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

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  • #31
    TWENTY EIGHT

    The Destroyer
    The Eightfold Path
    To Kill A Dream

    The ship was old; perhaps not as old as some among the Legions, but an artifact nevertheless, a relic from a different era when things seemed so much easier, so much clearer. The design was once labeled Gloriana-class, one of the twenty made above the ever-shifting weather patterns of the gas giant in the Jovian docks, each intended as a faithful steed for the Emperor’s own sons and the deliverer of His justice and retribution.

    Five centuries had passed since then. Not even the Glorianas, built to last amongst the worst the galaxy could throw at them, had escaped the passage of time, the travails of battle, the pressures of ceaseless travel and crusade to expand the human dominion. A few of them were now little more than relics of a bygone era, holding steady in high orbit of the Legion homeworlds as their one-time masters took to different pursuits. One, a grand battleship with the proud name of Issos once issued to the Imperial Redeemers, was lost with all hands in a difficult Warp translation, no longer protected by the Primarch’s latent psychic powers now that the Conqueror elected to reign from his own pre-Imperial leviathan, the Hegemon.

    Walking through the halls of the Breaker, Iskanderos could not help but be reminded of the gift he had refused, all those centuries ago. Though it was not his first time in the confines of a Gloriana-class battleship, his mind brought forth the differences between it and the Hegemon. Some similarities were evident – both vessels were built on grand scale that was as much a statement of their commanders’ power as it was a real asset in war; both had weapons enough to scour all life from a terrestrial planet without even having to resort to cyclonic torpedoes or virus bombs. Both had cyclopean halls made to house Titans and war machines to subjugate entire sectors; both had crews of tens of thousands that oversaw the ships’ complicated machinery to ensure they remained in peak fighting condition wherever war took them.

    And yet, the ships were different in ways that no simple matter of decoration or personal taste could account for.

    Where the Hegemon was built to awe and inspire with its intricate gothic arches and amply spaced bright lights, adorned with fine art and colorful banners to show that it was made to be a proper chariot of a demigod, the conqueror of a hundred thousand worlds, the Breaker was a tomb.

    The very air on the Iconoclasts’ flagship had a stale, recycled, mechanical taste to it, as if the Mechanicum adepts only barely bothered to make it sufficiently breathable for less augmented beings to survive. The few mortal serfs Iskanderos saw were pale, undernourished things quick to lower their eyes in his presence, hurrying out of the way of the armored Legionaries of the Eighth like rats would escape the presence of a much bigger predator.

    The ship was dark, with only enough light for the mortals to see a few meters in front of their faces, as if the illumination was an afterthought, a necessity that had to be grudgingly allowed for rather than actively pursued. What colors Iskanderos could see were dark, moldy greens, rusted browns, faded greys of unpainted metal carelessly slabbed into place in defiance of aesthetics. Something wet splashed under the armored feet of the Iconoclast guards; the consistency suggested that it was too thick to be water.

    My brother is ready.

    “Lord Nihlus awaits you,” a Terminator-armored Legionary pointed at a great slab of a door, easily large enough for a Knight walker but set to roll off to the side rather than part in the middle. Iskanderos recognized symbols painted on it, runes of power, runes of warding.

    Amateur. He had spent a long time beyond this reality, far longer than his sons could have guessed, and with that came knowledge that even the most learned of his brothers could only wish for. The wards, though powerful to an uninitiated, would have been excessively easy for him to break; this ship, though a powerful vessel of war in its own right, would not have been enough to stop him if he wished to do it harm. Still, appearances had to be observed.

    Nihlus waited for him beyond the door. The Eighth Primarch stood with his back to Iskanderos, his ruined face hidden behind a stylized mask.

    Nihlus, the Destroyer, was clad for war. Already one of the taller members of the Primarch brotherhood, he towered over his honor guards, further elevated by the imposing stature of his modified battle armor. In one hand, he held a sword with a blade so wide it might as well have been a cleaver; in another, he held on to a holographic projector replaying something that only he could see from this vantage point.

    And yet the stench remains, pondered Iskanderos, taking care to mask his thoughts. Even with the crudely wrought iron censers hanging from the ceiling like fruit of some mutant tree, the largely spherical, windowless chamber stunk. Burnt flesh and the sensation of something being unwell, warped strength and slight yet ever-present undertone of decay.

