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Conqueror (Twisthammer - Book One) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy

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  • Conqueror (Twisthammer - Book One) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy

    CONQUEROR

    Twisthammer – Book One


    It is the Thirty First Millennium, a time where heroes thrive and legends are born.

    Surging from humanity’s birthplace on Terra, the armies of the immortal Emperor of Mankind forge dominion over the galaxy after the anarchy of the Old Night. Long-lost worlds are brought back into the fold by force of diplomacy or arms, and alien oppressors are scattered to the winds and wiped from the pages of history.

    The Imperium of Man stands supreme over all who would threaten humanity.

    A million worlds celebrate the innumerable accomplishments of the new order. Great works of art and marvels of engineering are raised across the galaxy in honor of this glorious reunification. The many victories of the Emperor’s warriors bring peace and order to the worlds still emerging from the millennia-long dark age.

    Chief amongst these warriors are the Primarchs, twenty magnificent demigods created by the Emperor with the aid of arcane and forbidden technologies. Each Primarch leads a Legion of Space Marines, the pinnacle of humanity’s warriors made out of the Primarchs’ own genetic material. They are the most advanced and deadly warriors in humanity’s long history, and none could stand against them.

    Their names are legend, their deeds are million. The golden age of humanity dawns.

    But even amongst this august brotherhood, one warrior stands apart. He is Iskanderos, the Golden One, called the Conqueror and admired throughout the growing human dominion. He is the paragon of the species, general and strategist without peer, diplomat supreme who would bring about the Age of Mankind. He is the master of the Sixth Legion, the Imperial Redeemers, and humanity's best and brightest hope for transcendence.


    As echoes of the Old Night prepare to strike back, will he be humanity's deliverance or its damnation?


  • #2
    Dramatis Personae

    Primarchs
    Iskanderos, the Conqueror, Primarch of the Imperial Redeemers
    Leto, the Great Paragon, Primarch of the Immortals
    Rogr Hemri, the Emperor's Hammer, Primarch of the Lion Guard
    Gideon, the Lawgiver, Primarch of the Peacekeepers
    Nyxos, the Shadow Lord, Primarch of the Grim Angels
    Angelus, the Grey Prince, Primarch of the Gargoyles
    Griven Kall, the War Dog, Primarch of the Hellhounds
    Nihlus, the Destroyer, Primarch of the Iconoclasts
    Echelon, the Iron King, Primarch of the Steel Wardens
    Mohktal, the Enlightened One, Primarch of the Illuminators
    Corwin, the Sovereign, Primarch of the Angel Kings
    Ashur, the Black Reaver, Primarch of the Midnight Riders

    Imperial Redeemers, VI Legio

    Tilsit Demetrios, Lord Commander of Ninth Jond, Equerry to the Primarch and Senior Companion
    Tarnac Wali, Emissary of the Legion
    Yusuf al-Malik, Captain of the 54th Company
    Mukhtar Ishmael, Sergeant, 54th Company
    Haroun Telennios, Sergeant, 54th Company
    Miral Ahab, Chapter Master of the 5th Chapter, Companion
    Faisal Crateros, Captain of the 68th Company, Companion
    Apollus el-Rahim, Lord Commander of Second Jond, Companion

    Illuminators, VII Legio

    Kian Ranseng, Disciple of the Third Order

    Grim Angels, IX Legio

    Milegros Atlas, Captain of the 90th Company

    Imperial Personnel

    Miranda Iagos, writer and satirist
    Kaira Jin-Fei of the Blue Sector
    Taras Shikanobi of the Brown Sector


    On Board the Hunter's Season

    Amrit Sarkisian of the Hellhounds
    Quao Zhan of the Jaws of the Deep
    Saim Vitallius of the Consecrators
    Krast Herod of the Iconoclasts
    Acacius Martins of the Lion Guard
    Faust of the Gargoyles

    Non-Imperial Humans and Others

    Elvera, Chosen of the Grail
    Pharn, the Cloud Prophet
    The Lightbringer

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    • #3
      PROLOGUE

      Yusuf al-Malik was nine years old when he saw a god.

      Slight breeze broke through the monotony of hot, humid Apellan summer, making the decorative flags on the roofs give an impression of movement. Garish banners covered the white brick walls, obscuring the rectangular designs which marched parallel to the cobbled stone of the streets. Wooden shutters kept the worst of the afternoon heat out of the windows, where curious eyes looked down onto the thoroughway, where thousands of Apellans waved to the militant procession passing by.

      Aristocrats in their pristine citizen's togas and elaborate turbans decorated with flowery designs mingled next to beggars in filthy rags and courtesans braving the sun in their gaudy silks and garments showing off more than they hid. Excited children ran to and fro, chasing after mangy dogs or playing countless games of skill and imagination as their parents kept watchful eye over them. Wives and daughters of respectable citizens filled the balconies of two- and three-story houses, wreathed in flowery garlands, while their servants held on to the bouquets to be thrown down when the time came.

      Today was the momentous day. Today, the Legion came home.

      Yusuf pushed through the throng of children, mouth agape at the procession of giants in polished armors of bronze and gold. They marched in perfectly ordered ranks, step by thunderous step, carrying oversized weapons with customary ease. Short black velvet capes were draped over the shoulders of sergeants and officers, making Yusuf wonder how they could completely ignore the sweltering heat. Lacquered leather vambraces on their right arms told of their deeds, made all the more impressive by the tales of strange and terrifying enemies lurking the far reaches of space beyond the Imperial borders.

      War banners taller than mortal men cast the only shadow over the Legionaries. Yusuf held his breath as he recognized the heraldry familiar to every excitable adolescent on Apella – snake and wreath of famous Captain Nehakar, whose company alone cleared the Ratican Belt from greenskin corsairs; fiery mountain of Commander Zelash, known for turning the tide at the hives of Filaret; roaring lion holding a sword of the 72nd Company, liberators of countless systems on the galactic rim. There were more he did not recognize, each belonging to a great hero in the service of humanity whose deeds changed the galaxy and pushed back the borders of the unknown.

      In that moment, Yusuf saw him.

      He towered even over the armored Legionaries, one hand on the pommel of a mighty sword, another raised in half-salute, half-benediction. Golden locks waved slightly in the light breeze, framing the face of a hero like a translucent halo. Everything about him was golden, from the color of his armor to the radiance emerging from his skin, somehow brighter than the sun and yet so much closer than he had any right to be.

      The name came to Yusuf's mind. Iskanderos. The Conqueror, the Golden One, the master of Apella and lord of the Sixth Legion, stood less than three meters away from him, riding slowly on a grav-chariot floating above the cobbled stones. The boy's breath halted for a second.

      The golden giant smiled to the adoring celebrants, giving them a regal nod like an ancient sea-king returning home with plunder from a successful raid, carried upon the shields of his kinsmen. Shining laurels reflected the light of the summer sun like a halo of illumination. Unlike his warriors, Iskanderos was not armored for battle, choosing instead the garb of a statesman, which left his muscular arms exposed to the elements. Somehow, he did not seem diminished by the lack of war plate, as if his very being was too luminous to be contained in a crude metal shell, a majestic reminder that on this day, gods themselves walked amongst the mortals. The Conqueror’s eyes traveled from one face in the crowd to the next, always dignified, always reassuring, as if for that one moment, the fortunate reveler held all of the giant’s undivided attention.

      Yusuf was still holding his breath when the eyes of Iskanderos fell on him.

      For a brief second, they looked at each other – golden demigod with fate of the universe in his hands, and scrawny boy with wiry black hair, small for his age and dressed in worn, hand-me-down clothes from his older brothers. One looked with self-assured confidence born of superhuman vigor and life of triumphs. The other stared in silent wonder, mouth open in an expression of amazement, eyes wide in surprise that this impossible being would deign him worthy of his attention.

      The corner of Iskanderos’ mouth moved just slightly, enough to give a hint of conspiratorial smile. Yusuf could not manage a movement, hypnotized by the moment, yet he could not have looked away even if he wanted to. A gust of cool breeze from the sea filled his nostrils with smells of faraway lands and exotic adventures.

      “Stop staring into space,” someone shook his shoulder. Slowly, Yusuf turned his head, unwilling to part with the reverie even as he realized that the Legion procession had already moved on. “Yusuf?”

      He turned to see the face of Muktab, his older brother, already bristling with first hints of moustache. The older boy held on to him, preventing Yusuf from running out into the way of the Legion procession.

      “That was…” Yusuf finally squeezed out the words, catching his breath while struggling to complete the thought. “That was…”

      “You are fortunate,” Muktab replied, voice displaying not a little envy. “You are still young enough.” The older boy’s face grew serious. He applied to join the Legion last year, but was promptly rejected after only two days of trials. “Perhaps you will have better luck than me. Maybe seeing Lord Iskanderos in person will bring you good fortune.”

      “I will be a Legionary,” Yusuf blurted out. “Just watch me.”

      Muktab shook his head in disbelief, raising his voice over the jubilant crowd. “Keep dreaming, little brother,” he said, voice cracking with the strain of one trying to sound older than his age.

      Around them, the crowd started to chant the name of their king, driven to almost religious fervor by the Conqueror’s presence. Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros.

      Yusuf smiled to himself, eyes trailing the parade, watching bronze and gold armored warriors stoically march through the streets, step in step like automatons. There was something glorious, something splendid and magnificent about them. He imagined himself marching under the eyes of the Golden One, impervious to the heat, taking in the adoration of the populace as would be his due. Some day, he thought, it would be him.

      Muktab wrapped one hand over Yusuf’s shoulders, ever protective of the boy, mouthing the words. “Maybe, some day it would be you.”

      Comment


      • #4
        PART ONE – THREE YEARS BEFORE THE STARFALL

        ONE

        Sons of Apella
        Old Gods
        Wrath of Terra

        “Maybe, some day it will be you,” quipped Ishmael, pointing at the tactical readout where advanced Legion forces established a localized beachhead. “First in, first out.”

        “For your information, brother-sergeant, I am perfectly content staying back and letting the big guns do the talking,” replied Telennios, examining something on his helmet before putting it on and locking the magnetic clasps to his neck armor. “Not that I mind a good tussle, of course, but there is something to be said about blowing the enemy apart before he even sees you.”

        The advance squads of the Imperial Redeemers’ 54th Company sat in the grav-restrained seats of the Stormbird, making final preparations before deployment. Some Legionaries took to obsessively polish their weapons, while others busied themselves with re-reading situational reports, or ensuring they had full complement of bolter magazines and grenades. As the dropship fell through the heavy clouds, leaving a sonic boom in its wake, the warriors were in a state of wary readiness, prepared to spring into action at a second’s notice.

        “Levity before deployment?” There was some humor in the voice that boomed over the din of whistling atmosphere parting before the heat of reentry.

        “Wouldn’t have it other way, Captain,” Ishmael laughed. “Imagine, Telennios and the Strikers, smashing in some poor sod’s brains up close.”

        Yusuf al-Malik, Captain of the 54th Company, let out a quiet laugh. Owing to the peculiarities of the dropship’s design, his chair was one row ahead of Ishmael and Telennios, surrounded by heavy crates of ammunition bolted to the metal floor. For now, he went unhelmeted, and his cropped short hair and tidy beard seemed to bristle with reflective gleam, as if he put oil in it. Deep seated eyes with sparks of humor squinted as the dropship swerved this way and the other, attempting to avoid the defensive flak batteries.

        The two sergeants were originally of the same swarthy, lean stock, but that was where the similarities ended. Telennios had a long, dour face not improved by a scattering of scars and pockmarked by burns, while Ishmael was a bull of a man, wide of jaw and brutish in appearance. His neck was thick and cris-crossed with veins that looked ready to pop at the most minute motion, while his nose was broken so many times that it turned into a shapeless blob in the middle of a prize-fighter’s face. Telennios was the scion of a noble dynatoi house with the lineage going back to Apellan sea-kings who ruled the planet during much of the Old Night, given to verbose speeches and impeccable manners; Ishmael was the son of a butcher from the slums of Salacca on the mountainous coast of Apella's southern-most continent. Ishmael's men, the Cleavers, were infamous for their mastery of close-range firefights, while the Strikers of Telennios had reputation of marksmen, with an affinity for heavy weapon tactics.

        There were no two men in the 54th Company who complemented each other better, both on the battlefield and off it.

        “So what do you know about the poor bastards below?” asked Ishmael, question appearing to be more rhetorical than anything after the company went through hours rigorously studying their would-be victims.

        “I take it someone slept through the mission briefing,” Yusuf said, in good humor. There was no accusation in his voice, only amusement.

        Ishmael snorted. “I mean, not the tactical dispositions, troop strengths, or armaments. I mean, why?”

        “You'd think Telennios would be asking this! Haroun, are you sure you did not put him up to this?”

        Telennios' face twisted into an uncommon grin. “Not today, Captain. I think Mukhtar may yet have the makings of a philosopher!”

        “That will never happen,” Ishmael laughed off the comment before in an instant, his face grew somber. “But, I mean, what kind of idiots would try to fight off a Legion assault? Their weapons are laughable. The Imperium can bring them technology that will improve their society in every way you can think of. They don't stand a ghost of a chance. Surely even whatever tyrant rules this place can see that. Why fight and die when you can give up and live?”

        Yusuf shook his head. It was a question that almost every warrior amongst the Imperial Redeemers had asked at one point or the other, barring only those who were too single-minded or too given to violent pursuits to care. Some in the Legion asked it shortly after their induction, while others waited years, even decades before the thought occurred.

        “Fanatics of some kind,” Yusuf finally said, drawing on his brief discussion with the Fifth Jond's Lord-Commander. “Convinced that their angels will come and save them, or some such nonsense. Glad that we moved past those things after Unification.”

        “Well, if those poor bastards decide to die for their gods, we can help them out,” Ishmael said after a momentary pause. It was clear the idea did not sit too well with him.

        Telennios stifled a forced, nervous laugh, as was often his way before the mission. Others in the 54th Company joked that the long-faced sergeant only feared the lack of appreciative audience for his diatribes, and that he must have suffered from an acute case of stagefright before bringing the Emperor's word to the heathens.

        “I do sometimes wonder about the hold that primitive superstitions still possess over the human psyche,” he intoned in his best imitation of Apellan upper class oratory. “Say, on the moons of Cordello...”

        “Barbaric rituals,” Ishmael cut him off abruptly. “You cannot compare primitives living in mud huts to a civilized world. You would think that science and technology would have dispelled these things.”

        Yusuf shook his head. “These people seem to think that the gods created their technology, and still speak to them.”

        “By this logic, brother-captain, we should be wrecking Mars before visiting every rock the cog-boys set up shop on,” retorted Ishmael as the Stormbird executed a sharp turn, avoiding incoming fire.

        Silence reigned for a fraction of a second before something scraped against the dropship's hull. The ring of sirens signaling the launch of countermeasures drowned out all conversation mere moments later.

        “Better be glad the Martians are on our side,” Yusuf quipped, checking the status of the drop. By his calculations, there was just under a minute left before deployment. “I heard that there is a demi-Legion of Titans assigned to this campaign. I surely wouldn't want to go against that.”

        “So, let me get this straight,” Ishael answered him, hands going over the final combat readiness checks, undeterred by the turbulent flight. “The Martian priesthood are sanctioned because they are useful, even if their beliefs are little better than the primitives we are about to kill.”

        “Uh-huh.” Yusuf's hands rested on the grip of his plasma pistol, checking the charge level before holstering the weapon. “As I said, be glad they are on our side.”

        * * *

        To the cartographers of the Seventy Fourth expedition, the world was simply known as Seventy Four – Forty Nine, the forty ninth planet brought into compliance by the expedition. The designation was given as soon as the vessels of the Sixth Legion entered the system, for failure was inconceivable. They were the Emperor's chosen, the best of the post-human soldiers that even now restored the human dominion across the uncaring stars, and their opponents were mere human. Victory was all but forgone conclusion.

        To the people about to incur the Imperial Redeemers' wrath, the world's name was Nevziem – a word in a nearly forgotten language that once meant New Earth in the honor of their star-faring ancestors. Their legends spoke of great void leviathans that brought them here – the Krasn, the Serp, the Akkol, giants of the empty deep that saw it fit to seed another world with the human virus. Over time, the giants became the carcass over which the denizens of Nevziem built their own civilization. After even more time, much of the truth was forgotten and twisted until only the world's grey-robed priesthood was allowed access to the remains of the great ships. Only the priests could venture into the lightless depths where the ghosts of more enlightened time still dwelled, protected from the inexorable march of time by technologies from zenith of human civilization.

        Sometimes, those ghosts spoke.

        Sharva Nedzek held on to her flashlight, trying to make way through the maze of rusted railings collapsed from age and neglect, and doing her best to avoid holes in the ancient floor that opened into the lightless unknown. This deep beneath the surface of the Holy City of Tanzared, the sounds of the offworlders' assault were barely perceptible. Occasionally, she felt a slight tremor, and dust undisturbed for centuries fell on her wispy white hair, forcing her to suppress a sneeze as orbital bombardment demolished yet another defense tower, but other than that, everything was quiet. The air smelled of machine oil, rust, and mold.

        She hated this duty. Even in the better times, when the Chosen People thought themselves the sole survivors of the Collapse by the grace of the Old Gods themselves, she resented making the pilgrimage into the darkness twice every long Nevziemian year. Far better the comforts of the Holy Order's fortress above the ground than communion with the ancient, slumbering gods.

        The Old Gods scared Sharva. There was a good reason they had to be placated every so often, offered sacrifices for their craving of human flesh to serve them in the depths, but the faith of Nevziem was a practical one. It was uncommon for the Chosen People to ask anything of the sleeping divines; it was usually enough that the Gods left their human charges alone, slumbering in the cold beyond instead of unleashing their wrath. And the legends of the Faith were clear on one thing – those who sought the help of the Gods paid the price.

        She stumbled into a low parapet she did not notice before, and let out a brief oomph of pain. Sharva reflected that she was far too old for these trips, much too frail to beg the ancients for deliverance. After all, the world above did live accordingly to their commandments, and the ancient pact held true. For as long as Nevziem stayed true to the Gods, the Gods would not destroy the surface world and everything above it.

        The light was almost blinding to her eyes used to the darkness, even though it was barely brighter than her flashlight. She almost fell over herself, barely steadying her body before she fell into one of the countless pits leading into nowhere. She shuddered to think what was below; such things were not for the Chosen to contemplate.

        A sensation of dread overcame her, just like every other time she had to commune with them. Sharva felt cold sweat on her brow. Why did tradition say that a qualifying priestess had to venture into the darkness alone?

        The light was a floating ball of blue, where glimpses of strange and terrifying features surfacing for fractions of a second before submerging into the light. It was cold and almost ethereal, lacking in compassion, humanity, or anything relatable.

        It was the voice of a god, and it was terrifying. It was divinity incarnate, and it told her what to do.

        Sharva listened.

        * * *

        Yusuf fired several shots at the defenders before he was off the Stormbird's ramp, taking in his surroundings in stride. The 54th Company landed in the middle of the city, where orbital bombardment flattened a residential block and scattered the guardians of Seventy Four-Forty Nine to their hiding holes. Here and there, the Imperial Redeemer could still see remains of the frescos that once decorated the buildings, or rare piece of masonry that was still whole, but for the most part, it was hard to tell anything about the people of Nevziem from the scene of total devastation.

        Nothing remained of the hab-blocks, or the small temple in the middle of them. The remains of the fountain, now pouring filthy water into the ruined street, sat like a lonely reminder of what life must have been like before the Great Crusade found the Nevziem system. And as dust and smoke settled on the Imperial Redeemers gold and bronze armor, the surviving forces of Seventy Four-Forty Nine emerged from their hiding places to defend their wrecked home.

        The enemy were men and women wearing masks inlaid with jewels and silver, soaring through the sky blackened with smoke on wings of silvery metal like artificial parodies of birds. Their weapons were spewing flame and beams of multi-colored rainbow light, scorching the ground and melting even the reinforced ceramite of the Imperial Redeemers' Mark IV power armor. Their armor was obsidian black, hiding the enemy warriors amidst the smoke like the denizens of some prehistoric purgatory.

        Still, they died. One by one, they were blown apart by mass-reactive rounds of the Space Marine bolters, or shredded with the chainswords of airborne assault squads. For every Legionary brought down by the rainbow weapons of the defenders, dozens of winged soldiers perished. And the Imperial forces kept coming.

        Ishmael and Telennios led their squads on the flanks of Yusuf's own command squad, the Cleavers rushing to get closer to the elusive enemy jump infantry while the Strikers held back, pouring volley after volley of disciplined heavy weapon fire into the defenders. The Nevziemi warriors fell from the sky, crashing into the fallen masonry like miniature comets, raising trails of dust in their wake.

        “This is slaughter,” Ishmael remarked, firing off an opportunistic shot at a flying warrior. Before the Nevziemi could crash to the ground, the Legionary found another target, ending his life as well.

        “Better them than us,” Yusuf replied philosophically, rushing into close combat with a trio of defenders who fought from the ground, armed with some form of lightning claws. He had to admit that for all their lack of heavy weaponry, the locals acquitted themselves rather well – for mortals. “They fight well. This would be a prime world for the Network when this is all over.” Before he finished the sentence, two of the defenders were disemboweled, their short-range weapons no match for the speed of a power-armored Legionary. The last one succumbed shortly to a pointed stab to the throat that left him grasping for his last breaths on the scarred ground.

        “If any of them survive our attentions,” quipped Telennios, as verbose as ever. The Strikers sergeant directed his lascannon- and heavy bolter-equipped marines to fire against a strong point in the ruins, where a fire team of the defenders decided to abandon their mobility in favor of a more static approach. “At the present rate of attrition, there will be no one left to fight by the time we have ascertained our...”

        “Oh please,” said Ishmael in mock anger, not bothering to hide notes of humor. “I am sure some of them will survive to hear your speeches.”

        “I do love good audience,” grinned Telennios in response once the heavy weapons opened fire. His words were accentuated by the fizz of superheated air and the staccato of rapid-fire mass-reactive rounds. As he looked around, the last vestiges of resistance faded away.

        “Looks like they are very eager to hear you, brother,” Ishmael answered him, suddenly lacking targets. “So eager, in fact, they all left.”

        As he spoke, multiple contacts appeared on Yusuf's helmet display. The Captain laughed gruffly, finishing off the wounded defender with a mercy stroke. “Well, Telennios, looks like you got your audience. Do you have a speech prepared for the occasion?”

        * * *

        They crawled out of the rubble and vestiges of demolished streets like a shambling horde, covered in soot and grime of their city’s death. Some nursed broken limbs, while others winced in pain with grievous, bleeding wounds. Some wore filthy rags not even fit for beggars; others had the remains of elaborate fineries wrapped around their broken bodies. A few brandished makeshift weapons – clubs, pieces of metal sharpened at the point, antique and baroque guns that were more dangerous to the wielder than to anyone they pointed at.

        As Yusuf took careful aim, holding steady without firing, he knew what happened to the civilian population of Seventy Four-Forty Nine.

        There were men, women, and children in the crowd, though it was often hard to tell from their pathetic state which were which – thousands of them, dirty, disheveled, glassy-eyed. One by one, they moved towards the Imperial Redeemers with no thought of tactics, strategy, or self-preservation.

        “What the…” Telennios was left speechless, forgoing his usual manner as he habitually directed his men to assume new firing positions.

        “Let me try,” Yusuf said on the command channel. He willed a recording to play through his helmet’s external amplifiers, the roar of voice speaking unfamiliar language booming like sirens of apocalypse.

        “What does it say?” wondered Ishmael, casting a sideward glance at his fellow sergeant. The Cleavers pulled back from the carnage, ever wary but not opening fire without orders.

        “I think…” mused Telennios, slowly enunciating each syllable as if in contemplation, “something like we come in peace?” He chuckled at the absurdity of the situation. “Maybe something about laying down their arms and becoming good little Imperial citizens?”

        Ishmael snorted. “I really don’t look forward to slaughtering these idiots. Maybe a few will listen to reason.”

        The world exploded. Dimly, Ishmael could see limbs flying through the air, detached from the frail bodies as they pirouetted in strange trajectories. A cauterized stump struck his helmet, sliding down in a grotesque slurry of charred flesh. As if in slow motion, he saw a civilian immolate, coming apart like a rag doll of blood, bone, and sinew, exploding from within like a timed mine.

        As one, the horde charged.

        Hundreds went down to the first disciplined volley, but more came forward as quickly as their broken flesh would allow. One on one, they were no match for the power-armored Legionaries, but grappling with the Imperial Redeemers was never their intention. As they got close enough to the sons of Apella, carried forward by the momentum of human wave, the denizens of Nevziem exploded.

        Ishmael snapped out of his shocked reverie and shouted orders to his squad, forcing them to fall back. He fired his bolt pistol at the enemy, blowing apart arms, legs, and torsos, and yet making only a minor dent in their numbers. He cursed, recalling the rich invectives his birth father favored back on Apella, then adding those learned from the warriors of other Legions across the stars. “This… is not right!” he voxed to Yusuf, never ceasing to fire. “What kind of people would… do this?”

        “Insane ones,” replied the captain, breathing heavily. In this battle, Yusuf’s plasma pistol was a disadvantage; as powerful as the weapon was against single enemies, it simply could not fire fast enough to make a difference. Telennios and the Strikers fared better with their heavy bolters, but even they were pressed hard to stop the suicide bombers from reaching the Imperial Redeemers’ lines.

        One explosion felt somehow stronger, more resonant. A glance at the tactical display told Yusuf that one of the bombers made it too close for comfort to the Legion forces. Another came in even closer, then another. Heavy bolters on the Stormbird opened up, scything down the closest attackers, but it was still not enough.

        “Do not relent!” shouted Yusuf over the din of battle. “We are the wrath of Terra! We came through worse than this!”

        The Imperial Redeemers of the 54th Company needed little encouragement, however, even now their perimeter began to cave in as the enemy numbers poured in. Ishmael had to revise his original estimate upwards; it seemed like the entire civilian population of the city was somehow funneled at the Apellans.

        Ishmael fired in disciplined bursts, replacing magazines as quickly as he could. Every shot took a life, making the suicide bombers explode in their last semi-conscious action, taking their comrades with them, and still getting closer.

        “Bas-tards!” screamed Telennios, losing his composure and firing on full automatic into the horde. Exhilaration of the battle took him over, tempered only with his fury at the enemy who would not fight honorably. As the suicide bombers got closer, they threw fire bombs and makeshift grenades at the Legionaries, forcing the Imperial Redeemers into further back. At this rate, it would not be long before the Legion would start taking casualties.

        “This is happening all over the city,” Yusuf voxed to his sergeants. “It is like they would rather die than surrender.”

        “This is insane,” replied Ishmael through gritted teeth, slamming in another magazine. The suicide bombers were not at most twenty meters away from the Cleavers. His shot blew the head off a middle-aged man whose arms flailed wildly in some kind of a psychotic seizure. “Do they even know what they are doing?”

        “Requesting orbital support!” shouted Yusuf into the vox, hoping that at least one of the Legion’s ships was in position. “Coordinates zeta-four-seventeen-alpha.”

        Ishmael had to restrain his natural instinct to rush into close combat, with the enemy so close he could practically smell them through his helmet’s respirator. “Hold back and fire!” he ordered his men, knowing that it did not come easy to them. “Wait for the…”

        The sky turned white, then blue, then sickly, sepia-tinted orange. The smell of ozone filled the air as the heat wave washed over the armored Imperial Redeemers. Temperature warnings flashed over Ishmael’s sensor display, forcing the cooling systems of his armor to kick into overdrive to keep him from cooking within. The blast wave staggered him as dust blanketed his vision, making him cycle through the visual modes to make up for the lack of visibility.

        The horde did not fare quite as well. The suicide bombers further back were incinerated into black ash, their silhouettes burned into the rubble. The ones closer to the Imperial Redeemers were thrown into the air, some falling back, others running forward, oblivious to their injuries. Burns covered their visible skin, and the remnants of clothes smoldered on their backs even as their faces and bodies distorted in grotesque shapes, hair burning, skin charred.

        Still they came on. Explosions rocked the ground as the first of the suicide bombers got close enough to the Legionaries. Several icons on Yusuf’s display went amber, then red, indicating battle-brothers who suffered injuries. A burning civilian, all traces of gender and age removed by the merciless fire, ran wildly at him, closing within meters before exploding. The captain was thrown back several meters even as armor integrity warnings flashed.

        More explosions sounded, and more Space Marines came down, one by one. The bolter fire became a desperate rattling that took opportunistic shots wherever possible, abandoning orderly ranks in the name of sheer survival.

        And then, it was over.

        Black smoke drifted over the battlefield where stone ran molten from the orbital lance strikes. Dead bodies in various states of dismemberment lay strewn around the flattened open area, some badly burned, others blown apart by mass-reactive shells or their own explosives. The Imperial Redeemers held position in a tightly knit formation, dragging their own dead or wounded back to the Stormbird where the Apothecaries could tend to their injuries, or give them the Emperor’s mercy and extract their gene-seed for implantation into the new recruits.

        Ishmael could feel the beating of his two hearts like twin engines guiding him to greater exertions. He saw his captain stand groggily on his feet, armor scratched and cracked from a close blast. Two of the Cleavers were wounded; one more had to give the Legion’s due. Further back, the Strikers of Telennios came through almost unscathed, but even they had a fair share of armor damage from proximity to orbital strikes.

        Still, the Legion was victorious, as it has always been, as it will always be.

        “Look alive, men,” said Yusuf, almost conversationally before the stillness of sudden victory wore off. The captain, though somewhat battered and worse for the wear, seemed to shake off the worst of the blast, and now regained some of his energy. “If this is the worst they can throw at us, then we already won.”

        Ishmael suppressed a sigh. It was one thing to kill the winged soldiers of Seventy Four-Forty Nine. They were skilled and, though misguided, at least worthy of some respect. This… slaughter was something else.

        Yusuf seemed to notice the sergeant’s slumped posture, and walked over until they were less than a meter apart. “It does not make me feel good either,” the captain confessed, switching to private channel. “These people should have been Imperial citizens. Maybe even a Network world one day.”

        Ishmael nodded, feeling too distraught to respond verbally. He checked his weapons, noticing that he was running short on magazines. The motion was almost second nature to him, far more comforting than the thought of what he had to do.

        “We did what we had to do, brother,” said Yusuf. “This is why the Imperial Truth exists. This…”

        Any words the captain had were stifled in his throat as the ground shook. Ishmael cast a quick glance of Telennios, noticing the other sergeant’s wary stance. In an instant, any contemplation was cast aside in favor of combat readiness.

        “What now?” Telennios grumbled, both hands grasping on to a bolter. “Are they going to send wildlife against us, too?”

        The first tremors were followed by more, until a sinkhole appeared near the epicenter of the orbital strike. The Imperial Redeemers backed off, all guns trailing the opening abyss. And staring into the opening maw of the darkness beneath, Ishmael finally understood what they were up against.


        Comment


        • #5
          TWO

          From the Darkness
          Into the Deep
          Master of the Sixth

          “Is this… what they worship?” Telennios was the first one to give voice to the Legionaries’ thoughts. Making a crescent around the sinkhole, the Imperial Redeemers poured bolter, plasma, and lascannon fire into the things emerging from the darkness, shattering metal and tearing flesh off the mechanical skeletons.

          The new arrivals were clearly some form of conglomerations of machine parts and soggy-looking, necrotic flesh, perhaps akin to mind-wiped servitor cyborgs that performed tasks too menial for human attention, but all similarities ended there. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the composition of individual creatures. Some brandished multiple arms ending in wrenches or power tools, while others sprouted ranged weapons integrated into their torsos or heads. Some had enough flesh remaining to almost pass for human from the distance; others were almost completely machine.

          There was no singular design, no single shape to the mechanical horde swarming from beneath the ground. But, quite unlike the suicide bombers who rushed the Imperial Redeemers only minutes earlier, the cyborgs seemed to move with coordination borne of tactical acumen, as if some intelligence guided them in a single, orchestrated whole.

          Yusuf let out a cruel laugh as he fired shots of superheated plasma into the swarm. “If so, we will show them the error of their ways.” He cycled through tactical readouts, taking note of scattered potshots coming from the enemy mass against the Legionaries, and noting the damage the Legion’s bolters did to the cyborgs. Here, at last, was an equal battle the company could fight on its own terms. “What do you say we give them our greetings up close?”

          “Challenge accepted,” grinned Ishmael, mirth coming back to his voice now that he had to fight a more acceptable form of enemy. “Cleavers! On me!”

          “I suppose this means you will be blocking our shots, brother-sergeant,” Telennios intoned dourly. He motioned his own men to prepare for attack, setting aside their heavier weapons for chainswords and bolt pistols. He raised his voice, now speaking to the warriors of the Strikers. “Are you going to let Ishmael and his boys kill them all?”

