely enough for a docking maneuver. “No turning back now.”

 

In response, Yusuf nodded. “No turning back indeed.”

 

El-Rahim’s eyes went vacant as he looked away. “Sixth Legion, in active rebellion. And we stood by our father’s side as he declared it. We did nothing.”

 

“If you are insinuating that we are complicit, Apollus, then I don’t know what to say,” replied Yusuf. Below them, two full squads of Imperial Redeemers stood guard, armed and armored around the shuttle. This was no honor guard; the Legionaries were there to oversee the departure of the messengers.

 

Messengers. Such a simple, innocent word, laden with so many implications. A polite way to announce the breaking of the chains, or to declare an endeavor far from certain to succeed.

 

“Twelve.” The Astrologer’s voice was weary.

 

“Is that how many of us chose to follow the Lion Guard to Terra?”

 

El-Rahim nodded. “How many more would have left if they had a choice? The men stationed at Apella, or other worlds of the Network. Would they have left, too?”

 

Yusuf scratched his chin. From high above, even the fully armored Legionaries looked like elaborately wrought dolls, children’s toys near a model spaceship. “The Consecrator,” he finally said, thinking back to the Council’s ambassadors. “The Primarch said he was intended to be the assassin.”

 

“And he still let him go?” el-Rahim raised one eyebrow in question. “That is… uncharacteristic.”

 

“Many things have changed, brother,” replied Yusuf. “Lord Iskanderos is a changed man.” Something tugged at him from the inside, a feeling like claws scratching at the inside of his chest, yet leaving no pain, only disquiet.

 

“Changed enough to order us all to war against our cousins?”

 

“If he deems it necessary,” Yusuf answered. “Remember the oath we took as the Companions. It is our duty to stand by his side, whatever happens.”

 

“Or is it?” questioned el-Rahim. “This shuttle is our last chance before we are fully committed.”

 

“Are you telling me that you would rather be on it than here?” Yusuf was incensed that the Astrologer would even suggest it. At one point, I would have questioned it, too, he thought, remembering his doubts, his questions, his worries about the end of war and what would come after. But that… that was before Terra, before Pacal, before Grail… before Molech.

 

Now, his answer was clear. There would be no end to war; only a change in the opponent.

 

El-Rahim shook his head. “No, brother. You misunderstand.” He cleared his throat, casting a long glance at the shuttle. Two more squads of Imperial Redeemers in full battle plate marched toward it, prisoners in tow. The messengers were stripped down to their undergarments, allowed neither their weapons nor armor as they made their walk of shame under the banners of the Sixth Legion’s companies. The Lion Guard looked worse for the wear, as if whatever strange power Iskanderos used in the training cages left a residue of pain in him. On the contrary, the Gargoyle and the Iconoclast held their heads high, though it was hard to tell if it was from pride or from some other, secret knowledge.

 

The Astrologer smiled. “Look at them, brother. So shaken. So small. And yet, so important in the grand scheme of things.”

 

“Are you with us, then, Apollus?” asked Yusuf, still hearing no clear response.

 

El-Rahim laughed quietly. It seemed as though Krast Herod turned his head at the sound, though it would have been too far for it to travel but for some inexplicable trick of acoustics. Was it Yusuf’s imagination, or did the Iconoclast’s eyes meet with those of the Companions?

 

Behind the ambassadors, twelve Imperial Redeemers walked in a row. These had the red circles of shame tattooed upon their exposed faces, an ancient custom that Iskanderos revived upon accepting the first command of his life. A traitor’s mark, a coward’s brand for all to see.

 

“I am a Companion, Yusuf,” the Astrologer finally said. “I made the same oath you did. For better or worse, we are all in this together.”


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Conqueror - Book One of Twisthammer (novel)

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#36
Midgard

Midgard

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PART FIVE – ONE MONTH BEFORE STARFALL

 

TWENTY SEVEN

 

Sons of Mohktal

Teeth of Apella

Best Laid Plans

 

Upon the rolling tides of the Warp, the Amitabha and its supporting fleet were a gathering of predators, sleek forms traversing the rolling madness of the unreality to do their sonorous deed in defiance of all laws of brotherhood.

 

The ship’s engines made for a dull drone of noise and vibration that penetrated even deep into the meditation chambers. It seeped into the flagship’s bones, drawing sustenance from doubt and nightmare alike, intruding on the waking world and on the Immaterium like an unpleasant rattle felt rather than heard.

 

Kian Ranseng, the Disciple of the Third Order of the Illuminators Legion, sensed it even more acutely than most of his brothers, as his atman expanded to monitor the well-being of men under his command and found many of them troubled. The walls crawled with unquiet forebodings and vile omens; the meditative trances he assigned them were producing less tranquility and more questions.

 

“This is a difficult task, my son.”

 

No matter how many times Ranseng was in his Primarch’s presence, a sense of awe had never completely left him. Unlike many of his brothers, Lord Mohktal cared little for trappings of wealth or opulence, and his quarters reflected that – a room kept large only for the sake of appearances when receiving notables and dignitaries, with many doors leading to meditation cells, libraries, or empty desks with nothing but quills and rolls of blank parchment. There were no decorations here save for the geometric designs drawn carefully by the Primarch’s own hand, each a focal point that would better allow him to gather and manifest the potent energies of the Nether.

 

The Disciple had seen a number of the Emperor’s sons, been to many of their reception chambers, yet he only truly felt comfortable here, where the surroundings were never designed to shock lesser beings into awe, but only to serve a purpose, to send a message – here is a being who cares little for squabbles of his lessers. Here is the one who would pursue knowledge and enlightenment even with the immense power he was granted, purity and reason over self-aggrandizement.

 

Kian Ranseng sat cross-legged on the bare floor across from Mohktal, father and son sharing many similarities in appearance and attire. Both were bald, with elaborate designs tattooed upon their bronze flesh; both wore the long robes of Botdsan’s mystics rather than any martial garb. Yet, though Mohktal’s face was the picture of his customary serenity, Ranseng was troubled.

 

“The omens are ill, sire,” the Disciple said, a crease of worry upon his brow. “The men are starting to get restless.”

 

Mohktal slightly turned his head, though his expression did not change. “This is a thankless task.” A note of sadness entered his voice. “I argued against it on the Council floor. Regrettably, it seems that no one on Terra has any appreciation for diplomacy anymore.” He nodded very slightly, just enough to make an impression of movement from his otherwise statuesque form. “What my brother had done… is hard to comprehend, but it is not impossible to fathom.”

 

“How so?” Ranseng asked, worry evident in his voice. “He declared against the Council and retreated to his homeworld. Do you still think that there is… a chance to turn back?”

 

The Primarch regarded him with an inquisitive look, as if trying to decide how much guidance his son needed. “It is not a matter of chances, Kian. Chances always exist, though some are always more likely than others. It is a matter of knowledge. I know that had we given it another try, we could have made progress. Iskanderos could have been made to listen.”

 

“What went wrong, then?”

 

“More accurately, what did not?” There was a lecturing tone in Mohktal’s words, like that of a teacher explaining something to an eager student. “Whoever was behind the assassination attempt is still at large. My brothers swore that the men they sent to parlay with Iskanderos were the best of their Legions, diplomats as well as warriors, distinguished with both tongue and blade. And yet, they were sent back in shame with only tales of sorcery and accusations of foul treason.” His thin lips cracked into a sad smile. “I know my father. He may be many things, but I have learned not to question what he is doing. It is apparent that the same lesson was lost on Iskanderos.”

 

“So you do not believe the accusations,” Ranseng stated as a matter of fact.

 

Mohktal was once again a statuesque presence full of quiet calm. “No, I do not,” he said softly. “Though your question indicates that you at least considered them. No,” he slightly shook his head, “I do not insinuate disloyalty, my son. Only that you took the time to evaluate the stories.”

 

Kian Ranseng lowered his eyes in shame. “I… I did wonder if there was any truth to them.”

 

“And what did you find, my son?”

 

The Disciple sighed heavily. “I don’t know. Many things are murky about this entire business. Very unclear, even. Before, I would have considered the very idea utterly insane. Now?”

 

“But you still followed me to Apella, even though it meant doing the unthinkable,” Mohktal stated. “This alone tells me that you made a choice.”

 

Ranseng nodded. “When all else is in doubt, trust in your instincts and in your loyalties.”

 

“Sometimes, it is all we can trust,” said Mohktal softly. “I find it distasteful that we have to be the ones to deal the blow, but I also understand the reasons why it had to be us. I understand why the Iconoclasts and the Gargoyles are accompanying us, and why the Warblades will remain the mobile reserve should we encounter difficulties.” His eyes connected with Ranseng’s. “There is something dark afoot, though what, I cannot tell. My atman is obscured.”

 

“Three Primarchs with the lore of the Nether,” the Disciple agreed. “A Legion of savages, a Legion of destroyers… and us.”

 

“Yes, us,” consented Mohktal. “The one force uniquely suited to fighting an enemy using psychic warfare.”

 

“The enemy,” Ranseng rolled the word on his tongue. “It makes what is to come somehow more impersonal.”

 

Mohktal did not answer for a moment, locked in contemplation before speaking. “It is always harder to look another in the eyes before slaying him. If you slay a mask, then the mask is all that falls down. But if you slay a man, down goes his entire world. His dreams, his friendships, his childhood, his loves and hates. The masks, the terms only serve to hide that man from our conscience.”

 

“Then,” said Ranseng thoughtfully, “I wonder what kind of masks we will put on our enemies this time around.”

 

“We will do what we must, my son,” replied Mohktal; though his tone was even, a note of resigned bitterness remained. “We will do what the Council of Terra asked of us, and hope that the generations to come will prove us right.”

 

* * *

 

The glow of Apella was a welcoming sight, ever bright in the reflected shine of its oceans penetrated by thin strips of mountainous, broken land. An entire network of clouds took residence over much of the day side, casting shadows of temporary gloom over the cities in the north and the vast azure depths of the equatorial seas. At times, the clouds seemed to form letters of some unknown language, indecipherable but by the most learned of mystics or wise men.

 

“These are just clouds, you know?” said Apollus el-Rahim, leaning over the parapet in the observation room, high above the frantic pace of activity below. There, hundreds of menials and servitors continued to add to the stockpile of ammunition – ship-killer missiles, esoteric weapons from the Dark Age of Technology whose function was a mystery even to the Mechanicum adepts, smaller guns that could be mounted on mobile platforms or even used by the power armored infantry. The battle station, one of many orbiting Apella, never slept; it only changed shifts to remain at peak efficiency, equipping thousands of Imperial Redeemers spread out across the Sixth Legion’s war fleet in the system, and supplying their brethren on the surface with everything they would need for a long, bloody siege.

 

Yusuf al-Malik smiled out of one corner of his mouth. The expression gave his face a wolfish appearance. “Clouds indeed.” He patted his fellow Imperial Redeemer on the shoulder. “Not projections of orbital drops, or expectations of viral scrambling of noospheric network. No, not at all.”

 

“Do you know something the rest of us do not, brother?” asked the Astrologer, looking lean yet strong in his modified power armor carved with runic sigils taught to him by Iskanderos. Of his previous injuries, barely a trace remained. “The promotion did not go to your head, I hope?” There was just enough of a mischievous glint in his eyes to suggest a joke.

 

Yusuf laughed. “Oh, no. The promotion did go to my head. In fact, I was just about to suggest a gathering of the senior officers to polish my armor.”

 

“Well, Tilsit is available in the next two hours,” el-Rahim joined in the laughter. “He could certainly use a little humility.” His face grew serious after the initial moment of good humor had outlasted its welcome. “But seriously, what do you see? Anything… useful?”

 

“The gods reveal only few things to me,” the other Imperial Redeemer replied. His brow furrowed in contemplation. “I see a change. I can feel it. It is very, very close. I am just not sure what it means.”

 

In truth, Yusuf had asked himself that question many a time. Until Molech, I did not believe. Until Molech, it was all a story of whispers. It was all a strange fantasy, a dream that could never be real.

 

“The Primarch believes in you,” the Astrologer remarked. “Whatever happened in that place on Molech must have done something to you. I mean, Yusuf al-Malik, commander of the Diadochi. The Successors. A strange name, I think.”

 

If he only knew, Yusuf thought, trying to suppress the feeling that something was not quite right, the immaterial dread that he did not know as a warrior of the Legiones Astartes, but could feel as if it was a second nature. “The Primarch calls it the Successor Chapters,” Yusuf said. “Something about the legacy of Apellan warrior-kings, blessed by the gods.”

 

“To think about it, it was not long ago that you were the skeptic about the entire gods business.”

 

“So were you,” Yusuf pointed out. “All of us were, until we knew they were real.”

 

The events of Molech still stood out in his memories of that day – the golden figure, floating above ground against every law of nature, declaring judgment. That was the day of Iskanderos’ apotheosis, and the day when the die was finally, irrevocably cast.

 

“And now, it is all going to be decided,” mused el-Rahim. “The Council of Terra should have their dogs here any time now.”

 

Yusuf shook his head. “Almost, but not yet.” The whispers in the dark. The suggestions of something slimy across the soft velvet. The smell of roses, decayed, sprayed with mold and feces. “Soon, though.”

 

“Did the gods tell you how soon?” asked el-Rahim. The Companion scratched his chin in contemplation; his fingers were long, seemingly longer now than ever before. Yusuf recalled that for many months now, he had not seen the Astrologer outside of his armor. Was there any significance to it? He could not remember.

 

“Soon,” mumbled Yusuf. A sharp pang of discomfort raced through his head. El-Rahim nodded sympathetically.

 

“Again?”

 

“Yes,” Yusuf replied through clenched teeth. The pain was intense, wiping out his good mood in an instant. It throbbed through his temples, pulsating in his closed eyes, as if something else was struggling to push out from inside.

 

“Things were never the same with you after Molech, brother,” the Astrologer said gently. “Is that when you first saw the…” He did not finish the phrase, perhaps unsure of the proper word, perhaps out of some misguided desire to be mindful of his friend.

 

“The messages,” Yusuf finished the phrase. “I would have called them hallucinations had they not been… well, true.” The pain receded; he quickly rubbed the sides of his head with his armored fingers, dissipating the unpleasant sensation, though not making it go away entirely. “The Primarch told me not to worry about it. I will trust his judgment.”

 

El-Rahim shrugged. “In the old days, we would have had a Librarian or three examine you. Now…”

 

Yusuf nodded in agreement. “It seems that whatever the Primarch had learned on Grail and Molech changed the way we deal with these things. Now it would warrant a pat on the back, if that.”

 

“You have to admit, better this than whatever the Bloody Ninth do,” el-Rahim tried to cheer him up. “I cannot imagine an entire Legion afraid that if they have a bad dream, their Chaplains will come for them.”

 

“The teeth of Apella,” Yusuf said, paying little attention to his battle-brother.

 

“What?”

 

“The teeth of Apella,” he repeated. In an instant, his eyes grew white and glassy; an air of cold surrounded him.

 

The Astrologer took a backward step. The first time it happened, things were difficult. Apollus el-Rahim remembered his anguish at seeing one of the more level-headed Legion officers he had met undergo this transformation; he recalled placing a blade at Yusuf’s throat, waiting only for the order from his Primarch to end this witchery, to spare his brother the indignity.

 

Leave him, my son. He is among the first to know the truth.

 

The Conqueror’s words rang deep in el-Rahim’s mind as he saw his fellow officer, his friend overcome with another message.

 

“The teeth of Apella are closing,” Yusuf screeched in a voice that was like the grinding of rusted machinery. “The spear. The infinite light. Three and one. One and three. The blades are broken and cry for deliverance. The light is… wrong. The darkness is mercy. The darkness. The darkness. The darkness. The…”

 

His head snapped as conscience returned to him and he leaned heavily against the parapet. El-Rahim offered Yusuf a shoulder to lean on, which the other Imperial Redeemer gladly accepted.

 

“We need to notify the Primarch,” el-Rahim said, bearing the heavy weight of Yusuf’s power-armored form. “Perhaps he will know what this means.”

 

“No need,” the voice rung out, strong and vigorous.

 

Instantly, the two warriors made for awkward bows – el-Rahim with courtly precision, Yusuf with the drunken imbalance.

 

In the glow of Apella, Iskanderos looked blasphemously regal with a crown of golden leaves worked subtly into his blond curls. The Primarch was a towering silhouette whose presence refused to be overshadowed even by his adopted homeworld’s majesty in the viewscreens of the battle station. Next to him, Tilsit Demetrios, though subtly enhanced by the gifts of the gods, was a child-like figure hiding in the shadow of his commander and benefactor.

 

Always together, Yusuf thought. Somehow, now that he was back in control of his own body, it almost made him… jealous. For all the honors the Legion and the Primarch bestowed upon him, it was Demetrios who was always by the Conqueror’s side when crucial decisions were made, or when orders had to be disseminated.

 

The Primarch nodded sagely, as if anticipating the questions. “It is true, my sons. The day is nearly here.” He walked over to them, an illuminated god amongst the mortals. “My brothers are on their way.” Though his face radiated the calm demeanor of a regicide master who had calculated his moves well in advance, his hands curled up into fists. “Emissary Wali has returned.”

 

The implications made Yusuf’s blood tingle with anticipation. “Did he…”

 

“He did,” said Demetrios in lieu of his liege. “The Gargoyles were very… receptive to our messages. It turns out that they were following a very… compatible path.” The equerry’s last words sounded suspiciously like snickering.

 

“Two Legions, then,” mused el-Rahim. “So they are with us?”

 

“They will be when the time comes,” answered Iskanderos. “The Fourteenth Legion has pledged themselves to our cause.”

 

“What of the Eighth?” inquired Yusuf. His memory summoned the vision from Pacal again – the eyes of the Mark IV helmet connecting with his own in what could have been the last moment of his life.

 

Iskanderos shook his head. “My brother Nihlus will require… more persuasion.”

 

“What kind of… persuasion?” continued el-Rahim, one eye on Yusuf, another following his Primarch. It no longer seemed strange that he could do that; now that his body was once again infused with the vitality it lost before his near-death on Terra, very little seemed impossible.

 

“The only kind he respects,” Iskanderos replied. “Nihlus is not a simple man,” the Conqueror explained. “You can make elaborate strategies, and he will just see straight through them. Best laid plans will only make him amused, if that. The only way to convince him is to take my message to his presence, and to… plead… our case with him in person.” The very concept of pleading sounded distasteful as he spoke.

 

“How and when?” Yusuf questioned. “Let me volunteer to stand by your side, sire.”

 

The Conqueror smiled with beneficence. “My son. Your valor is much appreciated, however, I have another task for you.” He pointed to the globe of Apella, momentarily lost in the cloud formations as if they were augurs of some portents of things to come.

 

“This is what we fight for,” said Iskanderos. “Our holy endeavor will mean nothing if we lose Apella herself. If she is gone, then our war will be the futile endeavor, the final wake for our people, not a glorious battle of liberation.”

 

Yusuf’s face creased with lines of worry. “Why… are you telling me this, sire?”

 

“So that you understand what must be done, my son,” the Primarch answered him. “Nihlus will listen to no other but me. For this, I must take our message to him directly.”

 

“And this means that we, the warriors of the Legion, must make sure that yours is not a futile endeavor,” said Yusuf, finally understanding.

 

“Precisely,” smiled Iskanderos. “The Eighth Legion will hold its fury as long as the parlay stands, but the Seventh will not be so… lenient. The outcome of the entire war depends on this effort. Apella must not fall.”

 

“Then it will not fall,” said Yusuf, one hand over his chest in the old Unity salute. “On the blood of my forefathers, with the gods themselves as my witnesses, this I swear.”


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TWENTY EIGHT

 

The Destroyer

The Eightfold Path

To Kill A Dream

 

The ship was old; perhaps not as old as some among the Legions, but an artifact nevertheless, a relic from a different era when things seemed so much easier, so much clearer. The design was once labeled Gloriana-class, one of the twenty made above the ever-shifting weather patterns of the gas giant in the Jovian docks, each intended as a faithful steed for the Emperor’s own sons and the deliverer of His justice and retribution.