    “Leave us.” Nihlus’ voice was the dry rustling of the wind over the dessicated desert, simultaneously rumbling and unsettling. Iskanderos had to remember that the traumatic events that scarred his brother for life had also ruined his voice, forcing him to forever speak in a monotone rasp of a living, breathing nightmare.

    “Iskanderos.” It was difficult to tell if Nihlus put any emotion into the name, or if he was merely stating the obvious. The Conqueror had to remind himself that not many could claim to truly know Nihlus; there were Primarchs who had never seen him face to face outside of the brief moments on Terra when the Emperor gathered all of them… when the seeds of war were planted.

    “You know why I am here, brother,” the Conqueror replied.

    “I could not sense you,” Nihlus said, turning around and regarding Iskanderos from the distance. Something sky-blue shone in his eyes, a trace of psychic fire. “Why is that?”

    Iskanderos approached him as warily as one may come close to a dangerous animal. Next to his brother, he looked even more the part of the demigod next to a grotesque.

    “I suppose you know the allegations against me,” the Conqueror spoke slowly. It is important not to show fear. Not to show worry. To remain in complete control. Strength respects strength, especially when strength is but a mask for weakness.

    Nihlus laughed. It was as if a rustle of dry leaves rose up in the cold gust of November. “That? We all know what is really happening.”

    “Tell me then, brother,” implored Iskanderos. “What do they speak of me on Terra?”

    “A thousand stories, each one wilder than the story before it,” the masked Primarch said. “Your grievance with the Council is well known. Some, however, say that you turned your back on our father. What is it, Iskanderos? Shall I believe your emissaries, or shall I believe what Hemri tells me?”

    Iskanderos looked at him expectantly. “One of your men was with Hemri’s little embassy. What do you think?”

    “It does not matter what I think,” Nihlus replied, shifting the topic. “It was an ingenious stroke to send your own men with the embassy. What kind of transgressions did they commit?”

    The Conqueror laughed. “Them? Just loyal Legionaries who took it upon themselves to tell the truth about the Council.”

    “The Council.” Nihlus rolled the word in his mouth, as if evaluating it. “What did really happen there?” There was a slight increase in pitch, though with his ruined throat, only Iskanderos’ inhuman hearing was sufficient to make it out. “You made a lot of people happy when you put Hemri in his place.”

    “And yet he now commands the Council,” remarked Iskanderos. “So what happened now?”

    “You did not answer my question, brother.”

    Iskanderos nodded in recognition of the fact. He had to tread lightly, carefully here.

    “You know both stories of why I turned against Terra.” He softened his voice just enough not to appear to challenge Nihlus in his own domain. “I will tell you this, now. Both are true. Both, Nihlus.”

    The Destroyer nodded. “Interesting. So you are saying that not only did the Council usurp the Emperor’s rightful,” something about the way he said it suggested mockery, “power, but the Emperor himself was on the verge of…” He paused, perhaps contemplating what the right words might have been. “You are saying that the Emperor has tricked us all.”

    “Precisely,” agreed Iskanderos. “Some of our brothers are not ready for it. Many, damn it, most of the citizens and Legions are not ready for it.”

    “And this is why some of your men contradict the others,” Nihlus concluded. “This is why the story my man told me was different from the story Hemri heard from his stooge. Deception.” He sounded amused. “What makes you think that I would trust you?”

    It took Iskanderos much effort not to smile. The very fact that Nihlus was asking the question meant that the Destroyer was considering it. That in itself was a very encouraging sign; now, all he had to do was to indulge his brother’s curiosity.

    “You know me, Nihlus,” the Conqueror said, taking care not to talk too quickly. “The two of us have not always seen eye to eye, but if there is one thing you can expect from me, it is honesty. I will not play psychic tricks on you. I will not lie to you. I have the proof, and I am willing and ready to show it to you.”

    Nihlus grew completely silent and still, eyes closed. Though the burned Primarch’s mask hid the expression of his face, he appeared contemplative, pensive even. The holographic projector fell from his hand, discarded without a thought. After a few long seconds, he slowly unclasped the sides of his mask, taking it off.

    A visage of mutilated horror stared at Iskanderos. Scar tissue, pink, white, and yellow, was interlaced with the black of flesh exposed to the flame and left to rot without medical care. Sharp angular pieces of bone protruded from the side of Nihlus’face, just above the hollow where the flesh of the cheek was eaten away by the fire. One eye was sky-blue, a reminder of the being he once was; the other was an angry, blood-shot red that never healed correctly, serving as an eternal reminder that even the perfect mask could not hide the monster within. No part remained untouched by the flame; nothing remained of the proud, beautiful creature that was once forged in the Emperor’s gene-labs but the essence of raw power that persevered against all odds.