          The Imperial Redeemers met the enemy head on as the company’s sergeants screamed rousing battle cries, and the Legionaries waded knee-deep through the remains of the previous engagement to get to their inhuman adversaries. The cyborgs were relentless, fighting even through the injuries that would have incapacitated a living being, and attempting to take the Imperial Redeemers with them even as they were torn from limb to limb by roaring chainswords. But even with all their mindless ferocity, they were no match for the Space Marines.

          The warriors of the Sixth Legion were made for this fight. They were created to fight the toughest enemies of man in the environments where no life could possibly dwell, let alone thrive. Against them, the cyborgs did not stand a chance.

          Yusuf’s power sword sliced through the metal of cyborg bodies as if they were made of hot butter. His plasma pistol extolled a tally with every shot, forming a focal point of the Imperial Redeemers’ assault. Ishmael and Telennios led their warriors in similar manner, and even the Strikers, who preferred to pour fire into their enemies from the distance, seemed to give in to the moment. Assault squads, now with jet packs fully recharged from a lull in the fighting, soared in the soot-blackened sky before slamming into the machine-men like great bronze birds of vengeance.

          “At them!” bellowed Yusuf, dispatching yet another assailant, a metal construct with two human torsos wired into its structure, each sewn to several mismatched arms brandishing industrial tools. As the Legionaries surged forward, the enemy momentum broke. The fighting now took place closer to the edge of the sinkhole, and Yusuf could see into the depths. A long, steep incline led into what seemed like a cave system, from where more cyborgs attempted to reinforce their ranks.

          With every second, the enemy tide seemed to abate. Whether it was because the Imperial Redeemers were inflicting significant casualties on the cyborgs, or because whatever intelligence guided the things decided not to show its full hand yet, the battle was turning into a one-sided affair.

          “Compared to the idiots we fought before, these are target practice,” offered Ishmael. He kicked at a creature attempting to claw at him with bony hands attached to a mish-mash of tubes and wires. The cyborg came apart easily, screeching something that sounded suspiciously like a human cry of pain.

          “Then we take the fight to them,” Yusuf replied. A tactical picture formed in his mind. Yes, he thought, it was possible. More so, necessary. “We go underground and finish this.”

          “Do you… think this is wise?” Telennios offered his opinion over command channel. “These things are easy enough to deal with,” he said casually, while destroying a mostly machine cyborg with lolling eyeless head attached to a gathering of utilitarian metal appendages. “But down there…”

          “Don’t tell me the great Haroun Telennios is scared,” teased Ishmael in good humor. “I am just beginning to get started.”

          Telennios bristled at the suggestion, never breaking his combat stride. “For your information, brother, I am perfectly capable of handling these misbegotten things.” Another cyborg convulsed at his feet, torn into several mangled pieces by precise shots from the sergeant’s bolt pistol. “All I am suggesting is that we consider the wisdom of restraint until this area is secured.”

          “Not now,” said Yusuf in a stern voice bearing no disagreement. “These things are coming from down there,” he pointed his sword into the sinkhole now that the space around him was clearing up of enemies. “We destroy the enemy at the source.”

          He surveyed the incline, switching to night vision mode when the weak daylight failed to penetrate far enough into it. Somewhere far away, he could see faint outlines of columns, suggestions of shapes that could not have possibly been natural.

          “This is the heart of the infestation,” Yusuf said, taking his first step down the incline as the company finally pushed the enemy resistance from the surface. “Today, we will tear it out.”

          * * *

          The company descended into the lightless depths as the hammer of vengeance striking at the existential rot within the heart of Nevziem. Close to a hundred Legionaries advanced in perfectly drilled formation, bolters and heavier weapons creating overlapping fire zones while the assault squads, having disposed of their jetpacks, roamed the perimeter with their chainswords and other close combat weapons. The cyborgs retreated before them, their weapons ineffective against the reinforced ceramite and their best stratagems defeated by the genhanced capabilities of the Adeptus Astartes.

          Yusuf ordered large, servitor-mounted lights to be positioned in the center of the formation, illuminating the darkness as the Imperial Redeemers advanced through the rubble, through mangled pieces of metal and remains of dismembered cyborgs. As more of the underground cavity was revealed, Ishmael could not help but whistle in surprise.

          “This thing is old,” he remarked, noticing columns etched with rusting metal reliefs and blotches of dark material surfacing through the mounds of dirt, looking suspiciously like something forged by sentient hands. “Age of Technology, by the looks of it.”

          “Be on your guard,” Yusuf warned even as for the moment, the company found itself left alone. “The things we fought were too primitive for the Age of Technology.”

          Telennios sighed, inching closer to the captain. “At this rate, the Martian cog-boys will be all over this place before we get down.”

          “The cog-boys could wait,” said Yusuf. “If they want to be here, they are welcome to form the vanguard.” The sound of coarse laughter answered him; the conversation was on the company-wide channel, and many Imperial Redeemers had little respect for the technology-obsessed priest-engineers of Mars.

          Metal crunched under their heavily armored feet. By Ishmael’s accounting, they were descending at a rapid pace, and were now at least a hundred meters or more underground. Their surroundings seemed to acquire more of a shape, as if the natural formation somehow came into focus, turning into a man-made maze in the process.

          The walls were covered by long-defunct monitors and broken devices of unknown purpose, covered in grime and cobwebs. Small, eyeless, slithering critters scuttled in fear at the armored giants’ passage, scurrying to get out of their way.

          “Contact!”

          The first sign of the enemy was the burst of plasma fire that enveloped an Imperial Redeemer Legionary to the right of Yusuf, cooking the warrior inside his armor in fractions of a second. The attack came without warning, fooling the auspex sensors even as large, hulking shapes strode into view.

          Perhaps they were planning an ambush, or maybe they were planning an all-out assault now that the Space Marines were cut off from any potential support. Perhaps the guiding intelligence behind the enemy movements simply waited to throw its best troops at the Imperial Redeemers until it realized that all previous attempts to push them back failed. It did not matter.

          The enemy were bulky, angular-looking things larger than a fully armored Space Marine, with embedded plasma guns and other, more esoteric weapons built in symmetrical proportions. They moved on wide tracks and mechanical, arachnoid limbs, lifting themselves from the desolate ruins to face the Legionaries.

          The Imperial Redeemers opened fire before the body of their first casualty hit the ground. Bolter shells blasted apart metal armor and delicate sensors, reaping their toll amidst the enemy. Bright lances of lascannon fire left strands of light upon the Legionaries’ retinas despite the protective auto-senses.

          This time, it was not as easy.

          The machines attacking the 54th Company were solidly built, capable of shrugging off several mass-reactive rounds and dishing out their own punishment in return. What they lacked in speed, they made up for in toughness and the power of their armaments.

          Yusuf charged at the automatons, leading his men to enter the fray where the enemy weapons could be neutralized. As always, Ishmael was at his side, while Telennios utilized his squad’s heavier weaponry to provide some covering fire.

          The captain’s power sword sliced through the machines, severing gun barrels and penetrating weaker spots where sensors or engines resided. Around him, the Imperial Redeemers attempted to close the distance, pushing back the inexorable enemy tide. The servitor-operated lights flickered and went out, though it was impossible to tell if it was due to malfunction or due to enemy action. Still, in total darkness, the battle continued.

          Ishmael could not tell how many enemies he had arraigned against him, having long lost count of the machines he slew. The night vision mode of his helmet gave him a glimpse into the chaos of close combat, flashes of both enemies and of his own battle-brothers struggling to the death. The teeth of his chainsword were now dulled by constant need to rip apart the metal hide, and his bolt pistol was out of ammunition with too little time to replace the magazine. His world was concentrated in the immediate radius in front of him, trusting in his squad mates to cover his blind side just as he did for the next man up.

          “We must push on!” shouted Yusuf, his voice amplified by the external speakers of his armor to be louder than the whirring of chainswords and the sounds of shells exploding like miniature stars going supernova in the pitch black confines. The Imperial Redeemers responded with an assortment of battle cries, curses, or simple shouts of exertion and aggression.

          For all their losses, they finally had a battle worthy of fighting.

          The enemy onslaught slowed down just as the Legionaries pushed the robots back perhaps another thirty or so meters. The company was now forcing its way through a gaping hole in the cavern wall with sharp edges indicative of torn and mutilated metal.

          There was no mistaking it. The insides of the hole looked like the interior of a giant, archaic bunker or underground factory – a marvel of forgotten technology made by human hands in the times before the Old Night.

          Ishmael snorted as he took a rare opportunity to replace a spent magazine. “I take it this is where they are coming from?”

          “Well,” said Telennios, “you are, of course, aware of the saying. Strange things dwell in dark places.”

          The captain sneered in response. “Then we bring them the light.”

          * * *

          The automatons assaulted the Imperial Redeemers twice more as the company fought their way through the lengthy corridors, demolishing rusted doors which led to giant hangars and what seemed like abandoned living quarters, purging the robotic infestation in the halls of dormant engines and graveyards of ancient, decrepit machinery. Each time the going got harder.

          At every turn, new and more elaborate enemy forms tried to stem their advance. Ishmael’s chainsword lost almost all its teeth, and the sergeant had to resort to shorter, less efficient combat blade to hack his way through the weak points in the machine structures. Ammunition was growing scarce, and Yusuf ordered the men to ration their magazines, resorting to ranged fire only when no other options were viable. Even Telennios, grumbling about this barbaric and inelegant way of war, could see the wisdom of his captain’s decision, although he clearly did not like it.

          The deeper the Legionaries descended, the more functional their surroundings appeared. Even through their armor they could sense the faint hum of some great engines or reactors powering the structure around them.

          Whatever power made its lair in the depths was waking up, and it had no love for the intruders.

          Now, the darkness was penetrated by occasional blinking lights or even entire sections of functioning lighting strips. Some almost formed meaningful patterns, broken occasionally by millennia of decay and malfunction. Others flickered on and off with neither rhyme nor reason, casting the Imperial Redeemers’ advance in a sinister, inconstant light.

          “We must be getting close,” remarked Ishmael, peeking behind the corner of a wrecked storage room and finding no immediate opposition. “This almost looks lived in, compared to other levels.”

          “What do you think this place was?” pondered Telennios, taking an opportunity to check his ammunition count before hesitantly mag-locking his bolter to his armor. “Some kind of a city?”

          Yusuf nodded, for the moment drawing level with the two sergeants. “They are not the first culture to worship ancestors,” he said thoughtfully. “Probably not the first one to have old technology stashed underground, entire city of it even.”

          “Why does it always have to be underground?” Ishmael asked, never taking his eyes off the unknown territory in front of him. “I mean, it seems like every pathetic bunch of primitives sits on a treasure trove and doesn’t know it.”

          “Perhaps you can ask them when we are through with this place,” said Telennios, forgetting his refined manners in the anticipation of discovery.

          “If there are any of them left to question, brother.” Ishmael let out a curt laugh that was more bitter than amused. “At this rate, this will be a dead city before we get out of here.”

          Yusuf held out a hand, causing the advancing Legionaries to stop. Some faint glow appeared in the distance, like a glimmer of daylight which lost its way. All chatter ceased as discipline and training took over.

          “This looks like some kind of a central node,” said the captain. “Slow advance, demi-squads.”

          The Imperial Redeemers split into five-man squads, one advancing while the other stood overwatch, then the other doing the same. This was a standard tactic for moving through the unknown, potentially hostile territory, and the 54th Company was well versed in it, having fought on hundreds of battlefields throughout the galaxy in the Great Crusade. The only sounds were the curt orders transmitted by the squad sergeants and junior officers, and the clanging of the Legionaries’ feet against the metal floor.

          The path led through a hanging bridge roughly five hundred meters long, suspended over the seemingly bottomless abyss by thick ropes made from some kind of metal. The Space Marines advanced warily, as if expecting the darkness itself to give birth to some new obstacle.

          The buzzing sound gave them away.

          As the company spread across the middle section of the bridge, its forward elements still more than a hundred meters away from the end, a swarm of hovering drones emerged from the depths, firing solid shot bullets and incandescent energy beams as they rose higher and higher. The drones were little more than guns attached to sensor arrays, with an assortment of grav-plating and rapidly turning propellers for propulsion. Hundreds of the flying machines rushed the Imperial Redeemers, exchanging fire with them now that the Space Marines had little cover.

          Bolters opened up on full automatic, careless of prodigious ammo consumption. Drones exploded, careening back into the waiting depths like wayward meteors. Lascannons and plasma guns sent flashes of bright, destructive energy after the assaulting swarm, each shot a devastating reminder of the power wielded by the Legiones Astartes.

          But despite murderous casualties, the drones were reaping their due. Bereft of cover, several Imperial Redeemers fell to the energy beams, or were sent crashing to their deaths as solid shot and missiles pushed them over the edge into the depths. Many more were wounded, their armor providing only limited protection against the weight of fire.

          This could not continue, Yusuf thought, seeing his company dangerously exposed. Blood pulsated in his temples, anger at letting himself be caught like this. Momentarily, he reached a decision.

          “Forward, brothers!” he shouted, pointing his power sword in the direction of the light. “Move!”

          The warriors of the 54th company did not disappoint. All caution was thrown to the wind as they rushed forward, finding safety in speed while the rearguard attempted to thin the ranks of the attacking drones with precise bursts of bolter fire. No mortal army could have accomplished this without falling prey to confusion – but they were more than human. They were the sons of Iskanderos, and they would not falter no matter the circumstances.

          As the first Imperial Redeemers made it off the bridge, they pivoted to expend more of their dwindling ammunition to provide cover for their brethren in the rearguard. No longer in the open, their fire decimated the drones now that the Space Marines could hide behind the arcane machinery and structures left over from another age. Sounds of explosions and massed, disciplined fire filled the darkness.

          Ishmael was at the fore of the hurried advance, inching closer to the opening from which the light shone with every step. He lost sight of Telennios, but knew that his fellow sergeant was probably even now cherishing an opportunity to direct his men in a kind of action he knew best. As befitted a captain, Yusuf added his fire to Strikers at the rearguard of the formation, holding position until the drone threat was neutralized.

          “Cleavers, Chargers, establish beachhead inside,” Yusuf voxed, designating squads to be the first into the breach. Ishmael could not help but feel pride at his men being called out for the task. “Strikers, Stingers, guard the entrance and back them up.” If anything, the captain knew how to get the best out of the men under his command; by giving Telennios and Kassam, another sergeant with preference for defensive operations, the responsibility for protecting their brothers, Yusuf ensured that each man’s competencies were given a chance to shine.

          Without further words, Ishmael motioned to his surviving squad members, seven in total. Nearby, he saw a similarly reduced, yet determined squad take their positions within formation. “On my mark…” Ishmael said on the inter-squad channel, assuming seniority as his squad’s name was called out first. “Ready… set… go!”

          The two squads of Imperial Redeemers advanced into the light.

          * * *

          The light came from crystals covering the entire inside of a spherical hall easily large enough to hold Titans. They rose from the floor and descended from the glassy ceiling like geometrically perfect stalactites and stalagmites, symmetrical and seemingly fragile. Some crystals shone with soft yellow tint, while others gave off hues of cold, harsh, bluish white. Here and there, tiny dots of green, red, and yellow hinted at the machinery hidden beneath, still working after however many centuries the structure spent underground.

          ++STOP++

          The voice rang from everywhere at once, powerful and inhuman, displaying no emotion. To an unprotected mortal, it could have ruptured eardrums. The autosenses of the Imperial Redeemers’ helmets filtered out the worst of it, but vibrations of thousands of crystals still set Ishmael’s teeth on the edge.

          ++SERP WISHES TO NEGOTIATE++

          The light began to coalesce in the center of the room, like a miniature sun woven from the strands of multi-colored, slithering beams. Ishmael’s eye lenses darkened. Inside the projection, he could see shapes, some almost human, others disturbingly alien.

          “Captain, I think you need to see this,” the Cleavers sergeant voxed to Yusuf.

          “Acknowledged.” The captain’s reply was curt, as if he was still engaged in battle. “Will be there soon.” The link was cut off before Ishmael could say anything else.

          ++HUMAN VARIATION INTRUDER, A CEASE-FIRE IS PROPOSED++

          Ishmael held his breath, not daring to say something that would exceed his authority. While friendly banter amongst the Imperial Redeemers was allowed and even encouraged between the missions, in battle the Sixth Legion followed a strict chain of command. This was a decision for the captain, not for a mere sergeant.

          Another ball of light coalesced in the empty room, this time having very little to do with the entity. Ishmael’s rebreather struggled to filter out the smell of ozone.

          “The sergeant does not have authority to negotiate a surrender,” another voice boomed, proud, melodious, yet full of vigor and authority, drowning out the emotionless rattle of the Serp. “Luckily for you, I do.”

          Just as Yusuf and three of his command squad ran through the opening into the crystal chamber, Ishmael took an involuntary step back at the arrival of a living god.

          * * *

          How could mere mortals describe a touch of divinity forced into human form, given shape and definition by dreams and aspirations of every civilization that came before the Imperium of Man? How could they look at the very image of perfection, simultaneously invincible, charming, inspiring, and beautiful beyond the most celebrated works of art?

          Even the post-human warriors of Legiones Astartes, themselves carrying the genetic legacy of Primarchs and, through them, of the immortal Emperor himself, were not immune from the feelings of awe and devotion inspired by these gene-forged demigods. And of all the Primarchs, none embodied the ideal of perfection more than Iskanderos.

          Iskanderos, the Golden One, called the Conqueror amongst the masses, stood in the crystal chamber and smiled at his sons, flickering strands of lightning from teleportation sequence still playing across his ornate armor. Gold shoulder-length locks fluttered in the light breeze, framing the face of a hero from an epic poem, or of a just, noble king worthy of adoration and even worship. Gold and bronze of his armor were formed in decorations of ferocious beasts; each pauldron was the roaring lion’s head holding a globe in its mighty jaws; the two-headed Imperial aquila on the Primarch’s chest held a scepter and a sword in the claws inlaid with rubies, diamonds, and pearls. Heavy greaves and vambraces were engraved with the names of worlds brought into compliance by the Sixth Legion; it was said that even though the writing was too small for the naked eye to read, there was almost no room left on the Sixth Primarch’s armor. A long sword hung in a scabbard positioned across Iskanderos’ back, elaborate artistry of images across the blade hiding the brute functionality of monomolecular edge and in-built power field.

          Even the inhuman voice of Serp seemed to fade in the presence of the Legion’s gene-father and master, as if no force in the universe could argue with his undiluted majesty. Some amongst the Legions, especially the older Marines who once fought in the Unification Wars on Terra, whispered that of all the Primarchs, Iskanderos was most like the Emperor in both face and spirit, a brash, bold leader who shared much of his immortal father’s bearing and raw charisma. Looking at his liege, Yusuf could easily believe that.

          He almost did not see the figures surrounding Iskanderos, diminished to near irrelevance despite their hulking Terminator armor and an array of brutal-looking weaponry. Next to the Primarch, even the honor guards, each a mighty hero of the Sixth Legion, were like children in the light of the glorious, newborn sun.

          One of the figures, however, was not like the others. As Yusuf got over his initial shock of seeing his liege so close, his lips pursed in disapproval. What was an adept of Mars doing here?

          ++SURRENDER IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. SERP OFFERS CEASE-FIRE++

          Somehow, now that the Primarch and his retinue stood amongst the crystal room, the booming voice did not seem as overwhelming as before. Yusuf took this opportunity to rejoin his sergeants, warily eyeing the crystals for any emergent threats.

          “We have enough melta-bombs to blow this thing to kingdom come,” offered Ishmael over the closed channel. “What is this, anyway? Some manner of xenos?”

          Yusuf thought about it for a moment, recalling stories from before the collapse of civilization, before the Emperor united Terra and then the human race to reach for the stars again. The possibility seemed almost too repulsive to consider, but still his voice betrayed only little of his disgust. “AI – abominable intelligence,” he said, every word dripping with venom. His memories drifted for a fraction of a second, recalling slave pens of Procrustus, where men, women, and children lived and died in service of cruel machine vivisectors, never seeing the daylight as they became fodder for inhuman and vile experiments.

          “I thought those things were ancient history,” Ishmael replied, still in shock at his Primarch’s appearance.

          Whatever reply Yusuf had in mind never materialized. His eyes were on the lord of the Sixth Legion, the golden hero, as his perfectly proportioned face melted in an expression of amusement.

          “I don’t believe Serp is in any position to make demands,” said Iskanderos with a humorous glint in his eyes. He seemed to nod to the warriors of the 54th Company in grateful acknowledgment. The Primarch took several steps across the room, taking in his surroundings like a seasoned traveler might examine some quaint piece of artwork on a backwards world. “You had your time in the sun, or, more accurately, out of the sun,” he said, mockingly. “An entire civilization of people who worshipped the likes of you.”

          ++SERP MAINTAINS OPTIMAL SOCIAL STRUCTURE FOR EXTENDED SUSTAINABILITY. DEVOTION IS NECESSARY FOR COMPLIANCE WITH PRIME DIRECTIVES. ADAPTATIONS FOR EXTENDED ISOLATION WERE TAKEN++

          “The isolation is over,” Iskanderos replied, voice matching the pitch and the volume of the ancient machine. “The fleets of Terra have found your people. Tell them to lay down their arms.” There was no more humor in the Primarch’s words, only determination.

          ++IMPOSSIBLE. CONTINUED SURVIVAL OF THE OPTIMAL SOCIAL STRUCTURE IS REQUIRED. PRIME DIRECTIVE MUST CONTINUE++

          Iskanderos nodded, as if whatever decision he was contemplating was just made much easier. “Then I believe we have very little to discuss. Melta charges?”

          “Lord Iskanderos!” the adept of Mars, a wretched thing covered with mechanical arms and mechadendrite tentacles protested. Instantly, the eyes of the Imperial Redeemers were on the impudent tech-priest. “This is a treasure trove! Surely we can…”

          ++MEASURES MUST BE TAKEN++

          The machine voice drowned out whatever the Martian was about to propose. The lights in the chamber changed, first to warning amber, then to angry red. Something moved within the crystal ceiling, slithered under the semi-transparent floor. Something that seemed disturbingly organic.

          “Not now, adept,” said Iskanderos sternly, unsheathing his sword and taking a defensive stance. “This is abomination, and today, we destroy it.”

          The crystals exploded in a hail of biting shards, and as the Imperial Redeemers readied themselves, creatures of darkest nightmare emerged into the open.

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          • #6
            THREE

            Brothers of the Void
            Demolition
            Nothing of Darkness

            Where the wretched cyborgs had, at least once, been human, the things that swarmed at the assembled Legionaries from their crystal prisons had nothing of Terra in them. Sinuous scales gave way to leathery hides; chitinous mandibles intertwined with vestigial wings and tentacles covered with eyes and horns.

            No two were exactly alike, as though the creatures were products of thousand different evolutions that defied the laws of common sense.

            Some slithered on serpentine tails, while others hopped on underdeveloped legs, propped by wings at once ornate like those of a monarch butterfly, and decrepit like the wrappings of a mummified corpse infused with rot and pestilence. Some crawled on a multitude of stick-like legs that ended in claws or mouths, and others walked in a manner disturbingly human-like had it not been for the impossible composition of their twisted, abominable physiques.

            It was as if nature itself screamed in disgust as the crystal tombs gave birth to these abominations that had no place in the natural order of things.

            Without a word or an order, the Imperial Redeemers opened fire.

            Storm bolter shells from the hulking Terminators tore into the creatures, shredding translucent flesh and spilling viscous multicolored liquids onto the stained crystal floor. Yusuf’s men added the weight of their own fire to it, no longer caring to conserve their remaining ammunition.

            It was not enough.

            The creatures charged with no concern for their safety, no thought of tactics or coordination. The first wave was cut down before they could even get close to melee range, but they only paved the way for more of their kind to get closer. And then, the killing began.

            The ungainly limbs became deadly weapons that seemed to pierce the battle-hardened ceramite like power weapon cutting through primitive cloth and leather armor. The wings that seemed to puny to allow flight expanded, carrying the monsters dozens of meters into the stale air of the crystal cave, only to plunge back down like living missiles. Glaring balefires lit up in the misshapen eyes and mouths, enveloping the Imperial Redeemers and boiling them within the heavy war-plate.

            “What in the name of avici are those things?” Yusuf cursed, invoking the name of the deepest hell of Apellene mythology as he tried to shoot his way through spider-like things with way too many limbs ending in gaping, bestial maws. His power sword carved through another beast, this one wreathed in green-blue fire that seemed to move of its own volition, ignoring the laws of physics.

            He kicked at a slug-like monster with acidic slime eating into the crystal floor. The sensation was like kicking a gelatinous blob, filling Yusuf with disgust.

            ++BROTHERS OF THE VOID. KILL THE INTRUDERS.++

            The voice of Serp was a booming thunder resonating through the cave. More and more crystals fell down from the ceiling, unleashing new and even more disturbing enemy forms.

            “Xenos,” shouted Iskanderos over the din of battle. The Primarch was the image of martial grace, always moving, always slaying with his every motion. Where he went, the beasts died, torn to pieces or smashed by punches and kicks when the Conqueror’s sword was too cumbersome to dispatch them. Even as he spoke, he killed, paying the enemy no more attention than a man would to a bug crushed under his foot. “Voidspawn. Minor things carried over when the ships exit the Empyrean.”

            “But I thought these dissipated in minutes after transition!” said Yusuf, panting for breath as he spun away from a mangy monster with arms ending in serrated, bony blades. A thrust from his power sword ended the monster, only to leave him open for another creature, a pustulent sack of entrails and rotten flesh with black fangs growing out of its asymmetrical tentacles. A lash of grey-green tongue from a shapeless mouth surrounded by insectoid mandibles grabbed on to the captain’s plasma pistol, crushing the priceless weapon even as the superheated matter inside combusted, annihilating both the tongue and the Imperial Redeemer’s hand at the wrist. The tentacles launched themselves at Yusuf, enveloping his sword hand, drawing him closer.

            The world narrowed down to the fetid monster trying to drag him closer to his doom. Yusuf saw the armor integrity warnings flash before his eyes, blocking the pain in the cauterized stump of his hand to focus on survival. He crashed the stump into the voidspawn, hitting it once, twice, thrice, disregarding his injury in search of escape.

            A blade crashed into the creature, splitting it in two. Some foul ichor bled down to the crystal floor, eating into its glassy perfection as the voidspawn’s skin deflated like a pierced balloon. Tentacles twitched with the last glimpse of life, then curled back in rigor mortis.

            Iskanderos withdrew his blade from the voidspawn’s body, immediately shifting his attention to the pack of ravening horrors pressing hard against the Terminators. Somewhere behind the cordon of Tactical Dreadnought Armor, the Mechanicum adept cowered, with only occasional flashes of light from embedded arcane weaponry suggesting that he was taking part in the fight.

            “On me!” shouted the Primarch, raising his voice over the din of battle. His sword made wide arcs of flaming death, slaughtering everything it came in contact with. “For Emperor and Apella!”

            “For Emperor and Apella!”

            The surviving Imperial Redeemers were battered, their ammunition counters quickly going down to zero, and the enemy horde making a dent in their numbers. Still, they heard their gene-father’s call and answered it, redoubling their efforts to push back the voidspawn.

            Yusuf found his place in the formation to the side of Ishmael and his Cleavers, who laid into the enemy with renewed vigor. Chainswords and combat blades clashed against the hideous flesh and exoskeletal armor, pushing back against the monstrous tide.

            And still the abominable intelligence spoke, taunting them, extolling its despicable troops to murder.

            “Will someone shut this thing up?” complained Ishmael. The Cleavers sergeant was locked in combat with two smaller, famine-thin creatures connected by an umbilical-looking cord the color of diseased flesh and rust. One monster managed to get under his guard even as Ishmael stabbed his chainsword into what passed for the other’s head. The Imperial Redeemer hissed as barbed tentacles bit into his chest plate, then embraced the enemy in a bear hug enhanced by the servo-motors and fibre-muscles of his armor. The voidspawn liquefied, draining to the floor like a puddle of black liquid.

            Iskanderos grinned, never pausing the slaughter. “Someone has the right idea!” he said in a voice that would have fit well at a social gathering, had it not been for its enormous volume. “Demolitions teams! Rig this place up.”

            ++MUST DESTROY INTRUDER TO PRESERVE++

            Even one-handed, Yusuf was more than a match for each individual voidspawn. With the momentum now firmly on the Imperial Redeemers side, the Space Marines formed into a circular schiltron, repelling attacks from all sides now that the initial surprise of the enemy assault was spent. The captain of the 54th Company used his reduced hand as a club, trusting in the mechanically augmented strength over any need for finesse.

            Iskanderos was at the center of the formation, the raging spear tip of fury too fast for the naked eye to follow. Where the Primarch fought, the voidspawn melted before his onslaught, sliding away to attack weaker links in the Imperial Redeemers’ formation.

            But none would be found wanting that day. Every warrior of the Sixth Legion was a superhuman killing machine trained from childhood to destroy the enemies of humanity with all tools at their disposal. Fear and doubt were bred out of them as the Emperor’s gene-smiths uplifted them from mortality. And so they fought on in the shadow of their Primarch, pushing back the voidspawn under the thunderous but otherwise futile proclamations of Serp.

            ++INSUFFICIENT STRENGTH COMPUTATION++

            “Shut up, will you?” screamed Yusuf back, forgetting his injuries and laying into the voidspawn. Now that the Legionaries were in tight formation, the monsters’ numerical advantage was negated by the Space Marines’ superior skill and discipline.

            ++INITIATING MERGE++

            “I don’t like the sound of that,” added Ishmael from Yusuf’s side. The voidspawn rolled back, as if in retreat. Opportunistic shots took out many creatures, even as the flow of abominations from their crystal tombs slowed down.

            The creatures began to close in with each other. Like liquid solidifying into a terrifying new form, their bodies started to flow together, melting into one another in defiance of all common sense.

            The new amorphous shape grew larger as more and more voidspawn joined in with it. Bolt shells and even plasma and lascannon shots did little to it. The mass seemed to absorb everything thrown at it, exchanging the vulnerabilities of individual creatures for its bleeding bulk.

            But even though the merged mass seemed organic in nature, something else began to poke through, something metallic and hard-edged. As the Imperial Redeemers demolition teams spread out across the hall, planting melta charges despite the protests of the tech-adept, the monstrous creature roared, animal sounds mixing with the tinny noise of a distorted, blown speaker past its maximum volume.

            It was the size of a Titan and growing still. Currents of liquefied voidspawn flesh pooled together, then continued to race towards the monster. Even the dead enemy bodies were not immune from this despicable movement, adding to the mass of the horror.

            “I… have never seen anything like this,” squeezed Ishmael through his teeth, seemingly stupefied. He sized the monster up and down with his pistol, then stood still in either awe or shock.

            Yusuf put his mangled hand on the sergeant’s shoulder. “We are Imperial Redeemers, brother,” he said, softly but firmly. “We do not become awed at some jumped-up creature from the Old Night. We fight it. And we kill it.”

            A tall shadow fell over them. Yusuf turned to face the potential threat, relaxing his stance only when he realized the nature of this intruder.

            “You are right, my son,” said Iskanderos with the cocksure, confident smile of a warrior who never knew defeat or infamy. “This is what we do. And this is what we will do.”

            Yusuf felt a swelling of pride at being addressed by his Primarch. From any other being, these words would have sounded patronizing. From Iskanderos, they were the highest commendation possible.

            “You can have the honor of ordering a charge,” said the Conqueror. Yusuf put the stump of his hand over his chest, where the Imperial Aquila proudly spread its wings. One head of the burnished bronze eagle was sighted like the vision that drove them forward to the furthest reaches of the galaxy. One head was blind like justice itself, like the power of sacred retribution.

            As the first budding polyps of foulness erupted into the winged monstrosities hatching from the titanic abomination’s gelatinous mass, Yusuf pointed his power sword at the creature, calling for tactical encirclement and elimination.

            With the names of the Emperor and Apella on their lips, the Imperial Redeemers charged.

            * * *

            The grav and melta charges went off just as the monster started to react to Sixth Legion’s assault. At first, shards of crystal collapsed, freed from their moorings by dedicated bursts of superheated air or by forced collapse of their internal structure. A moaning sound mourned their destruction, made all the stranger by the lack of emotion or enunciation in Serp’s machine-voice.

            With the ranged weapons proving ineffective, the Imperial Redeemers closed in for the kill.

            Gaping holes emerged in the crystal floor, but no further horrors came flooding out. It seemed that whatever forces still obeyed the abominable machine intelligence were now fully committed to the titanic mass now hatching every sort of monster imaginable.

            Iskanderos was at the forefront of the assault, slaying everything that came near him with tightly controlled swings of his blade, or pulverizing the monsters with crushing kicks and punches. Now, the roles were reversed; the enemy were on the defensive, and the closing circle of the Imperial Redeemers inched towards the epicenter of madness.

