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REF TALE - The stories

Brotherhood of the Lost Lost and Forgotten Alternate Heresy

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#101
bluntblade

bluntblade

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On the Precipice
Author: bluntblade
Legion: Halcyon Wardens
Time: 53 M31? Start of the final phase of the Insurrectiom
Characters: Alexandros, Akylles, Ruel, Sauhan, Seleucus, Aghir

+++++

This was, Akylles realised, the first time the entire command cadre of the V Legion had been able to convene in five years. Which was not even to say that they were all physically present. Ruel and Seleucus were with their fleets; the former hanging at anchor just by the Mandeville Point, the latter still visible but already pulling clear of Delos’ blue halo. For decades now the chance to stand still and take stock had been a precious rarity.

Rarer still was the fact that the same faces greeted him this time. Akylles, a year into his post as Legate, was still the newest of them. A blessing, albeit only a temporary one, he was sure.

“Malcador’s and Valdor’s reports vary, but tell largely the same story,” the Warmaster was saying. “The enemy’s spies grow scarcer still, and so do ours. Attrition has reduced the armies who battle in the draughty corridors and data spires more quickly than it has the Legions and regiments. Governors run out of time to convince their paymasters, honestly or otherwise, that they will ever be of use.”

“Then this war becomes more honest,” said Seleucus. He held his helm against his breastplate, obscuring the small cog engraved there. Akylles had stood next to him when they both received it, along with every warrior who had fought in the reclamation of Mars. Seleucus frowned as he continued, augmetic eye rotating slightly. “And yet, Lord, you take no pleasure in that.” Akylles pondered again how bullish his brother was, almost a younger Ruel. They were all armoured, but only Seleucus kept his sword and knife at his belt, plasma rifle holstered over one shoulder.

Alexandros paused briefly, just enough for Akylles to recognise the invitation for one of them to speak. “We will not have recourse to subtler weapons this time. The coming phase will be blunter, crueler.”

Alexandros nodded, gazing out over his world beyond the thickets of guns that infested the fortress-monastery. “The Galaxy is divided too deeply, and our enemies too well known to us, for any means of victory beyond bloodshed. Which is hardly to say that Hell holds no surprises for us.” He turned back to them, but now his eyes were on the thing in his palm. The rest had trouble looking at it for more than a few seconds.

It had been a lightning claw once, borne into combat by a Berserker of Uran, but functionally no different to those wielded by thousands of loyalist Astartes. When a Crimson Lion had hacked down the bearer, it had still crackled with energies, but it was no longer a thing of adamantium blades - at least not entirely. Instead they were bone - the Legionary’s own, his organic matter having colonised the inner workings of his weapon. The talons were jointed, still cobwebbed with circuitry, except that now the filigree was shaped into octagonal patterns whose significance eluded the Wardens. Also of note was the number of blades - Mechanicum warriors might add digits or even fingers as they distanced themselves from humanity, but no space marine had ever been known to opt for eight claws on one hand.

“We all know what this signifies,” Alexandros said softly. “Icarion has given up any pretence of purity or patience. He will no longer fight for hearts and minds. Instead any worlds that stand between him and Terra will be throttled, burned and bled into submission, if he leaves anything alive to submit.”

“Warmaster,” Aghir began haltingly, “you speak as if the Traitor’s road to the Throneworld is certain. We have stymied him before; it can surely be done again, now that three whole Legions have turned away from him.”

Alexandros walked over to him and held out the grisly trophy. Aghir, a veteran of over a century and a quarter’s warfare, recoiled slightly. “This creature slew a score of Crimson Lions before falling. Moreover, this is only the crudest of the ‘blessings’ wrought by Icarion’s new patrons.”

A stellar hololith flickered into life above them, the Imperial gold and traitorous red they had come to know, now joined by the Secessionist’s grey, and something else. Contorting tendrils of black, cutting across whole sectors. “Warp storms,” breathed Sauhan.

Alexandros nodded. “A crude representation, but yes. They have spread with the corruption, always to the Insurrectionists’ advantage. Already Kozja and his allies are hemmed in, Mycenae is bisected, and the same begins for the Three Fires and a dozen other systems.”

Akylles moved closer, looking at the trajectories of the enemy fleets they had been able to detect. Alexandros clearly anticipated him, giving an encouraging nod. “The storms, however they are being generated, do not obstruct the enemy. We will be divided when they bring their entire strength to bear against us. We must call upon our seers and the Navigators, divert our resources to where they will make the most difference.”

“This will be the end of sallying forth, then.” Ruel’s voiced distorted slightly from distance, his image blurring with it. “Now we hold as long as we can before falling back to the next redoubt.”

What followed was simply a matter of allocating fleets to sectors and systems and establishing what to prioritise. These were the beginnings of Alexandros’ strategy, which would spread to encompass every part of the Imperium they could reach once he was back on Terra. Legates, Prefects and Lord Commanders moved out to rejoin their fleets, and Akylles was left to follow the Warmaster.

Alexandros had become strangely inscrutable again as they moved through the corridors, until they reached a balcony overlooking one of the main parade grounds. Two phalanxes of Aspirants filled it, grappling at the centre. Akylles saw one side gaining traction, soon to splinter their opponents’ formation, but there were lessons to be learned in defeat. Ways to withdraw smoothly, punish an overconfident victor. They had learned those lessons well over the last two decades.

“I've watched so many cadres perform this exercise,” Alexandros said, a few minutes later, as the losing phalanx kept up a steady fighting retreat. “Ours, and the initiates of a dozen other Legions. And yet I have never felt such profound sorrow for the youths in question.” Akylles looked at him, not sure what to say, and Alexandros turned those radiant eyes on him. “They will be reborn into a struggle of desperation. Men ascribe that mood to periods in the Crusade, the Qarith and Rangdan campaigns most of all, but even then we were making such strides through the Galaxy. Defeat was never truly considered.”

He paused again. “I always disliked that we had to begin with them so young. Pionus and I talked about it for long hours, how one day we would refine the process so we could make Legionaries from men, not boys. Better for an aspirant to understand what he is giving up.”

Akylles nodded, dimly remembering some excited chatter from himself when he underwent the initial tests. “And if that meant fewer Aspirants?”

“With absolute victory in the Crusade, that might not have been such a poor thing.” Alexandros smiled sadly, and gestured. “Now look at us. The Legions have swelled, and we take more and more from families when they are too young to really comprehend their sacrifices. There aren't any glorious charges waiting for them, just a desperate defence against the enemy our propaganda told them we would surely defeat. Even if we prevail, souls will be tainted.” The exercise was over on the parade ground below, instructors stood at the centre asking the trainees to share any lessons they had gleaned.

“The Imperium, when it is rebuilt, must be worth reforging,” Alexandros went on. “That’s as true of our Legion as any other part. Your brothers will need you to remind them.”

“Surely you will do a better job of that than I, Warmaster?”

Alexandros’ smile didn’t quite dispel the chill that settled over his hearts. “It never hurt to make contingency plans, Legate.”

Edited by bluntblade, 01 March 2018 - 08:46 PM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#102
bluntblade

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Foundling
Author: bluntblade
Legion: Predators (sort of)
Time: shortly after the turn of the 31st Millenium

+++++

The chieftain raised a hand, spear haft planted in the earth. The men around him halted. They did not question - these were loyal men, who could be counted on to obey, not question or even speak if their master desired it. Instead they drew back into the shadows, the woven reeds and armoured hides they wore disguising them in the forest night. Swords and axes remained in their hands. The hunter-forager cultures they resembled, which had lived on the cradle-world they barely knew of, had gone without such things. But then Mardum was far sterner in the challnenges it set than Old Earth.

“You hear it?” murmured the chieftain. His guards kept silent, knowing the question was not for them.

The one who answered wore bones and predator-fangs, embedded into his armour. The traditional Umoyambi’s staff hung in a loose grip, tipped by a piece of amber clutched in a carven fist. He was the Baron’s closest confidant; Vulabas Sambedi was anointed master of his tribe by the will of the Orun, but no chief presumed to know the will of the spirits. So each kept at his side a shaman, diviner of guidance from the other side.

“I hear it, and I feel it,” Gomungo answered. He was a huge man, larger even than the Baron, and when his eyes caught the moonlight they shone with psychic gold. “One presence, no others.”

“We go slowly, regardless,” Vulabas said. “Encircle and hold,” to the rest.

As they progressed, they caught the mingling scents on the wind. Burning, and other smells that Mardum’s folk had not had words for since ages before, when Anazei the spider had unravelled his web, so men could no longer walk between the stars. Somewhere in it, though, there was the suggestion of new life, and that quickened the chieftain’s heart.

For that was at the root of their decision to venture here. Vulabas Sambedi, though gifted with strength of body and mind, carried a curse; his seed would not take root. No woman had borne him a child, and the roots of his house grew frail. His younger brothers had sons, and desired much for them, even if they feared to act while Vulabas was hale. A family, rulers of the mighty Ebonspear, waiting for the signal to turn inward and shed kin-blood…

Ruin lay down that path, at the hand of want, predators, other men, or worse - Ifriti, malevolent spirits. Gomungo had glimpsed in his auguries a blessing that might avert that end, should they move swiftly when the opportunity came. And so, despite the downpour, men had been looking south to see the brief flare of a star dropping from the clouds, and the party had set off within the hour. They departed quietly and swiftly - other eyes might have seen, and any interference threatened their success.

Vulabas forced himself to focus on the here and now, trying to ignore the scrutiny of his forebears, peering at him through the veil. Gomungo’s words before now had been opaque, but “a presence” had quite distinct connotations.

And these were borne out by what he saw as they entered the charred clearing that the falling object had gouged out, lit by guttering fire. A child, clad only in dirt and foilage, standing amidst a broken shell of metal and other, stranger materials neither man recognised. Vulabas stepped forward, only to recoil, biting back his words, as the boy turned eyes of milky white upon him. The promised child was sightless.

Both men knew the tribal writ, the accumulated lessons of survival. A man might go blind and retain some worth, teaching the skill he once practiced. He might become a sage, keeper of lore. But a blight-eyed child…

“No” hissed Gomungo, slapping Vulabas’ spear down. Vulabas read the shaman’s intention, but it baffled him.

“It would be folly. Cruel folly,” the chieftain protested. “What fool names a blind heir?”

“The same kind of fool who jumps to conclusions. A wise man who heeds his shaman might see more clearly.” Gomungo’s golden eyes were alight with fervour. Vulabas would have killed any other man who spoke thus, but that gold gave him pause. “There is power and intelligence in that child such as I have never sensed.”

There was no chance for him to elaborate. A shriek split the quiet, and a lone raptor burst from the foilage. It charged immediately, making straight for the child. The beast stood almost as tall as a man, and was quite capable of killing a Mardumian warrior. Both men knew they would never reach it in time to interfere with the attack.

Vulabas’ spear left his hand, yet he had not thrown it. The weapon was dragged from his grasp by an unseen hand, leaving Vulabas staring at what unfolded. The boy had leapt with preturnatural accuracy, evading the raptor’s claws and teeth and driving a fist into the scaly throat. The creature went down, the spear - long and heavy, tipped with black metal - was snatched out of the air by the child and he rammed it down into the raptor’s side.

No, not just into. When Vulabas retrieved it, he found earth on the blade. This boy had driven the heavy spear clean through the raptor’s ribcage, ending a struggle that had lasted all of five seconds.

Vulabas stood rooted to the spot until the boy looked back at him. There was no doubt the child was blind, but Vulabas knew he was being perceived, scrutinised by some inner sight. He took a step forward, not really sure if he expected the boy to back away or attack.

Neither: the boy simply stood his ground, waiting. Vulabas glanced at Gomungo, and found the Umoyambi grinning broadly. He nodded, no argument left to make.

“So, what shall we call him?”

“Andezo.” The shaman’s words came with startling speed. The Baron stared at him.

“You say that name as if it is already his. Am I not free to bestow upon my adopted son the name of my choice?”

“You are free to give him the name of Sambedi. But Andezo is inscribed upon his soul. I do not pretend to know what that means, but I can see it is immutably so.” Indeed, the boy’s attention had fixed entirely on the shaman.

The chieftain’s brow furrowed. “Such strangeness. What kind of chief will he grow to be? From all you have said, he seems marked for some place among your kind.”

Gomungo chuckled. “No. Look at the boy, and look at the raptor. You will have a warrior, such as Mardum never saw until now.”

Edited by bluntblade, 01 September 2017 - 07:44 PM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#103
bluntblade

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The Warmaster's Work
Legions: The Halcyon Wardens, Steel Legion, Godslayers, Shepherds of Eden

+++++

Alexandros liked to think he could hear eagerness in the growl of Aasha's engines and the roar of her canons, feel it in the thrum under his boots. Mere superstition, some would think, ripe for mockery and unbecoming of the Imperial Warmaster. But then, he could sense things that few others could. He could perceive the Stormbird’s machine spirit, feel its fervour like scalding heat and see the fiery shades of its aura. It was all laid bear with brutal simplicity, unlike any truly developed mind. The magos of Abyssii had given the Maahres pattern souls more savage than any other craft that bore the designation “Stormbird”.

Truth be told, Alexandros was not over-fond of travelling in this way. It was so thunderingly bombastic, when he wanted to get away from all that pomp. At the same time, there would be far more ridicule if he were to get blown up because he brought a Thunderhawk into a warzone like this. And there was a guilty satisfaction in descending upon the foe with such force.

Beside and behind him, power packs thrummed and armour-joints growled and crunched as his men made final checks to their weapons or merely fidgeted. Alexandros had brought half the Myrmidons with him on this gunship alone, and two squads of Captain Vasilios’ heavy weapons specialists, all loaded into Mastodons. The other Stormbirds carried a plethora of tanks, mostly Land Raiders but also Whirlwinds and super-heavies. Subtlety was not the order of the day here - these were playground bully tactics and Alexandros knew it, but they had their place.

Their descent slowed and finally they made planetfall, Alexandros striding down the ramp even as the gunship touched down on Derneum, 35-207-NCH as it was recorded in the ledgers. Cheers rang out at his appearance from the warriors nearby, taken up by the Shepherds of Eden. The bulk of the demi-Legion had committed to the campaign, having already served under the Warmaster in the preceding theatre. Elsewhere, Koschei and Nomus were readying to join in, should this battle fail to end the conflict.

Hopefully they wouldn’t be necessary, but with this enemy, it was hard to tell. The Maelynos Empire was ruled by a Knight dynasty, and that was something unprecedented on this scale. Going by instinct and what he knew about Knights, Alexandros suspected it meant a long war. Pride and aggression were bound into the core of any scion, incubated by the link to their sacred armours. Alexandros didn’t like to think how the arrogance of conquest and ruling half a hundred worlds would add to that and curdle, but he could guess. Oh, he could guess.

His Master of Signal was waiting, and snapped off a quick salute as Alexandros and Pyrrhicles approached. “Warmaster. Captain.”

“Consul Pheidius. Please report.”

“Orbital auspex puts the number of enemy Knights on the field at thirty. Estimates backed up by reconnaissance elements. The strength we have already allocated here should be quite sufficient, but we’ll be grateful for Tempestus. The enemy have some sort of Titan-analogues, fifteen of varying sizes.”

Alexandros nodded, eyes on the horizon where the enemy was massing. Vasilios’ vanguard had beaten back their initial response, but now came the rhythmic tremors that announced many large war machines drawing closer. “Does this alter Brigadier Vasilios’ recommendations, or yours?”

Pheidius stood a fraction taller at that. Too many commanders managed to forget a Master of Signal’s ability and treat him as a glorified messenger. Any Consul was an experienced officer, even if his role rarely allowed him to draw steel or pull a trigger. If you knew your job as a Legion commander, you used this role to teach him to appreciate the value of truly coordinated forces before putting him in a more active role.

Pheidius was nearing that point now, and looking forward to it. “The Brigadier thinks we should refrain from any further deployment of infantry until battle is joined. Spartans and Land Raiders are his recommendation. However, the Knights and Titan-analogues pose a danger to anything on the ground, so he also recommends gunships also deliver troops once battle is joined. I concur, and add that we should favour Thunderhawks and Storm Eagles with plenty of Fire Raptor wings to support them.”

“Tell fleet we want all of those.” Alexandros said. “I also want bomber and fighter squadrons ahead of them. See if we can’t pitch the enemy into confusion before it comes to blows.” The enemy weren’t yet visible to the naked eye, even a Primarch’s. But Aasha’s pict-feeds, filling his helm-display, told him plenty even at this distance. “So, we have tanks, infantry and… ah. That really is quite striking.”

The enemy had power-armoured cavalry, mounted on what looked like Ironstrider machines, and massive quadrupedal war machines which, true to Pheidius’ word, rivalled Titans in height. “I assume you’re heard the tales of Gardinaal?” Alexandros asked.

“It would be a challenge not to, Warmaster. It looks like we may get to write a similar tale.”

Pyrrhicles now spoke. “Those cavalry are a new factor, though. A potential complication if we simply charge or let them come to us.”

Pheidius glanced at him. “Apologies, sir, but I don’t follow.”

“Think about the dirty tricks we’ve played on tanks with our Skyhunter squadrons,” Alexandros replied. “That might be a stretch for a knightly army, but regardless, I’m not hellishly keen on letting a force that manoeuvrable get amongst or behind us. Let’s form up the troops we have deployed so far.”

“You mean to give the cavalry something to charge at, Warmaster?”

“I did mention dirty tricks, Consul. Get our tactical and assault squads back to the gunships and tanks before the enemy sees them. Deploy all Terminators low on that incline, shield-bearers in front, and get Vasilios and five hundred Devastators at the top and on the flanks. More, if you can get them.”

“The Shepherds have two Dreadnought Talons deployed, sir. Permission to add them to the lines?”

“Do.” The Consul saluted again and strode off.

“He’ll make a good Legate, sir,” Pyrrhicles remarked.

“Let’s wait until the battle’s fought before speaking of such things, Pyrr. Tempting fate and all that.”

-----

It was the work of five minutes to assemble their formations, during which the Titans of the Legios Tempestus and Contego had made planetfall, striding clear of their massive landers. Alexandros kept a steady flow of information from his subordinates. Arjun, the most persistent of his Skyhunter captains, was making a final report.

“I’m seeing deserters at the rear, sire, but they have overseers shooting any man who flees and trying to encourage the others.” Alexandros was quite able to make the logical deduction himself. He was impressed - when the Halcyon Wardens landed in such an unsubtle manner, mortal soldiers tended to throw down their arms immediately - but also irritated. All this defiance would achieve was to waste the lives of young men before their masters saw sense or died. But there were cracks that the enemy was trying to paper over. These could be exploited.

“I’ll have our mind-readers find us a solution, Captain. Your efforts are valued, as ever. Pull back for now. Brigadier, have your men ready to board the Stormbirds when I say; we will let the enemy break upon us and hit back immediately.”

“Aye, sir.”

As lesser Terminator squads formed up around the Athenoi, Alexandros reached out to the leader of his telepaths. Zayphar, what have your men found?

Zayphar’s answer consisted more of images than words, these having been passed on to Zayphar by other Librarians. Alexandros glimpsed faces, teeth bared in anger or fear, guns, swords and discipline-batons raised. They have tried to bolster the ranks of cravens with noted warriors, as anticipated. They are proud, lord - we would not be the first invaders to make planetfall on an outlying world and then be cast back. Though that rather raises the question of how they’ll respond if this battle doesn’t play out like that.

Good man. Your men know their duty. Allocate our targets as you judge best. The telepaths would identify the men who would hold a formation together - men whose deaths would breed panic among their fellows.

“So, Pyrr,” Alexandros said aloud, eyes on the enemy ranks. “Your thoughts?”

His equerry turned fractionally towards him, reluctant to leave the slightest gap in the shield wall. “They expect something underhand from us, something to validate their view that no honourable foe could defeat them. We want to make them fear us honestly.”

Alexandros nodded. “We let them attack, break their swords on our shields. Kill their elite in full view of the rest. Then we take our Stormbirds and join the attack, trusting Mechanicum engineering to carry us into the belly of the beast. The trouble, of course, is ensuring their big walkers don’t simply crush our shields underfoot before we can do any of that.”

“And so you intend to goad them into an ill-disciplined attack?”

Alexandros gave him a mock-stern glance. “I’m going to negotiate.” He looked away, then looked back. “The attempt may conclude with the enemy making an ill-disciplined frontal attack.” Many considered Pyrrhicles humourless. The truth was that he was just a master when it came to stifling a chuckle.

Alexandros cast his mind beyond his body, seeking a single individual, chasing the lines of fealty and respect to a man whose pride made him a veritable beacon to the second sight. Unsurprisingly, he occupied the largest Knight, which had started life as a Questoris Magaera before becoming rather larger, gaining a colossal maul for its right arm. As the commander of this army, I request a vox-dialogue. The outrage in the man’s mind was palpable, but the vox-link kindled nonetheless.

“Do I have the pleasure of addressing the High Marshal of Derneum?”

“That honour is mine, witch. I find none in this parlay.” The venom was plain as could be. “Tell me, does your commander cower next to you, behind your gene-brutes and Ogryn?”

Alexandros let his amusement show. “I appreciate that your emissaries only saw mortal Army officers before the king, in his wisdom, set himself against us. But come, do these look like mere brutes to you?

“You can clad them in as much finery as you like, but you can’t conceal the lumpen aspect.”

“Interesting, High Marshal, and rather saddening if you’ll permit me to say. I expected better than your misapprehensions.”

“I will not be insulted by a craven who hides behind walls of dullard meat-shields!”

“Then I will show, not tell, High Marshal. I ask that you favour me by paying particular attention to the big one with the silver helm.”

“If that truly is your commander, I would prefer that he address me. Not some jester of a witch. Nevertheless, whichever dog commands you will pay attention to this!” War horns blared as the Knights stepped up, brandishing their weapons as the behemoths loomed behind them. They were all richly decorated, many of their their cockpits given the shape of bulls’ heads, horns and all. None went without a melee weapon, be those swords, axes or hammers.

A dialogue request flickered on Alexandros’ helm display. He blinked, and Thom Zivich, head of his House, appeared in a corner of his vision. The man’s helmet hid his expression, but amusement carried through in his posture and tone.

“Positively garish, Warmaster. I think they’ve had too much - oh, for crying out loud.” The High Marshal’s altered Magaera had belched steam from sculpted nostrils as it sounded its warhorn. “It will be a pleasure to rescue sacred armours from such vainglorious fools,” Thom growled as the chorus of lesser knights died away.

Alexandros knew the Steward’s disgust was fuelled by more than excessive decorations and pompous displays. A Knight House traditionally had a duty to govern the world it was founded on. Rivalry with other Houses was one thing, but to attack them solely to take their suits and exploit their people went against the peculiar codes of chivalry that united such worlds. Pride had also been offended by insults directed at the Emperor, beloved by all, and the Warmaster whom Zivich had served diligently for so long.

His vox chimed again. The High Marshal. “No more insults then, cur?”

“No insults. Just a promise. Incidentally,” he added, “I suggest you amend ‘cur’ to ‘Warmaster of the Imperium’. Regardless, I promise you that I am going to shatter your army and take your sacred armours as war spoil, to be used in the final attack on the core world if your masters prove impervious to reason.”

The vox-link was abruptly terminated, and the entire court of Maelynos knights sounded battle-horns as they lurched forward, close-combat weapons revving or fizzing into life. A cry went up from the cavalry, breaking into a canter which became a full charge.

“Vasilios,” Alexandros voxed. “Your assessment?”

“Their formation’s loose, my lord, even if they haven’t left their infantry behind as you hoped. Our heavy support will have trouble crippling the Knights with that many troops in the way, and we’d have no hope against those other monsters anyway. But then, that’s why you withdrew most of our troops to the transports.”

“Indeed. We’ll have them support us as per the contingency plans. Thom? Hold back from the Knights until we engage the cavalry, then move out.”

“Aye, Warmaster.” Thom’s Castigator reared up to emit a challenge of its own, echoed by the rest of Zivich and House Teivon’s Knights, and the Titans looming behind them.

The cavalry were approaching fast, firing as they went. Alexandros could feel the fury boiling off them - he wondered if the riders were bound to their mounts by a similar means to the Knights. If there wasn’t such a bond to stoke their aggression, then the Maelynos must have genuine fanatics at their command.

Two of the enemy Knights came with them, outpacing their fellows. Typical rookie Lancers, ruled by the fiery souls of their machines. Alexandros grimaced, knowing how this would end even before his foresight registered it. Not one of his Knights even took a step to engage them. It was the work of two heartbeats for Tempestus to strip away their shields with turbolasers, and three more to send them crashing to earth with legs torn away. The walkers refrained from firing into the mass of cavalry; Alexandros wanted them free to engage the enemy engines as soon as those came within range.

The enemy hardly seemed to care, except that their rage increased even further. Five hundred metres now, las-fire fizzing as the shields deflected it. “Captain Vasilios, open fire at your discretion.” True to form, Vasilios gave that order a mere second after the cavalry entered range. Gaps immediately appeared in the enemy formation, widening. Still, the cavalry kept coming, and rounds began to strike armour as well as force fields.

That’s close enough. “Illuminate them!” he shouted.

The Terminators raised their guns, and immediately Alexandros saw unease, even fear, seeping into the auras of the soldiers. He didn’t need his powers to know what they were thinking. Ogryn didn’t move this fast, nor with this kind of poise, and they certainly didn't make pinpoint shots on moving targets, in their dozens. This lesson was rammed home for the second and third ranks, but it was too late for the first. Alexandros fired Ultimatum and put a hole three men deep in the oncoming mass, while the Terminators either side of him fired on full auto.

Men and steeds came apart messily, the rank behind them disintegrating as it collided with what was now a heap of broken machines and bodies. The wave broke, striking the V Legion lines with a scant fraction of its previous strength. Shoulder to shoulder, the forcefields of their shields bolstering those of the warriors beside them, the Myrmidons were unfazed. The front rank rode the impact, shields overlapping and supported by their comrades behind, and pushed back. Metal steeds were shoved backwards, some toppling, riders tumbling from saddles. The Dreadnoughts in the line simply bowled the machines over, Ezekyle seizing one in his claw and lobbing it back into the tangle.

To either side of the line, the Titans of Contego and Tempestus were marching with their Knights in tow, moving steadily to counter the Maelynos’ undisciplined charge. The enemy were fragmented, with most seeing the danger and trying to pull their formation back together, but several knights and tank crews had succumbed to their fury, and now came the wings of bombers and gunships, harrying the Maelynos and disgorging companies of Halcyon Wardens onto their flanks.

Alexandros gave the order to fall back, and the Terminators obeyed with well-rehearsed precision. At the top of the incline he found Vasilios and a few squads of Devastators, the rest already aboard Stormbirds. “Quite a ploy, sir,” the Brigadier laughed, the sound almost lost in the roar of turbines preparing for flight.“Their king will be smarting about this until we knock his throne over.”

“Must I remind you again about hubris, Vasilios? Good. Let’s get ourselves back to the fight.” As the Stormbird’s ramp rose, Alexandros’ last glimpse of the battle was a Tempestus Reaver, clutching a Knight in its vast power fist. Such monsters you have placed at my command, Father.

-----

But such power meant wrestling with other, more abstract monsters. The sheer volume of news, for example. Three weeks after the battle found Alexandros in his tent, conferring with his generals and attending to the politics. This meant a half dozen of his brothers requesting reinforcements or counsel, and several times that number of Army officers, as well as intelligence reports, notice of disputes between regiments, individuals, Mechanicum sects.

His field officers were numerous enough; three Legates, Malis, two senior Librarians and the holo of the Elpis' shipmaster only represented the Legion itself. Then there were Magi from both Sarum and Mars, the senior Princeps of the Legio Tempestus, Marshal Zivich and three Army generals, the senior Shepherds of Eden and Godslayers, the latter headed by Koschei. Old soldiers all, lives stretched out by a multitude of measures; the strange martial aristocracy of the Great Crusade.

They had finished the matters of this theatre for the moment, and were into the concerns of the wider Crusade. Alexandros leaned back in his chair, reeling off responses to his aides. “Pionus has leave to gather whatever combination of the 56th, 2301st, 1338th and 743rd he deems optimal. Hectarion will have to wait and busy himself elsewhere if he wants my aid in as large an undertaking as he proposes. Lord Commander Lijika has only himself to blame for Ryza’s antipathy; I’d like it emphasised to him that while I want to avoid estrangement from the Army, I will not nursemaid a commander who offends the Mechanicum so thoughtlessly and then wails to me about it. A list of alternative Forge Worlds should sweeten the reproach and keep the Dust Badgers functional. And now can someone please furnish me with a goblet before we get into the Prosecution verdict? Ah, Pyrr, I fear the day we’re parted. Thank you.”

Malis flicked through the tablet as Alexandros sipped. “Seems the testimony of Lord Santor was the crux. Whether he swayed people against Darzales’ project or not, Darzales was incensed, and out of his own mouth condemned himself. He said far too much - he wanted to see the identities of the Eighteen Legions subsumed into one.”

Even Alexandros was speechless for a moment. Khârn was the first to break the silence with a half-snort, half-snarl of anger. “The presumption. And the arrogance, to speak it out loud and not expect censure.” A clamour of angry voices filled the tent.

“Peace,” Alexandros said, adding a faint telepathic echo to the word. The noise died away.

“Censured, Lord Darzales certainly was,” Malis continued. “The Emperor’s reaction was most adverse; all genetic experimentation within the Legiones Astartes is to be monitored, pending elaboration but I suspect we will see the Chaplain Order expanded and given greater power, and all work towards ends not solely curative prohibited under threat of the direst consequences.” At that, everyone in the room exchanged glances. “In other words, Kozja and Vizenko have lost the battle entirely. The Emperor went on to order a large section of the Ninth Legion’s Apothecarion disbanded and those members to either down tools and return to regular service, or to be dispersed among the fleets of other Legions.”

“Issue a proclamation to the Legion and a missive to the Council of Terra,” Alexandros said. “We recognise and obey the command of the Emperor, beloved by all.”

“Beloved by all,” echoed the others.

“Furthermore we shall take in whatever number of Ninth Legion Apothecaries decide to serve their time of penance with us. They will have no scorn or condemnation from us; I want the cracks sealed, that we may proceed smoothly with our mission.”

Father, you have handed me a powder keg to juggle.

-----

V Legion command had debated how best to treat the royal emissary. Ruel, unsurprisingly, had suggested making a show of the Elpis' weaponry and the Legion’s arsenal, with the caveat that the emissary be blindfolded in between the sights that were to be impressed upon him. Pyrrhicles posited that such precautions were unnecessary, that their victories on the field would be sufficient to frighten the enemy. Even so, he had qualified his advice with a worry that such a tour would be risking hubris.

Malis had turned the idea on its head. “They know we can fight, and regardless of whether they believe we can take their core planets, they know it’ll hurt them to resist. Let him see what we are besides conquerors.” Both Koschei and Alexandros had liked the idea immensely, and as a consequence the remembrancers and their works took centre-stage. Alexandros made sure that his warriors would not be hidden, but their presence would be almost casual. Better to simply let the man be awed by them.

In a barren system the two fleets met, so that a gilded barque could touch down in the hangar before Alexandros and a modest retinue. The captive scions had been quite taken aback when the Halcyon Wardens had begun asking what size of reception would be acceptable for the king’s representative. Alexandros sought the middle ground which would avoid overwhelming the Maelynos with spectacle. Everything sent a message, so everything had to be considered.

“I dislike this dynasty the more I see of their finery,” Koschei growled. The ramp lowered. “And I dislike him already.”

The sage had the kind of physique which fairly demanded a warrior feel disgust. Pewyn’s clothes were rich and thickly layered, but not enough to deceive a Primarch’s eyes. He was plump, but his chest was almost concave, no muscle under the fat. Alexandros felt even less sympathy for the regime he was deposing, that a man could be tolerated to indulge himself so shamelessly at the expense of others.

Pewyn offered a shallow bow, surprisingly resistant to the awestruck reaction a Primarch usually inspired. Standing beside the captains, Zayphar remarked on that telepathically.

What cause do you suspect? Alexandros sent.

Brushing the emmisary’s mind won’t tell me that, Warmaster. I couldn't delve further without alerting him. However, I’d say his bearing suggests some sort of hypno-indoctrination or geno-conditioning, designed to stunt such responses.

“Warmaster Alexandros,” said Pewyn, and Alexandros could hear generations of palace-dwellers in his voice. The tone, pitch and cadence had been honed to perfection years before this man had drawn breath. He wondered if Pewyn had any other way of speaking.

“Miaisten Pewyn,” he replied. To Zayphar he sent, Hectarion once remarked to me that he found a world whose rulers favoured similar practices. Interesting.

You have an idea of the purpose, if that is the cause? Pewyn and Alexandros exchanged the usual empty preliminaries.

Political purpose, if you’ll permit me to guess. The ruling classes favour dry, clinical advice, and the overwhelming majority of their subjects are conditioned to show - more than that, to feel abject submission in the presence of their betters.

Understanding leant a soft glow to Zayphar’s aura. So they breed a bloodline tailor-made to advise them, that won’t have their faculties overloaded by simple awe. Must be potent if it covers you as well. Sadness crept in subtly as Zayphar took in all the implications. What a stunted life they must lead.

Alexandros gave the telepathic equivalent to a grave nod. Quite, Epistolary, but put it from your mind for now.

Pewyn’s unimpressed air went unpunctured through the halls and galleries of paintings, statues and relics of conquest. It was not until they reached the bridge before he spoke anything beyond rote courtesies or questions about the ship’s history, and the words were not what Alexandros had hoped for.

“These are the works of a culture proclaiming virtue in its deeds, yet the declaration rings hollow. You dress up your rapacious urges in the facade of righteous liberation.”

“I unified a world without taking a single life on it,” Alexandros remarked. “We spare your cities wherever possible and will seek your surrender over destruction on every world we conquer."

“Does your king not claim such righteousness for himself?” asked Koschei. “He is Protector of the Realm, but that is a realm his forefathers conquered, and he has expanded it by force.”

“His majesty is anointed and bound to sacred purpose by the Manifold. His kin led the struggle against the Mechanic daemons -”

Knight worlds defeating Mechanicum Explorators? Zayphar sent from where he stood in Ezekyle’s vast shadow. That could explain a great deal about their industrial base.

“- and emerged from the Strife of Houses having slain all those who sought to usurp and rule in his place. Every other threat they have felled. Greenskins, Wyvruth, Slaught and Hreken, some may have subjugated one world or another at times, but all have been thrown back and suffered dire retribution.” The man held up a hand in a show of exasperated forbearance. “You have shown yourselves to be of some capacity. My king respects that, and he has no wish to squander the strength of a potential vassal. However, trespass has been committed, and your frantic pace of advance points to its fragility. We have seen it in the greenskins, though you conceal it better. A failure to yield and withdraw will meet with your absolute destruction.”

“The king does not recognise us as an existential threat to his rule?” Alexandros asked, keeping the amusement out of his voice.

Pewyn smiled mirthlessly. Condescension from a mortal. Zayphar’s thoughts fairly reverberated with the word hubris. “Our prophecies tell us all of what must transpire. The Lords of Lightning must overcome foes alien and human, stamping out false faith. Such enemies shall be mere winnowings. The kings of men will face warlords of great power who speak as friends but bring ruin, and though they may be forced to fight on the worlds where first their thrones were set, such a foe as sets foot there shall find holy annihilation waiting for them.”

Alexandros gazed at the plump messenger with his talk of ruin and war. Unbidden, it occurred to him the man could almost have been talking about Terra, the words were so vague. “Vivid words. If we were to try and avoid such annihilation, would the king have terms for us?”

“In his wisdom, he has already devised them. You will send hostages, no less than ten, two of them kin to yourself, to guarantee your observance of the other terms. You will withdraw your forces beyond our borders, before returning in person aboard a single vessel to deliver the hostages and swear fealty as a vassal of the king. Furthermore the Knight Houses in your service will give recompense equalling one and a half times the value of the sacred armours they looted from the High Marshall of Derneum. For our other garrisons, suitable tribute will be decided in time, but for now we merely demand contrition for the insult offered to our High Marshal and the soiling of our sacred armours.”

The sound of a gun cocking had become cliche almost as soon as humans had combined moving images and recorded sound. Still, there was an undeniable power to the heavy clunk-crack when Ezekyle cycled his cannon. Awe might have been bred out of Pewyn’s kind, but there was still room for fear, it seemed. The fat man almost fell over, staggering backwards.

Alexandros wondered if the emissary recognised the engine-growl for the curse Ezekyle had spoken. At least he was certain that the man couldn’t decipher the Cthonian slur. Such language, Ezekyle. It was also a mercy that mortal ears would not hear the click of a picter under the Dreadnought’s rumble.

An ironform lacked the capacity that a living body had to express emotion with muscle-twitches, but he felt the ghost of a smirk in the warrior’s aura. Outwardly, Ezekyle was stolid, his attention solely on the man whose head came up to his hip-servos. “Don’t pretend that your lord’s kind are exempt from or even above the custom of spoila optima. Your High Marshal is an arrogant fool who cost you thirty Knights, five Titans, a planetary garrison and, for that matter, the planet. Perhaps your king should spend some time out of his palace and walker. His perspective seems rather skewed, even from up here.” Even Koschei smiled at that.

From that point, Alexandros’ mind was largely on the next stage of the war, as the emissary and his retinue made their disgruntled way back to the barque. If these were the terms, the Maelynos were likely mustering an army to strike back at the Imperials, using the negotiations to stall for time. Low cunning and duplicity. He’d have considered it deplorable, had he not taken similar steps.

“So we take the fight to them once more, before they can arrest our momentum,” said Koschei. “There will be no ease in this.”

“As Icarion is so fond of saying, ease was never meant to have a place in our lives. You are content with the Shepherds and the Auretians at your back?”

“Just as I was before.”

“Good.” Alexandros turned to his Master of Astropaths. “Inform Nomus that he is free to commence operations. Target Galba, Ayekol and Styrhaun. Find the enemy’s armies, blind them, and we will break them.”

-----

Enelysia down. Repeat, Enelysia down.”

Alexandros cursed. Galba, 35-212-NCH, was provoking a lot of curses from the Imperial commanders. They were winning, the enemy air force torn out of the skies and the main army sent into retreat, but damn if the enemy wasn’t making them bleed for it. The Maelynos Retribution Muster, even with their orbital systems disabled and their fleet scattered, was a powerful force indeed. Now he saw the power that had laid low a Forge World.

He’d felt the Titan fall before it happened, but too late to warn its Princeps. Casting out with his mind’s eye, he saw as the gunship saw. The Warlord had been felled by one of the quadruped behemoths, one of its escorting Warhounds dismembered and the other two forced into retreat. Tempestus’ Secutarii showed no such caution, hurling tanks forward to engage the brute and the forces swarming around it while they worked to retrieve any surviving personnel.

He looked ahead, weighed the risks, judged his chances, decided, kindled a vox-channel to the fighter escort. “Wing Teralos, this is the Warmaster. Engage the enemy Titan, strafing run. Captain,” he said to his own pilot. “Attack under cover of the fighters’ run. The entire gunship wing. Hit hard and then drop us by the downed Tempestus. Understood?”