    “Look at me, brother,” Nihlus commanded. “Look and me and tell me. Is this the face of a man who cares?”

    In spite of himself, Iskanderos smiled softly. “I think it is. I think it is, brother.” He extended his hand in an ancient gesture, an offering of a handshake. “Take my hand, Nihlus, and I will show you.”

    For an instant, Nihlus was still, thinking, calculating. Then, his hand grasped that of Iskanderos.

    * * *

    The void was around them, blind, vast, suffocating – not the black of space or the maddening vision of the Immaterium, but the complete absence of matter and energy, the end of particle and wave at the end of the universe. Vast, black, uncaring, majestic.

    “The end of the universe,” said Iskanderos into the tenebrous nothing. “The final victory of entropy.”

    Nihlus laughed. It was an odd sound; here in mind-space, the physical limitations of his mangled throat no longer constrained him, and it came across as a sardonic, spiteful chuckle.

    “What is it that you find so amusing, brother?” Iskanderos asked, puzzled. Though the scene before them existed only in their shared psychic connection, he could not directly see the Destroyer, only sensing his presence nearby.

    Nihlus made the sound like the screeching of rusted nails on rough volcanic glass, as if his mental self-image finally caught up with the injuries of his physical self. “You are going to give me some lecture on how we must take it upon ourselves to fight a noble crusade. You will show me the vision of the end of the universe, and tell me how we can prevent it. You will show me how our father’s quest for godhood, or the Council’s attempts at total control, or the color of Rogr Hemri’s beard are going to doom us all. You will be persuasive and, for that one moment, even charming. Hell, maybe for that one bit, I may even believe you.”

    The darkness lit up enough to reveal Nihlus standing in the endless expanse with on floor, no ceiling, no other light but the psychic illumination emanating from the empty space around him. Here, where physical constraints were merely suggestions, his shape flowed like a river of bright mercury, only vaguely resembling his corporeal self.

    Iskanderos saw a suggestion of something unfamiliar – a towering being of regnal presence, every bit the perfect warrior and statesman his brother was once intended to be. It lasted for only a fraction of a second, a memory or a wishful thought that quickly disappeared.

    “And then, I may not believe you, Iskanderos,” Nihlus continued, his face morphing back into the image of his grotesque physical self, a snarl forming across the corners of the lipless mouth revealing parts of the jaw. “I may think that you are little better than our dearest brothers who think so highly of themselves that they think they can rule us all.”

    In an instant, the mind-link was severed, and the two Primarchs once again faced each other in flesh. The snarl on the Destroyer’s face remained, now accentuated by the stink of burned skin and hair that seemed to follow him wherever he went.

    “I would enjoy killing you and burning Apella, Iskanderos,” Nihlus rasped. “Oh yes, I would enjoy that. Give me one good reason why I should not order my fleet to engage.” He stepped closer to his brother, perhaps anticipating the discomfort the physical proximity would cause.

    Iskanderos did not move. He held the Destroyer’s heavy gaze, never yielding, strength pitted against mangled, misused power.

    “If you wanted to kill me, brother, you would have already done it,” the Conqueror said slowly, not letting Nihlus see any hints of weakness or hesitation. “You want to know if I can offer you something that the Council can not.”

    “Can you?” Nihlus growled, finally adding inflection to his listless voice. “Can you give me something that these bastards will not? Remember, Iskanderos, until not too long ago you were with them, too. You would look at my face and see abomination, too strong to be put down like some of you have argued. A monster. Is that what you see, my brother?” The effect was unsettling; had he been blessed with normally functioning vocal cords, he would have been shouting, yet somehow saying it in a dry rasp gave Nihlus’ words unexpected intensity.

    An understanding finally dawned on Iskanderos’ face.

    “You think I see you as a tool in this war, don’t you?” He weathered another heavy glance from Nihlus, never turning away or lowering his eyes – an apex predator refusing to back down. “Then I will tell you this. You are correct. I need allies. I need those who would fight the war to shake the Imperium to its core, and to change it into something it was always meant to be. But,” he grew louder, “you would not be alone.”

    “I will not insult you by offering you promises of brotherhood,” Iskanderos continued. “But I will tell you this. Whatever else I may be, I am no liar. But I do know who lies. I do know where the true power of this universe resides.”