            Time slowed to a crawl as Yusuf led his warriors in the shadow of his Primarch, power sword flashing left and right. The giant voidspawn lashed back, but the swarming winged horrors could not emerge fast enough before being slain by the Space Marines. The massive abomination flung its blubber-like body, knocking over the warriors, yet where bolt shells, plasma and lascannon blasts had no effect, the warriors’ blades tore pieces out of its bulk, exposing sacs of foul liquid and seemingly displaced pieces of machinery and crystal.

            Lances of light streamed out of the enemy, burning the paint off the Legionaries’ armor and killing unfortunate few who were not quick enough to get away. Still, the butchery continued.

            And the explosive charges kept going off.

            Hand-mounted flamers joined in with the inferno of balefire, pushing back the unnatural flames born of heretical union of Old Night technology and something not of this world. Stench of something rotten filled the air, like thousands flies feeding on carrion in the last stages of decomposition. Through all of this, the Imperial Redeemers soldiered on, led by the demigod in their midst.

            The lights in the cave dimmed as it continued to disintegrate around the warring parties. A sense of gloom descended upon it, pierced by flashes of flamer fire or occasional explosions as the crystals collapsed.

            And yet, there was joy in this battle. For once, Yusuf and his men fought against the enemy that required no moral ambiguity to slay. Where the humans of Seventy Four-Forty Nine could be at least considered misguided and worthy of Legionaries’ pity, the monster before the Space Marines demanded none, for it was beyond redemption from the very moment of its creation. Fighting in the darkness penetrated only by occasional fires, filtered by the night vision mode of his helmet as he tried to keep up with Iskanderos, Yusuf knew only the purest form of martial satisfaction.

            The thing continued to squirm, trying to use its sheer bulk to crush the Imperial Redeemers, but its efforts were to no avail. The Legion-issue Mark IV power armor was built to withstand the most extreme environments known to man, and even though it was not entirely proof against the monster’s attacks, it allowed the Legionaries to cut their way from within the bulbous folds of the creature’s gelatinous flesh.

            Iskanderos led from the front, and Yusuf could barely manage to match the Primarch’s pace. Twice the voidspawn monster tried to envelop them with the folds of its flesh while the smaller horrors attempted to claw against the Space Marines’ armor. Some Imperial Redeemers fell, but it was too little, too late. With the benefits of discipline and organization, the Sixth Legion was an unstoppable force, trained to fight in tight formation and to rely on each other without thinking.

            Not for them the blind savagery of sons of Kthuln, or, worse yet, those of Angelus. Not for them the machine-like doctrines of the Immortals, or the dishonorable yet effective tactics of the Doom Reavers. They were the best of the best, the sons of Apella and Iskanderos, and Yusuf could not be prouder.

            Some day, this will be me. He remembered something vague, something almost human that flickered in and out of consciousness. Who said that? Was it some strange remainder of his mortal life, now almost forgotten and erased by years of hypno-indoctrination and a century of incessant warfare expanding the Emperor’s dominion?

            It did not matter. The enemy was before him, and the enemy had to die.

            “Onward!” the Primarch beckoned the Legionaries, and they obliged as gladly as a throng of neophytes seeking their master’s praise. They cut into the voidspawn with their combat blades and chainswords, let loose against it with flamers and more esoteric close combat weapons.

            Half-formed veins and organs that could not have possibly served a useful purpose disintegrated as the monster’s bulk came apart. Any smaller creatures that came between the Imperial Redeemers and their prey were destroyed with nary a thought, as by now the giant could no longer produce its spawn at sufficient rate to replenish its losses.

            And then, it was over.

            Iskanderos stood in the center of mangled, torn apart flesh, his sword planted into something that looked suspiciously like a small cogitator device. Arcs of lightning danced across the finely wrought blade, entwining with the convulsions of the dying machine. The darkness was pierced by sudden explosions inside the remaining crystals, points of light flashing akin to bursts of tracer fire.

            It took Yusuf a second to realize that the howling voice of Serp was no more, and silence reigned over the crystal chamber.

            The Primarch looked around at the remains of his force, apparently satisfied. Though dozens of Imperial Redeemers met their end in the chamber of abominable intelligence, over eighty warriors still drew breath. The company’s two apothecaries hurried between them, taking the Legion’s due from the dead and the mortally wounded, or administering first aid to those who could benefit from it. Holes in the crystal floor where the melta and grav charges set off became bottomless pits leading to the parts unknown. The lights continued to flicker and die one by one, like last convulsions of a previously mighty organism.

            “My sons,” said Iskanderos with the aplomb of yet another victory. “Time to finish the job.”

            The Mechanicum adept strode towards him in a motion that suggested a form of portable anti-gravity device hidden under his robes. When the tech-priest spoke, his voice was mechanical and grating.

            “Surely you may allow the excavation teams here before it is eliminated?” said the wretched half-man, half-machine. “The technology utilized here is a priceless…”

            “Enough.” Iskanderos interrupted, clearly irate that his moment of triumph was sullied by the tech-priest’s bleating.

            “But… sir…”

            Iskanderos moved with the speed that belied his bulk. In less time than it took for the eye to register, he towered over the Martian adept, exuding menace and murder.

            “Good men died today,” the Primarch said, every word a booming testament of anger. “Good men died so that the likes of this,” he motioned to the walls of the chamber with his sword arm. The waning twilight of the crystals cast him in a dark orange halo that played across his golden armor like balefire. “Do. Not. Enslave. Humanity.” Each word was punctuated like a deliberate statement.

            Yusuf could not help but feel a sensation of pride at his commander. Very few could afford to incite the wrath of Mars, the cradle of humanity’s technology and the greatest of the Imperium’s forge worlds. Generals who clashed with the Red Planet’s scions found their armies devoid of supplies, or their mechanized support withdrawn at the critical time. A Primarch, however, was above mere mortal warriors, above even the Legionaries themselves.

            And, Yusuf thought, trying not to think about the pain in his savaged arm, he is doing this because of us.

            It was whispered amongst the warriors of the Legions, though never admitted by any official Imperial source, that the likes of Rogr Hemri or Nihlus cared little for the lives of their men, considering them almost as expendable as mortal troops of the Imperial Army. Whether it was because of nearly industrial processes utilized to create them, now that the Great Crusade was nearly five centuries in the making, or for some other reason – many longer-serving veterans claimed that things changed.

            To hear Iskanderos praise the effort of his men and stand up to the scions of Mars over it was not something Yusuf took lightly.

            I am proud to be an Imperial Redeemer, he thought, even as he attempted to catalogue the losses suffered by his company. I am proud to be his son.

            On top of the decaying mass of flesh quickly turning to viscous black tar, Iskanderos stared down at the tech-adept. The Primarch was almost twice the machine-man’s height, towering over his mechanized adversary like a titan of Grecian legend.

            “My men sacrificed their lives so the people of this world can be free, Magos Roh,” the Conqueror continued, heedless of the encroaching darkness. There was pronounced menace in his voice. “Nothing that comes out of the darkness can bring humanity any good. My verdict is final. This place is condemned, as are any others like it.”

            Before the enraged demigod, even the heavily augmented Magos could not stand his ground. The Martian made an awkward bow, as if whatever cybernetic enhancements hid under the robe made the very act painful, then wisely retreated without saying a further word.

            “Extraction in one minute,” said the Primarch, casting a last look at the Magos before facing Yusuf. “You have acquainted yourself well, Captain.”

            “Thank you, sir,” was all that Yusuf could manage. He heard of mortals finding themselves helpless against the Legiones Astartes due to sheer awe and dread they felt when facing the post-human warriors. Right now, he experienced something of a kind next to his Primarch, a being as far removed from Space Marines as the Space Marines themselves were raised over mere men.

            Iskanderos smiled, a suddenly paternal expression of pride. “You and your men do the Legion proud, Yusuf al-Malik. I would be honored if you would sit at my table at the victory feast.” The golden demigod was wreathed in dying shadows painting his armor orange, brown, and black. Suddenly, the Primarch’s shoulder-length curls looked almost like thorns against the dim light.

            Yusuf tried to banish the thought. He struggled to say something, anything at all.

            It should have been Ishmael, he thought, incapable of voicing it. He was here first. The lips refused to form the words.

            “And you, sergeant,” Iskanderos continued, as if reading Yusuf’s mind. The Primarch’s attention was now focused fully on Ishmael. “I would like to extend an invitation to you.” The Conqueror’s smile was almost disarming in its sincerity and warmth.

            “I… we… would be greatly honored, sir,” Ishmael replied, visibly struggling to answer but pushing out the words nevertheless.

            “Good,” said Iskanderos, moments before the actinic flashes of teleportation sequence enveloped them all to return them to the ships in orbit. “The Legion needs good men like you.”


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            • #7
              FOUR

              Celebration of Victory
              End of War
              Companions

              In the end, the battle for Seventy Four-Forty Nine took another week – one more day to destroy the remaining sources of artificial intelligence hiding under the world’s largest cities, and six days to root out remaining nests of organized anti-Imperial resistance. Anything left over after the Imperial Redeemers’ assault was too insignificant for the Legion forces to become involved, leaving the grunts of the Imperial Army with the unenviable task of mopping up saboteurs, guerilla fighters, remnants of local armies led by junior officers and opportunistic madmen, misguided peasants, and the usual dreck that sprung up in the wake of the new order.

              In due time, the planet would be given a new, more appropriate name that would reflect on its status as a compliant Imperial world, the right of retaining its former name being yet another privilege not afforded to those who resisted the rule of distant Terra. The planet’s surviving population would be subjected to mass indoctrination from armies of iterators spreading propaganda of glories of the Imperium, alongside those quietly preaching the superiority of the Apellan way. Perhaps, at that point the populace might even be so inclined as to petition the lord of the Sixth Legion for admittance into the Apellene Network, becoming the model part of the new Imperial civilization just like hundreds of other planets before it.

              But that would be years away, providing – as the Conqueror himself would always be careful to remind the servants of Terran administration – that the newly compliant world met the exacting standards of the Network, and proved its loyalty to the Emperor beyond any doubt. After all, the Apellene Network was only a part of the greater Imperium of Man, just like similar entities spread across the galaxy: the Tambora Combine, the Red Star Collective, the Kingdom of Angels, and many others.

              They were all part of the realm of humanity, all working towards a greater goal of lifting humanity from the shackles of the Old Night. As it was, and as it shall always be.

              * * *

              The Hegemon was a relic from the time before the Imperium, when humanity still understood many poorly remembered technological secrets from its infancy, and when many miraculous accomplishments were taken for granted by then-innocent race. Stories had it that it was found as a ghost ship drifting on the outskirts of the Midian Belt, when the first steps of the Apellan Dominion led it into direct conflict with the neighboring Sussan Empire.

              Iskanderos, already a warlord of some renown even before his reunion with the Emperor, took the ship for his own, and when his father arrived to claim him, the Imperial forces were greeted with the display of military power far exceeding that of a typical human splinter empire.

              Since that time, many things changed. The Dominion became the Network; the Sixth Legion, previously nameless, fatherless, and led by a conclave of commanders, became the Imperial Redeemers under the benevolent leadership of Iskanderos. Most of the human followers of the Sixth Primarch were now dead, and those rare few who survived were more metal than flesh. Even the Legionaries who once greeted Iskanderos and knelt before his majesty on Apella were dispersed amongst the companies, or perhaps residing inside the Dreadnought shells after lifetime of war.

              Above all of this, the Hegemon remained inviolate, now augmented with all of Adeptus Mechanicus’ crude enhancements and facilities to carry ten full companies of Legionaries and all their supporting equipment. If there was one constant to the Sixth Legion, here it was, decked in void-hardened adamantium and covered with the enormous gun batteries and missile silos, decorated by thousands of sculptures which displayed symbols of majesty and militant glory, protected by point defense systems and void shields the likes of which could no longer be manufactured even on Mars itself.

              In the hands of mere mortals, the Imperial Redeemers’ flagship was a formidable world-breaker, destroyer of kingdoms and subjugator of empires. Under command of Iskanderos and his Legion, it was the conqueror of the galaxy.

              Close to a hundred thousand mortals serviced the great vessel, from proud scions of the best Imperial naval academies to the wild, nearly troglodytic inhabitants of the lower decks who toiled in complete obscurity under the whips of their overseers. Many were born on the ship, and would spend their entire lives on it, never setting foot planetside. Countless works of art and trophies of a thousand campaigns adorned the insides of the Hegemon, their value impossible to calculate, yet gathered in such numbers as to shame the most fortuitous collector of such things.

              War banners hung high above the gilded halls, where the statues of the Legion’s heroes stood vigil, cast in marble, gold, and diamond, with exquisitely wrought armor and weapons put on display and forgotten as relics of a bygone era. Here was a battle standard from the Unification Wars that united Terra after millennia of discord; there was a specimen of particularly noisome breed of an alien whose species were exterminated by the Sixth Legion. There yet were magnificent paintings depicting the many triumphs of Iskanderos and his sons, from their liberation of Apella and conquest of Sussan Empire to the first meeting between the Conqueror and his father, the Emperor, beloved by all, to corpse-strewn battlefields where the Imperial Redeemers proved triumphant over every sort of enemy imaginable.

              There, in the Hall of Brotherhood, twenty one statues stood tall, surrounding the massive circular room like majestic sentinels of legend. One of the statues stood vigil over the entire hall, hands outstretched in benediction, a wreath of laurels over the noble aquiline head – the Emperor of Mankind himself, wrought in heroic likeness by the famous Gahl Finus. It was said amongst the Hegemon’s crew that the sculptor himself wept at the perfection of his work, refusing to accept payment, for to take the Emperor’s coin would have ruined the artistic accomplishment.

              Twenty more statues stood at equal distances across the corners of the room, each carefully measured as not to stand above others. At the right hand of the Emperor (for where else would the master of the ship be?), Iskanderos held his blade out like a herald of battles to come, pointing the way for the conquering host to charge at the enemies of mankind.

              The exact positioning of the statue was said to have irked some of the Conqueror’s brothers who once paid visit to the Hegemon, but none would have ever admitted to it. After all, they were twenty sons of the immortal Emperor, the paragons of every virtue held by humanity, the living proof of mankind’s destiny to rule the galaxy. Surely, things such as vanity and ambition were beyond them, said the iterators and the remembrancers, each doing his best to make a mark on the Great Crusade.

              Yusuf could not help but feel awed at the gathering assembled before him, making his way to his seat at a horseshoe-shaped feasting table. Above, statues of the Primarchs and the Emperor looked down at him and his fellow Legionaries like giants judging the deeds of mortals.

              Heroes of the Sixth Legion sat to both sides of him. Tilsit Demetrios, Lord Commander of the Ninth Jond and equerry to Iskanderos himself, was at his right side, lifting a cup decorated with precious stones in a toast. To Yusuf’s left was Faisal Crateros of the 68th Company, an officer whose track record was more impressive than some Lord Commanders, and who was widely believed to be next in line to lead his own Chapter.

              Other Legion luminaries took their seats nearby – Apollus el-Rahim of the Second Jond, called the Astrologer for his uncanny foresight in victories against the diviner-priests of Nishtab; Miral Ahab, the dutiful master of the Fifth Chapter, who made up in reliability for what he lacked in flair; Tarnac Wali, the Legion’s emissary and preeminent diplomat, trusted to handle delicate negotiations with wayward human cultures in the Primarch’s absence. Each a renowned hero worthy of epic poems written in Kitab al-Aghani, the great Book of Songs celebrating the accomplishments of sons of Apella.

              Next to them, Yusuf felt almost inadequate. He could only imagine the emotions felt by Ishmael, seated further away at the side of the table reserved for the lesser ranks, chosen for their valor or accomplishment.

              For nothing could compare to being in the presence of a living god.

              Iskanderos sat at the center of the table, under the shadow of the Emperor, and less than five meters from Yusuf’s own seat. Now that the Legion assembled to celebrate another successful compliance, the Conqueror wore the ceremonial garments of Apellan nobility in lieu of battle armor. Somehow, being outside of his war plate did not diminish the Primarch; if anything, his presence was even more overpowering.

              A vague memory tried to push itself to the surface of Yusuf’s mind – a hot summer day, throngs of people, slight breeze pushing the banners over the square, sun-bleached buildings. Where was it? When was it?

              The Legionaries eschewed their war plate in favor of long, loose-fitting robes of Apellan nobility, decorated with the geometric designs and abstract motifs. There were easily over two hundred Imperial Redeemers present, a gathering of heroes whose combined roll of honor could not be matched by any other Legion in the known galaxy – or, at least, so the sons of Iskanderos claimed. Hundreds of mortal attendants and Legion serfs attended to them, balancing delicate golden trays brimming with food and drink, taking away remnants of meals, or cleaning debris and refuse invariably left over from their giant masters.

              As was customary for the victory feast, the meals included dishes once prepared on the newly conquered world. In a number of past compliances, such delicacies tested the limits of even post-human physiology, but the compliance of Seventy Four-Forty Nine was relatively mundane, as far as such things went. The local beasts were not particularly different from shaggy grox or other animals providing much of Imperium’s non-vat-grown dietary needs, and some of the Imperial Redeemers jokingly complained about the lack of anything exotic. Others gorged themselves on roasted animal carcasses, sated their thirst with the finest wines delivered from the Core Worlds just for such occasion, or engaged in light, pleasant banter with their comrades.

              “…and this is where the walker came out from behind the building, and he said…” Crateros spread his hands out for greater effect, making an effort to appear as scared as the mortal dignitary in his story. The captain of the 68th Company paused to take another sip of his wine. It was apparent that he already partook in much more than would have been safe for any unaugmented human, and even his Legionary physiology was beginning to be overcome by the intoxicative effects of alcohol. “What… is… that?” The last few words were spoken in a comically high-pitched falsetto tone.

              Roaring laughter answered him from the other officers. Yusuf could not help but notice that few of them seemed to force the laughter, as if they heard the story a thousand times before.

              “Say, captain, do you have a story to regale us with?” Crateros turned to Yusuf, giving him a conspiratory wink. “This is probably the largest gathering of the Sixth Legion in a century. I would be very curious to learn what our brothers who campaigned in the galactic East came across.”

              Yusuf started to shake his head. Stories were the province of Ishmael and, as much as he did not like to admit it, Telennios, the high-born who knew the proper ways to tell a tale in accordance with ancient traditions of Apellan oratory.

              “Come on, brother,” Tilsit Demetrios joined in, slapping a massive, scarred hand on Yusuf’s shoulder. The Lord Commander gave a cursory look to the metal of augmetic joined to Yusuf’s flesh where the plasma pistol took the 54th Captain’s hand. Yusuf self-consciously flexed the metal digits. “I am sure you have some stories to tell!”

              “Sto-ry! Sto-ry!” Crateros started chanting, oblivious to Yusuf’s discomfort. Several of the other Imperial Redeemers joined in with him.

              Someone came behind Yusuf’s seat and leaned over. “Perhaps you can indulge us,” said a calm yet commanding voice. Instantly, all conversation ceased. “My son.”

              Yusuf turned around, feeling small and insignificant next to the massive shape of the Primarch. His throat suddenly felt dry, and he fought the urge to swallow. Was it the post-human dread some mortals spoke about?

              Yusuf nodded, trying to find the right words. He looked at his replacement hand, then at the Legion officers, then at the mass of Imperial Redeemers further away from the position of honor. Somewhere out there, Ishmael was amongst the lower ranking warriors invited to the banquet. The 54th Captain wished for more familiar faces around him.

              “This will not be one of the more exciting tales, sir,” Yusuf finally replied. At the sound of his words, Demetrios and Ahab visibly straightened, and even intoxicated Crateros seemed to find a measure of balance. The Primarch sat his bulk down in a giant chair silently delivered by ever-present menials.

              “We are all warriors,” said Yusuf, gathering his thoughts. The memory of a boy who knew what he wanted to be lurked in his subconscious, surfacing for brief moments only to hide again. “We all had seen our share of battles. I can tell you about that time on Rixian Primus, or maybe about the asteroid war on Bold Hope, but you probably heard similar stories a hundred times. You probably fought similar battles yourselves.”

              “I wonder then,” he continued, taking a large gulp of his drink. The wine, straight from Apella, was exquisite; his neuroglottis implant picked scents and tastes of berries and seasoned oak, with the finest grapes of Nasatran lowlands blended together to form a sweet yet intoxicating taste. He even noticed the additives that made alcohol potent enough to impact the Legionary physique, for any wine meant for mortals would have been neutralized by the Space Marine implants. The alcohol gave him something resembling desire to speak up in front of the Legion’s good and great.

              “I wonder if having doubt is something that separates mortals from us. For the likes of us will fight any war, anywhere, without a thought of the cause. This is what we are made for. We talk about unity, duty, and purpose because we embody all these things, and because we never stray from the path.”

              Crateros coughed, rolling his eyes. “If I wanted a sermon, brother, I would ask for a chaplain,” he said, letting out a patronizing laugh. “This is a victory feast, not a place for philosophizing! Tell us something worthy!”

              “Let him continue.”

              The Primarch did not raise his voice, but any dissent was stifled the second he opened his mouth.

              “We are here to reflect upon the great victory we won,” said Iskanderos. “We are more than mere thugs with guns and blades. My father swept such men from the face of Terra before he set onward to the stars. Captain al-Malik here is right. We embody purpose and unity, which they do not. And I am certain he has a point to that. Right, Yusuf?”

              At the mention of his given name, Yusuf could not help but feel his spirits rise. He nodded.

              “I, for one,” said Iskanderos, giving him a warm, fatherly smile, “want to hear the story that is not about martial valor or battles, if for a change in pace. And maybe,” he gave Crateros a pointed look, “we can all take something out of it.”

              His voice firm and resolute, Yusuf continued.

              * * *

              The world was a shade of deep, rich blue where the sky met the endless ocean. Heavy storm clouds rolled over the horizon, pregnant with rain.

              The city-ship was a huge device several kilometers across, borne aloft by thousands of balloon-like devices soaring above every building, nested amongst the crevices of its surface and entwined with the man-made protrusions and crenellations of the perimeter walls. Above was nothing but the sky; below were the waters of the world ocean, rippling and flowing like they had for eons.

              The ocean did not care who tried to claim the skies above, or what strange creatures strived to control its depths. The ocean had seen species come and go, all of which once proclaimed permanence of their reign. The current intruders were only the last in a long chain, and they, too, would be superseded in due time.

              There were scents on the wind, deep and rich with salt and musky, heavy scent of seaweed. The scents which were now saturated with the oily smoke and faint yet ever-present hint of inhuman blood.

              The world had a human name once, but no one remembered what it was. When the Imperial Redeemers fell from orbit to cleanse its many floating cities of its alien overlords, even the planet’s enslaved human population referred to it as simply the Planet. Over a week’s butchery, the only xenos still drawing breath were those scheduled for interrogation, vivisection, and eventual termination at the hands of the Sixth Legion’s Apothecaries.

              Yusuf, still a sergeant earning his first laurels, stood on the edge of the floating city and watched the waters swirl fifty meters below. This close to the parapets, the ground was white with residual sea salt where corrosion ate away at the metal to expose the strange, organic material beneath. The waves were quiet for now, but the storm was brewing.

              He felt the other presence before he heard the stuttering of fast, light footsteps on the ground, moving in bursts, as if whoever was approaching was both anxious and afraid to get too close. Yusuf’s hand instantly went to the holstered pistol at his side. Even though all resistance should have long been purged, some isolated pockets of guerilla warfare might have survived the Legion onslaught; some humans, either deluded or brainwashed by their alien masters to take up arms against their own kind.

              The Imperial Redeemer’s hand relaxed as he saw a boy child, possibly no more than ten standard years of age, look at him with a mixture of awe and fear. The boy was a scrawny thing clad in rags, probably subsiding on whatever scraps the planet’s former xenos overlords allowed their slaves. Even after he was discovered, he cautiously kept his distance from the Space Marine. Still, the boy’s eyes never left Yusuf’s face.

              “Hello.”

              The boy spoke a mangled local version of High Gothic, with strange pronunciation and inflection, but still intelligible to the scions of Apella.

              The Space Marine did not know what to say, or how to respond to the child’s greeting. This was a wholly different world for him, the world where humans laughed, cried, made grandiose plans and saw those same plans tumble down, the world of curiosity, emotion, and fear. Yusuf lifted one hand in greeting, nodding his head silently.

              “Umm… where will you go now, Sky Warrior?” the boy blurted out after initial moment’s hesitation. The Space Marines’ enhanced senses picked out scent of nervousness from him – pheromones too faint for the unaugmented human nose to recognize, slight tremors hidden in his posture. But this, at least, was a question that he could answer.

              “Wherever the Great Crusade takes us,” Yusuf replied. His voice was a deep baritone rumble that seemed to unnerve the child. Yusuf ventured to guess that the boy had never been close to one of the Emperor’s chosen. Seeing the anxiety of the youth in front of him, Yusuf offered more. “Advance scouts believe that there is a small principality in the Corgus Nebula. If they accept reunion with Terra, all the better. If not…” He shrugged, turning his head to one of many sources of smoke emerging from the floating city’s ruined buildings.

              “Why would anyone try to fight against you?” asked the boy with eyes wide at the thought. Yusuf could not blame him. The Imperial Redeemers descended upon the ocean world like a vengeful tide of bronze and gold, sweeping away all who dared to stand against them.

              In truth, the question gave Yusuf some pause. It was true that the Legiones Astartes were humanity’s preeminent soldiers, unrivaled by any other force in the known galaxy. Some said that the only thing that could truly defeat a well-led, well-organized force of Space Marines was another such force of Space Marines. Why would, then, mere mortals try to fight them, as if somehow expecting that they could win?

              “Pride, perhaps,” said Yusuf after a lengthy silence. “With xenos, they have little choice. With humans…” He paused, trying to formulate his thoughts. It did not come easy to him. He spent all his life to date proving himself worthy in the eyes of his brothers and of his Primarch, not contemplating why he fought, or why anyone would be foolish enough to stand against the likes of him. Still, the boy in front of him demanded an answer – and for that moment, Yusuf thought that he was looking not at a scrawny child on a distant ocean world whose name he did not know, but at someone else, standing in the crowded streets of Apella. Was it someone he knew?

              “I think that some of the humans believe they know better,” he finally said, contemplating his words. “Maybe they get too comfortable in their own little corner of the universe, and the thought of them not being unique drives them to dumb decisions. I… I don’t really know.”

              “My mother says that you are terrible gods of war,” said the boy. “That to go against you is to die.”

              Fear. It struck Yusuf as strange that these people did not think of them as long-awaited liberators. The locals were afraid of them. The thought did not sit well with him.

              “Do you… have mothers too?” the child asked, wary of the Imperial Redeemer’s contemplative stillness which he might have mistook for deliberation of violence. “I mean… where do you come from?”

              Yusuf got down on one knee. Even in this position, he still towered over the child.

              “I was a boy once too,” the Space Marine said by the way of reply. “I have the privilege of being born on Apella itself, before I passed the trials and joined the Legion.”

              There was little disguising the shock and wonder in the boy’s voice. “You mean… you were once just like us?”

              “Maybe a little scrawnier,” Yusuf smiled awkwardly. He was still not entirely sure how to properly handle conversations with civilians. He did not remember for sure, but thought it was an appropriate thing to say under the circumstances. “To be truthful, I do not remember much of my life before the Legion.”

              “Does it mean that I can…” the boy paused, searching for the right words. Yusuf saw anxiety in his posture. “Become like you?” The last words were blurted out, as if the youth was afraid of retribution for speaking them.

              What did it take to make a Space Marine? Was it simply a matter of genetic enhancements, advanced weaponry, and years of dedicated combat training? Or was there more to it? Why would one youth be chosen for duty and another one relegated to obscurity on some backwater world? It felt as if it somehow was very familiar to Yusuf; was he rejected at some point prior to his ascent to the ranks of the Sixth Legion? Was it someone else he knew or cared about? He could not remember, and in that instant, the thought grated on him more than anything else in the galaxy.

              “I don’t know,” Yusuf answered, truthfully. “I just don’t know.”

              * * *

              “That is it?” asked Crateros, eyes wide with disbelief. “No glorious charge, no stories of slaughtered enemies of man?”

              “Oh, there were charges and slaughter enough on that campaign,” Yusuf answered. “We paid for that world in blood several times over before we moved on to the Corgus Nebula. But I am sure you can see it all for yourself in the archives. This is something that will not be in the archives. But it is a question I often asked myself since. What does it take to make us what we are?

              A single pair of hands clapped in the ensuing silence. It was not a sarcastic slow motion, but an enthusiastic one, speaking of admiration or at least appreciation. Then another. In seconds, the group of warriors surrounding Yusuf broke out in applause. Even Crateros joined in, setting aside the chalice as he added his hands to the sound.

              “You honor the Legion with your story,” said Iskanderos. The Primarch rose up, standing tall above his gene-sons. “What, indeed, makes us what we are? What separates us from the gene-vat killers of Terran techno-barbarians, or from Martian skitarii soldiers?”

              “Is it war that defines us? But if so, what do we feast to now? It is not just the battle won and brothers lost. It is the light that we bring to this forsaken place. It is the hope that we give to humanity, who will no longer be enslaved by superstition and nightmare.”

              “And that, my sons,” the Primarch continued, rising in an evangelical posture to mirror the silent statue of the Emperor – the two looking very much alike in that instant, both towering gods exuding health, purpose, and charisma – “that is our real measure.”

              “A weapon is known only by its value in combat, and by the blood it sheds. A good blade will not break before it is sunk deep into an enemy’s heart. A better blade will not break at all. But is this what we are? Or are we more than mere blades?”

              “What do we do after the end of war?”

              If the war is ever over, pondered Yusuf. He never knew existence without it, ever since his induction into the ranks of the Imperial Redeemers. Was there a life after war for the likes of him?

              It did not matter. The Great Crusade was eternal, uniting all energies of the human race into a singular drive for the stars. It would never be over.

              “This, my sons,” said Iskanderos, savoring a momentary pause like a skilled orator about to deliver a defining statement, “is what we will find out soon. For the Great Crusade is nearing an end.”

              Murmurs of questions and surprise greeted the Primarch’s words. The Great Crusade was the driving force behind the Legions. It was their reason for existence. Without it, what were they?

              With steel in his voice, Iskanderos continued. “Some might say that it will never end, for there are always more worlds to take, more xenos to exterminate, or more long-lost worlds to bring back into the fold. And perhaps they are even right. Perhaps we will fight as hard to keep what we have taken as we did to lay claim to it.”

              “I myself have a hard time believing that there will come a time when there are no more worlds left to conquer,” the Primarch said. “If I held any of the superstitions of Zaeed’s bunch, I would have prayed that such a day never comes.” He paused to let the few stifled laughs ring out. They sounded hollow, as if in shock at the import of his words.

              “Nevertheless,” he held a pause, raising his hands again as if to encompass the enormity of his words, “it is the eventuality we must prepare for.” His voice was cold, not particularly enthusiastic; sound of a man forced to announce that he was about to set on a task he detested. “And, it seems, some of my brothers also thought about such eventuality.”

              Yusuf’s eyes darted to Tilsit Demetrios. Almost alone amongst the higher-ranking Legion commanders, the Lord Commander of the Ninth Jond did not look surprised or perturbed by the Primarch’s words. Intrigued, the 54th Captain continued to examine the other officers near him. Several were as shocked as he was, but others nodded almost as if they knew this was coming. Miral Ahab; Apollus el-Rahim; even Faisal Crateros displayed much less surprise than the rest. What did they know that the rest of the Legion did not?

              “The fleet will continue to prosecute the local cluster campaign in task forces under Jond and Chapter commanders. Lend assistance to any Imperial forces in the area, and follow the normal Crusade protocols when dealing with aliens and non-compliant worlds.”

              “As for me,” Iskanderos said, his lips curved just so as to appear like he tasted something unpleasant, “tomorrow morning ship time, the Hegemon will set course for Terra.”

              * * *

              Later, when the gathering of the Legion had largely dispersed to ponder the meaning of the Primarch’s words, and when throngs of menials descended on the Hall of Brotherhood to clean up after the Legion’s feast, a single figure made for Yusuf.

              “A word, if I may,” said Apollus el-Rahim, Lord Commander of the Second Jond.

              For a warrior of Adeptus Astartes, el-Rahim was rather wiry and tall, giving an impression of a youth who never quite grew into his bulk. He was blue-eyed and pale-skinned, with hair shorn close to the scalp and face bereft of any major scars. The Legion records did not name his home world, but looking at him, Yusuf gave credence to the rumors that the Lord Commander was not a native of Apella. The people of the Legion’s home world were frequently well-muscled and bronze-skinned both from above-average gravity and the planet’s distance from its young, hot sun; even the enhancements of Adeptus Astartes did not take the basic phenotype away from the Imperial Redeemers. El-Rahim was almost certainly not of the same stock, but he had an Apellan name, and spoke and acted like a true son of Apella – an accomplishment of the Apellene Network, the most uniform body of its kind in the greater Imperium of Man.