 

Five centuries had passed since then. Not even the Glorianas, built to last amongst the worst the galaxy could throw at them, had escaped the passage of time, the travails of battle, the pressures of ceaseless travel and crusade to expand the human dominion. A few of them were now little more than relics of a bygone era, holding steady in high orbit of the Legion homeworlds as their one-time masters took to different pursuits. One, a grand battleship with the proud name of Issos once issued to the Imperial Redeemers, was lost with all hands in a difficult Warp translation, no longer protected by the Primarch’s latent psychic powers now that the Conqueror elected to reign from his own pre-Imperial leviathan, the Hegemon.

 

Walking through the halls of the Breaker, Iskanderos could not help but be reminded of the gift he had refused, all those centuries ago. Though it was not his first time in the confines of a Gloriana-class battleship, his mind brought forth the differences between it and the Hegemon. Some similarities were evident – both vessels were built on grand scale that was as much a statement of their commanders’ power as it was a real asset in war; both had weapons enough to scour all life from a terrestrial planet without even having to resort to cyclonic torpedoes or virus bombs. Both had cyclopean halls made to house Titans and war machines to subjugate entire sectors; both had crews of tens of thousands that oversaw the ships’ complicated machinery to ensure they remained in peak fighting condition wherever war took them.

 

And yet, the ships were different in ways that no simple matter of decoration or personal taste could account for.

 

Where the Hegemon was built to awe and inspire with its intricate gothic arches and amply spaced bright lights, adorned with fine art and colorful banners to show that it was made to be a proper chariot of a demigod, the conqueror of a hundred thousand worlds, the Breaker was a tomb.

 

The very air on the Iconoclasts’ flagship had a stale, recycled, mechanical taste to it, as if the Mechanicum adepts only barely bothered to make it sufficiently breathable for less augmented beings to survive. The few mortal serfs Iskanderos saw were pale, undernourished things quick to lower their eyes in his presence, hurrying out of the way of the armored Legionaries of the Eighth like rats would escape the presence of a much bigger predator.

 

The ship was dark, with only enough light for the mortals to see a few meters in front of their faces, as if the illumination was an afterthought, a necessity that had to be grudgingly allowed for rather than actively pursued. What colors Iskanderos could see were dark, moldy greens, rusted browns, faded greys of unpainted metal carelessly slabbed into place in defiance of aesthetics. Something wet splashed under the armored feet of the Iconoclast guards; the consistency suggested that it was too thick to be water.

 

My brother is ready.

 

“Lord Nihlus awaits you,” a Terminator-armored Legionary pointed at a great slab of a door, easily large enough for a Knight walker but set to roll off to the side rather than part in the middle. Iskanderos recognized symbols painted on it, runes of power, runes of warding.

 

Amateur. He had spent a long time beyond this reality, far longer than his sons could have guessed, and with that came knowledge that even the most learned of his brothers could only wish for. The wards, though powerful to an uninitiated, would have been excessively easy for him to break; this ship, though a powerful vessel of war in its own right, would not have been enough to stop him if he wished to do it harm. Still, appearances had to be observed.

 

Nihlus waited for him beyond the door. The Eighth Primarch stood with his back to Iskanderos, his ruined face hidden behind a stylized mask.

 

Nihlus, the Destroyer, was clad for war. Already one of the taller members of the Primarch brotherhood, he towered over his honor guards, further elevated by the imposing stature of his modified battle armor. In one hand, he held a sword with a blade so wide it might as well have been a cleaver; in another, he held on to a holographic projector replaying something that only he could see from this vantage point.

 

And yet the stench remains, pondered Iskanderos, taking care to mask his thoughts. Even with the crudely wrought iron censers hanging from the ceiling like fruit of some mutant tree, the largely spherical, windowless chamber stunk. Burnt flesh and the sensation of something being unwell, warped strength and slight yet ever-present undertone of decay.

 

“Leave us.” Nihlus’ voice was the dry rustling of the wind over the dessicated desert, simultaneously rumbling and unsettling. Iskanderos had to remember that the traumatic events that scarred his brother for life had also ruined his voice, forcing him to forever speak in a monotone rasp of a living, breathing nightmare.

 

“Iskanderos.” It was difficult to tell if Nihlus put any emotion into the name, or if he was merely stating the obvious. The Conqueror had to remind himself that not many could claim to truly know Nihlus; there were Primarchs who had never seen him face to face outside of the brief moments on Terra when the Emperor gathered all of them… when the seeds of war were planted.

 

“You know why I am here, brother,” the Conqueror replied.

 

“I could not sense you,” Nihlus said, turning around and regarding Iskanderos from the distance. Something sky-blue shone in his eyes, a trace of psychic fire. “Why is that?”

 

Iskanderos approached him as warily as one may come close to a dangerous animal. Next to his brother, he looked even more the part of the demigod next to a grotesque.

 

“I suppose you know the allegations against me,” the Conqueror spoke slowly. It is important not to show fear. Not to show worry. To remain in complete control. Strength respects strength, especially when strength is but a mask for weakness.

 

Nihlus laughed. It was as if a rustle of dry leaves rose up in the cold gust of November. “That? We all know what is really happening.”

 

“Tell me then, brother,” implored Iskanderos. “What do they speak of me on Terra?”

 

“A thousand stories, each one wilder than the story before it,” the masked Primarch said. “Your grievance with the Council is well known. Some, however, say that you turned your back on our father. What is it, Iskanderos? Shall I believe your emissaries, or shall I believe what Hemri tells me?”

 

Iskanderos looked at him expectantly. “One of your men was with Hemri’s little embassy. What do you think?”

 

“It does not matter what I think,” Nihlus replied, shifting the topic. “It was an ingenious stroke to send your own men with the embassy. What kind of transgressions did they commit?”

 

The Conqueror laughed. “Them? Just loyal Legionaries who took it upon themselves to tell the truth about the Council.”

 

“The Council.” Nihlus rolled the word in his mouth, as if evaluating it. “What did really happen there?” There was a slight increase in pitch, though with his ruined throat, only Iskanderos’ inhuman hearing was sufficient to make it out. “You made a lot of people happy when you put Hemri in his place.”

 

“And yet he now commands the Council,” remarked Iskanderos. “So what happened now?”

 

“You did not answer my question, brother.”

 

Iskanderos nodded in recognition of the fact. He had to tread lightly, carefully here.

 

“You know both stories of why I turned against Terra.” He softened his voice just enough not to appear to challenge Nihlus in his own domain. “I will tell you this, now. Both are true. Both, Nihlus.”

 

The Destroyer nodded. “Interesting. So you are saying that not only did the Council usurp the Emperor’s rightful,” something about the way he said it suggested mockery, “power, but the Emperor himself was on the verge of…” He paused, perhaps contemplating what the right words might have been. “You are saying that the Emperor has tricked us all.”

 

“Precisely,” agreed Iskanderos. “Some of our brothers are not ready for it. Many, damn it, most of the citizens and Legions are not ready for it.”

 

“And this is why some of your men contradict the others,” Nihlus concluded. “This is why the story my man told me was different from the story Hemri heard from his stooge. Deception.” He sounded amused. “What makes you think that I would trust you?”

 

It took Iskanderos much effort not to smile. The very fact that Nihlus was asking the question meant that the Destroyer was considering it. That in itself was a very encouraging sign; now, all he had to do was to indulge his brother’s curiosity.

 

“You know me, Nihlus,” the Conqueror said, taking care not to talk too quickly. “The two of us have not always seen eye to eye, but if there is one thing you can expect from me, it is honesty. I will not play psychic tricks on you. I will not lie to you. I have the proof, and I am willing and ready to show it to you.”

 

Nihlus grew completely silent and still, eyes closed. Though the burned Primarch’s mask hid the expression of his face, he appeared contemplative, pensive even. The holographic projector fell from his hand, discarded without a thought. After a few long seconds, he slowly unclasped the sides of his mask, taking it off.

 

A visage of mutilated horror stared at Iskanderos. Scar tissue, pink, white, and yellow, was interlaced with the black of flesh exposed to the flame and left to rot without medical care. Sharp angular pieces of bone protruded from the side of Nihlus’face, just above the hollow where the flesh of the cheek was eaten away by the fire. One eye was sky-blue, a reminder of the being he once was; the other was an angry, blood-shot red that never healed correctly, serving as an eternal reminder that even the perfect mask could not hide the monster within. No part remained untouched by the flame; nothing remained of the proud, beautiful creature that was once forged in the Emperor’s gene-labs but the essence of raw power that persevered against all odds.

 

“Look at me, brother,” Nihlus commanded. “Look and me and tell me. Is this the face of a man who cares?”

 

In spite of himself, Iskanderos smiled softly. “I think it is. I think it is, brother.” He extended his hand in an ancient gesture, an offering of a handshake. “Take my hand, Nihlus, and I will show you.”

 

For an instant, Nihlus was still, thinking, calculating. Then, his hand grasped that of Iskanderos.

 

* * *

 

The void was around them, blind, vast, suffocating – not the black of space or the maddening vision of the Immaterium, but the complete absence of matter and energy, the end of particle and wave at the end of the universe. Vast, black, uncaring, majestic.

 

“The end of the universe,” said Iskanderos into the tenebrous nothing. “The final victory of entropy.”

 

Nihlus laughed. It was an odd sound; here in mind-space, the physical limitations of his mangled throat no longer constrained him, and it came across as a sardonic, spiteful chuckle.

 

“What is it that you find so amusing, brother?” Iskanderos asked, puzzled. Though the scene before them existed only in their shared psychic connection, he could not directly see the Destroyer, only sensing his presence nearby.

 

Nihlus made the sound like the screeching of rusted nails on rough volcanic glass, as if his mental self-image finally caught up with the injuries of his physical self. “You are going to give me some lecture on how we must take it upon ourselves to fight a noble crusade. You will show me the vision of the end of the universe, and tell me how we can prevent it. You will show me how our father’s quest for godhood, or the Council’s attempts at total control, or the color of Rogr Hemri’s beard are going to doom us all. You will be persuasive and, for that one moment, even charming. Hell, maybe for that one bit, I may even believe you.”

 

The darkness lit up enough to reveal Nihlus standing in the endless expanse with on floor, no ceiling, no other light but the psychic illumination emanating from the empty space around him. Here, where physical constraints were merely suggestions, his shape flowed like a river of bright mercury, only vaguely resembling his corporeal self.

 

Iskanderos saw a suggestion of something unfamiliar – a towering being of regnal presence, every bit the perfect warrior and statesman his brother was once intended to be. It lasted for only a fraction of a second, a memory or a wishful thought that quickly disappeared.

 

“And then, I may not believe you, Iskanderos,” Nihlus continued, his face morphing back into the image of his grotesque physical self, a snarl forming across the corners of the lipless mouth revealing parts of the jaw. “I may think that you are little better than our dearest brothers who think so highly of themselves that they think they can rule us all.”

 

In an instant, the mind-link was severed, and the two Primarchs once again faced each other in flesh. The snarl on the Destroyer’s face remained, now accentuated by the stink of burned skin and hair that seemed to follow him wherever he went.

 

“I would enjoy killing you and burning Apella, Iskanderos,” Nihlus rasped. “Oh yes, I would enjoy that. Give me one good reason why I should not order my fleet to engage.” He stepped closer to his brother, perhaps anticipating the discomfort the physical proximity would cause.

 

Iskanderos did not move. He held the Destroyer’s heavy gaze, never yielding, strength pitted against mangled, misused power.

 

“If you wanted to kill me, brother, you would have already done it,” the Conqueror said slowly, not letting Nihlus see any hints of weakness or hesitation. “You want to know if I can offer you something that the Council can not.”

 

“Can you?” Nihlus growled, finally adding inflection to his listless voice. “Can you give me something that these bastards will not? Remember, Iskanderos, until not too long ago you were with them, too. You would look at my face and see abomination, too strong to be put down like some of you have argued. A monster. Is that what you see, my brother?” The effect was unsettling; had he been blessed with normally functioning vocal cords, he would have been shouting, yet somehow saying it in a dry rasp gave Nihlus’ words unexpected intensity.

 

An understanding finally dawned on Iskanderos’ face.

 

“You think I see you as a tool in this war, don’t you?” He weathered another heavy glance from Nihlus, never turning away or lowering his eyes – an apex predator refusing to back down. “Then I will tell you this. You are correct. I need allies. I need those who would fight the war to shake the Imperium to its core, and to change it into something it was always meant to be. But,” he grew louder, “you would not be alone.”

 

“I will not insult you by offering you promises of brotherhood,” Iskanderos continued. “But I will tell you this. Whatever else I may be, I am no liar. But I do know who lies. I do know where the true power of this universe resides.”

 

“The Eightfold Path,” hissed Nihlus, his voice straining. “Yes,” he added, seeing surprise on the Conqueror’s face. “Do you really think that one can delve as deep into the Warp as I have and not have an inkling of what dwells within?”

 

“What do you…”

 

“Silence!” Nihlus cut his brother off with a curt waive of his hand. “Do not tell me about how you know better, or how the Four are misunderstood. Do not tell me how the Emperor hid the truth. I know. I already know. I knew all along.”

 

Nihlus turned around, taking several halting steps by the censers spraying smoke and incense. He seemed to stare at something far in the distance that only he could see.

 

“There is much power in the Immaterium,” the Destroyer said slowly. “And it has a price. The real question is not if I want the power. It is this – are you prepared to pay the price?”

 

“What makes you think I did not already pay it?” replied Iskanderos. “There are things in this universe even you do not know, brother.”

 

Nihlus shook his head. “It is not the price you can pay at once, Iskanderos. Once you make the bargain, you keep on paying the price over and over again.” He made a snorting sound that might have been cruel laughter. For a brief fraction of a second, his voice sounded almost intact. “But that is your choice of doom. It makes little relevance to me.”

 

“So Nihlus,” the Primarch of the Imperial Redeemers said, every sound firm and unyielding. “If you know about the price and what I had to do… what is it that you want?”

 

The Destroyer laughed without mirth. “Is it not clear, my brother?”

 

“Revenge,” the word came to Iskanderos’ mind.

 

“Such a primitive, petty concept, Iskanderos. You do me very little credit,” Nihlus answered. “No.” He turned back to face his brother. In the dim light of the Destroyer’s receiving chamber, the two Primarchs cut contrasting figures. One was golden and beautiful, a statue given life by the wish of a genius sculptor and infused with every wish and hope of the human species. The other was a grotesque reflection, a monster made out of all the ugliness in the human psyche, mangled and mutilated, bitter and vengeful fallen angel.

 

“No, Iskanderos,” said Nihlus, face to face with his brother. “Revenge is the means. It is not the end.” The eyes of the Primarchs locked, as if in the contest of wills, yet Iskanderos did not relent. Nihlus grimaced; it might have been his equivalent of a smile. “I accepted the Council request because it would give me a reason to kill a Primarch and to burn his world to cinders. Now, you are offering me a chance to kill a godling with all his servants, and to burn the galaxy. A worthy end.”

 

Nihlus nodded, his burned face indecipherable. “And that, my brother, is reason enough.”

 

* * *

 

The Amitabha was the first to emerge from the Warp on the outskirts of the Apellan system, its sleek shape almost alien amongst the more conventional battleships, strike cruisers, and lesser craft of the Seventh Legion and its allies. Though the Illuminators made up for the majority of the force, they were not alone. Here and there, cruisers flew the colors of the Lion Guard, the Grim Angels, or even the Angel Kings and the Steel Wardens.

 

One hundred thousand Legionaries. And this, only the first wave of the assault.

 

Kian Ranseng took a long look at the Legionaries gathered in the strategium. Some were captains of the Illuminators, from line officers of companies tasked with breaching the orbital defenses to the exalted Disciples, who commanded entire Orders. Others were descended from different gene-stock – pale-skinned Grim Angels who stood in unsettling silence, proud and pompous Lion Guard with their vat-grown pelts and excessive amounts of decorative paint upon their armor, helmeted sons of Echelon who might have been more machine than mortal beneath their heavily modified war plate.

 

On the far end of the room, several holographic projectors sprung up to life, giving full-scale images of savage, fetish-clad Gargoyles, and masked Iconoclasts in their battered, functional armor. One of the projectors displayed the titanic shape of Nihlus, the Primarch of the Eighth, who mercifully chose to hide his face behind a gem-encrusted death mask. Of Angelus, the Grey Prince, there was no sign.

 

Only then did Ranseng dare to look to his right side, lowering his eyes to catch a glimpse of Mohktal, the Enlightened One, his master and father.

 

The lord of the Illuminators sat on a simple unadorned throne carved from a single piece of volcanic rock. His tattooed face was expressionless, calm, though Ranseng could only guess at what kind of emotions played behind that serene exterior.

 

They were about to do the unthinkable. They were about to erase a Primarch and his Legion from history books in the name of the Emperor, and in the name of the Council of Terra.

 

No matter how many times he repeated it to himself, it still did not sit right with him.

 

“My friends.” When Mohktal spoke, all small talk had ceased. He had little need to raise his voice, or to exalt himself above others; the mere fact of his existence drew all attention to him, even at the expense of his remote brother.

 

“Though the unusual turbulence of the Warp had caused our fleet to become separated in transit, our plan remains unchanged.” The Illuminators present nodded or remained stoically silent in their well-rehearsed parade stances; some of the other Legions’ officers saluted with the Imperial aquila or, in some cases, with old Unity salutes.

 

“The Seventh Legion and associated forces will break through the orbital defenses and provide the psychic screening. Once the initial breach is made, the Fourteenth Legion will commence an airborne assault. The Eighth will protect the flanks of the spearhead, and will then provide rearguard.”

 

“Make no mistake, my friends. This is a dangerous enemy. Iskanderos and the Imperial Redeemers have turned on the Imperium. Some of you might have heard the lies they spout, or the horrid accusations they made.” This elicited a few murmurs or whispers from the assembled, mostly non-Illuminators.

 

It bothered Kian Ranseng that the Gargoyles looked very eager. He knew that the Fourteenth Legion had a reputation for being different; where all of the Legiones Astartes were made for war, the Gargoyles seemed to relish it even more than the others, not restrained by concepts of rules of combat. Ranseng heard enough rumors about what happened at Parias, wondering if this was one of the reasons why the Tenth Legion, the Peacekeepers, declined to take part in the assault on the heart of the Apellene Network.

 

Pity. Their numbers would have been very useful.

 

“The truth is, the Council did not imprison the Emperor. The Emperor is not seeking to perform some unthinkable crime at the expense of humanity.” Mohktal’s voice was calm, measured. Rational. “The Council did not attempt to murder Iskanderos.”

 

“No, my brother’s childish outburst is what led him astray. My brother’s crimes have to be punished.” Now, the lord of the Illuminators spoke louder, yet with perfect clarity. “Let it be known to all that this is not the choice I would have made on my own. I made a case for further diplomacy rather than risk this unity of ours being shattered. Alas,” he halted, his voice suddenly fraught with emotion, “our unity cannot be compromised, even if we must… sacrifice.” He stopped for a moment, eyes cast down. Mohktal closed his eyes; the tattoos on his face shone brightly for a fraction of a second as if he was attempting some exercise to bring his powerful emotions under control.

 

When he opened his eyes again, his voice was quiet, somber, and very, very human. “We will do what we must. The Emperor’s dream must not be compromised. My brother’s defection is an example that cannot be repeated, or allowed to pass, lest all we fought for in the Great Crusade will be for naught.”

 

Ranseng felt a strong pang of empathy for his Primarch. Though the exact emotion was difficult for him to understand, and the teachings of Bodtsan’s greatest mystics preached a certain degree of detachment, he found it hard to remain a disinterested observer.

 

It is never easy to kill a dream. The thought resonated in his head even as he made every attempt to stave off the bitter stench of disappointment that it had come to this. He wondered what happened to the Imperial Redeemers he knew, the ones whose company he entertained on Terra before things went horribly, irreparably wrong.

 

Are they there? Are they making any preparations for the coming end? Are they going to look at us and see me in every warrior they lock blades with?