    “The Eightfold Path,” hissed Nihlus, his voice straining. “Yes,” he added, seeing surprise on the Conqueror’s face. “Do you really think that one can delve as deep into the Warp as I have and not have an inkling of what dwells within?”

    “What do you…”

    “Silence!” Nihlus cut his brother off with a curt waive of his hand. “Do not tell me about how you know better, or how the Four are misunderstood. Do not tell me how the Emperor hid the truth. I know. I already know. I knew all along.”

    Nihlus turned around, taking several halting steps by the censers spraying smoke and incense. He seemed to stare at something far in the distance that only he could see.

    “There is much power in the Immaterium,” the Destroyer said slowly. “And it has a price. The real question is not if I want the power. It is this – are you prepared to pay the price?”

    “What makes you think I did not already pay it?” replied Iskanderos. “There are things in this universe even you do not know, brother.”

    Nihlus shook his head. “It is not the price you can pay at once, Iskanderos. Once you make the bargain, you keep on paying the price over and over again.” He made a snorting sound that might have been cruel laughter. For a brief fraction of a second, his voice sounded almost intact. “But that is your choice of doom. It makes little relevance to me.”

    “So Nihlus,” the Primarch of the Imperial Redeemers said, every sound firm and unyielding. “If you know about the price and what I had to do… what is it that you want?”

    The Destroyer laughed without mirth. “Is it not clear, my brother?”

    “Revenge,” the word came to Iskanderos’ mind.

    “Such a primitive, petty concept, Iskanderos. You do me very little credit,” Nihlus answered. “No.” He turned back to face his brother. In the dim light of the Destroyer’s receiving chamber, the two Primarchs cut contrasting figures. One was golden and beautiful, a statue given life by the wish of a genius sculptor and infused with every wish and hope of the human species. The other was a grotesque reflection, a monster made out of all the ugliness in the human psyche, mangled and mutilated, bitter and vengeful fallen angel.

    “No, Iskanderos,” said Nihlus, face to face with his brother. “Revenge is the means. It is not the end.” The eyes of the Primarchs locked, as if in the contest of wills, yet Iskanderos did not relent. Nihlus grimaced; it might have been his equivalent of a smile. “I accepted the Council request because it would give me a reason to kill a Primarch and to burn his world to cinders. Now, you are offering me a chance to kill a godling with all his servants, and to burn the galaxy. A worthy end.”

    Nihlus nodded, his burned face indecipherable. “And that, my brother, is reason enough.”

    * * *

    The Amitabha was the first to emerge from the Warp on the outskirts of the Apellan system, its sleek shape almost alien amongst the more conventional battleships, strike cruisers, and lesser craft of the Seventh Legion and its allies. Though the Illuminators made up for the majority of the force, they were not alone. Here and there, cruisers flew the colors of the Lion Guard, the Grim Angels, or even the Angel Kings and the Steel Wardens.

    One hundred thousand Legionaries. And this, only the first wave of the assault.

    Kian Ranseng took a long look at the Legionaries gathered in the strategium. Some were captains of the Illuminators, from line officers of companies tasked with breaching the orbital defenses to the exalted Disciples, who commanded entire Orders. Others were descended from different gene-stock – pale-skinned Grim Angels who stood in unsettling silence, proud and pompous Lion Guard with their vat-grown pelts and excessive amounts of decorative paint upon their armor, helmeted sons of Echelon who might have been more machine than mortal beneath their heavily modified war plate.

    On the far end of the room, several holographic projectors sprung up to life, giving full-scale images of savage, fetish-clad Gargoyles, and masked Iconoclasts in their battered, functional armor. One of the projectors displayed the titanic shape of Nihlus, the Primarch of the Eighth, who mercifully chose to hide his face behind a gem-encrusted death mask. Of Angelus, the Grey Prince, there was no sign.

    Only then did Ranseng dare to look to his right side, lowering his eyes to catch a glimpse of Mohktal, the Enlightened One, his master and father.

    The lord of the Illuminators sat on a simple unadorned throne carved from a single piece of volcanic rock. His tattooed face was expressionless, calm, though Ranseng could only guess at what kind of emotions played behind that serene exterior.

    They were about to do the unthinkable. They were about to erase a Primarch and his Legion from history books in the name of the Emperor, and in the name of the Council of Terra.

    No matter how many times he repeated it to himself, it still did not sit right with him.