“Understood,” came the reply, tinged with worry, though the pilot suppressed it.

“Remember the power at your fingertips, Captain. You know what to do.”

Through Aasha's auto-senses he saw the war machine looming ahead, the escorting Knights and tanks advancing on the wreck of Enelysia. It was quite unlike the upright monsters of the Gardinaal. Its legs gave it a broad, hunched aspect, like an archosaur of primordial Terra, completed by the brutal, gun-tusked head. Its turbolasers flickered, and for a few seconds Alexandros saw nothing but rippling, searing light as the Stormbird’s shields took the full brunt. He felt the first pricklings of pain from the Machine Spirit as they strained.

Then fire bloomed somewhere beyond the mess of light, and the onslaught ceased as a wing of Wrath fighters struck at the walker’s head. The attack was fleeting, but it gave the Stormbirds their opening. Lascannons finished off its shields, heavy bolters cratered its armour and Aasha's accelerator cannon tore straight through its head, leaving ragged strips of metal where it had once been.

“Target destroyed,” said the pilot, panting slightly. “We’re setting you down, lord, thirty seconds.” The Myrmidons formed up, three across, and even as the ramp began to lower, the three at the front picked their targets and fired.

Alexandros and his warriors raced out into the battle, covered by the Stormbirds’ relentless gunfire. He took in the situation as he ran - Titans clustered around their fallen leader, wounded Halcyon Wardens being dragged out from the wreckage and carried to the gunships. Ahead, enemy Knights falling back and leaving one of their number broken, as bannermen carried the pilot down from the cockpit with the intention of handing him over to a squad of cavalry. Their discipline was good; the scraps of armour and detritus testified to the Secutarii’s dogged resistance. Under the onslaught of the gunships, however, self-preservation won out, and all but a few broke and fled.

“Let them run!” Alexandros barked. “Secure the crew.” Assault squads took off to carry out his orders, and Alexandros turned back to the mess. Three companies, reduced to roughly two hundred and twenty warriors able to fight. One captain dead, his lieutenant having already assumed command. The grim business of war, one of the many aspects that the Remembrancers rarely thought to record, and one it that always hurt him to see.

“My sons!” he cried. “We bleed, but we endure, and we will see the Imperial flag fly over this world. For the rest of this battle, you fight with me.” His grin at the cheer went unseen behind his visor as he voxed Pheidius. “Consul, divert a tank company to our position. Make it one with Titan-killers.”

“Yes, Warmaster. Shall I send Skyhunter units as well?”

“Most considerate, Consul. Please do.”

Taking most of the Secutarii and the intact Titans, they pressed the attack, bending the Maelynos line out of shape. Phalanxes were of little use at close quarters with these machines, to say nothing of the piles of wreckage that littered the battlefields. They marked the Imperials’ grinding advance; artillery emplacements, Knights, Titans and hundreds of destroyed tanks on both sides. The Halcyon Wardens moved in loose squads, trusting their gene-gifts, armour and firepower to lend them the edge. Here, a Space Marine’s uncanny memory and reactions counted as much as his strength and prowess. Mortals, no matter how well-trained, were prone to disorientation with so much happening around and above them. The Halcyon Wardens simply processed it, always moving with purpose.

Sparing a glance to his left, Alexandros saw the Steel Legion moving to capitalise on the foe’s disarray. As individuals, they moved with all the fluidity one would expect from a Space Marine. To see what made them strange, you had to look at the broader picture. The Steel Legion moved with a coordination which defied belief, no squad ever impeding another, fighting within a hand’s breadth of tanks and never needing to step aside. They made little use of Knights or Titans, unable to link them to the Symbios, the neural link that united the minds of the Legion.

To compensate, Nomus deployed large numbers of tanks and automata, manoeuvring them with unerring precision. Regardless, faced with such a fearsome opponent, Alexandros had assigned Nomus a war maniple of the Legio Presaegus. Armed for long-range duels against similarly massive machines, they posed little threat of disruption to the Steel Legion. Ahead of them, Nomus and his sons advanced, trapping a wedge of Maelynos against Alexandros’ companies.

As the Maelynos wavered, further waves of fighters and bombers screamed down from orbit to fragment their army entirely. Fast on their tails came drop-pods in Steel Legion colours. This was an operation that any other Legion would have struggled to carry off, enabled by the Symbios. They converged on weak points, sending infantry fleeing and wreaking havoc among the war machines with krak grenades and melta charges. Frontline units were abruptly cut off from support elements, easy prey for the Imperials.

Not that all of the drop-pods carried Legionaries. Alexandros had disliked the Deathstorm pods from the day Yucahu had instigated their manufacture, but every weapon had its battlefield. The pod doors fell away, and krak rockets shot out, redoubling the mayhem. Tanks and knights were crippled, ‘striders sent flying.

Alexandros, armed with the intelligence furnished by Nomus and his Legion, had been only too aware of the threat posed by the Maelynos’ response. The trouble was that, to guarantee their complete defeat, the enemy couldn’t afford to realise he was holding troops in reserve. They had a rough idea of how many he had committed on other worlds. Nomus’ Legion, newly arrived and only glimpsed in small numbers, were the wild card. So Alexandros had to deploy his sons and Army units in bulk, marching into the teeth of the enemy.

Now the Maelynos were confronted with piles of debris clogging the field, and the Astartes began to corner squads and issue demands for surrender. Guns were thrown down, in dozens, hundreds. But it was hardly a complete surrender. Vox-roars demanded that the rank and file keep fighting, blaring defiance at the Imperials. The war machines fell back in good order, pulling their formations back together.

“Fanaticism,” sighed Nomus, slotting a fresh power pack into his pistol. “I wonder just how many lives it’s cost in this war, us and the other side.”

“It tells me we’re doing the right thing, overthrowing these pompous fools,” Alexandros replied. “Give it a few years, and these people will thank us. This is the sort of thing Iterators make hay out of. Remembrancers too. You’d be amazed just how many cities the Maelynos burned in their noble quest to depose their unworthy rivals.”

Nomus didn’t chuckle, as Pionus would, or roar with laughter like Hectarion. On the other hand there wasn’t the troubled look Alexandros could expect from Koschei or Gwalchavad whenever he brought humour into a situation like this. Nomus was pensieve, turning over the words in his mind. After a few moments, he rolled his shoulders, drawing his power maul. “I will circle around and gather the new arrivals. Fight well, brother.”

-----

The Elpis' forge sprawled upwards as well as across outwards, gantries and lifters crowding the vertical spaces. From where he stood, Alexandros could see the undersides of gunships on the level above, bombers and interceptors still further up.

This space, however, was set aside for a war maniple of Legio Tempestus Titans. Warhounds and Reavers lined the walls in varying states of repair. At the centre, Enelysia was held upright as the tech-priests and their servants worked, excising damaged fragments and prepping for their replacement. It was sad to see just how diminished she was now, lacking an arm, a leg and both her shoulder emplacements.

“And you say Vel-Kheredar is in there somewhere?” said Nomus as they drew closer. Techmarines, magi and menials parted before them, bowing and snapping off salutes.

“He’s the hands-on sort,” Alexandros said. “Not quite what I expected from the lord of an entire Forge City. He’s actually quite personable, even if Irvin here hasn’t taken to him.”

“It’s the reason for his presence that I find objectionable, sir,” Ruel replied. “As I’ve said before.”

Alexandros smiled tolerantly. “Prefect, I believe I’m keeping you from your inspections. Shall I let you go?”

Ruel gave a quiet laugh and a quick bow. “You have my gratitude, lord.” With that, he set off for a staircase, which would take him to his beloved super-heavy squadrons.

“Would it be impertinent,” one of Nomus’ companions asked, “to query what this reason is that troubles the Prefect so much?”

Alexandros turned to regard the warrior. Asima Ginaz, Captain of the Steel Legion’s Third Company, had an unusually narrow face, exaggerated by the shaven sides of his scalp. Many of the Legion wore their hair in this manner; whether in imitation of their Primarch or to avoid discomfort with their implanted filigree of circuits, Alexandros could never decide. On his armour, a series of intricate geometric shapes testified to his high rank and deeds. Close up, these shapes were revealed as hundreds of binaric characters.

“How much do you know about the Mechanicum Sects that arose on Sarum?”

Ginaz looked around, clearly recognising the crimson robes that many priests and menials wore instead of Martian red. “I heard tales, though I must admit I expected a more… menacing appearance.”

“Had you come here a few decades before, you would have seen that in abundance. Skull masks, clicking fangs… I’m not saying their Taghmata aren’t still fond of that look, but they’ve had plenty of exposure to more, ah, wholesome elements of the Mechanicum since they swore their pacts with us.”

“A civilising influence, Warmaster?”

Alexandros glanced at Ginaz. “A touch flippant, captain.”

“Apologies, Warmaster. What is Vel-Kheredur’s role then, officially?”

“Ambassador, essentially, although we welcome his technical expertise. However, he does serve to keep an eye on Sarum's magi and ensure their work does not go against Mechanicum doctrine. Ah, here he comes now.”

Vel Kheredar had emerged onto the gantry at Enelysia’s hip, using his telescopic legs to step away from the ladder before he was halfway down. They steadily retracted as he drew near, so when he reached them his height was the diplomatic halfway point between a Legionary and a Primarch. “Warmaster, Lord Nomus, consul -” Pheidius inclined his head “- and captains. Welcome.” The priest wore the traditional red of Mars, marking him out from the scarlet of Sarum and Tempestus’ blue and silver.

“Archmagos,” Alexandros greeted him. “How does Enelysia fare?”

“The machine spirit is uncompromised, and we expect to have integrated replacement limbs well in advance of the next battle. Regretfully the Hellstorm cannon will not be repaired by that stage, but we will substitute a Quake cannon.” Vel Kheredar gestured to a massive gun lying on a stand, waiting to be hoisted and fitted into place. “I project that it will be quite adequate given the foe’s reliance on Knights and Titan-analogues. As for carapace-mounted weapons, we have the choice of missile launchers, Turbo-Laser Destructors and Gatling Blasters, and I await the Princeps’ recommendation.” His eye-lenses rotated, managing to look quizzical. Alexandros nodded, and he carried on. “More broadly, we predict that sixteen of War Maniple Ibere’s twenty god-machines will be fit to serve in the next battle.”

“I am glad to hear it, Archmagos, and I thank you and your personnel for your hard work. Have you had any word from Mars?”

“There is little news save that the Omnissiah’s work continues to be done, Warmaster. Mass-production of the Thunderhawk transport proceeds apace, and the Legio Mortis has a newly commissioned war maniple under construction, tentatively assigned to the Fourth Legion. The Fabricator-General is as busy as ever, and has no messages for me as of last contact.”

“Not even regarding the STC variants we have recovered?” prompted Nomus.

There was no one way in which a Mechanicum Adept contrived to look apologetic, but Alexandros always recognised the sentiment when he saw it. “I suspect that the fallout from the Vizenko Prosecution has placed severe demands on the Fabricator-General’s time, Lord Nomus. The issue has exposed divisions within the Mechanicum much as it has among the Legions, and we have many disparate elements to reconcile already. Even if much progress has been made,” he added, glancing at a nearby Sarum priest. “A great deal remains to be done.”

“As ever,” Alexandros added wryly. “My thanks, Archmagos. We will leave you to your work.”

“Your gratitude is appreciated, Warmaster, but unnecessary. My subroutines and duty to the Omnissiah dictate that I devote myself to His avatar-constructs. With your leave, I will return to my work.”

“Granted.”

“Oddly personable indeed,” Nomus remarked, as Vel Kheredar’s five legs carried him back to the Titan. “I do wonder just how much Baal has divided the Priesthood. I rather assumed they would be overwhelmingly opposed to it. ‘No certainty in flesh but decay’, isn’t that their creed?”

“It is,” said Pheidius. “But it also represents an avenue of experimentation being closed off, temporary as that may be. There are catacombs on Mars forbidden to all by order of the Emperor, and some likely resent that. More than a few Heretek cults have had to be put down over the centuries.”

“Regardless,” Alexandros said, “we should concentrate on putting our own house in order. The Priesthood can attend to theirs. Shall we?”

There was a pause in the conversation as they made for one of the wrought-iron staircases. “Koschei is troubled by all this,” Nomus said. “Kozja is disgraced, and others of our brotherhood have had their standing reduced. The prestige of the Legions will suffer, and the Council of Terra will grow bolder as a result.”

“We have to work with the Council,” Alexandros said. “Even if that offends our instincts to lead and demand obedience. As for prestige, consider the alternatives. Suppose Kozja suffered no censure? He has betrayed the trust of his brothers, the trust that has allowed us to cooperate and carve out the Imperium together. If he wanted to avoid shame, he should not have set his sights on lore which he has no right to.”

They emerged onto a more crowded deck, where Caestus Assault Rams and gunships of all sizes filled the space. A tech-priest hung to the underside of one like an insect, held in place by mag-locks as he or she attended to its heavy bolters and ammunition-feeds. “I suspect,” he continued, “that the Council will be not so much emboldened as desperate to prove they are equal to the task, after Kozja denounced the governance of lesser men so passionately. We’ve been dealt a bad hand, Nomus, but we don’t have the option to fold.”

-----

He parted from the group shortly after that. Nomus and his lieutenants went back to their flagship. Pheidius made for one of the training halls, where Pyrrhicles was trialling candidates for the Myrmidons. Warriors from every echelon of the Legion had fallen in this war, and the gaps needed filling. Alexandros would join them shortly, but first he wanted to speak to more of his artificiers and Adepts.

He was on one of the tank decks when the adjutant reached him. He was a slight man, dresed in Legion livery and carrying a data-slate. Alexandros recognised him as Karl Jurig, one of the men assigned to messenger duty for the Astropaths.

“My lord,” he began, “word from Terra.” There was some relative trivia from other fleets and pronouncements from the Council, but Alexandros only wanted details on one thing right now.

“So, the Chaplain Edict. Kindly summarise, if you please.” Alexandros was quick to leave the forge, knowing Jurig would wilt in the heat. It took effort to rein in his stride as they moved into the loading bays, but the poor man already had to contend with the din here even without trying to keep up with a Primarch. Binaric invocations were muttered by Mechanicus adepts, coaxing tank engines into noisy life so their crews could drive them out to the lifts which would in turn take them to the hangars. On the fleet’s carrier vessels it would be even worse as thousands more vehicles had their machine spirits roused, ready to trundle aboard bulk landers.

The Maelynos had been shaken out of their complacency, that much was clear. The Imperials had taken steep losses to their armoury, and many more vehicles were undergoing repairs, so it had proved necessary to delve into the Legions’ reserves. Salvaging and seizing them from the enemy only went so far, and the reinforcements Alexandros had requested upon starting the campaign would not be delivered by the Mechanicum for another month.

The adjutant was briefly hampered by a crew racing over to their Malcador battle tank, and then by an Adept and his retinue. Alexandros waited until the concourse cleared. “So, the Edict?”

The man cleared his throat as they began walking again. “The Emperor, beloved by all -”

“Beloved by all,” Alexandros affirmed.

“- has mandated the existence of a Chaplain order in every Legion. In those Legions which have not previously possessed them, Chaplains are to be dispatched from other Legions to oversee them; the Berserkers of Uran and the Warriors of Peace are mentioned here. In their cases, as with the Warbringers and the Drowned, Chaplain candidates will receive part of their training away from their parent Legion.”

Internally, Alexandros processed this information and found himself wondering just how wise the decision was. Elevation by the Emperor had not erased his old scepticism. To institute such a measure now, with the Crusade’s end mere decades away, seemed heavy-handed. On the other hand, this could work to his advantage. None could say Alexandros was ruling in the Emperor’s stead, or that the Council of Terra now held sway over the entire Imperium.

And yet. This would not help with the whispers of how distant the Emperor had become. Now He stirred, only to impose judgement on one of His sons. However important His mysterious work was, Alexandros worried that his Father did not see the political dangers. A short break from frontline service was required, he thought. He could ill afford to be a stranger to Terra. And if the chance should arise to learn just what the Emperor was doing...

-----

Running in his armour, he reduced rockcrete to dust with every step. His warriors too; the column left a gouge in the road, five hundred superhuman feet crunching down. Veteran tactical squads moved ahead, catching a company of Maelynos infantry who had hitherto been withdrawing in good order from the main column. Disciplined defiance became confusion and then, if you saw with a Primarch’s eyes, you could pinpoint the very second when it became a rout. From a side road across the highway appeared Koschei and his Goliaths at the head of their own column, crunching headlong into a tank squadron. With power fists, breaching charges and meltas, they silenced the rearguard’s armour.

Lyos, 35-221-NCH, was falling to the Imperials. Nothing could prevent that now. The price had been paid in blood and treasure, the garisson was broken. Sejanus and Ruel had taken the coastal garrisons and silenced the surface-to-void batteries, Nomus had followed up his seizure of the orbital defences with a drop-assault into the other capital, reporting success there an hour ago. With this conquest, they could blockade the foundry world of Dwem indefinitely and open Maelyneum itself to attack.

Up ahead, a Maelynos Crusader was swaying, the damage it had sustained in the retreat beginning to tell. Alexandros felt a momentary pang as he watched it reel under a torrent of plasma fire from above, armour falling in molten ribbons from its remaining arm. The pilot had realised the trap outside the city and shown enough sense to withdraw carefully, bringing what troops he could. Courage and intelligence. Still, he had no use for those in an enemy; the pilot had used his wits to kill a scion of House Zivich and destroy the best part of three tank squads. An Assault Squad came down around the Knight’s legs as it turned to scour its attackers from the roof. Five turned melta guns on the machine’s legs - Alexandros had been quick to arm his assault marines for this purpose - and with a groan of tearing metal, the giant fell.

Alexandros pressed on, glancing up as he passed the fallen Knight. The assault squad’s sergeant had cut a hole in the cockpit, reaching into the space in a gesture of mercy. “Surrender and you will be spared!” The pilot’s answer pinged off the sergeant’s helm, scoring away the paint where it had hit. The Astartes didn’t even recoil. “Your choice.” His bolt pistol barked once, the answering bang muffled by the cockpit.

Another half hour and he was pulling men back as the Tempestus Warlord Iudicium Tonitrua closed with the last of the behemoth walkers, somewhere in the dust and smoke. Once it fell, there would be no fighting left beyond a few packs of fanatics. Your common Maelynos soldier had a refreshing pragmatism in the face of certain defeat. The trouble generally came from the bannermen, inured to servitude over many generations. These were the soldiers stationed among the conscripts on most battlefields, both to set an example and cut down deserters.

They made up most of the troops continuing to fight, easily visible in power armour that was closer to the old Thunder plate than anything the Imperium used today. Their weapons were effective enough, but against the Legions’ best they were hopelessly outmatched.

There was little enough to see of the fight from down here. Idly, he wondered if any of the remembrancers who had braved the battle would see anything of the fighting itself. The dust was bad enough for a Primarch, let alone an ordinary man with goggles and gloves that hampered him in clearing his sight. A booming war-siren and a crash brought cheers as the dust dispersed, exposing the Titan-analogue, headless and teetering. Alexandros watched as it keeled over, slumping with a singular lack of dignity against a tower, before voxing the Princeps of the Iuidicium Tonitrua to convey his congratulations. He knew what a kill like that meant to a Titan pilot.

The Halcyon Wardens formed up around him, reorganising into groups of two or three squads each to comb the city for what little resistance might remain. Alexandros only sent two hundred, knowing that the Army regiments in the city would be doing the same. He ordered Koschei back to the landing sites to ready his men to pull out and allocate warriors and ships for the blockade of Dwem.

The Warlord and the two Warhounds accompanying it bowed their massive heads as they passed. Alexandros returned the salute with his spear.

“You carry yourself differently these days,” Koschei told him.

“How do I carry myself, then?”

“Like the Warmaster.” Koschei read Alexandros’ body language easily, for he then preempted the next question. “Surrounded by such monsters as these, and now you act as if nothing could be more natural than they obey you.”

“Natural?” Alexandros rested his spear on his shoulder, gazing up at the headless machine. Assault marines were up there now, taking a lascutter to the roof. “I can scarcely think of anything less natural than us, and all this. I just am what I can strive to be, whilst being what our Father requires of me.” The question still sat uneasily with him, so he changed the subject. “A fine vanguard you led out there today, brother. There’ll be statues raised to that right across this sector, before the decade’s out.” He hoped it sounded less hollow to Koschei.

-----

A few nights later he dined aboard House Zivich’s ship, the Obsidian Keep. Him, Pyrrhicles, the knights, their Sacristan and the leaders of the Black Towers, those Halcyon Wardens appointed to serve directly beside Zivich. Once this would have been a chance for Alexandros to relax, and to a point it was. But there were still matters of war and politics to discuss, along with scandal, which had Thom wincing every time he said the word.

His second daughter, Lyra, had spent much of the previous campaign fighting alongside a young scion of House Teivon. This had been taken as a stirling example of cooperation between Houses. Until, that is, she was found astride said young scion in his tent. Worse still, from a political perspective, their mutual attraction was apparently more than a passing fling, and now Thom was faced with the prospect of his daughter marrying into a quite junior House, rather than the match with House Devine he had hoped for.

A colourful ditty about the maiden and the mighty lance of House Teivon had already become popular throughout the fleet. Alexandros had therefore made it clear that anyone caught singing it would suffer the Warmaster’s ominously vague displeasure. That seemed to work quite nicely, and now he was free to deal with the political fallout.

“You’re a kinder man than your father,” Alexandros mused, after they retired to the solar. “Had it been him sitting across from me, I’d have had to order him not to frogmarch his daughter to House Devine. Still, an apology of some sort will be necessary. How many sacred armours have your engineers restored to working order?”

Thom looked up in surprise. “You would have us pay them off with war-spoil?”

“I am suggesting you soften their disappointment by foregoing a prize you took yourself. We can make it look very gracious indeed with the right words. If I might go further, a couple would probably suffice for Devine, and three would make a handsome dowry to Teivon.” He caught the Steward’s puzzled look. “I see opportunity in this match, old friend. Marriages between established houses are one thing, but there’s potential in Teivon. You yourself see it in Reynik, otherwise you’d never consider him for a son-in-law. Teivon will have the means to grow strong and achieve great things in the service of the Emperor, and your daughter will not want for protection in battle.”

Thom nodded, and smiled grimly at Alexandros. “True love and political marriages, my liege. Give me a Morkanaut or Eldar Wraith to wrestle with any day.”

-----

Five months later, Alexandros had personally led eleven major offensives, with dozens more led by his subcommanders across the small empire, punctuated by many more skirmishes. It was enjoyable, after a fashion; an enemy that merited the full range of weapons at his disposal. Everything from Titans to jetbikes had seen use on one battlefield or another. The Maelynos’ arrogance remained useful, but Alexandros knew better than to rely solely on it.

On Ayekol, he had bled an army of ‘strider cavalry with repeated Skyhunter charges by the Shepherds before launching a pincer attack with his armour columns. On Varilia, the Godslayers had dug themselves into the foothills by the capital and drawn a relieving fleet into a trap, mauling the forces that landed with strafing attacks from the air. On two occasions Alexandros used the assumptions made after Derneum, seeming to repeat that strategy before unleashing shock-attack forces by teleportation and drop-pod, or withdrawing and luring the enemy into the jaws of the Legio Tempestus or orbital bombardment. With every battle, their haul of technology grew, despite the losses they took to achieve it.

Now, Alexandros breathed the air of the final battlefield - unfiltered, as he carried his helmet rather than wear it now - watching the aftermath. Apothecaries carried out their duties on the wounded and the dead, techmarines and magos attended to damaged Imperial machines or turned their attentions to the enemy’s, cataloguing and assessing. A debate had been running for some time about the quadrupedal Titans, and whether it was worth manufacturing them.

The new-look Chaplains also took their place in the aftermath, examining those Wardens who had been subjected to the most stressful parts of the battle. Opinion was split on their trappings - the black trim, the skulled helmets which seemed to hark back to more savage times. Ruel considered them an irksome distraction, having disliked them from the day they had first appeared among the Legions. Pyrrhicles deemed them more formal than necessary; the old discipline-masters had been enough for the Wardens.

Despite this, both conceded that the Legion must put up with the changes. The Warmaster’s Legion, above all, had to be seen to obey the Emperor’s edict. They were not exempt from His writ, and Alexandros would not have them behave in a way that might incite disobedience in the Warbringers and those who had supported them. The Chaplains understood that well enough, and besides the aesthetic change, little about them was different. Few complaints had been heard from the rank and file, even in the lodges. Most of those came from the Chaplains themselves, regarding the new regalia.

Alexandros passed one, exhorting the 44th Company to greater vigilance, that their fine service in this battle might be only the keystone in their legend. He raised his hand in salute; now the Chaplain’s address would resound forever in the minds of his audience.

Salutes punctuated his progress as often as picter-flashes. He did his best to ignore remembrancers crouching or lying on the ground, trying to line up that fortune-making shot. He especially avoided glancing at the slaved servo-skull that hovered a way ahead of him. Nothing would kill a shot like the Warmaster of the Imperium looking to camera and winking.

It would also rather ruin this moment. The Knight - a strange pattern, a Porphyrion model augmented far beyond the usual might of its class, lumbered towards him. Alexandros’ helm relayed him the constant assessments by his Techamarines and bound Magos that its arsenal was indeed empty. He was aware of that from the way that the pilot’s - rather, the king’s aura radiated shame and submission, but it would not do to disregard the input of his retainers. Someday, he might need them to see something he had overlooked.

Other pilots had disembarked from their own Knights to walk beside their leader. They moved with a reluctance that was understandable, but still irritating to Alexandros. For most soldiers, the end of a campaign was a time to celebrate and relax. For the Imperial Warmaster, this was a time to pour over the lists of candidates to govern recently taken worlds, determine how many Iterators must remain, stall the eaxactors again, and begin plotting the next round of campaigns.

He passed the companies who had been hastily picked for a backdrop, those who weren’t already busy keeping an eye on the beaten enemy. There was little sign of elation among them. All of them had lost brothers, some had endured more personal trials - Vasilios was fidgeting, shifting on his new augmetic leg. They snapped to attention as he neared them. Nomus and Koschei stood further back, perhaps even more eager to be away when this was done.

A small crowd of courtiers trailed behind the king, carrying a ladder between them. “Personally, I think he should climb down by himself,” Vasilios voxed from where he stood atop a Spartan. A discreet earpiece allowed Alexandros to hear, if not respond. “He’s probably got a lustrous cloak in there. Let him tie that on to something, make himself a rope.”

“Your thoughts on the eternal dignity of kings are always appreciated,” Legate Antipaton replied at Alexandros’ left hand. The commander of the Third Cohort had arrived halfway through the campaign, opening a third front on his way to join Alexandros.

“It would be quicker,” said Ruel, on Alexandros' right.

Despite his mood, Alexandros had to suppress a smile, knowing that to everyone else, the officers would appear to be proceeding in dignified silence, helmed as they were.

A pair of Zivich Knights bowed their heads and raised swords in salute. Alexandros kept walking for another half minute before halting. The royal walker stopped, fifty metres distant, and sank to one knee. Vasilios mused on whether the ungainly work of connecting Knight and ladder would be recorded in the annals of proud House Maelynos.

High King Johren was around fifty at a guess, but had not succumbed to indulgence. Alexandros had expected as much; the Maelynos cared little for anything but strength and prestige, and so their only real indulgences were aesthetic. The crown that bounced and rolled to his feet was encrusted with rubies and diamonds. The king’s armour was enameled and ornamented to an extent Alexandros had never seen among scions. He wondered how many agri-world harvests it was worth, and how much it would take to buy the sword at Johren’s hip.

The king unbuckled it and held it out, kneeling much as his walker did. “Warmaster. House Maelynos surrenders, and begs your mercy.”

Alexandros waited for a moment, allowing time for the picters, and for the scene to fix itself in the minds of all present. “Keep the sword. The Emperor would have you wield it in His service.” He reached down and picked up the crown, smiling at the king’s confused expression. “This will suffice, I think.”

-----

History books would record that as the final act of the war, to be followed by the aftermath and its consequences for the little empire and the armies that had fought to conquer it. Of course, what they failed to consider was that the aftermath was still part of the campaign. The Maelynos’ hosts had to be assessed for residual unwillingness to cooperate, and those deemed reliable needed assigning to the right fleets. Hopefully, they would relearn their proper purpose in time, and honourable service would replace ambition and vainglory. There was no sense in discarding such a fine military heritage.

Iterators moved into the cities along with medics, architects and all the other personnel the Halcyon Wardens used to soften their arrival. Soldiers and Astartes were assigned to the labour divisions. Not content to simply undo any damage to the infrastructure, Alexandros wanted it improved. The sooner Imperial rule was associated with prosperity, the more enduring compliance would be. Already he had sent requisition orders for agri-machines to the nearest Forge Worlds, and had the Empire’s factories furnished with STCs for the same.

Fleets went their separate ways, Nomus heading swiftly for the next warfront, and Koschei lingering briefly before a request for reinforcements arrived from an Eagle Warriors fleet. Alexandros was among the last to leave, taking a small flotilla and charting a course for Terra roughly two months after initial compliance. An interlude, a diversion before the next war. Not a respite though, not really. The Warmaster’s work was never done.


Edited by bluntblade, 26 September 2019 - 10:01 PM.

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#104
simison

simison

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A First Step
Author: simison
Legion: Halcyon Wardens
Time: 049.M31
Characters: Alexandros, Stelios, Zizkul

+++++

Legionary Stelios was extremely uncomfortable. It didn't matter that his body was whole and hale, nor that he carried a fully-functioning heavy bolter. No, the longer he stared at his quarry, the stranger he felt. The creature, for he refused to call it anything else, seemed to not mind that one of its limbs was hanging by a few threads of flesh...if it could truly be called flesh. Its form was vaguely feminine, yet it was wrong. It was wrong in a way that went beyond its inhuman claws or its colour-shifting eyes. 

 

Worse, the creature seemed to feed on his discomfort. It ignored the other six Legionaries that surrounded it and only stared at him. A long, serpentine tongue slithered between fangs and flickered toward Stelios. He felt violated in a way that defied words. He wanted to do nothing else than open fire with his weapon, caring not for its unnatural resistance to ranged fire. 

 

But those were not his orders. 

 

"Release me," it whispered. "And I will show you pleasures you thought were lost to you."

 

Stelios' finger twitched. The sense of violation deepened with its words. Vague images flitted at the edge of his mind. Images better left unspoken and untouched, lest they gain strength. 

 

It grinned at his struggle...

 

...then its attention snapped to something behind him. 

 

It was only thanks to decades of discipline that Stelios did not turn. His patience was rewarded when a being stepped in front of him. Abruptly, the sense of violation vanished as relief replaced it. 

 

The Warmaster placed himself between Stelios and the daemon. Stelios lowered his weapon now that the Warmaster was in his line of fire. The Warmaster appeared at ease despite the abomination standing before him. Despite being a third of the Warmaster's size, the creature showed no fear. Instead, it showed... curiosity on its strange face. "The Dark Prince is still willing to offer you a place by his side, Alex."

 

Rage exploded within Stelios at the creature's arrogance. Yet, the Warmaster did not seem to notice. Instead, he held up his hand. It was only now that Stelios noticed the object the Warmaster held. It was an Imperial Aquila, shaped in the same manner as the icons carried by the cults who worshiped the Emperor. Stelios thought such people as fools for ignoring the Emperor's words, and that the writer Lectito Divinatus was the greatest fool of them all. Why did the Warmaster carry such a trinket, sized to fit his own palm?

 

The creature had noticed the trinket as well. For the first time since Stelios had been charged with containing it, the creature's arrogance wavered. "You are a child, Alex, playing with things you can never unders-"

 

The Warmaster brandished the icon, his face set in concentration. "The Emperor protects." 

 

The creature recoiled as though in pain. The icon in the Warmaster's hand flickered for a moment before returning to cool metal. Stelios had no idea what was happening. "ARROGANT CHILD!" The creature shriek. "YOU KNOW NOTHING! YOU WILL NEVER KNOW ANYTHING!"

 

But now the Warmaster smiled. The icon grew bright in his hands, and power filled the room. "The Emperor Protects!" 

 

It was as though a force flung the creature against the wall. It twitched and screamed as it try to claw away. 

 

Icon still bright, the Warmaster glanced at Stelios. "Execute it. One bolt. Center mass."

 

Had anyone else given the order, Stelios would have scoffed. He had seen this very same creature shrug off hundreds of bolter shells with minimal harm. It had taken seven heavy rounds in the same exact spot to rip its shoulder into its current status. Yet, the Warmaster had given an order. Stelios would never consider disobeying. He lined up his crosshairs over the creature's chest. He squeezed the trigger. The heavy bolter fired. 

 

Its chest exploded. 

 

It's wailing died down as its form withered. In seconds, it dissipated, returning to the Warp where it belonged. If Stelios had not witnessed the event himself, he would not have believed such a thing was possible. After a few silent seconds, Stelios dared to ask. "Warmaster, what was that?"

 

The Warmaster studied the Aquila in his hands, which no longer glowed with power. "My first miracle."


Edited by simison, 22 August 2017 - 03:55 AM.

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The Second Son: Narrative of the BOTL Vth Legion Primarch

 

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#105
bluntblade

bluntblade

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All Approaches Covered
Author: bluntblade
Legions: Fire Keepers, Lightning Bearers
Time: 04, M31

+++++

Millions lived in the Sol System who had never felt wind or true sunlight on their skins. The gravity that rooted their feet was not born of any natural means, but the ingenuity of men born eons ago. Muniza, a child of Madrigal’s orbital plates who had given most of his life to voyaging aboard warships, nonetheless found the orbital city to have something suffocating about it.

The metal beneath his boots gave way to stone as he neared a gate, guarded by a quartet of Fire Keepers made massive by Terminator armour. They gave perfunctory bows as Muniza neared, parting as the door opened once he had given up his swords. The Crusader Host had never held much regard among the Legions, and of course any Lightning Bearer had something of the Warp about him. Muniza might have lost his gift, but once an unclean witch, always an unclean witch.

In the audience chamber beyond, Saturn’s ring had crept into view, the first hint of the artificial worldrise. This was the strange environment the Saturnine had wrought for themselves, giving their days a rhythm of day and night using the planet that dominated their sky far more than the sun. Then Muniza turned to the room’s occupants.

The X Legion Chiefs and their Primarch wore rich furs and hides, garments more suited to firelight than the sharp green glow of holo-charts and schematics. Muniza knew two personally, five by reputation, and another two not at all. That was an error to rectify, he thought.

Arbath stood with them, and bowed respectfully. His brothers were more reserved, merely lowering their heads. Jehu raised his eyes to Muniza first, but glanced at the swords in the hands of the Triakonta. “You come armed to a meeting with the Imperial Praetorian?” he growled.

“The swords are an old custom. To wear them is my obligation, not an indulgence.”

Jehu might have spoken further, but Niklaas raised a huge hand to silence him. “Enough. I summoned the Thunder’s Hand for practical matters, not trivia. Trivia, I might add, that you ought to have been aware of previously.” Jehu shifted uncomfortably, but no more was said. Now the master of the Tenth Legion turned his gaze upon Muniza. “As part of my duties as Praetorian to the Emperor, I am obliged to ensure that the Sol System itself is secure. For all that so many readily forget it, the Throneworld and Mars are far from the only domains we hold around this star. To raise an impregnable fortress is all well and good, but far better that no enemy ever manages to contest that redoubt.

“For that is why we are here. To spend all one’s time on Terra and occasionally Mars is to drastically skew one’s perspective in strategic matters. The outlying worlds and orbitals would all have their parts to play, should an enemy seek to assail Terra.”

Muniza nodded, but nonetheless he felt a vague confusion. “I will confess to some surprise, lord, that you sought my counsel.”

Niklaas’ eyes, glimmering in the holo-light, scrutinised him from beneath that mighty, craggy brow. “You should not be surprised. If I am to make fast the Palace, truly, then the Sol System itself must be impregnable. That requires me to seek the wisdom of those who have proven their prowess in the void. I have spoken to Aiton already. After him, you are the most experienced of the Crusader Host in these matters.”

Muniza tilted his head, fighting back an undiplomatic scowl. Time was when he’d have anticipated and headed off such a remark. But those were days past, and now that was all he had at his disposal. The past, and its lessons.

So he looked to the charts, and they began. There was little enough to add to Aitor’s recommendations; the Void Eagle was a master. But no one man could cover every facet, and there were things Muniza could add. Chinks in the existing defences, killzones just waiting to be created. More pertinently to Niklaas’ mind, routes of entry for a relieving fleet. Aitor had that typical Fourth Legion bent, everything geared towards the offensive.

Perhaps that was born of their culture, so like that of the stations around Saturn. Unmoored, deeming a fleet your natural habitat… no wonder that with that mindset, worlds became something to seize or burn and then leave for others to garrison. The Fire Keepers on the other hand were grounded, as were the Lightning Bearers, surprising though that might seem to an outsider. But that would have been someone who failed to see that the Lightning Bearers shared that experience of being pushed to the brink, clinging to the edge of the cliff and knowing full well the chasm that yawned beneath you.

Niklaas’ face mirrored Muniza’s feeling, and in his peripheral vision he saw it in Arbath’s expression too. An accord between them, unexpected but welcome. He wondered that this had not arisen between Icarion and Niklaas. Perhaps there hadn’t been time before - his old life had always been somewhere between a stride and a sprint. He missed that. Warriors weren’t made to amble.

Scrutinising the holos for the Galaxy’s most crowded system took another six hours. Niklaas would not accept anything less than watertight, though in truth much of Muniza’s role was to simply examine the work of the siegemaster and his lieutenants and pronounce that he could do nothing to improve them. Muniza’s fingerprints on the vast edifice would be miniscule when one looked at the whole thing.

He reminded himself that in a Primarch’s work, anyone else’s contribution would be minuscule and that in any case, such prideful worries had been beneath him as a Marshal. Besides, when one of the Eighteen requested your help, that was a chance to learn things.

“I could not help but notice, lord, that your warriors seem less discomfited by my presence - the presence of a psyker - than I had imagined."

He hadn’t used to wonder if he had miscalculated by speaking. The safety net of foresight had been so easy to rely on. Now he watched Niklaas’ eyes flicker away, tracing the trajectories of a simulated Eldar fleet before they turned back to him. “There are… variations, Lightning Bearer. Some pursue magic to the extent of almost abandoning the role of warriors entrusted to them. That, as you know, I do not permit within my Legion. Were you one of those who did so among your kind, forswearing truesight or fairly swimming in the aether as you fought, I do not doubt this would be a less easy meeting.”

Muniza listened in silence. Niklaas radiated such authority that even now, as he spoke words which Muniza disagreed with so thoroughly, he could do no more than sit and contemplate them.

“But you, Muniza, are a warrior through and through. I know enough of your deeds, and see it in your bearing.” Or perhaps he was not blinded to it as he was with more psychically gifted warriors. “So we may speak without acrimony. Still, were it otherwise I would still have summoned you. You build with the materials available, and even with a Galaxy to draw on, one can only be so picky.”