 

Mohktal’s voice resonated through the room, penetrating the dreadful, pensive silence. “It pains me to order this. It truly does. I can only hope that history judges us right for what we are about to do.”

 

“Operation Starfall must succeed. Apella must die.”


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TWENTY NINE

 

Starfall

Psychic Attack

Disharmony Incarnate

 

History would record that the first shots of Operation Starfall were fired by the Illuminators cruiser Serenity in Fire seventeen hours and four minutes after the Council’s punitive expedition reentered real space in the Apellene system. The chronicles of the Seventh Legion claimed that a fortunate strike overloaded the shields of its target, light defensive monitor of the Imperial Redeemers given only numerical designation of AC-17 in lieu of a proper name and sending all souls aboard into the unmerciful embrace of the void. The records on Apella, at least those that survived the vagaries of time and war, differed on the topic, instead suggesting that the Serenity in Fire was destroyed with all hands before inflicting any wounds on the planetary defenses.

 

In another time, this would have been a matter for learned, if not always friendly, debate between the Legion historians keeping track of the labyrinthine tale of the Great Crusade in the libraries on Terra. The time for such spirited competition was, however, long gone.

 

There are multiple versions of history – one written by the winners, another by the losers, each with many variations sprung by allies and enemies to make their contribution to the conflict seem more meaningful. On Apella, these many versions would become one, for only one side would be in position to tell its side of the story while it still mattered.

 

The Amitabha led a spearhead of battleships and cruisers from many Council Legions, an unstoppable storm of Terra’s vengeance that came without warning, without mercy, without any desire to negotiate. Even without the Iconoclasts and the Gargoyles, both still several hours away, the war fleet under Mohktal’s command was an impressive sight.

 

Though only the Illuminators were present in Legion strength, their numbers were swelled by the influx of the Lion Guard, the Angel Kings, the Grim Angels, and the Steel Wardens – each only a fraction of their respective Legion, but together an unstoppable force of more than one hundred thousand Astartes with mechanized brigades and even Titan support. Twice that number waited in the wings another ten light minutes away, Iconoclasts and Gargoyles both, tasked with the complete eradication of all resistance once Mohktal’s command broke through to Apella.

 

At any other point in time, this show of force would have been sufficient to bring even well-fortified worlds to heel with only few cautionary shots being fired, but this was no ordinary world, no ordinary system. This was Apella, the center of the Apellene Network and the home planet of Imperial Redeemers and their proud, brilliant, impulsive Primarch, the throne world of Iskanderos and the seat of rebellion against the Council’s authority. For this sin, it had to die.

 

* * *

 

The forced inaction was difficult, Yusuf reflected as he paced back and forth inside the confines of the orbital command center. The Jond leaders had their orders; some were directing delaying action in high orbit, while others mustered their forces to find openings for counterattacks. The mortal Navy commanders already began to engage the Council vessels, though the results so far have been far from encouraging – the kill ratio did not favor the Imperial Redeemers, and was not sustainable for an extended engagement.

 

The Primarch’s plan was simple at the face value, though, as with all things Iskanderos demanded of his men, there were many opportunities for initiative amongst the enterprising Captains. Yusuf wondered how Ishmael was growing into his new role as the Captain of the 54th; as far as he knew, his old Company was deployed planet-side, a part of the defensive screen for Iandus Spaceport.

 

No matter. I have a mission. The Primarch himself asked for me.

 

Thousands of kilometers away, flashes of light were all that betrayed the presence of a vast hostile fleet. Had Yusuf been given to poetic musings of Apollus el-Rahim, he would have thought it was strangely beautiful, the dance of life and death where each spark represented thousands of lives being extinguished in an instant.

 

There was poetry in it, he had to admit to himself. All those lives, all the energy generated to snuff them out, condensed in a moment so brief that an ill-timed blink would have missed it.

 

At the very least, the thought made him forget about the men under his own command, his Diadochi.

 

He saw them at the corner of his vision, though in truth it was less a matter of sight and more of instinct. Outwardly, they were as any other Legionaries – hulking warriors wearing bronze and gold of the Sixth Legion, laurels engraved on their helmets, bolters and blades mag-locked to their armor. A few still bore insignia of the Librarium aspirants, though most did away with any outward trappings of their former existence.

 

Inside the armor of the Diadochi, madness awaited.

 

The very thought that in some way he was like them made Yusuf far more queasy than his gene-forged physique should have allowed. Had it not been for the Primarch’s orders, he would have rather fought by the side of his former Company on Apella; after all, he had slain other Legionaries before, and what was another fratricide to him? What was another sin on the conscience of one who had already crossed the event horizon?

 

Iskanderos, however, had other thoughts.

 

Your men have a unique purpose, Yusuf, the Conqueror told him as the order of battle was finalized. For that reason, you will remain in reserve until I return.

 

The waiting was difficult; the act of sharing space with the others who were similarly touched, even more so. Only the innate sense of duty and well-ingrained discipline kept Yusuf here, hoping that sooner rather than later, Iskanderos would join him and lead the Diadochi in the mission to decide the fate of the Council offensive once and for all.

 

Far away, the dance of death continued. Though it was too distant for Yusuf’s eyes to make out the details, the hololithic projectors told the story of the outer defenses dying under the concentrated fire of Illuminators, ships bleeding fuel and air from their ruptured hulls, engines of interplanetary destruction blossoming in spheres of atomic fire.

 

Weakness. Excise weakness.

 

The thought was masquerading as his own, and until the very last moment Yusuf almost believed that it was one of his. It fit the pattern of half-remembered ideas lingering in that no-man’s-land between wakefulness and sleep. It fit the pattern of something trying to speak through him, the giver of visions ever since his fateful trip from the cave on Molech back to the Hegemon.

 

As always, it told him the truth.

 

The ships dying to protect Apella were not true Legion vessels but castoffs, older designs fated for scrapyards and decommission, crewed by the servitors and the criminals forcibly conscripted into the planetary defense forces. A few had squads of Legionaries drawn from penitents who had failed their commanding officers; some were crewed by half-finished clones granted barely functional implants not worthy of true sons of Iskanderos, the failings of accelerated growth process evident in their malformed shapes and self-devouring bodies.

 

They were the Legion’s weakness, and they would die, so that its strength on Apella would be preserved.

 

It was the truth, as it has always been, and as it will ever be.

 

* * *

 

In the tight confines of the drop pod, Mengar Zarif and his nine battle-brothers waited for the launch. They were still too far away for the strike cruiser to push the tiny metal weapons of interplanetary war towards their target, and there was little for Zarif and the other nine Illuminators to do but wait.

 

As far as he knew, the cruiser, the Wheel of Infinity, was still battling through the outer cordons of the Imperial Redeemers’ defenses, a part of the largest assault ever committed by the Legion forces against a single world. Data streams and hololithic imagery played across his helmet visors, showing the progress of the battle. Though the Sixth Legion gave as good as it got, Lord Mohktal’s strategy adjusted even for Iskanderos’ strategic brilliance.

 

With three Legion-sized armadas approaching Apella, even Iskanderos could not afford to concentrate his forces in one place, leaving an opening for the Illuminators to punch through. Perhaps it was not the most tactically intricate decision, but, as Rogr Hemri was wont to say, quantity had a quality all its own, and the Council Legions had it in abundance.

 

Zarif checked his volkite pistol, ensuring that the weapon had full charge. In truth, it was far from the most dangerous tool at his disposal; his true power was transmitted through the crystals of the psychic hood covering his shaved head, and it was considerable even by the standards of the Seventh Legion. Where the other nine Illuminators could boost their strength and speed to levels unseen even amongst the Legiones Astartes warriors, Mengar Zarif could rain down mass destruction in bolts of concentrated psychic lightning, to cause stone metal to spontaneously combust into unearthly flames, or to unmake the genetic code binding superhuman flesh in its present shape, forcing uncontrollable mutation with a flick of a wrist.

 

He expanded his senses, touching the minds of his battle-brothers, then silently commuting with the other Librarians in the drop pods attached to the Wheel of Infinity. Each one of them was a formidable presence in the Warp; each one’s atma was strong beyond the veil, but together, they were unstoppable, no matter how desperate the sons of Apella would get.

 

Something attracted his attention. The mechanics of second sight were poorly understood even by those who spent centuries trying to master them, but Zarif was aware that the Warp was not a quiet place. There were eddies of power, energies born of thought and emotion that frequently coalesced into short-lived creatures of the aether. Most would dissipate within moments of their creation as the impulse which gave birth to them had vanished, yet few found enough sustenance to keep themselves whole for hours, days, or even longer.

 

There was disturbance in the Warp, and Zarif’s atma observed the flood of such creatures swim through it – some so ephemeral that they were on the verge of complete dissolution, others great predators that grew strong and fat on wayward souls passing into the Immaterium. Perhaps, he thought with distaste, they were anticipating the slaughter to come. The death of a world would provide enough sustenance for even the strongest of the creatures.

 

Through it all, he could not escape the feeling that something was wrong. There were too many of the Warp creatures, more than he would have anticipated even on the threshold of the largest battles of his long life – and for once, there was disturbing order to their movements, as if their presences were directed by some unseen forces.

 

But there are no unseen forces, he thought, clinging on to the tenets of the Imperial Truth. The Warp is only mysterious because it has not been properly understood. All we see in its waters are reflections of ourselves.

 

As Mengar Zarif pushed himself into the pre-battle trance, following geometrical patterns of thought with his mind’s eye, the disturbing feeling had receded, but did not completely go away.

 

* * *

 

Apollus el-Rahim wiped the blood of the acolyte from his hands, then sighed wearily. The sacrifice was willingly given, the last of many, yet it wore heavily on him.

 

Some things will never change, he thought, reflecting on all he had learned in the long months since Molech. All power demands a price.

 

He looked at himself, no longer noticing the subtle changes to his armor as it conjoined itself to his flesh, yet paying heed to the changes in his posture, the ever-slight improvements to his strength. When the Primarch returned to his sons with his newfound wisdom, the Astrologer was a cripple. Now, with the knowledge imparted by his sovereign, things were different.

 

Many were the changes in the Sixth Legion; many were the gifts the sons of Iskanderos bore to further glorify their lord and father. Heavy was the price they paid for the gifts, and there would be much more yet to give before it would be paid in full.

 

The seven warriors, all initiates of the Librarius, loomed over the mortal sacrifices, each a Legion serf chosen by his or her peers as an offering. The blood of the dead formed a rough circle that even now began to glow, against every law of physics, coalescing into shapes not born of this universe.

 

There were faces there, some unfamiliar, others achingly well known – friends, former comrades, perhaps even members of his nearly forgotten mortal family dead for several centuries now. It was always like this; the Warp was a thing of beauty, but also a thing of great sorrow.

 

It was the repository where all came from, and where all would return to, the Sea of Souls spoken of by the ancient mystics who could not understand its true nature with reason, and who chose metaphor and instinct to describe what they saw. It was the final destination of all who lived, and though el-Rahim was not born with the second sight, he could almost glimpse at its majesty through the veneer of the ritual.

 

The Imperial Redeemers were prepared, far more so than the Council of Terra had even guessed. Even without the unreliable Gargoyles and the Iconoclasts with their unknown loyalties, the Sixth Legion had allies that would not let it suffer the ignominy of defeat. As Apollus el-Rahim spoke the words of power, the words of binding, the glowing circle of blood broke into thousands of tiny comets with butterfly wings, particles obeying no law but that of absolute freedom offered by the infinite and the unknowable. He closed his eyes, willing the particles upwards and into the sky where the clouds hid the savage void war.

 

When the Astrologer opened his eyes again, the particles were gone.

 

* * *

 

Mengar Zarif was floating in the vast expanse of the Beyond, a singular part of the web that connected the entirety of the assault force. He could not see the entire web, but he knew that it reached far and wide, with every Astartes warrior of the Illuminators and even their mortal Galasvik followers a part of the greater, harmonious whole. There was beauty in it, terrifying symmetry of perfection that reflected the Arcane Geometries, each warrior a singular word of power upon the mindscape, a focus of unimaginable energy hammered into a deadly speartip.

 

He suppressed the feelings of pride; such thoughts were unbecoming of the one committed to Mohktal’s teachings. All were one, and one had the seeds of worlds and galaxies within him. To think otherwise was folly of the highest caliber.

 

He was still clinging on to serenity in the teachings when the attack struck.

 

The creatures of the Warp, the carrion eaters anticipating bountiful harvest, were suddenly nowhere to be found, as if the Immaterium had cleared with unnatural speed. The entirety of space around Apella was now empty, devoid of life real or unreal in one fell stroke.

 

A mere fraction of a second later, something grew out of the silence.

 

Zarif felt it as his body began to convulse and red foam appeared on his lips. The elaborate tattoos covering the majority of his body started to shine with foul, malefic light, each a splattering of molten magma upon the frail skin. A solid lump formed in his stomach, pushing through the internal organs and threatening to rupture the skin.

 

Bile and acidic saliva filled his mouth, running down his chin as the outer skin dissolved on contact with the contents of his Belcher’s gland. A part of his tongue slithered out of the destroyed cheek, bitten off in the brief moments he lost control. His intestines curled up, given life of their own like foul snakes seeking to escape the suffocating confines of his flesh.

 

Mengar Zarif screamed, but it came out as a wheeze, a growl from the mouth that was no longer human. His eyes burst into molten metallic liquid; the crimson and silver of his armor was now angry pink and ravaged black as his body mutated uncontrollably, consuming itself, morphing into shapes that even his post-human physique was not equipped to survive. Tenebrous lightning shot out from him, arcing across the rest of his squad as the other nine Illuminators became living conduits to unleashed psychic power.

 

The last thing his second sight observed before the mercy of final death consumed him was the gathering of ravenous creatures of the Beyond bearing down on his immaterial form and tearing it apart just like the ravages of mutation consumed his body.

 

* * *

 

“We are under attack!” shouted Kian Ranseng, working his way to Mohktal on the bridge of the Amitabha. Around him was the scene of absolute chaos.

 

Legion serfs and servitors were cooked alive, melting into their stations or screeching in agony as their bodies lost all coherence. One naval rating became a mass of tentacles and eyes collapsed in a heap, its multiple mouths screaming for mercy. A Legion Librarian collapsed on the floor, smoke coming from every joint of his armor. Glitching servitors locked down into inaction, though even their cybernetic replacements were not immune to the plague of mutation, melting and reforming as an insane array of pincers, claws, and other appendages with no coherent form or function.

 

Mohktal stood at the center of the storm, discolored lightning forming a cocoon around him that seemed to probe at the Primarch’s defenses, yet unable to penetrate them. The Enlightened One’s face was strained with effort, slick with sweat as the arcane tattoos and wards on his skin lit up golden yellow, the purity of his essence struggling against the unearthly force that struck the Illuminators.

 

Ranseng shot a maddened creature that was amalgamated from a trio of crewmen, then ran towards his master. The Disciple felt the psychic onslaught tug at him, though with every step, the intensity had lessened until he felt that he could once again gather his thoughts. Data readouts in his helmet lenses warned him of critical casualties on the advance vessels of the fleet, and severe deviations from the battle plan on the others. The vox traffic was a panicked mess of mortal commanders begging for guidance, shouting their lungs out in sheer terror, or gurgling something unintelligible as if their vocal chords were no longer capable of speech. Here and there, he heard the terse battle-cant of the Illuminators ordering repairs, forcing the terrified crews to regain control of their vessels, or even authorizing the first stages of the planetary assault.

 

++It will not stop us++

 

Mohktal’s thoughts were loud and clear, and by the looks Ranseng got from the unaffected members of the expedition, it was clear to him that the Primarch spoke to the entire fleet, not just to him.

 

++The enemy struck us first, and we were unprepared for the severity++

 

“Sire!” Ranseng screamed. His fingers frantically sought out his Focus, a piece of metal worked into the shape of a clockwork gear hard-wired into the palm ofhis armored hand. Through it came contentment, but most importantly, the ability to use his psychic powers the way they were intended to.

 

++Do not!!!++

 

Mohktal’s psychic message stopped him in his tracks, and Ranseng’s fingers withdrew. The Focus felt strangely warm, even through armor.

 

++The enemy knew what they were facing, my sons! They attacked all with second sight, struck against all whose atma was exploring the Beyond.++

 

Hearing that filled Ranseng with hope. Only a small fraction of the Illuminators would have been in meditative trance at any point in time; even in the midst of an orbital assault when Legion-wide coordination was of utmost importance, only the Librarians would ever be expected to commune with others of their kind.

 

Most of the Legion’s strength should remain untouched, he thought, running through the numbers in his mind. Even if every single Librarian of the Illuminators was negated with the psychic attack, the Legion still had over ninety five percent of its operating strength.

 

++This is disharmony incarnate, yet to fight it, we must put our trust in our bolters and blades, not in words of power or the Arcane Geometries++

 

The lightning around Mohktal had abated, withering away into nothingness. The Primarch looked tired; for a fraction of a second, he almost looked old. He turned his face to Ranseng, his deep-set eyes no longer serene, no longer filled with peace and understanding.

 

“My brother…” whispered Mohktal. “He meddles with things no mortal should ever touch.” The Primarch leaned on a nearby equipment console; it groaned and protested under his weight. To Ranseng, the sound was disturbingly organic.

 

“What are your orders, sire?” the Disciple asked, shocked at the nature of the assault. “The Legion strength is only barely diminished. We can still take the fight to them.”

 

Mohktal nodded. “Then fight we will.” The Primarch lowered his eyes. A holographic projection sprung up to life; even with the losses from the sudden psychic assault, the Illuminators were well on their way to penetrating the outer circle of Apella’s orbital defenses. “I will not risk waiting for any more tricks,” he said, his voice raspy and unwell. “Iskanderos traffics with dangerous things. If he is this far into it…” Mohktal raised his eyes to Ranseng. There was pain there, and, perhaps, fear?

 

“We destroy him?” the Disciple dared to ask after several seconds went on in absolute silence.

 

“It is worse than I thought,” Mohktal replied, his tattoos still giving off a faint afterglow. “Him, his entire world, his entire Network. We must launch drop assault as soon as we are in range.”

 

* * *

 

Seven thousand stars fell upon Apella. They raced through the upper atmosphere, overtaking the defense batteries too slow to track them, fooling the ground-based guns with their countermeasures and pre-programmed randomized movements. Each was a marvel of engineering designed to deliver their deadly cargo in one piece, or, failing that, to draw the defensive fire so that other, more fortunate capsules would bring squads of Illuminators, Grim Angels, Lion Guard, Steel Wardens, and Angel Kings to the surface.

 

Behind them, thousands of Stormbirds, Thunderhawks, and other, lesser craft poured into the breech. With Apella’s defenses spread across three distinct vectors of approach, Mohktal concentrated his immediate forces on one area, taking full advantage of his numbers and ensuring that for every drop pod or landing craft that died, five more reached the ground.

 

Spaceborne fighters raced ahead of the armada, staving off desperate counterassaults by the Imperial Redeemers’ interceptors. These were piloted by the mortal Galasvik, each a student of Mohktal’s teachings committed to seeing the Enlightened One’s battle plan come through, or, more frequently, by servitor pilots who died with little thought for their own preservation, their mission to ensure an opening.

 

This was not the initial plan; Mohktal wanted to approach the planet slowly, forcing the Imperial Redeemers to choose between concentrating all of their forces to defend against one attacking fleet, and to fight a delaying action staving off the inevitable as all three Council armadas pounded Apella into dust.

 

The psychic attack had changed it all.

 

There was urgency to the attack, as the realization of what had happened spread across the Illuminators. This was no longer the matter of following an unseemly if necessary order. This was war against abomination itself, a war as holy as it was justified.

 

Inside a vessel speeding through Apella’s trans-orbital space just above the ecliptic, Iskanderos observed the slow dance of the fleets, the moves and the countermoves of the infinite symphony that would bring ruin to his world. Behind him, mag-locked to the metal floor, twenty Diadochi stood in eerie silence, each moving to the rhythm that only the Conqueror himself could recognize as the music of the spheres. From Nihlus’ vessel to the command center hidden behind Apella’s smallest moon; from the command center and into the unknown – everything was going according to the plan.