    “My friends.” When Mohktal spoke, all small talk had ceased. He had little need to raise his voice, or to exalt himself above others; the mere fact of his existence drew all attention to him, even at the expense of his remote brother.

    “Though the unusual turbulence of the Warp had caused our fleet to become separated in transit, our plan remains unchanged.” The Illuminators present nodded or remained stoically silent in their well-rehearsed parade stances; some of the other Legions’ officers saluted with the Imperial aquila or, in some cases, with old Unity salutes.

    “The Seventh Legion and associated forces will break through the orbital defenses and provide the psychic screening. Once the initial breach is made, the Fourteenth Legion will commence an airborne assault. The Eighth will protect the flanks of the spearhead, and will then provide rearguard.”

    “Make no mistake, my friends. This is a dangerous enemy. Iskanderos and the Imperial Redeemers have turned on the Imperium. Some of you might have heard the lies they spout, or the horrid accusations they made.” This elicited a few murmurs or whispers from the assembled, mostly non-Illuminators.

    It bothered Kian Ranseng that the Gargoyles looked very eager. He knew that the Fourteenth Legion had a reputation for being different; where all of the Legiones Astartes were made for war, the Gargoyles seemed to relish it even more than the others, not restrained by concepts of rules of combat. Ranseng heard enough rumors about what happened at Parias, wondering if this was one of the reasons why the Tenth Legion, the Peacekeepers, declined to take part in the assault on the heart of the Apellene Network.

    Pity. Their numbers would have been very useful.

    “The truth is, the Council did not imprison the Emperor. The Emperor is not seeking to perform some unthinkable crime at the expense of humanity.” Mohktal’s voice was calm, measured. Rational. “The Council did not attempt to murder Iskanderos.”

    “No, my brother’s childish outburst is what led him astray. My brother’s crimes have to be punished.” Now, the lord of the Illuminators spoke louder, yet with perfect clarity. “Let it be known to all that this is not the choice I would have made on my own. I made a case for further diplomacy rather than risk this unity of ours being shattered. Alas,” he halted, his voice suddenly fraught with emotion, “our unity cannot be compromised, even if we must… sacrifice.” He stopped for a moment, eyes cast down. Mohktal closed his eyes; the tattoos on his face shone brightly for a fraction of a second as if he was attempting some exercise to bring his powerful emotions under control.

    When he opened his eyes again, his voice was quiet, somber, and very, very human. “We will do what we must. The Emperor’s dream must not be compromised. My brother’s defection is an example that cannot be repeated, or allowed to pass, lest all we fought for in the Great Crusade will be for naught.”

    Ranseng felt a strong pang of empathy for his Primarch. Though the exact emotion was difficult for him to understand, and the teachings of Bodtsan’s greatest mystics preached a certain degree of detachment, he found it hard to remain a disinterested observer.

    It is never easy to kill a dream. The thought resonated in his head even as he made every attempt to stave off the bitter stench of disappointment that it had come to this. He wondered what happened to the Imperial Redeemers he knew, the ones whose company he entertained on Terra before things went horribly, irreparably wrong.

    Are they there? Are they making any preparations for the coming end? Are they going to look at us and see me in every warrior they lock blades with?

    Mohktal’s voice resonated through the room, penetrating the dreadful, pensive silence. “It pains me to order this. It truly does. I can only hope that history judges us right for what we are about to do.”

    “Operation Starfall must succeed. Apella must die.”

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    • #32
      TWENTY NINE

      Starfall
      Psychic Attack
      Disharmony Incarnate

      History would record that the first shots of Operation Starfall were fired by the Illuminators cruiser Serenity in Fire seventeen hours and four minutes after the Council’s punitive expedition reentered real space in the Apellene system. The chronicles of the Seventh Legion claimed that a fortunate strike overloaded the shields of its target, light defensive monitor of the Imperial Redeemers given only numerical designation of AC-17 in lieu of a proper name and sending all souls aboard into the unmerciful embrace of the void. The records on Apella, at least those that survived the vagaries of time and war, differed on the topic, instead suggesting that the Serenity in Fire was destroyed with all hands before inflicting any wounds on the planetary defenses.

      In another time, this would have been a matter for learned, if not always friendly, debate between the Legion historians keeping track of the labyrinthine tale of the Great Crusade in the libraries on Terra. The time for such spirited competition was, however, long gone.

      There are multiple versions of history – one written by the winners, another by the losers, each with many variations sprung by allies and enemies to make their contribution to the conflict seem more meaningful. On Apella, these many versions would become one, for only one side would be in position to tell its side of the story while it still mattered.