Muniza stood slowly, and bowed. “If you’ll not require me further, lord, I should take my leave. This has been enlightening.”

“As it has for me, Lightning Bearer. My thanks.”


Edited by bluntblade, 10 October 2019 - 08:59 PM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#106
bluntblade

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Fraught
Author: bluntblade
Legions: Iron Bears, Lightning Bearers, Berserkers of Uran
Time: 17 M30 (that sound right?)

+++++

“Anyone got anything to top a Mournival? No?”

Ignace took Ellan's lone “Son of a bitch” as an admission of defeat, and beaming, raked the pile of coins toward himself.
“Don't look so sour, you lot, it's going on the next round.”

“Bastard,” muttered a soldier, as the generously proportioned poet made his way to the bar. The Fuel Tank was its usual warm, noisy self tonight.

Mashiko, a pictographer who Ellan had become firm friends with during the Locria campaign, laughed gently. “Ignace has been playing card games longer than any of us. Experience pays off, I guess. Say...” She stood, reaching for Ignace's winning hand and looking to Ellan. “If you had to make a Mournival of Daer'dd's officers, who would it be made up of?”

Ellan studied the cards as Mashiko spread them out in front of her. “An odd term,” she replied. “There’s not much like it in our armies today. So…”

“You have to do this properly,” came a voice on her left, and she turned to see an Army officer of about sixty take the seat next to her. Unlike many veteran officers, he was only as old as he looked - rejuvenation, he claimed, was for the “anchorless”.

“Anyone using this?” he asked before he'd quite finished sitting down, and she shook her head. Major Kevan Lamnaus had been one of the first officers to make the remembrancers feel welcome aboard the Dragon, and he was a useful source of knowledge as well as kind. “Now, you can't simply take four of his Lord Chiefs and call that a Mournival. The Mournival, historically, is present at almost every turn, whereas obviously there's only Chief Cass in this fleet most of the time.”

Ellan took the four cards. “Might as well get the easiest one over with first,” she said, placing the warrior-noble card down. “Cass, analytical, and by the Bears’ standards melancholy, if you're working by the four humours principle. Then...”
Mashiko leaned forward. “Solomon Grimm?”

“I'd say so.” Another card. “Phlegmatic, down to earth with the added bonus of representing the old Juggernauts.” She reached for her glass. “That concludes the more sober half of a Mournival.”

Lamnaus spoke next. “Leonas would be the sanguine. He's much of a temper with his brother.”

“And finally choler,” Mashiko smiled. “Aandegg?”

Ellan laughed. “If Daer'dd were to choose on the basis of who was the most choleric, certainly. But honestly, he doesn't really ask for advice from Aandegg much. Doesn't really need to unless it's an issue with a psychic element, otherwise you can just assume he’ll say “don’t trust anyone” and advocate burning those untrustworthy souls. Including remembrancers.”

“Even the Primarch's own scribe?”

“Oh, he'd have them shoot me into the sun and drop a novae broadside where I land for good measure.”

Lamnaus brought the conversation back to the subject. “I would say that these days, Praetor Nibaasiniiwi fills the role quite nicely. Ever eager to cut loose and seek worthy foes, but not bellicose or bloodthirsty. However, he can't be counted among Lord Daer'dd's closest companions; in truth none surpass his bonds with Leonas and Chief Damon.”

“And given that Damon is away so often, that leaves us with Leonas,” Ellan supplied.

Lamnaus smiled at the names with both fondness and sorrow. He was counting down the months to retirement, and a comfortable life as advisor to an Imperial governor on some pleasant civilised world with a family he'd only seen intermittently for years. Service in the Crusade took its toll over the years; as he put it, he didn't want to miss the births of any more grandchildren.

On the other side of the table, the conversation had turned to rather tortuous philosophy, a common hazard when you got a few of the more “high-minded” remembrancers in one place.

“Do you find that sometimes, in the course of what we see, you’re moved to contemplate necessary evil?” This came from Fernan, a poet who'd transferred to the fleet recently from the Warbringers. The reason varied, depending on his level of sobriety, from artistic differences to an irate husband. Despite the reckless behaviour the latter implied, he tended to skirt timidly around a subject like this. “For example, the use of a weapon that must cause collateral damage, but whose withholding would ultimately inflict greater harm?

“Or the Berserkers?” Ignace, who rarely if ever backed away from troubling subjects, reappeared with the drinks. “If you want to talk about them, talk about them. Don't tiptoe.”

----

But that was the thing about the Berserkers. You didn't want to talk about them. You didn't want to acknowledge that the Emperor, beloved by all, had tacitly deemed that Legion an essential part of the Great Crusade. It was a strange thing, after the year that travelling to and from Baal had consumed, to be almost dreading the campaign to come. Ridiculous. It’s not like I’ll even be fighting.

Ellan rose early, still groggy, and let a near-scalding shower hammer her fully awake. The lumen were still dim as she made her way to the bridge, grabbing breakfast from the nearest canteen as she went. As with most Imperial ships, a day-night cycle was maintained, modelled on Huron most of the time - returning to Terran sidereal had felt strange during the Prosecution. If a world had days and nights of similar length, the cycle would be adjusted, the fleet holding at geostationary anchor. But this time they had headed into deep space, far outside any star system, where an Imperial-held Warp gate hung in the void. The facility observed the Terra standard, so the ships did the same, adjusting their arrival to overlap and ease the transition as far as was practical. Astartes could switch easily from one sidereal to another, but such changes tended to put a strain on mortal personnel.

Bleary eyes and yawning were thoroughly in evidence on every platform as she moved up stairs and across gantries. The Dragon of Autmn's bridge was manned by some seven hundred officers, and its multiple tiers made it difficult to appreciate its size from the inside. She passed one of the newly appointed Chaplains - a Tricendian word hadn’t stuck to them yet, a reminder of how suddenly they had been imposed.

Craning over the back of Minerva’s seat, Ellan noted that the flag-captain was not reclining as she usually did, even during battle. Lotara sat ramrod-straight as she had in the early years of her captaincy.

“Need distracting?” Ellan asked, dangling a flask of strong coffee in front of her eyes. It was gratefully accepted, and there were a few seconds of sipping before Minerva replied. No slurping, however. The daughter of a Xephyr holdfast's lord did not slurp when she drank.

“So long as it doesn't take me too far from the throne. The captain will have my skull for a paperweight if she sees me playing the tour guide again.”

“Oh, there's no need to get up,” Ellan said, making herself comfortable where she leant on the throne.

“Perfect.” Minerva’s teeth flashed up at her in a grin, aristocratic reserve giving way for a moment. “What do you want to know?” she asked, turning for a moment to inspect her console.

“This talk about the Berserkers and their Destroyers. I tried asking Achille how it's any different from the Bears’.”

She didn't need to see the wince to know it was there. “Ellan, you should've known better.” A sigh, accompanied by a slight dip of he shoulders. “Best you leave him alone until he's had a good fight to improve his mood. Luckily, I'm less touchy about Legion honour. First things first - what do you know about the Blood Boilers?”

“Well, they're notorious. I've heard stories about them razing whole cities in an hour -”

Minerva turned in her seat with one finger raised. “You skipped past the key bit. They're notorious, they're talked about. Hell, the Berserkers boast about them.”

Ellan saw where she was going. “And the Bears never talk about theirs. Now I think about it, they don't even wear the Destroyer garb if they're not going to use those weapons, right?”

“Precisely. The Blood Boilers, though… you'll find out soon enough.”

Ellan took another glance over at Lotara, particularly her uniform, and what she saw confirmed that Lotara was anticipating a lot of disagreement over tactics today. Her medals had been dredged from the mess of her wardrobe, as they usually were when Lotara was expecting arguments with another fleetmaster. The only other times Ellan had seen her wear all of her various decorations were the meetings that had punctuated the campaign with the Warbringers. Even the dragon-wing circlet was in place, black iron veined with copper.

“Are we working with any of the same fleetmasters you’ve served with before?”

Minerva pulled a console towards her, smiling at how fully Ellan had come to feel part of the Legion itself. “Only Tesio. I can't claim to know him personally, I was serving on a frigate back then. He's capable - Madrigal breeds good naval officers - but generally they all defer to whichever Lightning Bearer commands their ship. Foresight is handy in the void, it seems. The rest I know by reputation, but this will be Icarion's battle above all.”

“Do you know much about the Berserkers’ mortal officers?”

“Unscrupulous and nasty with it. If they aren't like that to begin with, they grow into it or get themselves a transfer.” That sounded about right. The Berserkers’ fleets had become a repository for penal regiments, officers and even Titan crews whose temperament was deemed unsuitable for more humane expeditions. “And given that we just saw their side lose the argument at Baal, they’re going to be in a foul mood.”

First Officer Ahouandate approached. He was a lieutenant of many years’ service, with a craggy, bearded face. “As it happens though - and good morning, Ellan - in the void, they might actually do as we want, for once. Has Minerva told you where we’re headed?”

Indeed she had, though the news was being kept quiet for the most part. This mission wasn't about expanding the borders of Mankind. Today, the forces of the Imperium went to deal with a renegade from within their own ranks.

-----

“All bridge personnel, for the next five minutes you have full permission to make your way to the viewports and gawp. I’m not going to deny you a good view of the Kalium Gate.”

Ellan was already stood there, one hand pressed against the glass as several hundred people jostled behind her. For once, the old aphorism about sights that stole the breath was entirely true. Simply calling Kalium a Warp gate, in truth did it no justice at all.

Even if it had shared the space with planets or moons, the elliptical structure would have been vast. Here, in an empty stretch of the void, its near thousand-kilometre span dominated the region, leant scale by the vessels hanging around it. Some of the largest and most formidable ships ever fashioned by human hands, now made to resemble small fish around a cetacean.

Its sheer size and the strangeness of its construction signalled that it could only have been created before the Age of Strife, when Man’s daring and innovation had run free of any restraint. Even Lord Koschei, who had brought the first Legion fleet to Kalium, had remarked upon a feeling of oppressiveness whilst exploring the depths of the structure.

The Imperium had built fortifications over the constructions of its predecessors, much as it had on Terra, enveloping the original edifice. So here the Necklace, with chains linking hundreds of fearsome fortress-stations, with a hive-sized bulwark at the apex. It was toward this, the Keystone, that the Dragon rose. As it ascended, Ellan began to comprehend the full scale of the Gate when she recognised the Thunderchild, Icarion's flagship, hanging at anchor. The docking plates weren't just capable of accommodating the Gloriana-class ship and its escorts, they did so with acres to spare. The Dragon - Throne, a star fort would fit comfortably at each.

“Well, bugger me on a Land Raider,” Minerva whispered in her ear. She was grinning in a way that suggested she was on the verge of laughter, eyes sparkling. “This is the sort of thing that made me want to sail in a fleet. I mean…” she gestured vaguely with her hand while she thought, and Ellan leaned in to listen. “I’ve seen nebulae, worlds that have barely formed and just how bizarre a black hole truly is, but this is our inheritance. This is what we were once capable of building, and if we succeed in the Crusade, we could achieve things like this again.”

Ellan grinned. “You were a true loss to the Iterators.” Minerva laughed, shaking her head, and reluctantly returned to her station.

Icarion's orders had slowed the usual order here, and dozens of Army and Munitorum craft queued to dock or enter the Gate. The closest dispersed meekly as the Iron Bears fleet drew near, as was only proper. Only those Lightning Bearers ships which remained out in the void stood their ground, hailing the newcomers.

To Ellan, it looked like Icarion was making a point by stationing his own ships in such a way, when the standing garrison were clearly quite capable of performing those duties. As she came back to the throne, she saw that long-range auspex images also showed several I Legion companies and perhaps a full regiment of mortal troops assembling on the docking plate to which the Dragon was being directed.

Lotara's mouth twitched slightly when that communication came in, unusually direct and insistent. She wasn't fond of being instructed by other mortals these days, and informal inter-Legion etiquette stipulated that such messages took the form of a request rather than an order. She replied with a curt acknowledgement rune.

Minerva shared her irritation. “Every other time we’ve served with a Legion since Terra, they’ve strutted and puffed themselves up. They'll be comparing bolter sizes if this carries on much longer.”

“They're over the shock of Alexandros becoming Warmaster,” Ellan hazarded, watching the pictographers flitting from place to place, looking for a perspective that might capture the full size of the structure above them. “No one ever really believed the Legions were equal. Now they jostle for position beneath him.”

“And don’t they just love to remind everyone that they were the First?”

Minerva lapsed into silence, and as the fleet slowly rose the pictographers switched to magnocular lenses, zeroing in on the Ist Legion ships. Before long, they were close enough to view them with the naked eye, and again Ellan was struck by their graceful appearance. A large portion - perhaps even the majority - of Icarion's fleet were the products not of Mars or Jupiter, but Akira, Madrigal’s moon. Using knowledge wrested from the catacombs of Madrigal, Icarion had turned Akira into a shipyard to rival even the moons of Jupiter and a number of subordinate forges had been established throughout the Madrigal sector.

Ellan wondered how the power of those ships compared to Daer'dd's fleet. Not the Dragon, of course - it seemed absurd to imagine any vessel rivalling it - but while the Bears’ ships had their martial aspect slightly tempered by elegant decoration and that curious Huron style of metalwork that left their spires looking like monstrous iron trees, Icarion's fleet was simply beautiful, almost to the point of fragility. A false impression, to be sure, but they were ethereal in a way that rivaled the zephyr-slight ships of the Eldar.

Then, quite suddenly, there was no time for contemplation. An alert - not quite an alarm, but enough to send a ripple of unease through the remembrancers and crew - rang out. Ahouandate turned in his seat to face Lotara. “Mass Warp-wakes detected, captain.” Minerva pulled a screen closer, and Ellan could see the ghost images solidifying rapidly. Runes pulsed across another, Lightning Bearers, Iron Bears and Army alike caught by surprise.

“Fleet, seven knives formation, defensive perimeter at the edge of the Necklace,” came Lotara’s commands, clipped, businessslike. “Comms, get me the Keystone and the Thunderchild. All ships not currently docked to defensive positions. If we don't get anything within a minute, we assume the newcomers are hostile.”

“All fully armed companies to the hangars and loading bays.” Daer'dd was suddenly present, no trace of joviality in his voice. “The rest of you, ready yourselves as best you can.” With the exception of his Totem Guard, every Bear started to move, Cass striding over to the holodeck and issuing assembly points to each company. Most of the Choirs of Daughters were sent with them. A few were held in reserve beside the Gishada, the flagship's designated guards led by Cherubim Ouendaa.

“Strendu, positions!”

Those who remained took up positions across the bridge. Ouendaa and her troops snapped to attention beside Honourable Trenn and the Strendu wardens. These were rather slower to respond, but commendably fast by Ogryn standards. Tremm growled as he hefted a power maul roughly the size of Ellan.

Counter-thrusters killed the docking arcs, leaving the plates hanging a few kilometres to port. Lotara remained outwardly calm, but even some of the Bears’ postures suggested that they were feeling the tension. On the bridge, as everywhere on and around the Gate, they waited, on the verge of battle. Thirty seconds, and the fleet would race into the void, readying its guns as the Astartes raced to board dropships and take the fight to the invaders.

Twenty seconds left, and a vox-link crackled. “I know,” Lotara said, exasperated, before Ahouandate could even speak. Minerva swore. A rune had appeared in the centre of her screen - a broken wing crossed with chains. She sat back, releasing a ragged breath.

Then the single rune dissolved into dozens of ship-sigils as the VII Legion burst into realspace, gouging silver wounds in the void. To those who knew their formations, it was a brazenly aggressive front, quite shocking in Imperial space - which was undoubtedly the point. Attack cruisers and destroyers came first, followed by the great battleships. Here and there Ellan recognised a name from a report or a remembrancer's work. Ash Hand, Abaethan... and, leading the main body of the fleet, a ship whose name inspired fear across the Imperium. The Hooded Guillotine.

The flotilla that followed was a mongrel collection of ships; the Berserkers had pillaged as they conquered, and ships from dozens of human civilisations now wreaked havoc in the bloody hands of the VIIth. While they varied wildly in size and shape, they shared an aesthetic of viciously unsubtle lines, exuding brutality, capped off by the one uniform decoration besides the Legion symbol - jagged metal grilles at the prow. The Hooded Guillotine’s was the most murderous of all, stretched into a single huge blade.

Slowly, their aggressive formation gave way to something more suitable for Imperial territory, and normality returned to the other fleets. Not especially quickly; most shipmasters were distracted by their annoyance, while it took Daer'dd to swiftly convince the Ogryn that the enemies who had been approaching had become not-enemies. Minerva had once told Ellan that the flag-captain was rather jealous of their deference to him - it usually took minutes for a mortal to explain anything this complicated to an Ogryn.

Up on the command throne, Lotara was preoccupied with her anger at the Berserkers’ thuggish breach of protocol, scowling first at the incoming sigils and then the ships themselves as they slunk into view, now moving at an almost leisurely pace. “A risible display,” Third Officer Elias snorted.

Unfortunately, that got him Lotara's attention, and he wilted under the look. “That wasn't an act, lieutenant. If they'd been a hostile force and you'd been in command and dismissed that as posturing, we’d have had just five minutes to begin our response when they failed to desist. Our battleships would have withstood it quite easily, but the cruisers and destroyers would have suffered, even with the Gate's garrison and the Lightning Bearers to back us up.” She glanced down at her console. “I can't help but notice the Steel Hawk is out at the far periphery. What's the name of that girl you've been pining after - Seraphina? Well, your dear Seraphina would be so much bloody mist.”

Elias couldn't find the words to protest. All he could manage was a weak “How…”

“Eyes and ears all over the ship. I'd leave Strelan liquor alone if I were you, lieutenant.” As always, it was leftenant, no matter how her subordinates pronounced it. She raised her voice to address all the officers present. “Let this be a reminder that, as flag-captain, I will use any overheard drunken indiscretion of yours as a disciplinary tool.” After a few seconds, perhaps prompted by sympathy for the thoroughly chastened Elias, now scrutinising his own shoes, she added in a gentler tone, “For what it's worth, you should talk to the girl. It's a precarious existence, out here.” With her forefingers, she kneaded her temples. “Now, where were we?”

----

Rogue Trader Merrice Ginlas had shown a certain tendency towards power-building during her long career. This had been remarked upon by a few Fleet and Legion officers who had served with her, but she was hardly unique in that regard and it had made her a formidable general for the Imperium. After all, where would Mankind be now if it hadn't retained its ambition through Old Night? In any case, when she announced her intention to become governor of a small collection of systems on the Imperium's southeastern borders, none saw any real reason to gainsay it.

With the vastness of the Crusade, no one had scrutinised exactly which planets she laid claim to, and considered why she had set her sights on several agri-worlds as well as the civilised worlds that conquerors usually sought to control. Certainly, none entertained the idea that she would appropriate those to extort wealth from her neighbours, starving them into submission. Using those resources she would then negotiate, leveraging billions of lives and all the productivity of those planets she possessed and those served by the agri-worlds.

The audacity of her scheme was impressive, as was the speed with which she had built up her army. The scheme had clearly been long in the planning, and might well have succeeded. The Imperium’s resources were not limitless, and permitting Ginlas was in some ways more palatable than the costs of waging a war to retake those planets. That is,if not for the fact that two of those agri-worlds had not been earmarked for an Expeditionary Fleet tithe. This in itself would not have sufficed had those fleets not been included Lightning Bearer elements. So when dozens of I Legion seers began to have visions of rations running short and stymying campaigns, Icarion himself, it was believed, had turned his foresight to the mystery. Perhaps it had been aided by his connection with Ginlas; she had served as outrider to his fleet for four decades before the Koloss Syntheticide. No doubt this added a rather personal edge to the feeling of betrayal.

Regardless, even as Ginlas escalated her plans, the Stormborn had a subjugation force converging on the Kalium Gate.

-----

Urgency was apparently why the meeting began on the docking plates, and not within some vast hall within the Keystone. The finer details would be hammered out during the Warp transit.

Still, Ellan noted, no matter how urgent the situation, time could always be set aside for ceremony. So here they were on the docking plates, the meagre atmosphere gusting from the arrival of the capital ships and landing craft. She tried to match the Daughters’ rapid strides as Daer'dd's party disembarked.

The Bears hadn't bothered to match the pomp with which the Lightning Bearers greeted them. Daer'dd's Totem Guard, Cass and the senior captains’ command squads, a file of Gishada and Captain Sarrin. A little deference couldn't hurt, especially when the Berserkers had already put on their obnoxious display.

Ouendaa gave her armour a final once-over, adjusting her cloak so the pauldrons - patterned after a dragon's wings, rather than the raven imagery that the Daughters usually favoured - were not obscured.

The Lightning Bearers were, naturally, immaculate, arrayed behind their master. The pale silver of their warplate glinted softly in the gloom of the void and the shadows cast by harsh spotlights. Ellan noted an unusual number of volkites; a reminder that the I Legion had sallied forth even before Unification, and taken to the stars in the days when it was possible to equip every Legionary with that lethal technology. They were held loosely, but not casually, the Lightning Bearers’ poise suggesting just the right degree of vigilance.

But for all their poise, each warrior of the First was a pale shadow beside their Primarch. Ellan felt her pulse quicken to a thump in her chest. This was the warlord she had learned to idolise above all others as a child, as had five previous generations of Temeters. On Qarith Prime and Terra she had seen him from across halls and arenas and thought herself lucky for that. But here, in the role he was born to, his presence was more potent than she had dared to imagine.

His armour was a seamless meld of Martian tech-genius with the ethereal designs of Madrigal, a testament to the bounty Icarion had reaped for his people in the underground vaults of his homeworld. Its elegance never once undermined its martial nature. Daer'dd, she thought, might move with a grace that seemed impossible for his size, but Icarion’s poise went beyond even that. This, she guessed, was a product of his clairvoyance, a perfect economy and elegance of movement that strained at the bounds of what mortals could understand. At the same time, there was a severity to it, quite different to what she had seen of the Warmaster. Alexandros wore his elevated status lightly; Icarion inhabited his.

The difference between the two brothers here was heightened further by Icarion’s almost androgynous appearance. When compared against Daer'dd, Ellan wondered if he even needed to pick up a razor. Despite his size and obvious strength, he was sinuous, with the kind of beauty that so many ladies of Terra would kill for.

His retinue shared that grace for the most part, and almost all who went without helmets had the unusually youthful appearance that Icarion’s gene-seed gave them. There were few chainswords, but plenty of vibro-katana - weapons typically wielded by Legionaries from Madrigal in place of inelegant chainblades. Power weapons, without exception, conformed to the curving designs of Bushidan heritage.

 

And there were famous swords here, at the belts of true legends of the Great Crusade. Raiden Athrawes, Fujin Iso and, at the right hand of the Primarch, First Marshal Susanoo Empyon himself. Hailed as perhaps the finest general in the Legions, and a warrior equal to Damon Redd. He made the sign of the Aquila, followed by the rest of the Lightning Bearers as Icarion stepped forward.

 

"Daer'dd, it's been far too long. I'm glad to have you here at my side." Daer'dd seemed ready to embrace Icarion for a moment, but then appeared to think better of it.

 

The two Primarchs clasped wrists instead as he replied, "I could hardly shun a request from you, brother. Especially when there is justice to be dispensed."

As the two lapsed into talk of recent campaigns, Ellan's gaze wandered to the massive, Terminator-clad Volta warriors who stood behind the Lighting Bearers Primarch. Icarion's bodyguards’ faces went hidden behind eyeless faceplates which she struggled to look at for any length of time, but were as compelling as they were unsettling. She knew the Volta underwent a rite of blinding, and the idea of discarding a Space Marine’s astonishing eyesight was difficult to process. Their movements were utterly untroubled by their blindness, but somehow that made them more unnerving. Ellan had a sensation of being perceived with senses she couldn’t detect in return.

It was with some relief, then, that screaming engines announced the arrival of the Seventh Legion. The Berserkers clearly did not favour gunships. The craft that set down in their landing zone were brutal, hunched things, Caestus Assault Rams grown to the size of Thunderhawks and given an armament to match.

“What’s that about, using those monsters?” she hissed to Minerva. The difficulty and expense of getting such craft designed and produced must have been colossal.

“They say Raktra has an issue with deploying by aircraft. Thunderhawks are a bit, ah, fragile for his liking. Bizarre, paranoia like that in a Primarch.”

“Care to repeat that when he gets here?” asked Lotara.

Minerva’s laugh was a lot higher and shakier than she’d have liked it to be. And then the Seventh emerged.

The first thing that she noticed was the brutal aspect of the Berserkers’ armour. Certainly, most Legions didn't value beauty in their wargear as the Bears did, but even the relatively rough Crimson Lions worked their armour into something that reflected the proud heritage of Mycenae. The Berserkers, on the other hand, sought only to convey their brutality.

Cthonian runes were in evidence on the armour of several Berserkers. She recognised sigils that Crimson Lions and Shepherds of Eden had worked into elegant characters, rendered here with a vicious roughness. But the most common marks were more elaborate, with a curiously organic aspect. These had originated not from the nail-scratchings of Cthonia, but the morbid war paint that the denizens of Uran had made from the ash of the dead. It was in imitation of that grisly custom that they wore those off-white vambraces, gauntlets and pauldrons.

The Blood Boilers were easy to distinguish, caked in layers of burned viscera that she could smell even in the thin atmosphere of the Keystone. The weapons that the VI hoarded away and avoided even looking at when possible were borne proudly by the VII, held with a nonchalance that only added to their threat. It pervaded the stance of every Berserker. They were like some feudal world noble’s hunting hounds, little kinship between them but a wary respect. Ellan understood what Lotara had said about the lack of affection Raktra held for his sons. It had filtered down through the ranks, and rather than warmth, the Legion seemed to be held together by respect for ruthlessness and skill, with an undercurrent of wariness.

Their weaponry was a mishmash, chainblades and lightning claws featuring prominently. A spiked meteor hammer hung taut on a chain, lashed to one warrior’s wrists. Overwhelmingly, they seemed to have been chosen for their lethality in fast attacks, true to the nature of the Milewalkers. Raktra saw little use in Terminator bodyguards, and so an elite had arisen clad in artificer armour rather than the bulky plate used by so many of their counterparts. As a result, the size of Dominator Riktus Innorvak was even more intimidating. He swaggered down the ramp, the swinging of his arms drawing Ellan’s eyes to the enormous lightning claw and chainfist which comprised his melee weapons. She remembered hearing that he had been a Shepherd of Eden once - otherwise she’d have never even considered it. He was marinated in the pitiless culture of his Legion, cruellest and mightiest of its killers.

Except, of course, for one other individual. Ellan saw a few Iron Bears and Lightning Bearers reel slightly as the Ashen King’s footfalls rang out on the docking plates and the Berserker ranks parted. He did not stride, as his brothers did, but prowled. A mask obscured the lower part of his face, but what could be seen was riddled with scars and pallid as ash. Pallid with ash, she reminded herself. A reminder of the killings he had committed even in his unnaturally brief youth, staining his very skin and worn with pride. His eyes were never still for long, but in a way that didn't suggest unease, so much as a fundamental desire to dominate, a constant drive for awareness likely born of his origins in Uran’s prison catacombs. And then they alighted on her.

Hearsay throughout the fleets of the Crusade told of Raktra's terrible gaze, but the true horror got lost somewhere along the chain of whispers. She had seen those eyes fix on others, and yet she hadn't gained even an inkling of their peculiar power. No one had told Ellan that his gaze felt like the caress of a knife, lazily making its way over the veins in her neck, before tracing the inside of her eye socket with horrible precision and slowness. But even that wasn't the worst of it, as his eyes fixed on her side. On the three ribs she had broken falling from a tree at the age of twelve.

She felt her throat constrict. Did he know about that? How could he? And how did his eyes immediately leap to her forearm, which began to itch right where her ulna had once cracked? There was no accident in any of that, surely. Raktra's eyes flitted from old injury to old injury, and she saw the smirk behind the mask. He was enjoying this, the knowledge of how easily he could disable and kill her. She felt the knife probe at scars, felt the fingers tighten on every once-broken bone. Bladder control suddenly became a serious worry. Tremors started, her legs were threatening to give way completely -

Minerva moved in front of her, breaking Raktra’s line of sight. Ellan breathed. Daer'dd himself now stepped forward; not enough to make an issue of the affront, but enough to make it clear that he wouldn't tolerate more.

“It would be appreciated if you would look upon me and not the remembrancers, brother.” Icarion’s voice was somehow harder than Ellan had imagined it, even though it carried the suggestion of something quite ethereal. “History has to be made before they can record it, after all.” His tone was perfectly judged - just the right degree of reproach, sufficient authority to ensure that no one took his pause as a cue to speak. Almost imperceptibly, the Bears and their mortal servants stood taller.

Beyond his voice, Icarion was hard to read, just as she had heard others say about the Emperor. That made sense, she supposed; people still spoke about him as the closest to the Master of Mankind and his psychic powers were well-known. The aura of power about him was refined where Raktra’s was raw, echoed by the elegance of his movements. He was now at the centre of the group, and had moved so smoothly that she had trouble remember him placing himself there.

Now he started to outline his scheme and what was waiting for them at the end of their journey, but Ellan was watching the faces around her as much as she was listening to the words. Something about the expressions she saw was odd, and it took her a few minutes to guess what it was. Raktra and his Berserkers showed no sign of having been chastened, neither shame nor wounded, belligerent pride. Different individuals seemed to respond to Icarion’s words in subtly - or at times, not so subtly - different ways. She was at a loss to explain it until something Cass had said drifted into her mind.

He had been describing how it felt to stand in the Emperor’s presence, and an oddly disconcerting feeling that came afterwards. “I have always found myself questioning whether He truly spoke. Did His lips part and air stir, so that I could hear His words? Or -” he raised a hand to his temple “- did His words only sound here, and my brain not quite register the difference?”

Perhaps Icarion spoke the same way. Perhaps the words one person heard were not quite the same as those another heard, the sum of what Icarion expressed being too much for the mortal or even transhuman mind to fully interpret. Perhaps it was even intentional on the Stormlord’s part, tailoring his words to what each member of the audience needed or wished to hear from him. If that was so, then Icarion’s brilliance went beyond anything she could imagine. Which would be both wondrous and unsettling in the way Cass seemed to have experienced.

In her reverie, she missed much of what was being said, and the end of the meeting came unexpectedly to her, while no one else showed any surprise. The commanders of the three Legions set off for their transports and the Warp passage to come.

----

The voyage took some four days, during which Ellan spent most of her time on the bridge, watching Lotara, Daer’dd and the flickering holos of captains, fleetmasters and the other Primarchs flesh out the strategy Icarion had devised. Half of it was simply to see and hear the image of Icarion, who continually made revisions as - she guessed - his scrying and that of his Legion’s seers revealed new targets. On the second day it became apparent that Ginlas had garrisoned her planet’s twin moons, and so it became necessary to allocate ships and companies to overrun them.

Raktra opted to lead the attack on the moons, leaving his fleet under the command of an Overlord and mortal officers. The latter were a peculiar sort, clad in uniforms which were well-maintained, but festooned with morbid tokens. The Berserkers had been notorious for decades as a Legion whose approach induced Army commanders to beg for different reinforcements. Alexandros, early on in his role as Warmaster, had set out to solve the issue by assigning penal units to the VII Legion wherever possible. Perversely, the Berserkers seemed to welcome these malcontents and convicts in a way they had never done with their regular counterparts.

The rest of the time, Ellan went wandering the practice halls, engineerum decks and hangars. The Bears, Daughters and Tricendian Auxilia were firmly locked in a cycle of drills, readying themselves for the battles to come. Techmarines and magi were working their way down the lists of weapons and war machines to repair and overhaul. The wrecks from previous campaigns, stripped of anything that could be made useful, went to the Knights for target practice.

And then, aboard the ships of the VI Legion at least, a day of silence and contemplation. Ellan had grown used to this, and spent it with Minerva as she usually did, up in that little observatora where they talked about nothing and everything.

Then the Warp shutters went up, the blaze of silver subsided, and the retribution campaign started.

----

The intensity of the battle in the void mirrored the carnage that was beginning to rage through the hulls of a dozen enemy ships. The Dragon of Autumn bisected two escorts with lance strikes, closing rapidly with the cruiser behind them. On the consoles, the faces of a dozen Praetors and captains gazed out, waiting for the moment to begin their own work. The visages of officers from the Daughters hung beside them.

Neonitus' face was the picture of impatience, contained largely by the harness that kept him in the Caestus Assault Ram’s seat. There was no question of claiming first blood - the order of battle had handed that honour to the Berserkers in advance - but it still irritated him. In contrast, Nibaasiniiwi's posture suggested pensiveness, though as he cared little for going bareheaded, Ellan couldn't discern anything of his expression. Nonetheless there was no telltale schnicking of his claws, while the revving of Neonitus’ chainaxe carried throatily over the vox.

“Neonitus, keep it down.” Ellan wondered if anyone but Lotara could get away with such a reprimand, and it took an effort not to laugh at such a chastened expression on the scarred, bearded face of an Astartes. “And you,” Lotara added before Leonas could begin laughing properly in his boarding torpedo.

It was just as well that the Lightning Bearers weren't currently patched into this particular vox network. Their constant, serene dignity was rather at odds with the jovial VI. Their foresight was too potent a weapon to limit to their own sorties, so squads had been dispersed among the Bears to give them a greater edge in the confines of the rebel ships. The Berserkers had turned down the offer, relying on their own particular tools to prevail.

The Bears had readied their entire complement of boarding craft for the battle, Lotara arguing that variety would serve to confuse the enemy strategists. Of course, the actual order of deployment would be played by ear, but that was inevitable in these battles, and Lotara and her officers took real pleasure in the swirl of void combat. Every so often, she would muse about taking charge of a destroyer for a change and a more “playful” battle, until she was reminded that a Hunter-class ship came without the most devastating weapons the Dragon placed at her fingertips. And it’d mean leaving you ruffians in charge of my ship, she always responded.

The swirl was almost upon them now; as usual the Dragon was the tip of the fang, and the first hits were beginning to light up the shields of each side. The repartee was already in full swing, punctuated by voxed reports from the boarding parties. Daer'dd and his Totem Guard, backed up by Thiazzi and the warriors of Clan Kedin, stood ready on teleport platforms. Lance impacts burst the enemy battleship’s void shields, and the teleportation arrays rapidly thrummed to full power. Primarch and flag-captain wished one another good hunting, and then Daer'dd was away.

-----

Eloquent souls among the Emperor's fleets often contended that boarding actions witnessed some of the most vicious fighting of the entire Crusade. They pointed out that the cramped close-quarters led to acts as desperate as any undertaken in the breaking of a siege. They argued that in some ways this was worse; the crew would consider this ship their home, but unlike a planet there was no hope that the enemy would simply plant his flag and move on. If they resisted they would be slain, dispossessed or pressed into service by the victors. So the fighting became animalistic, gutter savagery in which one side fought blind and the other had everything at stake.

Slynnat thought that more than anything else, this was just like the violence of home. Slurry and offal were ankle-deep, bits of flesh, bone and ash floating on the surface. He stalked through it, pausing only to tear a strip of uniform from some dead menial and wipe his left eye lens clear. Blood was irksome, where visibility was concerned; it was thick, sticky and warm enough to make his infrared sensors worthless. Sonar would have just as useless if his armour actually included it. A Destroyer's weapons habitually interfered with most of his systems, so the Blood Boilers favoured a Spartan set-up.

The Berserkers as a whole had never cared for the more esoteric systems that so many of their cousins prized. In any case, the effectiveness of Maximus armour wasn't worth the hassle of frequent repairs, which VII Legion tactics made necessary after nearly every battle. Consequently, as Mk III Iron suits ceased to fulfill the Legion's demands, the Forge Worlds that supplied them had made an effort to create a mark that would serve them better - and more cheaply than Mk IV and the prototypes that would become the lightweight Mk VI. Mk V was the brutish, utilitarian fruit of their labours.

Unfortunately, no matter the design, no space marine armour was capable of keeping its lenses clear of filth and gore. He pivoted, stepping back back into cover as he beckoned his squad to move forward. Karrun, his sergeant, halted as he passed. “Bit tiring for you, captain?” The words came with an ugly chuckle, grinding through the vox-grille.

“Giving you a chance to spill your share,” Slynnat growled back, tearing a sleeve from a corpse and wiping the lenses. That was the way of Uran. Your subordinate might be amusing, but a joke at your expense was to be met with a snarled rejoinder. Weak spots which were advertised tended to attract knives.

Back into the fray they went, smashing aside menials who didn’t flee fast enough or killing them with bolter-fixed blades. Against a less capable enemy Slynnat might have risked going bareheaded, but he knew better. Rogue Trader forces outgunned most Army regiments, man for man, and that was just their sanctioned arsenals.

Still Karrun was less than impressed. “Waste of effort. We should have blasted these ships to bits or left them for the Ragged,” he grumbled.

They emerged into a corridor seven metres wide, heavily pillared and lined with victory banners. Soldiers, not uniformly human, hugged the cover.

Slynnat let his bolter fall on its lanyard, drew his charger and chainsword, and got in close. “The Stormlord orders it.” A Ratling was messily bisected.

Karrun ran the whirring blade on his gun through a man’s head. “Then he can do it. We should be down there, killing under the Ashen King’s eyes.” The guns either side of them lit their progress with strobing muzzle-flashes.

“Overlord Innorvak gives us a ship and the honour of leading this action, and you gripe like a mortal. Cease, or I get a new sergeant and hand your gene-seed to the Apothecaries.” He reduced a knot of men to ash and embers with his volkite. “We seek STC constructs and archeotech here. Finding them means glory, and new weapons to bear. Think on that before you whine again.”

Today, they were largely back to basics as far as weapons went. Phosphex was a true ship-killer, but it didn't pay to use it whilst aboard. It had been bleakly amusing when one frothing imbecile had decided to use it whilst he was inside some Ork behemoth. The fool in question had fought his way up onto the walker's shoulders by the time it exploded. All they found later was a pauldron and a forearm. At least he'd been an efficient cretin; there was no gene-seed for the Apothecaries to reject.

Slynnat didn't care for dying as a cretin and besides, the objective was to take ships, so every time his men found a new corner, they probed with grenades or chem-flamers. They'd tried gas, but aboard the capital ships it was of limited use; it killed slaves, but the soldiers had access to rebreathers or even full suits of power armour. There wasn't even much sport in killing slaves; they had potential value to the Imperium, and anyway the enemy had plenty of troops to keep the Berserkers occupied. For the same reason, rad-weapons were verboten on this operation. And of course, being Berserkers, they were quite happy to close the gap and get stuck in with blades, fists and bludgeons.