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Midgard

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THIRTY

 

Landing

Tightening Noose

Infinite Light

The Iandus Spaceport sprawled out all around Ishmael, its intricate towers and minarets gleaming in the morning sun like needles before the fire. Many colors reflected in their metallic plating – pink, rose, orange, blue of the night giving way to day, contorted into fantastic reflections by the curving surfaces and artwork made to honor centuries of Apellene history before the coming of the Imperium.

 

Only the slight heat haze gave any indication of powerful void shields protecting the spaceport from orbital bombardment, itself a relic of a more advanced age powered by the heat of Apella’s molten core and thus able to withstand even the world-destroying weaponry of the Illuminators warships. The sight of it filled Ishmael with unease.

 

What if it had failed? What if they cannot hold the line?

 

The newly promoted Captain of the 54th Company had sometimes wished for simpler days – missions to expand the rule of the Imperium to strange worlds, battles where the lines between friend and foe were drawn all so clearly, friendly bickering with Telennios that helped pass the time between and during campaigns. The uncertainty of the present conflict, the lack of clear delineation on who was right and who was wrong, these were the things that bothered him, though he tried not to let it interfere with his duties.

 

After all, he had also seen the visions.

 

The 54th Company was spread out in cover all around the Iandus Spaceport – one hundred fully equipped Space Marines supported by several platoons of Apellan Home Guard and squads of Legion aspirants yet to undergo the last stages of implantation. Above them, anti-air guns kept on their thundering rumble, each shot scattering pieces of broken metal and mangled flesh across the sky, yet unable to stop the coming tide.

 

The Council forces were coming in their numbers, and though the Imperial Redeemers reaped a bloody toll, there were simply too many for their defenses to stop at once.

 

This was the kind of war the Legiones Astartes were made for – rapid planetary assault where the application of maximum force at the critical spot would decide campaigns and fates of civilizations. This time, however, their opponents were made using the same arcane processes, trained in the same crucible that weeded out the weak and the unworthy. For the first time in the history of the galaxy, a full-scale Legion planetary assault was about to meet its match.

 

The Imperial Redeemers took great care in fortifying their positions. The full Astartes were spread out in fire teams across the entire hundred square kilometer expanse of the spaceport, with elements of seven Companies and their supporting forces hiding under the camo cloaks, manning overwatch guns, or keeping vigil in the network of deep trenches where they could be counted on to act as mobile reserve where they were needed. The bunkers were manned by lesser mortal troops; Iskanderos hoped that they would draw fire from the advancing Council invaders, only to serve as an anvil upon which the Illuminators would be broken. Scout teams roamed across the perimeter, not subject to rigit battle lines, but expected to draw the enemy into ambushes and to force the Illuminators to break their ranks and be destroyed piecemeal.

 

Ishmael counted seconds as his auspex kept on displaying the alarming number of enemy craft preparing for landing. It was not hard for him to guess why they chose Iandus as the target; with the spaceport secure, the Council Legions could land most of their forces where their numerical advantage would not be negated by the confines of city fighting. To some commanders, this would have signaled impending doom; to Iskanderos, it was an opportunity.

 

The first drop pod slammed into the rockrete foundation with the force enough to deafen any mortals foolish enough to remain in the vicinity. Ishmael, leading a fire team, stayed hidden behind a scuttled pleasure yacht appropriated from some well-off citizen for the common good. The positioning of the landed spacecraft served a purpose; their hulls, designed to withstand the stresses of atmospheric reentry and micrometeorite collisions, made for better bulwark against small weapon fire than most makeshift fortifications, without clearly alerting the enemy to the presence of the defenders.

 

As the drop pod opened like a mutant flower of ceramite and advanced alloys still smoking from its violent passage through the atmosphere, Ishmael saw the enemy.

 

The first Illuminator to rush through the open hatch was almost a mirror image of Ishmael’s battle brothers, yet imperfect, as if by some strange quirk of fate the colors were ever slightly distorted to produce a flawed portrait of a Legionary. The deep crimson of the invader’s armor shone in the rays of Apella’s sun, and the silver trim on his pauldrons seemed to distort his outline for the crucial fractions of a second.

 

The invader toppled over, brought down by an accurate lascannon shot. In an instant, the warriors of Ishmael’s command squad opened up with their plasma guns and bolters, each a marksman of some skill and repute personally recommended by Telennios.

 

Only two Illuminators out of squad of ten survived long enough to make a mad dash to nearest cover, and one of them was picked off before he could reach its relative safety. Truly, being the first one to battle was no guarantee of security even against lesser forces, but against another Legion, it was certainly a fatal proposition.

 

Another drop pod crashed down in the open, shaking the ground with its landing. This one was equipped with Deathfire missile launcher, which opened fire before the doors could fully come down. A lucky missile hit the side of a scuttled yacht, sending an Imperial Redeemer flying into the air. A squad of Illuminators rushed forward, their speed almost certainly augmented by the inscrutable psychic disciplines of Mohktal’s sons.

 

At least they don’t have a Librarian with them, thought Ishmael, though it was a scant consolation as he abandoned his position to get a better firing angle and to escape the target lock of the Deathfire launcher, shooting at the Illuminators as he moved and trying to stay aware of the dark shadows blotting out the young sun.

 

In the seconds since the first drop pod landed, three more were cast down into the spaceport like thunderbolts of some vengeful deity. Every landing sent shock waves through the tortured rockrete, slamming into the sides of the scuttled spaceships and forcing the Imperial Redeemers to run for alternate cover. With professional detachment, Ishmael noted that one of the drop pods had colors of the Lion Guard; the other two were of Seventh Legion.

 

These, clearly, were much more dangerous.

 

All across the spaceport, the scene repeated itself. Though the first wave had suffered large casualties, the sheer weight of numbers made sure that the Council Legions landed in sufficient numbers to finally take to the offensive, darting in and out of cover as the Imperial Redeemers retreated towards designated choke points and kill zones.

 

Ishmael vaulted over the edge of mangled metal that was once a decorative fin of an orbital yacht, firing from the hip in the general direction of the Council Legionaries. One of his men became a screaming inferno as the Lion Guard with a flamer let loose, sending burning promethium at the Imperial Redeemers. Another lascannon shot; the Lion Guard went down.

 

“You are welcome,” Ishmael heard Telennios’ grumbling voice through the company-wide network. The Strikers took up positions across the spaceport, spreading out to serve as a mobile sniper division rather than as a coherent squad. Mumbling his thanks, Ishmael continued on towards the next piece of cover.

 

The sky was streaked through with trails of black smoke and the blossoms of numerous explosions. Somewhere in orbit, the Sixth Legion’s fleet fought a delaying action to keep the Illuminators from completely overwhelming Apella’s defenses. From the ground, it did not look like they were having much success.

 

“Captain!”

 

A timely warning was the only thing that saved Ishmael. A vortex of nothingness opened next to him, hungrily consuming the rockrete, the dead bodies, the very air. Ishmael felt the pull, struggling with all his mechanically augmented strength to keep moving, to avoid the ravages of the exotic weaponry.

 

The air seemed to sizzle, as if the molecules were being disintegrated into component atoms, then turned into brief splashes of energy dancing all across the spectrum. Radiation warnings spiked across Ishmael’s eye lenses as his armor’s systems engaged the seals to keep the poisoned air out. Two icons representing command squad members went amber, then deep red.

 

Ishmael fired blindly in the direction of the attack, not caring if he managed to hit anything as long as it gave him time to gather his response. He dove into a shallow trench, rolling on the ground to extinguish the smoke from where his armor joints were damaged.

 

His teeth rattled from the instinctive fight-or-flight reaction against the form of death even his enhanced physiology and armor was no proof from. Proximity warnings and environmental hazard indicators flashed in his helmet lenses, urging him to continue moving if he were to survive.

 

Destroyers. They brought the Destroyer squads. Whoresons.

 

Ishmael cursed under his breath, subvocalizing commands even as he kept on changing direction in hope of avoiding direct targeting. He could survive a brief passage through a contaminated zone, but not much more. Above and around him, the sounds of shooting intensified, no longer a series of attacks and measured responses, but a frantic cacophony that came from all sides at once, fooling even the autosenses of his armor.

 

An explosion shook the ground. For a fraction of a second, Ishmael mistook it for the sound of another drop pod landing, but the brief cessation in battle led him to believe otherwise. He saw sleek shadows race through the smoke-streaked sky, already on to the next sector where their explosive payloads had to be delivered.

 

“Thank the Primarch for air support,” he shouted, hoping to inspire however many of his men remained in fighting condition. “Take the fight to the bastards!”

 

He finally dared to peek out of his cover; a crater was all that remained in place of the Illuminators’ drop pods. A squad of shell-shocked enemy Legionaries attempted to reform by the side of a freighter used by the defenders as a makeshift bunker; there were warriors from both the Seventh and the Twelfth Legions in it. The runes in Ishmael’s helmet suggested that for the moment, the defending forces in the immediate vicinity had numerical parity if not superiority.

 

“Kill the dishonorable curs,” he yelled, his chainsword – a relic of many campaigns lovingly restored to peak fighting condition after every mission – pointed at the enemy even as he charged. “For Iskanderos! For Apella!”

 

A roar of no less than a dozen throats answered him as the Imperial Redeemers left their temporary sanctuary to kill those who came to destroy their world.

 

* * *

 

From the observation chamber of the Breaker, Apella looked pitiful. It was a world marred with the imperfections of explosions, glow of straining void shields attempting to stave off the worst of orbital bombardment, ugly trails of smoke as fighters and capital ships died in its upper atmosphere, destroyed piecemeal by every weapon invented by mankind in its long, tortured history.

 

There were no lights in the chamber – not even the smoke censers spraying their constant benediction on any who sought the companionship of the Eighth Primarch. The only illumination came from the light reflected from Apella’s surface, casting Nihlus’ face in an elaborate checkered pattern where his molten flesh seemed like a landscape of a ruined, ravaged world left for too long to the mercies of planetary bombardment.

 

For this occasion, the Destroyer did not bother to wear a mask, or to otherwise hide the rictus grin of his face. The lord of the Eighth Legion was still as a statue, observing the flashes of light where each moment saw thousands of lives extinguished, hopes, dreams, and memories relinquished to the hungry tide of predators lurking beyond the thinning veil of reality.

 

Another figure stood by his side, though considerably smaller next to the Primarch’s bulk. This one was a warrior clad in the unpainted armor of the Legion, showing every bit of wear and damage from countless campaigns yet maintained just enough to remain operational. He was bald and scarred, his face showing the many discolorations and blotches of scar tissue common to Nihlus’ line, a patchwork of skin colors that looked as if it was drawn from several different individuals and sown together by an uncaring, hasty chirurgeon.

 

“Commander Herod,” said Nihlus. The Primarch’s voice, so long an emotionless hiss, sounded full-bodied and whole once again. Though the Destroyer’s throat was still as fire-ravaged as ever, for the first time in centuries since the cataclysm on Kars he sounded like an entire being untouched by the merciless elements. Nihlus turned to the Iconoclast; the dead face seemed to be smiling. “Do you believe in my brother’s strength?”

 

The Space Marine saluted his Primarch. His face was severe, uncompromising as he answered. “It is of no doubt. Lord Iskanderos has truly been touched by the Powers.”

 

“And yet, I can end him here, for good,” mused Nihlus. “A tempting proposition.” Something in his voice suggested mockery. “Burn a Legion, he said, or burn the galaxy.”

 

Herod’s face stiffened. “All life is suffering, sire.”

 

Nihlus laughed cruelly. “Is this what you are telling each other in the ranks?” He cracked his knuckles, casting a long glance at his unarmored hands. They, too, were ravaged with burn marks and scars that even his prodigious healing abilities could not cover up.

 

“Nevertheless, sire,” Herod answered him. “Burn a Legion, or save the galaxy. Now that is the true choice. The choice of mercy.”

 

“Mercy?” Nihlus’ eyes had an amused cast to them. “That is an interesting choice of a word, Commander. Not the one I had expected from you.”

 

“The only mercy that we can grant, my lord,” the Iconoclast said. “The mercy we have been unwittingly dealing all along.”

 

Nihlus nodded thoughtfully. “I see my brother’s words did not fall on empty ears.” The Primarch turned to look at Apella again, raising his eyes so that he managed to look down at an entire planet.

 

“To kill a world, or to save the galaxy,” the Destroyer repeated. “Mercy. Mercy.” One side of his mouth, the one that was not completely shredded by the fire, slowly crept up. It cracked the dead skin; clear-colored pus poured from the wound, mixed with something darker, something far too viscous to be entirely made of blood.

 

“I like it.”

 

Nihlus’ hands joined behind his back, scar tissue on scar tissue, only slight uncontrollable movements betraying that they belonged to a living being.

 

“Iskanderos,” the Primarch said so quietly it might as well have been a whisper. “You know that I can destroy you now. I can do what the Council asked of me, and return to Terra, them none the wiser.”

 

His voice grew louder, as if Iskanderos could hear him from here.

 

“I can put an end to your little rebellion, and to you, no matter how much you claim to swim in the aether. I can do it all, no matter how many stratagems you pull, or where you keep your reserves, or what allies you profess to have. I. Can. Do. It.

 

“And yet, you have not committed our forces, sire,” commented Herod. “One way or… the other.”

 

Nihlus did not seem to notice that the Iconoclast said anything. The Eighth Primarch stared at the globe of Apella, as if challenging the planet to some form of combat, some test of willpower. The smoke-streaked globe stared back, heedless of the demigod with the power of life and death in his hand.

 

“And I will still be able to do it,” Nihlus continued. “No matter how many Legions you surround yourself with, or how many worlds declare for you. I will still be able to bring you down, brother.”

 

The Primarch gave Apella another look, his eyes narrowing in silent hatred. “Always so perfect. Always so brilliant. The Young King, yet never to reign. The Enlightened One, yet so blind. The Hammer, who never left the sheath. The Father who hated the sons he had sired. The monsters. The weapons. The tools.” His thoughts seemed to drift from one place to the next, from one person to another.

 

“Sire?”

 

“And I will bring you down, Iskanderos,” Nihlus said, lost in thought. “But, not now. Not here. Not yet.”

 

The Primarch shook his head, focus and lucidity returning to his eyes. When he looked at Herod, he was once again purposeful, once again the warlord and the leader of men who would kill and die for him.

 

“You know what to do, Commander,” he said slowly, each word a testament to the finality of his decision. “Signal the fleet to engage.”

 

* * *

 

As his beating hearts counted down seconds before the impact, Yusuf al-Malik prayed. Not to the gods introduced into the Sixth Legion by Iskanderos, whose blessings many of the Imperial Redeemers now bore like signs of distinction; not to the shadow of the Emperor as some mortals would have; not even to the Primarch, deified by his sons and their human charges.

 

His prayer went to the old gods of Apella whose names he remembered from childhood – Zois, Apol, Aris, the deities who governed thunder, sun, and war and whose memories still thrived despite centuries of enforced Imperial Truth. His words spoke to those segments of his youth that escaped erasure by the psycho-indoctrination accompanying his transformation into a full Legionary, the parts of the young boy who watched the parade on Apella and resolved to become one with the bronze and gold-armored giants, the boy who once saw a god.

 

He was the second son of many, neither the one expected to carry the family name, nor the youngest child spoiled and adored by his older siblings, a scrawny youth with no particular talent save for destiny that gave him a chance. On the day before the Legion trials, his parents followed him as far as the gates of the Legion fortress, perhaps expecting him to fail like his brother had before him, or maybe hopeful that one of their own may, against all odds, rise above their middling station and finally make a mark on the face of the universe. He remembered his father’s eyes, grey and intent, as if trying hard not to give in to emotion when the results came back positive; his mother’s tears now that one of her sons was taken from her at a tender age of eleven. He remembered a string of faces, his siblings, friends, playmates, teachers, all of them lined up to gaze in wonder at the boy who was selected for the Legion duty.

 

Awe. Pride. Jealousy. But mostly pride.

 

In the final seconds before the modified Stormbird wove through the overwhelming fire to crash into the side of the Amitabha, as the old barriers gave way to something deep and primal, as indoctrination retreated to reveal more of who he always was and the memories flooded in, Yusuf al-Malik remembered their pride at what he was about to become.

 

* * *

 

The Diadochi dropped into a hangar large enough to hold Titans, falling from the ceiling where the Stormbird crashed through the Illuminators’ void shields. They wore no jump packs or grav-chutes, for such crude things were no longer necessary for their twisting, winged forms.

 

Yusuf felt his body reform itself, heedless of the armor flowing with the flesh like mercury and mindful only of the excruciating pain. Something bestial screamed from within him, the voice that was with him ever since Molech, but now unleashed in full, taking charge of his mutating shape as hands became talons and power pack extended to form sinister-looking, leathery wings.

 

In his new form, he could easily dodge the clumsy shots of the panicked mortal crews, accelerating far faster than gravity alone could have accounted for to find prey.

 

The Diadochi were monstrous hunters falling from above, their shadows casting pools of sinuous darkness on the decks below and dragging their assailants into some twisting netherworld before the Imperial Redeemers could even touch them. A squad of Illuminators fanned out in the hangar, attempting to stem the tide with their psychically charged Inferno bolts, but the shots felt hollow, each shell consumed by a host of small, vicious things accompanying the Sixth Legion that promptly turned on their enemy, rending them from limb to limb, consuming flesh and void-hardened ceramite as if it was nothing.

 

Iskanderos was a golden comet as he struck the deck before his men, sending shockwaves that reverberated through the flagship’s superstructure. Metal bent. Screams of wounded mortals joined the cacophony of screeching ship as it was dealt a wound from the inside, where all of its vaunted gun batteries and void shields could not protect it from the wrath of a god.

 

Yusuf slammed into an Illuminator Legionary just as another squad of the Seventh attempted to repel the boarders. The warrior was clad in heavy Cataphractii-pattern Terminator plate, towering over power-armored Imperial Redeemers, but even that did not protect him from the dervish whirl of Yusuf’s malformed claws tearing through the heaviest form of personal protection known to man as if it was paper. Dark lightning arced through the tips of Yusuf’s talons as his helmet morphed into a monstrous visage with too many insectoid eyes and teeth. He bit into the Illuminator, ripping out chunks of the armor to get at the soft flesh below.

 

The world became a kaleidoscope of colors perceived through the eyes that were anything but mammalian, movements and shapes that dwelled in more realities than the one he was familiar with. This was the true synesthesia, the art of blending senses where smell was touch, taste was sight, and the urge to kill was overwhelming. Reality itself seemed to part before Yusuf and the Diadochi, their rampage slaughtering Legionary and mortal serfs with little regard for rank, experience, or mercy.

 

Somewhere, an Imperial Redeemer was finally torn apart by lightning claws of a particularly fortunate Illuminator. Elsewhere, another one of the Diadochi lost all semblance of purpose, feasting on a pile of mangled flesh and organs that once belonged to a mortal fire team. And above them all, Iskanderos lead on, a living hurricane of golden force, the sole point of focus in a chaotic universe. Holding on to the last remnants of his sanity, Yusuf followed it even as his body mutated further into fantastic, unreal shape.

 

Were there walls? Were there corridors? Were there mortals and post-humans barring his way? Yusuf did not know, and could no longer care. The instincts unleashed by his transformation were murderous, hungry, impossible to control or sate. He could no longer tell if any of the other Diadochi were still with him, or even where he was, or whose blood and sinews were on the monstrous claws that were once his hands. All that mattered was the golden light, the only direction in the whirlwind of perfect, absolute insanity.

 

Metal and meat alike were turned to mushed refuse under his teeth and talons. Room after room became abbatoirs of deep red and black, heedless of casualties, heedless of damage to his body reknitted by the otherworldly passenger within, heedless of anything that remained of the warrior Yusuf was before Molech. There was no morality, no anger, no passion in killing; it was simply the natural state of being, and he reveled in it like an oceanic monster released among the helpless prey for the first time in its life.