              Yusuf motioned Ishmael, who waited at the far end of the table, to go on without him. “Of course.”

              “I believe the Primarch was impressed with you, captain,” the Lord Commander said. He examined the table, finding an untouched apple, then took it. “Terra, eh? What do you think?”

              Instantly, Yusuf was careful. “I have never been to the Throne World.”

              El-Rahim cocked his head to one side. His eyes bore into Yusuf, examining him, evaluating him. “That is not what I mean. The end of war. The trip to Terra.”

              “I am not sure what to say,” replied Yusuf. “If the war is to end, what do we do?”

              “Oh, probably fight another one,” said el-Rahim absent-mindedly. “The war never ends, even when you think it is over.” He laughed quietly, perhaps amused with himself. “It only changes shape and, occasionally, methods.”

              Yusuf shook his head, not in disagreement but in distaste. “Not a war we were made to fight.”

              “You would be surprised,” said el-Rahim. “The likes of us are much more adaptable than we are given credit for.”

              The 54th Captain was not sure where el-Rahim was heading with this conversation. An officer of his rank rarely merited the attention of someone in Lord Commander’s position. As if sensing it, el-Rahim smirked.

              “I am sure you could be just as adaptable in a different role, captain,” the Lord Commander said softly. “Your perspective could be very useful in the times to come.” He bit into the apple, then examined the fruit as though it was a rare, exquisite piece of jewelry or an artifact of a long-lost culture. “Our Primarch needs good men by his side who think beyond the battle at hand. You did well on Seventy Four-Forty Nine, but not any better than many other captains faced with the same challenges. Here at a banquet, you did something else though.”

              “What is it?”

              El-Rahim nodded, satisfied at Yusuf’s curiosity. “You made it easier for him to declare what he was going to say. He appreciated that. But more so, you are ready to contemplate the changes to the Legion, and what all Legions will deal with soon. For this, he wants your voice at his side as one of the Companions.”

              The Lord Commander’s face grew hard, almost ceremonial in aspect. “Lord Iskanderos wishes to ask that you join him on his trip to Terra.”

              Comment


              • #8
                FIVE

                War of Letters
                Induction
                Another Setting

                There.

                The young woman shut off the memo-quill with a thought, looking over the product of her work with unbridled satisfaction. The device floated in the air, supported by grav-repulsor plate keeping it at waist-height above the decorative rug that covered the floor of her room. Lines of calligraphic script ran across the screen made to simulate the appearance of ancient, venerable parchment.

                On the Folly of the Machine-Worshippers, the heading read, kept atop the scrolling text no matter which section she wanted to review. Just under the heading, in smaller, angular letters at odds with the flowing calligraphy of the font, was the signature.

                Miranda Iagos of Absolom Nonus, remembrancer, lately assigned to the Seventy Fourth Expedition vessel Hegemon.

                She could have probably done with far fewer words, but the sheer number of statements after her name made her feel a little more accomplished, so the lengthy signature stayed. She rubbed her eyes and sighed with tired satisfaction.

                Another pamphlet finished for the glory of the Great Crusade and of the Sixth Legion. Another item on a long list of works that justified her place amongst the spearhead of human exploration and advancement into the wider galaxy.

                She stood up from a soft couch decorated with pastoral designs, forest green with streaks of light blue and white depicting scenes of some primitive, peaceful age. Miranda’s quarters aboard the Hegemon were on the small side, typically reserved for the artists and dignitaries whose standing did not warrant anything grander yet, but she did not mind it much. Only the very best were chosen for the remembrance duty, she told herself in the moments of doubt. Her presence here was a sign that she was considered worthy of commemorating the next phase of human expansion – that it was her, not like her former peers back on Absolom Nonus, not even the haughty products of Terra’s art academies and universities who would not have thought twice about the daughter of shopkeeper from some unimportant world in Segmentum Solar.

                Not bad, not bad at all.

                Miranda smiled at the thought, stretching after hours of sitting down, flexing her arm and leg muscles and cranking her neck. She would not be called beautiful by any standard, but there was enough spunk in her movements and easy-going charm in her manner to earn her a decent share of admirers amongst the mortal crew of the Sixth Legion’s flagship. Others often told her that her best, most attractive quality was making people laugh, which often made them forget little excess weight, or sun-kissed freckles upon the features that were not an exact replica of some ancient Grecian statue. Her hair auburn red, cut close to the shoulders with little regard for the latest court fashion, while the clothes she was wearing were comfortable yet utilitarian in their drabness – perfect for staying inside four walls.

                Perhaps, this time around Terra will take notice.

                For many of the other remembrancers and iterators assigned to the Seventy Fourth Expedition, the very thought of returning to the throne world was terrifying. Some, like dour Aigon van Halk, bristled at the idea that the Crusade could continue without him. Others, chief amongst them the ever-volatile Petros Varshavsky, claimed that they were yet to find the source of natural inspiration that new locales would bring.

                Miranda suspected that vanity played a role in their proclamations, some of it real, some of it played up for dramatic effect. More than a few of her human cohorts were products of high-born families, whose dabbling in artistic pursuits was encouraged from the early age by doting parents and expensive tutors. To such people, the thought of not being held in exceptional regard as one of the men and women pushing back the Old Night was anathema. They could not stomach the idea of losing the mythical aura of exploration and danger often assigned to those who lived their lives at the edges of the known space.

                They were also not the progeny of a well-meaning nothing, who traded unremarkable life writing scathing commentary on unimportant topics for bringing her talent for biting satire and fiery conviction to serve a greater purpose.

                Miranda looked through the messages on her holographic reception cube. There was not much. A poet named Ikiri something-or-other asked for the pleasure of her company later in the evening. A vague recollection stirred Miranda’s thoughts – handsome dark face with almond-shaped eyes, hints of lithe yet sensuous figure under the flowing gown. A formal communication from the Hegemon’s quartermaster warned all passengers of the upcoming translation to the Immaterium once the ship reached the system’s nearest Mandeville point, still some time away by Miranda’s reckoning. Old news at best, she thought, pondering on whether she should reply to Ikiri now, or perhaps give it a little more time.

                A mischievous smile curled one corner of her mouth. Perhaps a little more time would be good… few more hours.

                She scrolled through the list of messages, dismissing stiff formal notices sent to the civilian crew “for their own safety during the Immaterium jump.” The phrase always made her chuckle, even after spending the last eight years of her life aboard the Imperial Redeemers’ flagship.

                Miranda almost dismissed the last message before stopping herself. Her heart raced faster, adding a rush of excitement that she fought hard to suppress. Without a conscious effort, her smile turned into a wide grin.

                This was it, the outcome of weeks of pleading and cajoling the powers that be, making requests and writing letters only to lose them in the morass of bureaucracy. This was the culmination of effort that allowed her to score one more coup before the departure to Terra, one last reminder that she would bear with pride at her literary accomplishments – and as a way to set herself apart from the mewling aristocrats playing at being artists.

                All thoughts of Ikiri set aside for now, Miranda tried to calm her thoughts down, wondering what she would say to a Primarch.

                * * *

                Somehow, the absence of people made the Hall of Brotherhood more imposing. The statues took on aspects of pagan idols of yesteryear in the dimmed light, weaving elaborate shadows where only hours ago the Legion celebrated yet another conquest. Now, candles were arranged across the room in clusters, forming constellations, adding their aromas to the hall's ambiance. There was something soothing in the smell, something that appealed even to the grizzled warriors of the Legiones Astartes. It was the smell of peace, the smell of lazy afternoons in the heat of Apellene sun, watching the waves crash against the piers as the seagulls floated over the shore. It was the smell of bustling ports slowing down in deference to the elements, when all life retreated from the merciless gaze of the light, time of rest and camaraderie, when stories were exchanged and bonds were strengthened. It was the smell of home.

                The tables were cleared away, leaving only the throne-like dais under the auspicious figure of the Emperor. Yusuf never noticed the throne before, not when it was occupied by Iskanderos. The Primarch usually drew all attention to himself, making it impossible to notice anything else even in plain sight. Now that Iskanderos was nowhere to be found, Yusuf could appreciate the Hall of Brotherhood for what it was – the heart of the Sixth Legion's domain, the symbolic nerve center of its campaigns, a testament to the unity of the nascent, rising Imperium.

                “Are we ready?” asked Faisal Crateros. The Captain of the 68th Company displayed little sign of intoxication, now dressed in ceremonial attire of Apella's ancient heroes. It was odd to think of him wearing bronze armor and helmet crowned with red horse-hair crest, bearing long spear and large, round shield with insignia drawn from the home world's long history. Yusuf recognized sigils of a minor noble house interwoven with other, unfamiliar motifs, perhaps connotations of campaigns, perhaps signs of gene-lineage from other Imperial Redeemers whose gene-seed Crateros inherited.

                El-Rahim shook his head, moving with deliberate slowness. “Patience, my friend. Patience.” The Astrologer was clad in long white robes with trim the color of congealed arterial blood. In one hand, he held a golden chalice that flickered with the reflected light of hundreds of candles spread across the hall. The other hand held a short knife with triangular blade, wide at the bottom, narrowing down to a point nearly too small for naked eye to see in the gloom.

                Two others stepped out of the shadows cast by the statues. Tilsit Demetrios looked liked a titan given flesh by some forbidden sorceries, magnificent even in the armor made obsolete by advances in technology thousands of years before Iskanderos' arrival on Apella. Here, he was the very image of an ancient warrior of Apellan sea-clans, the men who established themselves as kings and princes of countless thalassocracies in the ages after the fall of the Old Night. Their proud and haughty bearing, just like their martial spirit, lived on in Demetrios, and he looked as much at home with Legionary-sized spear and shield as he did when in power armor, leading his Jond on campaigns of deliverance across the galaxy.

                Miral Ahab, in contrast, looked out of place in the antique armor. His arms, thick with corded muscle and patches of augmetic joints showing through the synth-skin, threatened to pop out of the armor's confines, and even the oversized weaponry in his hands looked small and inconsequential next to his bulk. The Chapter Master's heavy-set face seemed almost grotesque under the bronze helmet, as if the symbol of ancient tradition and refinement was somehow befouled by association with the brutish man wearing it.

                The Legionaries formed a semi-circle before the throne, two on each side. The throne remained vacant, as was proper in the absence of the Primarch. Yusuf, dressed in supplicant robes hastily procured for the occasion, felt naked and vulnerable before them, standing as he was several meters away from them.

                “Now,” el-Rahim smiled, not in the least at the expense of Crateros' irritation, “are we ready?” As Demetrios nodded, the Astrologer motioned Yusuf to advance, not waiting for confirmation from Crateros and Ahab.

                The 54th Captain stepped forward, one slow deliberate motion after another. He became acutely aware of some inexplicable, almost instinctive desire for home brought on by the smells, confirmed by the imagery summoned by the Companions' attire. Their armor made them look like ancient heroic statues that still adorned most of the home world's poli – warrior in prime of his martial ability standing guard before his king, philosopher teaching the disposition of heavens to his associates and imparting the mysteries of the universe to all who would listen, conquering heroic general crowned with laurels from a successful campaign of subjugation and glory, barbarian whose crude appearance belied primitive yet pure strength and honor.

                “Take a knee, brother,” el-Rahim commanded. It seemed that he was chosen to lead this ceremony.

                Yusuf did as he was told. He bent down on one knee, not taking his eyes off the Astrologer. “Sons of Apella do not lower their eyes in the face of the unknown... I like it!” The warrior in philosopher's robes smiled. El-Rahim's knife moved almost too fast for the naked eye, slicing the Lord Commander's hand at the wrist. Red droplets, almost black in the candlelight, dropped down into the chalice, at first a stream, then drop, drip, drop as el-Rahim's Larraman cells worked to repair the damage. Yusuf's nose caught a whiff of rich, succulent Legionary blood.

                “You next, brother,” el-Rahim nodded to Crateros, who extended the spear-bearing hand, using the weapon as a clutch. The 68th Captain winced as the knife sliced through his skin, although Yusuf could not tell if it was from pain, or from some hidden resentment.

                “Brothers.” El-Rahim repeated the ceremony with Ahab and Demetrios, drawing blood from each. In Ahab's case, with the Chapter Master's many augmetics, the Astrologer drew blood from the vein under his arm.

                The Lord Commander of the Second Jond stepped forward towards Yusuf. The chalice had a large amount of liquid sloshing around in it. Yusuf wondered if el-Rahim saturated the cup with anticoagulant beforehand to prevent the Legionary blood from clotting as it was wont to do.

                “Your hand, brother.” Without a word, Yusuf extended his right hand, still flesh and blood. His other, metal hand, was situated across his knees.

                The Astrologer cut Yusuf across the wrist, letting blood flow into the chalice until the stream slowed to a trickle. He raised the cup over his head.

                “We are the sons of Apella, no matter the birth world,” el-Rahim said, his voice booming across the Hall of Brotherhood. “Under the auspices of the Emperor, beloved by all, we are the force for good in the dark galaxy. We exist to bring enlightenment out of nothing, and for that, we must thank the Emperor, the giver of all.”

                “But most of all, we are the Sixth Legion, the sons of Iskanderos, he who made us what we are. We owe our very being, our very soul to our father. Our glory is his glory, and our victories are his victories.”

                “And yet, even when we give our flesh and blood unto him, the debt we owe Iskanderos is far greater.” The Lord Commander's voice rose in volume, seemingly expanding through the darkness until it was an almost physical presence in the vast, vacant hall. “It is the debt we owe him for peace on our home worlds, and prosperity of mankind across the galaxy. It is the debt of a kind that even if each one of us were to die a thousand times after slaying a thousand enemies, we would still not be able to repay. He is the light in the darkness, and he is the redemption of mankind too foolish to follow into enlightenment.”

                Something about the words disturbed Yusuf. Was it not the Emperor's role to watch over mankind at the expense of lesser, false guardians? Then, his thoughts returned to the image of his Primarch, perfection made war, sitting under the auspices of the Emperor. Fealty to Iskanderos was fealty to the Emperor. Was he not an extension of the Emperor's own will?

                They were, after all, doing the good work. The right work.

                “For this reason, we are the Imperial Redeemers,” continued el-Rahim. “And for this very reason, when our Lord Primarch calls, we answer.”

                “We are brothers, yet this brotherhood must stand apart even above the ties of blood and fraternity of the battlefield. For our father has unique need of us. We are to be his eyes, his ears, the voice of reason, the infallible, the trustworthy. We are to follow him in this world and beyond, and share in all triumphs and misfortunes as they come.”

                “For this is a sacrifice, make no mistake, brothers,” the Astrologer said. “Our lives and fates are given to the Primarch before our Chapter, before our Company, before our closest comrades. If our father calls, we answer, no matter the call, no matter the deed.” His voice grew somber and serious as he looked Yusuf in the eye.

                “Is this the bond that you willingly accept, Yusuf al-Malik?”

                Thousands of thoughts ran through Yusuf's head, until he settled on one. The only answer he could give.

                “Yes, brother.”

                “Drink.” El-Rahim handed him the chalice, and Yusuf partook of his brothers' blood. It was sweet, rich with nutrients, warm and laced with something that kept it liquid. He felt it roll on his tongue, savoring every sip.

                The Lord Commander of the Second Jond rose his hand in near-benediction. “Does any of the assembled find the aspirant unworthy? If so, speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

                Yusuf's eyes darted to the corners of the room. Ahab and Demetrios were stone-faced, impossible to read. Crateros looked like he wanted to say something, but kept to wiser council. It seemed that the question was more ritualistic in nature than anything.

                “Then, brother, rise,” el-Rahim commanded. Yusuf stood up, feeling little dizzy. Whatever additive was mixed in with his brothers' blood must have had intoxicating properties.

                “Then, Yusuf al-Malik, Captain of the 54th Company, son of Iskanderos, I name thee one of us.”

                * * *

                She was led into the Golden One's quarters by a small crowd of haughty-looking serfs, each dressed in some elaborate costume that seemed utterly impractical. Miranda tried not to laugh when they introduced themselves, giving out their titles and occupations as if they were the most important thing in the universe.

                How could the Hegemon run without the dutiful service of a Second Porter-In-Waiting! How could it ever play its assigned role in the Great Crusade if Junior Personal Assistant to the Primarch's Majordomo could not attend to her duties with the pomp and aplomb expected of her?

                No doubt, some family on a Core World was proudly telling all their friends that their scions served on board the Imperial Redeemers' flagship, basking in the respect and recognition of their peers. To Miranda, it was more humorous than anything.

                Then, wars were often won by small things, not just the force of arms and the brilliance of their generals, but also by the infrastructure that allowed warriors and generals to do their job without being bothered by lesser things. In that respect, the Imperial Redeemers had little to worry about.

                It took Miranda four years to finally be granted an audience. Some would have considered it a pinnacle of a remembrancer's accomplishments to get a Primarch's attention, a recognition of her craft and of her useful contributions to the Great Crusade. Others yet saw it as another source of inspiration, something to brag to their peers about, or perhaps something to share with their grandchildren in due time.

                She wondered what the Primarch himself might think of that. Surely, he had more interesting and important things to do than indulge every two-bit writer, poet, artist, or sculptor. See my amazing painting and tell me how great I am, never mind that there is a campaign going on!

                At that thought, she could no longer hold the smile back. If her time amongst the bohemians taught her one thing, it was that they all had an inflated sense of self-importance, and she was smart enough to recognize her own hubris when it counted. She was not sure if Iskanderos would find it annoying or amusing, but at the very least she had the courtesy to show up on time, when asked.

                After four years, the Primarch himself ordered, no, asked her to keep him company. And Iskanderos, the Lord of Apella and its Network, was not the kind of being whose requests were frequently turned down.

                * * *

                The Primarch was everything Miranda had imagined and more. Sure, she saw the video-picts and documentary footage, took note of the statues and works of art inspired by the Sixth Primarch, but to see him in the flesh was an entirely different experience.

                Miranda heard that some people fainted at the sight of him, unable to stand so close to the majesty of one so nearly divine. Standing only few meters away from Iskanderos, she could believe it.

                The master of the Hegemon was more than twice her height, yet perfectly proportioned like a statue from a culture that prized aesthetic accomplishment. Where the Legionaries were hard to mistake for a human with their exaggerated gigantism and overmuscled bodies, the Primarch was the very essence of healthy perfection, human male at the peak of his youthful progress, just writ larger than mere mortals. It was made all the more miraculous by her knowledge that Iskanderos was centuries old, quite possibly as old as the Great Crusade itself, yet here he was in all his magnificence, looking scarcely older than her twenty nine standard years. From a distance, and lacking a sense of scale, he would have looked more human than any of his warrior-sons.

                And yet, there was something else about him, some kind of indescribable sensation that defied all reason. Maybe it was the grace of his movements, seemingly impossible for mere mortals; perhaps it was the way his presence filled the room, or the subtle, almost invisible radiance he exuded. Miranda had a thought about the presence of something supernatural, something divine that could not be put in mere words, then suppressed the concept.

                After all, the Imperial Truth empathethically rejected the existence of gods, demons, and supernatural. Still, if there were no gods, then what was standing in front of her?

                “Welcome to my humble abode,” Iskanderos said with a smile before Miranda had a chance to overcome her dazed state. The Primarch waved one arm around, as if showcasing his reception area to her.

                Just as the Hall of Brotherhood was for the Legion affairs, Iskanderos had his personal reception room outfitted to meet every sort of dignitary, from machine-men of Martian Adeptus and dour Administratum bureaucrats to representatives of exotic cultures encountered by the Imperial Redeemers on campaign, and perhaps even the few members of xenos species deemed sufficiently harmless, or perhaps sufficiently useful to be afforded a degree of Imperial protection. That such protection rarely outlasted the immediate need was a rarely mentioned truism; the Imperium was first and foremost the domain of humanity, and no alien species would be allowed to challenge the supremacy of the sons and daughters of Terra.

                Miranda's eyes swam across the multitude of trophies, weapons and armor decorating the walls, pieces of priceless artwork scavenged from hundreds of subjugated cultures, specimens of exterminated alien species crushed over five centuries of the Legion's campaigns maintained in stasis like discarded mementos of Imperial Redeemers' dominance. There were so many objects vying for her attention that she could not focus on any of them, all of the artifacts blending into one mass of bright, shining gold and opulence undreamt of even by the wealthiest citizens of the Imperium.

                A thought came nagging in her head; Iskanderos' abode was anything but humble.

                “My lord,” she finally gathered the presence of mind to reply, curtsying like a proper denizen of a Terran court. This elicited a laugh from the Primarch. There was something good natured about it; he was not laughing at her, but at the elaborate form etiquette she was trying to follow.

                “We are not at a high society ball, my lady,” replied Iskanderos. His grin was infectious, and very quickly Miranda found herself grinning from ear to ear. Something about the Sixth Primarch's manner was disarming, inspiring of trust and confidence. It was almost impossible to conceive that the master of Apella had blood-toll of trillions on his hands, no less and perhaps even more so than his more savage, less agreeable brothers.

                The mere presence of Iskanderos demanded attention. Miranda had to force herself to keep calm and not to descend into mindless stupor, too dumbfounded to do anything but adore the gene-forged majesty in front of her.

                Iskanderos walked closer to her, now being less than two meters away. Though he towered over the remembrancer, she did not feel threatened. The Primarch motioned her to a cushion of red velvet and gold embroidery, while sitting down in a chair more fitting his gargantuan physique.

                “How goes the Crusade from the remembrancers' quarters?” he asked, mischievous sparks playing in his eyes.

                Miranda tried her best to keep herself from stuttering, but still the words came out too fast. “We... cannot presume... to make the same kind of contribution... as the warriors of the Legions...”

                He laughed. It was a booming sound of health and vigor, as if he found something genuinely amusing.

                “Please,” Iskanderos said, shaking his head. “No need to be so formal. This is not an interrogation.” He gave her a measuring look, then grinned again. “I don't bite, Mistress Iagos.”

                She felt a measure of confidence return. Not many of her rank would have had a chance to spend some time with one of the Emperor's sons; in fact, most remembrancers would consider themselves lucky if a lesser Legion officer deigned them worthy of his attention. Miranda thought that Iskanderos would be either impossibly haughty, or so far removed from anything human that she would only be capable of staring at him, mouth agape. The giant keeping her company did not seem like any of those things.

                “Miranda,” she said, eliciting a quizzical look. He procured a glass of wine from somewhere, then leaned over, offering her another. His glass was larger than her head, yet in his hand it seemed tiny. Hers was more proportionate to her size. The remembrancer wondered where the drink came from; as far as she could tell, there were no servants around, no storage where the bottle could have been kept. She took a cautionary taste, rolling the liquid on her tongue.

                “This makes the best wines from the Poet's Corner taste like rubbing alcohol,” she said, appreciative of the quality.

                Iskanderos made a mock bow, still sitting down, smile never leaving his face. “Always happy to oblige.” He leaned back, relaxed and secure in his majesty. The very air around him appeared to shimmer.

                “Did you know,” the Primarch continued, “I have always found much to appreciate about your work.”

                “You have?” Miranda was surprised. Certainly, her pamphlets and narratives served their purpose, and her words supported the cause of the Crusade through leaflets and broadcasts on thousands of worlds, but somehow, she thought of them as more utilitarian than anything. There was talent to what she did, there had to be. But art? Art enough to interest a demigod, even?

                “The Storm Cult,” said Iskanderos. “I found much to learn from it.” When she did not respond, he continued. “You can conquer the worlds with weapons, but you can keep them with laughter.”

                Miranda thought back to the work, one of her lesser pieces as far as she was concerned. A propaganda piece, if she was truthful.

                “Did you know that there are at least thirty two different versions in circulation, all slightly adapted to be context-appropriate?” Iskanderos sipped slowly on his wine.

                “I am sure some iterator out there is having a field day now,” answered Miranda. “But learning from it? I don't understand.”

                “Miranda,” the Primarch said, with an edge of someone explaining a painfully obvious thing. “Our war is only half of the greatest conflict our species has ever known. It is not sufficient that we defeat every military force with greater force. It is what happens when the Legions leave, and life returns to normal.”

                “A peasant in the jungles of Drongari will go back to worshiping his idols, and a bureaucrat on Sartorus will go back to his papers, just with a different stamp. Few years, a decade or two, and they will forget every lesson taught by the Legions. You see, Miranda, the real challenge of our times is not making those worlds pay lip service to Terra, but to make them productive citizens of the Imperium even when the Legions are not there to keep order.”

                “I give them something to fear, or something to look up to. You give them promise that the Imperium gives more than it takes. People like you are the reason we can move on and leave happy, productive worlds behind.”

                That was, she had to admit, flattering, and she said so. Iskanderos nodded.

                “Is it flattery when it is true?” the Primarch asked.

                “Perhaps...”

                “Then again, perhaps not,” Iskanderos finished. He seemed content to direct the conversation, whether because Miranda still felt a little timid, or because his very nature brook no interference.

                “Which is why I wanted to talk.” He set his arms on his knees, leaning forward with a conspiratory look on his face. “Have you ever considered using your talent for written word in another setting?”

                * * *

                “I don't think he likes me very much,” said Yusuf quietly, casting a sidewards glance at Crateros. He washed the residual taste of blood with a liberal helping of sweet, aged wine. Something about the taste remained on his tongue, giving it a coppery tang.

                El-Rahim shrugged, his face expressing only mild amusement. “Faisal does not like anybody, unless that anybody happens to be a Chapter Master or a Lord Commander.”

                Now that the ceremony was finished, the serfs appeared seemingly out of nowhere, bringing out tables and refilling them with food and drink. Yusuf did not feel particularly hungry after the victory feast, but he did not let it hinder him. While technically he was the same rank as Crateros, he was still the newest Companion, and it did not do well for him to break with the other warriors on their age-honed tradition.

                “It will pass,” said el-Rahim. “Once he gets to know you, and especially if he does not deem you a threat to his own ambitions, he will be much friendlier.”

                Yusuf nodded, taking in the scenery. Demetrios and Ahab seemed deep into a conversation of their own, absent-mindedly partaking in their drinks about thirty feet away. Yusuf could not hear them very well, not even with his enhanced hearing, and very soon he stopped trying to make out the words. That left him with Apollus el-Rahim for company.

                The master of the Second Jond did not bother changing from his ceremonial robe, now stained with drops of blood from the chalice. Still, there was nothing barbaric about his appearance. Even playing the role of the high priest (Yusuf assumed that was a reenactment of one of many ceremonies inherited from Apella's distant past), the senior officer was an imposing figure, almost regal at times. There was nothing comical or exaggerated in his bearing; el-Rahim clearly took his role in the ceremony very seriously.

                Now that the ceremony was over, he reminded Yusuf of Telennios. They had the same bearing honed on the palace grounds and chambers of political councils, the same refined accent that only noble-born could pull off without much efforts. The captain of the 54th company wondered what world his battle-brother called home, and what it was like. Was he, too, a scion of some aristocratic family who traced his ancestry to long years of the Old Night?

                “So, what do you think so far?” el-Rahim broke the momentary silence. He smiled, just enough to put Yusuf at ease without being condescending.

                “Not much to think about, yet,” admitted Yusuf. “What exactly are the Companions supposed to do, anyway?”

                El-Rahim raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Straight to the point, yes, brother?” He fixed the imaginary crease on his robes. “A somber tradition, this one, born of Apella herself.” The way he said the homeworld's name made Yusuf think that el-Rahim had some unrequited longing for claiming affinity with it, almost jealousy towards those who, through no merit of their own, shared birth place with Iskanderos' own. “Are you familiar with the campaigns of king Mykandros?”

                Yusuf' scratched his head, thinking. The name was vaguely familiar in the same way that one might recall history lessons from childhood, no doubt a grandiose tale, but not particularly relevant thousands of years afterward. “Mykandros...” he said slowly, summoning old memories. “Wasn't he the one that conquered... the Grailian Coast?”

                “The Grailian Coast, the Branat Highlands, and a whole lot more,” elaborated el-Rahim. “About, oh, five thousand years ago, give or take few centuries.”

                “Ancient history, then?” Yusuf realized the Lord Commander was trying to make some sort of a point, but the point itself eluded him.

                El-Rahim chuckled quietly, polite sound ready-made for ballrooms and diplomatic missions. “One would do well to learn from it, brother,” he said softly, sipping more of his drink. Yusuf followed suit. The taste of blood still lingered on.

                “Mykandros was perhaps the best general of his age,” el-Rahim continued. “Alas,” he raised his eyes to the ceiling, as if making a dramatic point, “he was a poor judge of men outside the battlefield. Once the campaign was over, he did not even make it back to his capital before he was poisoned.” Another chuckle, then. “He could not always tell which of his generals were plotting against him, and which of the conquered people he could trust when they petitioned him to resolve their disputes. Sadly for him, he was also stubborn, and believed he could do no wrong.”

                “So he ignored the signs of treason?” Yusuf asked. The very thought seemed wrong. How would it apply to a Legion that, more than any other, embodied loyalty to the Imperium? What would tale about treason signify?

                “His successor, Leander, was a bit smarter, even if no genius of war. “ El-Rahim went on, as if he did not hear Yusuf's question. “He could not have conquered the empire Mykandros built, but he managed to keep it. How did he do that, you ask? Simple. He listened to others. Had his sons only been better at learning from his example, perhaps the empire would have stood to this day!”

                That, Yusuf had to admit, was a very long and roundabout way to make a point. He nodded, still not entirely sure of himself to say that out loud.

                “You have something on your mind,” said el-Rahim, giving Yusuf a piercing look.

                “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

                The Lord Commander laughed loudly enough to make even Crateros, Demetrios, and Ahab take note. Demetrios cocked his head, an invitation for an explanation.

                “You will enjoy this, my friend,” el-Rahim spoke up after a fit of laughter. “We are the Companions, brother. When we are away from our companies and before the eyes of our father, there is no distinction of rank amongst us. Well,” he said, nodding at Demetrios, “other than the equerry here, who is technically the senior companion. Do not let this go to your head, brother,” he said to Demetrios with a smile.

                “What Apollus is trying to say is this,” Demetrios answered for him. “Our mission is to advise the Primarch on matters of importance. If we get too lost in matters of rank and hierarchy, then our advice will be useless. Your voice, captain al-Malik, is important.”

                “This is an honor,” said Yusuf, trying to go back to his original thought. “But... why the story about Mykandros? Is there something I am missing?”

                “A diplomatic way of saying that I tend to get off track,” laughed el-Rahim. By now, the other Companions abandoned their private conversation, walking closer to Yusuf. “If you are to do well as one of us, you should not be afraid to admit faults – your own and others!”

                “Here he goes again,” said Demetrios with exaggerated sigh, rolling his eyes. Something about his manner suggested that the two Lord Commanders had much experience with friendly jabs against each other.

                “Politics, my friend, politics,” said el-Rahim. “This is the part you are missing.”

                “How...”

                “Mykandros was a great warrior, but a terrible politician. He built the empire, but could not keep it. Leander kept the empire, but could not make it greater, and within two generations his grandsons squandered it away. Thus, talent in war or aptitude for politics alone are not enough for the crusade we are fighting.”

                “The Great Crusade is almost over,” continued el-Rahim, with approving look from Demetrios spurring him on. “The war, though... Oh, the war will continue for a long time.” He chuckled, as if amused at his own wit.

                “It will continue on a different battleground,” said Demetrios, picking up seamlessly from where el-Rahim stopped. Yusuf saw both Ahab and Crateros nod, and wondered just how much truth there was in el-Rahim's words about the lack of ranks amongst the Companions.

                “If we are to come with Lord Iskanderos to Terra, we will need to advise him. We will need to bring our knowledge of war, and our expectations for peace, so that he can have a trustworthy, honest word in his ear when he asks for it.” Demetrios walked closer, putting one hand on Yusuf's shoulder. He leaned in, speaking quietly as if imparting a secret. “The Primarch likes the way you think, and wants yours to be one of the voices he listens to.” He pulled back from Yusuf, now addressing the entire group.

                “Terra will be a different kind of battle for us all, brothers. Let us hope that we are its equal.”


                Comment


                • #9
                  PART TWO – THIRTY MONTHS BEFORE STARFALL

                  SIX

                  Throne World
                  Preparations
                  Grand Entrance

                  The Stormbird skirted the outer edge of atmosphere, slowing down as the numerous defense platforms acquired target lock, flashing warning runes in Yusuf's helmet. This close to the heart of the Imperium, even the Legion landers were scrutinized, checked, and rechecked until their identity could be fully verified, and the right of their passengers to step upon the sacred soil of Terra, the birthplace of humanity, was safely established.