The forces of a Rogue Trader were always more exotic than the defenders of the typical Army ship, with more Ogryn than any commander would tolerate and some sanctioned alien thralls. Ginlas, unsurprisingly, had strayed beyond the usual restrictions. Kroot were only the most recognisable. It made things interesting, and it was for this reason that they'd awoken several of the Legion's Dreadnoughts. One stomped along behind them, a Castraferrum model with a large chem-flamer mounted below a power claw and an assault cannon rotating jerkily as the fallen warrior within sought fresh enemies. Many, perhaps, most Imperial citizens would be shocked to see the veneration the Berserkers reserved for their revered fallen, but it was quite authentic. Every warrior who endured in a sarcophagus exemplified the bloody-minded instinct to kill and dominate that went right to the heart of what it meant to be VIIth Legion. They went further.

What’s more, the breaking of a legionary’s body freed him from concerns of chem and rad-induced degradation, and they went to war as lumbering batteries of relic weapons. As with the living Berserkers, these were geared towards generating terror for this battle. Caesium-laced bolts carried their alkaline payloads into victims’ bodies to ignite messily - quite spectacularly if they met stomach acid. Chem-flamers killed slowly, sending their victims shrieking through the tunnels or rolling in the sludge in a vain attempt to extinguish the lurid fire. Vasgotox fluid simply consumed organic matter, clinging to flesh no matter what the victims did until they became one with the slurry that oozed along the floors. The Berserkers spent little time enjoying the sights and sounds, pushing on instead to make the most of the terror they sowed.

Speed was especially important when they pitted themselves against Ogryn. The lumpen abhumans were hard to kill and strong enough to kill a space marine with their bare hands, and in the confined spaces evasion was tricky. The solution favoured by the Berserkers was to blind an Ogryn, set his flesh burning with substances he couldn't understand and then cripple or kill him before frenzy took over. If that didn't answer, Terminators and Dreadnoughts stepped up, able to withstand such attacks and quite capable of cracking open their adversaries’ armour, be that with steel fists or mass-reactive bolts.

Into tighter corridors as they moved toward the bridge, and the mongrel troops gave way to household guards in the yellow and purple of Ginlas. Their guns were better, the rate of fire more consistent. Breacher squads linked up with them and led the advance, putting the Berserkers among the troops. Meat sloughed away from bone, slopping on the floor where it didn't boil and crisp on power fields. Any mortals who survived to slave for the Berserkers or contribute to the stock of Uran would have to keep their sanity intact through this. If they didn't, then other uses would be found for them.

Slynnat suspected the VII Legion would gain a decent number of servitors from this campaign. There weren’t many worthy to live, he could tell that. The Cutter’s Sight let him see their defects, and while Ginlas’ best soldiers might be gene-screened and conditioned to within an inch of their lives, the same didn’t go for the lesser troops and thralls.

It was a poor, choked fight, especially when they knew that their brothers were fighting on open ground with the Primarch. Karrun had a point. When you waged war under the eyes that saw all, you did so in the shadow of that exemplar. You saw how far short of perfection Mankind fell, and fought all the harder to scourge weakness and all those it infected.

An Ogryn came at them now, brandishing paired axes, movements far too easy to read. Slynnat stepped aside and cut his hamstrings. As the lumpen fool staggered, his squad raised their guns and fired, hammering his helmet and gorget. When the Terminators reached him and put him down with power fists and blades, Slynnat’s squad was already moving forward, wading through some other sort of abhumans. All defective, unable to stand against him. Let the Lightning Bearers and Iron Bears speak of treason all they liked. The Ashen Seventh were here to punish weakness.

But what to make of the news from Nikaea, then? Kozja’s acts had only been admirable for their daring, but the idea that the Legions would as one shy away from genetic experimentation stuck in the craw. That meant allowing weakness to fester, and weakness meant more resistance like they faced today. Nature punished weakness, so the answer was to defy nature to become stronger, gouge and claw your way to the top of the food chain and keep fighting to stay there. But you couldn’t ignore nature. Slynnat wondered how long the edicts would stay in force, and how they would end. For in the end, nothing endured like the will to dominate.

-----

Lotara had returned to her usual posture, feet hanging lackadaisically over one arm of the throne. With all her finery, it was even more incongruous than usual.

Copper Fang, rise,” she instructed. “Starboard lances, target the Blood-Stepp’d - two impacts should do it. Eighth Squadron, you're clear to launch, Okelion Wing stand by to escort. Huron's Resolve, hit the cruiser ahead of us. Cyrn’ss, commence countdown, ninety seconds.”

The fangs of the Imperial fleet were carving through the enemy formation, not stopping to engage in protracted fights but racing onward, overwhelming shields and landing boarders. Swarms of fighters and interceptors guarded the boarding vessels, covered by the escorts at the rear of each fang as they rejoined the formation.

After the first attack, the effects of the boarders were beginning to tell; cohesion was weakening, ships drifting and already sigils were switching colour to indicate a few successful seizures. Now the second wave attacked, fragmenting the enemy's defences further.

A plasma cannon bombardment was followed by a tremor with a different pitch, as Cyrn’ss and his company were sent hurtling across space to board the enemy frigate. With all its planned torpedo deployments complete, the Dragon turned all its energies to disabling or destroying vessels instead, moving further away to allow other ships to slip in and loose their own projectiles.

The bridge never felt more full than during battle, as sensorium operatives worked to ensure the formation held, gunnery officers matched weapons to targets and remembrancers tried to get the best view of proceedings without getting in the way. Under standing orders from Lotara the Strendu dealt, gently but firmly, with anyone who obstructed the running of the bridge.

A few metres away from Ellan, Johann was jotting down motifs that would later be worked into another of his symphonies. He liked to compose a short one for every void battle he saw, and tried to give each a distinctive character. Judging by her earlier glimpse of his notebook and what she understood of his shorthand, this one would be all darting strings and frenetic percussion.

Runes flickered on the screens, and holos showed ships rising clear of the enemy formation, the boarders fully in control. Another rune glimmered, confirming what the viewscreens and main strategic holo showed - the Thunderchild had engaged the enemy flagship. It also signified what they could not convey - Lord Anasem had teleported over at the head of the boarding party.

-----

Katana were of limited use in the confines of a ship. Raiden used his wakizashi to cut through what resistance his volkite didn't end before the enemy came within reach.

This was a battle without any semblance of grace. Just a dull jog through empty passages, followed by a momentary pause as his gift told him of the deaths that awaited round the corner. Here, they were mostly death by melta fire. He reached for a krak grenade and saw the angle and force that would deliver it at the feet of his adversaries. Behind him, Tetsuo already had a grenade in hand, and it too was in the air before Raiden's had even exploded.

The frag blast tore its victims open a second before Raiden's volkite killed the first survivor. Another man clad in power armour - clearly an officer - came at him with a chainsword. Raiden leaned to one side, seeing the uncomprehending anger that so many of his foes felt when they saw the Grace of Madrigal. Without really looking he flicked out with his sword and the man folded across the wound. Then the uniquely foul smell of burning faeces reached him, pungent even through his helmet’s filters.

In his laziness, he’d opened the man's bowels. He swore, motioning Tetsuo and the others past him while he flicked the sword, trying to remove the remaining filth. Too late; it charred on the blade in the heat of his disruptor field.

As the trudge continued it became just another odour. Ginlas clearly cared little for her serfs, and the residue of tens of thousands of lives served as noxious proof. It mingled with the scents of war, and the noises reached them of what mortals did when the Legiones Astartes broke into their dwellings. Moaning and whimpering from those who supplicated in the muck, and here and there the sounds of those who chose to spend what might be their final moments desperately copulating. He wondered how that must feel for them, to be so insignificant that an act of total futility was what one resorted to at a time like this.

Raiden ignored all those who didn't resist, at least when his gift confirmed a lack of deception. Those who attempted subterfuge lived long enough to be sure they had been foiled. A few of his men were less sanguine, and he had to chastise them for venting their anger in unsuitable ways. A slave had no choice in how his distant mistress acted. If he didn't actively fight for her, what purpose was there in splitting his head? It was another unnecessary loss of resources, when they would already expend plenty in putting down this subterfuge.

As they ascended and found more dangerous foes, they began to make full use of the Oni. Raiden himself had taken one of the teleportation packs, although he was keenly aware of the risks inherent in using one here, in the confines of a ship. They required keen foresight even by the standards of Lightning Bearers - without it, a warrior ran the danger of embedding himself in the ship’s structure. They also necessitated total concentration, so there was scant possibility of simply flitting through a melee, manifesting wherever they wished.

Just as Raiden had seen the Emperor do on Stengah, that finest of battles, marred only by what had come after. They had known something vast was coming, and only imagined great things for themselves. Certainly they had never considered that their primacy would be lost. His irritation distracted him, and he was forced to block a Kroot mercenary’s knife. Reacting, a sign that he needed to clear his thoughts and focus on the fight. He wove around another swing - the Kroot hadn't even begun it when Raiden started moving - and opened its chest with a diagonal slash. The alien fell, and he hammered a boot down on its skull for good measure as he moved to engage the next foe.

But all the while in his head, there was an undercurrent of speculation. Would they be waging this war - would Ginlas have rebelled - had the accolade of Warmaster gone to the man she owed her fief to? A small part of him wondered whether his master was turning the question over in his mind as well.

As if on cue, his vox crackled into life. “Marshal Athrawes.”

“Lord. We estimate our arrival at the engine blocks to be four minutes.” I Legion estimates were more reliable than those of their fellows; foresight tended to help in that regard.

“Secure them upon arrival, but interfering with them will not be necessary.” The rest did not need to be said, especially not with Raiden’s gift to tell him. Icarion and Empyon had the bridge - the engines were of concern only if the rebels tried to sabotage them in a doomed act of spite. It was also unnecessary to ask if Ginlas had led the fleet. From the regal anger in Icarion’s tone, buried deep but still discernible to his equerry, she was plainly elsewhere. Ensconced in her palace below, no doubt. Raiden knew what that meant - the people of Madrigal had learned it hard during the storm of madness ushered in by the Thunder King. The foe retreated to their lair, so you tore open their den and scoured it.

-----

“The sky is weeping for our lords.” How often had he heard the whisper of that seditious doggerel? Perhaps every other planet where a human civilisation had required dragging into Compliance. A constant to those operations was the downpours that followed, maybe a week later, maybe a month, brought into being by the thousands of craft that breached the atmosphere to bring the Imperial Truth to unwilling ears. Gunships, supply vessels, bulk landers carrying Titans and Mastodons. If the childish souls who spoke of weeping skies had any sense, they'd say the sky lamented to behold the Emperor's fury - and his. The Stormborn's fury.

Land Raiders, set down by specialised gunships, trundled westward, the sound of their guns lost to the larger, slower craft that brought the rest of the force down to the surface.

Icarion saw all of this without eyes, his astral body gliding just ahead of the gunship that carried his physical form down to dispense justice. It was the only way to perceive the cityscape with any true clarity; debris from the bombardment had made a joke of visibility even before planetfall had begun. Sonar suffered in the murk - only The Drowned and Scions Hospitalier used it with real efficacy in such conditions - and thermal imaging was perhaps the most idiotic notion of all when so many engines burned promethium in one place.

But the inner eye pierced the clouds. Looking past the dust, Icarion saw the cratered ruins swarming with soul-lights and auras. Even machine spirits were revealed to him, embers kindling anew as the tanks ground their way across the rubble. The second wave was far larger than the first, rolling out from the massive Tetrarch transports.

Normally these would only be deployed at the outset of what was expected to be a drawn-out battle, and in these sorts of actions they would only be used to convey mortal troops and war machines to the battlefield. Today, however, they served to underline the message Icarion was so keen to send; no one reneged on their oaths to the Emperor of Mankind and found any fate but destruction. The population would see His post-human armies sally forth from their gargantuan ships and trample any resistance that greeted them.

It was also why Icarion, just this once, had chosen to descend in this manner himself, rather than by Stormbird. He would emerge flanked by ten companies and an entire brigade of mortal Rakurai. There was something vulgar about the display, even he would admit - to himself. The Kusana landers were not as graceless as their lumpen Martian counterparts, but even the shipwrights of Akira couldn't disguise the brutal aspect inherent to such massive vessels.

He withdrew to his body of flesh in time to see the radial wave of dust thrown up by the landers, obliterating the view of anything more than a kilometre away within seconds. Beside him, Raiden twitched as he called his body of light back, a fraction behind his Primarch.

“Quite a host, lord.”

Icarion nodded, though his frown did not ease. “Our prestige is not entirely diminished, it seems.”

Raiden shifted his weight slightly, uncomfortable with Icarion’s words even though he broadly agreed with them. For the I Legion this had become habitual, judging the respect they had been given before - both as the First, and then the first to be led by their Primarch - with what they got now.

There was some cause for encouragement here. Empyon's warriors had been as exemplary as even in the initial planetfall. The Berserkers had done what was required of them, and Icarion could not help but consider that Alexandros would have been hard-pressed to achieve such a result. The Iron Bears had likewise carried out their orders, with no obvious rancour.

“Have you determined what is to be done with the captive soldiers?” Raiden asked.

“Conscription into the most convenient penal regiments for those able. Those being, in this case, those serving under Raktra.” He didn’t have to see the questioning look from his equerry. “Summary executions have ended enough rebellions. This way they get a chance at redemption, however frail. And as with their fleet, I will not sacrifice the utility of so many men and weapons to mere vengeance. We have higher concerns.”

The Volta holding his spear held it out even as Icarion reached for it, with the strange poise of one who lacked sight but still perceived everything. So keen was the foresight of his guards that every order was anticipated. Thus they did not fall into step with their master - Primarch and Volta moved with such synchronicity that the finest picter would not have found any delay between their movements.

The Harbingers marched down the embarkation ramps, and passed through the occupied zone at a rapid march. Here, the first wave regrouped, took stock and ran inventories of their wargear. Tech-priests and remembrancers flitted from place to place, the latter tending to any damage or malfunctions they could remedy in haste, the latter trying to find something profound or profitable in the dull in-between spaces that came with war.

Those efforts came to an abrupt halt when the tanks rolled forth, Land Raiders actually dwarfed by the Mastodons they flanked while Icarion ascended to a ridge of broken rockcrete. His legionaries took up positions around him. The Rakurai spread out in their own formations to the side, less striking but still an eye-catching prospect, armed and armoured so as to rival the vaunted Solar Auxilia regiments and the Daughters of Daer'dd, who stood to the north. South of them was a rather less admirable sight; the penal regiments that served under the Berserkers. There had never been much sense in handing good man to Raktra's command, and he appeared content with the dregs of the Imperial Army. Few cared if a couple thousand criminals were pulverised by overzealous artillery or riddled with cancer after too many fights alongside the Blood Boilers.

Raktra, like Daer'dd, had made planetfall with the first wave, and some of his warriors were still at work in the deeper trenches and craters. It seemed that Ginlas had kept the under-palace heavily manned, and now her troops had taken refuge down in the craters that remained after the bombardment. The Bears and Lightning Bearers had stayed back, using the Rapier and Thunderfire cannons that their Stormbirds had brought down to the surface. Titans did not so much dominate the skyline as form it.

The Berserkers had been rather less restrained. They revered their Dreadnoughts with a fervour that rivalled their cousins, but their logic took it in a quite different direction. If the revered fallen were the mightiest and most courageous of them, then who were they to deny them their place at the front for fear of damaging mere sarcophagi? So they plunged into the craters, relying on sheer ferocity to drive the defenders back. Still, they had come to a halt, digging in and waiting for the rest of the Astartes to ready themselves.

Icarion was often moved to consider that they weren't Berserkers in the true sense. They were reavers, hunters - they fought like animals, true, but animals did not throw themselves at prey if a better opportunity presented itself. They had a primal respect for their superiors, for their strength and ruthlessness. Icarion didn't need the auspex of his helm to recognise Overlord Innorvak on the slope below Raktra, surrounded by his terminators. Above them all loomed the Titans of the infamous Legio Yharma.

It occurred to Icarion that perhaps this cooperation stemmed from the fact that he was was waging their kind of war today. The thought sat uncomfortably in his mind, and he shot a look towards where Daer'dd waited in his Mastodon. The Bears conducted themselves with little fanfare here - they would enjoy the fighting itself, but the nature of this campaign dampened their cheer. Still, Icarion knew Daer’dd would heed his words; they were here as a statement.

-----

Ellan, while she could hardly guess what Icarion was thinking, was wondering about just that statement. To her, it seemed like another symptom of Imperial gigantomania. “Might it not just send a more effective message to land, isolate the fortress, and just wipe it off the map?” she asked Bellona Petun, the captain of the Daughters with whom she’d been embedded, a reasonable way back from from the Bears’ front lines.

The captain glanced at her briefly, then turned her eyes forward again. “The perpetrator had to be seen to be punished. With traitors that means head on spikes.”

“But isn't all of this -” Ellan made a sweeping motion, taking in the expanse of troops and wargear “- just grossly excessive? Any one of these Legion fleets could take this world; it's not like we needed them all for the void engagement.”

“Symbolism, lady Temeter.” Cass stood by a Land Raider, where he was directing the broader VI Legion force with the aid of Artificer Miskwaabik. “Lord Anasem means to send a message today that any rebellion will be broken, irrevocably.”

“I can grasp that,” she replied impatiently. “But wouldn't it just be better, for the progress of the Crusade, to use just a fraction of what Lord Anasem has deployed here? Hell, that might send a better message - you're not worth any more effort than the bare minimum. We could and should be away already, heading back to the front lines.”

Cass’ augmitter rumbled briefly with laughter. “Forgive me. I had assumed this was Captain Sarrin's influence speaking. Or rather, her lieutenant’s.” Ellan blushed a little, and wondered if Cass noticed through her plastic mask. He shrugged, and his servos gave an odd, groaning sigh. “As we discussed during the transit, this is personal for Lord Anasem. Bombs on heads," he quoted Minerva, "won't do. Had there been enough time, I suspect he would have gathered his entire Legion rather than summoning us.”

“I rather wish he had,” murmured Bellona. “The Seventh at war are never a pleasant sight.”

Ellan had only been watching for five minutes from the lifter on her way down, and already she firmly agreed. Where the Bears used their endurance to steadily advance across the relatively open spaces, the Berserkers descended into the crevices and tunnels the bombardment had ripped open, cleaving and bludgeoning any foes they could reach. Any who scrambled for cover fell to gunfire or were run down, the decision apparently made on the basis of which would frighten the remaining defenders more.

Their Dreadnoughts were no more merciful than their living brethren. Ellan had watched a peculiarly shaped one - “a Lucifer, precursor to the Contemptor”, Cass told her - lazily approach a gun nest, picking soldiers off with single shots when it could have just cut the whole squad down, bursting their chests with heavy bolter rounds. When the rest broke, it targeted the ground around the improvised foxhole, trapping them with explosions of dirt and rubble. Then it had reached in with crushing claws, and Ellan turned away, feeling nauseous. The air was still heavy with dust, and throwing up inside a sealed suit would be even more unpleasant than undignified.

Fortunately, her years with the Legion had given her a strong stomach. Now they were in the lull, with the walls hazy through void shields, the Imperials’ and the enemy’s both. Clicks, barely audible, sounded from Cass’ helm, and he moved away, looking towards the fortress. “Enemy armour,” he explained. “I dare say we’re far back enough not to worry too much about stray shots.”

Two kilometres away, strobe-lit outlines of tanks appeared in the dust as lascannons, assault cannons and heavy bolters fired at the invaders. Several of Ellan’s fellow remembrancers were halfway into a crouch before they burst on the voids, and even she flinched. The Titans and Knights replied with their own guns, striding forward with their shields rippling as the Astartes surged around their feet. Assault marines gunned their jump packs and vaulted their comrades.

This was Imperial retribution, the Emperor’s fury and the majestic power of His armies unleashed. Ellan could make out precisely censored.gif-all of what was happening, courtesy of the dust and smoke. Even the Primarchs had vanished. All she could be certain of was that in that cloud of dust, punishment was being enacted.

-----

Icarion was already splattered with gore, which in turn soaked the dust coating his armour. The enemy had fought well, but it was futile. They were up against the First Legion, the mightiest, led by the Emperor’s - most favoured? - most accomplished son. That, at least, had not been taken away.

The Volta swept the halls, every shot ending a rebel. Anyone who thought them diminished should see what was done here and know the truth. See the punishment visited on those who saw fit to break faith with the First Legion and spit on the honours they had bestowed.

He would find her first, his foresight made sure of that. Their gory path ended at some ornate doors, black iron and bronze. Ogryn and geno-elites in power armour barred the path for a while, but First Company would only be denied for so long. When it was done, Icarion knew that he needed no company beyond those doors.

No need to even defend himself. Ginlas recognised when she was beaten, and threw down her sword and pistol. “Anasem. I knew it would -”

“Silence, treacherous whore.”

“Whore?” Her expression became a smirk, deepened to a sneer. “Of all the insults, I never expected that from a Primarch. But it fits - the bitter words of a godly eunuch.”

“Eunuch?” The blade of his spear slid under her chin, the tip resting against her throat. “Then I share your surprise.” His voice was cold; he had little desire to prolong her demise, else he would have given her to Raktra. But he wanted to hear her next words, in the same way one probes a wound.

“But it fits, doesn't it? After all, you're the Emperor's disfavoured lackey.” She saw the snarl that he barely repressed, and laughed. “What? Where the truth otherwise, surely I'd address you as -”

In his mind's eye, she said “Warmaster.” He unmade that future.

His spear jutted ten centimetres from the back of her neck, and her last words were lost to the gush and gurgle of blood. It failed to banish the scorn from her eyes, and fury mastered him. With a flick of the wrist he dislodged her from the blade, sending her corpse flying to land in an undignified heap.

For a time he held still, his anger stoked by his own loss of control. Then he became aware of footsteps which would soon ring out from the hallway, and crossed to the doorway. Flinging the doors open, he found Daer'dd and his lieutenants, who immediately saw the blood on his spear and looked past him.

Daer'dd's face was grave, and for the first time he spoke to Icarion with reproach in his voice. “That was ill done, brother.”

“I did not think you one for lamenting the death of a traitor.”

Cass stepped forward before Daer'dd could respond. “What my lord means is that it would have sat better with us to see the renegade brought to trial and then executed under the authority -”

“Under the authority of the Warmaster?” The venom in his voice shocked Icarion himself, and he saw the Bears exchange glances.

“The authority of the Emperor, brother,” replied Daer'dd quietly. He hid it quickly, but Icarion recognised consternation on his face.

“I’ll send a detail to see to the body,” he said stiffly, and strode from the room. His anger dissipating, he was left with an unfamiliar anxiety. He had always managed to control his resentment before, and in truth he was shocked to realise how deep it ran.

-----

Lotara, Ellan could tell, was itching to go and have words with Daer'dd. Minerva was keener to get some rest. Unfortunately for both of them, an officer’s responsibilities didn't end with the battle at the best of times. Today it was worse than usual, with scores of boarding torpedoes to retrieve once the assault rams and gunships had made their more straightforward return journeys. The Mechanicus support vehicles had barely started their own tasks, though Ellan could see the enormous scaffold frames coming together around the harder-hit vessels. She could just about see the specks of menials and tech-priests at work on the Firewolf, and fancied that she could make out a few imagists, clad in void suits, hunting for the shot that would make their names.

When Lotara had run out of tasks her lieutenants were needed for, they retired to Ellan’s quarters. They were smaller and less comfortable than an officer’s, of course, but much less messy. One desk in the corner, one small fridge, family picts here and there, intermingled with souvenirs from the campaigns and copies of paintings. A busy scene from Laeran hung in pride of place above the bed.

“Cass falsely accused you of being my advocate, I hear,” Minerva grinned, sitting back on the bed. She was in good humour, despite her annoyance. The crew and fleet had performed admirably, and they had avoided most of the pitfalls that might have come out of working alongside the Berserkers.

“A fair assumption,” Ellan replied, hunting in the cooler for a suitable ale. “Your contribution to ground tactics is usually ‘let me drop some bombs on heads.’”

“Unfair - you know that’s more Lotara than me. Though it does have a certain appeal, and it would've made today quicker. Deploying bloody everything for a glorified parade - thank you,” she added, accepting a bottle.

“You're welcome,” said Ellan, sitting down next to her and raising her bottle for a toast. “Bombs on heads?”

“Bombs on heads.”

After a pause, Ellan added, “Daer'dd seems to think the same. He wasn't pleased when he came back.”

“And there’s something you’re not telling me.” Ellan gave Minerva a hard look, and found nothing but honest concern. “Your closed-book face doesn’t work when you’re tired.” Minerva laid a hand on her shoulder. “So, talk to me.”

Ellan tried to find the words. “I’ve watched the Legions fight more than you, and I’ve seen what their weapons do to people. You’ve seen me get used to it, grim as that is… but that’s when we were fighting those too foolish or fanatical to see sense.”

“Keep going, now.”

“They’re us,” Ellan blurted. “They’re our people, and because of where they were and because some of them were weak or stupid or greedy, we’ve had to do… that to them.”

Minerva pulled that odd, serious but reassuring expression she usually held in reserve. “Had to is the key thing, Ellan. Imagine what would have happened if Ginlas had got away with it. She wouldn’t have lasted long, sure, but the lesson it would have sent out would have caused mayhem. We’d be running all over the Galaxy quelling rebellions, more discontent brewing, everything we’ve achieved with the Emperor’s guidance under threat. It’s nasty, even worse than when we fight non-compliant humans, but we were right to do what we did here.” She finished the bottle. “This hasn't been a pleasant war. Sooner we’re back at the front, the happier we’ll all be, and the sooner I can stow away these bloody medals.”

“Maybe you should do that now?”

Maybe, but then that means walking, and it's been a long day. So,” she declared, not bothering to stifle a yawn, “by the authority invested in me as lieutenant…”

“You’re commandeering a remembrancer’s bed.”

“You bet your freckled arse I am.” And so Minerva set her bottle down and immediately, in almost full regalia, fell asleep, leaving Ellan to wonder how to discreetly wrestle the sheets from her.

------

“Every gesture of greeting, of respect, is a promise not to fight.” Raktra’s face twisted above the mask, his eyes narrowing in what passed for a smile. “It’s why the warrior’s grip uses the right hand. If an officer doffs his hat, it is at root to show that no weapon is concealed there, just as a cur abases itself before a stronger beast.”

No Berserker spoke. The Ashen King paced languorously, eyes flickering over his warriors, testing for any new weakness that might reveal itself. He was garbed in boiled leather and coarse fabrics. Hell’s Teeth, as ever, hung at his belt. The Berserker officers were dressed similarly. The VII welcomed nothing in the way of comfort that outsider styles might offer.

Around them knelt a cadre of youths five thousand strong, the sons of Ginlas’ soldiers and servants. While most of the captives had been pressed into the penal regiments, Raktra was not about to pass up aspirants. So here they were, manacled, on their knees in the great square. The Ashen King could have done this aboard his ships, but he wanted to make a point. Let the Iterators speak of virtue and consequence. Raktra would show them what happened when the weak defied the strong.

“Actions, even just gestures, reveal a truth that weak men hide with words. Life knows dominance and submission. There is nothing else, save death.” A Legionary’s voice was unlike anything else, air dragged from the deep wells of genhanced lungs through a slab-muscled throat. A Primarch’s was something more, given a resonance that went beyond mere sound.

“And that is why you are here,” he growled, now addressing the youths at his feet. “You submit to keep your lives. A thousand of you will earn a further reprieve by showing that you are worthy to join the bloody-handed. The rest will provide the proof, marking their rise to stand among the ashen.” The next word was iron dragged over ragged rock. “Kill.”

The youths looked around, as if expecting someone to appear and unshackle them, arm them. In response, Raktra seized the head of the nearest in a single hand. It was the work of a second, a mere squeeze to leave the wretch flopping to the stone with his skull crumpled. “Kill!"the Ashen King roared.

With elbows, teeth and manacles, the captives complied.

-----

Icarion occupied a high-backed chair in the Thunderchild’s strategium, poring over dozens of profiles and biographies, candidates for planetary and sector governors to oversee Ginlas’ old domains. Once he would have delegated them from his attached Army units, men whose quality he knew, but the Adeptus Terra seemed determined to annex this side of the Crusade, and so he had their options foisted on him. Raiden sat close by, scrutinising them in turn, noting how the recommendations were from academies in Segmentum Solar instead of regiments. He wondered how far this was the doing of the Emperor or the Warmaster. Part of him suspected a power-grab by ambitious bureaucrats. That sort of thing was met with disgust on Madrigal.

“I see now that, despite the prestige of the Warmaster, the swordless have the whip hand over much of the Imperium,” he murmured. “Alexandros asks that I turn my attentions here and there and diverts resources to assist me, but the true rulers of the Imperium are this army of scriveners.”

Raiden paused before replying, more for etiquette than any real need. “Perhaps, Lord, this is the time in which we find ourselves. The Great Crusade nears the edge of the Galaxy; within two decades we will have little to conquer but the Halo Stars. The Imperium is readying itself for peace.”

“Might we not call that premature?” Empyon responded. “Madrigal has nestled in the Imperial fold for nearly two centuries, but we have not forsaken the lessons of Old Night. When our world pieced itself back together we understood the value of leaders who can protect, and we expect them to bear swords and be ready to wield them to this very day. Now a Primarch must submit to judgement and oversight, while weaker men are given rein over the Empire we carved out form them. It smacks of hubris.”

Icarion sensed Raiden’s next question, and held up a hand to forestall him. “No, not on my Father’s part, even if Susanoo might think that at times. I know Him, better than anyone save perhaps Valdor and Malcador. His genius lies behind all that is significant in the Imperium; it simply encompasses too much for this to be an error of His. He would have seen the peril of imposing tithes wholesale long before the policy was implemented, and Alexandros would have been spared months of wrangling with eaxactors and forcing them to see reason. No, these things are permitted by the Emperor’s absence, not His approval.”

The old frustration was there, as it always was, smouldering away. Not once, on Qarith Prime or Terra itself, had they learned the Emperor’s purpose, even if the I Legion were better placed than others to speculate. And all the while this fed another frustration - if they had been trusted with the duties and secret lore of the Shadow Crusade, why had they now been shunted to the side? The changing Imperium hardly took away from those anxieties. The new age was only a dozen years old, and so much had changed already. The respect that the Stormborn once commanded above all his brothers was ebbing away, mortal bureaucrats saw fit to question the writ of the ones who gave their lives to martial service. A tipping point was looming; Raiden would have known that even without his second sight.

A knock came at the door. “My lord?” An Astropath, Madrigal-born, entered. “We have a request for your attendance, at the nearest possible convenience. It purports to be of the direst import, for the eyes of the First Legion high command only.”

“That’s quite singular boldness.” Icarion steepled his fingers. “Who makes this request?”

“It comes from Lord Travier, sir.”


Edited by bluntblade, 08 October 2019 - 10:27 PM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

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#107
simison

simison

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The Second Shame
Author: simison
Legion: Halcyon Wardens
Time: 902.M30
Characters: Alexandros, Jermanikus

+++++

 

Alexandros sat in the strategium's lone throne, rereading the message brought to him by the Mechanicum for a third time. He was unsure which troubled him more: the information learned or the command signed by the Emperor himself. A green glow bathed the quiet room as it shown a planetary system. Various boxes of information hovered next to each planet, though little was actually said. So much unknown would be revealed, but it could not compare with what was already known. 

 

The door to the strategium opened. In stepped a lone officer. 

 

Lord Commander Jermanikus had not come into his position through a personal showing of great valor or winning renown by way of beautiful strategy. He had climbed through the ranks of the Halcyon Wardens via simple hard work and steadfastness. Among Alexandros' Legates, Jermanikus was often likened to Ruel, both commanders preferring to fall back on the basic yet effective premises of the Principia Bellicosa. Yet, whereas Ruel preferred to lead the most hazardous charges, demonstrating a tendency toward aggression and assault, Jerminkus typically commanded from afar where he could maintain an awareness of the campaign as a whole, more balanced than the previous Legion Master. 

 

Which was probably why he was standing before his Primarch.

 

Jermanikus saluted, "Lord Commander Jermanikus, reporting as ordered, my lord!"

 

"At ease," Alexandros replied with a nod. "You are here to receive new orders."

 

To the marine's credit, his face didn't so much as twitch before he asked, "Permission to speak freely, my lord?"

 

"Granted."

 

"My lord, I am currently enmeshed with my responsibilities in the Lorn Campaign. I believe reassignment would be inadvisable at this time."

 

"I am inclined to agree with you, my son, but these orders come directly from the Emperor himself."

 

Only now, with his eyes growing a fraction larger, did Jermanikus react. "If that is the case, then I will go as my Emperor commands of me. What are the campaign's details?"

 

Alexandros reached forward and placed a dataslate in front of his son. "That will continue all of the information you'll need. Regarding broad strokes, you are to assemble a new task force for a planetary subjugation campaign for the Mexicatii system. Highest difficulty, the natives will be hostile and there is a religious presence that must be eliminated. For your task force, you are to prioritize marines that are noted for reliability and ability to be clandestine. No information about this campaign will be made known to the greater Imperium, unless the Emperor wills it." 

 

Throughout Alexandros' explanation, Jermanikus had studied the information on the dataslate, the faintest signs of concern showing on his face. When Alexandros finished, there was an uncomfortable pause. "My lord, what situation requires such... unusual methods?"

 

The Shield-Lord twitched. "I am not at liberty to say."

 

Though he held his composure, Darshan could see shock radiating throughout Jermanikus' aura. Finally, the Lord Commander said, "As the Emperor wills."

 

"The orders are to be immediately implemented. As such, you are dismissed." 

 

Jermanikus saluted before marching quickly out of the strategium. 

 

As the door closed, Alexandros sighed. 80 years into the Great Crusade and so many good brothers found, he thought to himself. Daer'dd, Pionus, Koschei, even Kozja has his virtues. Now it's broken. With a couple of buttons, the hologram of Morro appeared above the table. 

 

"And we'd privately hope you were going to be the worst one we found," Alexandros whispered to himself. "But now..."

 

Another button shifted Morro out of the green light to be replaced by a stock image of a undefined body. Most of the data-boxes were empty or simply said, +Insufficient Data+. Only the name was clearly visible: Alexos Travier.


Project Leader of the Brotherhood of the Lost

 
The Second Son: Narrative of the BOTL Vth Legion Primarch

 

Brotherhood of the Lost has arrived on Patreon

 

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#108
bluntblade

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A Line Drawn
Time: 930ish, M30
Legions: Scions Hospitalier, the XXth

The Scions Hospitalier stand alert, weapons not raised but held ready. Behind them are automata and three Knights of House Toho, also motionless, though their pilots are doubtless fidgeting. Behind them on the walls are mortal soldiers, conducting urgent conversations and hushed arguments until their sergeants and discipline-masters can silence them.

The city has fallen; most of the mortal soldiers are busy dealing with the surrendered defenders and occupying the centres of power. These men and women would be there too, but for one problem. Not all of those surrenders have been honoured.

At the heart of the pearl-white formation are warriors in black. One of them, standing close to the commander, holds a bolt pistol in both hands. His glaive is mag-locked to his back. The visor he wears shows no more emotion than any of his brothers, but underneath it, Metis Odyssalas is trying not to grind his teeth.

“Sir, are we really about to do this?”

First Captain Antonidas turns his head fractionally toward him. They are facing northwest, and from that direction noise begins to build. “They’ve had their warnings. Today and on a dozen others. Let this be a lesson, to you and them, that there are lines we cannot allow to be crossed.”

The noise builds into an indistinct cacophony, then thousands of running feet. It takes only seconds for the grey mass to emerge, racing out of the streets and into the empty space - formerly a kill-zone - before the city’s inner wall. Commendable speed, but a lamentable absence of coordination. Odyssalas notes that they have left their armour behind, and it does not surprise him. That sloppiness is one of the reasons why the Twentieth Legion are named the “failed” by their cousins.

Both sides are fully aware of each other now, and yet the Twentieth don’t slow. A kilometre distant, then eight hundred metres, then six hundred.

“Suan,” and even now Antonidas hesitates for a moment. “Halt them.”

Suan’s heavy support squad raise their lascannons and hammer the ground in front of the onrushing Twentieth. The Astartes come skidding to a halt, and for a few seconds the echoes are the only sound.

“Legion Master!” Antonidas shouts. “We will countenance no more slaughter in this city. Stand down.”

Kallast pushes his way to the front, wrenching off his helmet to reveal a face covered in scars and tattoos. Antonidas does the same, handing his helm over to Odyssalas.

They meet in the middle, almost nose to nose. Antonidas the older of the two, smaller even in his armour. Kallast is every inch the barbarian warlord in his Mk III plate, a zweihander sword slung over his shoulder.

“You haven’t got the spine for this, Phantom,” he says, staring down at Antonidas. “You, who wanted your own Legion gelded, and rushed to give up your power. By what right do you seek to overrule a Legion Master?”

“By the right of the delegatus. I am charged to speak with the voice of my Primarch and act in his stead.” Antonidas has holstered his pistol, even though Kallast’s bolter is inches from his chest. The gun carries a chain bayonet, which would make it more or less unique in the Scions’ arsenal.

“So you do lie to yourself about it. I wondered.” Kallast’s eyes are wandering, even with Antonidas’ stare apparently fixed on him. Odyssalas wonders if it’s a show, or a genuine lack of care for what the warrior in front of him thinks. The idea is staggering; Odyssalas has seen the Primarch of another Legion seek out Antonidas’ counsel.

Kallast continues. “You’ve become so indolent that you even speak your new name with pride. How long did it take your brothers to forget that they once mocked the footsloggers who bloody themselves in saving the weak? For you to stop seeing mortals as an irritant?” Antonidas has gone pale, rigid with anger. “Do you blanch with fright when a true warrior stands before you now?”

The jibe is studiously ignored. “You derive your authority from a Primarch’s absence. Mine is an extension of my Primarch’s. You really think you have more power here? Just take a look at this.” Antonidas reaches up to his left pauldron and produces a piece of paper, sealed with wax. “When I accepted this task from Lord Santor, it came with some specific provisos. They formed the basis of this oath of moment, sworn directly to my Primarch. You have already brought me perilously close to breaking it, and if I let you beyond this wall it will be void.”

He holds out the oath to Kallast, who lets his bolter fall loose on its strap, plucks the seal and quickly reads it. He finally meets Antonidas’ eyes. “Pretty words.” And he tears the paper in two.

An insult unheard-of before today. Odyssalas levels his pistol at Kallast, and his fellow Phantoms do the same. A second later, two Legiones Astartes forces are eyeing each other along the barrels of their guns. Only Antonidas’ hands are empty.

“How do you think this will go, Kallast? If the Emperor had marked this world for absolute retribution, you know who would be commanding us. As it is, Lord Santor’s orders dictate my actions here. You would flout the order of the Emperor’s son and slay his warriors to slake your Legion’s thirst. And do you really believe you’d get through us with that little trouble?”

“You are a patchwork of companies. We are a Legion.”

“I have thirty-two companies with me, and more in orbit or elsewhere on the surface. You see the automata? The Knights? A hundred and twenty thousand mortal soldiers and a Yamatar taghma stand with us in this city alone. Even if you wipe us out, there won’t be much left to mop up when you are branded renegades.” A mirthless smile has entered Antonidas’ voice. “You see? There are still new ways your Legion can shame us all.”