 

His armor hardened as unnatural carapace grew over the weak joints, turning away blade and shell as he killed, killed again and again. What remained of his war plate was now so covered in gore that nothing was left of its original color, his weapons long discarded somewhere in the frantic combat on the decks of the Amitabha. The metal of his augmetic hand was now fully submerged within alien flesh so that biological and mechanical pieces could not be differentiated from one another.

 

And then, the madness stopped.

 

It was a shock wave, a blast of cold, icy air washing over him, pushing the kicking and screaming other back into his mortal shell and casting Yusuf down. He found himself on the floor, heaving vomit and blood from the throat that was once again fully human, fingers twitching as they resumed their customary shapes, kaleidoscopic vision retreating as he was once again left with his two eyes, eyes that were almost blinded by the illumination.

 

Yusuf tried to lift himself up, dried blood covering his face like an encrusted mask of filth. Shapes swam before his eyes, shadows barely coherent in the light. He rose his eyes further up, finding some comfort in the blackness of space above – anything to keep the light away from him.

 

Some of the illumination was the familiar gold – the touch of summer, the shores of Apellan seas manifest as that world’s greatest son. In it, Yusuf saw the same god that his nine-year-old eyes had once witnessed, so many decades ago. Though Iskanderos was clothed in a halo of auric luminosity, facing away from the commander of his pet monsters, Yusuf was sure that his gene-father somehow knew, somehow saw the Legionary’s plight.

 

The other light was cold, piercing white of the blizzard. It hurt to look at; it burned away every bit of impurity without mercy, without understanding, without compassion. It was clinical and distilled, serene and utterly terrifying in its absence of emotion, harsh and inimical to life itself.

 

It burned away the last layers of insanity, yet Yusuf was not grateful, for the rush he felt was life. It was the essence of existence condensed into one mad race across the flagship of the Seventh Legion, culminating on its bridge where armored plates withdrew to afford the view of Apella and nearby space – fighting, killing, surviving, moving. Always in motion, always at war – such was the nature of existence, the natural and beautiful chaos that dwelled in the faintest of moments between sleep and wakefulness, the very thing that made him human, the very thing that made him alive.

 

And now, as Mohktal rose up to his full height in defiance of Iskanderos, as the objective of the mission was finally at hand, Yusuf understood what he was fighting for.


Twisthammer - alternate history reimagining of Warhammer 40,000

Conqueror - Book One of Twisthammer (novel)

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#40
Midgard

Midgard

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THIRTY ONE

 

Brothers

Wings of Black and Grey

Golden Light

 

The black of the sky was riven with explosions as the Illuminators sought to achieve orbital supremacy over Apella. Here and there, the Amitabha’s void shields flickered as a stray shot, or a large piece of space debris hit the flagship, sending shivers through the vessel’s superstructure. Dozens of mindless servitors hard-wired into the panels continued their duties on the bridge, heedless of the living gods standing amongst them, calculating firing solutions and compensating for the minor adjustments in the vessel’s course even as their very remaining existence was possibly measured in minutes.

 

An unsettling kind of quiet descended on the bridge, accentuated rather than overwhelmed by the drone of the servitor cyborgs and the noises of machinery. The bridge lights were lowered, as if the very presence of two Primarchs demanded some kind of solemn respect, casting the scene into a shadow-filled twilight where reality and unreality converged into one terrifying, confused whole. Acrid smell of smoke mixed with the tang of freshly spilled blood and the dry, mechanical scent of exhaust from power armor’s in-built reactors.

 

“Iskanderos,” said Mohktal, descending from the command pulpit as a vengeful angel of insulted light, faithful Kian Ranseng the only Illuminator by his side. His movements were unhurried, precise, calculated – the stride of a fighter who already predicted his own victory, yet chose to live through its motions rather than celebrate it with wild abandon. There was no animosity in his voice, no anger, not even the mild impression of a dislike; it was even and serene, as if he was patiently addressing a disciple or a servant.

 

Though the Enlightened One was clad for war, his armor seemed almost out of place on his ascetic frame. The crimson and silver plate was undecorated save for the patterns drawn from Arcane Geometries, each line a part of the functional whole. His bald, tattooed head was unhelmeted, displaying no sigh of emotion or distress even in the midst of a battle. Mohktal held a large two-handed metal staff in his plain gauntlets; arcane lightning danced over the psychoactive material.

 

“We have some unfinished business, brother,” the Conqueror replied by the way of greeting. Unlike Mohktal, Iskanderos was the very image of a conquering warlord in his barbarous splendor, his armor adorned with invaluable artwork made by the finest artisans in the Imperium, his sword a relic of thousand battles decorated with mementos of countless victories. An anxious note crept into the Sixth Primarch’s voice, anticipation and even exhilaration of the hunt becoming one.

 

“You should surrender yourself into my custody now,” intoned Mohktal evenly. “Even if you were to press every initiate capable of wearing power armor into service, I still have you outnumbered three to one. Strike your colors, and I will petition the Council to have lenience on your world and followers.”

 

Iskanderos laughed. It was an unpleasant sound that promised many kinds of suffering, not all of them entirely natural.

 

“I do not believe you are in a position to make demands, Mohktal,” the lord of the Imperial Redeemers told him, getting into a battle stance – one foot forward, one foot back, sword held in both hands at the ready. “But if we are in the business of threats and promises, I will make some of my own.” His face melted into a smug grin. “Surrender, and I will let you live.”

 

The Primarch of the Illuminators shook his head slowly, continuing in the same infuriatingly even voice. “Even with the allies you have invoked, this attack on my flagship only prolongs the inevitable. You will not defeat me.” This was not stated as a boast, but as a dry, humorless fact. “Even if you escape the Amitabha alive, the best you may hope for is to bleed my Legion and to make us pay for the lives we take. The end result will be the same. Complete destruction of the Imperial Redeemers. Extermination of all life on Apella. Takeover of the Apellene Network by the Council custodianship until such time as deemed necessary by the Regency.”

 

Iskanderos continued to smile, though his eyes grew colder. “Such arrogance, Mohktal. You truly believe yourself invincible, do you not?” As the Conqueror spoke, he inched ever closer to his brother. In an imperceptible instant, the conversation became a slow dance as the two Primarch started to circle each other, weapons at the ready, ignoring their remaining sons.

 

Yusuf was finally able to draw his eyes from the two godlike beings soon to be locked in a life-or-death struggle on the flagship’s bridge. A quick scan confirmed what he had already expected. No other Diadochi remained on the bridge; he was the only one to have remained focused, the only one who stayed by the Primarch’s side through the maddened orgy of slaughter that drove them here.

 

Kian Ranseng examined Yusuf with deep-set, dark eyes. “I know you,” he hissed, unable to hide his disgust. “I know who you are, and what you are. Tell me, cousin, how does it feel to have fallen this far?”

 

Yusuf picked himself up from the floor. Though the passenger inside reknitted his wounds, the attack of silver light pushed the other being down to a barely perceptible whisper. He no longer had his power sword or plasma pistol; the only weapon still mag-locked to his armor was a combat knife.

 

The Imperial Redeemer’s war plate was twisted and bent, as if it melted and refroze several times, each one mutating it further from its original form. Somewhere along the way Yusuf lost his helmet, and his gauntlets now closely resembled elongated talons of some predatory bird rather than the pieces of his Mark IV armor. The colors, too, had changed; what was once gold and bronze was now warped, sickly brown of old rust, smooth surfaces bubbled over with rough imperfections and jagged edges of crystalline protrusions.

 

The master of the Diadochi, perhaps the only one of the Diadochi still remaining, laughed. “Fallen?” The thoughts of a little boy who wanted to be so much more flowed to the surface as Yusuf answered. “I am more. So much more than you could possibly understand.”

 

“I suppose it was too much to ask for an intelligent answer,” Ranseng rebuked him. “Perhaps you should have spent more time with the remembrancers. They could have taught you some better clichés.”

 

“Nevertheless,” said Yusuf. “I am what I am. Made for war, and not for delusions of peace thereafter. Can you say the same thing for yourself?”

 

Ranseng shook his head. “I have no need to justify myself to the likes of you. The Council was right to order the destruction of Apella.” Before he finished speaking, he was on the run, his sword a blinding flurry of movement.

 

Yusuf struggled to keep up with the Illuminator’s speed. The exhaustion from the battles on Amitabha’s decks settled deep within his tortured muscles, and Ranseng’s power sword managed to score a series of small cuts on Yusuf’s arms and chest, only barely deflected by the strengthened metal of the combat blade.

 

Even then, the combat blade could not keep Ranseng away for a long time. Power fields were made to cut through even reinforced adamantium; the most Yusuf could hope to do was to take the blows sideways, weakening the metal of his weapon without allowing his opponent to cut through it all.

 

They were forgotten in the shadow of the gods, yet their battle was no less desperate. As Mohktal and Iskanderos traded blows and parries, Yusuf and Ranseng did the same, each a trained warrior in his own right, each a veteran of thousands of campaigns.

 

Ranseng was fresh, his strength and speed augmented by the psychic disciplines of his Legion, but desperation gave Yusuf enough celerity to stay alive, second after second, movement after movement. Some stubborn will to live kept him going, some repressed anger that was only familiar to those who saw the immortal dance of life and death and witnessed the beauty within chaos, the beauty of life struggling and triumphing in spite of forced trimmings of civilization and reason, the life governed by emotion and desire for change, passion and lust for growth.

 

The truth was finally revealed unto him, the truth that underlined his very existence and proved once and for all the futility of order, the meaninglessness of man’s struggles to conform the shapeless universe into the image that rejected most of the possibilities for the cold, emotionless certainty of one and only way. The truth demanded that Yusuf continued to fight. The truth demanded that he won the battle and the war. The truth would keep him on his feet in defiance of his body’s physical limitations.

 

The truth grew within him, at first subdued like a seed hiding under the thin cover of fallow earth, then rising up like the first sapling of what would become a mighty tree. It threw off the shackles of the harsh silver light that kept it down, roaring in defiance and finding footholds in the fractures that allowed it to cling to reality. It screamed its rage and hatred like a waterfall breaking down the dam, carrying death and devastation to the arrogant city below.

 

The combat knife, already mangled and twisted, fell out of Yusuf’s hand – not a sign of surrender or weakness, but a recognition that it was no longer necessary. Bestial eyes stared down Kian Ranseng as claws forged of blades and madness made manifest parried the power weapon’s strike. Two voices bellowed the cry of impending victory, one human, one daemonic harmonizing in an unsettling whole that was both Yusuf al-Malik and something else.

 

* * *

 

A monster flew on wings of black and grey, metal and ceramite, laughing at the world shuddering at his passing.

 

From the edge of the stratosphere, the battle at Apella seemed almost an afterthought, a blossoming of explosions too faint to attribute to any weapon or target of opportunity, the crawling of ants that, on closer observation, could have been war walkers, superheavy tanks, or other engines many times the size of a man. Above, the blue of the sky faded into the purple with the hints of ebony where the void war sent burning stars to their final, ultimate ends.

 

The monster’s name was Isaiah, and he was hungry.

 

Around him, three hundred warriors in the black and grey armor of the Fourteenth Legion, the Gargoyles, soared on atmospheric turbulence. The Stormbirds and the Thunderhawks that deposited them here already sped up back into the safe embrace of the void, leaving only trails of smoke as they attempted to avoid the anti-space fire.

 

They had little to worry about.

 

Isaiah’s helmet display pointed out troop positions, identifying advances and stalemates playing out across the Iandus Spaceport. There, the Illuminators managed to form a salient pushing into the heart of the Imperial Redeemers’ defenses. There, a Steel Wardens unit was pinned down under artillery fire, frantically requesting assistance as the Lion Guard threw more of their Marines into the kill zone, heedless of casualties as long as the objective was accomplished. Knight war walkers advanced ahead of the Angel Kings formations operating aside from the rest of the Council forces, a small detachment compared to the rest of the invading Legions, but an effective one nevertheless.

 

Left to their own devices, the Imperial Redeemers had scant hours before they would be forced to retreat, abandoning the landing zone and allowing the invaders to land in their numbers. It was the beginning of the end for the sons of Apella, the end of the Sixth Legion and its proud Primarch.

 

Or, Isaiah thought, it would have been the end.

 

Something savage, something bestial, something monstrous sought to slither out of the cracks in his mind’s armor. In the decades past, he would have suppressed it like a thing of shame, like something that could not be admitted outside of the Legion’s own.

 

Now, things were different. Very, very different.

 

He licked his lips, picking out the targets, not out of any tactical prudence, but out of hunger. The hunger was everything. It was life, it was the meaning and the ending all its own. It was the final order of the brilliant, insane, wise Primarch. It was the prime directive that could not, would not be overridden by any lesser notions of honor, pride, or discipline.

 

The scent, the taste of the fresh meat, the richness of blood the likes of which no mortal could provide. These were the things that hid the meaning of life.

 

The meaning of life was death, but it was also hunger, and hunger demanded to be sated.

 

“There… them…” Isaiah squeezed through his teeth, barely able to contain the anticipation at tearing through them, tasting the meat rich in the unspeakable energies, fully giving in to what he always was. A series of animalistic shrieks and grunts answered him as even the faculty of speech was becoming more and more difficult, more and more… unnecessary.

 

Three hundred warriors fell through the sky as vengeful, raging comets of black and grey, the first spear tip of seventy thousand Gargoyles descending to feed.

 

* * *

 

“Too many of them,” shouted Ishmael into the vox, signaling the 54th Company’s retreat through the elaborate system of trenches and bunkers. They bled the invaders, making them pay for each step with blood, but there were too many. By Ishmael’s estimation, no less than thirty thousand Illuminators and their allies were storming the Iandus Spaceport, each almost equal to the Imperial Redeemers they sought to destroy, each a scion of a demigod born and bred for war.

 

The orbital vox-links were a mess. Even with the command centers frantically rerouting the signals through the few surviving satellites, whole companies and batallions remained without orders for minutes at a time, their very survival unknown in the absence of communications. Frantic calls for reinforcements mixed with orders to advance, retreat, hold ground, or spread out. Occasionally, the networks were overtaken by noospheric interference, blurting out unfamiliar speech and battle cant that clearly belonged to other Legions.

 

“Hold the line, brothers,” Demetrios broadcasted from his base, though Ishmael had no idea where the Lord Commander was. For all he knew, the Primarch’s equerry could have been in an underground bunker somewhere, coordinating the defenses of Apella in Iskanderos’ absence, or in orbit on one of the Legion’s capital vessels battling the Illuminators in space. “We must not fold.”

 

Easy for you to say. The thought seemed almost heretical, yet it kept troubling Ishmael as he led his man back. Back, always back. Never forward. It sat poorly with him, as it did with most of his men; it was not the Apellan way to ever show their backs to the enemy. After all, they were the elites, the best of the best – the one Legion that brought the most worlds into the fold, the one Legion who had never been defeated on any battlefield.

 

He peeked from the trench as one of his men sprayed covering fire to deter any pursuers from getting too close. Rank upon rank of Illuminators advanced through the rubble of the spaceport in well-drilled formations, taking turns as they methodically covered ground. In the distance, several Knight walkers of Angel Kings advanced inexorably towards the Imperial Redeemers’ strongpoints, each war engine just barely small enough to survive rapid descent through the atmosphere where the god-machines of Titan Legions were too large.

 

If nothing happens in the next few minutes, we are dead meat here.

 

A lucky shot got one of the Illuminators, but more were coming soon, each accelerated beyond the normal abilities of Adeptus Astartes through their arcane disciplines. As much as Ishmael loathed to admit it, they were giving his men a hard time; the Seventh Legion were foes to be reckoned with.

 

Black dots came out of the sun, falling in a manner too organized to suggest debris. At first, Ishmael thought they were more drop pods, another wave of assailants seeking to push the Imperial Redeemers from the spaceport. He grit his teeth, fingers searching for another magazine to load into his bolt pistol.

 

It took him a moment to realize that these were not drop pods at all. This, this was what he waited for, the miracle the Primarch had promised, the very thing they were holding the line for. A savage smile played on his face as hope swelled within Ishmael’s chest. He took count of his surviving warriors – sixty four Marines still alive, fifty one still relatively intact and in the immediate vicinity to respond to his orders. That was going to be enough; maybe even more than enough.

 

“Brothers!” he shouted on the company-wide channel, heedless of the interference or the possibility that the enemy might pick up on it. “Are you ready for your deliverance?”

 

As the first airborne Gargoyles tore into the unsuspecting Illuminators from the rear, Ishmael ran towards the Seventh Legion, his sword pointing the way and the survivors of his company at his back.

 

* * *

 

Good. They are finally trying to fight.

 

Kei Phirn kicked a broken piece of rubble out of his way, spraying fire from his bolter on full automatic. Small fires lit up where his shells struck the tortured ground, each burning long after all reason suggested it should have been extinguished.

 

The battle-brothers of his squad added to his weight of fire, cutting down several of the charging Imperial Redeemers before the sons of Iskanderos even had a chance to get close. They were a rag-tag bunch, these Apellene defenders, and though the higher teachings of Mohktal stressed the importance of detachment from all emotion, Phirn allowed himself a measure of satisfaction.

 

Perhaps I am not ready for advancement through the Orders, he contemplated even as he continued to depress the trigger. He drew almost too much satisfaction from the act of slaughter unbecoming of the Illuminators rank and file, yet so commonplace amongst the other, less enlightened Legions. It was a fault to work on later, but for the moment, the sound of his Inferno bolts rushing through the air, igniting all in their path before instantly reducing power armor to a molten ruin was too satisfying.

 

There were no more than sixty Imperial Redeemers running at them, their number reduced by the second. A manic-looking officer was at their head, his helmet long since lost, his scarred face a maddened mask of rage and hysterical exertion.

 

This one would make for a good target, thought Phirn, adjusting the angle of fire to envelop the officer and to finally break the enemy’s fighting spirit.

 

The shells went wide, inexplicably, impossibly; then, the bolter itself fell to the ground, as did the hand holding it. Kei Phirn watched the separated part of his body in slow motion, not feeling the pain, not feeling anything other than surprise at the sudden intervention.

 

His brain barely had a chance to register the attack when the airborne Gargoyle slammed into him, whirling chainsword striking him again in the weak spot where the armor could not adequately protect his neck. The last thing Kei Phirn saw before the blackness claimed him was a throng of shadows descending on trails of black smoke and flame, tearing his unit to shreds before the Imperial Redeemers could even get to them.

 

* * *

 

Where their lessers had scuttled like carrion-eaters in the shadow of mighty apex predators, the demigods battled. The very air seemed to become saturated with the pent-up energy, each step wreathed in sparks as static electricity discharged with every movement, a halo of lightning following Mohktal and Iskanderos in their duel.

 

The Conqueror was the essence of aggressive perfection. His sword moved in quick, economic strokes that betrayed immense discipline; where a lesser warrior might have been tempted to slow down the tempo lest he expended too much of his reserves, Iskanderos was relentless yet not foolhardy, using his speed and strength to keep Mohktal on the defensive without creating an opening for the Seventh Primarch.

 

Against any other opponent, Iskanderos would have been triumphant many times over. Against Mohktal, he was barely inflicting damage.

 

The Seventh Primarch’s tattooed face displayed neither emotion nor strain as he wielded his staff two-handed, parrying, striking back with lightning speed, then withdrawing to continue the circular dance of the warriors too evenly matched to gain an advantage. The psychic force powering his weapon clashed against the energy field of the Conqueror’s sword, not able to prevail, not willing to give in.

 

The edges of the staff moved too fast for the naked eye to see; the movements of Iskanderos’ blade were a blur of silver and blue. Every time the weapons connected, they cast showers of sparks that floated down to the floor, each a miniature sun dying out unremembered and unwanted.

 

Alarms blared across the Amitabha; some were intruder alarms, indicating that perhaps, some of the Diadochi still lived and wreaked havoc; others pleaded for repair crews where the great warship started to take hits from the orbital defensive installations. The ship shook several times as macrocannon hits were negated by its void shields; the star field of the bridge flickered as rainbow colors blanketed the view, each an indication of straining generators.

 

“You have made a mistake by coming here, brother,” squeezed Iskanderos through his teeth. “This was never your war to fight.”