                  “I do not remember it being like this,” grumbled Crateros, shifting uneasily in his suit of artificer armor. The 68th Captain presented an awkward sight, his plain features at odds with the artistic extravagance of gold and bronze shaped into all sorts of designs that had little to do with martial pursuits. “I feel like a peacock.”

                  “The ugliest peacock I have ever seen,” quipped el-Rahim. The Astrologer wore his ceremonial attire only marginally better, but he seemed to take this latest predicament in good cheer.

                  “Just think of what our cousins will show up in,” said Demetrios. The equerry's armor was the most elaborate of them all, making Yusuf wonder how the Lord Commander was even able to move. “Any bets on who will look the most ridiculous?”

                  “I would wager that the Gargoyles will outdo the Jaws with the number of skulls and bones, and the Ninth would outdo both,” said Yusuf, laughing. “At least before the Fourteenth knocks a few of them off.”

                  Ahab and Crateros snickered quietly, while Demetrios nodded in enthusiastic approval. “The first rule of Legion diplomacy,” he said, “is not to piss off the Gargoyles. And the second rule...”

                  “If you do piss them off, make sure someone else is in their way,” Yusuf replied.

                  “Damn right.” Being loud seemed to take Crateros' mind away from everything else, and his next words were nearly bellowed out.

                  The Companions were not like Yusuf's sergeants in the 54th Company, and it took him much time to get used to their personalities, their quirks and ways of interacting with each other. He took to Apollus el-Rahim the fastest, owing to their previous conversations and to el-Rahim's easy and friendly manner. Tilsit Demetrius was similarly easy to approach, but hard to get to know; while their conversations were pleasant enough, Yusuf could never get over thinking that the other Companion's mind constantly kept on working, evaluating, calculating every word and movement for some unseen advantage or unfathomable future use.

                  Ahab was easier to understand. The Chapter Master was a simple, if dedicated, soul, advancing in rank through merit with blissful ignorance of politics and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and his interests reflected that. Once Yusuf figured it out, he was able to establish a mutual understanding, seeing perhaps more similarity between them than with any of the others, even if this understanding remained at the level of professional respect, just short of friendship or brotherhood.

                  Even Crateros was easier to deal with as the time went on. Yusuf's own ambitions did not stop at the Captain rank, and this created a natural point of tension between the two. In other Legions, this could have been a friendlier form of competition, where only their victories would have dictated their respective accomplishments, but amongst the Sixth, a certain form of ruthlessness was encouraged. They were the best, Iskanderos once said, the strongest and the most resolute, and there was the price to this strength. For the moment, Yusuf and Crateros reached if not an understanding, then at least an unspoken agreement to reserve their rivalry for the times when it mattered.

                  Another commandment taught by Iskanderos was that no ambition should ever get in the way of efficiency.

                  “So, what do you think?” Crateros asked Yusuf as the turbulence shook the dropship on their approach. “I presume you have never been?”

                  “My first time,” Yusuf answered. There was something powerful about the view of Terra from above, knowing that for all the majesty of Apella, for all the wonders of Lodoq Tir, or the savage beauty of Argos, something primal tugged at the heartstrings of every human, no matter his world of birth, something that no other world in the galaxy could match. Though her seas were long gone, and the places from mankind's long history were consigned to dust of millennia, their memories still remained. The Imperial Redeemers' feet would step upon the same ground as millions of great thinkers, warriors, rulers, and prophets. They would breathe the air that carried scents of ages long past, and stand upon the ground where decisions impacting the fate of the entire species were made.

                  Though Apella was the world of his birth, Terra was something else, tugging at the deepest heart strings and reminding Yusuf of an embrace of a mother whose face and name he no longer recalled. It was home that he did not know he had, and he was returned to its bosom, a prodigal son returning to tell the stories of his travels.

                  “It is... splendid,” said el-Rahim. The Lord Commander was clearly affected. Yusuf wondered if it was his first time on Terra as well.

                  “When were you on Terra last, brother?” Yusuf asked Crateros. There was a bit of challenge to his voice, as if their mutual dislike was prompting him to add a quizzical note when he spoke.

                  If Crateros noticed it, he did not give any indication. “Forty years ago, give or take a year,” he said, as if the knowledge made him somewhat of an authority on the throne world. “A diplomatic mission, heh, of sorts.”

                  “He was one of the honor guard then,” inserted Demetrios, though it was not clear if he meant it as an insult or as a commendation. Yusuf wondered if the senior Companion encouraged this ambiguity. As the Primarch's equerry and the Lord Commander, Demetrios had little to fear from someone of Crateros' rank, and could speak his mind with relative impunity. At the same time, Demetrios did not strike him as someone who would say a word without some hidden agenda; was there a reason behind that statement?

                  Crateros harrumphed, but did not rise to the bait. “It was a worthy experience,” he answered, letting only slight hints of irritation into his voice. “Although I would much rather spend time on campaign than talking to all the... dignitaries.” If that was not a veiled retort, then Yusuf did not know what it was.

                  Demetrios laughed, dispersing some of the more sour mood that began to settle in. “Trust me, brother, some of these dignitaries will make you wonder if you are safer in the middle of battle.”

                  “Any idea what we are going there for?” asked Ahab. His voice was coarse and blunt, either ignorant or uncaring of the verbal jabs going on around him.

                  El-Rahim spread his hands in a gesture of bemusement. Yusuf, still the newest amongst the Companions, kept his silence.

                  “My guess?” ventured Crateros, lowering his voice even though the only living beings within the earshot were his fellow Imperial Redeemers. “Probably dividing the spoils.”

                  “What are you talking about?” said Yusuf. Though his time amongst the Primarch's advisors gave him a newfound appreciation for the subtleties of Legion politics, he was still but a neophyte when it came to these things. The Imperium was one, indivisible, eternal. The very idea of division was as alien to him as many of the xenos cultures the Legion had exterminated during the Crusade.

                  Crateros was instantly on to him. “Maybe you, Astrologer. Educate our friend here.” The 68th Captain grimaced, as if he found the idea that someone was so naïve to be disquieting.

                  “Very well.” El-Rahim turned a quizzical eye to Yusuf. There was something not quite judgmental, but amused to his look. “For a man who wonders what we fight for, and what we will do after the war is over, you are blissfully blind to certain realities, brother.”

                  “Don't go demolishing all of his illusions,” chuckled Crateros. “Who knows what they feed to them in the ranks. Unity, humanity, justice, or something like that. Right?”

                  “You must forgive our cynical brother, Captain al-Malik,” said Demetrios before things got too far out of hand. “For some of us,” he looked at Crateros pointedly, “the pursuit of war has blinded us to other things.”

                  And those things, naturally, held their own dangers, Yusuf thought, knowing that his crash-course in politics was not going to prepare him for Terra, holding on to the beliefs that some day, long ago, made him stand in a long line to join the Legion trials, made him the man he now was.

                  “Ahem,” the Astrologer cleared his throat. All eyes were back on him. He continued in a cultured, even voice that had a song-like quality to its cadences. In that moment, he sounded more Apellene than any true son of Apella. “It is only reasonable to expect that as the Crusade winds down, we stay aware of certain realities.”

                  “One, most of the Twenty have amassed following far beyond the numbers in the Legions. Just as our own gene-father claims fealty of the Network, so do his brothers have their own holdings, all made in their image.”

                  “Two, the Legions are far from unified forces they once were.” As el-Rahim spoke, Yusuf wondered how long the Lord Commander served in the Legions. He had an air of someone who had personally experienced the changes he was talking about, and still reminisced of the old days. “Other than the likes of the Gargoyles or the Eleventh, almost every Legion has multiple recruiting worlds spread half-way across the galaxy. Some Primarchs probably don't even know how many Legionaries they command, let alone where all of them are.”

                  “Three, the nature of the Warp travel makes centralized control difficult at best. Humanity had already tried that before the Old Night, and failed. The very size of the galaxy makes it impossible to deal with emergencies as they arise. What do these things tell you?”

                  Yusuf stared into space, contemplating. The facts were there, in plain sight, and the conclusions he derived were at odds with everything he believed prior to rising above his fellow officers to join the Companions.

                  “Well?” asked Crateros impatiently.

                  “Are you saying that the Primarchs will become governors instead of war leaders?” Yusuf finally said after a lengthy pause. That made a lot of sense, but even then, something nagged on him. He finally realized what it was.

                  “I can see it with our own father,” Yusuf continued rapidly before any of the other Companions had a chance to interrupt. “I can see it with Hemri, or Dyal Rulf, or Corwin, or Leto. But... there are some Primarchs who would rather destroy everything than rule it. Nihlus, Angelus, Kthuln...”

                  “And that is where, I think, this trip comes in,” said Demetrios. El-Rahim nodded sagely, while both Ahab and Crateros had enough presence of mind to remain quiet for the moment.

                  The Equerry stretched his hands, an unnecessarily complex movement given the level of decoration on his armor. “If I were a betting man, I would say that our trip is not about the new order of the galaxy. That would have already been decided long before our summons came. More likely than not, it is about who gets to rule it.”

                  “If I may?” El-Rahim reentered the conversation. The look he gave his fellow Lord Commander was difficult to decipher. Yusuf wondered if there was some degree of rivalry between the two, or some kind of previous understanding.

                  “Of course, brother,” Demetrios waved him on.

                  “It is a certainty that whatever the Emperor's plans might be, our father is an integral part of them,” said the Astrologer. “I am the living proof that Lord Iskanderos can govern as well as he can command in war. Our task, therefore, is to spread the benefits of the Apellene Network to other, less enlightened cultures, even if it comes at the expense of the more... barbarous elements of the Imperium.”

                  Even if his misgivings about the endeavor were still high, Yusuf could hardly argue with that.

                  * * *

                  In all of humanity's tortured history, many tyrants and geniuses alike sought to immortalize themselves through grand feats of engineering. Just like the ancient pyramids of Gyptus or the long-dismantled citadels and monuments, the human vanity knew no boundaries, forever hopeful that this once, their works would stand the test of time, and the names of their creators would ring throughout the chronicles of future historians.

                  And where were they now, kings, emperors, caliphs, pharaohs, presidents, sultans, high priests and prophets, ideologues and revolutionaries, all who once thought themselves indispensable and worthy of adoration? What became of their works, now consigned to the radioactive dust scattered across Terra, or abandoned across a million worlds where men once raised their banners, each once the center of his own subjective universe?

                  But as grandiose as those works might have been in their day, they paled to the latest example of man's megalomania.

                  The Imperial Palace redefined the scale of human engineering. Over the last two centuries of the Great Crusade, it had expanded from its beginnings in the hollowed-out shells of the Himalayas to a continent-spanning monstrosity that covered most of what was once Eurasia. Entire civilizations of bureaucrats and dignitaries sprawled on its outskirts, each guarding access to the inner territories where thousands of competing branches of Administratum fought for the attention of the Emperor or his councilors.

                  Millions of guards and laborers populated the palace's corridors, each assigned to their own miniscule sections and blind to the world outside. Permanent contingents from all twenty Legiones Astartes, Custodes, and more esoteric military formations were stationed at the key locations, now more of a ceremonial duty than anything else, but potent forces nevertheless. Countless cannons and towers pierced the gray skies of mankind's birth world as a reminder of the palace's permanence and its master's part at the heart of the human expansion, for the palace held far more than the plunder of a million worlds or the records of the galaxy-spanning empire.

                  It was the residence of the Emperor, the heart of the Astronomicon by which all Imperial ships navigated the treacherous currents of the Warp, and the nerve center around which the whole of humanity revolved.

                  The continent-sized complex had its own cities and underground farms, its own manufactoria, and its own spaceports and armies of guards keeping peace amongst billions of its inhabitants. Its cavernous halls were so vast that they had their own weather systems and food chains made up from creatures native and alien to humanity's birth world. Curios and tribute from across the entire known universe sat alongside the greatest treasures of Terra's tumultuous past, some traced to the greatest minds still celebrated in the Imperial universities and academies, others obscure and no longer attributed to the forgotten artisans, scientists, and engineers who created them countless centuries ago. The wealth of the galaxy was displayed almost as an afterthought, its abundance and splendor cowing down all who would walk the Long Walk towards the doors of the inner sanctum, where the good and the great of the Imperium held their court.

                  The Companions followed Iskanderos at a respectful distance, close enough to intervene if necessary, far enough to allow the Primarch the dignity of his office. The many visiting dignitaries, servants, guards, and petitioners parted before them, allowing the Imperial Redeemers wide berth.

                  Hundred meter-tall statues stared down at them. Yusuf recognized some of the names inscribed in man-sized letters; other names were unknown to him, all doubtlessly great and powerful statesmen, generals, artists, and scientists of their day. He wondered how many outside of the Emperor himself really knew anything of those people separated by many millennia only to become decorations in the nerve center of the greatest civilization in human history.

                  “Look at my words, ye Mighty, and despair,” muttered Iskanderos so quietly that only the enhanced hearing of Space Marines near him could pick up on it.

                  Ever since their arrival on Terra, the Primarch was in the sour, contemplative mood. He elected to travel alone, leaving the Companions to arrange for the protocol of his arrival, and with every step towards the Senate Chamber, his mood seemed to worsen.

                  Yusuf did not like the implications. Though, like most of his battle-brothers, he wished to be on the front lines, abandoning politics and parades to those who lacked stomach for war, this was supposed to be a joyous moment. All twenty Primarchs were summoned to Terra. A gathering of this nature was unheard of. To be a part of it was the greatest honor Yusuf could think of, for moments like this one shaped history for millennia to come.

                  And yet... what did the master of the Sixth know that his captains did not?

                  “What was that?” inquired Crateros, to receive a stern look from Demetrios.

                  “Lord Iskanderos needs his solitude,” the Equerry said simply, keeping his voice low. “He has much to think about.”

                  If Crateros was not satisfied with the response, he knew better than to question his superior. Instead, he turned his head slightly, zoning in on el-Rahim. “I don't remember most of this. Did they change it?”

                  The Astrologer cocked his head with the amused, wry smile. “The Imperial Palace, as I understand it, is in the state of flux, though I am not privy to the exact reason why.”

                  “What is there to think of?” Ahab raised his voice. “If you looked at the schematics while we were landing, it would become obvious.”

                  “What?” Crateros' voice was louder than he had probably intended, and Demetrios gave him a disapproving look.

                  “Captain al-Malik? What do you think?” asked Ahab. “You've been awfully quiet here.”

                  “Still getting used to the idea of being here,” replied Yusuf, taking care to keep his voice barely above a whisper. “This is... magnificent?” A treacherous thought slithered in his mind; this made the greatest accomplishments of Apellan engineering seem puny in comparison.

                  “About the reconstruction,” said Ahab, somewhat impatiently. “You did study the palace layout, didn't you?”

                  Yusuf shook his head in denial, eliciting a frown from Ahab.

                  “Rule one, always know your terrain,” the Chapter Master said. “You never know what kind of battle you might have to fight, where, and when.” He cast a look towards the other Companions, but did not see any who dissented.

                  “I will remember, brother,” replied Yusuf, somewhat chastised. Somehow, this maxim did not feel right in the Imperial Palace. What kind of battle would he expect to fight here, in the heart of Imperial power?

                  Crateros looked around, taking in the sights with a different, more practical eye. He nodded, as if acknowledging some realization, encouraged by Yusuf's failure to answer.

                  “Now it makes sense,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “The palace is being fortified.”

                  “What do you mean?” Yusuf asked, still awed by the grandiose scale of architecture around him.

                  Crateros smiled, displaying a wolfish grin. “Look at the placement of the statues,” he turned his head, as if inviting Yusuf to follow his eyes. “The pattern is clearly designed for taking cover in a firefight.”

                  “It is but one example, Faisal,” said Ahab slowly. “If you took the time to review the palace map, you would have seen the gun emplacements, the void shield concentrations, and the built-in kill zones. The palace was heavily fortified to begin with, but it seems that there are more defenses now than the last time we were here.”

                  Ahab was here too, Yusuf wondered? When? Why? Another thought started nagging at him. What kind of threat would warrant the Imperial Palace being thus reinforced?

                  “What bothers me is where we are going,” said Demetrios. As the other Companions gave him confused looks, the Equerry explained. “We are going to the old Senate Chamber. It has not been used for any real business in centuries.”

                  “The grounds of the old Imperial Senate. I see,” mused el-Rahim. “I wonder if it is meant to send a message.”

                  A message? The world of Imperial politics was new to Yusuf, but if this was the way it operated, he would have to learn quickly lest his advice became useless to Iskanderos. If the place of gathering and the manner of their arrival were a message, what kind of message did it send, and for whom?

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    SEVEN

                    Demigods
                    Cousins
                    Mortal Diplomacy

                    The Senate chamber was carved out of the bedrock in a shape closely resembling an oversized bowl with terraced sides so comparatively miniscule that from the distance, they seemed almost completely smooth if not for throngs of people vying for space giving them an impression of a singular, liquid mass. At a glance, it was at least five hundred meters across, and mortal eyes were insufficient to make out most of the detail there. Even enhanced Legionary eyesight could not be relied upon to tell apart faces, insignia, or multitude of overly elaborate dresses and costumes.

                    These, however, were but lesser mortals. For all their delusions of grandeur, they were replaceable, irrelevant next to the true lords of the Imperium, whose deeds and decision they were invited to witness. They were observers to the slow, glacial movements of history, never the decision makers, always the audience for the play in which only the demigods were allowed to have speaking parts.

                    And now, the demigods were here.

                    Yusuf and the Companions followed Iskanderos past the human shoals towards the center of the chamber, where a set of thrones stood in a semicircle. At the center of the crescent, a larger throne was elevated above the rest, larger, more decorative than the others. Yusuf counted the smaller seats.

                    Twenty. One for each of the demigods.

                    By the time Iskanderos and his retinue arrived, the center of the Senate chamber was a chaotic mess of humans and Legionaries alike. Every color of armor was present, from dull black and gray of the Gargoyles to drab olive of the Spears of Eternity, ocean-blue and green of the Jaws of the Deep, crimson and silver of the Illuminators, and many, many others. Some of the honor guards wore exquisite and elaborate suits of armor not unlike that of the Imperial Redeemers. Others were plain and almost completely utilitarian, as if the absence of decorations was a distinction all its own.

                    As the Primarch of the Imperial Redeemers waved the Companions on to mingle with their peers from the other Legions, Yusuf could not help but notice the presence of other figures of similar stature towering even over the fully armored Space Marines. Not a single one made a forward step towards the thrones; there were matters of etiquette to observe. None could be placed above the others, none could be elevated while their brothers were snubbed. After all, nothing burned brighter than a demigod's pride in the presence of his equals.

                    “There,” el-Rahim pointed to one of the figures, a dour, grim-faced giant with ashen pale skin and long, black hair. “That is Nyxos. An interesting character if I ever knew one.”

                    “Isn't he, right?” Crateros seconded him, his voice almost getting lost in the commotion. Now that the Companions were amidst the crowd, he seemed to be in much better cheer. “I think I see some familiar faces.” Even as he finished the sentence, he started walking towards a congregation of white-clad warriors adorned with an unhealthy amount of skulls and fetishes.

                    “Grim Angels, the Ninth,” said Yusuf, more to himself than to anyone in particular. Ahab and Demetrios moved on, each joining conversations with warriors of the other Legions known to them from previous campaigns and leaving Yusuf and el-Rahim alone.

                    “An old Legion,” the Astrologer commented. “And a proud one, as much as these things are concerned.”

                    Yusuf shrugged. “There is a lot of pride going around these days.”

                    The Primarchs began to congregate in pairs and trios, striking meaningless conversations or exchanging empty pleasantries. They were impossible to miss, and Yusuf felt the same kind of half-dread, half-trance he experienced when he first saw Iskanderos. This time, the sensation was magnified, making him feel almost dizzy.

                    He saw Iskanderos exchange curt greetings with a bearded Primarch with square jaw and piercing blue eyes – Rogr Hemri, el-Rahim helpfully announced. The Conqueror's conversation with Mohktal, an ascetic in the flowing orange-red robes with elaborate designs tattooed upon his bald head, lasted considerably longer, and, if the smile on Iskanderos' face was any indication, seemed to be a generally more pleasant experience.

                    “Let me introduce you to some of our cousins,” said el-Rahim, breaking Yusuf out of his reverie. He whispered with a conspiratorial smile. “Now that you are a Companion, it pays to know who is who, and who has the ear of his master.”

                    * * *

                    “Well met, brother,” said Iskanderos, greeting a severe-looking, dour-faced giant with a warrior's handshake. “I heard much about your recent extermination campaigns in the Hakon Cluster.”

                    There was just a hint of satisfaction on the face of his companion. “You've heard right,” answered Griven Kall, nodding in response. “The local xenos put up more resistance than I expected, but nothing the Hellhounds could not handle.”

                    Around them, other Primarchs and their honor guards mingled, some discussing business, others catching up on the developments they might have missed on their campaigns. A small group stood to the side, taking no part in any of the conversations, their unpainted ceramite looking brutish and crude amongst the fineries of their peers.

                    Griven Kall leaned towards Iskanderos, lowering his voice. “Nihlus does not seem too happy.”

                    “When is he ever happy?” the Conqueror retorted, casting a sidewards glance in the direction of the unengaged group. He would have said more, but held his tongue.

                    Nihlus of the Iconoclasts was a difficult man to like. For this occasion, the Primarch of the Eighth Legion covered his mutilated face with enough synth-skin to almost pass for an entire being, but not much could disguise the smell of burned flesh that seemed to follow him no matter the amount of fragrances poured over his body and armor. With the penchant for biting sarcasm and curt sentences that always seemed to strike some nerve, Nihlus would be a rare sight at any public event designed to emphasize the Imperial unity and benevolence. His presence underlined the magnitude of the gathering.

                    “At least Angelus seems to be rather lucid today,” remarked Iskanderos. The winged Primarch of the Gargoyles had a large crowd around him, holding a lengthy conversation with Maikhaira and Corwin. It was impossible to tell from this distance what they were talking about, but the look of utmost attention on Corwin's face indicated that for once, Angelus did not speak in cryptic and oblique riddles.

                    “Just look at Gideon,” Griven Kall pointed in the direction where master of the Peacekeepers was laughing about something with Rogr Hemri. “I swear, if you ever want to find him in any room, find the point furthest away from Angelus.” The enmity between the two was well known.

                    Iskanderos nodded. For the next few minutes, the two Primarchs shared the news, exchanging stories of their recent conquests and plans.

                    “Do you know what this is all about?” Griven Kall asked with little warning, segueing from the rumors about the latest campaign of the Second Legion.

                    “I have my ideas,” said Iskanderos. He was careful not to speak too much; even in this throng of people where noise ensured relative anonymity, there were eyes observing and ears listening – who was talking to whom, whose retinues consisted of battle-hardened heroes and who brought pompous relics of the Legion history, who expressed which thoughts and hopes for the future. “Our father was very cryptic about these summons.”

                    “You don't suppose...”

                    “Hardly so,” Iskanderos replied. “That was almost three centuries ago with much smaller crowd. And we swore to never speak of it again.”

                    Before he could say anything else, a shadow fell over them.

                    “May I, brothers?”

                    The speaker was easily as tall as Iskanderos, with short jet-black hair and skin that was the grey-white of fine marble. His face was handsome if not the most remarkable, with pronounced angular features and the eyes that were milky white, like those of an antique Grecian statue given life. He wore the dark blue, nearly black clothes of a statesman rather than the more traditional battle armor, and long, ceremonial sabre at his belt was the only concession to his more militant companions. His very manner was slow, deliberate, and controlled, as if every step was measured by some precise calculations for the maximum effect, so that his presence exuded the kind of gravitas only afforded to individuals of great importance.

                    “Greetings to you, brother Leto,” said Iskanderos, turning so that he could face both Leto and Griven Kall at once. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

                    Griven Kall's greeting was somewhat less enthusiastic, but still within the boundaries of etiquette. It did not take him long to start casting his eyes around, seeking other brothers to speak with. In a heartbeat, the Primarch of the Hellhounds excused himself, wandering off to seek other company.

                    Leto's eyes followed Griven Kall wistfully. “Our brother may hide it well, but him and I do not always see eye to eye.”

                    Iskanderos looked at Leto, taking in the smallest detail of his brother's appearance. Leto's clothes were immaculate, a virtual impossibility amongst the multitude surrounding them. There were wrinkles around his eyes, perhaps an indication of heavy workload, perhaps, mused Iskanderos, sign of the age. The idea caught on in his mind and refused to let go despite the sheer impossibility of the immortal Primarchs ever displaying signs of mortal frailties.

                    Leto studied him in turn. The two were never close, and, in truth, they barely knew each other. Iskanderos would have preferred the company of Griven Kall, or, for that matter, someone like Mohktal, but he had to remind himself of the reason for this gathering. Whatever the Emperor had in mind had to involve all twenty of his sons.

                    “We were never close, brother,” Leto said to break the awkward silence. “Perhaps it was a mistake. I find much to admire about you and the Imperial Redeemers.”

                    Iskanderos was about to reply with an empty platitude, then stopped. Leto did not have a reputation for empty banter. The Primarch of the Sixteenth Legion must have had some goal, some objective in mind.

                    And those words sounded almost like an invitation to negotiate.

                    “Perhaps,” Iskanderos agreed. “This gathering... is quite unlike anything I have ever seen.”

                    “The Legiones Astartes. The Administratum. The planetary government representatives, the Army, the Imperial Navy, the Mechanicum, the Navigator Houses...” Leto counted off the factions he spotted in the distance. “And, of course, us.”

                    “Yes, us,” said Iskanderos. “The only ones in our father's direct presence.”

                    “That is very telling,” Leto intoned slowly. “Our father has something of extreme importance to tell us.” The emphasis on us was hard to miss. “Perhaps it would be sensible to consider the implications as we learn more about each other.”

                    Iskanderos smiled, the very picture of affable consent. Whatever Leto's intentions, this was a new kind of battlefield for the Conqueror, and he would not be amiss to learn who his allies and adversaries were. “Perhaps, after the conclave?”

                    “Yes, brother,” said Leto. “That would be a great opportunity for us to get reacquainted.”

                    * * *

                    Less than fifty meters away, Apollus el-Rahim pointed out Legionaries he served alongside over his long, distinguished career. Some of them were known to Yusuf by name only; others had reputations that preceded them. A few were even casual acquaintances, though most were complete strangers.

                    “That is Milegros Atlas,” the Astrologer pointed out a thin-faced, pale warrior of the Grim Angels. As the two Imperial Redeemers looked in his direction, the Legionary slowly turned his head, as if somehow aware of being the focus of their attention. His eyes were cold and dead, showing neither interest nor emotion short of detached contempt.

                    “Aren't you going to introduce me, brother?” replied Yusuf, not taking his eyes off Atlas until the stare was just short of an all-out challenge.

                    El-Rahim laughed softly. “Believe me, Yusuf, if Atlas wants to make acquaintance, he will come to you. And you will not enjoy the experience nearly as much.”

                    “How come?”

                    Now that Yusuf turned his head, the Grim Angel looked away, finding someone or something else to concern himself with. El-Rahim waited until he was sure Atlas was not looking before answering.

                    “The Ninth Legion have more interest in the affairs of others than is healthy for them,” the Astrologer said. “This one here,” he cast a meaningful glance towards Atlas, “is particularly infamous for sticking his nose where it does not belong.”

                    Any further questions on Yusuf's mind were cast aside when their path across the throng led them towards the group of warriors armored in red and silver, with elaborate geometric patterns carved into their armor in a manner that suggested utilitarian meaning rather than artistic expression. The warriors' heads were bare, clean shaven and tattooed with more lines and multi-colored curves that wove in and out of symmetry, seemingly at random until converging in spots that were anything but accidental. Their skin was the same red ochre as their armor, and their features were proud yet serene, not those of barbarian berserkers but of civilized, dignified men. The lines upon their armor blended in with their tattoos, and it was hard to tell where the armor ended and the flesh began.

                    “Kian!” el-Rahim exclaimed with the uncharacteristic vigor. One of the red-armored warriors returned his greeting with a wide grin that momentarily melted his serene features into the mask of true joy.

                    The warrior was shorter and more stout than his companions, with soft rounded features and relaxed movements that did not immediately suggest martial vigor. His tattoos were more elaborate than those of his battle-brothers, and the silver trim of his armor was covered with patterns that put Yusuf's mind to the trimming of citizen togas back on Apella. A row of service studs protruded from his brow, clearly marking him as a veteran.

                    “What do we have here?”the other Marine said with mock amusement, his voice betraying humorous undertones. “The Sixth Legion grace us with their presence?”

                    “And that, Yusuf, is Kian Ranseng of the Illuminators,” el-Rahim made the introduction. “We go back quite some time. The Alterraun Compliance, I believe.”

                    Ranseng laughed. There was something infectious about it, something genuinely good natured. “As I am sure Apollus told you a thousand times. He likes that story. What?” he paused, noticing the lack of comprehension on Yusuf's face. “Don't tell me. You never told him? Of course you didn't!” He patted el-Rahim on the back. “Don't tell me you learned some humility, my friend.”

                    “Me? Humility?” the Astrologer chuckled. Something seemed different about him, as if he was not as concerned with presenting the calm, scholarly face to the Illuminator. “You should know better, cousin.”

                    “Don't mind us, captain...”

                    “Al-Malik.”

                    “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Ranseng shook Yusuf's hand with jovial enthusiasm. His expression grew serious as he lowered his voice in mock confidentiality. “You must watch out for this one. He is a known troublemaker. Am I right, Apollus?”

                    “I see years did little to change you, Kian,” replied el-Rahim, amused. “How does the Seventh fare these days?”

                    The Illuminator shrugged noncommittally. “Same as always, I venture. Compliances here, campaigns there. Truth be told, we have not had a real challenge since... Karellax, I think. And even that was hardly worthy of being spoken of again.”

                    El-Rahim nodded in response. “Seven years. I know some who would chafe at this.”

                    Ranseng shook his head. “Not me. Enough little cuts can take down the largest she'har beast. And the Third Order deserves its time away from the front lines.”

                    “Such as they are,” commented the Astrologer wryly.

                    “Such as they are,” Ranseng agreed.

                    Yusuf had never met a member of the Illuminators, but so far, Kian Ranseng was nothing like he had expected. For a Legion known for its brotherhood of warrior-mystics, the red-armored Legionary was surprisingly... worldly. Something about him made Yusuf think of Ishmael, back with the rest of the Fifty Fourth Company probably enacting some routine compliance. Though Yusuf recommended his Sergeant for promotion, it would be some time before a vacancy would open in one of the other companies. The thought of Ishmael leading the Fifty Fourth – his company, his men – made Yusuf uneasy. He could not pinpoint the source of the feeling, and it made him uneasy, like a premonition of something unpleasant. He waved the thought away.

                    “You seem troubled,” the Illuminator addressed Yusuf. “First time on Terra?”

                    “Yes...” The Imperial Redeemer shifted his feet. “This is not the arena I am familiar with. A lot of different agendas.”

                    “Perceptive, isn't he?” added el-Rahim.

                    “You'll find it a useful quality around these parts, captain al-Malik,” said the Illuminator. “May I call you Yusuf?”

                    As Yusuf nodded, Ranseng continued. “So, Yusuf, this is as good a place as any to learn about the workings of all those different agendas. Who knows,” he grinned, displaying a full complement of white teeth. “Maybe you will find yourself a natural at it.”

                    “That's what I hope for,” said Yusuf, somewhat darkly. “Legion diplomacy is hard enough for what it is. Mortal diplomacy? Now that is hell.”

                    “Don't you know?” laughed el-Rahim. “That is where all the fun is.”

                    * * *

                    The chatter came to a halt as if on cue. One moment, the old Senate Chamber was alive with countless conversations, sounds of alliances and rivalries being negotiated and old acquaintances renewed; the next moment, everything was quiet. Yusuf could almost feel a strange, cold sensation on his skin, though he could not tell if it was real or merely his imagination.

                    The chamber seemed frozen in viscous time, seconds crystallized into eternities that immobilized thought and movement as the background light became more intense, at once the chill of the void between the stars and the warmth of the rising sun. Slowly, Yusuf’s eyes drifted to the far end of the chamber.

                    It was golden, radiant in the way that he came to associate with Iskanderos. A troop of a hundred figures in elaborate yet oddly functional armor of burnished gold entered the chamber in a disciplined formation, their conical helms scanning the room for safe passage even as they held their halberd-like weapons at the ready. Cloaks of deep red swung over their shoulders in step with their every movement, giving them an appearance of a choreographed troop of dancers.

                    The Custodes, Yusuf thought, examining them with curiosity bordering on professional interest. The chosen bodyguards of…

                    It hit Yusuf like several shock waves in quick succession. Cold sweat appeared on his brow as he felt himself tremble underneath his ceremonial Legionary armor. He found it difficult to look, and his eyes threatened to come out of focus, attempting to look at the Custodes, at the gathered dignitaries, even at the Primarchs – anywhere but there.