Kallast snaps the lanyard of his bolter and drives the bayonet into the ground at Antonidas’ feet. “You hiss and bare your teeth, snake, and I tire of it. If you truly feel ashamed of those who understand what is necessary, back your words with steel. Sanguis extremis.”

A crowing cheer spreads through the Twentieth, while the Scions are aghast. Odyssalas’ vox feed, linked to the captains and his fellow Phantoms, is a mess of voices, finally giving way to one.

“You accept, brother?”

Antonidas turns back to them, and the captains cluster round him. “Honour demands it, Glaucus, and so does the Imperium’s hold on this world." He addresses the officers as one. "Should Kallast best me, command of the Battalion shall pass to Glaucus. Minos, the Phantoms will be yours. Don’t give these curs an inch.” Then he turns to Odyssalas. “Prove me right, little brother, even if I’m not there to see you.”

And with that, he advances on Kallast, who stands with sword drawn and alive with disruptor charge. Hoarfrost hisses from Antonidas' vambrace, power field kindling with a noise like winter wind. In his left hand, Antonidas holds a relic of the Marianan duellists; an ornate combat blade, curved and wickedly sharp. A rare combination, one that against most opponents constitutes an advantage in its own right. Kallast, however, is not most opponents. He may not be as experienced as Antonidas, but he is still the veteran of twelve decades of war and a kinslayer to boot. The XXth have a disquieting number of customs based on the killing of one’s superior, and Kallast has risen at least two ranks by that means.

So it is he that moves first, swinging his sword in great, sizzling arcs. Antonidas veers away before returning the attack, but he is deterred by the zweihander. In a straightforward clash, pitting strength and the heft of his blade against Kallast, Antonidas would be swiftly overwhelmed. So the First Captain becomes a whirlwind, darting in and out of range.

The fight rages for almost an hour, long enough to make a blow-for-blow account redundant. Duels between such champions have been known to last a day, but those are mere contests, fought to first blood more often than not. This is two warriors seeking to kill, nothing less. Odyssalas’ chest feels intolerably tight. Time and again his mentor escapes death by mere centimetres, Kallast’s sword leaving a dozen cuts in his armour. Bare ceramite gleams amid the black.

Yet Antonidas’ skill and experience is the telling factor, and from the forty-first minute his blades leave trails of blood down Kallast’s plate. The master of the Twentieth Legion grows more choleric, wasting his strength on a near-unhinged series of blows that end when Antonidas brings Hoarfrost slashing across his arm. Before the severed limb and sword can even strike the ground, Antonidas dashes in and plunges his dagger home.

Decades of service end with wide eyes and gurgling as Kallast stares into Antonidas’s eyes, the blade punched clean through the roof of his mouth and into his brain. He crunches his forehead into Antonidas’ face with the crack of a breaking eye socket. Antonidas is unyielding, despite the pain, even as Kallast’s final attempts at words paint his face red. Then, a few seconds later, Kallast’s knees buckle. Antonidas lets him fall, and there is no sound but the corpse thudding on the ground. No dignity is afforded to him, but there is no triumph, no cheers from the Scions.

Antonidas steps away, a glance at Glaucus sending a hundred guns crunching against pauldrons once again. With ten paces between him and the corpse, he addresses the warriors of the Twentieth, still locked in dumbfounded silence. “Take him, and be gone from this world. Another infraction of this kind, and you will face a much less forgiving warrior in my place.”

It is only when the other Legion has trudged into the far distance that Antonidas lets his shoulders sag. “To hell with it,” he mutters. “Brothers, this day will not be spoken of by us, much less celebrated. Today has brought enough disgrace to the Astartes. A Legion Master has fallen, and he has made me a kinslayer.” He seems old, even older than those few veterans of Unification that remain. “Tell our Primarch what has happened here, and that I beg his forgiveness.”

The helmet is sealed in place again, the implacable blankness restored as Antonidas moves toward the inner city. Odyssalas catches up to him, kindling a private vox-channel. “And the lesson there?” He knows not to ask if his mentor is alright.

A tired - not exasperated - sigh answers him. “The lesson, Metis?” Antonidas gazes up at the Knights ahead. “There are the innocent, and then there are the Astartes. We plunge our hands into the filth, that the golden age to come will be pristine. The trick is to not let the filth stain us. Otherwise,” he raises his left hand, and red glistens dully on the black, “it gets into the blood.”

Edited by bluntblade, 04 March 2018 - 01:33 AM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#109
bluntblade

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Cusp of the Storm

Watching the landers set down and the troops disembarking, Licinius Vastelus could never shake a frisson of fear. He knew the arithmetic well enough, and besides, there was little to match a regiment of the Excertus Imperialis for sheer scale. Six million soldiers were making planetfall by his command, garbed in the deep green and silver of the Kadisian Hounds.

More than two thousand troop carriers, each capable of holding three thousand people. Tanks rolled out and Titans strode free of their own landers. To the untrained eye, trying to process it would be like attempting to ascribe a size to a storm cloud. It was too vast, stretching too far, to take it all in. Unless you were the one trusted to steer this colossal engine, wielding it against the foes of the Emperor. Unless you held such power that men and women became coin to spend; provided you did not waste the Emperor’s coin, that is.

Vastelus had been dealing with that power and responsibility for twenty-one years, long enough to become well aware of the limits to his power. Dizzying as the heights were, he shared them with thousands of others - men and women of his rank, fleetmasters, Mechanicum archmagi - and others stood above him. Ultimately, he was another cog in this mechanism, and it was a mere fragment of that machine arrayed before him. So much power, with which to do only that which was required of him.

Not that he resented it, still less that he wished to forego his duty. His oaths were to the Emperor and the Imperium, and he had commanded armies on a dozen worlds against the traitors. Now he stood here on Revan, preparing to do his duty again, wondering if he could succeed.

“An impressive regiment, Lord Commander.” He turned at that, but not out of alarm. His guards would not have permitted anyone to reach him up here unless their authority matched his. Certainly not without stepping out as well, and in any case, he recognised the face.

Saerla Kantor was a surprisingly short woman, the same age as him if he was any judge. Her hair was a match for the regimental colours she wore, flint streaked with white. She wore armour - functional stuff, the only sort Medusans believed in.

Vastelus bowed, the sort appropriate for a comrade of about equal rank. “Lady Kantor. I’m surprised by the praise, if you’ll permit me.”

That got him a taut but not unpleasant smile. “Our Medusan pride, eh? We’re practical enough to know where that turns into antagonising your allies.”

“Then I’ll return the compliment. My shuttle brought me over the Steelshod lines this morning.” Tracked by your gunners every second of the way, like as not. So many betrayals already, our trust has worn thin. “As fearsome a sight as I’d heard.”

“I only hope the enemy feel the same.” She joined him at the rail, gazing out at the forest on the horizon. Those trees would likely be in flames before the month was out. Then she looked again at the Kadisians, and then to the west, where the 3rd Medusan Steelshod had entrenched themselves both in the hive and in hastily built redoubts and trenches beyond the walls. “Look at us. In another age, we might have been the masters of our own empires.”

“In another age, we’d be serving the sort of men who command the Legions.”

“Speak for yourself.”

Vastelus gave a small smile. “But you still feel some envy for them, no?”

“Only up to a point. I’m still all human, despite what my moniker might suggest.”

Vastelus quirked an eyebrow. “The one thing begins with ‘steel’ and ends in a broken nose?”

This time it was a broad smile that broke out on her face. “Sacred Unity, I’m that notorious?”

“At least the rank are learning the consequences.”

“True enough. Anyway, have you seen the Scions?”

“At a distance, at the Qarith Triumph. If I recall, you…”

“Yes.” She didn’t hide her satisfaction when Vastelus whistled. “Only as a captain back then, but yes, I was there for the Reckoning.” Her hands tightened on the rail, and she seemed to be looking past the assembled armies. “We were first in behind the Scions, and we fought with them until they left the land war. They were unlike anything else I’ve seen. Such precision, such power. We have legends on my world about how the Age of Strife tore us down. Those are about all I could compare to what I saw on Qarith Prime. And the Scions met the onslaught and overcame it. It never seemed to faze them.”

“That sounds about right for a Legion,” Vastelus replied.

“You’ve fought with one?” Her hand rested on the pommel of her sword. Medusan steel, famously sharp. Rumour held that the Warmaster’s sword was forged from it.

“Two. The Steel Legion in the Carinae System and the Eagle Warriors on Hynaka. We felt so honoured about that one,” he added, unable to suppress what was a certain wistfulness on a good day, and bitterness the rest of the time.

If Kantor noticed, she didn’t deem it worthy of comment. “Did you notice that control? That absolute focus of purpose? We cleansed entire hives of infected people, and that kind of work wears at the toughest mortals. The Scions? If they felt any of the horror that had my men retching -” Vastelus could just about believe that detail “- it never showed.”

“Sounds like the Steel Legion. I can’t say the same of the Thirteenth.”

“Yes, but my point is, that was then. The Day of Revelation did something to the Scions. Now they thirst for a chance to bring their cousins low.” Unease looked out of place on her features, and all the more unsettling for it. “Icarion’s treason has poison running through all the Legions, on our side and his.”

Vastelus grimaced. “That brings me back to what I was thinking about before you joined me. We’re ammunition, here to be expended if necessary.” He shot her an uneasy glance. “Though I’m hoping I’ll feel rather differently after I meet Lord Santor. In the meantime, however…” She was, after all, really quite attractive in her way. “Would you consider dining with me this evening? I’m sure your troops could survive your absence for just one night.”

Kantor laughed. “Well, that I did not expect. Not when you seemed so intimidated earlier.”

“My lady - Saerla - the Warbringers are coming to this world. In light of that, there’s not much you could do to frighten me. As you’ve said, we’re still human. I’d rather like to remember that for one night.”

“Well, Licinius, I can hardly argue with that. Just be aware,” she came close. “If you turn out to be a bore, I have some very good artillerists.”

Vastelus grinned. “I’d expect nothing else for disappointing you.”

Edited by bluntblade, 11 February 2019 - 11:36 PM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#110
simison

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Happiness is...
Author: simison
Legion: Halcyon Wardens
Time: 020.M31
Characters: Alexandros, Athanasios

+++++

 

Athanasios forced himself not to move any faster than a brisk march through the corridors. What spurred him onward was not fear or danger as he gradually made his way to the most important sections of the ship.

 

It was excitement.

 

Above all things, a Halcyon Warden desired, it was for this kind of meeting. Athanasios did not know what would be spoke of. He did not know how much time he would had. All he knew was that he would treasure every second of it.

 

He finally stood before the two Athenoi charged with their master's defense. Without word, the massive door between them opened. Through the door was the Warmaster's office. It was an impressive room, both able to serve in war as a more private headquarters and in peace as a secure diplomatic hall. The room was empty, as Athanasios wished. No business or Legion matters called him here today. For at the other end was another door. Even as he stepped forth to open it, he could already feel a more exotic atmosphere seeping out, brimming with life.

 

With a quiet hiss, the door opened, revealing a world of green and growth. A world that paid no heed to titles or to positions. Only family and friends.

 

As the door opened, a giant turned from his work to receive his visitor with a smile.

 

A smile that Athanasios gladly returned as he walked in. "Haire, ho pater."

 

"Haire, emou paioi. What shall we talk about today?"


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The Second Son: Narrative of the BOTL Vth Legion Primarch

 

Brotherhood of the Lost has arrived on Patreon

 

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#111
Talonair

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Temper your pride...

Author: Talonair

Forces: Dark Mechanicum, Abyssii

Time: 031.M31

Characters: Adept Rofous Carmine

 

+++++

 

Adept Rofous Carmine was in a good mood. Far be it for a tech-priest of his order to be seen indulging in an emotion as trite as ‘happiness’, but he did permit himself a sense of satisfaction. The Abyssii forces had put up a stern resistance, but even the environmentally sealed armour of their ‘Decontaminators’ couldn’t withstand the furnace heats generated by massed flamers in the confined spaces of the Ring of Iron.

 

Adept Carmine was at the forefront of the assault on the Abyssii-held portion of the Ring of Iron, and victory here would see his influence swell enormously. At this rate, in a few short hours the Abyssii would be forced to abandon the Ring and tech-priests would flock to him to pledge their fealty. Adept Carmine shook himself from his reverie, turning to face the Skitarii under his command. “Report.”

 

“Mechanicum Abyssii forces have retreated to storage hold zero-eight-four. They have welded the doors shut, lascutters are breaching them now.” Adept Carmine signalled that he had heard, calling up schematics for this portion of the Ring.

 

“Very good. When we clear them from the storage hold they will have no defensible positions left. I will oversee the assault personally.” The Skitarii who spoke signalled an affirmative, falling into step at his shoulder as Adept Carmine strode confidently forwards. As he arrived at one of the doors to the storage hold, a Skitarii Alpha turned to address him, giving a binaric salute as it did so.

 

“We have almost breached the door. When the door is open, the Hoplites will enter first with the Peltasts advancing behind their shield wall, bombarding them with Ignis shot and driving them from cover. Is this tactic acceptable?”

 

“Perfectly acceptable. See that it is done, Alpha.” The Alpha turned back, distributing orders as the lascutter-equipped servitors finished slicing their way through the steel blast doors of the storage hold. The servitors moved back placidly, staring vacantly ahead as the Skitarii Hoplites moved into position, one planting an explosive charge on the door. At the Alpha’s signal, the charge detonated, blasting the door inwards as the Skitarii piled through.

 

What organic parts of Adept Carmine’s face remained creased into a confused frown as the war cries of his Skitarii suddenly died, the sound of metal footfalls halting with it. Confusion turned to surprise as several Skitarii began fleeing back into the corridor, tripping over their fellows in their haste. “What in the Omnissiah’s name do you think you are doing? Get back in there!” He bellowed at them, leaning around the doorway to see into the storage hold.

Though his heart had years ago been replaced by an augmetic organ, Adept Carmine swore it skipped a beat at what he saw. Despite barely having enough room to stand, a pair of Warhound titans bearing the livery of the Legio Carnifex, dominating the space in blue, bone and gold. Already the pair of them had turned to face the breached door, and in unison their war-sirens howled. His eyes widened in panic, turning to flee as a pair of Vulkan Mega Bolters spun up to speed with the unmistakable whine of motors.

 

Adept Carmine only managed two paces before the corridor was filled with detonating bolt shells, each one larger than his skull. He was shredded in moments, his Skitarii not far behind as the bulkheads were painted with blood and gore. The hail of rounds chewed through the internal bulkheads of the Ring with frightening ease, decimating the attacking force. The second Warhound titan stepped forwards and flames roared from its Inferno Gun, turning the tattered corridors into a vast incinerator, reducing what few survivors remained to ash in an instant.

 

The Warhounds soon stopped firing, the last spent casings clattering to the deck as scattered flames crackled. The Skitarii of the Abyssii emerged from their cover as the Warhounds howled triumphantly, the robed soldiers advancing into the charnel house once more. “Archmagos, attacking force eradicated. Moving to reoccupy forward positions.”


Edited by Talonair, 05 February 2018 - 02:16 AM.


#112
bluntblade

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Drowned Men

There was activity on the decks, a vast amount, but little of the frenzy Skerro had seen aboard the ships of other Legions. They let mortals infest their fleets; serfs, Army personnel, functionaries of a dozen kinds. Less so, the Drowned.

There were hundreds of figures of mortal stature, but most of these were servitors. The actual thralls were difficult enough to distinguish by mere complexion; theirs was the grey of the voidbound, rarely allowed and little inclined to mix with outsiders lest they betray the secrets of their masters. Even if the usual strictures were relaxed, the Styxian culture that the Drowned took into the void made their serfs taciturn and suspicious of outsiders. Even a campaign such as this did little to breed cameraderie, or even curiosity about one’s allies.

Then again, it wasn’t as if you could count on those allies to remain alive; a perennial complaint, but one that carried more weight with the Qarith inflicting such casualties. Multiple expeditionary fleets had reported losses that went far beyond mere decimation.

“So this is a truth-teller,” Hekkan had said, when the reports came in. To the Drowned, that meant a war which sifted weak from strong, revealed the savage truth of the Galaxy they fought to tame. Undid the lies that Mankind liked to tell itself about its worth. Let them try to keep their delusions now that regiments and taghmata had been swallowed whole by the alien armies.

Men knew better than to believe such on Styx and the worlds like it, from which the Drowned seized their thralls and aspirants. Always seized, not simply accepting youths into their ranks as other Legions did. With this they could make the first, simplest assessment of whether the boys they took were suitable stock for the Legion; whether they fought back. Those who failed this test could hope at best to join the ranks of thralls aboard the XVI’s ships. They would be made useful, that much was guaranteed.

Attendants and forge-thralls had finished their work on Skerro’s stormbird, and backed away respectfully as his company approached. No grovelling, no trite attempt to elicit some kind of gesture from an Astartes. Just the understanding that they were beneath the notice of Drowned Men.

The tech-priest who oversaw them approached on rumbling tracks. She was ostensibly female, but far removed from biological gender now. Her mechanical parts were painted copper in places, vivid against what grey flesh showed. Her robes were the same sea-green as Skerro’s armour, marking her as part of a sect that diverged greatly from Mechanicum norms, obscured and shielded by the Copper Prince’s favour.

Her voice crackled and squawked. Unlovely, but the Drowned cared not for lovely noises. “Wing 348-N is at full readiness, captain.”

“Then I am satisfied with your work. I trust that the necessary combat-automata and servitors are likewise prepared?”

“Of course, sir. We would hardly allow ourselves to fall short in the sight of the Legio Mortis, let alone yourselves.”

Skerro understood this, to a point. These exiles had a reverence for Titans that went beyond their usual treatment of the machine. This made sense; a Titan was held to be the avatar of their Omnissiah. What was less easily explained was why the Legio Mortis in particular caused such fervour.

“Priest, let me understand this. The Legio we will fight beside represents the Red World and the personal authority of its tyrant. By his writ, explicit or tacit, you are cast out from your Forge World -” one of the lesser ones in her case; he neither knew or cared which “-and take shelter among us to escape worse consequences. I expected resentment for his favoured servants.”

She bowed low in instinctive apology. “The Legio Mortis represents glory we might achieve in time and rise beyond. Primaris: our cult unifies adepts from thirty-two Forge Worlds at the last count. Secundus: we have inducted individuals from many more worlds with the permission of the XVI Legion’s masters. Conclusion: by forging links within the Mechanicum and reaching without its usual bounds to expand, we can readily expect our return to favour when we grow to sufficient strength. Therefore the presence of the Legio Mortis spurs us on. That aside, we have no inclination to fall short in their sight and be diminished further in consequence.”

He nodded. “A satisfactory explanation. That will be all. Our war-machine thralls require attention.”

The priest and her retinue moved on to the combat-servitors and automata, standing arrayed behind the Astartes of the first wave. The XVI Legion’s battlefields often made it prohibitively difficult to retrieve wounded warriors and entomb them in Dreadnoughts, even more so than the Scions Hospitalier. Consequently the Drowned deployed these war machines to support their companies in actions where especially heavy resistance was likely.

It was not so much likely on the world below as guaranteed. The Hungering Pit’s hull had only ceased to shudder with enemy broadsides forty minutes ago as the Qarith fleet was beaten into wreckage.

Still, the big automata were perhaps less common than one might expect, certainly less so than among the Scions. The Drowned placed little trust in machines, and the proof of that was in the Terminator squads falling in behind Skerro. Two of them were clad in Cataphractii plate - Skerro’s company had risen high enough to earn it in recent years - but the remaining ten warriors wore suits which were even bulkier.

Their pauldrons almost disappeared into their hunched backs, each rising above the warrior’s head and capped by a fearsome heavy weapon. Lascannons for four, missile clusters for two more and assault cannons atop the rest. This was the fearsome Saturnine pattern of Tactical Dreadnought Armour, the warriors who bore it taking the place of Mortis Dreadnoughts in the line of battle.

Their sergeant, Shorecarver Krul, approached Skerro. He had plainly overheard something of the exchange with the priest.

“You disapprove, sergeant?” Skerro drawled.

Krul’s voice through his vox-grille was an ugly gurgle, seawater forcing its way down a corroded drain. “The cog-clutchers’ devotion is relevant only where it blunts or sharpens our blades. Why churn the waters with a question of their superstitions?”

Skerro waited until the priestess was out of her augmented hearing’s probable range. “We understand how they think, we gain leverage. Facts flow from inferior minds and like water, they widen the gap through which they flow. Wear away at their walls and we gain more that might strengthen our Legion. See what technology has been dragged from their jealous holding to be shared with our techmarines.”

He gave a sly, cold smile. “Perhaps one day we will learn something from them that will buy us favour with Mars. Herein lies the lesson, sergeant; advantage is to be sought in all corners if we are to get what is rightfully ours.”

A vox-drone rang out across the deck, signalling the assembled companies and their support elements to embark. Krul turned to the Stormbird. “I will endeavour to learn, that we will claim that right. In the meantime, captain, we may find something of it in bloodshed below.”

“Assuredly,” Skerro said. For that was the certainty in every Drowned heart: this was the war that would finally prove their worth. Faces that had turned from them in disregard would be bowed in reverence. This, the Sorrowsworn had decreed, and his Drowned Men would see it made so.

Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#113
bluntblade

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Warsong
Legion: the Iron Bears

+++++

The Stormbird is one of the larger ones, a Khonsu-pattern beast. Only one step down from the Apophis sun-killers, large enough to carry half a company of Space Marines and a pair of Dreadnoughts - with a skjald.

Ellan’s gauntlets click on her armour, little whirs accompanying the movements of her fingers and the shifting of her shoulders. Power armour, mortal standard, Daughters of Daer’dd surplus allocated to the Primarch’s favoured scribe. Daer’dd has acquiesced to her desire to see firsthand the way his sons make war, not from the rear echelons but in among them.

They both see it as a necessary test, one that will show her what it really means to be part of the Legion. She has been training heavily with sword and pistol in preparation for today, though in truth it’s not in expectation of actually fighting. Alone, she cannot realistically take on anything more dangerous than one of the enemy thrall castes. Her training is half a precaution, half an effort to warrant a place alongside Legionaries.

Five squads of Tacharian Company, named for Nibaasiniiwi’s predecessor, share the hold with her. They have lapsed into silence, for this battle will not be a matter of simple righteousness like fighting green skins. The Tribune himself sits opposite her, the furnace of his helm lenses inscrutable. She thinks he approves, though he has also briefed her at length on the caution he expects of her in this battle.

Skjald. The etymology bothers her, no clear links to any Tricendian dialect. She guesses the Bears picked it up from a regiment. It could be Vostroyan perhaps, or Arcturan. They could well have got it from the Lions.

The Bears' silence has a texture, a sombreness. The enemy deserves some contemplation, for they are not mere xenos. They are an offshoot of Mankind that has proven itself debased far beyond the realm of Imperial tolerance, and absolute destruction is to be visited upon them. For this, the VI Legion will pay in blood and treasure as is their duty. The vows are made, and the time comes for the Angels of Death to reflect upon the sentence they are called to carry out.

The oathsong starts with Torach, as is custom. The Shaman sets out the meter with clicks and whistles, these translating to Gothic words of honour, fealty, duty. Backbone words.

Nibaanisiiwi begins next, layering something more conventional words over Torach's utterances. He sings. Plain and simple, an Angel of Death sings. The words are his oath of moment, rendered in Huronian. As his personal oath ends, the song shifts to the company's oath. The voices of Nibaanisiiwi and Torach’s brothers join theirs.

These are not the voices of men. They are as those of gods, not cracked by time and yet burdened by long life and things seen and done. Rich voices, unnaturally resonant, primal. The tempo, slow in a way that speaks of ageless patience.

And then something tightens as the oath finishes and begins again. Voices rise, fists clench tighter on the grips of guns and blades. The meter accelerates, faster and faster with every repetition as Torach shifts to guttural utterances. Suddenly vox amplifiers crackle into life and the melodies are distorted, almost swallowed by the din. The Bears’ voices are now a grinding roar.

Ellan feels it. She feels more than the sounds reverberating in her chest. It lies heavy like musk in the air, pressure building to a storm. Fury, righteous and pure. She raises her voice too, though it is lost among all the others. The Dreadnoughts raise voices so deep she can barely discern a word, and her teeth rattle.

The storm, the avalanche, gathers volume and pace. The Iron Bears rise, forming up ready to sally forth. Every other marine at the front is a Devastator, the rest Assault Marines one step behind them. An aggressive but cautious formation, the one Nibaasiniiwi favours above all. Chainblades are gunned, staccato roars in time with the most vehement words.

The ramp lowers, and the true music of war takes over.

-----

The Ouklid should be beautiful. Their carapaces, two and a half metres tall, shimmer, wrought into human shapes of aching physical perfection. Even more than an Astartes, they resemble a heroic statue of superhuman size, come to life. The proportions are so exact…

And yet that is the problem, she will decide later. Everything about them speaks of calculation, a design chasing absolute, geometrical perfection. There is no soul in their aesthetic, and thus theirs is a false beauty. A race gone inhuman to the extent that their attempts to reclaim it come off as perverse, and they no longer recognise true humanity.

The clan-companies meet them with a clash of blades and a clang of warplate. The Ouklid are still human enough for red blood to flow when their armour is torn open. Nibaasiniiwi is at the fore, buckling and cleaving through armour with his claws. Ellan stays a short way behind, enveloped by one of the Warborn Packs, which in another Legion would be a Tactical Squad. She has been permitted to ride on the back of one Bear, Brother Komanch, reminded oddly of being carried around on her father’s shoulders. As then, she gets a good vantage point to take in the scene.

This wasteland, rising gradually toward the walls of the city, used to be an impressive swathe of bunkers and fortresses, proof against most alien threats and perhaps deemed impregnable by the defenders. Wholly occupying a vast plain north of the capital, it is a steel band around the hive. Now it is being pounded into ruin, blasted from orbit and strafed incessantly by Corsair bombers. The Imperial forces are turning it into the drop site the Ouklid sought to deny them, undaunted by the surviving hundreds of thousands who remain to oppose the landings.

Next second the view is lost. A glancing shot just flies wide of Komanch’s shield and knocks him off balance. Ellan tumbles off, an awkward bounce and roll before she comes to a halt, propping herself up on her elbows. She draws her pistol on instinct, and her fear is well-founded.

A gap has opened in the ranks of the Bears and briefly, there is nothing between her and an Ouklid warrior. It is huge, the serene countenance of its faceplate at odds with the hooked claws of its hands. The glowing, lilac lenses find her and it emit a strange noise, a keening wail from behind the tranquil mask.

She gets a shot off as it starts moving, but it makes little impact on the armoured torso. She will never rise and start running in time, but then Nibaasiniiwi is there, smashing into the cyborg and raking its chest with a claw. For a moment they grapple, before Nibaasiniiwi’s right hand closes on the faceplate. He pulls back, and Ellan learns just why the Ouklid change themselves so.

Orange eyes glow in four sockets, set deep in a face of blotched, purpled hide. The face is distended, horribly contrasted with the facade that concealed it. Even Nibaasiniiwi pauses for half a second before a copper fist smashes into the foul visage. The face is obliterated, and the mutant falls like a cut thread. The fight has lasted maybe seven seconds. Komanch steps over to Ellan, already halfway to her feet, and helps her the rest of the way. His chainaxe is mag-locked to his hip, still idling.

“You did well,” he rumbles, kneeling so she can clamber on again. “Apologies for the tumble. I’ll warn you next time.”

The Stormbirds are still firing, tracer and las-fire snapping over the heads of the Astartes as they barrel forward. They have dispatched their opponents, and form up swiftly with those around them. Tacharian Company becomes whole again, with a full Talon of Ancients, and it takes its place at the heart of Clan Undak.

-----

The full might of two Tricendian expeditionary forces is unfurling behind and around them. Soldiers of the Huronian Sunstriders in the tens of thousands, marching in the wake of Nemean main battle tanks, Wyverns and Baneblades. Knights of House Blinstrubas, clad in crimson and the same black iron as the Bears. Gunships and landers vanish in the distance, setting down somewhere behind the horizon. Such is the maddening size of the Great Crusade’s armies, the scale that is almost never captured in picts and paintings.

Clan Undak thunders up the slope. Land Raiders and other tanks crunch over and through wreckage, silhouetted by the flash of their own guns. Tacharian Company and a few others race along at the side of the armour columns, running down enemy stragglers and fending off flanking attacks that the gunships don’t spot. The Dreadnoughts are somewhere behind, marching with Terminator squads.

The Bears pay for the ground they gain. Warriors have fallen in the first attack, and more go down as the attackers work their way uphill. The Ouklid warriors are not as swift as Space Marines, but they are powerful and their weapons quite capable of breaching power armour. If they strike Ellan, it will take a miracle and an Apothecary to save her.

One Bear crashes to the ground, a lascannon leaving two smoking holes in his chest as a squad of Ouklid warriors springs into the Astartes' path. Another has lost an arm, now using his shoulders as much as his axe to take his foes down. Nibaasiniiwi drags him away, bellowing for an apothecary and taking his place in the scrum.

Artillery hammers the Land Raiders, much of it glancing off their armour but some striking true. One on Tacharian’s left blossoms into flame, warriors leaping from the hatches. They hunker down where they can, the rest of the column ploughing onward.

Ellan is hooked into the company vox net, and hears what Torach has deduced in a second. The Land Raider was hit by a volley from an emplacement ahead of them. Another ambush will surely follow.

The smoke, dust and fire serve to shroud the company. The Ouklid have hardly appeared over the incline when the nearest assault squad fire their jump packs. With almost lazy assurance, several other Bears have raised their guns and fired, and the assault marines slam down on enemies shaken by bolter round detonations. The Ouklid go down quickly, but again Ellan sees a Bear fall, joined by another when more of the abhumans emerge onto the ramparts. Nibaasiniiwi’s second assault squad leaps the fortification in a burst of fire, and then the remainder of Tacharian Company is at the door.

Meltas and bolter rounds make short work of the metal gate. Ellan slips from Komanch’s back - his chainsword running at full speed again is all the warning she needs. Two Bears with combat shields shove aside the remnants of the gate and plunge into a mass of Ouklid thralls.

These are smaller than the warriors, perhaps only a little larger than a typical man, and their bionics less ornate, but their fanaticism is still remarkable. With shrieks they hurl themselves at the invaders, undaunted by their presence and hammering guns.

It gets them an honourable enough death, bolts and blades dismembering them in utterly unsubtle fashion. There are a few dozen, and two squads of Bears are enough to handle that.

Ellan draws her pistol again, and this time her sword as well. She’s determined not to make a mess of this again, though there is little enough she can do to help. These massive figures around her move too fast, lining up and firing kill shots before she can even take aim.

More thralls emerge, armed with blades and guns of their own. As they engage the Bears, warriors race in. The bunker must be deceptively deep to conceal such a force.

Ellan gets off two shots, the only times an opening remains long enough. The Bears and Ouklid hammer one another with terrifying force, gouts of blood spraying from wounds and disruptor fields flaring as they meet. Nibaasiniiwi is grappling with two warriors, holding back their blades, when another comes darting in to attack with a pair of brutal hydraulic claws. Komanch sees it. He cannons into the one of Nibaasiniiwi’s assailants, hammering its faceplate with his shield. The Ouklid staggers back and Nibaasiniiwi dispatches his remaining attacker.

The oncoming Ouklid meets Komanch’s snarling axe. A masterwork of forgecraft, it takes a second to chew through metal, flesh and bone and create a geyser of cerebral matter. A second, but it isn’t quick enough for Komanch to make his kill and evade the claws. Even as his axe strikes home, four fizzing claws burst from his back in a shower of sparks and blood. Komanch goes down. Torach steps over him, fire snaking from his fingertips, and Ellan loses sight of the wounded breacher.

One thrall slips through between the Bears, aiming for her. This time she is ready. Her shot cracks its head back, a livid orange gouge on the side of its helmet. It recovers and lunges, but by then she has her sword up.

The impact puts her on the ground, the mutant on top of her. The scream lasts a good few seconds before Ellan realises it is coming from her. She is not fighting an enemy's momentum, only its mass. The sword is buried to the pommel in the Ouklid’s faceplate, blood steaming on the disruptor field. Her first kill.

She is shaking. She can feel the tendons sticking out on her neck, her pulse hammering in her ears. Sweat stings her eyes. Her armour’s servos thrum with effort as she hauls the corpse off and crawls free. With an effort, she tears her eyes away from her opponent to check she’s safe, and finds Nibaasiniiwi gazing back at her. The bunker has been purged. It seems quiet, until she registers the cacophony still coming from outside. The ground continues to tremble beneath them, the rumble of tanks joined by the massive tread of Titans.

“A good kill,” he says. “But don’t let yourself be paralysed by it.” The claws retract. “Come.” He turns to leave.

He has killed at least twenty opponents himself so far, and he is… businesslike, utterly businesslike about it. Ellan feels a new, rather uncomfortable appreciation for the beings around her.

She was wrong about Nibaasiniiwi making to leave. “There is something you ought to see,” he murmurs.

-----

Shattered augmetics spark and sputter in Komanch’s chest. His blood steams where it meets the damaged electronics.

The Ouklid claw, on its way in and out, has torn a hole in his torso bigger than Ellan’s head. She knows enough about Astartes biology to be sure that he won't be walking away from this injury.

Torach kneels beside him, Komanch’s helm still clutched in his gauntlet. The wounded warrior’s face is grey. “Hold on, brother. Kaern will be along soon.”

Komanch laughs. It’s a bitterly mirthful chuckle, even without the bubbling sound that comes with each breath. “Tell the splicer he needn’t rush. This won’t be fixed with sutures and more bionics.” A distant look comes into his eyes. “I feel the chill of Xephyr’s autumn, Torach.”

“Bide,” Torach murmurs, propping him up a little. They are still within sight of the doorway, and beyond the First Grand Wartribe is marching. “If you will choose the vigil of iron, then savour this last sight with your own eyes, brother, and let the red dream take you. If not, the Skyfather’s Peace is mine to give you.”

Komanch’s hand closes on his wrist. “Save the peace. Tell Kaern to do what he must. I would give more for our father’s dream and for the Skyfather’s.... and so I will dare the cold cradle.” His breathing slows and his eyelids droop. “Bid them fit my ironform with a chainfist. Let me at least fight still with a roaring blade.”

“It will be done.” Nibaasiniiwi crouches down next to his warrior, the iron mask of his helm seeming to take on a mournful aspect. “My thanks, brother.”

The Sus-an Membrane does its work, inducing a coma so profound that Ellan would swear Komanch were simply dead if she didn’t know better. Nibaasiniiwi bows his head, muttering a Huronian catechism.

“It’s not all in the kill and the glory, Ellan,” he says, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Death too is a part of what we are. Our lives are stretched out and made precious, ultimately to be spent. And perhaps to be spent once more, if we have the luck and fortitude. Now you know the heart of the Astartes that much better.”

Tacharian Company is ready to move out again as the Apothecary arrives and goes to work. Nibaasiniiwi stands, and again the claws snap out. His Clan needs its master. “With me, now. The Crusade waits for no man - or woman.”


Edited by bluntblade, 26 September 2019 - 10:17 PM.

Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

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#114
bluntblade

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Baal

+++++

Ships were cities. Ellan hadn’t really appreciated it before she’d set foot on this one. There had been other ships - the civilian conveyors which carried her and so many other remembrancers to the expeditionary fleets, and two times before when her family had taken trips to distant relatives or her father’s Army friends. But of course her parents had never let her stray, and on the way to the VI Legion fleet she had been too caught up in her preparations, trying to keep her writing sharp. Trying to learn everything about her future hosts - hilariously futile, of course.

Here, she’d had time for it to sink in, enough time and a great enough sense of security to start venturing outside the usual remembrancer haunts. She’d accompanied Daer’dd down into the menial decks, the forges, seen craft launch from every other hangar by now. The Dragon of Autumn was an especially large and grand city in adamantine skin, and like any city, it was full of passages and pathways. Plenty to build some solid jogging routes from.

She’d chosen one of her favourites today, six kilometres of a hangar deck. One and a half of those down corridors, two flanked by dropships and fighters of various classes, one through through the crews’ assembly grounds, one through several “parkland” chambers filled with Huronian plants and the remaining half around the ankles of a Titan war maniple, in no particular order.

The Titans were undergoing minor combat rehearsals, heads and gunlimbs tracking across the open space with bestial rumbles that she felt in her ribcage. As she passed under a Reaver it dry-fired its Gatling blaster, and she instinctively sped up. A squad of mortal soldiers was passing on her left. They looked new, and like her they flinched at the heavy clanks of the great gun.

“Feeble whelps!” A sergeant at the rear, waxing scorn. “If you're going to cringe and brown your breeches at a dry-firing Reaver, then you’ll censored.gif yourselves inside out when a Gargant unloads at you for real!” At that, the trainees fairly raced past Ellan, pursued by the booming derision of their taskmaster.

She was in the latter, running under guns that could wipe out entire armies, when the call came over her vox-bead. Minerva had insisted on an “urgent” option, and she was using it now, not even giving Ellan a choice in answering.

“Nerva?”

“You need to get here. Now.”

“The bridge? Why?”

“Can’t say. Just get here.”

Ellan came to a halt, breathing heavily. “Let me grab a shower first.”

“No time!”

“I’m going to reek...” She could hear the whinge in her own voice.

“I’m counting on you to run all the way here anyway. We’re waiting on Spinebreaker and the Archmagos. I reckon that gives you half an hour.”

Ellan groaned a Xephyrine curse Minerva was fond of, turned on her heel and started running again.

-----

Minerva met her at the door with water and a small towel as she staggered to the bridge. Ellan had no idea why she had the latter on the bridge, but she was hardly going to question right now.

“I could kiss you. But I might slap you instead.”

“You’re welcome. Warm enough?”

Ellan flashed her a grin. “I’ll take something else to wear, if you’re offering.” Something turned out to be Minerva’s spare longcoat, which went a way towards making her look less foolish than wandering the bridge in just her vest and shorts. The vast space was also rigourously air-conditioned for the sake of its servitors, and she felt a distinct chill on her legs as they entered.

Less foolish than she would have appeared otherwise, but not enough to stop a snigger from the two Ogryn guards on the entrance. Minerva rolled her eyes and ordered them to shut up.

The bridge thronged with officers from a dozen other ships, mingling with the Dragon’s own. A handful of Iterators in one corner, Munitorum officials in another. Elsewhere, Army men and women, representing the three regiments currently travelling with the Bears, senior princeps from the Legio Auris, commanders of the Daughters, scions of House August and Mechanicum magi. No sign of Spinebreaker, or anyone from the Second Grand Wartribe for that matter, but the entire praetorate of the Fourth seemed to be here. Half a dozen of them, mingling with the Shaman.

As the two women neared the command dais, one barred their path, looking down the snout of his glowering helm at Ellan. She recoiled, not just because of the fearsome sight, but because she knew what the man behind the mask was capable of.