 

If he expected to get any form of a rise out of Mohktal, he was disappointed. The Primarch of the Illuminators took a second to reply even as his force weapon completed an impossibly fast pirouette, testing the Conqueror’s defenses and finding them too formidable for an opening.

 

“Dangerous allies you have found, Iskanderos,” the Enlightened One said, each word as even and emotionless as if he was lecturing a dedicated student in the peaceful surroundings of his study. “There are good reasons for why even those of us wise in the ways of the Empyrean choose not to delve too deep.”

 

As the Primarchs traded words, the battle continued. Without missing a beat, Iskanderos was on the offensive, spitting out words like venom.

 

“My allies are my own business, Mohktal,” the Conqueror rebuked his brother. A parry turned into an attack as Iskanderos’ sword slid down the force staff, almost managing to make it to Mohktal’s fingers before the Seventh Primarch leaped backwards. Iskanderos followed him, never more than a step away. “It is your allies that I am concerned about. Or, shall I call them as what they are – your masters?”

 

Once more, Mohktal did not rise to the bait. “Concepts of master and servant are irrelevant constructs created out of a fabric of social interaction. Overcoming such constraints is a sign of growth and development typical of progression from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood.”

 

As Iskanderos continued the attack, he laughed. “This is Mohktal I have always known. Always lecturing, always ready to philosophize, even when fighting. I have always liked that about you.”

 

“If this is your attempt to distract me,” Mohktal intoned without breaking cadence, “you will find it highly ineffective. This is not a statement of arrogance. Only a fact.”

 

“The facts are not favorable for your position, brother,” Iskanderos retorted. A flurry of attacks scored several marks across Mohktal’s armor, but failed to penetrate further. “You are outmatched and outclassed. But it did not have to be this way. If you…”

 

“Surrender?” the question in Mohktal’s voice was more academic than quizzical in tone. If anything, the Seventh Primarch moved even faster than before. He jumped on top of an instrument panel where brain-dead servitors continued to voice out their commands and meaningless streams of data, then swung the force staff around, coming to a statuesque stop as he looked at Iskanderos from the higher ground. “Or perhaps join you. It is irrelevant. If you wanted to negotiate, there was a time and a place for that. Then, we could have written a tale of challenges of this time, and how we would have overcome them. Now, you have chosen your story, and I have chosen mine.”

 

Iskanderos shook his head, composing himself as he examined his brother on top of the instrument panel, two meters above the floor. Dozens of cuts and scratches adorned the Seventh Primarch’s armor; the tattoos on his skin seemed somehow deeper and more vibrant, as if they had a life of their own outside of the confines of flesh. Mohktal’s eyes had an icy glow to them as thin webs of frost began to form in the air, their crystalline structures remaining afloat against all reason and laws of physics.

 

“I have the higher ground, brother,” Mohktal continued, undeterred. “In a matter of minutes, my reserves will be here. Surrender yourself to my custody, and I can promise that those of your Legion who are not… affected,” he nodded in the direction of Yusuf al-Malik, now a towering monstrosity of teeth, talons, and wings bearing down on stoic Kian Ranseng, “will receive a fair trial before the Council. I have the advantage. It is only rational for you to recognize that, and to acknowledge the fact rather than waste your strength in a futile endeavor.”

 

The Conqueror laughed. There was something deeply unsettling about it; the sound was coming from everywhere at once, as if the walls themselves joined in on the joke that only he fully understood. The crystalline structures in the air vanished as the air itself grew moist and slick with swamp heat and humidity.

 

“You really don’t get it, Mohktal,” he grinned maliciously, rasping the words as if the act of speaking was merely secondary to something else, something taking place in a dimension no mortal could understand and remain sane. “It is I, not you, who should be dictating conditions of surrender.”

 

The bridge was now bathed in golden light, though it, too, darkened. It was the yellow of fading light, the color of bronze under the centuries of grime, the brown of the swamp.

 

“There is power in the Empyrean,” Iskanderos said, his smile never going away. “You can partake in it, brother. We can remake the Imperium and humanity as it was always intended to be. All you have to do is renounce the Council and join in with me.” He extended one hand toward Mohktal, the other holding a sword. “What say you, brother? There are not many I would rather have by my side as we push humanity’s evolution to the next step. This, too, can be your legacy.”

 

“My legacy,” said Mohktal, for the first time showing a semblance of irritation, “is my own.”

 

Iskanderos’ lips curved down in a frown of disappointment. “A pity.” His eyes connected with Mohktal’s. For a moment, they held each other’s gaze – one a radiant force of pure emotion and forceful power, the other immovable, stoic, serene and graceful.

 

The Conqueror nodded, as if in understanding, or perhaps as a declaration of surrender. The words that came out of his mouth were a whisper, so quiet that they were barely audible.

 

“I am sorry.”

 

Then, the storm hit.


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THIRTY TWO

 

The Storm

Fury of the Destroyer

We are Coming

 

The light fractured before their eyes like glass shattered by a sudden gale. Time froze to a standstill, every speck of dust hanging in silent peace as if the gravity was compromised, every sound slowed down to a crawl imperceptible by human ears. Reality itself broke apart like cracked ice, forming a mosaic of dirty gold and faded, age-blackened silver slowly drifting apart in directions not limited by three spatial dimensions.

 

The bridge of the Amitabha fell away piece by piece like layers of an exotic doll, each fragment revealing something more twisted than the layer before it, something warped, distorted just enough to hint at what it once was. Everything – instrument panels, cyclopean equipment that issued commands to the great star vessel, the armored forms of Kian Ranseng and Warp-twisted monstrosity that was once Yusuf al-Malik – faded into ghost-like shells, each mutating into something else, a metaphor, a scent of synesthetic emotion made color and taste. The catwalks and the metal railing became gnarled branches of ancient trees; the void of space where the orbital battle raged became cloudy sky streaked with lightning, mere moments before the thunderstorm hit with its full fury. The many monitors and controls became moss-covered stones, their servitor attendants a collection of gargoyles frozen in mute terror or savage warning. The battling warriors became jagged rocks protruding from the uneven ground.

 

Where Mohktal stood his ground, a fortress of silver crystal rose against the stormy heavens like a fist challenging the gods themselves. Minarets and towers, elegant and tall, were the conduits for the dancing lightning. Banners of crimson and white waved in the intermittent wind, sometimes barely moving, at other times straining to stay attached.

 

Warriors in conical helmets of woven metal stood guard at the battlements, each a paragon of martial virtue with his tall spear and elongated oval shield. They were still in their well-drilled formations, perfect lines and ranks three deep at equal intervals from each other, identical in every respect from their weapons to their height, their build, the gleaming masks hiding their faces from the storm.

 

Against them, an army of burnished gold and bronze advanced in numbers under the banners as diverse and colorful as they were hurtful to the eye. Some of the attackers moved in tight ranks that spoke of years of campaigning together, their flags adorned with skulls and sharp-toothed axes. Others ran in wild abandon with their weapons as deadly as they were elaborate, their clothes and armor garish and oftentimes entirely lacking. A conclave of sorcerers robed from head to toe inched closer to the fortress, chanting solemn incantations in some language not meant for human ears, as a horde of maggot-ridden creatures on bloated, amphibian mounts slithered towards the castle gates dragging pestilential siege engines wreathed in diseased yellow smoke.

 

The wheeze of the gale became an accompaniment to the screams, screeches, and shouts of the besieging army. It was a counterpoint harmony to the song of rapacious ecstasy and wanton murder, the battle cry resonating from high heavens to the roots of the earth below, a name as much as a statement of intent.

 

Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros in the thumping beat of the thunder. Is-kan-de-ros in the sound of a thousand armored arms beating against the shields. Is-kan-de-ros as the harbinger of the castle's final, violent, inevitable demise.

 

As one, the horde charged.

 

The siege engines let loose with projectiles leaving trails of bilous liquid and flies. The bronze-armored warriors hacked at the gates in unstoppable fury until the very metal of the gates began to give way, climbing on top of each other in unquenchable lust to get to grips with the enemy even if it cost them their own lives. The sorcerers called forth bolts of molten energy that turned lightning-wreathed spires into lakes where metal and stone evaporated, raining down on the defenders below. And the chanting continued, louder and louder until it was the only sound left in the world.

 

Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros.

 

The silver warriors tried to stand and fight, but their valiant effort was for naught. They died one by one, never yielding, never retreating, always reforming their tight ranks even as the casualties mounted. In another time and place, their resistance would have been the stuff of legends, the heroic last stand that inspired the generations to come. Here, it only prolonged the inevitable.

 

As the thunder roared, the fortress began to fold upon itself.

 

Cracks appeared in its once mighty walls, struck again and again by the pestilential weapons or by the lightning descending from the angry heavens. The last remaining spires fell as if they were liquid suddenly subject to the cruel laws of gravity. The banners of crimson and white immolated, now scorched black and showing the gray of the boiling sky behind them.

 

The rain fell, but it was not water coming down from above in sheets of darkness. Blood rained down the battlements where the last of the silver warriors sold their lives dearly, staining their last resting place with the hues of deep, tenebrous red. Blood washed over the murderer and the murdered, the garish killers and the monsters of entropy.

 

The blood was all that remained.

 

It was a whirlwind taking up the remains of the battered walls and defenders into a swirling vortex that defied the wind and the storm, a living embodiment of wrath that came to the fortress, the essence of destructive, unstoppable conquest. Blood fell in thick waves which batted down the banners and the combatants alike, no matter their allegiance.

 

Out of the blood, a shape arose, a titan much taller than the remains of the dissolving spires, a creature beautiful and terrifying in his rage and bellowing the cry of its birth to all who would hear. A mighty hand made a fist, a threat against the heavens, or a celebratory salute. His hair moved slightly in the wind, red and black like drying vitae, framing the face of the tyrant, the general, the king who would no longer be denied his rightful inheritance.

 

The titan stood to his full height, towering above his monstrous army, a halo of captive lightning wreathing his noble face in a nimbus of constantly shifting light and shadow. The horde bellowed and shouted, hailing him as their lord and master, their commander and king, their savior.

 

Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros.

 

His foot stomped, shaking the very foundations of the fallow, blood-soaked earth. The remnants of the castle walls crumbled, some falling to pieces as masonry gave way to the forces arraigned against it, others melting as if they were made of ice exposed to incinerating heat of the flame.

 

One by one, the walls fell. The spires and towers slid down in a flurry of destruction as the hurricane made flesh manifested in their midst. Banners of crimson and gold waved for the last time before coming down for good.

 

The wind became a shriek of inhuman pain, the cry of terror that was somehow worse than the mere loss of a limb or even a mortal wound. It was the sound of a soul being thoroughly extinguished, the plea of the one who had thought himself inviolable until the final fateful moment when even the mightiest walls could not provide safety, and the centuries of training to suppress emotional weakness and unworthy passions proved inadequate to the power unleashed by beings made out of emotion and passion whole. It was the wailing of final death – not just of body, but of mind and spirit, both extinguished as the barriers protecting the mind inside broke and the damage flooded in.

 

Not yet, brother.

 

Iskanderos still stood up, tall and triumphant, but the warring army and the castle were gone. The sky was once again the star field, where the globe of Apella began its unhurried rise, and the void battle continued to rage. The mindless drone chatter of servitors replaced the rain; the grunts of two Legionaries locked in mortal struggle took place of the roaring thunder.

 

Mohktal was no longer on top of the instrument panel. The Seventh Primarch was slumped on the ground in fetal position before Iskanderos’ feet, fingers twitching with the residue of the psychic storm, his force staff abandoned and useless without a will to guide its destructive energies. A thin string of drool came out of the side of his open, lolling mouth; his eyes, once deep and full of calm and thought, were the empty of the idiot’s vegetative stare. The tattoos that once lined his skull in orderly lines were now a mess of blotches and ink stains, their arcane geometries erased and reformed by the powers beyond even his keen.

 

The Conqueror looked at his brother intently, trying to find any semblance of thought or reason in Mohktal and seeing none. Small streaks of lightning arced around his head and fingers, reminders of the storm he had unleashed and would unleash again before the war was over. He knelt down, holding Mohktal’s head in his hands, yet not eliciting any reaction, not even an instinctive attempt to withdraw.

 

“I am sorry, brother,” Iskanderos whispered, regretfully. “I am… sorry.”

 

* * *

 

All across the surface of Apella, the war raged. The icons before the eyes of Tilsit Demetrios were mute testament to its fury, easily surpassing even the most brutal conflicts of the Old Night and the early days of Apella’s overthrow of Sussan Hegemony.

 

Each rune represented a formation of hundreds, even thousands of men and war machines, from humble transports to continent-destroying Imperator-class Titans. Lines of text running across his visors pleaded for reinforcements, boasted of short-term victories, and claimed kills of particularly notable enemy heroes and commanders.

 

So far, everything went accordingly to plan.

 

The command bunker erupted in cheers as the Illuminators formation assaulting the Iandus Spaceport was shredded by a surprise airborne assault. The Fourteenth Legion, at least, followed through on its promises, but then, Demetrios had few doubts about the Emperor’s pet monsters. There was no place for them in the Council’s Imperium, especially with the enemies they had made; even the more dim-witted and savage amongst them could see that much. Siding with the lord of Apella was their only chance for survival – and, as a military commander, Demetrios could appreciate the value of their assault formations, augmented by the element of surprise.

 

No, the Gargoyles were not the Lord Commander’s worry.

 

He tracked orbital reports, each painting the picture of a battle in balance. The Gargoyles opened up on the Illuminators’ fleet, finally negating the sway of numbers under Mohktal’s command, but not yet fully turning the tide of battle. Their attacks, though characteristically poorly coordinated and haphazard, were sufficiently effective in drawing the Illuminators’ fire away from the Sixth Legion’s vessels, which was all Demetrios could ask for.

 

You do not control the Gargoyles. You point them at a target and let them be.

 

It was another force creeping across the long-distance orbital scanners that gave Demetrios pause. The battleships in the uncertain grey of dubious allegiance scrolled over the representation of orbital battle, making for the breach made by the Illuminators in their assault. They were the Iconoclasts, the sons of Nihlus, and they could mean the difference between an overwhelming victory and a hard fought battle that could doom the rebellion before it had a chance to truly start.

 

Both sides gave the Iconoclasts a wide berth; neither side attempted to contact them or to force them into a strategy. The Eighth Legion was a force of nature, its Primarch a strong-willed elder unwilling to cede command – an ally at best, an independent commander at the worst. But if they were on their side…

 

“Hail the Primarch,” Demetrios commanded, his underlings readying the tight-beam archaeotech transmitted that could reach Iskanderos in orbit. “Let him know that the battle hangs in balance.”

 

* * *

 

The Stormbird descended like an airborne predator at the head of a flock of razor-sharp teeth and wings. It was dirty and grime-covered from its entrance into the atmosphere, its armaments ugly yet functional and surprisingly advanced for all their unseemly appearance. Behind it, a thousand other craft, each armed and armored like the one next to it, blackened the sky.

 

Krast Herod watched the data feed detailing the situation below. The entry of the Gargoyles changed things; where previously the battle seemed like a foregone conclusion, it now became much more difficult to predict.

 

One way or another, we will decide this. The thought stayed with him over the roar of the engines, over the bumps as the dropship hit air pockets and swerved to avoid debris and stray shells. One way or another, this will end here.

 

“Lord Nihlus?” he ventured carefully, casting a wary glance at the enthroned form of his Primarch. “We are forty seconds from engagement range.”

 

There was a question in his words, implied yet not directly spoken. What now?

 

For long seconds, Nihlus did not answer. The Destroyer stared intently at the holographic projection before him, thinking, contemplating, analyzing.

 

Herod imagined what it must have been like for a being such as his sovereign. Did every rune represent a thousand possibilities that could be resolved to all too many conclusions? Was this formation indicative of the greater flow of war than even the Iconoclast Legionary could comprehend, or was it merely a snapshot of a process in motion? A small, treacherous thought tugged at him from the inside. Did the Primarch know what he was doing?

 

Twenty nine seconds. Twenty eight. Twenty seven.

 

Nihlus remained silent. There was a strange gleam in the Primarch’s savaged eyes, the kind that unsettled the mortals even more than the Destroyer’s horribly scarred visage. His face curled into a sneer, forever bitter, forever despising of those who, through a quirk of fate or fortune of upbringing, were not cursed with his path.

 

What would have happened had he not been… changed? Herod knew that Nihlus almost certainly knew what his warrior was thinking, and hurriedly pushed the thought down.

 

“You think it is a matter of bitterness, don’t you?” the Primarch said, heedless of the time.

 

Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.

 

Nihlus shook his head. “Even if it is bitterness, what does it matter, my son?”

 

Twelve. Eleven. Ten.

 

“We can grant victory to one side, or be latecomers for the other.”

 

Four. Three. Two.

 

“Let this victory be ours,” said Nihlus as the countdown to engagement range entered the fever pitch. “Engage the Council forces.”

 

Herod’s affirmative reply was drowned by the sound of the Stormbird’s guns beginning to fire.

 

* * *

 

There was uncharacteristic panic in Kian Ranseng’s eyes as he saw Yusuf’s transformation. The power sword in his hand moved in broad swiping movements, as if attempting to stave off an assault by a swarm of tiny, biting insects yet failing to keep Yusuf at bay. Armor and genhanced flesh became one, and that one was faster, stronger, tougher than either his body or its ceramite shell.

 

Attack, attack, attack.

 

All thoughts of exhaustion or pain fled Yusuf’s mind. The daemon inside roared its approval, no longer suppressed by Mohktal’s sorcery. Warp-forged talons met the Illuminator’s power blade, but now the two were equally matched in speed and strength, Yusuf’s passenger more than capable of standing up to Ranseng’s use of psychic disciplines to augment his own body.

 

Swipe. Thrust. Rip. Tear.

 

Every time the Illuminator scored a hit, the wound was healed almost instantly, leaving barely a scratch that closed ruptures in ceramite as quickly as it did with mangled flesh. The very fury of the fight, so uncharacteristic for one of Mohktal’s sons, gave Yusuf strength, making him stronger, faster, more nimble and infinitely more deadly.

 

And yet, Ranseng refused to give up. The Illuminator was now fighting for his life, not merely to slay the abomination his opponent had become, but to survive for another minute, another hour, to last just long enough to see his own Primarch triumph against Iskanderos. The two warriors, nearly forgotten in the shadow of the demigods dueling, continued their battle between instrument panels and catwalks, slicing through the inconveniently placed servitors in their struggle to stay alive.

 

Their roles, too, had reversed. Where Ranseng was once on the offensive, Yusuf was now the aggressor, pushing his opponent to the very limits of his physical and psychic progress. Every hit he scored against the Illuminator, every mark on the Disciple’s skin, every ruptured muscle and tendon made Ranseng that much weaker, while the Imperial Redeemer felt his passenger, the daemon, feed on the other’s discomfort, pain, and misery.

 

Yusuf was still pressing his advantage when Mohktal fell.

 

The sound of the Seventh Primarch hitting the floor reverberated through the metal of the Amitabha’s bridge. It made lights flicker and the instrument panels to emit showers of unexpected sparks, forcing even the mindless servitors to momentarily stop their chatter. A filter of silver and gold came over Yusuf’s eyes, disappearing as quickly as it came along.

 

Kian Ranseng lost his focus for the briefest of seconds, but it was enough.

 

Yusuf’s talon swept the Illuminator’s power sword out of his hand, flicking it across the bridge. The other talon pierced Ranseng’s armor just around the midriff, rupturing cables and protective layering until it finally met the soft, malleable flesh beneath. The Imperial Redeemer pushed his opponent down, looming over Ranseng like a bestial mountain of spikes, teeth, and muscle.

 

Through all of it, Kian Ranseng was laughing.

 

“This… your new form?” The Illuminator’s sounds were interspaced with coughs and the wet gurgling of blood coming out of his mouth. “You would… do this… rather than… fight like a man? I die like my father… a man of honor and repute. You live… a creature. A beast. A beast.” Ranseng spat out a gob of bloody phlegm in Yusuf’s direction. “Finish me now, creature, and may you live with what you have become.”