      The Amitabha led a spearhead of battleships and cruisers from many Council Legions, an unstoppable storm of Terra’s vengeance that came without warning, without mercy, without any desire to negotiate. Even without the Iconoclasts and the Gargoyles, both still several hours away, the war fleet under Mohktal’s command was an impressive sight.

      Though only the Illuminators were present in Legion strength, their numbers were swelled by the influx of the Lion Guard, the Angel Kings, the Grim Angels, and the Steel Wardens – each only a fraction of their respective Legion, but together an unstoppable force of more than one hundred thousand Astartes with mechanized brigades and even Titan support. Twice that number waited in the wings another ten light minutes away, Iconoclasts and Gargoyles both, tasked with the complete eradication of all resistance once Mohktal’s command broke through to Apella.

      At any other point in time, this show of force would have been sufficient to bring even well-fortified worlds to heel with only few cautionary shots being fired, but this was no ordinary world, no ordinary system. This was Apella, the center of the Apellene Network and the home planet of Imperial Redeemers and their proud, brilliant, impulsive Primarch, the throne world of Iskanderos and the seat of rebellion against the Council’s authority. For this sin, it had to die.

      * * *

      The forced inaction was difficult, Yusuf reflected as he paced back and forth inside the confines of the orbital command center. The Jond leaders had their orders; some were directing delaying action in high orbit, while others mustered their forces to find openings for counterattacks. The mortal Navy commanders already began to engage the Council vessels, though the results so far have been far from encouraging – the kill ratio did not favor the Imperial Redeemers, and was not sustainable for an extended engagement.

      The Primarch’s plan was simple at the face value, though, as with all things Iskanderos demanded of his men, there were many opportunities for initiative amongst the enterprising Captains. Yusuf wondered how Ishmael was growing into his new role as the Captain of the 54th; as far as he knew, his old Company was deployed planet-side, a part of the defensive screen for Iandus Spaceport.

      No matter. I have a mission. The Primarch himself asked for me.

      Thousands of kilometers away, flashes of light were all that betrayed the presence of a vast hostile fleet. Had Yusuf been given to poetic musings of Apollus el-Rahim, he would have thought it was strangely beautiful, the dance of life and death where each spark represented thousands of lives being extinguished in an instant.

      There was poetry in it, he had to admit to himself. All those lives, all the energy generated to snuff them out, condensed in a moment so brief that an ill-timed blink would have missed it.

      At the very least, the thought made him forget about the men under his own command, his Diadochi.

      He saw them at the corner of his vision, though in truth it was less a matter of sight and more of instinct. Outwardly, they were as any other Legionaries – hulking warriors wearing bronze and gold of the Sixth Legion, laurels engraved on their helmets, bolters and blades mag-locked to their armor. A few still bore insignia of the Librarium aspirants, though most did away with any outward trappings of their former existence.

      Inside the armor of the Diadochi, madness awaited.

      The very thought that in some way he was like them made Yusuf far more queasy than his gene-forged physique should have allowed. Had it not been for the Primarch’s orders, he would have rather fought by the side of his former Company on Apella; after all, he had slain other Legionaries before, and what was another fratricide to him? What was another sin on the conscience of one who had already crossed the event horizon?

      Iskanderos, however, had other thoughts.

      Your men have a unique purpose, Yusuf, the Conqueror told him as the order of battle was finalized. For that reason, you will remain in reserve until I return.

      The waiting was difficult; the act of sharing space with the others who were similarly touched, even more so. Only the innate sense of duty and well-ingrained discipline kept Yusuf here, hoping that sooner rather than later, Iskanderos would join him and lead the Diadochi in the mission to decide the fate of the Council offensive once and for all.

      Far away, the dance of death continued. Though it was too distant for Yusuf’s eyes to make out the details, the hololithic projectors told the story of the outer defenses dying under the concentrated fire of Illuminators, ships bleeding fuel and air from their ruptured hulls, engines of interplanetary destruction blossoming in spheres of atomic fire.

      Weakness. Excise weakness.

      The thought was masquerading as his own, and until the very last moment Yusuf almost believed that it was one of his. It fit the pattern of half-remembered ideas lingering in that no-man’s-land between wakefulness and sleep. It fit the pattern of something trying to speak through him, the giver of visions ever since his fateful trip from the cave on Molech back to the Hegemon.