“You befoul the air with your fear-stench, scribe.” Aandegg’s voice had a dry, hoarse quality, the result of a blade across the throat in his youth.

Ellan forced herself to look him in the eye and retort. “I was told to be here, High Shaman, and had it impressed upon me that time was of the essence. This sweat isn’t fear. It’s me ensuring my duty to the Primarch is done.”

Aandegg might have said more, but then Cass was there. “Enough, Aandegg. This is not the time to test my patience. Or your brother’s.”
The High Shaman growled and stalked away. Ellan watched him, wondering if he would ever move beyond just tolerating her presence. She could imagine how he wanted to respond to her talk of “duty”.

Cass snapped her out of it. “Glad you could make it. Minerva was less than certain.” Ellan shot Minerva a look, and was met with an innocent expression. Then Cass’ levity was gone, like the sun behind a cloud. Minerva too was frowning, and the whole bridge was oddly sombre. Cass started up the steps to where Daer’dd held court, and they followed.

“Lord Chief,” Ellan began, scanning the tense crowd out of the corner of her eye, “what’s happened?”

“None of us really know, so far,” he replied. “A missive arrived for the Primarch’s eyes only, to be shared at his discretion. He demanded that all senior personnel report here, and only them. You’ll be the sole remembrancer to hear it in this place. What I can tell you is that all this -” he gestured, taking in the entire bridge “- is a reflection of his mood since our lord read the message. Something is badly wrong.”

Reaching the command throne, Ellan and Minerva saluted Lotara Sarrin, and bowed to Daer’dd. The Primarch only kept a throne in two chambers aboard the Dragon, both of them great hulking things of granite. Here he stood, ceding to his fleetmistress’ flair for voidwar. It was partly symbolism - he did have the strategic genius native to any Primarch, and he used it quite readily when he deemed it necessary. Besides, that stature and presence meant that he dominated the space easily enough. But it still mattered; he wore his mastery of this ship lightly. He nodded to them, but there was something in his face that made them keep their distance. There was a data-slate in his hand, a little island of glass and metal on the great expanse of his palm.

For a minute they hovered, until Archmagos Sirya entered with Lord Chief Spinebreaker of the Second Grand Wartribe. The new arrivals made the traditional show of respect, and a hush descended. Only the monotone utterances of servitors and the buzz of cogitators could be heard, until a rumble of servos announced Daer’dd rising to his feet.

“My sons, captains, lords, friends.” The Primarch’s voice needed no amplification. Even as a soft growl, it filled the space, a rising wind ahead of a storm. “Today, I have received such tidings as we had never imagined, much less expected. An Astartes is said to have strayed, accused of an infraction so grievous that it has brought two Legions to the brink of open warfare. Vizenko is his name, a warrior of the Ninth Legion.”

Clamour rang throughout the bridge. At the mention of Vizenko’s name, Ellan distinctly heard Nibaasiniiwi swear in Huronian.

Daer’dd stilled the bridge again. “The Emperor, beloved by all, has announced His intent to settle the matter personally, lest bad blood foul the honour of the Legions and the Imperium itself. Vizenko and the Primarch he serves are called to Baal, there to account for their deeds. This will be a trial, make no mistake, and so I tell you now that I will attend. There are those of my brotherhood who have long feared Kozja’s ambition would stray beyond the course of true fealty. We must learn the truth of this matter, find it out for ourselves if need be. I must be there, to see justice done.”

-----

Things moved quickly after that.

A new ship. A new, strange city. A small splinter fleet was quickly grouped together, centred on the Retribution-class battleship Axefall. Cass took charge of the main fleet, Daer’dd refusing to halt the First Wartribe’s campaign.

“You might want the blades at your back,” Grimm had ventured, as Daer’dd combed through his personal armoury for something to carry to the trial. None of the weapons he picked up were mere ornaments. All of them had been carried into a dozen battlefields and spilled their share of alien and mutant blood. “If the verdict is not accepted…”

“Some might take that as a slur upon our kindred, Solomon.” Daer’dd picked up an ornate axe, weighing it in his hand before returning it to a stasis-chamber. “Besides, the place will heave with Custodians, and I’d bet a cruiser that some of Malcador’s little helpers will be squirreled away somewhere.”

Daer’dd’s tone was light, yet the humour didn’t ring quite true. It was there in the way his hands tightened on the weapons he tested. The furnace door had been pushed to, but the fire couldn’t be concealed entirely. Eventually he settled on a longsword, an austere blade of pale metal he had created whilst experimenting with Delian techniques. Ellan wasn’t sure whether to read diplomacy or aggression in the choice.

Daer’dd took Grimm and the Totem Guard with him, along with a single clan-company of Daughters and Aandegg’s coterie. Ellan went too, one of a handful of remembrancers, over Aandegg’s protests.

“Why take him?” Ellan had complained to Minerva, walking to the hangar where the Stormbirds waited to ferry Daer’dd’s party across. “He’s borderline paranoid, and he's an arse.”

Minerva shrugged. “Paranoia, vigilance… whatever you call it, it could be handy when everyone’s twisting facts on Baal. There’s no suspicion he won’t seize on. I’m sure Daer’dd will keep him on a tight leash, somewhere he won’t cause embarrassment.” She’d lost something of her usual saunter. “Besides, they say he has subtler powers than what you’ve seen.”

“I still can’t picture Aandegg and subtlety in the same frame of reference. Truth be told, I’d be happier knowing that his particular talents were staying here to defend the Dragon.”

Minerva paused, and then nearly choked. “Soul of fire, you’re serious!”

“You’re sailing to war. I’m allowed to fret, aren’t I?” She knew how badly Minerva had worried when she’d joined Tacharian’s attack on the Ouklid.

“Ellan, come on. The Dragon’s still going to be the safest ship this side of the Emperor’s own. You -” Minerva’s face grew serious “- are heading into several vipers’ nests, thrown together. You had better take care of yourself as well, understand?”

Ellan had hugged her tight. “I hear and obey.”

-----

That embrace had been seven months ago. Minerva’s absence still ached. Ellan spent her time exploring the ship when she wasn’t at Daer’dd’s side. The Axefall was less ornate than the Dragon, but it was still a work of art on a dizzying scale. She’d learned enough to recognise it as a ship built outside the Three Fires, with most of the Tricendian elements surface-deep compared to the gothic grandeur of the ship’s bones. It was a slightly different flavour to what she was now used to.

Mashiko was the only one of the other remembrancers she knew well. The other eight consisted of a tight-knit trio of painters, a writer intent on a sketching the political backdrop to the trial, two pictographers besides Mashiko, a composer apparently more concerned with the mood than the event itself, and a surly poet who kept to himself. Mashiko at least was a friend with whom Ellan could go exploring, hunting for the most striking sights.

Ellan shunned the bare, lonely room where she had been billeted, and spent much of her time in the staterooms given over to Daer’dd. While she wrote, the Primarch was sifting through great piles of scrolls, devouring lore and data. Over the course of several astropathic exchanges, his role in the looming trial had changed vastly two months out from their arrival.

It had been getting to the end of what Ellan considered a long day, although Daer’dd hadn’t left the chamber for three. As far as she knew, he hadn’t even taken a rest in that time. “So Alexandros will not even attend?”

“He means to demonstrate the limits of the Warmaster’s power,” Daer’dd replied evenly. “The Emperor will rule over His sons, while His Warmaster guides only the Crusade’s course. Alexandros has no wish to overstep his bounds. In particular, he was troubled by the role the Emperor offered him on Baal.”

Ellan kneaded her temples. It was running late into the night watch again. “Well, the Emperor will sit as adjudicator, but then…”

“Prosecutor.” Daer’dd’s face loomed over a stack of papers and books. “Consider it. Alexandros, given the mission to find all the relevant faults he can in a Legion’s senior officer. Besides, do you really think the Warbringers see this matter to just be what their Apothecaries have done?”

She thought back to the Locria campaign, and how the Warbringers had behaved then. That brittle pride. “They must see it as an attack on the entire Legion.”

“The spite of jealous brothers, seeking to curb one who dares greater things and threatens their positions. Oh yes, they've buttressed themselves nicely with that certainty. Refusing point-blank to see the danger.”

As Daer’dd was speaking, the door behind her opened and Grimm entered. “So now you know who will be the prosecutor.”

“Did he have to argue with you much about it?” Ellan asked.

Grimm shook his head, running fingers through his short white hair. “Not truly. He makes a good case, our lord. Pionus will be present, but is eager to remain out of it as far as he can. Hectarion, on the other hand, is too involved in the offending incident, and Icarion remains on campaign as well.”

Daer’dd took up the thread. “That would leave myself and Niklaas among the older brothers who have the inclination and opportunity to speak for the prosecution, but Niklaas has left now that the construction works are complete. We are not certain why, but my guess is that he was either unhappy to see brothers at each other’s throats, or simply bored to be stuck so far from the front. He loves to build, Niklaas, but usually it is others who take the time to marvel at what he creates.”

-----

The ampitheatre lived up to Niklaas' reputation and more. It rose brazenly from the barren surface of Baal, a looming edifice of black stone. Eighteen pillars, each one hundreds of metres tall and carved to resemble an eagle’s wing, rose above the main body of the domed ampitheatre. The structure’s span was a full ten kilometres, and each portion of the outer wall was large enough to include its own hangar.

The VI Legion Stormbirds descended toward the northernmost, surrendering their controls to remote piloting by Custodians. Ellan had been up front since the turbulence of atmospheric entry subsided, watching the ampitheatre grow in the viewport. As they drew closer, she began to see signs of how Niklaas had engineered aspects of a fortress into it. There were subtle openings here and there in the stone, which as Grimm explained, would conceal a variety of missile silos and gun batteries. Vanishingly small as the chance of an attack was, the Custodians would not countenance their master to be housed in a building that was not secure.

The intimidation factor probably suited the Emperor too.

There was a small crowd waiting where the Stormbird touched down, Custodians among them, but one figure monopolised attention. He was only the second individual Ellan had ever seen who rivalled Daer’dd’s sheer physicality, and who felt no need to bow. The kinship was unmissable; they were both mighty, bearded, bestial; they even shared overdeveloped canines. The difference was in the beast each of them resembled. Compared to the Daer’dd’s bulk, this warrior was rangy, closer to the shape of a normal man yet still anything but normal. The idealised figure of a bladesman, a heroic statue given life, rather than one who looked almost misshapen but for his warrior’s grace. There was a saunter in the stranger’s movements, coupled with something that suggested a great predator, restless in his cage.

Oh yes, it was easy to see why Hectarion and his sons were called the Lions.

Hectarion was not clad in power armour, but in warlike garb nonetheless; a rugged ensemble of furs and boiled leather. His Legion’s sigil, cast in bronze, hung on a chain around his neck, over a great expanse of dark chainmail.

“Daer’dd!” he boomed, striding forward to embrace his kinsman. The Crimson Lions and Iron Bears took that as the cue to greet their counterparts, and the hanger rang with throaty, growling laughter.

Daer’dd released Hectarion, looking him up and down. “A mail shirt for your peacetime garb, brother?”

“You should try it.”

“It would take hundreds of man-hours and deprive our forges of seven suits’ worth of metal,” Ellan interjected.

Hectarion gave her a strange, appraising look. Was there mischief in his eyes? “True enough. Lady Temeter, I take it?” There was something strangely soft about his voice, and an almost sing-song quality. “I did not know my brother gave swords to his skjalds.”

“Only those willing to get amongst it and see what the Legions see,” Daer’dd replied. “But come, you’re not evading the question on my watch. Don’t you think it a little provocative to wear armour under these circumstances?”

Hectarion scowled briefly at that, and didn’t fully regain his jollity for the rest of the conversation.

-----

After that came a blizzard of meetings and greetings, with an urgency and tension which had been largely absent on Qarith Prime and Terra. Ellan spent most of her time moving at a trot in Daer’dd’s wake, listening in on the hushed conversations of the great and the good. She felt like she had as a child when her parents had guests, eavesdropping from elbow-height when she was around the Astartes.

Daer'dd spent much of his time conferring with Pionus and his senior captains, as well as the representatives of Legions who were apparently aligned with him. Predators and Fire Keepers dipped in and out of his orbit along with a bewildering variety of Army officers, system and sector officials and Mechanicum magi, the latter tending toward distinctly chilly courtesy with the Bear.

On the second day Ellan was brought up short when she came face to face with a troupe of Solar Auxilia. That in itself was no oddity - she had seen at least twenty cohorts represented here - but these ones were quite distinctive in appearance. They were marble-skinned with vivid green eyes and golden hair twisted into dreadlocks. Pausing upon seeing Ellan, they muttered a word in their native tongue and spat in unison upon the stone floor.

Dolan Garrig of the Totem Guard had lumbered over, demanding an apology. It was given as quickly as one would expect when an elite Terminator was the person asking, but the soldiers still stared warily at Ellan as they beat a retreat.

“What in the Skyfather’s grace was that about?” she muttered, as they moved back to Daer’dd’s party. Garrig chuckled at that, as the Bears often did when she repeated their sayings.

“They’re Yngot,” he told her, as if that explained it all. After a moment, he elaborated. “Feral worlders, and it’s rare that such men leave all primitive things behind when they take to the stars. The Yngot believe that red hair in mortals signifies either derangement or soullessness. I’ve never learned exactly which it is.”

Ellen processed that. “Charming. And they’re trusted to say their piece about the place of gene-manipulation in the Imperium, when they believe in that nonsense?”

The servos in Garrig’s collar growled as he turned his eyes to her. “More diplomatic, please. Your words might be taken as the Primarch’s, in this place. I can however say that the Yngot delegation have been prevailed upon to content themselves with merely watching what transpires in the arena. I would add that in this matter, they are on our side.”

Ellan processed that. "Then this really is a fugging mess.”


Edited by bluntblade, 27 October 2018 - 08:35 PM.

Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#115
bluntblade

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Of Champions and Training Cage Floors

Odyssalas crashed to the ground. Twisting over, he reached for his sword, but his opponent was already kneeling on his chest with an axe at his throat and a grin.

Odyssalas sighed, moved his hand away from the hilt of his sword, and accepted a help up from the victor. Being winded was a rather novel experience.

“I thought... we were sparring,” he rasped. He could feel wetness under his bodyglove in a few places, where the force of the blows had broken his skin. “Don't fret too much about Damon Redd’s reputation, he’ll go easy on you. So said the rogues of the First Wartribe, anyway .”

The enormous Iron Bear, augmetics exposed along with his chest, gave a thunderous laugh. “Well, the conniving wretches never told me that was the case.”

“I'm not used to this level of brutality in a practical joke.” He cast around him, exaggerating the pain he felt. That wasn't too hard; he could feel at least one crack in his ribcage. Couldn't quite shake the feeling that at least one of the moves Redd had used on him should not have worked. “Et tu, cousins? Any sympathy, Achille?” Nibaasiniiwi shrugged. “Under the Predator I go, then.”

“If you're quite done with the ham-actor routine,” Nibaasiniiwi began.

Perhaps the dramatists among this fleet's remembrancers are better than ours. “I'm only seeking some diversion while we wait for the rest of the muster. Man has to amuse himself somehow.”

One of Redd’s lieutenants, who had entered during the bout and watched the exchange with a bemused expression, now looked vaguely offended. “So that’s it? That is the skill that beat Perkenas?”

Odyssalas let the jester’s mask slip. “That was a duel in which Legion honour was at stake. I entered the ring here in the mistaken belief that I was in for a friendly spar.” Odyssalas looked the warrior in the eye, recognising him as Ironhill from the shaman’s tattoos that crisscrossed his torso. “Besides, I had my glaive in hand.”

The shaman snorted. “You mean you need your tricksy, pretty blade to stand a chance? That when we take it away and give you a sword, Second Captain Odyssalas is just so much talk?”

Odyssalas kept the look on his face tolerant. “I'd have thought an Iron Bear would appreciate that certain weapons have particular properties which can be exploited by those who really understand their wielding.”

Ironhill grunted. Odyssalas tossed him the sword and stepped out of the cage.

“I have faced five warriors I’d place among the finest fifty in the Legions, not counting my mentor. Perkenas I outwitted more than outfought. I have claimed one victory against Ruel and Hennasohn in several bouts each. Most times they knocked me on my arse. Tyr of the Lions I fought to a tie over four, he never cared enough to fight a fifth and decide it.”

“Did he lack the special blade on a stick that lets him fight like a man?”

“Don't tempt me to call duelem extremis, cousin,” Odyssalas grinned. “You're not your Chief, and my glaive is only a few rooms away.” Mytakis could have kept the humour up forever, but not Odyssalas. “Just keep in mind that I saw Antonidas put a knife in Kallast's brain. I know how different a spar is from a blood duel. To answer your question, Tyr only fights like he means it on a battlefield. Rather like Khârn in that regard, you take away the stakes and he doesn't bring the fire that gives him that reputation.”

Nibaasiniiwi cleared his throat. “You neglected to mention that two of those victories came when we were fighting in pairs.”

“True enough. Our double act does help.”

“And Susanoo Empyon?” Redd prompted. “You duelled him, did you not?”

“Aye. Came no nearer to besting him than I did you, though losing was considerably less painful.”

Ironhill was still holding Odyssalas’ sword. Now he spun it idly. “What of Arngrim Valten?”

Odyssalas paused. “Frankly, I have no desire to step into a cage with Valten, though if Chief Damon did I’d fight for a place in the front row.”

“Too good for you?”

“Altogether too much of a bastard,” Patroclus interjected.

“Thank you,” Odyssalas nodded. “My equerry has it right. I saw what he did on Udernus, at a distance. After a sight that terrible, I have no desire to get within reach of him.”
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#116
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On A World of the Lion

He wasn't given a shield.

The men who'd come up from Belitan, the grim old warriors who'd seen decades of war, had decided that. Shields were given to the bulk of the youths. They were usually consigned to the middle of a shield wall, where the presence and injunctions of hardened fighters would stiffen their resolve.

Vorathus wasn't among them. The war party was short on flankers and Dourain had put in a good word for him. He wasn't the biggest, but he had reach and a good turn of speed. More importantly, he’d proven he could fight, killing one man in a skirmish two summers ago and two brigands last autumn. He'd demonstrated that besides that speed and reach, he had the nous and spine for war. Dourain said that if Vorathus kept close to him, those would be good enough.

So here he was behind the big, one-eared man, with a sword tied to his wrist and a dagger up his sleeve, watching the Beroccei advance through the rain. Vasegar was having an unusually rainy summer, and thunder rolled down from the hills. On their left flank - our right, he reminded himself - a river had swollen into a silty grey torrent, while little waterfalls came spilling down the cliffs on the other side.

The Oroccei were arrayed between the two natural barriers, their shield-bearers out in front. Seventy men against a hundred on that score. Luckily the Beroccei seemed to lack for archers, and the Belitan men had brought six. They were down among the bushes, waiting until the fighting began.

Drudrech were out in pairs on both sides, chanting and growling as sparks played over their fingers. Vorathus didn't know the names of the ones who were with them. They'd come with the Belitan party, and even those veterans seemed wary of them. Though from what Vorathus could remember, any one of the holy men would provoke that sort of reaction. A king might rely on a venerable Drudrech, but he was not like to call him a friend.

It started slowly, the volume of threats and taunts building as the shield walls came together. Then finally their warleader set his guards to beat their shields as one, a single clang of iron on iron that silenced the other Oroccei. Then he drew in a breath and roared, and the shield-bearers advanced.

The need to keep formation stopped the two armies from charging in a sprint, but their jogging pace was still enough to create a horrible crunch as the two shield walls met, jostling as men tried to drive one another back and stabbed and hacked at openings. Around the press of warriors, flankers on both sides spread out, meeting in the middle as they tried to reach the enemy’s vulnerable sides.

Vorathus came up behind Dourain’s veterans on the right flank as they crossed blades with a pack of Vasegar men with axes. Most of them went down quickly, but one felled his opponent with a blow that almost severed the man’s arm, and burst towards the Oroccei lines before Dourain or his men could catch him.

Vorathus had kept low, unnoticed behind the larger warriors. Dourain had told him of how this could be used, how the tunnel vision of battle could be anticipated and exploited. So only now did the Vasegar man see him, and Vorathus’ swing was already unfurling. The sword took his enemy across the gut, and the man folded across the wound, groaning as his intestines spilled into the grass.

Vorathus had no time to think after that, for now all the flankers had converged in a melee of confused, whirling combat. Time lost any meaning. He killed another Vasegar, saved the life of an ally, nearly got killed at least three times. The world had shrunk down from even the full battle. This brawl was his universe.

And then. For a second, the fighters parted enough to give him a glimpse of the river. And there, waist deep in water that would sweep any man off his feet, a man stood, massive and shrouded by black robes. Watching him with eyes that glowed blue.

The shock nearly cost Vorathus his life. He staggered back as the cudgel came down, smacking into the mud where he had stood. Sprang back at the man who tried to raise it again. Not enough time to get a true haymaking blow in, and his sword lodged in the side of the man’s face. A big man, whose bellow was like a wounded bull and who had strength enough to grab Vorathus’ wrist before he could work the sword loose. Vorathus felt his bones straining as the Vasegar pulled him forward.

He went for the dagger with his free hand and rammed it into the man’s throat. That finished it, though another Vasegar very nearly returned the favour a moment later with an axe. Vorathus twisted, using his dead opponent as a shield, but the force of the blow was still nearly enough to put him on his back.

It was the cord around his wrist and the hilt of his sword that saved him as he reeled away. He’d let go in the hilt, but the knot held true, his sword dragging along the ground. The Vasegar warrior was working the axe free, but a lad of Vorathus’ age was closing.

Vorathus took his sword back into his hands as the youth came for him. Their swords met three times, but then Dourain was there, opening a great wound down the Vasegar boy’s side and then taking the man through the chest. Three more line-breakers were with him, and one of the Drudrech, whose hands were awash with magefire. Tunnel vision lifting, Voratus saw that they had cleared a path to the back of the enemy shield wall. The Vasegar hadn't realised, and they didn't realise until flames doused them.

Men of Salanacur knew that to break in the face of the foe was to throw away all hope of victory and invite death. This ensured that, with proper discipline, they held firm in the face of the unrelenting violence which phalanx warfare brought. Men might drop dead beside them, leaving them slathered in gore and mired in blood and piss, but they would hold.

But there were primal fears which very little could shake, and one of these was fire. Flames took hold among the ranks, catching on hair and clothes, and where it reached, the formation broke down.

The unforgiving nature of Salanacur’s wars did the rest. The Vasegar shield wall fell apart until only two knots of men stayed whole, attempting a fighting retreat as the Oroccei gave chase. Dourain called the shield less men to him, readying them for the last charge, the one that would shatter the foe utterly and leave the survivors running for home.

But as the cry left the veteran’s throat, another voice rose to drown it out. “Be still.”

The fighting halted. Eyes turned toward the source of the voice. Vorathus felt his breath catch, as he looked upon the vision he had glimpsed during the frenzy.

No man was that tall, nor that broad. The colossus wore black robes akin to a Drudrech’s, but they were draped over armour unlike any Vorathus had seen. Plate armour was spoken of in stories, but none had ever made it sound so grand and ominous. Deep growls emanated from it as the giant came nearer and raised his arms, pulling back the hood to expose his helm. This was wrought in the image of a predator’s skull, like a lynx’s, but far larger, and the warrior’s blue eyes lit deep sockets.

He could slay them all. Vorathus felt sure of that. The giant’s bulk, and the assurance with which he moved, convinced him even though the huge hands were empty. Because they were empty; because the newcomer stood before fifty armed men and didn't even draw a blade.

Shouts went up, from both Oroccei and Vasegar throats. Men had appeared, apparently stepping from nowhere into the field. They were garbed and armed strangely, with toothed swords in their hands, peculiar armour under robes of their own and masks that skullishly echoed that of their master. They shot glances at the giant as they moved out, twenty men dispersed around the two war parties.

The Drudrech began to yowl and shake their bones, while the older men stepped back and whispered prayers. Vorathus felt the other youths drawing close around him, confused which had overtaken their elders. His hands shook, but he hauled the sword back into his hands. He could guess the intent of these interlopers who revealed themselves only when one side had won and the rest were in ragged, bloody retreat. If the older men were paralysed, then the youths would have to act.

He bellowed his defiance, ready to break into a run - and a staff whacked into the flat of his sword, driving it down. “Ignorant pup!” The moss-bearded Drudrech snapped, the words accompanied by a cuff around the head and no small amount of spittle. “Kneel! Down, down, all of you.”

Vorathus and the others dropped to their knees, realising that the older men were already down there in the mud. Confusion and shame mingled and became a thrum in his chest, but then the laughter started, so impossibly deep that at first he mistook it for thunder. The giant in crimson armour was drawing closer, making straight for where Vorathus knelt.

“Easy on the boy, Drudrech,” he rumbled. “Such boldness is rare. But anyway…” He stepped past the holy man, looming over Vorathus. “Tell me, lad. What is your name?”

“Vorathus.”

“I once knew the man for whom you are likely named. You even favour the sword, as he did.” The skull-helm tilted. “Do you believe now that I do not desire your death?”

“I do.” With his desperate bravado gone, Vorathus was struggling to meet the giant’s gaze. “But why are you here if not to kill?”

“Stand.” He rose. “You ask a just question. The truth is, my concerns are rather above the reasons for which men fight on this world, except the one which they forget or veil in myth. Tell me, what does the name Hectarion mean to you?”

Vorathus almost laughed. “The same thing it means to all men.” Hectarion was the Red Lion of war who led hosts for the Peratrix, He who reigned in the heavens. Why would the giant ask him a question to which any case hold knew the answer?

All men?” The giant ignored everyone else in that field, although every warrior there was fixated on him. Vorathus risked a look around and saw that the other outsiders were picking their way across the battlefield, alighting on the wounded, even the dying. He could not tell what they were doing.

He turned back. The behemoth continued, his voice carrying like a Drudrech’s saga. “I know what your lore holds, but the truth is that you stand apart from the vast majority of Mankind. Salanacur is a world of war, and yet it is favoured. The Lord Hectarion ordained it, for he saw in this world the potential to birth many great warriors. Warriors, no less, who would be worthy to stand in the ranks of his great armies…” One great hand shifted the black cloak, and revealed a snarling lion’s head painted on the shoulder guard. “Even among my kindred.”

Vorathus shook. He didn't trust himself to speak.

The Lion, now revealed as one of the War Spirit’s sons, seemed to be in full flow regardless. “On Saranacur men are bade to struggle in all things, that the strength of their best might be revealed. My order… you will have heard of us in whispers, though none tell the full story. We watch, and judge who is worthy. Then we say ‘follow’.”

Then the glowing eyes were drawn upwards as a shrill scream filled the air. A light burst from the clouds and revealed itself to be a vessel, a vessel unlike anything Vorathus had seen, descending to the ground on stiff, bladelike wings and columns of fire. It shared blood-red hue of the Lion’s armour, and the same sigil gleamed on its flanks.

More giants and serfs appeared when the ship’s maw opened, the latter bringing stretchers onto which fallen men of both sides were hauled; only the young, Vorathus saw. The behemoth in robes turned as they went to work, facing the cavern, silhouetted by the light within.

“Those who lie near to death have taken their first test. Those who stand shall face another. If you are willing to take it, then as I said… follow.”

He was asking them to give up all they had ever known, save bloodshed. He was offering trial and uncertainty, and the favour of a being as distant as the stars themselves. What choice was this, when all things were weighed?

Vorathus raised his head, set back his shoulders, and stepped off his world.

The Hour
In years to come, Nibaasiniiwi would look back on the incursion as the easy part. Fighting the daemons had stripped away every thought that was not of survival, of beating back the horde. When Cass had fallen, it had simply been a matter of protecting the gravely wounded commander and getting apothecaries to spirit him away.

Now, as the corpses of the daemons dissolved into ichor, there was room for the full implications to sink in. Cass’ wounds were not just severe, they would consign him to a Dreadnought - if and when a sarcophagus could be readied. What remained of Sakima’s company had gone to the forges with techmarines and magi, but Nibaasiniiwi waited on their report. The enemy Astartes and the daemons had rampaged throughout the ship; cataloging the damage would probably take longer than their voyage.

Instinct steered him towards the bridge, rudderless as he was, stepping over bolt casings and broken chunks of armour. The great corridor was still cratered and puddled with blood, and Nibaasiniiwi barely registered it. The centre of authority on the ship was the natural course for a warrior trying to ascertain where the orders should come from. Three of the Praetors were dead, and with Thiazzi among them there was no obvious succession -

“Are you blind, whelp?”

Nibaasiniiwi’s claws were out even before he’d finished turning.

“High Shaman.” He tried to suppress the snarl. “Considering what we just came through, ambushing a fellow Astartes is not a wise course.”

Aandeg met that with his usual scowl. “A shaman does as he will, and it is not for the chiefs to question why. Regardless of their rank… and rank is on your mind, no?” He snorted, somehow without the slightest bit of amusement showing in his expression. “Walk with me. You think too loudly, Achille; I could sense the shape of your thoughts at a hundred metres. You're not even much good at keeping a straight face, which is why we are having this conversation now and not on the bridge.”

“Why is it suddenly important for me to mask my thoughts?”

“Because on that bridge, a thousand souls are about to pledge their blades to a new Lord Chief and it will not do for him to splutter with confusion.”

Nibaasiniiwi stared at the old warrior, who croaked something close to a laugh. “The fact that you didn't splutter here instead, Nibaasiniiwi, means nothing. Now I know you have some pointless objections to voice, but I only have time to dismantle them.”

“The succession -” Nibaasiniiwi began.

“Is unclear by most measures. But when you step through that door, who you expect to oppose you?”

“Leonas -”

“Is caught in a vortex of self-recrimination and doubt. He knows how thoroughly he lost control on the Dark Sovereign. He appreciates what you don't seem to see.”

“That only I could…” Nibaasiniiwi frowned. He found he disliked that sentiment somehow.

“Don't shy away from the truth for fear of vanity,” Aandegg snapped. “All around you lost their heads. I did. Thiazzi died for it and Tribe Kedin is now reduced to fifty warriors. You kept your wits and I count myself as one of those who survived because of you. Demonstrably, no one has as much right as you to command now.”

He walked on for a while before he spoke. “In other times we might hold a council and pick out our new leaders from a wider pool.” That had occurred to Nibaasiniiwi; senior officers had been scattered throughout the Wartribe’s ships and, he hoped, a fair number of them might live yet. “But we are cast far from any of them, and even before our escape, you proved yourself. We have warriors from the Second, Third, Fifth and Sixth in our ranks now, and they followed you when Therox fell.”

Nibaasiniiwi nodded. “We have not the luxury of time, and we can hardly afford division now. I see it.”

The mangled remnants of the bridge portal loomed, blackened adamantium showing where the copper leaf had been stripped away. As Nibaasiniiwi and Aandegg came to the crossways, twenty warriors fell in around them. Eight were the remains of Nibaasiniiwi's already ad hoc command squad, eleven more were Totem Guard, and Torach completed the twenty.

Nibaasiniiwi tilted his head, regarding the Shaman. “When did you decide to take a hand in this?”

Torach raised an eyebrow in a way that somehow conveyed the simple truth that there were matters for chiefs and then there were matters for the spirit walkers. But he was good enough to give some sort of answer. “The forebears bade me cleave to you, and besides, you are my chief. Where you lead I follow.” He camped his helm over his head. “You'd better get used to hearing that.”

Through the broken gate they passed, into the cavernous space of the bridge. As Nibaasiniiwi entered, every eye turned to him. The hum of activity subsided, a hush rippling outwards with him at the epicentre.

Ellan stepped around the breachers who guarded the command dais. She still had her sword drawn, and Nibaasiniiwi saw there was blood on it. There was more on her face and armour - little of it hers.

“Achille.” Her voice was painfully hoarse.

“Skjald. It gladdens me to see you alive.”

Aandegg scowled, which was remarkably tolerant of him really, and stepped to the front.

In nearly two centuries of service, the High Shaman had never minced his words. “Legionaries, soldiers, servants of the Legion. Hear my words. We are robbed of our Primarch, and now Lord Cass lies wounded, consigned to the vigil of iron. Thiazzi joined our master in death.”

Nibaasiniiwi would have waited before, but right now he was out of patience. He stepped forward and raised his voice to a roar. “And yet we are not broken! Our Primarch gave us something more than his presence, something that will last beyond his life. We are clans, we are tribes. We are the Three Fires before we are the Sixth Legion, and I am proud to count all of of you in that.”

He paused, taking in the thousands hanging on his words. Was that a half-smile on Aandegg’s face?

“Our High Cleric would pronounce me Lord Chief and have done with it. But I will not be foisted upon you. If you do not know my name, I am Achille Nibaasiniiwi, Clan-Praetor of Tacharian. Cass charged me to save all I could upon the Dark Sovereign. I saw the Primarch fall. I laid hands upon him to bring his body back. I know what we have lost.”

“And yet that is why we must not give in. What they took from us they will take from every Legion, every army, every world that holds true to the Throne. The hope that our master understood even before the Emperor descended from on high, of humanity resplendent, will be lost - unless we stand by one another and fight. We will rebuild, we will reforge. Brothers, sisters, I do not promise you victory, but take me as your leader and by fire and steel, I will give you vengeance. Will you march with me?”

It was well that he’d never wanted them to kneel. The roar went up, shaking the bridge as fists, guns and swords were thrust into the air. Beside Nibaasiniiwi, Ellan raised her little sword. Only Aandegg kept his arms by his sides.

“That’s the sign I was really looking for, Lord Chief. Now, if we may, duty beckons.”

Edited by bluntblade, 01 May 2019 - 11:58 PM.

Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


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The Chain's Sweep

There was something about their way of war, it was said. True, any Legion could obliterate. Every Legion had. They might not boast about it, but there was dead worlds that the Halcyon Wardens and Godslayers had made that way, cities which had vanished under the guns of the Iron Bears, armies destroyed wholesale by the Wardens of Light.

But they, the talk ran, went about it differently. The sheer scale of Legion warfare tended to overwhelm the senses and obscure detail, but if you looked with the right kind of eyes, the clues were there.

For instance, you might look at the ships tumbling slowly in the dark above Tuleon. One wreck looks much like any other, you might say. But you aren't familiar with the signs of phosphex burn, nor the dull glimmer of frozen vapour which certain flesh-eater compounds give rise to in the void, leaking from ruptured hab-districts.

Beyond the wrecks, ringing the planet, their ships were certainly distinctive. Great iron spines and grilles marked the prows of the capital vessels, which varied wildly from clearly Imperial lines to shapes which were unlikely to even be the work of humans. A wolf-lean juggernaut lay at the heart of the fleet, the broken-wing sigil painted on its flanks hundreds of metres across. Coal-black spheres shot from the ships, spilling like a rain of dirty fire into Tuleon’s sky.

The pattern in which those drop-pods slammed down was redolent of a certain considered intent. They came crunching into the midst of the Army soldiers who had rushed from their barracks in response. Hundreds died, too closely packed to evade, and then the deaths multiplied a thousandfold as the contents of the pods spilled out.

Like wildfire they went, and fire raced with them.

-----

Every Legion had a great arsenal of tanks, and every a favoured method for their use. The Halcyon Wardens called theirs the Storm On Soil, the Iron Bears the Avalanche and the Dune Serpents the Dervish’s Fist. The Berserkers of Uran named theirs the Chain’s Sweep.

The chain was in the hands of the Blackening Scourge, and for that, Slynnat was having to endure two bouts of reliance on machines. He drew his chainsword as the impact of landing shook the Land Raider Achilles, the blurted roar of the engine drowning out the Stormbird which had carried them down.

A chieftain of the VIIth Legion did not tend to relish this experience, unless he was a tank commander himself. Slynnat had earned his rank by dint of his prowess as a killer, and every second that passed in this hold did so with him beholden to thralls, a mortal driver and servitor gunners. Capable thralls, certainly, but there was a reason why the Berserkers did not stoop to pilot the machines themselves. All he could do right now was wait for the front hatch to open.

So he rose and stalked the hold, sword and pistol in his hands, and blink-activated a sense-link with the tank’s input feeds. Immediately a ghost landscape of smoke and rubble overlaid what he saw through his armour’s lenses.

The Berserkers had been one of the Legions that had pushed hardest for this technology to be made widely available, and Slynnat felt his hearts speed up as he beheld the artificial night that smoke and dust had created. A Baneblade rumbled along at the head of the column, cannon periodically belching fire toward the distant enemy.

He could see the target clearly; the Berserkers had come down upon a spaceport first, and a terrestrial transport hub lay adjacent to it. The defenders had withdrawn across in good order even as the upper landing platforms been overrun, finally withdrawing across the airfields. Precious few of the Berserkers’ slave-forces could have done it as well - perhaps their Solar Auxilia, the Caryll Subjugators, could have bettered it. Certainly not the Chattel, the great bulk of the Ashen King’s peons, who had to be driven on with whips and shock-prods, and certainly not with the punishment the Berserkers had rained down from above.

Not that the defenders had got off lightly. Tank wrecks littered the airfields, ground down further by the passage of the Blood Boilers. The Tuleon forces had regrouped in the shadow of the mag-rail hub, hunkered down behind a ring of tanks in varying states of integrity. Slynnat ran his tongue over filed incisors as they grew in the Land Raider’s forward imager.

Small groups and individuals were still running ahead, trying to reach the relative safety of their comrades’ line. Most were too slow, too exposed. Slynnat grinned skullishly behind his visor as a woman fell in the tank’s path, missing her lower legs, as a little band of menials vanished in a heavy bolter detonation, as burning soldiers spilled from a Rhino to perform their staggering, dying dance.

Both sides, a kilometre apart now, were slinging ammunition in great arcs across the space between them, but there was a clear disparity. The Tuleon were desperate - no mortal force could be anything else, facing the VII Legion - but in their weakness, they weren't ready to unleash everything against their enemies with their own people in the crossfire.

“The kill-order is well deserved,” sneered Lurstag, rising to stand beside Slynnat. The senior sergeant was privileged to share in the machine’s sight - with augmetic eyes, he enjoyed a greater immediacy as his systems shunted the data right into his optical nerves. Corpses spilled from the burned-out shells, covering the rockcrete and reduced to paste as the tanks rumbled over them.

“All we face earn it, for all fall and prove their weakness,” Slynnat replied. He didn't turn to face Lurstag; all distraction was an irritant right now. It was building, like heat in his blood, more ready to subsume him with every second that the enemy line grew in his vision.

The kill-urge was spreading through the company as he snapped for them to rise. The booming of the Land Raider’s quad-launcher was joined by its lascannons and heavy bolter, and seconds later the rest of the spearhead opened up with every gun.

A roar of approval rang out from the squad, but Slynnat barely heard it, immersed as he was in the cacophony raging outside. Desperation had driven the Tuleons to respond in kind, and what stragglers remained were erased by the exchange of gunfire.

Yet grim pragmatism could not overcome the simple fact that one side were mortals, and other were the VII Legion Astartes, the tyrants in ash, armed with the mightiest works of Gulaka’s forges. Nothing matched the guns of their tanks, the Loyalist machines rent by gunfire in a dozen places each. The Blood Boilers’ alchemical arsenal was unleashed, with flesh-eaters and rad-missiles among the ordnance.