 

Emotions struggled within Yusuf’s breast. The temptation was there, all too present. His talons flexed, each a sharp blade capable of rending even the hardest man-made material. His weight kept the Illuminator down, defeated in battle yet not in spirit.

 

He was all too aware of Iskanderos finally taking note of his victory. Somewhere at the edge of his mind, Yusuf heard his name, a call, an order to prepare for a withdrawal to meet another threat. He looked at Ranseng, defiant until the end, and felt his mouth change again into a far more familiar shape.

 

I. Am. Not. A. Beast.” The words came out of Yusuf’s mouth as a hiss, formed by the lips and tongue only barely capable of speech. The golden light – the same light that enveloped him on Apella as a child all those decades ago, the same light that kept him focused through the battle on many decks of the Amitabha – clothed him in warmth and comfort, let him bathe in the feeling of home, the sense of belonging.

 

His Primarch, Iskanderos, the Golden One, the Conqueror of a hundred thousand worlds, was there, and he approved of what Yusuf was doing. He approved of Yusuf’s victory in the name of Apella and its master. New confidence filled Yusuf as he gave Ranseng a look of pity.

 

“I am not an animal, cousin,” he growled, fully aware of Iskanderos standing less than two meters behind him. “I am in control. I am the power that the likes of you sought to repress, and failed.”

 

“The power?” coughed Ranseng. It was clear that the protective healing coma of the Red Dream was not far away; the Illuminator was already beginning to slur his words. “This is abomination. You are…”

 

“Return to Terra, cousin,” hissed Yusuf, a being of two worlds with the body of a monster and the mind of a warrior. “Return to Terra, and tell them of what they are missing. Tell them of their failure.” He lowered his face to Ranseng’s, whispering as if in confidence, not afraid of the possibility that the Illuminator would spit acid from his Belcher’s gland. “Tell them, my cousin, tell them this. We are coming.”
 


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THIRTY THREE

 

Victory

Heretics

The Path to Terra

 

The Stormbird fell through the Apellene clouds like a drop of steel rain, heedless of any countermeasures or safety precautions. Had its crew been mortal, they would have long emptied their stomachs and bladders at the sharp turns, careless maneuvers, and acceleration not meant for human bodies. The two souls on board, however, had little to fear. After all, one of them was a god.

 

Iskanderos pulled the craft up in the last moment before impact with the ground. Tortured machinery screamed in protest as systems went into overdrive, trying to overcome the inertia of long descent and even longer engine burn. Lights flickered and died as the artificial gravity, already straining to overcome the effects of Apella’s own nearby mass, altered the g-forces from murderous to merely agonizingly painful.

 

The dropship shuddered and went silent as it hit the ground, its purpose served. Ignoring the warnings from the still-functioning systems of his power armor, Yusuf forced himself up from his restraints. Iskanderos was already on his feet, seemingly unaffected by the hurried rush of their descent.

 

“Come on, my son,” the Primarch said gently, offering Yusuf a hand to steady himself on. Despite his best efforts, the Legionary found it difficult to regain his footing, even with his gene-father to lean on. “You have done the Legion a great service, Yusuf.”

 

The ship’s ramp fell down with a screeching sound of damaged servos doing their final duty, and the Apellene air rushed in. Even injured and exhausted after the rough landing, Yusuf smiled. This was his homeworld; if he were to die, he would rather die here than anywhere else in the entire galaxy, standing by the side of his proud father and knowing that he, too, took part in a victory. The warrior in the best fighting force in the galaxy, the boy who looked up to a god and saw something to aspire to – after all, he was finally home.

 

A sea of dirty white and grey greeted them.

 

The warriors of the Iconoclasts parted before the Primarch, each a helmeted visage of brute force favoring older, less elaborate armor marks over the newer versions. Superheavy armored vehicles belched smoke into the Apellene sky, some familiar and widespread amongst the Legions, others almost certainly Nihlus’ newest and deadliest creations. In the distance, the sounds of the firefights died down, as if whatever resistance still stood before the Eighth Legion was slowly being eradicated.

 

Were they friends? Were they enemies? The questions remained at the forefront of Yusuf’s mind as he steadied himself, drawing strength and determination from the very soil of Apella. Hot, humid wind brushed against his face, tang of smoke and promethium laced with hints of the ocean salt.

 

A vision swam before his eyes every moment he blinked.

 

Ruined streets. Battle of the giants over the ruins of the homeworld. A kill team of the Eighth Legion hunting down survivors through the rubble. An impassive face, Mark IV helmet targeting him even as Yusuf moved in for a desperate kill. He tried to suppress the thoughts, knowing that he was amongst predators who would pounce at the first sign of fear, but the memory remained, stinging deeply as he walked into what might have been the end of him. Was the vision averted? Was the fate rerouted onto a different track, the one that did not end with the death of all he once cherished?

 

As Yusuf followed his Primarch’s lead, the Iconoclasts moved away, guns at the ready yet not firing. It took him a moment to realize that they were not just parting for the Imperial Redeemers.

 

“Iskanderos.”

 

Nihlus emerged from the sea of filthy white and colorless gray, tall, powerful, unmasked and revealing the horror of his ruined face to all who would look. The Destroyer’s hands were empty, but Yusuf had no doubts that if needed, he could reach for the oversized hammer on his back with little effort. The Eighth Primarch’s eyes were cold, sardonic, mismatched and impossible to read.

 

“Brother,” the Conqueror greeted Nihlus. There were no salutes, no handshakes, no exchanges of pleasantries. Neither Iskanderos nor his brother pretended that they were genuinely pleased to be in each other’s company, but their association was never built on companionship or camaraderie even in the best of times. “You came.”

 

“That I did,” Nihlus agreed. His voice was no longer the dry rasp but a basso rumble, slow, harsh, grating yet not entirely expressionless. “How does Mohktal fare?”

 

Iskanderos paused, as if contemplating before replying, eliciting a spiteful glance from his brother.

 

Nihlus snarled. “If you were unable to destroy him even with the gifts of the Four…”

 

“He will trouble us no more, brother,” Iskanderos smiled, raising his hand to forestall further angry denunciations.

 

“And yet he lives.”

 

“After a fashion,” Iskanderos replied, his tone somber. “Trust me, Nihlus, he is more useful to us alive than dead. Especially the way he is… now.”

 

For a minute, Nihlus continued to examine the Conqueror’s face for any hints of deception, no doubt probing with his psyker senses when his eyes could not serve the purpose. A sudden flash of understanding came upon him, as if some communication known only to the two of them just passed along.

 

“Is that so, Iskanderos?” The Destroyer sounded amused; one corner of his mouth, the one that was not locked in permanent rictus grin, moved ever slightly so to approximate a smile. “I thought you would give Mohktal the courtesy of a clean death.”

 

Iskanderos shook his head. “No, brother. There was a better way. A more useful way.”

 

“You always liked him,” Nihlus nodded in response. “I wonder… if you would have done the same for Hemri.”

 

“Do not go into wishful thinking yet, Nihlus,” Iskanderos smiled viciously, displaying a wolfish grin. “When Hemri’s time comes… he will wish that this was his fate.”

 

“Then it is decided.”

 

“Decided indeed.”

 

Yusuf saw an Iconoclast approach him – a warrior of no small stature, commander’s marks on his Mark IV power armor. A flash of memories – the same mask staring him down in his final moments, the brutal efficiency of murder that saw Apella burn in his visions. A name – a familiar one, for he had seen this warrior before.

 

Krast Herod, Yusuf’s eidetic memory helpfully recalled, one of the Council’s ambassadors from the Hunter’s Season and then a messenger relating the Conqueror’s message to his own Primarch rather than to the men of the Council. One of several who left Hegemon as emissaries rather than exiles, despite all appearances to the contrary, indicating that the message was heard and delivered.

 

The impassive Mark IV helmet stared at Yusuf, their height equally matched. For a moment, they stood next to each other, an Imperial Redeemer and an Iconoclast, a reflection of their respective Primarchs’ virtues and vices – and clasped each other’s armored vambraces in a warrior’s handshake.

 

* * *

 

The Reason was a nondescript vessel on the far edge of the invading fleet, a mere heavy destroyer with the hull painted black and no sigils of distinction to indicate that it was of any importance. Greater ships fought on and died by the minute – grand cruisers, carriers, troop ships, vessels of the line that cowed entire systems into submission with no support – yet Reason remained inviolate, too far from the main conflict to be reliably hit by the rebel attacks, too insignificant to be targeted by the Apellan defensive platforms or one of the traitor fleets.

 

If one were to step inside the ship’s winding corridors, the appearance would have proven to be deceptive.

 

Where an ordinary destroyer would have had decks upon decks of menials loading its long range weapons and frantically working on cooling systems of energy lances, mountains of arcane machinery replaced nearly all living crew. Though the Reason still had guns and missile launchers protrude from her hull, they were not crewed by humans, or even by the cyborg Mechanicum tech-priests. The weapons moved seemingly of their own volition, adding to the weight of Council fire, yet carefully targeting only the smaller vessels, keeping the heavy destroyer as indistinct and forgettable as possible in its many maneuvers.

 

Though the ship was almost completely bereft of living crew, it was not entirely empty.

 

In the commander’s cockpit, Milegros Atlas, the warrior of the Ninth Legion, frowned from his chair, monitoring the data feed as it grew more frantic, more desperate. No matter which level of tactical simulations he asked the ship’s guiding artificial intelligence to run, the results were inescapable.

 

The Council forces were losing, and they were losing badly.

 

There were no responses to most of his hails – not from Mohktal, not from high-ranking commanders on the ground, not even from the majority of the admirals guiding the Council forces under Mohktal’s command. Psykers, thought Atlas, cold disgust swelling in his chest. A Legion of psykers.

 

Of course, they would be vulnerable, he thought, recalling the indicators of the psychic attack spiking through his equipment displays, though he, of course, was immune to such distasteful means of waging war. Lord Nyxos was right not to trust their kind.

 

If his guess was correct, then the Illuminators would have lost most of their officers above the Captain rank. Atlas had already dismissed the possibility that anyone of sufficient rank or authority from the other Council Legions had survived; there was a reason Mohktal was put in overall command. Neither the Lion Guard, the Angel Kings, nor the Steel Wardens sent their top commanders to die in Starfall.

 

That left only one option, one choice, one Legion and Primarch with enough foresight to expect failure and to plan accordingly.

 

In the absence of Mohktal and the top leaders of the Illuminators, Milegros Atlas of the Grim Angels was now the highest ranking officer of the entire remaining Council force.

 

This battle was lost; there was no mistaking it for a vain possibility of victory, and the Bloody Ninth were not given to selling their lives without a chance to truly hurt the enemy. The most he could do was try to limit the damage, and to present his Primarch with something salvageable, something that could, with time and effort, be reforged into an effective fighting force again.

 

The Grim Angel keyed in commands, opening a comm-link to all Council vessels and as many ground troops as were still desperately trying to survive on the surface of Apella.

 

“This is Milegros Atlas, Grim Angels, Praetor, 90th Company. I speak with the authority of Primarch Nyxos and the Council of Terra.”

 

There was not much of a chance that any Legionaries still alive on Apella could escape, but if anything, they would at least serve to keep the traitor forces occupied so that the fraction of the Council armada could escape. Atlas took a deep breath, closing his eyes for the moment before continuing.

 

“I am giving a general order to withdraw. Repeat, general order to withdraw.”

 

At least, he thought, no one is questioning the orders. They must be shell-shocked.

 

Following the example of his Primarch, Milegros Atlas did not trust many outside of his own Legion. Trust was weakness that could be exploited by others; trust was what allowed the Illuminators to be ambushed by their erstwhile allies, the Gargoyles and the Iconoclasts. The Grim Angels would not make the same mistake; though the throwaway formations of new recruits and veterans far past their prime were dying on Apella, the Legion’s true strength lay elsewhere, closer to the Sol System, and was undiminished by this defeat.

 

He was about to instruct the heavy destroyer’s artificial intelligence, a system so arcane and rare that its very existence was a secret, a crime against the perfection of man punishable by death, to prepare for the Warp transition, when a rare hail sparked up before him on the holographic display. He magnified the picture, taking note of the source, then almost whistling in surprise. This, indeed, was entirely unexpected.

 

The Amitabha, the flagship of the Illuminators, now veering closer towards the decaying orbit over Apella, its void shields down and multiple explosions blanketing its sides.

 

Atlas amplified the signal, listening in before replaying with a curt affirmative. He cursed under his breath; the neat, orderly plan of retreat has been once again compromised. The Grim Angel switched to the inter-squad vox frequency, summoning the only other living souls on board of the Reason.

 

“Brothers,” he spoke tersely, waiting for affirmation from the ten Grim Angels veterans, his honor guard, his contingency for when desperate times required desperate actions, before continuing. “Teleportation chamber. Two minutes.”

 

Grunts of assent followed as Milegros Atlas rose up from his command throne and broke into a run.

 

* * *

 

The squad of Grim Angels materialized with a cracking sound of displaced air, weapons at the ready, helmets sealed for hostile atmospheric conditions. A scene of utter carnage greeted them.

 

Once, this was the bridge of a Gloriana-class vessel, the flagship of a Primarch and one of the crowning accomplishments of mankind. Once, but no longer.

 

The walls bled miasmic slime and pungent ichor that looked disturbingly organic. Though the remnants of many instrument panels were still recognizable, they were rapidly becoming overgrown with vegetation that looked to be composed of tentacles and thorns as much as it did of leaves and branches. Corpses were strewn around the bridge, mostly mortals with their entrails hanging out of their torn bellies and eyes popped from terrified faces, but also some armored Illuminators Legionaries, rent from limb to limb and dismembered with bestial, savage abandon.

 

“Contacts!” Atlas shouted, trusting in his eyes when his in-built auspex started to go haywire. Several beasts the size of a full-grown Legionary, yet malformed in ways that no natural evolution could have produced, pounced through the vegetative growths, gaining speed even as the Grim Angels’ mass-reactive rounds raced to meet them.

 

The Praetor’s eyes registered the many features that should not have belonged together – scales, horns, teeth that were clearly made for ripping flesh, pincers like those of a crustacean next to spikes, haphazardly placed eyes, and many mouths; but it was not the worst part. Inside the mess of mutant flesh that made up the creatures, he could still clearly see the remnants of Legiones Astartes ceramite plate the color of gold and bronze.

 

As the first monster neared him, it came to a sudden stop, sniffing the air as if in disbelief. Atlas shot it once, twice, with little effect. The creature roared, backing up in pain.

 

“On me, brothers,” Atlas commanded. He was the only one amongst the Grim Angels clad in traditional power armor, yet his unique power was clearly having an effect on the creatures. Somehow, it made him think of what it did to the psykers, the witches, the tainted.

 

The Praetor swung his lightning claws in tight arcs, eliciting a screech of pain from the creature. It hissed, trying vainly to counterattack yet clearly slowed down by the aura of otherness emanating from the Grim Angel.

 

A scream of pain. An icon on Atlas’ helmet went dark as another one of the creatures managed to penetrate the defenses of a Terminator at his rear. The Praetor sliced through his target, breaking into a run and hoping that his guards would follow.

 

There, less than fifty meters ahead, was his objective, the reason for the panicked transmission seeking to salvage some semblance of meaning from this failed mission. Inside the trap of fleshy vines and abominable growths, Atlas could see the unmistakable, still living shape of Mohktal, the Seventh Primarch.

 

* * *

 

The Terminators died one by one, each in a different yet similarly excruciating way. One was impaled on an errant spike suddenly emerging from the floor where previously only cables and gears lay; another was opened like a can of emergency rations by a clawed fiend that condensed out of thin air before becoming a cloud of mist that drifted away to the upper rafters. Yet another Grim Angel put an entire magazine’s worth of shots into a towering abomination that consumed the bodies of the fallen to repair its own injuries, only to be enveloped by the creature and dissolved by its stomach juices, still fighting until the very end.

 

Only Atlas remained inviolate as his men died around him.

 

The creatures shied away from him, repelled by his psychic null-field – a gene so rare in general population that even in the Imperium of countless trillions, only a handful of men like him existed. Even fewer were suitable for implantation with the gene-seed, and only a singular number managed to survive tissue rejection produced by an attempt to uplift a blank into a post-human form.

 

Milegros Atlas was aware that he was not liked. Very few of his kind ever were, as mortals and transhumans alike found the presence of blanks to be unsettling. Once, on a compliance mission many centuries ago, a captive xenos psyker told the Grim Angel that he could not be seen in the Warp, that he had no soul – an abomination that had no right to exist. Though the witch had perished at Atlas’ hands moments later, the truth of the statement remained with the Praetor for decades to come.

 

Now, it was his weapon, the very reason why he was crafted and trusted by his Primarch to oversee Operation Starfall and to ensure that all valuable assets returned to Terra.

 

Next to Atlas, the vines withered and died. The thorns immolated, leaving only the black of dessicated husks easily crushed under his power-armored tread. He managed to decapitate a mutant creature that still bore enough hallmarks of a Space Marine to make bile rise in disgust in Atlas’ chest, then rushed forward, hacking at the dying vegetation with his lightning claws and trusting in his men to survive long enough for it to matter.

 

In a matter of seconds, he stood over a slumped form of a fallen god.

 

Mohktal’s eyes were vacant and unblinking, not cognizant of the horror around him. The Seventh Primarch’s garb was still the militant armor once forged in the foundries of Mars, but its luster was now faded, rusted as if it was left for decades to wither in the unforgiving elements. The tattoos that once covered his face became misshapen ink spots, no longer serving any purpose but left in complete disarray. His mouth was open and slack, his fingers motionless as he lay curled in, unthinking, unfeeling, unmoving. Only long, shallow breaths suggested that he was at all alive.

 

Next to him was the corpse of an Illuminator, an officer by the looks of him lying on his stomach with one hand vainly outstretched, as if trying to reach the Primarch in one last desperate motion. A pool of blood gathered near the warrior’s torso, though it had begun to congeal in a belated action of his Larraman cells. The officer’s armor was bent and torn, partially ripped open yet not entirely destroyed.

 

Atlas placed an armored hand on the warrior’s bloodied temple, then recoiled as his armor’s sensors suggested faint, barely present pulse.

 

This one still lives.

 

Behind the Praetor, only two Terminators remained, their lightning claws attempting to stave off the assault of inhuman nightmares. If Atlas’ tactical readouts were any indication, the ship did not have long to live; it was almost certain to reach terminal orbital decay in mere minutes, where it would continue on its long, hopeless trek down to the surface of Apella. Perhaps, the Grim Angel thought wistfully, it would do more damage in death than it did in life.

 

No matter, he reminded himself. There is still duty to be done.

 

He recalibrated the device on his belt – an archaeotech module as rare and precious as the Reason’s synthetic intelligence. A pity. Atlas calculated the distance. It was just barely enough to envelop him, Mohktal, and the comatose Illuminator. For a moment, he contemplated leaving the officer of the Seventh Legion to his fate, then he reconsidered. He needed a witness, someone who could tell Nyxos just what had happened here.

 

“Hansi. Ansalt.”

 

The warriors grunted in understanding. Every Grim Angel swore an oath to fight to the bitter end when the greater design was endangered, sacrificing his life when it was necessary. This was the sacrifice Atlas himself was prepared to make; this was what he now had to ask of his men.

 

“May purity guide you, and bring justice to the heretics, Grim Lord,” Hansi shouted even as he attempted to fight off a many-limbed, ever-mutating abomination. As the Grim Angel spoke, the creature skewered him through, only to be struck in the back by Ansalt’s lightning claws.

 

Heretics. Now, that was an apt word, a term that truly described what he had witnessed, for this witchery was the gravest of heresies against the soul of humanity, the ultimate betrayal of the Emperor’s dream.

 

“I will remember, brother,” the Praetor responded in solemn gratitude, watching the warrior’s last dying gasps as the creatures of nightmare closed in.

 

Hansi’s death bought Atlas just enough time to depress the rune on the archaeotech module. In a flash of actinic light, Milegros Atlas, Mohktal, and the unconscious Illuminator vanished.