      As always, it told him the truth.

      The ships dying to protect Apella were not true Legion vessels but castoffs, older designs fated for scrapyards and decommission, crewed by the servitors and the criminals forcibly conscripted into the planetary defense forces. A few had squads of Legionaries drawn from penitents who had failed their commanding officers; some were crewed by half-finished clones granted barely functional implants not worthy of true sons of Iskanderos, the failings of accelerated growth process evident in their malformed shapes and self-devouring bodies.

      They were the Legion’s weakness, and they would die, so that its strength on Apella would be preserved.

      It was the truth, as it has always been, and as it will ever be.

      * * *

      In the tight confines of the drop pod, Mengar Zarif and his nine battle-brothers waited for the launch. They were still too far away for the strike cruiser to push the tiny metal weapons of interplanetary war towards their target, and there was little for Zarif and the other nine Illuminators to do but wait.

      As far as he knew, the cruiser, the Wheel of Infinity, was still battling through the outer cordons of the Imperial Redeemers’ defenses, a part of the largest assault ever committed by the Legion forces against a single world. Data streams and hololithic imagery played across his helmet visors, showing the progress of the battle. Though the Sixth Legion gave as good as it got, Lord Mohktal’s strategy adjusted even for Iskanderos’ strategic brilliance.

      With three Legion-sized armadas approaching Apella, even Iskanderos could not afford to concentrate his forces in one place, leaving an opening for the Illuminators to punch through. Perhaps it was not the most tactically intricate decision, but, as Rogr Hemri was wont to say, quantity had a quality all its own, and the Council Legions had it in abundance.

      Zarif checked his volkite pistol, ensuring that the weapon had full charge. In truth, it was far from the most dangerous tool at his disposal; his true power was transmitted through the crystals of the psychic hood covering his shaved head, and it was considerable even by the standards of the Seventh Legion. Where the other nine Illuminators could boost their strength and speed to levels unseen even amongst the Legiones Astartes warriors, Mengar Zarif could rain down mass destruction in bolts of concentrated psychic lightning, to cause stone metal to spontaneously combust into unearthly flames, or to unmake the genetic code binding superhuman flesh in its present shape, forcing uncontrollable mutation with a flick of a wrist.

      He expanded his senses, touching the minds of his battle-brothers, then silently commuting with the other Librarians in the drop pods attached to the Wheel of Infinity. Each one of them was a formidable presence in the Warp; each one’s atma was strong beyond the veil, but together, they were unstoppable, no matter how desperate the sons of Apella would get.

      Something attracted his attention. The mechanics of second sight were poorly understood even by those who spent centuries trying to master them, but Zarif was aware that the Warp was not a quiet place. There were eddies of power, energies born of thought and emotion that frequently coalesced into short-lived creatures of the aether. Most would dissipate within moments of their creation as the impulse which gave birth to them had vanished, yet few found enough sustenance to keep themselves whole for hours, days, or even longer.

      There was disturbance in the Warp, and Zarif’s atma observed the flood of such creatures swim through it – some so ephemeral that they were on the verge of complete dissolution, others great predators that grew strong and fat on wayward souls passing into the Immaterium. Perhaps, he thought with distaste, they were anticipating the slaughter to come. The death of a world would provide enough sustenance for even the strongest of the creatures.

      Through it all, he could not escape the feeling that something was wrong. There were too many of the Warp creatures, more than he would have anticipated even on the threshold of the largest battles of his long life – and for once, there was disturbing order to their movements, as if their presences were directed by some unseen forces.

      But there are no unseen forces, he thought, clinging on to the tenets of the Imperial Truth. The Warp is only mysterious because it has not been properly understood. All we see in its waters are reflections of ourselves.

      As Mengar Zarif pushed himself into the pre-battle trance, following geometrical patterns of thought with his mind’s eye, the disturbing feeling had receded, but did not completely go away.

      * * *

      Apollus el-Rahim wiped the blood of the acolyte from his hands, then sighed wearily. The sacrifice was willingly given, the last of many, yet it wore heavily on him.

      Some things will never change, he thought, reflecting on all he had learned in the long months since Molech. All power demands a price.

      He looked at himself, no longer noticing the subtle changes to his armor as it conjoined itself to his flesh, yet paying heed to the changes in his posture, the ever-slight improvements to his strength. When the Primarch returned to his sons with his newfound wisdom, the Astrologer was a cripple. Now, with the knowledge imparted by his sovereign, things were different.