Even Aurox and Rhino transports were blasted apart and burned out, their crews coming undone even when they managed to crawl from the hatches. Flesh came slopping off the bone, eyes boiled in sockets. Now Slynnat could see the waiting troops through the gaps in the enemy formation, and he laughed as their las-fire pinged off the armour of the Berserkers’ vehicles.

Now three hundred metres, now just two hundred. Finally, the time was coming for the true work of the Legion, the unmaking by blade and gun.

Then something shouldered past Slynnat's Land Raider, eclipsing even the Achilles in its enormity. It was a Spartan, far outgunning even most vehicles of its own kind, and the runes of Uran were etched into its armoured flank.

“The Ashen King!” Slynnat roared, the cry taken up straight away by his warriors.

Raktra himself was here, to draw first blood in the Berserkers’ first act of open war against the Emperor. The Achilles’ forward hatch yawned open, and Slynnat burst out into the slaughter.

-----

He dashed out a woman's brains against a wrecked Predator, fired his volkite charger into the mass of bodies as he raced across its broken back. His squad surged over the tank killed scores with the force of their landing, before carving into the press.

He killed again and again, and barely registered his own tally, barely saw those who he cut apart with his chainsword or the gene hulks that now tried to intervene as the Army soldiers reeled back. His Primarch eclipsed all as surely as his Spartan had overshadowed the Land Raider. More so, for no machine here was as clearly made to kill as Raktra Akarro.

The Grinder, Raktra’s chainblade, did not bite so much as devour. The rows of teeth snagged meat and tore it from the skeleton, then dragged bone into the maw of the hilt with a slavering growl and crunch. When Raktra struck, flesh detonated as messily as it would under any bolter round’s impact.

He came into the mass of gene-hulks as an arc of crimson, the epicentre of a bloody hurricane. No part of him, from boots to glowering helm, was not slathered in gore. The Milewalkers who fought around him were no less covered, and their volkites and flamers caused ash to join the blood swirling in the air. Within seconds the two mingled as muck on the warplate of the Berserkers.

The Blackening Scourge came on behind - assault marines, Terminators, heavy weapons squads - and they performed the deeds from which they took their name, staining and burning the city to a filthy charcoal black. Loyalist companies were broken, pinned down between ruined tanks and packs of Berserkers and torn apart in short order. The gene-hulks, a match for any mortal man in strength, fared little better.

Slynnat levelled his pistol at the brute closing with him, and set him howling and ablaze before hacking his arms away and setting about the next foe. He maimed, rarely killing outright if an enemy could be sent into futile flight and spread terror to his comrades. Their fate was already sealed by the standard kill order; during initial planetfall, the Berserkers would kill every living thing in the immediate area unless orders dictated otherwise. A statement of intent, and one to strike despair into a defending force.

The gene-hulks were huge and powerful, but they were no match for the speed and weapons of the Berserkers’ elite. Of the tens of thousands who had barred the way, only a few hundred made the retreat in time. Blast doors rumbled shut across the hub entrance, and Raktra’s force was only growing.

-----

More Berserkers had arrived and were already spreading out, but they were outnumbered ten times over by their auxiliaries, both the elites and the Chattel. Ragged slaves, taken from among the uncounted prisoners of the Ashen Kingdom, they were as much bullet-soaks as soldiers. This early in the campaign, Raktra did not care to risk his finest warriors and war machines. Flesh was much easier to replace.

Likewise, this facility was to be taken intact. The Stormlord wanted worlds that could be quickly turned to productivity, the better to undermine the False Emperor.

But still the Berserkers found it a sore test of their patience, to swallow the kill-urge and watch as the Chattel were whipped into formation before shouldering their guns and bathing the gates in las-fire. Curses were screamed over the din, punctuated by the occasional cry of agony as soldiers somewhere above fired down. For each shot that came, a Berserker would reply with his bolter while whip-wielding overseers kept order among the Chattel.

The gates glowed orange, then white as the metal was stripped away. The tanks had been mobilised already, taking several companies of Berserkers with them as they pressed toward the nearest hab-zone.

-----

Cruelty and bloodlust should not be mistaken for mania in the case of the Berserkers. The same vicious homeworlds which birthed those traits also gave rise to a murderer’s cunning, and a keen appreciation for dirty tricks.


The massed fire of the Chattel opened quickly opened holes, holes through which answering las-fire poured. Men went down quickly, dropping in their dozens, but the breaches widened until nothing remained of the gates. The Loyalist fire dropped away, diminishing to scattered potshots, downing individuals again rather than whole ranks.

Jeers went up from the Berserkers and their serfs, and the Chattel pressed into the massive hall beyond. And then the Ashen King spoke, seeing what no one else had.

“They are here,” Raktra growled, the sound not all that different to his unquiet chainblade. Something changed in the air at his words, a hush seeming to descend despite the noise. “Shieldbearers of the accursed Fifth.”

No longer had he said it than the Chattel’s advance was cut apart. Las-fire pierced their lines in a dozen places, more searing and vibrant to the transhuman eye than the Chattel’s own. Superior guns in the hands of far finer soldiers, and there the Solar Auxilia were, hunkered down behind whatever cover they could find and taking the penal troops apart.

But as Raktra had said, they were not the greatest concern. That threat was heralded by a wave of bolter fire. A phalanx of Astartes, twenty warriors wide, ten deep and liveried in purple and red, came crunching through and over the slave-soldiers. Bolters set off fresh explosions of blood, shields broke bodies almost casually.

The Halcyon Wardens had laid their plan well, and shown unexpected pragmatism in allowing mortal allies to be expended so. With the Berserkers largely dispersed, a well-disciplined force of Legionaries could have broken the forces sent to secure this facility. Even with their own tanks, their mortal personnel would be able to commandeer and pilot the Berserkers’. Then the way would be open for them to sow havoc behind the invaders’ lines; with no hope of throwing them back, but certainly slowing and hurting them.

Except of course that the Primarch had seen the ruse. The first rank of Berserkers was bowled over the Wardens’ momentum, and the V Legionaries brought their blades to bear with uncharacteristic hatred, but they were a mere line company set against the elite of a Legion and its sire.

-----

The blizzard of red ash was redoubled. Slynnat saw warriors brought down on both sides, helms split and chests blown out, but the Halcyon Wardens’ momentum was checked. Then Raktra broke the shield wall and was amongst them, the Grinder chewing up shields as readily as it did any piece of armour. Slynnat leapt in behind, following the Milewalkers into the heart of the ruptured phalanx. For he despised few things more than the Halcyon Wardens.

A warrior bulled at him with his shield, but Slynnat rode the impact to come around and jam his pistol under the Warden’s shoulder. He wanted this to hurt. He wanted all their deaths to be in agony.

Fire burst from his opponent's helm and Slynnat shoved the flaming corpse into its fellows. Let them be robbed of dignity, as they had done the Berserkers.

A Terminator in modified Indomitus armour came after him with a power fist, Slynnat ducking frantically and carving away slivers of armour. But never landing a telling blow until Riktus Innorvak plunged a claw into the Terminator’s power pack. Slynnat howled in triumph and drove his sword into the helmet’s chin, triggering a spray of ceramite, bone and finally brain matter. Let them see true strength in their time of ending. Make them understand the truth of their weakness.

An explosion of light drew his eyes to where a Berserker had fallen with a crumpled skull. His killer, shield discarded, drew back his mace and collapsed another Berserker’s chest before finishing the job with his bolt pistol. And in the skulled faceplate, Slynnat saw his hate crystallised. Pay them back in measure beyond count, who thought it right that the meek rule over the strong.

He closed with the Chaplain, roaring his challenge. The disgrace of submitting to those who thought their weakness a virtue and still sought dominion. A shame that could only be erased with blood and fire.

Mace met chainsword, and already teeth flew. Slynnat knew how mismatched the weapons were. No matter. He would have this kill, this victory over the emblem of all he hated. They never understood the true value of what they took from the Berserkers, they who sheltered the weaklings from the culling blade.

Slynnat ducked a vicious diagonal and jabbed up, forcing his enemy to parry awkwardly with the haft of his crozius. But he was hampered too, unable to risk the Chaplain bringing the full power of his weapon to bear. The power of life and death, in the end, was not excess. It was all, and this most fundamental power was denied them.

He ducked a blow, dropping the chainsword to snatch up a downed Warden’s power blade and a broken shield. Now the blows they traded came with the shriek of disruptor fields. That understanding would never come to a warrior raised to power. How could it? Only they knew, those born of a world which had had to shed its weaklings again and again.

Without the advantage of mace over chainblade, the Chaplain was still a capable opponent, but he wasn’t a Blood Boiler, wasn’t a warrior born of Uran’s gutter-clans. Slynnat looked into him with the Cutter’s Sight, spied an old weakness in the left shoulder, so small that none other would have seen it. Eradication of the weak allowed dominance, and sooner or later dominance was all that ensured survival.

 

Slynnat went at his opponent, both the sword and shield weapons in his hands. His blade knocked the crozius aside. The broken edge of the shield crunched into the skull faceplate, knocking carven teeth free.

The Chaplain staggered back, blood trickling from the rent in his helm. He rallied almost immediately and came on again, but Slynnat hadn't let up for a second. The crozius didn't fall with the same speed as before, and he batted it aside before plunging his blade into the warrior’s chest.

With the Cutter’s Sight he saw the primary heart punctured, and then lacerated organs as he heaved the dragged the blade across, splitting the Aquila and three rings on the breastplate. The Chaplain punched him, hard enough for static to dance across his helm display, but that was all he had left in him with the ruin of his chest. A deathwound, even to an Astartes. The Halcyon Warden fell.

Slynnat put back his head and roared at the blackened sky. Around him, the fight was almost over. Slynnat took up his chainsword again and cut his enemy’s head free with a spray of blood and shredded meat. Then he discarded the mangled head, looping a chain through the crack in the faceplate.

Then he was back into his Land Raider, his first worthy trophy since the ambush on Kartyg rattling against his hip. He doubted it would be the last of this war.


Edited by bluntblade, 26 September 2019 - 10:28 PM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

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#118
simison

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Torch-Bearer
Author: simison
Knight House: Zivich
Time: 074.M31
Characters: Thom, Davien

 

An old hand that looked deceptively young turned a crisp page. The other absentmindedly scratched at golden scruff. Green eyes pored over inked words in High Gothic, finding joy, despair, and above all pride behind the flowing script. The man turned the page before pausing. In addition to words, a sketch grinned from within the tome. The man lingered as he allowed a sea of memories to roll over him as he met the sketch's gaze. 

 

"High Steward?"

 

The man's reverie broke as the silence of the small room was disturbed. He looked up and smiled, though it was weary and muted. "Good morning, Davien."

 

Davien's brown locks were a heirloom of his mother, but his bright green eyes were a mirror to Thom's own. Davien closed the door to the little sanctuary. As small as the room was, it was a luxury given the very limited space on a warship. The High Steward had long ago earned the right to such a thing. Now removed from the outside world and its unending demands for propriety, Davien struck a familiar tone as he sat in the only other chair. "What are you reading, Father?"

 

"A new chronicle," Thom answered as he briefly flashed the cover to his son. "Of the Fifth Legion. I'm told it's merely to be the first in a series."

 

Davien hesitated as he noticed on what page Thom was on. "Are you alright?"

 

Thom smiled wavered. It was a confused question, yearning to help but not quite sure how to. Davien had fought in the Great Crusade, an honour that was painfully becoming less common in the House of Zivich. As such, he understood just what had been lost. "It will be," Thom finally answered. "Once the final rebel bastions have been broken, the Imperium can return to the Great Crusade and complete its destiny."

 

Davien nodded, but it was not enough to dispel the haunting presence of a name. The Suzerainty. Instead, Davien said, "We have an assembly today. With the system secured, the Warmaster is eager to begin the next campaign. Its scheduled for 1300 hours."

 

Thom, unbidden, glanced down at the sketch. It had been nearly twenty years and yet Thom simply could not adapt to this one change. Perhaps he would eventually, but he suspected that he would forever consider only one being worthy of the title. "Of course. We will be there, prompt and ready."

 

Davien stood and struck a more cheerful note. "Oh, and Father? May I be the first one today to wish you a happy birthday."

 

For a moment, Thom was able to shake off the weight of old memories as he truly smiled. "Thank you, my son. Is your mother on the way?"

 

Davien nodded. "Along with most of the family. You know she wants to take advantage of the opportunity before we advance into contested territory."

 

"So much fuss for a man who has already had so many birthdays," Thom halfheartedly complained.

 

"It's not every day a man turns 250, Father."


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#119
Beren

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Death's Herald

Author:Beren
Legion: Grave Stalkers
Time: Pre-Insurrection

In the Sixth Harvest of the reign of the proud and vain Lord Feymir, stars were seen moving in the sky above. Feymir and his knights declared it a symbol of their might, and right to rule. Wiser souls spoke of it as an omen, a portent of death and terror to come.

When Feymir first heard these tales, he laughed. When he second heard them he smirked. When he thrice heard them he grew wrothful. Four times he heard them, and on the fourth his rage took form. The lord ordered that his knights seize all that spoke of such things, take them from their homes and tear out their tongues for their blasphemy. Those with tongues left to speak fell silent, and the shadows deepened around the lord’s hall.

Not sixteen days later, a star fell from the sky. Those who gazed upon it thought with wonder, for though strange to the eye it appeared as a house of the high spirits, and from it stepped forth what were surly spirits in mortal from. Such garments had never been seen before and have never been seen again in these lands, nor such instruments of divine will, capable of miracles beyond speaking.

Yet standing beyond the gates of Orathyc, they were greeted with naught but scorn and belittlement. Who were these travellers, to beg audience of the High Lord? Were they come to offer tribute and supplication?

”No”, the being at the head of the procession replied. “But we offer many gifts that might benefit your Lord, if you would but let us speak to him.”

They were brought before the High Lord’s hall, past rows of jeering knights and sullen crowds. Here he greeted them as his guards had greeted them, yet magnified tenfold in his hubris. When they spoke of a glorious dominion in the stars, godlike beings that warred in the heavens and humanity’s place there, he sneered. When they asked that he submit to the rightful rulership of their High Lord, he laughed. He boasted that he would send them back to their masters like the dogs they were, stripped bare of of their accoutrements as forfeit for having wasted his time in so egregious a manner.

He gave commands, yet even as his knights sprang forth in their attempts to seize their guests, a great burst of lightning tore forth into the hall and enveloped the higher spirits.
So great was the shock of the moment that it was an hour before men stirred forth from the hall, racing to the battlements. The abode that had born the high spirits here was gone, departed of its own accord. So did the emissaries of the true High Lord of Mankind leave the halls of Feymir.

Now it took only a single foretelling of doom, not four, to raise Feymir’s ire. At once the offender was seized, their tongue torn out and their body beaten to pulp by his cruellest knights. Those with tongues left to speak fell silent, and the shadows deepened around the lord’s hall.

Sixteen more days, and when the Suns glaring gaze crested the horizon, a new figure stood before Orathyc’s gates. Three heads above mortals it towered, and three times broader it stood. It was clad in plate full and thick, with a face of pale bone in death’s own visage. From it’s plate swung the bleached bones of those culled in aeons past, and on its shoulders it bore the heraldry of a black fist dripping with the blood of the slain. This time none challenged it at first. A fell chill could be felt, a cold terror that accompanied its gaze. It was High Lord Feymir himself who came to gates to demand reason for its presence. So it replied,

“I am Death’s Herald. You have scorned those thralled to me, and spat upon my honour. Meet me in challenge, else hell’s gates open upon you.”

Valeryt, the sword breaker, boldest of Feymir’s sons spoke forth. He would meet Death’s Herald, and cast him back from these walls. Death had no place here he roared, and if those who had came here served Death, then he was sorry that he had not struck them sooner.

“Dusk then. Come to me at dusk. Face me then, and bare your blade against me. We shall see how you will fare.”

At dusk, as the shadows grew longest and reached out towards the weary, Valeryt strode forth. He was himself clad in plate, the finest his father’s smithy could forge. It gleamed against the dying light, and boldness infused the knight. He stepped forth, raised high his shining sword and fell to the ground. His head fell beside him. Slowly, and with great care, the sword none had seen drawn was sheathed again. The shadows crept forth. Night fell, Death’s Herald and Valeryt’s corpse faded into darkness.

Morning came and with it light came. Death’s Herald stood where he had stood the night before. Of Valeryt, only a stain on the ground spoke of his demise. Again, Death’s Herald called out.

“My honour is not satisfied. Slay me, and prove yourselves worthy of the graces you assume, or suffer judgement for your falsehoods.”

Edelhyn, long a friend of Valeryt, was the next to take challenge. At dusk again a knight of Feymir’s house came forth, blade ready and hungry for vengeance. In an instant Death’s Herald smote him, steel shearing through steel then flesh then bone. Shard’s of Edelhyn’s plate were sent shattered into the dark. The night claimed another body.

Days followed. Honour demanded the challenges be met, and while Death’s Herald stood before the gates none dared pass either way. Dakyllhart, most brutal of Feymir’s knights, rode forth on his steed, a mighty combatant in itself that had trampled many foes. Forth the mount bounded to end its ride in blood. Dakyllhart’s lance shattered, or else never found its mark. He was thrown from the corpse he rode and before he could regain his feet, Death’s Herald was upon him.

Tyndellios, cruellest of Feymir’s knights, met Death’s Herald with a mace. His foe did not even draw his blade, but instead struck the knight with his fists and leaving his body broken. Culdwynt had his head torn from his shoulders, Byntos his arms and Jeyknor his legs. Toldeyn was hurled at the gates to fall upon the battlement.

Death’s Herald’s gauntlets became the mirror of his heraldry.

Feymir’s third son fell, then his second. Knight after knight was reduced to torn flesh and shattered bone. Body after body was claimed by the night, until no one was left who wished to challenge Death’s Herald. Only Feymir himself was left on his throne in his empty hall. The shadows deepened around the lord’s hall. Cries were heard in the night, shadows seen on the walls. Voices, whispers, surged from the night to lap against the ears of the sleepless. A torch tossed from the battlements in blind panic revealed corpses, twisted and maimed, that were not there when day came again. Burning eyes glared from the dark. Dread consumed Feymir’s people, eating at them from within. For sixteen more days Death’s Herald stood before the gates. For sixteen more days Feymir sat in his hall.

On the sixteenth night Feymir heard the great gate shatter. He heard the trample of steelshod boots. He heard the screams, the screams of fear and the screams of pain. He heard the wet hacking of flesh from bone, and shrieks turn to whimpers. At last, the door to Feymir’s hall swung open. Death’s Herald entered. His plate was slick with gore, fresh blood ran in rivulets down his helm. Feymir, that once mighty High Lord, shrunk yet further in his throne as his ending halted before him.

“You have spoken great untruths, and failed to account. Whether it be in life or in the writings of others, you will speak no more.”

Those were the last words Feymir would ever hear. Those that dared travel to Orathyc, that place that was once called Feymir’s halls, speak of plated bodies that hang above the shattered gate. They speak of the bones that pave the streets. The speak of the king that sits still upon his throne, as if he died there yesterday. They speak of his severed tongue, laying on his lap.


From the Fall of the Old Ways, a translated text obtained from the feudal world of Dreydhert

Edited by Beren, 23 March 2019 - 11:10 AM.

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#120
simison

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The Channel
Author: simison
Legion: Halcyon Wardens
Time: 054.M31
Characters: Alexandros Darshan VonSalim

 

For the first time in his life, he could empathize with the countless mad prophets and the religious-lords who had been overthrown by the Imperium. At first, he had thought it was the usual allure of power that had grown their egos to damaging sizes. How could anyone not be affected by the masses cheering your name from their lips? And that belief had fit in nicely with the Imperial Truth.

 

Now? It felt like a river, constantly pouring into his very being. He glanced at the stars. How far had his proclamation of divinity had spread? How many had read his testaments? Every day, the river of energy grew a little larger as the new creed consumed the old 'truth'. He did not know how many more souls had now pledged themselves to the new faith to translate into the growing strength he could call upon. A thousand? A million? Perhaps it took a new billion to effect him so. All of it happening without him being at the center of the new religion. 

 

He wondered if the Emperor appreciated the deluge of anima. 

 

He focused on the approaching horde. For once, it was the daemons, those damnable beings who basked in the slaughter, that showed an unusual reluctance to approach unlike their marine counterparts. Did they know? He may have had rejected the temptations offered by the Four, but they could be beings of infinite patience. The very river that offered him nearly limitless energy crossed the Immaterium, well within reach of their domains. It was a never-ending struggle to keep the river pure from their subtle influences. The border between righteous anger and simple bloodlust could be frightfully thin. Change could lead to both good and ill. Stalwart endurance could slip into decaying stagnation. Sought-after pleasure could offer necessary relief or lead to darker paths. All of it, he had to contend with. Until this hour, he had done little more than sip on it during those incredible duels with his corrupted kin. It would be safer to dam the river. 

 

It was far too late for that, of course. He had already sacrificed that security months ago when he had revealed himself as the author of the Divinatus. All that was left to do was to honour the faith of the millions who believed in him. 

 

"The Emperor protects!" Roared the Shield-Lord. 

 

He opened himself to the river in its entirety, ever on the watch for hidden corruption.

 

The Athenoi, loyal as ever, locked shields as they cried, "We are His shield!"

 

He gritted his teeth as sour-sweet hope and rich faith filled and then strained against his physical vessel. With disciplined honed by centuries of war and training, he kept his body intact but became aware that light began to swell from within him. Not even he could keep all of the anima constrained. 

 

"The Emperor strikes!"

 

The daemons looked upon him with open fear. 

 

The Athenoi lowered their spears. 

 

"We are his blade!"

 

The Warmaster, standing ahead of his sons, slammed the pommel of the Spear of Terra on the ground. He sent a mere portion of the river cascading in a golden wave against the horde. The weakest of the dameons were ripped from the Materium. The Traitors who had drunk deeply of forbidden powers reeled in shock as their 'gifts' were shredded. Even the Bloodthirster leading the charge screamed in a mix of pain and hatred. The daemonic servant leapt into the air with leathery wings as he reared his ax to strike, bellowing one word.

 

"Heresy!"

 

Alexandros, eyes aglow with the raw anima of Humanity's conviction, grinned as he raised Aegis. 

 

The battle for the Eternity Gate had begun. 


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#121
simison

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The Cutting Question

Author: simison
Legion: Grave Stalkers
Time: 006.M31
Characters: K'awil Pakal

 

K'awil Pakal, Lord of the Fifteenth and known as the Soulless, watched with black eyes from his raised throne as the mortal tried to force another word from his struggling lips. The man, clad in the robes common amongst the remembrancer order, shook with barely restrained fear and disgust. His efforts had seen him ask a single question, and K'awil confessed to a secret curiosity if the man could ask his second question.

 

The man's shaking stopped as his eyes rolled into his head a second before his body collapsed to the floor. The Soulless' face didn't display a twinge of emotion, though, inwardly, he could not deny a spark of disappointment. The organic thump of a body hitting the ground was a sound that often drew note. In the silence of K'awil's sanctum, the soft clatter roared throughout the throne room. A moment after the remembrancer fell, the throne doors opened.  

 

Two True-bloods, the atypical mortal servants who delighted in serving their dark master, entered. Whereas the remembrancer had been unable to stand without waffling beneath the Soulless' power, the True-bloods had developed a degree of resistance as they purposely strove forward. The pair bowed to K'awil.

 

More accurately, bowed in his general direction. The Lord of the Grave Stalkers often kept his sanctum as dark as night. In part, it enhanced his presence for the few who sought his words. Paradoxically, it also eased audiences with him, by diffusing his potent aura to a small degree by obscuring him. It seemed that such a measure offered little respite for the remembrancer. 

 

"Remove him. No more distubrances."

 

The two bowed again before dragging away the hapless remembrancer. Once through the doorway, the last rays of light died as the doors closed. Silence returned to the Soulless' domain. 

 

Left to nothing but his own thoughts, K'awil could not stop himself from reflecting on the previous encounter. Long had he hoped and worked to build his legion's reputation as one of the Emperor's deadliest forces. He knew and could care less that he would command legions as great as the Halcyon Wardens or the Lightning Bearers. He had long bowed, perhaps grudgingly at first, to the truth: the Grave Stalkers were simply incapable of widespread numbers. 

 

Instead, he had fought to have his legion recognized, not for garish displays of might, but its economy in slaughter. K'awil could recite lengthy lists of battles where Grave Stalker casualties were but a fraction of a fraction to the enemies they killed and broke. No other legion could claim such efficient extermination, save perhaps the Warriors of Peace. Yet, for all of his efforts, the public eye remained affixed away from the Grave Stalkers. It did not matter how many outsized victories they earned. Their rightful acclaim eluded them as well as they had eluded their foes.

 

Which was why he had granted the audience to the remembrancer. Malcador had sent their order throughout the Great Crusade to capture its final moments, and K'awil had been more than eager to have them upon his fleets. Finally, the Grave Stalkers would be recognized. But then, out of the hundred and hundreds men and women who wore the robes of a remembrancer, only eight attempted to meet with the XVth Legion, four of whom would not last a week before scurrying back to more 'glorious' postings. Of the remaining four, only one, one, had requested an interview with the Soulless One. 

 

All that hope and effort to answer a single question. 

 

The sound of clenching bone alerted the Primarch to his tightened jaw. He forced his jaw to relax. His mind, however, could not be stopped before it repeated the question.

 

"Who are you?"

 

K'awil had answered, "The Emperor's nightmare."

 

Certainly, the answer was true on the surface. Whatever feelings he felt about his creator, K'awil could no more deny that the Emperor created him than he could his own existence. Yet, there was so much more to it. Between himself and his similarily afflicted brother, K'awil, without a doubt, possessed the most potent nature. Oh sure, Gwalchavad may claim a rather dramatic power with those unusual eyes of his, but that was hardly a proper measure of what a Pariah could do and affect. Beyond his eyes, Gwalchavad cared little to increase his potency as a Pariah. Instead, he would rather gallivinate across the battlefield, in bright gold no less.

 

Not K'awil. He had long ago understood what his nature was, and had turned it into a weapon in of itself. His mere presence was enough to break the will of hardened veterans. Gwalchavad may be able to suck the soul out of an individual with a stare, but K'awil could drain the life from an entire platoon if he so choose. 

 

In private, he wondered if he was potent enough to counter even the Emperor's own unbelievable strength. It had been decades since he had sought the Emperor's presence. Since their last meeting, K'awil had grown in lethality, while the Emperor seemed to remain stagnant. If so, then the 'Emperor's nightmare' took on a far more amusing slant. 

 

And perhaps that was the last reason he was the Emperor's nightmare. The Emperor paid little heed to K'awil and his Grave Stalkers, except to give them their next orders. A nightmare was to be tolerated and forgotten, until it was relevant again. 

 

He didn't stop the snarl from escaping his lips this time. His blood was boiling, and there was only one way to assuage that pain. He activated the vox unit built into his throne. "Servants, prepare the Trial of Shadows."

 

The True-blood answered as K'awil stood from his throne, "Yes, your magnificence."  

 

K'awil flexed his fingers as he approached the doors. Only blood would cool his anger, and it had been too long since he had ripped bone and muscle apart with his own bare hands...


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#122
Beren

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Mercy

Author:Beren
Legion:Grave Stalkers
Date: Pre-Insurrection

There was the fear. The constant fear clawing at your soul, sapping at your will until you were nothing but a drained husk. But then, there was always the fear. It was always there. Just a fact of life now. Some handled it better than others. Some committed suicide, and their bodies were reused. Reffain didn’t really know how. He didn’t really care. There wasn’t much point in worrying what happened to you after you died. There wasn’t much point in worrying at all really. Some were born and raised under such conditions. Those were the ones who didn’t really know how to react outside the ships. They were the ones most loyal to their masters. Those that couldn’t distinguish their loyalty from their fear.

Not that Reffain was one of those. He was something even rarer. A survivor. Oh he’d been terrified when the Corpse Takers came. He'd felt the fear reaching for him, ready to drag him down. He’d never quite panicked though. Never quite regressed to that stage of animalism where terror strips every rational impulse from your brain. They’d still found him, but they’d found something they could use. Strong enough to withstand service for some time. Not so strong that he might challenge them. Those ones died. They died fast. They died painfully. The died gruesomely, where everyone could see.

He heard, in the lowered whispers that seemed to pass for conversation on these ships, that once the Corpse Takers had tried to use crew genetically modified to be resistant to fear. The idea was that they might prove more motivated. That they wouldn’t wear out quite as fast. Within two weeks most were dead. The masters hadn’t taken kindly to their boldness, their interfering .

Servitors were there for most of the work anyway. They didn’t feel fear, even if it seemed etched on their faces. They didn’t get above themselves either.

When Reffain had arrived, servitors were just another part of the nightmare. Another qualifier for the name his people had given the demons of the night. Since then he’d learnt their true name. Grave Stalkers.

Odd. They’d never given their victims the luxury of graves.

---

His home had not been destroyed. It’s walls and bastions stood unbroken, defiant. It’s people had not.

At first they had been confident. The Imperial envoy came. The Imperial envoy left. Posters went up on the walls. Military marches and information bombarded every population. Thousands took up arms. Militia to be truthful. Brave militia though. They would free up the line troops and those that survived the early months of war would form their own seasoned core. That was the idea anyway. They had been ready. Ready for the storm to come. Only it never arrived.

For a few days the comms network went all erratic. Cutting out. Blaring frequencies that simply didn’t register. The orbital satellites still hadn’t picked up anything breaching orbit, or if they did the cities weren’t informed. So it was just a glitch. A malfunction caused by the sheer weight of data the network was processing. The screams that some people said they heard in the static? Well, those were malfunctions too.They had to be.

It was only when the network came back online in its entirety that it was noticed. Everywhere, communications and queries slid back into their normal order of things. Everywhere, except for the Jevai outposts. A network of watchposts and supply bases far to the south of his city. Isolated. High in the mountains. When the network came back online, it thundered with noise everywhere but there. As far as anyone could tell there wasn’t anything that could interfere with transmissions in that region. Nor was there a single station where a malfunction could be blamed for Jevai’s silence.

They did the logical thing. Patrols and reconnaissance squads were sent to restore contact and establish the cause of the comms blackout. Reffain had not been among them. When the survivors made their reports, he was not among those few granted access to the reports. Yet, there were stories. No matter how hard the Judicial Council attempted to clamp down on the rumours, the stories always remained. Stories of building after building found empty and silent. Food left on the tables. Rifles by the barricades, ammo packs full. Scorch marks and crusted blood, but no bodies. This went on for days. Days without any sign of activity, friendly, hostile or otherwise. Even the animals seemed to be gripped by deathly silence. Some groups began to withdraw. Others, bolder, began to split up in search for survivors.

That was when it began. A soldier saw something over a ridge. Sometimes the stories told of a stone circle daubed red with blood. Sometimes they told of a dense tangle of thorny shrubbery in fact crafted from splintered and shattered bone. In every story the scouts would return. In each story their squad was dead. Bodies torn apart. Equipment wrecked. Some corpses missing entirely.

A technician who managed to activate a bunker’s external sensors just in time to witness their comrade’s demise. Sometimes all they saw were the still cooling thermal signatures of mortal bodies. Sometimes they saw a shadow vanish back into the forest. Sometimes they saw bodies flung into the dark by a phantom of stone that vanished the moment they were seen.

Then there was the watchtower. Someone had found a telescope stand fused in position. When he looked, he found it focused on a snowy speak. There were snow angels. Only the people making them weren’t moving. The wings were made of flesh. The snow was stained red.

They were just stories. The myths of war. After all, if such monsters stalked the peaks, then how could there be soldiers to carry the tales home? They would not choose to leave survivors, surely?

---

He landed awkwardly, scrabbling at the side of his bunk. He recognised Vigen’s stubble covered face and lank hair above him, and slowly began to rein his breathing back under control.

“Sleep well?”

It was a joke of sorts. He remembered jokes, laughter. A long time ago now. No one slept well here. It took only a light rap on the side of your bunk to start you to wakefulness. If you hadn’t yet accustomed yourself to throwing yourself sideways instead of sitting up, you tended to give yourself concussion.

“Breakfast.”

With that, Vigen turned away again. He was a survivor too. Neither needed to ask what had haunted each other’s dreams.

---

The mess was dimly lit. Most places were. The psykers had well lit quarters he had heard. Rows of crates, smaller ones serving as seats, the larger as tables. There were three huddles, people clustered around one another. They didn't entirely trust one another, occasionally casting sullen glances across the room. No one would forsake the unspeaking company though. Not for anything. In the corners there might be individuals sometimes. There were two today, following some incomprehensible need for solitude. Broken they called them. Reffain followed Vigen to one of the small clusters of life, forlornly silent as they disassembled their meals without once glancing up.

Gaunt faces greeted them. Vigen spoke first.

“Any news?”

A grey haired woman, Maleev, gestured over her shoulder at another, larger, conglomeration.

“Their lot say we’re in Imperial space still. Moving towards the north supposedly, linking up with the First."

Their lot. Visitors. Personnel who came on board with the Astropaths and Navigators, beholden to their service. Stationed here as punishment for a past failure or discretion. For the most part, they shunned the survivors, tainted by their experiences as they were. Willing to share news though, as long as it didn’t draw notice from their hosts.

The First. Creatures like the Grave Stalkers, only nobler. So the visitors said anyway. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, that nobler warriors existed alongside his masters, and permitted them. As if nobility would permit such horrors to go unchallenged.

Nothing else was said. They ate in silence. The other groups uttered little more than half heard mutters. The two in the corners made nothing audible at all.

Of everyone here, it was the survivors who truly knew what the Grave Stalkers were capable of.

---

Jevai was only the first. The communications network began to fail periodically. Other regions fell silent. In the Norian forests, there was the Wraithflame that left only ashes in its wake. In the Kymar Bastion, there was the Frenzy that massacred the garrison in under an hour, known of only by the panicked demands for coming over the network, describing them as death itself.

Soldiers and civilians alike began to abandon the outer regions regardless of their orders. Many simply failed to arrive at their cities, vanishing. People began to panic. Preachers cried of death’s judgement come in the form of demons. There were murders and looting. People blamed them on the demons, but they lacked the sheer terror behind their rampages. For now the cities were safe. Judicial troops and the more reliable militia began to enforce stability, with brutality if need be. Reffain himself took more than one life. For little while, some form of stability resumed.

Then the orbital installations went silent. Three million souls, well trained and ready for war, stopped speaking.

---

“...ow far?”

“How far? It could be the length of the ship; you’d still have to do it.”

Grey skin, scarring along his jaw. One of the Kayiebans, but not a native or ship born one. He’d been walking away, now half turned back to face Maleev.

“It’s probably same place as the last fetch. If you hadn’t missed it then, you wouldn’t be heading out now.”

“Probably?”

The man just grinned, a cold and hard thing. Maleev returned to her meal with weariness writ across her face.

Tribals. The true blooded Kayiebans were the worst, didn’t even talk to his like. They saw themselves as kin to their masters. Judging by the tattered flesh tokens they wore, there was probably something to their claims. Spent the whole time watching everyone else, spitting on anyone they considered weak.

Ship born just sat there. Watching. Listening. The Corpse Taker’s eyes and ears. The Newbloods… Some of them were survivors too, but from more feral or violent cultures. Intermediaries of sorts.

As if they didn’t have enough to deal with without a pack of fear-pissed, blood-hungry ferals at their backs.

“Reffain, Vigen.” Maleev was pushing to her feet, her board scraped clean. “I’ll grab someone else, let’s go.” Vigen was cursing, but everyone else was either having dinner now, or had gone out relatively recently. A month ago. They didn’t head out much.

---

They didn’t head out much back then either. Streets became dead at night. Half the time a patrol would just bunker up in the first half secure place they found, then spend the night whispering of what might come for them. The Corpse Takers. The Wraithflame. The Frenzy. Each a different monster, born in the pits of hell. The comms network went down again. This time it never came back up. One night the roar of engines was heard. Council had ordered all flyers grounded, so they'd went up to the hangars, checking each one to see had done a runner. All present. All accounted for. Data logs confirming they had sat on their pads for weeks. People heard more things. Heavy treadfalls in the dirt. Knocking, ringing out over the city. Cams had gone down with the net. No one went outside anymore. The Judiciary Council was fraying. They tried to meet in the day, keep to business ‘as normal.’ Then one, an elderly statesman by the name of Ventaja just went home. Sealed himself in his estate behind thick walls and armed guards.

They found his body the next morning.

Pinned above the Grand Court’s entrance hall by a blade embedded through his bowels, limbs broken and hanging limp.

---

“Where?” Vigen gave Reffain a sideways glance.

“Seriously?”

“Do you really think that paying attention would save you, if it came down to it?" Vigen let a diminutive half-smile twitch across his lips before responding.

“Whisperways, seventh urn. Apparently we missed something during the last supply transfer.”

“Hell,” Reffain sighed.

“Rather chillier than I expected.”

The humour was fleeting, like a fading ember in the void. Every jibe brought them back to this place. Hell indeed.

The two of them stood before the now unbarred lock leading beyond the psyker’s abode. Going past it would place them outside the protective wards that buffered the Astropaths and Navigators from their hosts’ baleful aura. It would place them outside the area where the vessel’s meagre mortal crew congregated to breath a faint semblance of life into their surroundings and into the realm of the soulless.

Both started at the sound of footsteps resonating behind them. Maleev and a gaunt, white haired man. Reffain recognised him, one of those kept to the far corners of the mess, in the shadows. Most people sought out any human company they could get. The Broken weren’t most people. His beard was fastidiously trimmed, clothing relatively clean. His hair was white and his face lined. His eyes though, they flickered constantly. Hands too, twitching. Every now and then his body would just flinch at nothing, the only time he seemed to deviate from his stiff posture.

“C’mon”

Maleev barely slowed as she passed the two men. If anything, she sped up, plowing right past them. The lock began to groan, slowly swinging open. Maleev barged through. The stranger calmly stepped after her. The latter pair exchanged one last glance before scuttling through. When the slab of metal swung back, it sounded like the lid of a coffin slamming shut.

---

Ventaja’s death signalled the end of the Judiciary Council’s control over the city. It had become clear that the Council could not even protect themselves, let alone their subjects. Yet they were condemned to preside over the downfall of their domains under the threat of a death just as agonising as the city’s fall itself. Their instructions became sparse and often contradictory.

The day became fraught with the sounds of violence and pent up fear as citizens turned upon one another. Spasms of terror before the smothering silence of the night. Some of his fellow units locked themselves in their barracks, sealing every window and entrance from within. They were never heard of again.

Others disbanded, either going home to spend their final days with their families or else participating in the growing bursts of brutality. Families, business partners, religious sects all blamed one another for their doom. Individuals no longer constrained by the apparition of law sought vengeance rather than reconciliation before the end. The preachers were the worst. Bellowing, with spittle flecked mouths, of the sin and the vices; who was to blame and who would be saved. The ones who preached about salvation vanished after nightfall, doorways smashed in and blood smeared across their walls. One lunatic convinced his congregation to stay out after dark in prayer. Said that their resolve would protect them from the dark. Everyone heard their screams.