                    For how could human, even post-human eyes contend with sheer power and perfection concentrated in a single body, the aspirations of the entire species distilled into a being as luminous as it was terrifying, the being who forged the Imperium out of the darkness of the Old Night by sheer force of will and single-minded determination? How could any words do justice to the one who defied classification, the one who commanded fealty of the demi-gods and worship of lesser creatures on a million worlds?

                    There were statues, paintings, and holotape recordings all attempting to convey the majesty of the sight before him, but none came even remotely close. Some things were meant to be experienced in person, not at a distance, and no amount of retelling could have substituted for conviction of the one who was there, the one who felt the sensation of profound awe at being in the fulcrum of history.

                    In the latter days, all that Yusuf could recall was a series of flashes – a regal look in the piercing eyes, a glimpse of something that might have been laurels or a diadem, a hint of strength and inhuman resolve in every movement. He wondered how anyone, anything – even a Primarch, could have remained in the presence of this luminous being without being awe-struck. The 54th Captain was reminded of being in the presence of Iskanderos, but with every emotion magnified, every feeling exaggerated.

                    Maybe, some day it would be you. The words swam to the surface of Yusuf’s mind, along with a stranger’s face speaking them. Who was it? When was it?

                    As the human throng parted before the procession of the Custodes, the Emperor of Mankind made his way towards his throne.

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                    • #11
                      EIGHT

                      Master of Mankind
                      New Dawn
                      The Council of Terra

                      “It will pass,” el-Rahim whispered to Yusuf as the Primarchs began to take their seats. Kthuln was the first to set down his massive, savage-looking bulk, as befitted the Firstborn, followed by Nyxos and Nihlus, then the other Primarchs, until the Youngest, Andrieu Ullian, took his seat marked with the Romani numeral for the XVIIth Legion, the Liberators.

                      For his part, Yusuf was glad to have the Astrologer’s reassurance. He wondered how the unaugmented humans must have felt in the presence of the Emperor and all twenty of his demi-god sons; his trained eyes noticed servitors darting about, helping some remain standing, or administering medicines to others who must have fainted. The silence felt eerie, filled with tension and anxiety at the unknown reason for the gathering. Yusuf thought back to his conversation with the other Companions during their descent to Terra. Would they be proven right?

                      “Remember the first time you saw Lord Iskanderos,” continued el-Rahim, patting Yusuf’s pauldron in a gesture of solidarity. “It was just as difficult for me the first time around.”

                      Yusuf could only nod. He felt his senses return, but even then his awe did not completely abate. It was almost too much for him to absorb at once despite all of his post-human conditioning, but every moment made it just slightly easier, until he found himself capable of limited thought and then function. Yusuf let out a long breath he did not realize he was holding.

                      The stage was set, and the Emperor was at its center, surrounded by the twenty Primarchs on their lesser thrones. The Legionary retinues formed a semi-circle around them, seemingly frozen around whoever they were conversing with when the Emperor and his guards arrived, with the mortal audience spread out to the corners of the vast chamber. Soft, golden light filled the entire Senate hall, with no singular source.

                      In all of this commotion, Yusuf almost completely missed another, much less imposing figure standing before the thrones – a frail-looking mortal in rich robes of office, leaning on a long staff crowned with the insignia known in the Imperium second only to the Emperor’s own aquila and lightning motifs.

                      “That is Malcador,” el-Rahim pointed, keeping his voice a respectful whisper. “The Sigilite. The Regent of Terra.”

                      The second most powerful man in the Imperium, Yusuf thought, examining him from distance with a measure of disbelief. Malcador did not seem to be all that imposing; where the Emperor and the Primarchs inspired nearly religious awe, the Sigilite was an old man of average height with wrinkled skin and wispy white hair escaping from under the cowl. There was nothing extraordinary about him; he looked little different from thousands of other mortals gathered in the Senate hall to witness the momentous gathering of the Imperium’s lords.

                      “He is… human,” Yusuf finally squeezed out the words, feeling his awe at the presence of the Emperor diminish enough to break his silence.

                      El-Rahim shook his head. “Do not underestimate him,” the Astrologer answered in shorter, clipped sentences; perhaps, Yusuf thought, the senior Companion was struggling with his own awe more than he let on. “He has the Emperor’s ear. The Primarchs listen when he speaks. You would do well to remember that.”

                      Malcador raised his staff, then brought it down on the floor. The sound should have been barely audible in the vast Senate chamber, but due to some strange trick of acoustics, it resonated with a thunderclap. Was it Yusuf’s imagination, or did he actually feel colder?

                      “Citizens of the Imperium,” the Sigilite said, his voice carrying into every corner of the hall, amplified by countless tiny speakers worked into its structure. “Warriors of the Legions.” He turned to face the thrones, looking at each one in turn. It seemed that his eyes held on to some of the Primarchs slightly longer than the others – Rogr Hemri, Leto, Iskanderos? Yusuf was filled with a sense of discomfort that he was curious to recognize as a form of dread. It was an unfamiliar feeling for a post-human; he did not like it.

                      “My lords the Primarchs,” the Regent of Terra nodded slightly at each Primarch, a gesture of acknowledgment between equals rather than a bow to superior authority. Yusuf thought he saw subtle changes in the postures of some seated Primarchs – Ashur of the Fifth Legion shifting uncomfortably like a caged animal, Rogr Hemri straightening up as if he was to be singularly recognized, Maikhaira’s fingers twitching ever so slightly as if recoiled in disgust.

                      Malcador’s final bow before the central throne was considerably deeper. Now, he was clearly the subordinate one, paying respect to his liege; the Sigilite’s eyes appeared to meet the Emperor’s for a fraction of a second longer than necessary. Was there some unspoken communication between the two, a preparation for some momentous event to come soon?

                      The Sigilite turned to the assembled in their thousands, moving to the side as the golden luminescence behind him intensified. “I give you… the Emperor, the Master of Mankind, beloved by all.”

                      * * *

                      ++MY FELLOW HUMANS! THIS IS A MOMENTOUS EVENT++

                      The words appeared inside Yusuf’s mind, a voice of such clarity and power that it overpowered all of the Captain’s own thoughts. It felt as if the Emperor was speaking to him directly, a one-on-one conversation where the rest of the vast chamber faded into irrelevance, and only the two of them remained. Strangely, it did not feel intrusive – an intimate conversation rather than blaring of the sirens, coherent words and images that were meant for him and him alone. As much as some part of Yusuf wanted to look around to confirm that he was not the only one thus affected, he did not have the willpower to look away, to give his attention to anything other than the Emperor’s thought-voice.

                      ++FOR FIVE CENTURIES, WE PUSHED BACK THE BORDERS OF THE UNKNOWN. WE TOOK BACK WHAT THE AGE OF STRIFE CLAIMED, AND BROUGHT ILLUMINATION TO A MILLION WORLDS++

                      The Emperor somehow seemed larger than the rest of the Senate hall, though he remained safely seated on his central throne. Even the Primarchs were but an afterthought next to him.

                      ++FROM THE MIGHTIEST HERO OF THE LEGIONS TO THE HUMBLEST CLERK OF THE ADMINISTRATUM, ALL HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO OUR STRUGGLE. ALL HAVE SACRIFICED, AND NOW A MILLION WORLDS BASK IN THE LIGHT OF CIVILIZATION++

                      Yusuf found himself inspired by the fervor in the Emperor’s words. Later, he would replay the speech in his mind time and again, trying to understand the power of the Emperor’s oratory and coming to a conclusion that something about the manner of the speech elevated it past the banal pleasantries and platitudes intended for mortal politicians, something that Yusuf could not put a finger on yet very, very real. Perhaps, he would think in his more cynical moments, the very manner of speech delivered through psyker wares gave the words that much extra gravitas; perhaps the conviction in the words was a psychic trick the Legionary had no defense for. Though the words were ordinary, the message and the emotion behind them were not.

                      ++SO IT IS NOW THAT I CAN TELL YOU, MY FRIENDS AND FELLOW HUMANS, THAT WE HAVE WON. THE OLD NIGHT IS OVER++

                      A trickle of cheers and claps from human attendees in the back of the hall turned into a flood as more and more joined in. Within seconds, Yusuf found himself cheering and clapping alongside others, mortal and Legionary alike. Even reserved el-Rahim added his voice to the commotion, next to an unlikely crowd of Illuminators, Imperial Redeemers, and Jaws of the Deep, with an occasional Gargoyle or Liberator wandering away from their own groupings.

                      The cheer seemed to last for minutes, showing little signs of abatement until the Emperor’s voice rang out in Yusuf’s mind again, silencing everything.

                      ++THE GREAT CRUSADE, IN WHICH SO MANY OF YOU VALIANTLY FOUGHT, HAS BEEN WON. THOUGH POCKETS OF RESISTANCE MAY REMAIN, WE HAVE ACCOMPLISHED OUR MISSION. THE GALAXY IS SAFE FOR HUMANITY, AGAIN. AND FOR THIS, I MUST THANK ALL OF YOU++

                      More cheers broke out. It seemed to Yusuf that the assembly was almost more willing to cheer the praise given by the Master of Mankind than it was to cheer the Emperor himself. The mood in the hall was euphoric, a cacophony of sound that distilled the human and the post-human into a singular emotion.

                      ++BUT OUR WORK IS NOT YET DONE++

                      The Emperor’s words silenced the Senate chamber once again. What else was there to say, Yusuf wondered? What other kind of endeavor could there be to warrant a speech from the Master of Mankind, beloved by all?

                      ++ANOTHER ENDEAVOR AWAITS, BUT THIS ONE, I MUST DO ALONE. THE NEED HAS NEVER BEEN MORE PRESSING, AND THE REWARDS HAVE NEVER BEEN GREATER. TRUST ME WHEN I SAY THIS, MY FRIENDS. IT IS FOR THE BENEFIT OF US ALL THAT I SHALL RETREAT INTO THE IMPERIAL PALACE UNTIL SUCH TIME AS MY GREAT WORK IS DONE++

                      Where before, cheers and commotion underlined the speech, the hall was silent. Yusuf felt like a cold blade was suddenly thrust through his vitals, slithering inside his skin with a sickening, slow movement. He could not focus his attention on anything other than the figure of the Emperor, so close yet so far away, coming in and out of focus like a mirage dancing above the hot pavement; all other thoughts and concerns became irrelevant.

                      What now? What does it mean?

                      ++YOU MUST TRUST IN MY JUDGMENT, FRIENDS, AND BELIEVE WHEN I TELL YOU NOT TO BE DISMAYED. THE OLD NIGHT IS OVER. TRUST IN THE NEW DAWN++

                      The words seemed to sear themselves into the Legionary’s mind. Trust in the new dawn. The Emperor’s figure grew brighter, at first a warm glow, then the raging fire of a nuclear explosion. Yusuf saw the outlines of humans and Legionaries with unprecedented sharpness, noticing tiny details on their faces, minute scratches and decorations on their armor, twitches of their muscles and slight discolorations on their skin. Time itself slowed to a crawl, and he thought that he could see vapor of breath slowly coursing in and out of many mouths…

                      “Yusuf. Yusuf!”

                      Yusuf must have stood motionlessly for at least a few minutes; by the time he could focus his attention again, the Emperor and the Primarchs were gone. The Senate chamber was a whirlwind of speculation, conversation, and wide-mouthed stupor.

                      “What happened?” he asked el-Rahim, finally acknowledging the Astrologer. “Where… are they?”

                      The other Imperial Redeemer shrugged. “Must have been a powerful glamor,” he said slowly, clearly shaken by the experience. “Or…”

                      “Have you… ever seen Him before?”

                      “Once,” said el-Rahim. “But… it was nothing like this. I mean,” he spoke quickly, as if to dispel the remnants of the enchantment, losing his customary eloquence, “it was awe-inspiring. Magnificent. You could not focus on anything or anyone else when He spoke. But… you always knew that He had power, but you never felt it this much. This… I do not understand.”

                      “Perhaps he was trying to make a point,” Yusuf remarked, regaining more of his composure by the second. He took a quick look around, finding no familiar faces but for el-Rahim and Kian Ranseng.

                      The Illuminator made a motion to join them; for once, his expression was entirely serious and thoughtful. Yusuf thought that the other warrior’s tattoos looked a bit out of focus, as if they existed in some other reality superimposed upon this one.

                      “This was… impressive,” Ranseng said with a tone combining awe and respect. “I have seen many examples of psychic mastery, but this one… the Master of Mankind never ceases to amaze me.”

                      “Why would He do this?” Yusuf asked, studying the Illuminator’s face for any signs of an answer.

                      Ranseng scratched his chin contemplatively, curling his lips in a quizzical expression. “Why indeed…” he pondered out loud. “It felt like He was speaking to me. I know it cannot be true, but I felt like His atma was connected to mine.” He paused to compose himself, licking his lips. “I felt a touch of fate, as if he tasked me with something.”

                      He looked like he was going to say something else, but then grew silent. A moment later, Yusuf realized why.

                      A dark shadow stumbled toward them, covered in grisly trophies arranged in displays of human and xenos anatomy with surgical precision upon armor of pristine white. Every time the figure moved, the trophies shifted, giving them an appearance of writhing in pain or terror. Something about it reminded Yusuf of final moments of surgically dissected creatures upon the vivisector’s table.

                      “Captain Atlas,” el-Rahim greeted the Grim Angel with little emotion.

                      “Cousins.” Atlas’ voice was like a dry wind blowing dead leaves in a drought-stricken landscape. There was something sibilant about it, something not entirely natural. Yusuf noticed deep scars on the other warrior’s neck, as if a trio of oversized claws tore through this flesh and stopped just short of ending him.

                      “To what do we owe the honor?” asked the Astrologer. There was little enthusiasm in his words; Yusuf recalled what his battle-brother told him about the other Space Marine. If Atlas wants to make acquaintance, he will come to you. And you will not enjoy the experience nearly as much. This one is particularly infamous for sticking his nose where it does not belong.

                      The Grim Angel’s face contorted. It took Yusuf a moment to realize that the warrior of the Ninth Legion was attempting to smile. Dead-looking eyes remained unchanged even as his mouth moved. The effect was odd; to a mortal, it would have been deeply unsettling.

                      “I understand that the Conqueror’s Companions have a new addition,” Atlas said. He sounded like he tried to make an appearance of being amiable, though coming from him, the result was nearly the precise opposite. “I thought I would come and pay my respects. Commander…”

                      “Captain Yusuf al-Malik of the 54th Company,” Yusuf said, eliciting a raised eyebrow from the Grim Angel.

                      “Your deeds must have been extraordinary, Captain, to rise to the Primarch’s inner circle at this stage in your career.”

                      “I trust in the judgment of Lord Iskanderos,” answered Yusuf coolly, feeling his blood rise at the implication. He could not tell if Atlas was trying to compliment him or to insult him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw el-Rahim move into a wary stance. Ranseng put a hand on Yusuf’s pauldron, as if telling him to keep his wits about him.

                      “I mean no disrespect, cousin,” said Atlas, revealing sharpened metal stubs in place of teeth as he attempted a grin. “Merely a congratulations on your recent promotion.”

                      Though el-Rahim seemed to relax a little, Ranseng’s hand remained in place; the Illuminator’s eyes darted between Yusuf and the Grim Angel.

                      “Thank you,” Yusuf answered the other warrior. For a moment, both were silent.

                      “Perhaps one day we shall fight side by side,” Atlas continued. “I find it important to know who your comrades might be.”

                      “Even if the war as we know it might be over?” asked Yusuf, somehow feeling insulted at the idea of sharing the battlefield with the Grim Angel.

                      Atlas cocked his head to a side, his face hiding a question.

                      “You heard the Master of Mankind, too,” the Imperial Redeemer continued. “The Old Night is over. What could possibly warrant an action where entire Legions would fight side by side?”

                      It took Yusuf a moment to recognize the harsh sound as laughter. It had a feel of a cough, rusted iron scratching against heaps of corroded metal.

                      “The war never ends, Captain,” Atlas replied. “It only changes shape and target.”

                      “By this logic, you do not expect much to change,” Yusuf said. Something about the Grim Angel’s manner irritated him, though he could not verbalize it.

                      Atlas shrugged. “Our ways of war are different, cousin. There may not be as many glorious battlefields for the likes of you, but there will be battlefields aplenty.”

                      If he expected Yusuf to say something else, the Imperial Redeemer gave him nothing. He remembered el-Rahim’s warning about Atlas; this was neither time, nor place, nor company to talk.

                      “A conversation for another time, cousin?” Atlas asked at Yusuf’s silence.

                      “Another time, another place,” replied the Companion, nodding curtly. Their eyes met, part investigation, part contest of wills. Finally, Atlas broke contact. The corner of his mouth was still curved, still bearing the last of a smile.

                      “May wisdom and fortune guide you,” the Grim Angel said, offering a hand for a warrior’s handshake. Despite himself, Yusuf took the hand; something about it felt off, as the very act of touching the other Space Marine’s armored gauntlet was strangely repulsive.

                      It took a minute after Atlas left for el-Rahim to speak.

                      “You did well,” he told Yusuf, his calm manner reasserting itself. “Is it your first time dealing with the Bloody Ninth?”

                      Yusuf nodded. “I heard they might be… unpleasant. This one, though…”

                      “He’s a null,” Ranseng spoke up. His hand still clutched on to Yusuf’s pauldron, not a measure of reassurance as the Imperial Redeemer originally thought, but digging into the lacquered ceramite. As Illuminator’s eyes drifted toward his hand, he hastily withdrew it, offering Yusuf an apology.

                      “A… null?” the 54th Captain asked.

                      “A pariah. A psychic null,” said Ranseng, then elaborated after seeing confused looks from two Imperial Redeemers. “Every living being has some presence in the Empyrean, some more than others. Those of us whose atma is connected to the Beyond can tap into it.”

                      “Psykers,” said Yusuf as realization dawned upon him.

                      “Yes, psykers,” agreed Ranseng. “I am one, as are many of my brothers, as are Librarians and Diviners, Navigators and astropaths, and many others.”

                      “What does it have to do with Atlas?”

                      “He is…” the Illuminator seemed to be at a loss for words, struggling to find the right term. “How shall I say it… the opposite. His atma is dead to the Empyrean. He has no presence in the Beyond. He sucks the life from the likes of me.”

                      El-Rahim snickered in understanding.

                      “What our cousin is telling us, Yusuf, is that it is physically painful for him, a psyker, to be near Atlas,” he said by the way of explanation.

                      “Never mind me,” added Ranseng. “Even those who cannot use the Art find themselves ill at ease around pariahs. You dislike him, didn’t you?”

                      “Yes…” Yusuf managed to answer, sorting through his reasons for finding Atlas’ company unpleasant and settling on the invisible, unspoken prejudice that surrounded the Grim Angel like an aura.

                      “The Bloody Ninth are not a pleasant Legion, brother,” said el-Rahim. “You would do well to remember them. For this reason, and many others.”

                      * * *

                      Iskander’s mood was dour after hearing his father’s words. By now, the Primarchs began to disperse from the Emperor’s private reception hall, where the Master of Mankind gathered his sons after the thunderous public announcement.

                      The Great Crusade is over. The Old Night is over.

                      He should have been elated at the prospect. Some of his brothers might have even truly relished a chance to retreat from the responsibilities of never-ending war and to know peace. Others might have treated the constant drive to expand the borders of the Imperium as a chore, now that they had their own domains to rule. A few of his more barbarous brothers were restless; for those who only knew war, the very possibility of peace was terrifying.

                      But he, Iskanderos of Apella, the Golden One, the Conqueror, he was no savage. For almost four centuries, he and his Legion brought the light of civilization to the distant stars, crushing all who would dare to resist the human ascendancy. In his wake came a superior system, a chance for humanity to finally reach its potential as the dominant species in the galaxy.

                      Is it enough? Will it be enough - an insidious voice kept whispering in his mind.

                      In the few moments when he dared to be honest with himself, he knew what the answer was.

                      “A moment of your time, brother?”

                      Leto’s voice broke him out of his reverie. The Primarch of the Immortals was alone; all of their other brothers have dispersed to their own retinues. They were in a long hallway decorated with the works of art long consigned to the failings of human memory, each a priceless treasure whose true value was only known by select few. The carpet was royal purple with gold border reflecting the light of electric torches mounted on the stone walls, a tribute to ancient tradition.

                      “Leto.” The name came out of the Conqueror’s mouth like a sigh.

                      “A most upsetting turn of events, isn’t it?”

                      “It is, it is,” said Iskanderos, probably as much to himself as to his brother. It took him a moment to regain composure; once again, he was a Primarch, one of the Emperor’s own gene-forged sons, the conqueror of the galaxy.

                      “A unique challenge… and perhaps a unique opportunity,” Leto remarked softly. “I was wondering...”

                      “Yes?”

                      “Walk with me, brother,” the master of the Immortals extended his hand in the direction of a side gallery filled with portraits of some long-dead kings and warriors. “Walk with me, and let us speak of Council of Terra.”

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                      • #12
                        NINE

                        Fiction
                        Kingmaker
                        An Age of Peace

                        The two Primarchs walked under the watchful eyes of dead luminaries, each depicted in stranger and stranger garments as the gallery led them backwards through time. The techno-barbarian warlords from the Age of Strife gave way to the purged and the forgotten leaders of the more enlightened times in their intricate clothes, painted or captured on hologram in front of wonders of a bygone age. The men and women of Dark Age of Technology blended into their predecessors from earlier ages, with older artwork protected by stasis fields and other, more esoteric devices. Some bore trappings of advanced science and culture; others seemed to be little more than savages in archaic armor or primitive fineries of long dead courts.

                        “Malcador surely likes his relics,” Leto said, pausing to examine a stasis-locked painting of a saber-wielding man on a rearing horse. The rider’s costume was colorful, his red cloak flapping in the wind and seemingly untouched by the grime of the mountainous passage where, far in the background, uniformed soldiers or servants pushed primitive wheeled devices. “He told me that this one is almost thirty thousand years old.”

                        “How quaint,” remarked Iskanderos, his eyes focusing on the painting. On closer examination, it looked cracked, even after allowing for the subtle distorting effect of the stasis field. He took in the colors of the paint, the placement of cracks in the canvas, the contrast presented by the stylized frame clearly made in more recent times. “Yet another noble playing soldier and looking heroic.”

                        “What makes you say so?” asked Leto.

                        “First, this is a common image from many cultures,” the Conqueror answered him. “The mount enhances his stature. Second, the pose suggests him ordering a charge, but the terrain behind him makes charge foolhardy at best, which indicates that he knew little of actual military tactics. Third, the painting is clearly a matter of heroic exaggeration. His clothes have no dirt. His animal rears very close to the cliff edge, which no experienced rider would have allowed. Conclusion, he is no soldier.”

                        Leto laughed quietly. The light of the torches reflected from his milky white eyes, momentarily passing on a quality of burgundy and gold to them.

                        “What is so funny?” asked Iskanderos warily. He looked at Leto, then at the painting, then at Leto again. Was he missing something?

                        “Brother,” said the Primarch of the Immortals in response, instantly growing quiet, though the smile remained on his face. “Forgive me the moment of levity.” He turned to face the painting, looking closer at its minute details. “I find your way of looking at these things illuminating.” Leto’s face grew somber. “Have you considered an alternative to your interpretation?”

                        “An alternative?”

                        “The amount of fiction that went into the creation of this piece might have served a different purpose,” Leto explained. “I agree that this stance, and these garments, would have been heavily impractical under the circumstances. Perhaps you are right, and the painter attempted to emphasize the man’s leadership and willingness to face dangerous situations.”

                        Iskanderos’ face grew darker; glints of annoyance played in his eyes. “Did you bring me all the way here to debate the meaning of some painting? I’d expect this out of Andrieu, but you, Leto?”

                        The master of the Immortals raised both hands to his chest, gesturing for patience. “There is a deeper meaning to this, brother, and this is the reason I wanted to talk to you.” He paused, giving the painting another look, then turned to Iskanderos again. “Malcador told me once that this man was the greatest warrior of his age.”

                        The Conqueror reexamined the painting with renewed interest, looking at the determination in the man’s face in different light. The warrior in the painting did not look personally formidable.

                        “He led the tribes of the Franc to conquer an empire,” Leto continued. “Men fought and died for him. What could have brought them to throw their lots with the likes of him, I wonder? What image would his subjects see when they thought of their king?”

                        Iskanderos smirked, finally understanding. “Are you saying that this is the work of some forgotten remembrancer? Not a true historical record?”

                        “Aye, brother. Propaganda. Politics. Continuation of war by other means.”

                        “What of it?”

                        “What of it, Iskanderos?” Leto raised his voice just enough to carry the import of his words. “Only everything! Especially now.” The white-eyed Primarch looked Iskanderos straight in the eye, no doubt to inspire confidence or to appear frank. “With our father secluding himself, things will change. Things have changed.”

                        “Even then,” said Iskanderos. “Malcador is our father’s Regent, and only temporarily.”

                        “Malcador cannot govern alone!” Leto shouted. The outburst surprised Iskanderos, and he drew back slightly.

                        “Forgive me, brother,” said Leto, casting down his eyes. “My mind is troubled. I have been in Segmentum Solar for the past year, and have seen the changes first-hand. There are fewer worlds to conquer, and those that remain do not need the likes of us to be brought into the fold. More and more of our brothers pay visits to Terra. Some have even taken residence here, for better or worse.”

                        “When did that happen?” Iskanderos growled, feeling his blood rise. “Who?” The muscles in his arms involuntarily tensed.

                        Leto shook his head. “You can probably guess yourself. While you were on campaign, many others were here in the palaces of regional governors, or making sweet with the Mechanicum. Right now, Malcador cannot hope to govern without us.”

                        “But surely… father would have foreseen this?”

                        Leto laughed bitterly. “For the one so brilliant at war, you can be charmingly naïve, brother.” He paused for a moment, waiting for Iskanderos’ anger to recede. “Our father has other concerns. Not everyone has the same faith in his interest with mundane matters.”

                        Now, Iskanderos looked shocked. “Mundane matters? The governance of the Imperium is a mundane matter?”

                        “I think that to a being of his magnitude, the matters of administration are a nuisance at best,” Leto answered. “You heard him speak to us after the show in the old Senate chamber. What was it – I expect you to lend your assistance to Malcador? This, to me, sounded like an invitation.”

                        “You presume too much!” Iskanderos shouted. He moved toward Leto menacingly, just moments from raising his hand in anger.

                        “I can guarantee that Hemri took it as an invitation,” replied Leto, his voice calm and measured, looking Iskanderos in the eyes. “Corwin, too. Gideon, Stefan, even Echelon, all of them would take it the same way, with good intentions, even. And do not even get me started on Nyxos.”

                        Iskanderos stepped back, possibilities running through his mind, his eyes downcast. Long seconds passed; the Conqueror’s hands shook with anger, but he did not act out on it. Finally, he raised his chin, looking straight at Leto.

                        “What about you, brother? Where do you stand?”

                        “Me?” Leto smiled slightly. “Politics are like an ocean. You either swim, or you die. I choose to swim.”

                        “Why am I even talking to you, brother?” Iskanderos declared angrily. “There is nothing to stop me from returning to Apella now, and leaving you and others to play politics until our father returns.”

                        “And when will that happen? It may be a year; it may be a hundred years!” Now, Leto was beginning to display a semblance of emotion. A vein throbbed near his temple, a reminder that he, too, had something of a passion to him. “You may choose to retreat, but do not be surprised if you will find the Apellene Network taken away from you, or surrounded on all sides by the domains of our other brothers. Or perhaps you will find yourself in minority when their Legions swell and get new toys from Mars, but yours remains the same.”

                        “I am my father’s son,” said Iskanderos, resolute. “I shall comply with the Emperor’s wishes, and trust in his fair judgment when he returns.”

                        “Or you may find yourself without friends and allies for a long, long time. Perhaps there will be nothing left to pass judgment on by the time he comes out of his seclusion,” Leto insisted. He paused, giving Iskanderos a sincere look. “That is, of course, providing that he does come out of his seclusion. Not all of us will be as eager for that moment.”

                        “Who?” Iskanderos hissed, murder in his eyes. “You are suggesting treason.” Instantly, he was within arm’s reach of Leto, poised to strike. “You better have something to back up these accusations, or I swear by the avici that I will…”

                        “I have my suspicions, brother,” Leto retorted, never taking his eyes off Iskanderos, yet neither raising his voice nor backing down. “But as you said, I will not make accusations without solid proof. All I know is that many of our brothers have expressed their… desire… to aid in the governance of the Imperium during our father’s absence. And you must understand something about the nature of power.”

                        “What?”

                        “It is easy to imagine what you would do with power if you do not have it. It is almost as easy to believe that you seek power for the right reasons, and that you will use it to do great things. Once you have it, you will spend more and more of your efforts trying to keep it, and none of the great things you hoped to do with it will matter. And, worst of all, those who seek power the most will do the most to keep it.”

                        “A cynical view,” Leto concluded, “but a truthful one. You know our brothers as well as anyone can hope for. How many of them would resist the temptation to use power for their own advantage? How many would be content taking orders?”

                        Though Iskanderos was the same height as his brother, in that moment the Conqueror seemed to tower over the other Primarch, such was the menace exuded by his movements. In the face of it, Leto remained emotionless, almost statuesque, like a grown man watching over a child’s temper tantrum.

                        “And all it takes is one,” said the Primarch of the Immortals. “All it takes is one who would do anything for power, and others who would look away. Can you trust in any of our brothers to resist temptation if they grew used to the power, and everything it brings?”

                        “Gideon…” squeezed out Iskanderos.

                        “Gideon is a well-intentioned fool,” Leto snapped, blurting out the words. “Would you trust him to make hard decisions when the time comes? Or would you expect him to settle his own petty debts and rivalries? Who else? Mohktal? He would not want it. Corwin? He would let the galaxy burn around him if it means he can have his precious little kingdom. Hemri? Nyxos? Stefan? They are the last people you would ever want in charge of the galaxy.”

                        Iskanderos remained immobile, not backing off. “You?” A sneer distorted his face. “Is that what you want me to say, brother?”

                        Leto shook his head. “As it happens to be, no.” The look of surprise in the Conqueror’s eyes was his answer. “I have little interest in ruling the Imperium. But I do have vested interest in making sure that there is still Imperium to govern after the… regency… comes to an end.”

                        That was sufficient to make Iskanderos back off. He took a step back, then gestured to his brother. The two Primarchs started a slow walk, descending even further into the distant, nearly mythological past. The tension between them seemed to dissipate just enough.

                        “Explain,” asked Iskanderos, this time with aplomb, not aggression.

                        “All of us are strong-willed beings,” Leto elaborated, casting sideward glances at the artwork. “Our father made us so, and the trials of our lives made it difficult for us to back down. We have no equals save for each other; only our father could ever command our fealty. No other could even hope for it, not even one of us if he were to be elevated above the rest. Herein lies both a problem, and a solution to that problem.”

                        Leto stopped in front of a marble bust, probably Grecian or Romani, depicting a bearded man wearing an archaic helmet. The statue’s milky white eyes matched Leto’s own.

                        “We Primarchs are too proud to bend knee to lesser beings, and too dangerous to be excluded from decisions of import. You know as well as I do that the likes of us would pay little heed to Malcador alone, or to any form of Imperial Senate, should that failed experiment be resurrected.”

                        “What do you propose, then?”

                        “The Council of Terra,” Leto smiled. “A governing council of the Imperium composed of the select Primarchs. With, of course, Malcador, and a few other notables,” he added hastily, noticing the expression on Iskanderos’ face. “Even some of our less… cooperative brothers understand the need for it. Think, Iskanderos – it would keep some of our more ambitious siblings placated, and keep them in a place where they cannot do much damage. Perhaps, even, their talents may be employed in the ways that would benefit all.”

                        Iskanderos shook his head. “A sham, that’s all it would be. Do you really think that some of our brothers are worthy of leading the galaxy?”

                        Leto smirked. “Note how I said select Primarchs. Not all of us have interest in ruling. Hell, not all of us are ready to rule. And there are some who should not rule, but cannot be turned down.”

                        “Are you saying…”

                        “Yes,” replied Leto. “Not all of us will have Council seats. True,” he spread his hands in an apologetic gesture, “there will be some who… cannot be ignored. You know who I am speaking about. But how much would Angelus bring? How much would Maikhaira add? What of Baelic? Ashur? Nihlus? Kthuln? They will follow orders, or at the very least not be able to cause much damage.”

                        “All single-world Legions,” Iskanderos noted.