 

* * *

 

After the last of the invaders were slaughtered in droves or dragged in chains to the work camps where they would spend the rest of their lives rebuilding the destruction caused by their weapons; after the burning wrecks of warships and troop transports were towed towards the decaying orbit leading them into the heart of Apella’s sun; after the forces of three victorious Legions gathered their own dead and reformed into the neat parade columns suitable for marching through the city streets – peace reigned.

 

The citizens of Apella assembled in their throngs to give thanks to their lord, their deliverer, their god and his divine (though almost certainly lesser) brothers, their newfound faith reaffirmed by the miracle. Up in the sky, a shadow over twenty kilometers in length hung in suspended motion, pushed back into orbit through means arcane and unknowable before its terminal descent brought it into contact with the planet’s surface. The Amitabha, a new artificial moon forever joined to Apella by the bonds of orbital mechanics, the monument of Iskanderos’ greatest victory and the temple to the powers he now commanded.

 

The three Primarchs stood side by side on a platform near the top of the Hegemon’s Tower, itself a legacy of another age, rising an entire kilometer above the city of Avecia. From the ground, they were barely visible, even with the binoculars helpfully distributed to the general population gathered for this momentous event. Iskanderos, Nihlus, Angelus – three masters of mankind, each an imposing and terrifying presence all his own, yet together an unstoppable force that promised to bring the fight to Terra herself.

 

Below, a cordon of Legionaries dressed for parade ensured that only the most carefully screened mortals were allowed within range of sniper weaponry. The Imperial Redeemers were most prevalent, making up the majority of their numbers save for an occasional patrol of Iconoclasts and a rare group of Gargoyles making rounds. Further out, millions of Apellans thronged the streets, eager to witness the triumph the likes of which would never be seen again.

 

The holographic screens projected the details into every household, from the humblest serf to the wealthy, powerful scions of noble families with lineages going back to the mythical age before the Old Night; on those screens, the noble lords of mankind reigned. Angelus, the winged deliverer with the face of a hero, his hunched body and wild eyes helpfully obscured by the camera angles and judicious amounts of digital editing, the chains binding his feet to the ground invisible behind the parapet. Nihlus, the masked destroyer, one of the first Primarchs to be discovered who, too, chafed at the iniquities of the Council, and who would lead in the war to free the Emperor from his ungrateful, treacherous sons. Iskanderos, truly the Golden One, the general as well as the prophet, invincible in his radiance and splendor.

 

Looking at them, how could mere mortals believe the Council’s propaganda? How could they imagine that these gods amongst men would seek to overthrow the Emperor rather than free him from the usurpers? Surely, those stories must have been the Council’s deception, for how could the living embodiment of everything that was good and right in the universe be telling them a lie?

 

These were the princes of man in their finest hour, and their time was now.

 

* * *

 

“Good show, brother,” said Nihlus sardonically once they were away from the adoring crowds, well inside the underground command bunker.

 

The Gargoyle handlers have long led Angelus away, sometimes prodding him on as if he was a dangerous wild animal, the rattling sound of his chains a reminder of what became of him. In his stead, a warrior of the Gargoyles named Isaiah remained, a wild-eyed Argosian with teeth filed to sharp points and armor covered in primitive tribal designs. Nihlus treated the Gargoyle as if he was not there, a being so far beneath the Destroyer’s notice that it could not have possibly been an equal member of the war council.

 

Iskanderos laughed. “The crowds. They like their little spectacles.”

 

“The crowds…” Isaiah hissed.

 

“The little worm speaks,” Nihlus intoned evenly. His mask was off again, the synth-skin already peeling from the ruin of his cheek. “If it speaks again without permission, brother, I will skin it and wear its face for the rest of our talk.”

 

Though it was clear that the Gargoyle’s temper was incensed, Isaiah must have thought twice about his chances of successfully confronting a Primarch, and kept his peace.

 

“Now, where were we again, Iskanderos?”

 

The Conqueror nodded, paying little heed to Isaiah as he faced Nihlus. “The same strategy we spoke of should work well against the Council. Your forces can work their way through Corwin’s little pocket empire. Keep him engaged and committed for as long as necessary.”

 

“As long as necessary for what?” A synthetic eyebrow plastered to Nihlus’ scars rose in question.

 

“Consolidation of forces,” Iskanderos answered. “If you keep him busy, he will not be able to bring his Legion to Terra.”

 

Nihlus laughed. “Keep him engaged rather than destroy him. That is an interesting choice of terms.”

 

“Only because you know it as well as anyone. Corwin is the best general the Council has,” Iskanderos said. “I am a man enough to admit it. If he remains engaged, he cannot command whatever armies they send against us. He cannot be allowed to stop our path to Terra.”

 

“Are you saying that… you are afraid of what Corwin might do?”

 

Iskanderos shook his head. “No, Nihlus. You misunderstand me. One on one, my Legion against his, no external factors… he can bleed me, but not win. But there are external factors.” He started counting off on his fingers. “One, the Council is certain to send additional forces against us. If they link up with Corwin, they will be very difficult to dislodge. The Sixth Legion will be needed to prevent them from linking up, and to destroy them piecemeal.”

 

“Two, we will be fighting Corwin on his home territory, with long supply lines, and he is smart enough to know that a war of attrition would serve to his advantage. Three,” he bent another finger, “Corwin’s allegiance has always been to his little kingdom more than to the Council. He will not shy away from his duty when the fighting is near his territory – no, he is too inflexible for that – but if the Council relief forces are defeated and the war moves to Segmentum Solar, he would be more willing to protect his own sectors than to send reinforcements to Terra. And, most importantly, four,” Iskanderos smiled viciously, enjoying the moment of the reveal, “you will have numeric superiority.”

 

Nihlus’ eyes narrowed, though it was impossible to tell if it was in surprise or in appreciation. “Which one of our brothers is it, then?” the Destroyer’s words were followed by a rough bout of coughing. It took Iskanderos a second to realize that it was deep, harsh laughter.

 

“Baelic,” the Conqueror answered him, eliciting a quizzical look.

 

“Him?” asked Nihlus, visibly surprised. “The glory boy himself? How did you manage it?”

 

“The usual,” Iskanderos shrugged. “He thinks that the Council has been overlooking him and his victories, and that they look down on him and never give him any real respect.”

 

“Which is, of course, true,” Nihlus laughed. “So you offered him a glorious campaign… and he accepted. That sounds just like what I would expect from him.”

 

Iskanderos’ face grew serious as he continued. “He can be a useful… tool in the right circumstances. But,” he looked Nihlus straight in the eye, “there is also a good reason the Council never trusted him. He is dangerous. Unpredictable. Untrustworthy.”

 

“So you need me to keep him focused,” Nihlus concluded, nodding in assent. “Very well. That I shall do. Anything else?”

 

Iskanderos turned to Isaiah, finally deigning the Gargoyle worthy of his attention. “The Fourteenth Legion should execute a pincer maneuver from the galactic north. No more restraints. No rules. Scorched earth tactics.”

 

“Why?” Nihlus asked, puzzled. “What is there of value?”

 

“Not what,” Iskanderos explained. “Who.”

 

An understanding dawned on Nihlus’ face. “This will force Hemri to send another one of our brothers there. But who? Let’s see…” The Destroyer nodded, contemplating. “Not Stefan. He will not leave his holdings, especially with my operations against Corwin not far away. Not Gideon, as much as he would have liked to be there – the most of his strength is on the wrong side of the galaxy. Hemri himself will not leave Terra, and he will not trust an underling to do it right. Who else does it leave? Echelon? Ashur? Griven Kall? Maikhaira?”

 

“Maikhaira is with us,” said Iskanderos softly, to Nihlus’ surprise. “He… declared his intentions to me through an emissary.”

 

“Wonder what made him side with us,” Nihlus mused. “No matter. What of the Gargoyles?”

 

“Their – your mission,” Iskanderos made sure Isaiah took note of his words, “is to draw the Council forces out, and to keep them occupied until my own Legion makes a breakthrough. Whoever the Council sends, you must bend but not break. Is that understood?” Cold fires of yellow and orange sunset danced in his eyes.

 

“Yes, lord,” replied Isaiah, lowering his eyes in submission.

 

“My guess,” Iskanderos said slowly, “it will be Nyxos, or, if Hemri prefers to keep him close to home, the First Born.”

 

“Kthuln? Now that would be a battle for the ages,” Nihlus remarked.

 

“Whichever of them it ends up being,” added Iskanderos with the air of finality, “the Gargoyles must keep them occupied until either my own Legion penetrates into Segmentum Solar, or we have more reinforcements.”

 

“You expect more, Iskanderos?” Nihlus asked him. “You have five Legions on your side already, and have all but destroyed one of theirs. Who else do you expect to join us?

 

A cryptic smile came to Iskanderos’ face. “We shall see, brother. Not all of our kind are beholden to Rogr Hemri and his ilk. We shall see.”


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#43
Midgard

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EPILOGUE

 

The darkness knew. It slithered around the corners, filling in every crack and crevice, its tendrils present amongst the pits suggesting tables, chairs, or columns. It obscured everything – the faces, the names, the sentiments of beings used to walking in the light. Only the voices remained.

 

“He is flawed,” said one, a frail-sounding male voice with the kind of tired tremble given off by advanced age. In this place where all shadows became one, and all manners of technological and sorcerous means were employed to keep the conversation hidden from prying eyes and ears, it was impossible to tell where it was coming from, or even who the speaker was.

 

“So he is,” the other voice agreed. This one was difficult to place, at once young and ancient, full of vigorous joy and regretful remorse distorted by the room’s protective wards and machinery. It was hard to guess if it was even the speaker’s natural voice, or if it was forcefully synthesized through a synapse-linked vox-grille. “And yet it is the best chance we have, because he is flawed. Strong enough for them to claim. Flawed enough to be predictable.”

 

A sound – cackling, coughing, uncertain clearing of the throat.

 

“You have something to add?” the second voice inquired, all the distortive effects making it almost melodious.

 

The coughing stopped. “Was all of this… necessary? The killers? The… sacrifice?”

 

“Yes,” the machine-twisted voice answered. “The future cannot be fully altered. It can only be controlled, no different from a flood. You can reroute it to where it will do the least damage, but you cannot build a dam high or strong enough to stop it from doing any harm.” The voice paused, perhaps taking a breath, or thinking what it was going to say next. “The rebellion was inevitable after all factors are considered. The very preconditions of reconquest made it impossible to avoid. It was only a question of who would lead it.”

 

“And therefore, it had to be controlled,” the old man concluded.

 

“Yes, controlled,” replied the other. “For the good of all, it must be controlled.”

 

* * *

 

The Primarch waited impatiently, pacing across the gilded floor before the gates of the Council chambers. He cast severe glances at the Custodian attendants, though he could not tell if they elicited any reactions beneath their conical helmets, or if they knew anything at all about the summons.

 

The summons. The very idea irritated him, though it was not the first time his erstwhile brothers thought so little of him as to summon him into their presence.

 

Who do you call when all the noble and bright sons are suddenly needed elsewhere? Who do you call when the rules of war no longer matter?

 

It was always like this, he thought bitterly, counting steps to pass the time. One, two. One, two.

 

He was tall and relatively thin for his kind, with a disheveled mane of hair so light it was nearly colorless and eyes of such watery blue that it could have been white. His face was pockmarked with small burns and scars that came from working too close to toxic substances few times too many – almost entirely normal and even pleasant from the distance, yet less perfect the closer one got to him. His thin lips were curled in a scowl of perpetual disapproval, the crease by the side of his mouth indicating that he was accustomed to the expression.

 

The doors started to open.

 

The Primarch stopped, facing the arch leading to the Council chamber and making himself still as a statue. They will not see the effect of this indignity. Not now. Not ever again. A Custodian walked forward, a herald by the looks of him. The Primarch wondered how long it would take him to dispatch the herald before the other guards would even take note; the analytical, cold thought suggested less than three tenth of a second. It was a comforting thought; a pleasant thought.

 

“My lord,” the Custodian bowed slightly. “The Council has requested your presence.”

 

Requested. Not asked for.

 

The Primarch did not bother to acknowledge the herald with a nod or a sound. He walked through the door, his eyes never leaving the far end of the passage where it opened into a chamber, the seat of his brothers.

 

In another era, this was the place where the old Imperial Senate made its rulings, an advisory body made obsolete with the rise of the Primarchs. Little by little, it was replaced by the budding Administratum, until it, too, became an arm of the Council with the Emperor’s sudden withdrawal. Now, even the Council itself had changed.

 

The faces looking down at him from their elevated seats did not belong to mortals. Rogr Hemri, Nyxos, Echelon, Gideon, Stefan Ignatiyev, Dyal Rulf, Griven Kall. No Mohktal or Corwin, though. The Primarch wondered what it meant.

 

“Brother,” Hemri greeted him, a worried smile drowning in his bushy beard.

 

“Dispense with pleasantries, Rogr,” the Primarch replied scornfully. “It suits you all too well.” He looked around, noticing many empty seats. “No Malcador. No Mechanicum. No mortals. An interesting gathering you have there, brothers.”

 

“A necessary one,” said Nyxos. The words sounded like they slithered out of the Ninth Primarch’s mouth.

 

“Dire times require dire measures,” the Primarch cited. “A very familiar refrain. What is the great secret that our friends should not be privy to? Is this why Corwin and… Mohktal are not here?”

 

“Mohktal failed,” Nyxos said, not bothering to elaborate.

 

Hemri smiled, trying to defuse the mounting tension. “What Nyxos is trying to say is that Mohktal was unsuccessful in defeating our rebel brother at Apella. To make matters worse, it seems that Angelus and Nihlus betrayed us, and were at least partially responsible for Mohktal’s defeat.” The Consul of Terra looked tired yet agitated. “Baelic and Maikhaira, too, declared for Iskanderos. He – can you believe it? – He claims that we have the Emperor captive, and that he is coming to free Him from us. Can you believe the audacity?”

 

The Primarch sneered. “These accusations are very easy to disprove. Our father has but to appear to put an end to them.”

 

It was Nyxos who answered. “We tried. The Emperor did not grant any of us an audience. Even Malcador – Malcador does not know where he is.”

 

“So there is an appearance of truth to Iskanderos’ accusations,” the Primarch concluded. “An appearance… or a truth? You tell me.”

 

Though Hemri looked like he was about to lose his temper, Nyxos waved a hand in a conciliatory gesture.

 

“You know as much as we do, brother,” Nyxos replied, not raising his voice or letting tension get to him. “I, for one, can vouch for myself and every member of the Council present that we are, and have always been, the loyal sons of the Emperor.”

 

Can I trust them? The Primarch looked at his brothers, regal and yet all too smug and self-assured on their thrones. Suddenly he felt exposed standing in the center of the room, unable to face all of them at the same time.

 

“Our duty remains the same though,” Hemri said, his temper under control. “We must protect Terra, the Emperor, and the Imperium.”

 

An interesting order of priorities, the Primarch thought, saying nothing. His eyes flicked to another one of the empty seats.

 

“Corwin. Where is he?”

 

Nyxos was the first to answer. “Our brother Corwin has returned to his homeworld at Lodoq Tir. There were reports of the Iconoclasts and the Warblades moving against his domain.”

 

So he ran to protect his own hide, contemplated the Primarch bitterly. I wonder why?

 

“What of Mohktal? Does he still live?”

 

After an uneasy pause, Hemri nodded.

 

“Where is he, then?” The Primarch clenched his teeth. Of all his brothers, only Mohktal seemed to treat him with any semblance of dignity in the times before the present crisis. “I want to speak to him.”

 

Hemri shook his head. “I am afraid Mohktal is… indisposed.”

 

“What do you mean, Rogr?” There was an undertone of fury in the Primarch’s words, a promise of something highly unpleasant if he did not receive a satisfactory answer.

 

“You tell him,” Hemri darted a look Nyxos’ way. The Ninth Primarch nodded in consent.

 

“Very well,” said Nyxos by the way of an explanation. “Mohktal lives, but only just so. Iskanderos did something to him.”

 

“Take me to him, Nyxos,” the Primarch demanded. “Take me to him, or you can stop with this farce.”

 

“I am afraid you will not get much of an answer from Mohktal, brother,” Hemri spoke slowly, as if to defuse the situation. “He is… not himself.”

 

“What do you mean?” an expression of shock briefly flashed on the Primarch’s pockmarked face, only to be replaced by a stoic mask he had perfected over the centuries.

 

“What I am trying to say is that Mohktal… his body is intact, if that is what you are concerned about. His mind…” Hemri spread his hands, “his mind is gone.”

 

A sequence of images replaced one another in the Primarch’s mind. Mohktal, always wise, always calm, collected, always reliable. Always trustworthy.

 

“I will take you to him myself if this is what it takes,” spoke Hemri. “You can then see it with your own eyes, the crime of Iskanderos.”

 

“You speak a mighty game,” the Primarch finally said, slowly, each syllable enunciated. “Why are you not out there with all of your numbers, grinding Iskanderos to nothing? What do you want of me?”

 

Hemri raised his hand in a gesture that was both conciliatory and somehow condescending at the same time. “Patience, brother. Patience. We cannot leave Terra undefended. Our mobile reserve is already committed in the galactic south, and as for some of our other brothers… let’s just say that temptation might be too strong.”

 

Always called on when honor is no longer a concern. Always called for when the battles had to be won at any cost. Always reliable; never trusted.

 

“So you call on me,” the Primarch concluded, his eyes meeting Hemri’s in an unspoken challenge.

 

“Yes, brother, I call on you. Will you save the civilization as we know it from the greatest betrayal this galaxy has ever seen? Will you and your Legion serve humanity and succeed where our noble brother had failed? Will you stop Iskanderos once and for all?”

 

“Will you, Marvus?”

 

 

 

THE END


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#44
MikhalLeNoir

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Damn....i really want to read this...but I fear it could influence my own work....damn....my mind is twisted

Open for Comissions, just PM me. The Wardens of Light were like golden blades, cutting down their enemies scarring the darkness.

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#45
Azorius

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So Emperor brought the Consecrators, Lion Guard and Imperial Redeemers instead of canon DA, UM and EC.

 

That means those three Legions are the among the most powerful, prestigious and, above all, trustworthy to the Emperor. Considering everything, this fact provides rather intriguing implications...


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#46
Midgard

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The original intent was for the Consecrators to have their own storyline in the series, which would have been centered on their pragmaticism, planning, and loyalty (as they interpret it) - their original idea was to have a grey eminence, scientist primarch who applies logic to all problems at hand, yet, unlike the canon Alpha Legion, the Consecrators were not supposed to be obsessed with secrecy and plans-within-plans. The Imperial Redeemers, of course, were one of the most accomplished Legions, capable of almost any kind of warfare... while the Lion Guard is as close as Space Marines got to expendable (they are very numerous, and their primarch, Rogr Hemri, is heavily invested in the Imperium's power structure as the ultimate demagogue/politician type interested in the political arena over outright military conflict).

 

The presence of these Legions at Molech was supposed to factor into this (as well as my interpretation that the Emperor was more than just a "terrible father" trope, but instead had a hand in directing the events of the Heresy in a way that he could control, more or less - as opposed to the events being completely outside of his control), though sadly, I ran out of motivation to write more Twisthammer after three novel-length books and a site detailing the history of the universe and each alternate primarch/Legion. I did think occasionally about writing more, but have not found a whole lot of time/motivation recently.


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#47
MikhalLeNoir

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You could always join the ranks of the brotherhood to have u write something else. Sticking the whole time in one universe could wear you out.
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Open for Comissions, just PM me. The Wardens of Light were like golden blades, cutting down their enemies scarring the darkness.

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#48
Kelborn

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Agreed.

 

Join us. We have cookies! :)


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#49
Midgard

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Appreciate the offer guys, though at this point I am not sure how much time I have to dedicate to any project of this magnitude. The more time passes, the busier I tend to get with career, family, and other things. At this point I would find it difficult to produce 100K+ word works of fiction with any degree of regularity.


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#50
MikhalLeNoir

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Well we are happy for 1k fiction^^
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