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.
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 -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.