                        “Very astute brother, very astute. Add to them the likes of Marvus, who keeps no holdings, or Zaeed, who rarely stays put in one place, or Andrieu, who does not even know where most of his Legion is. All of a sudden, the Council will become much smaller. Much more manageable.”

                        Iskanderos paced back and forth, contemplating out loud. “That leaves… Hemri and Nyxos. Echelon, Mohktal, and Gideon. Stefan.” He paused, as if considering how to classify the Primarch of the Red Star Legion. “Corwin. Griven Kall, you and Rulf.”

                        “And herein lies the problem,” Leto caught on to his brother’s thought. “Factions. You can see how some of us would make natural allies. Others… not so.” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Right now, many see you as an unknown.”

                        “Interesting…” Iskanderos mused. “Continue.”

                        “Hemri wants to run the Imperium, and Nyxos would accede to him as long as he can run his private genocide campaigns. It pains me to say that, but our brother Griven Kall is almost certain to side with them. Gideon, Echelon, and Mohktal are… idealists. Corwin wants to keep his dominion, and would support whoever made him the right offer. I suspect Stefan is the same way, though you can never tell with him. Me and Rulf are… realists.”

                        Leto licked his lips, then continued. “Hemri is not strong enough to hold the Imperium together. Gideon and his group are well meaning, but naïve. Corwin would see the Imperium fragmented into hundreds of tiny realms. And me… I want to keep enough of it to hand back to our father when the time comes.”

                        “Where do I fall into this?” asked Iskanderos. “I noticed you did not mention me.”

                        “The natural place,” said Leto, smile on his face. “A leader. A kingmaker. Your allegiance will be much sought after in the days to come. Play it right, and you can come out well. You can make sure that when the regency is over, the Imperium remains intact, or, better yet, that it adopts some of the principles that made your Apellan Network so successful.”

                        Leto put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, pointing at a painted stone wall preserved in stasis at the far end of the gallery. “That is the earliest known cave painting from Terra’s ancient history. Think, brother. All of this, thousands of years of civilization, from that painting of savages hunting a bull, to that Francish general, to the Old Night, all of this culminating in our society! And you, Iskanderos, you may hold the fate of it in your hands. Your voice will shift the equilibrium of the Council, and guide it in the right direction. What say you?”

                        * * *

                        The Companions awaited the return of their master in one of innumerable chambers and suits reserved for visiting dignitaries, favored of the Administratum’s current bureaucrats, or occasional high-ranking military officers undertaking missions in the Imperial palace. The room was larger than any living quarters Yusuf had ever experienced, easily big enough to fit an entire company, yet only occupied by five warriors, who now reclined on the soft cushions embroidered with elaborate and impractical designs, sipping human-grade wine from the goblets encrusted with diamonds and rubies that seemed positively tiny in their hands.

                        The room was clearly not designed with posthumans in mind; though it would have seemed impressive to a mortal, the dimensions of most furniture were human-sized, with only a small number of devices enlarged to account for the oversized Legionary physiology. Soft light poured from the ceiling, doing an admirable job of impersonating the natural ambience of mid-morning on a cloudless summer day; Yusuf had difficulty reconciling it with the knowledge that the chamber was buried under hundreds of floors of defenses, residences, thoroughfares, and other mundane locations.

                        In truth, he was not entirely sure where their chambers actually were. It was said that certain parts of the Imperial palace were designed to periodically reconfigure themselves, repositioning entire blocks and sectors so that no outside agent could plan to circumvent enormous security systems. Outside of the innermost sanctums where the Emperor and the members of his immediate household resided, the rest of the palace was ill-defined, rarely mapped, and filled with enough people to populate several hive planets.

                        “I think I can learn to like this,” said Crateros, awkwardly refilling the goblet too small for him. “I do not recall the Honor Guards getting this treatment when I was here last time.” He frowned. “The wine was better then, though.”

                        El-Rahim laughed softly. “If this is what we have to look forward to, I can deal with this. Unfortunately, I do not believe that it would ever come to pass.”

                        “Why not, brother?” Crateros asked in mock belligerence. “You have heard Him. The Old Night is over. All that remains is a string of mop-up actions. Hardly enough to bring the Legions out in force.”

                        “And you are happy with that?” added Ahab coarsely. “What happened to Faisal Crateros and his ambitions?”

                        The Captain of the 68th Company waved him off dismissively. “My ambitions are still there, as strong as ever, Miral. I am simply thinking ahead.”

                        Demetrios raised a quizzical eyebrow at Crateros’ declaration. “Thinking ahead? Pray tell, brother.”

                        Crateros laughed in good humor. “Perhaps a planetary governor. Maybe a rogue trader. Do not tell me that you never thought that the war might come to an end some day.”

                        “Never thought you would consider the life after,” added Yusuf. This was not something he expected to hear from his erstwhile battle-brother. “I am certain there are still many compliances in our future.”

                        “Perhaps,” Crateros shrugged. “Perhaps some foul-mouthed xenos bastard blows me apart the next time we go to war. But I prefer to think in more optimistic terms. Say, what about you? You were the one who told a big story at the Primarch’s feast. Of us all, I thought you would have entertained the same thoughts.”

                        “Maybe we are much more alike than I thought, brother,” replied Yusuf thoughtfully. “Me, I thought about it. I thought about it a lot.”

                        “And what did you decide?” Crateros’ words had more of his customarily cocky attitude and swagger.

                        “I don’t know,” Yusuf answered truthfully. “Ever since I was old enough to walk, I wanted to be a Legionary. Ever since I joined the Legion, I wanted to become a Sergeant, then a Captain. One of these days, I hope to make a Commander, and maybe, fortune be willing, even lead my own Jond in due time. Now? Who knows?”

                        Demetrios coughed to attract attention. “Our friends in the Illuminators heard a most interesting rumor. If they are to be believed, there has been talk about spinning off Great Companies from each Legion, and turning them into independent chapters.”

                        “Preposterous,” Ahab puffed up. “What will these chapters do, give speeches?”

                        “Don’t be so quick to dismiss them, brother,” Demetrios continued. “We have won the Imperium. Now, we will be fighting to keep it.”

                        Crateros slapped his thigh in mock anger. “Damn it. No planetary governorship for me, then?” The expression on his face suggested good humor.

                        “Who knows?” shrugged Demetrios. “This could all be just hot air. In times of change, rumors multiply.”

                        “Or,” said el-Rahim softly, “these independent chapters could make for a good outlet for the more… ambitious among us. What say you, brothers? Would you take a Great Company’s worth of warriors to settle on some Throne-forsaken world and protect it?”

                        Someone would, to say the least,” grumbled Ahab. “Faisal, or perhaps Yusuf. You both seem like the types who would enjoy that.”

                        “We are made for war, and we are made to have no fear,” Yusuf replied, surprised at the resolute sound in his own voice. “I, however, fear what will become of us if there is no war to be fought.”

                        “What do you mean?” asked Crateros, mood instantly sour. Something about his tone suggested that he resented Yusuf for bringing down his good cheer.

                        “We are soldiers, brother. This is what we were made to do. Our every waking moment is spent in battle, or in training for battle. What I fear is this. When there are no battles left to fight, will we create our own?”

                        Demetrios shrugged. “There will always be battles. Perhaps not of the kind we are used to, but battles nevertheless.” There was an almost bored undercurrent to his voice. “If the rumors are true and much of the Legions are scattered to protect the Imperial holdings, then there will be no end to fighting for the likes of us, though not the glorious conflicts we are used to. If the rumors are false, well, the Network can always use officers, generals, governors.”

                        “Bah! Mortals!” Ahab spit on the ornate floor, heedless of the delicate designs depicting some ancient celebration. “The only good mortals are those who load my weapons, and those who get me to the next battle.”

                        El-Rahim nodded, as if Ahab’s words just proved him right about something. “And this, brothers, is precisely why this is a problem.” He set down his goblet carefully on a nearby table, then sat up from his reclining position. “Unless we are so lucky as to fight a war unending, we will be inevitably forced to deal with mortal concerns. This, now, is a mission we are singularly ill-suited for.”

                        “I envy some of our cousins,” Yusuf said. “Some of them would have little difficulty… adjusting.”

                        “And others would have a hell of a time,” Demetrios concluded. “Can you imagine the Gargoyles or the Jaws settling disputes between farmers or even trying to sit still in one place for more than a few moments?”

                        Crateros laughed. “No, I cannot.” He made a savage impression on his face. “Must… Eat… Something! Grr!”

                        Yusuf was not sure which of the Legions that was supposed to impersonate; as far as he was concerned, it could have been both. “Savages,” he added, feeling momentary pride in his own Apellan heritage. “Perhaps they are the ones who should be worried. We… are civilized. There will be place for the likes of us even in the age of peace.”

                        “An age of peace? Didn’t know that you were an orator,” quipped Crateros.

                        “A figure of speech, nothing more,” added Yusuf lazily. “Age of Strife, the Great Crusade… surely mortals will find something to call what happens after. Something grand, even, I think.”

                        “More like Age of Boredom,” Ahab grumbled, though he seemed more good-natured about it. “Or an age of a thousand little cuts.”

                        “Well, we will just have to wait,” said Demetrios. “Perhaps when Lord Iskanderos returns, we will have more clarity.”

                        “Or not,” smirked el-Rahim.

                        “Or not,” Demetrios agreed.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          TEN

                          A Mortal’s Take
                          Shadows
                          Regicide

                          Miranda felt swallowed by the enormous dimensions of the Imperial palace. Everything was gigantic, the architecture, the decorations, even the artwork proudly displayed in seemingly every room, passage, and hall, depicting the many conquests of humanity from its forgotten beginnings until its present glory.

                          The quarters assigned to her would have been considered luxurious even by the standards of planetary aristocracy; for someone of her humble origins, they were almost oppressive and intimidating. The furniture was baroque and elaborately wrought from trees extinct on Terra for thousands of years, adorned with gold and precious jewels and definitely fit for millions of petty rulers who once claimed royal dignity. The paintings on the walls were done in an archaic style, alternately depicting pastoral landscapes of ages long departed, scenes from mythologies that were obscure even to the scholars of a million worlds, and full-bodied maidens in various revealing outfits cavorting among platters of exotic fruit and sceneries of distant past.

                          What am I doing here, she wondered, not believing her good fortune. Truth be told, she was a glorified propagandist, another weapon of the Imperial expansion across unknown space, though perhaps an overlooked and unappreciated one. Where the Primarchs and the Legions waged war on galactic scale, Miranda liked to think that she and other remembrancers provided a foundation to keep those conquered worlds within the Imperium, or to fuel the fires of industry which enabled the Legions to continue their inexorable march.

                          When the history of this time will be written, no doubt by the hand of a remembrancer, it would be a story of the Legions and their commanders, with perhaps a rare mention of the mortal men and women who took all the mundane, thankless duties of maintaining the conquest of the known universe. Miranda accepted that as something inevitable and outside of her control, but the knowledge did little to feed her sense of ego, the belief of a genius that she is indispensable to the parade of history.

                          That illusion of unique importance, the mirage of grandeur gave her something to hold on to, something that she could flaunt in the faces of people yet to be born when it was her turn to give account of her life; for though she was born in an unassuming place, her journey from it was interesting.

                          Primarchs, Legionaries, luminaries of every stripe crossed her path. Teachers, peers, and lovers came in and out of her life, each one adding something different to an amalgam of experiences. The visit to the Imperial palace was merely another highlight, albeit a memorable one, another tale to relate when all was said and done.

                          She was feeling oddly contemplative, perhaps even thoughtful in light of what had transpired. Miranda realized that she was present for a historic moment, a privilege rarely given to even the most fortunate of her kind, but something about it felt awkward. It took her many hours of reflecting to recognize what it was – a sense of finality, completion of an endeavor five centuries in the making, promise of the end of war.

                          The signal announcing her visitor was not a blaring trumpet, but a melodious jingle emanating from speakers hidden in many alcoves in her quarters, so innocuous and pleasant in tone that she almost did not recognize it for what it was. She keyed in a code into personal assistant device, unlocking the door without giving it a second thought; she was neither famous nor important enough to warrant undue attention, just another member of a Primarch’s retinue there to record the glory and the majesty of her master. The anonymity grated on her.

                          Iskanderos walked into the luxurious quarters, dismissing Custodian guards with a wave of his hand. The Primarch seemed troubled. His customary golden luster was diminished, as if his presence on Terra took away from the radiant presence Miranda was used to from her time on board the Hegemon. Something in her head gloated at the thought of the one so seemingly perfect showing a hint of human vulnerabilities; she suppressed the thought, not sure of where it came from.

                          “Remembrancer Iagos,” the Primarch greeted her, nodding with a slow motion that spoke of exhaustion.

                          “Please, take a seat,” Miranda pointed to a sofa large enough to fit the Golden One’s oversized frame. “There are refreshments on the table, if you desire them.”

                          “Maybe another time,” Iskanderos sighed. His brow was creased, his expression somewhat absent-minded and distant. His hand reached for something, finally finding an apple. It seemed incredibly small in his fingers.

                          “To what… do I owe the visit?” the remembrance asked after a moment’s silence. Something about the Primarch did not seem… right.

                          He let out a brief laugh that was neither happy nor reassuring. His head shook, probably in some kind of a silent argument. When he looked at Miranda again, there was a look of dark intensity in his eyes.

                          “Do you remember our conversation on board the Hegemon?” he asked, twirling the apple in his fingers like a toy. “

                          “About using my… talent in other ways?”

                          “Precisely, my lady.” There was something of Iskanderos she remembered in his poise and manner, something more confident. It was as if with every word, he was remembering the role he was meant to play, becoming less of a man in his moment of doubt and more of an invincible creation, a leader, a general in front of adoring troops. “I fear that your wordsmithing may be called upon sooner than I had anticipated.”

                          “Is it… because of what the Emperor said?” asked Miranda, giving voice to the question she was contemplating before the Primarch’s arrival. “About… the end of the Old Night?”

                          He nodded. “It is, and it is not. You have experience reaching the minds of men. Not just warriors, but mortals. Society, culture, religion. Politics.” The last word sounded like a curse coming from him.

                          “Politics?” she asked, starting to understand.

                          “Aye, politics, Miss Iagos,” said Iskanderos. “Speeches made for the ear of Administratum officials and barons of Sol System. Letters that would urge compromise and promise clemency and benevolence, without appearing weak. Stories and stage plays to extol the virtues of the chosen causes.”

                          “Why?” she asked haltingly. This was it. The end of war. The end of Old Night, in the cradle of humanity now poised to lead the rest of the species into a bright new age.

                          As Miranda Iagos looked on, Iskanderos told her everything.

                          * * *

                          “This is...” Miranda struggled to find words, unused to the luminescent being in her presence yet unwilling to give in to the sensation of creeping dread and awe many of her kind felt in the presence of the demigods. Something hard-edged and cold took hold of her, the same kind of determination that led a nobody from Absolom Nonus to prominence over every pedigreed product of Terra's noble dynasties and art academies. She would not be intimidated, not now, not ever.

                          “This is not unexpected,” she said, feeling a sense of smug pride as she saw surprise in Iskanderos' eyes. Was he not expecting a mortal to offer an opinion?

                          “How so?” Though Iskanderos spoke quietly, with the civilized accent of Apellan elites that many in the Imperium tried to emulate, he emanated a sense of unease. There was something distinctly feline in him, a big cat whose presently benevolent mood could change in an instant should be become provoked.

                          Miranda considered her words carefully. The Primarch was clearly not used to others pointing out things he might have missed, accentuating real or perceived shortcomings he might have tried to hide.

                          “The very need for someone like me told me that you at least considered the possibility that some of your... brothers...” she struggled to equate the pantheon of superhuman creatures, greatest leaders and statesmen of the age, with the thought of a family with all of its alliances and squabbles, “might have a trick or two up their sleeves.” Miranda saw him relax a little, as if her words did enough to mollify the suggestion that he missed a crucial detail.

                          The Conqueror sighed, lowering his eyes. “I did not expect this... Council business.” He spat out the word like a bullet. “They... played their pieces well.”

                          Miranda did not ask who they were. There was something to Iskanderos' manner that suggested he desperately wanted to let his guard down, if only for a moment, something very sincere now that he did not see her as a threat to his dominance. She remained silent, inviting him to continue.

                          “Every single one of them,” said Iskanderos. “Leto, Nyxos, Hemri, those three I expected. But Mohktal? Griven? Gideon?” He rose up to his full height; Miranda tried to fight down the feeling of insignificance next to his gigantic, radiant stature. “They all found themselves conveniently close to Terra.” There was accusation in his words, tempered with just enough bitterness to suggest the feeling of being betrayed. “Behind our father's back. Undermining his regent. This must have been brewing for a long time.”

                          The remembrancer took a deep breath, waiting for a pause in the Primarch's words. “But... it is not really about Malcador, is it?”

                          “No, it is not,” Iskanderos agreed. He started to pace; his sheer bulk made the luxurious quarters look small. “I do not understand him. Nobody does, perhaps, other than father.” His steps were faster and faster by the moment, every movement purposeful and intense. “They presented a fait accompli – an old saying, meaning something already decided by the time I got there,” he explained, seeing Miranda's confusion at the use of the archaic phrase. Iskanderos sounded angry; there was venom in his words. “While I was on the borders of known space, fighting machines and xenos, they played games on Terra. Even those whom I thought I could trust.”

                          Miranda waited for his mood to lighten, or at least for him to regain enough composure for a conversation. It did not come quickly; the Primarch's breath accelerated, coming in short, ragged motions akin to prize fighter in between the bouts in the arena.

                          “Trust is a precious commodity, my Lord,” she said quietly. “If this is... politics... then there is no place for trust.”

                          He laughed bitterly. “You sound like someone I know.”

                          “One of your Companions?”

                          “You could say so,” he shook his head. “Demetrios is very fond of sayings such as these. But I was thinking of someone else.”

                          “Who?” Miranda looked up at him. It was not easy; she looked away after only a moment.

                          “Nyxos,” answered the Primarch. “I can imagine these words coming out of his mouth.”

                          Miranda kept looking away, partly because Iskanderos' presence was an oppressive aura of intensity next to her, partly because her instincts told her of danger inherent in pushing the one such as him too far. He asked her to aid with the spread of propaganda, to act as his mouthpiece and speech writer; it was not her responsibility to be a counselor, an adviser. And yet, he came to her, not to a warrior with centuries of experience on the fields of the Great Crusade, not to one of his godlike brothers. She wondered if she was truly the only one he found sufficiently non-threatening, sufficiently unimportant so that he did not have to risk losing face by unburdening his thoughts and fears.

                          “Perhaps it is a matter of putting trust into right people,” Miranda spoke, still not daring to face Iskanderos. “It is a job of a good writer to understand what people want to read, and to put her thoughts into that form. You must push the right buttons for the situation, right kind of cultural appropriation...”

                          “I don't care for cultural appropriation,” exclaimed the Conqueror. He came to a stop near a table decorated with a replica of some ancient pottery, a vase inlaid with white and blue ceramic designs. His fist came down on it, pulverizing the edifice, making the remembrancer turn involuntarily towards the ringing sound. As Miranda watched, horrified, the metal table itself bent under the force of the Primarch's strike, forming an impression of his fist in soft metal. He faced her with wrath in his eyes. “Who do I trust? Who?”

                          As much as Miranda wanted to curl into a fetal ball and to ignore the rest of the world, the same bloody-minded stubbornness forced her to look at Iskanderos, answering the challenge in his gaze. This time, she did not turn away.

                          “If you know what they want, and if you know what you want, I think you already know the answer.”

                          * * *

                          Shadows were security, but they were also so much more. They were the soft embrace of the waiting serenity, a window into life which took place on the sidelines of history, outside of the purview of techno-magi and Primarchs, Legionaries and barons of industry. They were representative of another form of truth unseen by those who made records of the times, unchanging for all of their myriad forms.

                          And then, shadows were also a weapon.

                          The man’s name was Taras Shikanobi, and he was the edge of shadow creeping through the halls of a continent-spanning palace, a guided projectile with a mission. At times, he walked freely in the light, masquerading as a dignitary, a menial worker, or a retainer of one of many noble houses clinging on to their privilege even as the Imperium kept them safely away from any real power. At other times, he took the back ways, long-forgotten air ducts and maintenance passages where he had to contend with vermin gathered from the millennia of humanity’s galactic conquest, and detritus left over from the building of the Imperial palace, from trash stashed away by maintenance crews to hidden storages of minor valuables, or dead bodies that might have been missing for centuries.

                          There were other, worse things in the network of tunnels and poorly lit hallways away from the sight. More than once, Shikanobi had to hide himself from the gangs of troglodytic scavengers surviving on the scraps carelessly thrown away by the inhabitants of the palace, scouring the tunnels for any scraps of food they could find.

                          At the cross section just underneath the mag-lev train station serving as a transport hub between what once was Sibir and the hive cities of Nordafrik, Shikanobi found himself in the way of a scavenger troop fifteen strong, accompanied by mangy, nearly feral dogs. It was the dogs that smelled something in the shadows, forcing a confrontation he had little desire for, and it was the dogs that died first.

                          First maxim of the Brown Sector – the irrational actor is the most dangerous one, and must be disposed of first.

                          Less than fifty meters beneath the transportation hub, where millions of workers remained blissfully unaware as they passed through security scanners under the eyes of thousands of armed guards, another act of the drama unfolded. Five shots from Shikanobi’s wrist-mounted dart gun thinned the gang before they had much of a chance to react. A swing of the monomolecular-edged blade ended two more before the scavengers broke and ran.

                          He pursued them through the winding maze, ending each of them quickly and efficiently. He held little malice for those unfortunate enough to be born into this place, but he also had little kindness or concern for them. They were witnesses who might some day be made to talk, and he could not afford the risk.

                          So uncivilized, he thought to himself, making sure that the bodies were repositioned in a way that suggested a scrap for territory, or perhaps some other minor conflict fought away from the eyes of the Imperial public. Each dart had to be taken out and disposed of separately; each wound had to be widened with a crude weapon he found on a malnourished corpse of a scavenger he killed. As long as there was nothing unusual indicating the manner of the gang’s demise, he did not expect further investigation even if the Imperial Arbites did attempt to follow his trail.

                          The mission was already risky enough, and though Shikanobi had every expectation of returning alive, it was far from guaranteed. He could have made his transit much faster had he decided to stay in the light, but his instructions were clear. Wait for the right moment. Do not strike too soon.

                          After all, he was going to do something that no mortal man has ever accomplished before, and even the famed agents of Officio Assassinorum could not claim. He was going to kill a Primarch.

                          * * *

                          The regicide table was as tall as a mortal man, and large enough to make each figure come to life as a unique work of art. Here, a Knight pointed its massive cannons at imaginary targets in the distance, its armor inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl. There, a Divinitarch rose his hands to the sky, caught in mid-sermon with his ruby-encrusted robes wrinkled in the wind. A regal Emperor held a scepter as he observed all he could see from an elaborate throne decorated with tiny yet lifelike reliefs of battles and ancient glories.

                          Two figures sat at the table, each a giant, yet this is where the similarities ended. One was a stocky, bearded man built like a bull with thick, corded muscles of his arms presently folded on top of his rich embroidered clothes, dark blue with obsidian trim. His face was stoic, his eyes fully focused on the game pieces arranged in an elaborate strategy made for subterfuge and guile.

                          The other was in constant movement, every moment bringing another twitch of fingers, another wary look at a different corner of the board, or at something in the room that only he could see. His garments were made of black leather and spiked metal, an outfit worthy of a wasteland warlord whose men cared little for displays of wealth or refinement, as long as they could be assured of their leader’s power. His face was thin and worried-looking, crowned with a head of tangled hair that seemed to be cut haphazardly and with little regard for appearances.

                          The wasteland warlord’s fingers grabbed on to a piece, holding it above the regicide board and tracing a movement, then rapidly putting it back. There was a barely noticeable tremble in the board surface as the tremor in the man’s fingers resonated in the hard material.

                          The bearded man sighed. “This is the fourth possible move you are counting out, brother,” he said with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “Any of them would have been good.”

                          “Not so, Rogr,” the other replied, blurting out the words. “It would have been…” he stopped with little warning. Something moved inside his jacket, and a thin metallic arm extended from near its collar to the man’s mouth. The arm ended with a small syphon; the man put the device into his mouth and breathed it in deeply. A thin wisp of yellow smoke came out of his nostrils.

                          When he resumed speaking, his words were much slower, almost glacial. “It would have opened my Divinitarch to you.” The twitching in his fingers receded, to be replaced by almost total stillness.

                          “A worthy sacrifice for a chance to push my Emperor towards the corner, wouldn’t you say so, Ashur?”

                          The wasteland warlord shrugged. The movement looked labored, as if it took him much effort to take any action. His words sounded almost slurred. “An Emperor by himself is a worthless piece.”

                          “And yet,” said Rogr Hemri, “take him out, and the entire strategy falls.”

                          Ashur moved with lightning speed, placing a Bastion seemingly out of position with the rest of his figures. He loomed over the board like a cackling gargoyle witnessing the fruition of his plans.

                          Hemri laughed. “This was ill-conceived, brother. Now I can move my Knights here,” he said, enacting the move. “You will have to do something to protect your Emperor, or I will win in three turns.”

                          “Hmph.” Ashur looked like he was about to strike the board one moment, then smug and self-satisfied the next. “My Divinitarch says otherwise.” He reached out for the elaborate piece, taking one of Hemri’s Bastions. “Checkmate.”

                          The move was fast and completely unexpected, perhaps by both players. Hemri’s face darkened, though it did not take him long to regain composure.

                          “I have always admired the speed with which you make your decisions, brother,” the Primarch of the Lion Guard said. “There is much value in being resolute no matter what.”

                          “Are you talking of this entire… Council business?” Ashur asked, looking at his pieces. They remained in position, both players making no effort to rearrange them. The muscles of his arms spasmed, and one side of his mouth twitched; a small amount of spittle dripped down.

                          “This entire Council business, yes,” Hemri said. “Someone has to keep the bureaucrats in check.”

                          Ashur laughed. It was a halting sound, as if he was not fully in control of his own faculties. “And this, brother, is precisely why I let you deal with them. They are…” he coughed a few times. His eyes drifted off into the distance. “That’s why I let you deal with them,” the master of the Fifth Legion concluded, seemingly losing interest in the topic.

                          “Enough of us have more egos than talent to rule,” intoned Hemri. “Most… can be reasoned with.” The pause was uncomfortably long. “Some, like you, are perhaps the wisest of us all, and want nothing to do with the whole business. If only more of our brothers were so understanding.”

                          “Corwin,” said Ashur. It was a statement, not a question.

                          “Yes, Corwin,” Hemri agreed. “And Gideon.”

                          “I would rather have them scheming on Terra than getting in my way on the front lines,” Ashur seethed through his teeth. “Them, and many others.” His voice rose to a fever pitch. “How dare they put themselves in our father’s place?” Ashur breathed heavily; drops of sweat materialized on his brow.

                          Hemri smiled, raising a hand to placate his brother. The master of the Lion Guard looked at the board, where Ashur’s sudden move spelled the end of their game. “This is why I will do what I can to ensure his vision for the Imperium stays intact. We are not without allies, Ashur. Many are on our side. Many more will come to see it our way.”

                          “Iskanderos?”

                          “Him too,” nodded Hemri. “Our brother can be a… complicated man to deal with, but not unreasonable, as you can attest.”

                          Ashur laughed again, moving between a hysterical barking voice and something far more measured. “Oh yes. Very reasonable.” His face grew momentarily somber. “I wish he was with us.”

                          “That… can be arranged,” said Hemri. “Alas, me and him… do not always see eye to eye.”

                          “I see where you are going with this,” cackled Ashur, for some reason finding humor in his brother’s words. “You want me to talk with him?”

                          “I think he will be more receptive to you than to me,” Hemri nodded. “The two of us have a… complicated history.”

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                          • #14
                            ELEVEN

                            Friendly Advice
                            Among Brothers
                            Council Business

                            “My sons,” said Iskanderos by the way of greeting as he joined the Companions in their quarters. All five of the Imperial Redeemers stood at attention, the instinct to do so practically ingrained after decades or even centuries of following the Primarch into battle. “Please, no need for all that parade ground nonsense.”

                            The Primarch appeared to be jovial, light on his feet and radiating the easy kind of confidence that comes naturally to those possessed of genius and power. To Yusuf, there was something oddly exaggerated about his façade, something that did not feel quite right.

                            “Sire,” Demetrios returned the greeting, followed by other Companions. “It is a genuine pleasure…”

                            Iskanderos shook his head. “This is not a diplomatic negotiation, Tilsit, just a meeting between friends.” The words hung in silence for long enough to make his point clear.

                            “It is about the proclamation, isn’t it?” asked Ahab with characteristic bluntness.

                            “What else, Miral?” Crateros elbowed him, half-playfully, half-annoyed. “Not the discussion of our décor, surely?”

                            The words drew a half-hearted laugh from Demetrios, but failed to move Iskanderos. “The proclamation, or however you want to call it,” the Conqueror agreed. “And everything that followed it.”

                            That did not have a good sound to it, Yusuf thought. What could have followed to prompt the Primarch to seek the counsel of his sons?

                            “Yusuf,” el-Rahim whispered in his ear. “Remember when you asked what the Companions’ duties were?”

                            “Aye…”

                            “You are about to find out.”

                            * * *

                            “It is about alliances,” said Demetrios after Iskanderos finished speaking. The Primarch seemed to be more troubled than his easy countenance suggested; his words were growing more terse by the minute, as if whatever good cheer he summoned at his entry had long dissipated. Something about him suggested exhaustion, though the Primarchs were supposed to be indefatigable, unyielding in body and mind.

                            The equerry licked his lips in anticipation, then continued. “The Legions who had the most representatives on Terra spent much time cultivating alliances with every faction they deemed important.”

                            “Tell me something I have not heard before, Tilsit,” Iskanderos’ eyes narrowed in annoyance. “We had our own people on Terra, too. What happened?”

                            Before Demetrios could answer, el-Rahim interceded. “No amount of operatives can substitute for personal presence, my Lord. It seems that some of your brothers… neglected the duties of the Crusade in recent years.”

                            “That they did,” growled Iskanderos. “And this is the reward for their negligence?”

                            “All is not lost, sire,” said Crateros. He was considerably quieter than his customary manner, contemplative even. “Much can be salvaged from the current situation.”

                            Yusuf thought that he could see where his battle-brother was heading with this. The thoughts of war coming to an end danced in his mind. What if it continued, only by other means?

                            “The others did reach out to you, sire,” Crateros continued. “This puts you in a good position.”

                            Iskanderos shook his head. “My captains are now lecturing me on politics? What did this galaxy come to?” He looked at Yusuf. “What about you? Do you have something to say about it all?”

                            Yusuf considered his words carefully, reminded of his duty as a Companion only minutes ago by el-Rahim. “Say, you could have free choice, and did not have to contend with the others.” This instantly piqued the Primarch’s interest. “What would you do, if you only had the Emperor to answer to?”

                            Iskanderos’ face darkened. There were hints of bitterness, hints of anger, suggestions of ambition that he fought to hide. He replied in a measured, even tone, calm before the storm.

                            “While there are worlds left to conquer, all these squabbles are meaningless. You know it, my sons.” The Primarch straightened up his posture, an orator readying himself for a speech. “I would be on the frontier.”

                            “And yet you concern yourself with these… squabbles,” Yusuf added quietly. “Why is it?”

                            If the 54th Captain expected an explosion of rage, he was disappointed. Though Iskanderos seemed to be on the verge of losing his temper, the Primarch relented, closing his eyes and standing silent for a moment. The fingers of the Conqueror’s hands twitched slightly, the only indication that he was lucid. El-Rahim gave Yusuf a worried look, as if warning him against the dangers of continuing further.

                            “Why. Is. It. Indeed.”

                            Iskanderos said the words very slowly, each syllable a flow of magma under the collapsing planetary crust. His fingers relaxed as he spoke.

                            “You must forgive me, my sons,” the Primarch continued. “I have had a taxing evening. My humors are… imbalanced.”

                            Yusuf let out a sigh he did not realize he was holding. It was not the fear, he told himself; Legionaries were made to dismiss the effects of terror that would have paralyzed mortal men. No, this was something different, anticipation, hope that he did not fail his liege.

                            “Perhaps it does matter more to me than I thought,” Iskanderos admitted. “There are some brothers whom I would have trusted in the Emperor’s absence. They are… in the minority.”

                            “Luckily,” said el-Rahim with a soft smile, “there does not appear to be any form of unity on this Council. Which, coincidentally, makes for good news.”

                            “Good news? More like a viper’s den,” grumbled Ahab before Demetrios silenced him with a gesture.

                            “Factions are already reaching out to you, sire,” Demetrios said. “While Lord Leto might be the first, he will not be the last, of that I am certain. Play your pieces right, and you can get whatever you want.”