All the while the signals from other cities died one by one.

---

Four hours, closing on five. They’d taken a cargo lift for half of one. It had been unnerving, not because of the shuddering grinding sound itself, but rather because of how it deafened one to their surroundings.

Now only their footsteps rose above the reverberations of the ship itself, so familiar as to be akin to silence proper. It was not reassuring. They cleaved to the paths in the ribs of the ship, away from the spine where their masters dwelled. Away from the forbidden grave-shrines, away from the the Sanctums of the Void. Their Broken had probably been in all three, and Reffain did not envy him for it. The entire ship was a place you did not choose to travel, but those places were forbidden except under very specific circumstances. Not circumstances that you wanted to be in.

The stranger froze. Reffain and the others were a second behind him, ears straining to pick out what he had. Shuffling footsteps. The dragging of worn down nails along a bulkhead. A mumbling punctuated by low hacking sounds and spits. Then nothing.

Slowly and gently, Reffain eased his stub pistol out of his holster with one hand, his knife out of his sheath. In the corner of his eye he could see Maleev’s hands drawing against hers. There was little doubt that Vigen would be doing the same. The Broken remained stock still.

When it came, he was the first one to move. Before any one of the others could train their weapons on the flailing limbs that tore out of a recess, he was between them and it, hands grasped firmly around its wrists. The others had backed away, and Reffain swung around to make sure another hadn’t taken the opportunity to rush them from the rear. He turned back, and all was still again.

Past matted lengths of hair, gleaming eyes dulled by fear were locked by the gaze of the stranger. Some sense of kinship, an understanding perhaps. He held the other firmly for a moment, then released it. It scrambled back into the shadows as stub pistols were haltingly lowered, the noise of its scramblings fading back into the background noise of the ship.

A reminder, that some truly were more broken than others.

---

The stub pistol cracked in his hands. The last of the looters slumped to the ground, viscera leaking out of his head. Reffain felt himself heave, but held his bile. Two weeks since Ventaja. Two weeks verging upon hell.

He could feel them. The eyes of his soldiers watching him take on the guilt for himself. The eyes of the civilians fearfully peering out their windows. Three nights ago the inmates and staff of the 1st Ward rehabilitory and containment compound had been massacred in the night. Every other prison in the city had promptly been seized by panicked riots and revolt. Many had collapsed completely, the criminals they contained fleeing onto the streets with no one left to stop them. The corpses of those without shelter had been found after the next nightfall, but the rest were an ever present threat on top of what the company’s survivors already had to deal with.

“Tully, take half the patrol. Do the headcount, make sure that everyone’s building is secure before the light fades. Then get back fast. Do the regular comms checks, see who else is still active. I’m going to check out precinct four.”

It had gone silent the previous night. They didn’t know whether it had just been abandoned or destroyed.

“If you can’t get back in time?”

“Then I sleep in a dead man’s bed.”

---

“I’m not going anywhere near that place.”

“If there are servitors swarming that cargo lift, it’s broken. Even if it isn’t, I’m not getting in their way. The sanctum passages are the nearest way down.”

“I don’t give a damn! You want me to stay with you, we go through between decks. I know the route through there blind.”

"What route? There isn.."

Reffain let the the harsh whispers of Maleev and the stranger fade into the back of his head. It was a skill you learned here, near useless as it was. Tuning out the noises you knew and straining to listen for the ones you didn't.

Vigen murmured in a yet lower tone.

“The man won’t step a hundred paces near the sanctum’s, but he’s willing to chance the blackholds?”

“He’s been in both, apparently, and us in neither. I’m inclined to let him make the call.”

“Sure. I’m just not keen on either option.”

---
The figures searching the bullet ridden corpses on the roadside took off as soon as they caught sight of the armoured truck. It would be a waste of time to follow them, they didn’t have the ammunition or the time to spare on such matters outside their jurisdiction.

The vehicle stopped within sight of the watchpost’s gates, left open and unbarred. No one visible, or audible, on the parapets. No obvious sign of damage. Didn’t mean anything.

“Mitch, Tora, Jolden, Hafeenir. You’re with me. The rest of you stay with the truck.”

He hardly needed to tell them to stay alert. Inside, the marshalling yard, was empty. No vehicles. No people. Clearly no one on the walls. Vigen watched the firing slits of the main structure, hoping and fearing to glimpse movement behind their recesses. Nothing. The entrance port was open as well, steel door unblemished. Leaking from it a single monotonous voice was barely audible, a faint crackling betraying its recorded nature.

Inside, the recorded message echoed around the empty chambers on a repeat cycle. There was no one in the guard room. Lockers hung open on the wall. Each one stripped bare.

“Sounds like a suicide note.”

Tora’s candid statement blocked out the voice for a few moments, then it came back again. Reffain tried to give the order to split up, only to choke on empty air as he did so. It was minutes before he felt he could hide the dread in his tone.

“Everyone stay close and stick together. We sweep room by room until we reach Commander Vilen’s office.”

Every room was empty. Lights switched off, heaters cooled, provisions and weapons absent. Doors and hatchway’s closed but not locked.

Light. Just a sliver emanating from the office’s door. Reffain walked towards it, already knowing what he would find and ignoring the questions of his subordinates. Softly, he pushed the door open. Just enough to see. Vilen slumped over the desk. The pistol in the outstretched hand. The pool of blood soaked into sparse paper written communiques. The four soldiers splayed out on the far wall with their organs missing. The blood written letters on the wall.

“Sir?”

Softly, Reffain closed the door.

“He took his own life… We need to empty the armoury and leave.”

---

It was a slow process. Every drag on the wheel sealing the hatchway let out an ear wrenching squeal. They would halt for a good five minutes, ears straining for further noise. Then another pull. When they finally pulled it open, there was just darkness underneath. You could barely see five rungs down the ladder. Vigen reached for his lumen globe.

“Don’t.”

The three of them glanced up at the stranger.

“It’ll draw them on top of you like flies.”

“Then how exactly are we meant to see where we’re going?”

“Like I said, I know the way blind.”

Judging by Vigen’s narrowed eyes, that answer didn’t entirely assuage his concerns.

Reffain wasn’t too worried. The darkness was welcoming once you accepted it. It concealed the blood and corpses. It concealed the monsters, human or otherwise.

---

“Last card.”

“Bastard. That’s twice in a row.”

“Believe it or not, I am keeping count of how many I times I scrub you at this.”

“No need to rub it in.”

He let the soldier's idle chatter wash over him. It was good to know that they could at least maintain a semblance of normality, some of the time. That they could deny the night a little longer.

Then the speaking stopped. His eyes slid open to see soldiers scrambling away from the outwards facing door, weapons raised.

The red glaring input panel indicated an incorrect code entry. Two figures out and now being re-entered. Still, it wasn’t exactly a breaching charge. Should be fine.

It swung open. For a moment, just a moment, everyone let out visible signs of relief as they saw the private. The private that managed to stagger two steps through the door before his torso erupted in a shower of gore. An upturned table was promptly reduced to splinters, cris of shock and surprise drowned out by a thunderous roar before someone could slam the door shut and seal it.

Silence.

“Everybody to the armory. Now!”

They had breached the barracks, presumably killed the sentries and the first warning they’d had was the corpse now sprawled over the floor.

Personnel were scrambling past benches and tables, picking up only their weapons to accompany them. Reffain made sure to snag his own package, lifting its bulk besides him. Tully darted into the passageway beyond the other door, weapon raised.

“Clear.”


Everybody was moving now. Most still turned a wary eye towards the other exit, but for now the interior one seemed secure. He followed, making sure to be last in line and again sealing the portal in his wake.

They were silent as they ran. Every time he turned around to check the rear, he wondered if those ahead of him were still really they there. They were, only as silent as the grave. There was a branching coming up soon. Someone would have be watching it while the rest kept going. There. The turning. Reffain strode right past the pair covering the left passage, crouching low while he set things up.

“Sir?”

“Get going. Both of you.”

Normally they might have tried to stay with him. Now, they just wrote himself off as already dead. If they hadn’t written themselves off themselves.

He got up, and backed towards the turning. He waited.

When the voice came it was a depthless rasp and carried with it an accent he had not heard from any city on the network. It seemed unconcerned, bored even.

“I had thought you might make for the vehicles.”

He had his pistol drawn and aimed now, shaking in his hands. This time he didn't even try to conceal the fear in his voice.

“Flee, and you pay the toll with the blood of those you abandon.”

The quoted phrase seemed to die in mid air, as if the fear could kill even sound. Not the monster's. Its word reverberated down the walls and through the wall.

“Yes… you do. Then again, you pay the toll no matter what.”

It was a shadow coalescing into shape, lunging out of the darkness. He saw a skull with blood drooling out its teeth rear up towards him. He shot. He hit.

The pinprick las-beam seared strait into the explosives he had set.

The detonation blinded him for a moment, the blast bellowing in his ears. Blinks cleared his eyes. The walls around the blast zone were charred and and scored, the floor where they had lain rent open. There wasn’t a body. Not even a scrap of flesh or steel. Just the faint scent of scorched bones.

“You ruined my trophies.”

Reffain only managed a half turn before feeling a cold grip seize him. Then he was in the air. He landed just past the patch of corridor his trap had wrecked. Pain. He could feel wetness leaking out of his wrist, and every twitch of it brought more pain. The other shoulder was most likely dislocated. It was above him now. He could see all of it. Towering above him. The thing was clad in armour, thick and heavy. It shouldn’t be able to move in it. Not that fast. There were bones, broken and charred shards now, dangling from it. The skull he had seen earlier was gone, its paint burned off.

“No cries for mercy, leader?”

He stayed quiet, gasping.

The giant started to reach down towards him, then stopped and cocked its head as if listening. Then it laughed, a laugh that seemed madness to the captain’s ears.

“Someone else has done so in your stead. For this entire planet. They are begging aid from those they called invaders. It is the Imperium’s mercy it begs for, not its aid.” Here, for a moment, the monstrosities tone turned bitter, as if it had tasted something unwholesome to it.

“The demons will slink back to the shadows with the coming of the Imperium’s radiant light. There will be mercy, but you get to choose for whom. Do you wish the mercy to your warriors, or to yourself?”

Reffain stifled the pain, pushing it back down. He could feel fear and pain surging through his body, clouding his mind. Finally he managed to gasp out a single question.

“What… do you call mercy?”

That laughter would haunt his waking dreams for a years. It never quite went away.

---

“You got it?”

Two pairs of hands reached down from above, both grasping the canister.

“Got it.”

It had been in Whisperways, Seventh Urn. Just like the tribal had said. Found it lying on its side, covered in dust in a corner. He couldn’t really blame the previous team. No one wanted to stay outside the ‘safe’ zone a second longer than they had to. Them included.

He felt the weight of the canister lighten, then disappear altogether as it was hauled up through the hatch. Vigen followed behind it, scrambling to get himself back into the meager light. Reffain hesitated. It would be so easy to lose yourself in the dark, to regress into a pre-human state. He could forget, forget the choice he had made and everything since.

“Reffain?”

“...coming.”

With every rung the memories grew clearer and more vivid, and he reined them in as he always did. As he scrambled over the rim he looked up and met the stranger’s eyes. There he saw a hint of understanding, that the man knew the decision he’d just made.

“Stop. Leave it open.”

Vigen had moved to reseal the hatch before the stranger spoke up.

“They could follow us back.”

“Let them have that choice.”

Maleev nodded to herself, as if confirming some self held suspicion.

“Leave it Vig. We need to lug this back.”

---

They’d made it most of the way. An ashen skinned corpse of a repair servitor was busy doing something to the wiring in a side panel, so they were giving it a wide berth. Then, in response to whatever shred of lobotomised neural tissue that remained in its head, it started trundling down the corridor. They could feel it too. The chill that had nothing to do with temperature. The dread that walked ahead of them. With practised instinct all four of the mortals fell against the walls and as far away from the center of the corridor as they could manage. Crouching low to the deck and keeping their eyes on the ground. Against the floor, Reffain's fingers trembled yet more visibly.

It came at measured pace, the slightest sound of its boot against the floor. He felt it come nearer. The he felt it stop. It moved closer to him. Then it stopped. He huddled further back, against the wall. They killed serfs for daring to look upon them. Yet he could tell it was waiting, waiting for him to do just that. It took minutes, but eventually he lifted his head.

The skull had been painted back on, and new trophies now hung down its plate. They hung beside the fragments blackened by the explosive those years ago, still in place. The same Grave Stalker. The Corpse Taker.

“Still alive officer?”

He said nothing.

“They think we’re still there. Waiting in the forests and under the mountains. Waiting for the Imperium to leave. They believe that any move against their occupiers will allow us to return, so they serve meekly.”

He couldn’t comprehend why he was being told this. He only knew that with every word it seemed to grow more spiteful.

“They look to the darkness of their world rather than between the stars. How much do you think it would take us to change that? To cast down your world entirely.”

Reffain was still shuddering, just as he was before. Every nerve in his body was telling him to run or else curl up into a ball on the floor and try to block out the dagger like words which plunged into his head. Instead he forced the words out, feeling like they became bile in his mouth.

“The Imperium. It wouldn’t let you. We took their mercy.”

He could feel its eyes behind that visor. Boring under his skin and into the bone beneath. Its mouth too, teeth like spearheads jutting from ragged gum and tearing into flesh with every uttered word.

“Theirs, not ours.”

With that the Corpse Taker resumed its walk, didn’t even glance back. He could see the other three, eyes still down, crouched around the edges. As the distance between them grew he could feel the unnatural dread of its aura recede even as a more rational terror took hold, growing out of the echoes of its last words to him.

“There is no more mercy to be had. His light will stop us no more.


Edited by Beren, 15 May 2019 - 02:50 PM.


#123
simison

simison

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Primarch-Hunter

Author: simison
Legion: Grave Stalkers
Time: 006.M31
Characters: K'awil Pakal

 

 

Routine is a term that is not typically associated with a Gloriana, of which only twenty have been brought into existence. Yet, the Hotna Kintz'am, "Blessed Home of the Sun Throne", did not appear to be that distinct from its sister ships. It was neither the largest nor the smallest. It boasted no unusual features, such as the Elpis' wings or the Dragon's twin-hulls. The one aesthetic that drew comments was its obsidian hull. This was the one hint that suggested its most devastating ability: stealth. 

 

K'awil had taken its measure and added as much stealth capabilities as it was possible to a ship of its size. The result, the Hotna Kintz'am alone of its sisters ships could successfully elude all forms of electronic detection. K'awil had taken advantage of this ability to turn the warship into a mobile base for his legion from which they could launch successive raids and infiltration teams without leaving the system for resupply.

 

While the massive warship could certainly wage war, the Soulless would not waste its potential with such direct theatrics. K'awil boasted it had seen combat only thrice, but had been responsible for a dozens of Grave Stalker victories. For better or for worse, the reason the Hotna Kintz'am served so ably as a carrier was because the Fifteenth Legion simply did not have the numbers to fill the entirety of the warship. 

 

That, too, K'awil had turned into an advantage as he navigated the rain forest. He had converted an entire deck to match the jungle environment of Kabyieb for several purposes. True to the original biosphere, the entire space was filled with dangerous flora and fauna capable of slaughtering man in a merciless conquest for survival. This place where death waited behind every tree and bush could serve as a proving ground for 'recruits' taken from newly Compliant worlds or a place of punishment for those who had wronged the Grave Stalkers. To the Grave Stalkers themselves, it was a place of training and challenge to sharpen their abilities to a knife's edge. However, a Grave Stalker's life was too valuable to allow them to train without the panoply of war. 

 

Only one being had permission to brave the jungle bereft of arms and armor. 

 

K'awil couldn't help but feel a vague sense of bitter nostalgia whenever he trained as he balanced himself on the thick tree branch. Life such as this felt more comfortable than it ever did when he spent it among his own 'kind'. There were no deceptions. No honey and poisoned words to endure. No expectations to fail. Nature demanded only one rule: survival. It was refreshing in its own way.

 

The Lord of the Fifteenth Legion wore a simple body sleeve in a camo pattern that fit in with the artificial jungle around him. To go without the camouflage ruined the hunt as his russet  skin rendered him far too easy to spot. He didn't move. Nor did he breath. He had once held his breath for five hours and still could have waited longer. He wasn't sure what his limit was. It was a critical skill when hunting his particular prey.

 

The Mutavos of Kraf-sar were a genus like few others. Each species within the genus was an aggressive carnivore of some form. Such traits would make fine prey for a Grave Stalker, but the Mutavos possessed one unique, evolutionary ability that rendered them worthy of a Primarch. Whether by twist of fate or some ancient design, every Mutavo had the ability to mutate and grow deadlier with each kill. Originally discovered by Azus and the Dune Serpents, K'awil had managed to acquire a few breeds before Azus had exterminated their presence on Kraf-sar, Azus' first campaign on behalf of the Imperium in fact. 

 

Since acquiring them, K'awil had kept them alive specifically on this deck of the Hotna. With regular intake of herbivores, along with a few humans who had earned the Soulless' ire, a stable population occupied the jungle deck. K'awil prevented them from growing too weak and predictable with captured predators from other worlds, including a recent shipment of Catachan Devils. He was curious what new traits the Mutavos had absorbed. 

 

K'awil's eyes snapped to a swaying bush. He was certain the artificial wind was not responsible as the fronds swayed on average of eight centimeters instead of a more typical five centimeters. As silently as the jungle's night, K'awil climbed down from his perch. The bush's swaying slowed, but it did not matter. He had a trail. 

 

Perhaps the greatest trait the Mutavos possessed was their complete unawareness to K'awil's nature. It was why he could not use humans for these particular hunts. His mere presence revealed himself. The only means of masking it was by using other Pariahs to temporarily confuse the prey. Temporary was the key word as it was only a matter of time before the prey discovered where the lion's share of misery was coming from. 

 

He slunk  beneath the brush as he circled around the bush. The Mutavos, though, and other lesser species never seemed to notice. He had mused on that fact before during previous hunts. At what point in evolutionary development did a species develop the higher brain functions which would react to a Pariah? What mutation was necessary to change the genetic code to break through that final barrier into true intelligence? 

 

He stopped and glacially lowered himself to all fours. A Mutavo stared out from the bush. It was the smallest species of its kind, though a particularly large specimen. From its spot, its eyes scanned across the jungle. Six green eyes passed over K'awil. Night vision was one trait it did not enjoy, unlike the Primarch's solid-black eyes. K'awil crawled toward his prey. He had nicknamed them the Balam'akot, the little-hunters. In the Mutavo hierarchy, they were the weakest but not the least dangerous. Often, they traveled in packs, ranging from four to nine. The Dune Serpents had reported packs as large as twelve during their extermination campaign. 

 

K'awil counted only one little-hunter.

 

He stopped his advance and peered around his prey. No matter how hard he tried to peer through the night, he could not see any other packmates.

 

Ambush leapt to his mind, but K'awil was disturbed he could not detect the would-be ambushers. Perhaps a scout? Sacrificing the lowest of their kind to warn the larger ones? It wasn't the first time they had used a defensive network, but something didn't feel right either. This left two choices: observation or initiation. Since he came to kill, K'awil chose initiation. He resumed his forward crawl. 

 

No doubt the little-hunter was vicious but omniscient it was not. It did not notice as the Primarch shrank the distance between them centimeter by centimeter. The jungle floor that had once protected the little-hunter from K'awil's gaze now turned against it. As K'awil neared the final meter, his mind moved from stealth to kill. The little-hunters had begun life as no more than the size of a large dog. K'awil had taken care to feed the Mutavos enough larger predators so that now even the 'little'-hunters stood at a full meter. Still not enough to reach K'awil's waist, but at least they were higher than his knees. 

 

The most dangerous weapon the little-hunter possessed were the twin talons attached to its forward shoulders. They had considerable more range than the little-hunter's claws and fangs and moved faster than both. K'awil had experience with those natural weapons.

 

What was new was the stinger at the tip of a new tail. K'awil hypothesized it was the newest adaptation after consuming the Catachan Devils. He had memorized the lethality of Devil venom, but that didn't guarantee he knew the potency the little-hunters would wield it. Nor did he know how quickly they could use the tail. In K'awil's favor, the little-hunter's skin looked no tougher than previous hunts. It was an odd cross between dark leather and bony exoskeleton. 

 

The fact that the little-hunter was alone also affected his tactics. He was used to hunting the packs roaming across the jungle. In those cases, it was a matter of divide and conquer. Yet, never did a little-hunter travel in anything less than a pair. K'awil had noticed the instinctual use of a combat partner and planned accordingly. He would lure the pair far enough away from the main pack, taking care the little-hunters reached full speed before he would strike against the flank of the weaker little-hunter. Broken neck, crushed skull, one way or another he would kill the first before the other could react. 

 
Here, the tail added a new complication. Simply jumping from behind risked being intercepted by it, in one form or another. K'awil wondered if the little-hunter was immune to its own venom. He studied the stinger for a moment. Unlike the talons, which were formed from exposed bone, flesh covered all but the tip of the stinger. With enough force, it could still be used as a stabbing weapon, but it was far less straightforward than the talons if the little-hunter was immune to the venom. Depending on how long the hunt was, it could be a waste of energy better suited against one of the larger xenoforms. On the other hand, K'awil's blood remain heated, and this might be a one-time opportunity to enjoy his time destroying this creature. 
 
He came to kill. He would kill. 

 

Taking one last slow scan of the area for any additional Mutavos, K'awil made his final plans. The trigger for said plans was simple. The little-hunter turned in the exact opposite direction of K'awil. 

 

The Primarch pounced. Moving with blinding speed, K'awil grabbed the tail with one hand as his other latched onto the nearest talon. The little-hunter roared its surprise before K'awil overpowered it and stabbed its head with its own stinger. The first strike was off and pierced its neck. The second pierced its skull. 

 

That's when K'awil became aware his assumption of an ambush was warranted. 

 

Even as the creature shuddered to death in his hands, all around him, the ground shook. Dirt sprayed as five more little-hunters dug out of the ground. It was both an unwelcomed and welcomed surprise. 

 

K'awil ripped the talon off the dead little-hunter before he sprinted to the one directly in front of him. Its head had just surfaced when K'awil shoved the talon through its fifth eye. He twisted the talon to be sure of its death before he ripped it out, trailing brain matter. The next one was halfway out of the ground and screeched at the charging Primarch. One of its talons had freed itself from the jungle floor and thrust itself against K'awil. He deflected the blow before burying his talon into the roof of its snarling mouth. 

 

Faster

 

The third beast was pulling its last limb from the ground when K'awil attacked. Even without the mobility the little-hunters enjoyed, K'awil faced two talons and a tail this time. The Primarch may have moved with a speed the eye could not follow, but it was not enough to prevent the little-hunter from throwing random attacks in his direction. K'awil finally had a chance to guage the speed of their new tails. It moved a fraction faster than the talons as he slid past its first stroke.

 

He caught one talon in his hand as he hook his talon into the little-hunter's jaw. With one powerful jerk, he ripped its lower jaw off. He spun as it fell into its death throes.

 

Just in time for a stinger to puncture his hip. 

 

Two little-hunters growled as they sought to eat him. His new wound already beginning to burn, K'awil had no choice but to trust his impressive physiology to keep the venom at bay. He backpedaled as the two carnivores attempted to trap him between their scything limbs. He was undoubtedly faster, but he had only four limbs to their fourteen. All the while he could feel the venom slowly spreading throughout his bloodstream. 

 

He deflected one talon, but another cut along his forearm. His leg slid out of a stinger's path but not fast enough to dodge a clawed foot. Worse, his withdrawal kept him alive, but only so long as no Mutavos lay in his retreat. He needed an opening.

 

Gritting his teeth, he weakly swiped at the left little-hunter. It's predatory instinct enflamed by the sign of weakness, it leapt at the Primarch. K'awil allowed it to fasten its maw onto his thigh. Before it could shred muscle and flesh, K'awil slammed a fist directly at its head. The creature did not release him but it slackened, disoriented by the powerful blow. The other little-hunter embedded its stinger into K'awil's chest. 

 

K'awil's hand snapped around the stinger and held it in place. The little-hunter pulled, but could not match the Primarch's might. Using the one biting his left leg as leverage, K'awil kicked hard with his right. Catching the little-hunter in the thin line of soft tissue around its neck, a satisfying crack filled the air. The little-hunter collapsed, only now did K'awil allow the stinger to pull free from his chest. 

 

Pain sliced upward as the other little-hunter recovered and ground its fangs on his leg. It threw both of its talons at K'awil. 

 

He caught both.

 

It threw its tail at him.

 

He forced the talons to cut off the tail.

 

It shrieked with pain and released his leg. K'awil flashed downward with the talons. With a quick jerk, he decapitated his last foe with both talons. 

 

The Soulless stood alive and covered in crimson. He scanned the environment as he felt a different kind of fire spread throughout his body. No signs of the bigger Mutavos, but that could be a very temporary situation. K'awil reached down and ripped off the stinger that had stabbed him in the chest. Although curious how the larger specimens had reacted to the Catachan Devils, his bloodlust had been well sated. Taking his new trophy, the hunter left the jungle to await him a different day. 


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The Second Son: Narrative of the BOTL Vth Legion Primarch

 

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#124
bluntblade

bluntblade

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Before the Plunge

Three hours was all the solitude Alexandros could hope for. Two hours to sleep, the first he had had in days. Then one hour to attend to a matter of personnel; the survivors from Madrigal and his cruelly reduced bodyguard.

The candles in his solar had burned low when the two officers entered, fully armoured save for their helmets, carried in the crooks of their arms. As the fleet drew close to Mars, everyone on board the Warmaster’s ships was on alert, ready for combat at a moment’s notice.

Both helms carried the usual officer’s crest, and Xeones’ artificered Tartaros armour made his high rank clear. Although now, of course, new embellishments were required. Xeones was master of the Athenoi, reluctant as Alexandros was to ponder that and confront the truth that went with it.

High Chaplain Toven Madr carried the skull-faced helm common to all his order, though it bore the hallmarks of a V Legion forge. In his other hand he held Adelbard’s old crozius.

Alexandros waited a few seconds, let the silence grow uncomfortable. “What is the chief virtue taught by the phalanx, Toven?”

The chaplain’s voice was quiet, but never soft. “That aggression must be tempered, and collective victory hinges on discipline.”

This was small beer for Madr; the High Chaplain was a keen philosopher and debater, spending much time in the lodges to hone his craft. “Where do you mean to take this analogy, sire? I can think of a few applications.”

Xeones shot him a look, clearly itching to hurry him along but holding his tongue, ever deferential under the eyes of the Warmaster.

“I was thinking of thinking of the dramas that play out when a shield wall founders," Alexandros replied. "The men who cast aside their armour to buy their survival, and those who remain encumbered and are run down. We cannot afford to be either of those. Ours must be the third state, in which men regroup and keep their heads, even as kith and kin are butchered.”

“The truest bravery, sire, and the only way to avert disaster.” Madr nodded, understanding. “I can spin a few points for a speech on this subject. How complete do you want it?”

“Just have the bones of it ready. The day calls for a certain spontaneity.” Alexandros pressed the button which would summon his armoury servitors. “Advise the shipmaster that I will attend shortly.”

“By your word, my Warmaster.” Madr saluted and left.

Xeones remained, turning to gaze out of the viewport. The Zanskat Oath dominated near space, appearing to cruise serenely despite the vast speed at which the entire fleet was travelling. Sauhan would have everything ready by now, and that ship would be filled with the same expectant hush which gripped the Elpis.

“We've not unleashed such a concentration of our power for some years, Warmaster," Xeones finally said. "Nor has Sol seen such violence since Sedna, two centuries past.”

“And I am not used to an Athenos studiously avoiding a subject.” Alexandros rose from his chair. “Come, Xeones. You and Pyrrhicles must have spoken about this at some stage. We all knew this day would come, one way or another.”

Xeones’ frown deepened for a moment. He had never been a diplomat - a thoughtful soul, no doubt, but without any real gift for veiling his emotions. “I'd rather accustomed myself to thinking he would live enough to give up the mantle, Lord. Then we could have some small ceremony, after which he'd stand as an elder statesman who only had to don his armour for special occasions. I never -”

Alexandros laid a hand on his shoulder. “None of us did.” He looked out, past the V Legion ships and the Solar Auxilia vessels beyond, out to the starfield. “One of those stars is Madrigal. Icarion sits there now, crowned as a pretender and ringed by a hundred worlds sworn to his cause.”

He had to force himself not to clench his fists again at the thought. His anger and grief were constantly there, seething under the surface. It was even tangible through his sixth sense, a volatile force which threatened to hijack his psychic powers. Or, he thought darkly, one that he could channel if he found an appropriate target.

But this was not the time, and Alexandros dragged himself back from the brief reverie. “There's much coming to pass now that we never imagined, but we have something in our favour,” he continued.

“Their presumption?”

“Exactly, Xeones. Icarion thought us biddable, malleable to his ends. Pyrrhicles, rest him, proved otherwise. But I don't believe Kelbor Hal knows that just yet.” Binaric chattering announced the entrance of his armour servitors. “I’m going to enjoy illuminating him.”


Edited by bluntblade, 26 September 2019 - 10:28 PM.

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Humble scrivener - alternate Episode IX attempt now complete!

 

Caretaker of the Lightning Bearers and member of the Broken Throne alt-Heresy project


#125
Beren

Beren

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Author: Beren
Legion:Juggernauts
Date:Early Great Crusade

Memories

To be a Juggernaut is to stand above your brethren in body, but to know that you do not in spirit. We are like the mountains, vast and immovable. Above all we bear the scars and marks of our past openly, for we still remember from whence they came.

He still remembered the day when he was chosen, still tangible and vivid in his eyes. Fear and relief and hope all bundled up into a core of confused feelings. They had remained with him all these years. Years of growth and years of trial. Many of those he remembered at the start of it and remained with him until his first battle.

They were fewer now, but he could remember them all. What they were, what they became, how they died. His parents too he remembered, and mourned for, for they had surely passed through the veil long ago.

He had time to reflect. His officers would still be trying to berate their brothers in the IIIrd, the so called ‘Blood Wolves’ into taking a more sensible avenue of attack. Nor did such recollections hinder his attentiveness.

There were eleven others of the Juggernauts besides him, each clad in the colour of bone with a single murky evergreen arm. Twelve members of the IIIrd stood on their right, a head lower than their cousins and wearing grey of ash rather than steel and the crimson of blood they had spilt in the destruction of their own home. In a way they were mourning, but it was for a past they no longer remembered. He had spoken to their kind, and others of the Legions, of the past many times. The Blood Wolves only remembered shadows of their history, pale wraiths without definition or meaning. Perhaps that was why they had found it so easy to condemn their birthplace, to burn it all. Their colours showed mourning of a kind, but mourning for their own actions rather than the nation that had birthed them and made them what they were today.

One could never truly escape their past. The Juggernauts simply saw those shackles clearly where others believed them long broken.

To his right were twelve mortals, dwarfed entirely by the Astartes. They shifted almost imperceptibly with unease, gazes flickering across to the Blood Wolves and sometimes lingering on the Juggernauts. He should like to know their names, their ranks, their pasts. It never hurt to know the story of those who might die in battle beside you, so you could carry them onwards through the years.

The grating sound of the doors to the strategium grinding open indicated an end to the discussions. The officers of the IIIrd were out first, guards flocking to their side like hounds to a hunt as they strode away. Next the mortals, clad in the finery of their dress uniform and walking at a brisk but measured pace. One was half turned, exchanging a final pleasantry with Centurion Castiel. Then their footsteps too were receding.

He knew that his own superiors would remain a while; it was their ship after all. It gave him time to ponder a little more as he watched, and remember. Nalik, Nalik Threymorn. He knew it as the name given to him by his family. Through him, through his bearing of their name, they walked the stars alongside him.
---

He was waiting in the vast expanse of the hangar bay as the Stormbirds docked. They were filled with Juggernauts who had just completed their lengthy and protracted inductions to the Legion. The coming campaign would be their first real test, and there was one among them that Nalik in particular was interested in.

The last he had heard of any who had shared his name was twenty-three years ago, and that was sixteen years after the fact in the first place. A small family on the edge of poverty, but stable for now. The shared name meant little enough, but it had brought an odd sense of comfort to think that his bloodline endured and sorrow at the state it might be in. In a sense, they were what he fought for, and if none of his lineage were left then he fought for the families of his brothers instead.

Today, there was a chance that he might fight alongside someone who was kin in both blood and geneseed. Legionary Batik. Batik Threymorn. Ten years of geneseed implantation. There had been some physiological difficulties, something usually more common in their older aspirants than most legions but less so with the younger, but the subject had survived. Now there was a chance that they might meet.

He waited alongside Camerat, the Sargeant given charge over new arrivals who ensured they reached the quarters and squads that they were assigned to. They knew each other, had fought together on Kiopos a decade earlier, and had encountered one another many times since.

“You are aware, of course, that even if he shares your blood he will not carry the memories of the family you remember.”

Nalik tilted his head, so that his eyes could meet Camerat’s as his comrade continued to speak.

“Decades is a long time. Some families lack knowledge of their forbearers beyond the sires of their own sires.”

“Some things are unlikely to be forgotten.”

“Perhaps. But that does not mean that they are what you remember any more.”

They let the silence hang, the conversation dead in the air, before Nalik spoke again.

“Perhaps.”

The first of the great vessels edged into the hanger, void barriers rippling and distorting the stars behind it as it passed through into the voidship's cavernous docking area. Serfs, tech-priests and servitors all vacated the region of its passage as thruster fire and grav distortion bathed its wake.

“I will have to attend to them,” Camerat informed his fellow Legionary. “I will let you know once I have ascertained his presence.”

Legionaries were disembarking the craft, clad in armour unblemished by mark of war or symbol of victory. They were not stock though. An optical array added to the helm here, stripped down plating there, and enhanced servos elsewhere. Bulked up plate-clad armour already modified to fit the abnormal stature of the Legion’s members, and hardly any of the suits were not modified in some fashion or other.

Camerat would most likely berate them for it in front of the Martian representatives, before then telling them how to do a better job at it in private.

There were voidsmen here moving around the dock who had served for more than a decade, tech priests and servitors who had laboured for far longer. The young Juggernauts loomed over all of them, heads swaying from side to side as they surveyed their new surroundings. When they assembled before their new overseer, they stood like a great mountain range, utterly immovable by appearance.

Another of the Nepheros Stormbirds entered the bay, then another and another. Nalik watched Camerat as his friend moved along the inductees, issuing instructions as they shifted. He expected that they might have jostled one another, but instead they moved with care to avoid such a thing. Clearly, they had already experienced the clamour that it would cause, and the distress it would provoke from mortals.

Still he heard nothing from his brother. They were beginning to move off now, in twos and threes and sometimes larger groups towards the passageways leading further into the vessel, directions ingrained into their memories. Where they left, it was like opening a floodgate, and soon the deck was again swarming with workers as they made to prepare the Stormbirds for departure. It was only when the last group was left that he heard the click of his comms engaging.

“Brother, he’s here. Do not delay him too long, he and his fellows have waited long enough to see battle as it is.”

Nalik moved towards the four peaks of bone amongst a sea of red cloth and pallid flesh. Each measured stride took him closer as curiosity was kindled in his heart. His fellow veteran exchanged a single nod before leaving. Two of those remaining exchanged a glance of their own before shifting to a respectful distance.

The last did not shift, and Nalik cleared his throat before speaking.

“I am Nalik Threymorn, Chosen to Command Squad Brereh.”

The legionary’s posture shifted, albeit no more than a few inches. Through the visor, Nalik could see his eyes widen ever so slightly.

“Batik Threymorn, though I’d guess you knew that already… we did not know you still lived.”

“Then you have heard of me?”

“Aye, though as little more than a family fable. Not one that folks agreed about either. Some saw you as having ascended, others as having sacrificed”

Nalik’s gaze scoured every inch of his relative. A series of familiar runic markings, now visible to close observation, lined the edges of his pauldrons. His left gauntlet bore the signs of reinforcement, and coiled tubing indicated adjustments made to the oxygen capacity.

“What do you think of those sayings now?”

Batik glanced from side to side, eyes lingering from the vista of the open void where shielding held their pocket of air next to the open void. None of the newbloods had removed their helmets within the hangar section.

"I think that they were both right."

___

To save time, they spoke as the group made their way to their assigned quarters. The other pair lingered behind them, just close enough to follow their path without impinging upon their privacy as the two continued their conversation. It was always Nalik who took the lead while Batik was more reticent about it.

“Where are you from?”

Batik glanced at Nalik, eyes visible through the Mark II visor.

“The Thranian settlements. You wouldn’t have heard of them. Only three decades old when I left, and off to the south of the Gorshak peaks.”

“Gorshak? Six peaks in a cluster, arranged like an outstretched hand?”

“Aye.”

“We called them the Gereshek. It wasn’t safe to travel past them in my time.”

Batik nodded. Unification had scourged the great tyrants and the direst of the fell creatures of the Old Night from Terra, but many lesser beasts and raiders had lurked in the corners of the world. Thunder Warriors, and later the Astartes, had been to busy fighting great wars to spare time in hunting down scum like that. It had still been enough to make life difficult for them though.

“Things were getting crowded, and no one wanted to toe in on anyone else’s turf. It was a mass migration, took most of the rougher types with them to hold the line.”

“Good stock then.”

“Yes, that was true.”

The halls were not empty, the tall doors were constantly shuddering open and shut as people darted in and out. Occasionally one might recognise Nalik and give a brief nod to be returned in kind. Their voices cut clearly above the din of labour, allowing the conversation to continue.

“I was told you had some difficulties in acclimatisation.”

“My bones and my muscles were growing at different rates, misaligning. Worse pain than anything I’d felt before. The Apothecaries said that in another legion it might have killed me, but as it was the process was slow enough that they could rectify the issue… Later there were some minor complications resulting from it. Nerves still synced for a body slightly too small.”

Here the inductee tapped the bracing on his gauntlet, indicating the modifications beneath.

“I’ve been able to alter most of my gear to compensate. Even the unmodified gear I can still use well enough.”

Nalik knew the distance to their destination by memory, and he knew they were fast running out of steps. There was still one last question he had to ask.

“What of your…” our “... family?”

He didn’t respond at first. The elder Astartes did not press. They walked the rest of the way in silence, letting the noises of the ship wash over them. At the last moment, just when they would have had to part, Batik turned back.

“Dead.”

The others moved past, carefully shifting their bulk to avoid the two relatives.

“They died defending the settlement. Just like I will, defending the Imperium. Only I’ll make sure I go down with much more of a fight.”

With that, he vanished through the bulkhead. Nalik remained a little while, pondering. The memories. They could sometimes seem like a curse rather than a blessing. Yet he knew that Nalik would not willingly choose to give up those shackles binding him to his past. They all had a duty to who they once were

Edited by Beren, 10 June 2019 - 08:10 PM.






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