                            “But only if I know what I want, right Yusuf?” replied Iskanderos, hint of sadness in his tone.

                            “If you seek to apply the lessons of Apella, then it is a noble goal,” el-Rahim commented. “I am a living proof of worthiness of such endeavors. Or, perhaps, you seek to protect the Network from all who would take it from us for their own petty dominions?”

                            The glimpses of emotion in Iskanderos’ eyes betrayed him. Yusuf saw an almost imperceptible nod of the Primarch’s head.

                            “Whatever you seek, sire,” added Crateros, “it seems that the Council is the best way to go about it. Do it for the Apellan way, or to protect our interests, if nothing else, but you must do it.”

                            “I agree with Captain Crateros,” Yusuf said. He looked at the other Companions. El-Rahim nodded in assent, and Demetrios gave him a sly smile. Ahab seemed less pleased with the course of the conversation, but even he finally managed a weak “aye.”

                            Iskanderos grinned. It was not an infectious expression one would have come to expect from the Conqueror, but at least it found him in better humors than before.

                            “Then it is decided,” the Primarch said, his voice more resolute by the moment. “We will play this Council game, at least for the time. Until then,” he paused, giving each of the Companions a look. Yusuf felt tested as his eyes met those of his gene-father, as if Iskanderos wanted to see if his sons were indeed committed to their advice. “I have tasks for each of you.”

                            * * *

                            Iskanderos held his court in a tower rising far above the Himalayan peaks, or at least those mountains still remaining after gargantuan engineering efforts to build the Imperial palace. The sun reflected from the paltry snow caps not yet melted from the heat exhaust of the great edifice, a meager reminder of these mountains’ long-decayed majesty; the mountains themselves were dotted with thousands of cupolas and buildings, in some cases growing out of the solid rock, in others replacing the features bulldozed by generations of Imperial engineers.

                            There were meeting rooms and large, luxurious reception halls, living quarters for palace servants and the Primarch’s own retinue, collections of art and weapons from every culture that once claimed dominion over Terra, and armories worthy of the Emperor’s own son. The halls thronged with thousands of gawkers and petitioners, some hoping that Iskanderos would intercede on their behalf for some minor slight, others hoping to attach themselves to his retinue – artists, poets, bureaucrats, mercenaries and courtesans, inventors and adepts. Most of these would never make it past the self-important clerks who jealously guarded access to the higher-ranking clerks, who in turn made decisions on who might have been worthy of attention of their superiors. The few souls too brave, too stubborn, or too interesting to be turned away outright were passed on to meet the mortal functionaries directly in the employ of the Imperial Redeemers; fewer even got to speak to the actual warriors of the Sixth Legion. Only a rare individual was deemed worthy enough to demand any of the Primarch’s time, and to actually be granted an audience.

                            The figure making his way through the reception halls cared little for the petty procedures of the Imperial court, or the many bureaucratic rituals observed by lesser creatures. Petitioners and guards alike parted before him, cowed by his enormous size and inhuman, almost monstrous visage clad in twisted armor of grey and black, with only the statuesque face a sign that he, too, came from the human stock. A pair of black, leathery wings gave him an appearance harkening to the mythological abomination which gave name to the Fourteenth Legion, the Gargoyles, while his hunchbacked gait had something of a dangerous, predatory beast to it, calling to the basest of human instincts to flee in the presence of an apex predator.

                            Angelus, the Grey Prince, master and gene-father of the Fourteenth Legion, was here to see his brother.

                            * * *

                            Iskanderos rubbed his eyes, looking up from behind the antique table at the enormous, winged figure looming over him. He was tired; it seemed that everyone on Terra sought his opinion, advice, or patronage as the news of his inclusion in the Council spread. The business of government was not new to him; he ruled Apella and its client worlds long before his reunion with the Emperor, and continued to opine on his regents’ pleas for guidance even after committing his energies to the Great Crusade.

                            This was different. On Apella and even across the many worlds of the Apellene Network, his regents addressed most of the rote matters, only asking his ruling on the direst of decisions. When he spoke, his word was law; there was no higher authority but the distant Emperor, and was he not the Emperor’s own son, elevated so far above the mortal men that he had no true equal? He was the Conqueror; his place was at the forefront of the battle fleet, not withering away in the throne room.

                            The Council robbed him of that illusion, and for that, Iskanderos was resentful. For the first time in his long, eventful life, he had to contend with those who thought themselves his equals; he had to relearn the meaning of consensus, the guile of maneuvering between the competing interests and desires, the outward impression of humility to placate the egos of his brothers and other Imperial notables.

                            It was this humility that he found to be the hardest. Was he not the most accomplished of all the Emperor’s sons? Did he not bring the greatest number of worlds into compliance with the mankind’s new dominion? Was he not the most celebrated strategist, the leader of the best governed subdivision in the Imperium of Man where thousands of worlds clamored for the right to become part of the Network?

                            “Brother,” Iskanderos rasped in the way of greeting. He was never particularly close with Angelus, but then, few were. The Fourteenth Primarch was different, hard to know and even harder to like. In few of his brother Primarchs, this manifested as outright loathing; some others simply chose to pretend that he did not exist, or that he was a problem to be dealt with some other time. Gideon was the most vocal among Angelus’ detractors; of others, only Mohktal would treat the Grey Prince with anything bordering warmth, as much as the stoic master of the Illuminators gave in to any kind of emotion.

                            “Today must be a big day for family gatherings,” said Iskanderos, making an appearance of a smile. “Ashur left these quarters only few minutes ago.”

                            “I… saw him,” Angelus answered. The words seemed to come to him with difficulty, as if he was trying hard to concentrate on each one. “A… pitiful creature, dreams coursing through flesh, the pride of a lion.”

                            “Cryptic as always, Angelus?”

                            “The deathless paragon, the temple to no god, lords of the orders.” Angelus’ eyes drifted, and he turned his head, as if listening to something that only he could hear. “I…” he paused, perhaps trying to recollect his thoughts, or maybe fighting for lucidity against whatever gripped his psyche. “The Council. You are the fulcrum. The point on which history turns. Fate hides from my eyes.”

                            He almost made sense this time, Iskanderos had to admit.

                            “Are you saying that I hold some undue importance in the coming events?”

                            Angelus grimaced, contorting his features. “Yes!” he exclaimed loudly. “Yes! Yes!” For a moment, it sounded like a choir of staccato sighs. Without warning, he grew impassive, long black hair framing his face like a shroud.

                            Iskanderos shook his head. “My men keep on telling me that. Ashur spent the last two hours telling me that. Now you?”

                            Something about Angelus’ face suggested frustration. He shook his head. “I see no fate. Lines, black and twisted. Others, clear. Nyxos, no light. Leto, no light. Hemri, too much light. Hands of metal wither, brother. All of us. All of us. All of…”

                            “For once, tell me what you want,” shouted Iskanderos. “I can only take so much of this cryptic babbling.”

                            “Then listen to me, brother.” Without warning, Angelus’ face was on level with Iskanderos, separated only by an arm’s length. “Trust. Not.”

                            Before Iskanderos could respond, Angelus was on the other side of the room, moving faster than his twisted shape should have allowed. In another instant, he was gone.

                            “Trust not,” Iskanderos whispered to himself, thinking over the bizarre encounter. There was little rhyme or reason to his insane brother’s rambling… or was there?

                            Trust not.

                            * * *

                            After all the grandiose speeches and majestic entrances, the actual Council meeting was almost an afterthought. Only the Primarchs and the rare mortals deemed too important to ignore were allowed to remain the room, the same one where the Emperor gave his cryptic message to his sons only few short days ago. Even then, not all of the Primarchs were present.

                            Iskanderos wondered what some of his brothers thought. The likes of Ashur and Angelus were easy enough; the former cared little for the matters of government, while the latter’s presence would have been contentious enough for the rest of them. Baelic was led to believe that he still had much to prove before being considered for such responsibility; Andrieu had already departed to oversee some minor compliance elsewhere.

                            Playing general, Griven Kall called it once the Seventeenth Primarch was out of earshot. Iskanderos suspected that more than a few of his brothers did exactly that.

                            What interest did many of them have in planning a war, in the feints and subterfuges of devising strategies and the pure rush of joy in the midst of battle, when the only thing between him and his enemy was the weapon ending that enemy’s life? Why was it that this generation was made of administrators and bureaucrats, politicians and orators, rather than of leaders who could inspire and drive onward the grand destiny of humanity?

                            The Primarchs were sat around a table, in theory round and not elevating any above the others. In practice, their differences were only accentuated by the presence of few mortal dignitaries, Malcador being the only one of any worth, Constantine Valdor of the Custodes, and the oddly augmented representative of the Martian adepts.

                            Leto was there, and Corwin, and Hemri, positioned suspiciously far from each other. Griven Kall and Mohktal formed a buffer between Hemri and Gideon, while Echelon’s unmoving metal form remained as far as possible from the Mechanicus adept, putting him rather close to Iskanderos. Dyal Rulf was on the Conqueror’s other side, seemingly unremarkable but for his size in contrast with the mortal dignitary – one of Malcador’s men, or perhaps someone answering to Hemri. Stefan Ignatiyev and Nyxos formed an odd couple; the master of the First Legion visibly uncomfortable next to the lord of Grim Angels.

                            “Brothers and friends,” declared Hemri, his voice thundering through the hall. The Primarch of the Lion Guard managed to sound amiable, almost friendly; it was easy for Iskanderos to see how many in the Imperium found him charming. “Shall we dispense with the ceremonies and get to real business?”

                            “Depends on your definition of business,” Corwin replied coolly. It was clear that the civility between the two was forced at best.

                            “Matters of import and organization,” Hemri answered him. For a brief moment, the two Primarchs stared each other down; Corwin was the one to look away. “As Lord Corwin so aptly noted,” here, Hemri darted a quick look at his brother, “perhaps we shall dispense with the formalities and talk more of our vision for this… Council.”

                            “There is not much to dispute,” said Corwin, his voice cold yet resolute. “The structure of the Imperium is built on four pillars.” He stretched out his fingers, counting off one by one. “One, the technological prowess of the Mechanicum. Two, the Astronomicon. Three, the military power of the Legions. And four,” he looked around, from one Primarch to another, “the strength of the realms that hold the Imperium together.”

                            There were several nods, some more enthusiastic than the others. Iskanderos noticed that some of the Primarchs remained wholly cold to the notion, though from self-control or genuine distaste, he could not tell.

                            “I see this Council’s mission,” Corwin continued, “as keeping the Imperium’s foundation strong until such time as the Emperor takes the reins back. We already have a capable administrator,” he nodded respectfully toward Malcador, “and a capable defender of Terra,” now, he looked at Valdor, who returned the look without displaying any emotion. “Let us continue building the strength of the Imperium from the ground up, and continue to make its components infallible.”

                            “How do you propose we do that?” Nyxos interjected. His voice was an emotionless monotone, quiet yet somehow carrying a sensation of unease to it, like a very subtle chill with no visible source. Hemri displayed a short, barely noticeable smile. “The strength of the Imperium is its unity.”

                            “Our brother is right, Corwin,” Hemri added, smiling magnanimously. “Did the Emperor not forge the realm of mankind by uniting it from all the disparate kingdoms and fiefdoms that blighted Terra? Did we not spend the entirety of our lives bringing the lost children of Man into the fold? And for what?”

                            He rose to his full height, adopting a dramatic posture, one hand outstretched like a Romanii leader of old. “Unity is our salvation, my friends, my brothers. We all know the dangers of division and dissent. Unity, I implore you! Was it not the word our father chose as he reclaimed Terra from the petty tyrants, even as he gave us all meaning?”

                            “Unity!” proclaimed Hemri, eyes raised to the ceiling as if imploring some forgotten deity to give his words credence. “One Emperor. One Council. One Imperium for mankind. I ask you, is it not a worthy goal to strive for?”

                            “All great and noble words, Rogr,” Gideon raised his voice. When the black-skinned Primarch of the Peacekeepers talked, everything in the Council room quieted down. Though soft-spoken, Gideon had a quality to him that commanded attention with little need for shouting or dramatic gestures. “One Imperium for mankind, isn’t it?” He remained seated, but there was no mistaking that the eyes of the entire room were on him.

                            “We should not forget that, my noble lords,” continued Gideon. “For while the dreams of the brighter future may please our vanity, it is ultimately for the good of humanity that we set forth on our Great Crusade. It is in the name of humanity that we fought and bled, and consigned countless worlds and species to ash. Whatever we do, therefore, it must be in the name of humanity, not in the name of our pride.”

                            “But it is in the name of humanity that I propose unity,” retorted Hemri, scarcely missing a beat. “The Imperium stretches across a million worlds. Without unity, there can be no peace amongst them. Without peace, are we truly serving the best interests of our species?”

                            “We are the shield of mankind, not its masters!” Gideon raised his voice.

                            “And as its shield, we shall keep it on a united course,” Hemri replied. “You, brother. Yes, you, Gideon. Would you not want to share your experience of turning Topia into paradise for the children of Man? Or,” he looked at the Conqueror, “would you, Iskanderos, consent to sharing the secrets of making your Network into a model society, the envy of many?”

                            “No, Gideon,” continued Hemri. “I do not seek tyranny. I do, however, seek order. One order for all, with the best and the brightest minds guiding it in the Emperor’s absence.”

                            “What works on Apella or on Topia is not going to apply well to Lodoq Tir,” Corwin stated, still without much emotional coloring to his words. “If we are to be the benefactors of humanity, we must understand its differences, and work within its limitations.”

                            “A cynical view,” said Echelon, his mechanical body made in the image of a metal statue from some forgotten age, his mechanical voice synthesized in a way to hint at music. “Humanity remains the same when you remove the trappings of culture and custom.”

                            “Of all of us, you are the one lecturing about humanity?” For the first time, Corwin displayed some kind of feeling in his words.

                            “As I said,” Echelon’s metal face turned to Corwin, the features a perfectly executed mask copied from an idealized image of a youthful bearded man, “humanity remains the same once we account for cultural drift. The differences in appearances and custom are superficial, compared to the common needs and underlying psychological impulses.”

                            “My Lords,” Malcador interjected before the argument had a chance to get out of hand. “Let us not forget the purpose of this discussion. We are, after all, here to formulate the method of governance in the absence of the Emperor, beloved by all.”

                            The Sigilite was an unassuming man, elderly and frail even after multiple juvenat treatments. Iskanderos had difficulty understanding how someone of Malcador’s diminutive stature could possess the authority to make the Primarchs pause, but the effects were plain for him to see.

                            “I agree with the esteemed Sigilite,” said Mohktal for the first time. The bald, tattooed Primarch of the Illuminators wore robes of bright orange and red, his serene face emanating a light yet noticeable glow. “Our mission is to set forth the course of the Imperium, not to engage in petty squabbles.” As he spoke, the hair on the back of Iskanderos’ arms stood up; a psyker trick of some kind, perhaps?

                            “Then let us get to the business of setting the Imperium on the right course,” replied Rogr Hemri. “Are you with me, my friends and brothers?”

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              TWELVE

                              The Lion and the Angel
                              Doors of Tomorrow
                              Written Word

                              The Council debate lasted far longer than Iskanderos hoped, and was every bit the disappointment he had expected. There were far too many participants in the conversation, and not all of them could agree on the very basic concepts, let alone on the course of the galaxy-spanning Imperium.

                              Iskanderos spoke little, preferring to listen. It chafed at him that Hemri seemed to usurp the spotlight, though few of the knowing looks from Leto and Gideon convinced the Conqueror that others were getting tired of the Twelfth Primarch’s posturing. To an uninitiated, the master of the Lion Guard was imposing, inspiring even, but it took much more to inspire a Primarch.

                              I am not Ashur, Iskanderos thought of his erstwhile brother, whose presence he had to endure only minutes before Angelus’ baffling visit. Something resembling derision surfaced in the Conqueror’s mind. The defiant thought grew, superimposing Ashur’s features in his mind with Hemri’s, and he found it difficult to look at the lord of the Lion Guard without imagining the twitching, pierced visage of the Fifth Primarch.

                              “What do you propose then, brother?” Hemri continued from some obscure point about taxation and control of the outlying trade routes that seemed to bore most of the attendees.

                              Corwin sneered, minute by minute losing the icy, calculated image he entered the Council meeting with. Iskanderos could see impatience in his movements, slight jerking motions of his fingers and jaw.

                              “I say, brother,” Corwin accentuated the word, “those areas belong under the jurisdiction of the Tambora Combine. And there they shall stay.”

                              “That is… a matter for some debate,” offered Nyxos. Something about his voice sounded off, enough like scratching of nails on chalkboard to be unsettling. “The First Legion sponsored colonies around that sector, and the scions of Bogatyr do not recognize the Combine’s authority.”

                              “Then let them solve it on their own!” Corwin spat out, momentarily discarding his cool with the undertone of impatience permeating his words. “Is it not enough that we have already elevated some of our own above others? Must you take away what little dignity this Council leaves us?”

                              Hemri started to raise one hand in a gesture that should have been placating. “Corwin…”

                              “I will not stand for a threat to our way of life!”

                              Iskanderos sighed inwardly. This was beginning to combine the worst aspects of a ceremonial presentation on some backward planet celebrating the descent of its ceramite gods from the heavens, and an argument between the more ridiculous of the remembrancers. He felt the annoyance creep up, every moment a fuel to further the fire.

                              “It is the common good of all that we strive to establish,” replied Hemri, talking Corwin down as if the lord of the Angel Kings was an unruly child. “Surely such things only prove the need to let the more administratively minded members of this great Council have powers to deal with them, while freeing others to employ their unique talents?”

                              “Common good of all, or common good of Rogr Hemri?” asked Gideon, his voice rising in volume and intensity. “Our brother Corwin has a point. Who is fit to reign over us all but the Emperor, beloved by all?”

                              The voices became a crescendo of accusations and counter-accusations, claims and near-insults. It blended in Iskanderos’ ears until he no longer cared who said what, who claimed what position, and what long-buried skeletons were dug up as the passions became inflamed. The mortals were overshadowed by the presence of the demigods, some shifting uncomfortably in their seats, others trying, and failing, to garner attention.

                              “Enough!”

                              The roar silenced the Council chamber, putting a prompt end to the war of words. Eyes darted from sudden stupor to see the source of the disturbance, catching sight of allies, rivals, and those whose sympathies were not yet known.

                              It took Iskanderos a moment to realize that the roar was his own.

                              The Conqueror , heretofore mostly silent, stood to his full height, towering over the mortals and the seated immortals alike. It occurred to him that even had they been standing, not many would have been able to stand next to him without looking the lesser for it.

                              “I thought this Council was the gathering of the Imperium’s best and brightest minds, not a squabbling playground!” He looked at the Primarchs, pausing only to give a respectful nod to Malcador. There was a range of emotion in their faces, from Corwin’s haughty annoyance to Gideon’s curiosity and Leto’s bemused fascination. Iskanderos thought he saw something fiery and unpleasant flicker in Hemri’s eyes for a brief moment, only to disappear.

                              Did Hemri think he could just step in and have everyone bow down to him? A thought raced through the Conqueror’s mind, something irrational and yet oddly fitting.

                              “We are talking about trade rights and colony fleets, difficulties of expansion in the Ultima Segmentum and boundary disputes, but we are ignoring the bigger issue here.”

                              Nyxos gave him a curious look. “Then please enlighten us, brother.” The lord of the Grim Angels seemed genuinely bemused, as if he did not expect Iskanderos to play an active role in the Council meeting. “It must be refreshing to view the politics of Terra from an outside perspective.” Iskanderos could not tell if Nyxos intended it as an insult or not, and the possibility made him uncomfortable.

                              “Some of my captains believe that this is the end of war,” Iskanderos said, words coming to him in a stream of instant clarity. “They fear that the likes of us will be forced to become administrators, governors, quill-pushers.” He paused, smiling ever slightly so. “I tend to agree with their fear.”

                              “We were made for great things,” he said, only belatedly realizing that there were mortals in the room. “Or we made great things of ourselves,” he added hastily. “The likes of us built societies in our image, and created successful civilizations out of strife and chaos. Look at the Apellene Network for proof!” He held out his hand, unconsciously mimicking Hemri’s oratory pose from not too long ago. “The value of uniformity in the image of a functioning culture!”

                              Something seemed off; as soon as Iskanderos mentioned the Network, he could feel the mood in the room change.

                              “Are you saying that you would impose one culture over the entirety of the Imperium?” asked Hemri, incredulous, losing his apparent cool to blurt out the words. “Is that your proposal? After all this fine talk about squabbling and the end of war, you bring up your kingdom of copycat planets? You…”

                              The Twelfth Primarch grew silent, as if realizing that he just said too much, rushed to judgment after spending hours cultivating a rational image, only to break the spell. Hemri’s face grew the deep red of anger or embarrassment.

                              “I never said that!” Iskanderos protested, feeling his own temper rise. “Do not manipulate my words, brother, lest you be sorry for it.” His jaw hardened, and the muscles in his body tightened, an instinctual reaction to a threat.

                              “My friends, my brothers…” Leto tried to interject. His voice was drowned out by Iskanderos.

                              “The war is not over, Rogr,” the Conqueror continued, venom dripping with every syllable. “Perhaps the likes of you can hide away on Terra while others bleed for the Imperium. Perhaps we should be concerning ourselves with the spread of the Imperium, and leave the governance of the Imperium to those who seek it.”

                              “Iskanderos speaks true,” added Gideon. “We are warriors. Not bureaucrats, as much as some of us would have liked to be.”

                              “What good is a warrior when there is no war?” retorted Hemri. The look he gave Iskanderos was pure malice. “That way lies danger. That way lies collapse and war, not the just war of liberation, but fratricide. Do you understand it? Fratricide! The Old Night, reborn.”

                              “Only you would cover it in these words,” Iskanderos hissed. Something from his conversation with Leto, seemingly a lifetime away, came back to him. Hemri wants to run the Imperium. “This is your excuse to be elevated above us all, isn’t it? Order, peace, justice, as long as it goes your way and your oversized mongrel mob enforces your perspective?”

                              “Call it what you will, Iskanderos. I offer true unity, one Council, speaking with one voice, not this…” Hemri’s face contorted into a frown of disgust, “ersatz of your kingdom, or valituskuoro… the chorus of complaints,” he growled a translation after seeing the blank stares. “All you do is add to it.”

                              +ENOUGH!+

                              The psychic shout emanating from Mohktal was emotionless yet powerful enough to make all present turn their heads to the Enlightened One. It did not stop the argument in the same way Iskanderos did earlier, but it had little need to.

                              “Brothers, please,” Mokhtal implored serenely, at odds with the power of his psychic yell. Nyxos winced in distaste, somewhere far away from the psyker Primarch. “We are all on the same side here. We can agree on the governance of the Galaxy if we spend less time fighting about who will lead it, and more time deciding how it will be governed. What say you?”

                              “The realms of the Primarchs are good as they are,” retorted Corwin. “And for those of us who do not have a realm to call our own, I suggest that they take steps to acquire one. The Council should deal with the grander matters that impact all of us.”

                              Iskanderos thought he saw a quiet sigh escape Mohktal’s lips.

                              “Can we at least agree on how this Council should make decisions?” Leto raised his arm, the very picture of humility. “Brothers… friends… I implore you.”

                              “Very well,” huffed Hemri, casting a hostile look at Iskanderos, but regaining a semblance of his statesman-like composure. “We can, perhaps, elect a Speaker…”

                              “You?” interrupted Iskanderos, a sardonic smile on his face turning into a predatory growl.

                              “Brother…” Leto mouthed the words, shaking his head as he looked at Iskanderos.

                              “The Romanii had a custom,” Hemri said, his voice now a steely monotone betraying little of the rage he must have felt. “Consuls, they called them. Two men elected to lead the state for a year. The Grecians, too, with two kings of Sparta. One who fought their wars, another who kept the peace at home.”

                              “A ship with too many captains would sink,” said Corwin thoughtfully. “A ship with no captain would not leave harbor. But… two?”

                              “I trust that our father already left one regent,” Gideon added his voice to the conversation. “Is that not right, Lord Malcador?”

                              Though the Sigillite nodded, he said little. Iskanderos, though still mired in the deep red of anger, steadied himself, understanding; Malcador could not afford to take sides in this battle.

                              “Then, perhaps, we should elect the one to aid Lord Malcador,” Leto said calmly. “Make it a rotating position, even. What say you?”

                              * * *

                              “I wonder what is happening in there,” mused Apollus el-Rahim, lazily flicking specks of water from his finger.

                              The Astrologer, Yusuf, and Kian Ranseng were in a large hall with ceiling so tall that it almost gave off an illusion of real sky above them with its own weather systems and condensation dripping down from above. The hall was as cyclopean as anything they witnessed on Terra, easily big enough to fit whole cities with room to spare, yet fully occupied by mechanized traffic as massive, tank-sized containers moved with stately caution on their rails. Bridges rose up above the traffic, where countless thousands hurried about their business, some lingering to attend to some pressing matters, others to gawk at the enormous scale of engineering.

                              The lights attached to the titanic pillars were light blue and green, an otherworldly vision from some nether realm painting the hall in alien colors. Closer to the Space Marines, the lights were warmer, yellow, red, and orange playing with the golden engravings on the double doors large enough to let a Titan pass through. Here, statues of heroes, statesmen, and mythical beauties stood vigil over the landscape of imported greenery separated by wide throughways, curving around many fountains and pools where petitioners and guests bid their time under the watchful eyes of the twenty-strong Custodes regiment.

                              Beyond these doors, beyond more hallways and rings of automated defenses, beyond a veritable army of guards and combat servitors, the Council of Terra convened and the galaxy’s fate was decided.

                              El-Rahim sat next to a small fountain, dipping his hand into the water only to withdraw it moments later; he repeated the ritual time and again. He was clad in full parade armor, making his thin face look small in the midst of all golden eagles, swords, and lions worked into his pauldrons and gorget; the effect was not akin to that of a peacock strutting its feathers on a prowl. At one point, el-Rahim joked that the decorations would get in his way if he had to fight in this armor, though, like all of Imperial Redeemers battle gear, it hid surprising amounts of utility.

                              Yusuf kept on pacing back and forth, casting wary looks at the foot traffic and, infrequently, at the large set of double doors where the Custodes stood guard. His armor, though considerably more elaborately wrought than his combat gear, was less ornate, befitting his more junior rank in the Legion. Truth be told, he liked the relative anonymity it afforded him when next to Lord Commanders and their ilk. Terra was confusing enough, and mortals were a busy, noisy lot who liked to entreat the Legionaries with their problems, hoping for an intercession or a handout. The lack of visible decoration on Yusuf’s armor led them to the more senior members of the Imperial Redeemers’ delegation, who found their patience sorely tested.

                              The third member of the group stood serenely by the fountain, admiring large statues and mosaics rising well into the barely visible haze of the ceiling. Kian Ranseng had a good natured smile about him, a wry smirk that made him seem far less threatening than a fully armored warrior of Adeptus Astartes should have been. His arms were crossed at his chest, and though his war gear gave some concessions to ceremonial decoration, it still seemed somewhat subdued next to the Imperial Redeemers.

                              “Debate,” said Ranseng quietly. “Arguments. More arguments. Names being called. Then more debate.” He smirked. “In some cultures, I would have waged a fistfight or three into the equation, too. Here?” The Illuminator shrugged. “We would know if that was happening inside.”

                              “Oh, to be a fly on the wall there,” laughed el-Rahim. “I wonder what we would see.”

                              “You would probably be disappointed, cousin,” Ranseng replied. “In my experience, when too many Primarchs are in one place, they tend to act…” He seemed to be struggling for the right word.

                              “What?” asked Yusuf. He felt the nervous energy build up within him.

                              “Human, of course,” answered Ranseng.

                              “Human?”

                              “Aye,” the Illuminator elaborated. “Don’t tell me you have never thought about their… how to put it delicately…”

                              “Squabbles,” said el-Rahim.

                              “You can put it that way, too,” chuckled Ranseng. “I was the one trying to be diplomatic, Apollus.”

                              Yusuf frowned. “Do you suppose they will get anything accomplished in there?”

                              El-Rahim cocked his head to one side. “Who knows? Stranger things have happened.”

                              “You don’t seem to have a lot of confidence in them,” asked Yusuf. The whole concept did not seem, did not feel quite right.

                              “Beyond these doors is tomorrow,” the Astrologer intoned with pathos. His expression and voice changed to more conversational tone. “And, as we spoke of earlier, tomorrow may belong to mortals rather than to the likes of us.”

                              “I am still not convinced,” Yusuf retorted. “Perhaps they can device a new crusade for all of us to partake in.”

                              Ranseng laughed. It was a booming, hearty sound that held no malice in it. “For a Captain of the Sixth Legion, cousin, you can be charmingly naïve.” He nodded with a smile. “For all I know, they are now discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a quill.”

                              “A…Angels? The Imperial Truth…”

                              “Don’t take things so literally, cousin,” smirked Ranseng. “An old expression my father is fond of. Something entirely meaningless.”

                              “If only it were so,” el-Rahim mused. “If only it were so…”

                              As he spoke, the doors to the Council chambers opened.

                              * * *

                              Miranda looked over the parchment with disgust. It always felt like this when she finished yet another piece extolling the virtues of someone else’s vision. She understood the necessity of propaganda in a galaxy-spanning endeavor of reconquest, but it made for poor literature in the eyes of someone with ambition to leave a lasting mark.

                              She supposed that her appetite for accomplishment kept growing. From a humble writer lucky enough to be chosen for the remembrance duty, to a noted satirist, to a Primarch’s confidant and advisor, she kept on moving up in her station. What was left for someone like her but fame, the kind of real and lasting celebrity that only the timeless creators could enjoy?

                              Perhaps she was vain, thought Miranda, but it mattered to her more than something far more fleeting. Wealth, lovers – she had no shortage of the latter, and was comfortable enough to desire little more of the former. It was the lasting impact of her work, the true accomplishment of a wordsmith that eluded her yet.

                              Who remembered the demagogues after their time was finished? Who remembered the speech writers and the authors of political pamphlets, the histrionic avengers of moribund causes consigned to the scrap yard of history?

                              Miranda’s fingers absent-mindedly sorted through papers. As Iskanderos’ personal remembrancer, she was privy to a host of correspondence – papers, letters, panegyrics from saccharine poets seeking favor, excited notes from children to their hero, the entire gamut of human experience condensed into a written form. Most of these she threw away without reading; a few were reassigned to a small army of scribes and printing presses which created template answers and sent the archaic paper mail and data slates back on their way.

                              She browsed through them idly, trying to identify patterns. A disturbingly large number of documents had seals of great merchant houses with holdings in the Sol system; others included offers of companionship from no less than seventeen high born ladies including very graphic descriptions of just what such companionship would entail, pleas of mercenary companies and soldiers of fortune seeking patronage of a Primarch, or elaborate gifts bearing the marks of Navigator Guilds.

                              Craft words with your audience in mind, an old mentor once told her. The letters were her audience given form, a smorgasbord of names and occupations that helped her understand who she was writing for, what slipped through the ranks of lesser officials who considered the matters important enough for the higher ranking officials to review, with a small chance that a few of these petitions might actually be read. The letters were white, off-color parchment, gold and silver, some fashioned in the designs that spoke of dynastic crests or Legion insignia marked with elaborate drawings

                              She looked back at her own writing, then at the pile of papers. How could she have any respect for herself as a writer if all she could do was write… for them? Every single one wanted something; every single one, no matter how powerful or wealthy, was a petitioner.

                              There was a lesson somewhere in it, but she was not sure what it was. The nature of power? The impermanence of humanity? The meaning of life, written as a thousand attempts to influence someone higher up on the totem pole of human civilization, while those with power strove to sway their lesser to their side with promises and threats?

                              She reclined back, feeling the back of the chair creak sympathetically under her weight and closing her eyes for a moment.

                              When she opened them, something sharp was pressing against her neck. “Don’t move,” hissed a voice in her ear, serpentine yet somehow feminine at the same time. A strong arm wrapped itself around her arms; she felt a sting of something in her shoulder.

                              Miranda found herself unable to move, unable to cry, scream, or even whimper. The arm let go of her, but now she was almost completely paralyzed. Her vision swam, outlines of papers blurring, coming in and out of focus. A face floated in front of her, though Miranda’s distorted vision could not even tell if it was attached to a body – a metal face, a mask that could have belonged on a statue, stylized yet somehow reminiscent of a great reptilian. As the remembrancer watched, the mask changed colors, black, blue, grey, then blue again.

                              “The Blue Sector has a message for you,” the mask intoned in a hushed whisper. “Tomorrow, Iskanderos is meant to die. This has been foretold.”

                              The mask became a blur as Miranda’s sight started to fade. “This is a warning. Do with it as you will.”

                              Miranda did not feel her head hitting the pile of correspondence as her consciousness finally gave out.

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