      Many were the changes in the Sixth Legion; many were the gifts the sons of Iskanderos bore to further glorify their lord and father. Heavy was the price they paid for the gifts, and there would be much more yet to give before it would be paid in full.

      The seven warriors, all initiates of the Librarius, loomed over the mortal sacrifices, each a Legion serf chosen by his or her peers as an offering. The blood of the dead formed a rough circle that even now began to glow, against every law of physics, coalescing into shapes not born of this universe.

      There were faces there, some unfamiliar, others achingly well known – friends, former comrades, perhaps even members of his nearly forgotten mortal family dead for several centuries now. It was always like this; the Warp was a thing of beauty, but also a thing of great sorrow.

      It was the repository where all came from, and where all would return to, the Sea of Souls spoken of by the ancient mystics who could not understand its true nature with reason, and who chose metaphor and instinct to describe what they saw. It was the final destination of all who lived, and though el-Rahim was not born with the second sight, he could almost glimpse at its majesty through the veneer of the ritual.

      The Imperial Redeemers were prepared, far more so than the Council of Terra had even guessed. Even without the unreliable Gargoyles and the Iconoclasts with their unknown loyalties, the Sixth Legion had allies that would not let it suffer the ignominy of defeat. As Apollus el-Rahim spoke the words of power, the words of binding, the glowing circle of blood broke into thousands of tiny comets with butterfly wings, particles obeying no law but that of absolute freedom offered by the infinite and the unknowable. He closed his eyes, willing the particles upwards and into the sky where the clouds hid the savage void war.

      When the Astrologer opened his eyes again, the particles were gone.

      * * *

      Mengar Zarif was floating in the vast expanse of the Beyond, a singular part of the web that connected the entirety of the assault force. He could not see the entire web, but he knew that it reached far and wide, with every Astartes warrior of the Illuminators and even their mortal Galasvik followers a part of the greater, harmonious whole. There was beauty in it, terrifying symmetry of perfection that reflected the Arcane Geometries, each warrior a singular word of power upon the mindscape, a focus of unimaginable energy hammered into a deadly speartip.

      He suppressed the feelings of pride; such thoughts were unbecoming of the one committed to Mohktal’s teachings. All were one, and one had the seeds of worlds and galaxies within him. To think otherwise was folly of the highest caliber.

      He was still clinging on to serenity in the teachings when the attack struck.

      The creatures of the Warp, the carrion eaters anticipating bountiful harvest, were suddenly nowhere to be found, as if the Immaterium had cleared with unnatural speed. The entirety of space around Apella was now empty, devoid of life real or unreal in one fell stroke.

      A mere fraction of a second later, something grew out of the silence.

      Zarif felt it as his body began to convulse and red foam appeared on his lips. The elaborate tattoos covering the majority of his body started to shine with foul, malefic light, each a splattering of molten magma upon the frail skin. A solid lump formed in his stomach, pushing through the internal organs and threatening to rupture the skin.

      Bile and acidic saliva filled his mouth, running down his chin as the outer skin dissolved on contact with the contents of his Belcher’s gland. A part of his tongue slithered out of the destroyed cheek, bitten off in the brief moments he lost control. His intestines curled up, given life of their own like foul snakes seeking to escape the suffocating confines of his flesh.

      Mengar Zarif screamed, but it came out as a wheeze, a growl from the mouth that was no longer human. His eyes burst into molten metallic liquid; the crimson and silver of his armor was now angry pink and ravaged black as his body mutated uncontrollably, consuming itself, morphing into shapes that even his post-human physique was not equipped to survive. Tenebrous lightning shot out from him, arcing across the rest of his squad as the other nine Illuminators became living conduits to unleashed psychic power.

      The last thing his second sight observed before the mercy of final death consumed him was the gathering of ravenous creatures of the Beyond bearing down on his immaterial form and tearing it apart just like the ravages of mutation consumed his body.

      * * *

      “We are under attack!” shouted Kian Ranseng, working his way to Mohktal on the bridge of the Amitabha. Around him was the scene of absolute chaos.

      Legion serfs and servitors were cooked alive, melting into their stations or screeching in agony as their bodies lost all coherence. One naval rating became a mass of tentacles and eyes collapsed in a heap, its multiple mouths screaming for mercy. A Legion Librarian collapsed on the floor, smoke coming from every joint of his armor. Glitching servitors locked down into inaction, though even their cybernetic replacements were not immune to the plague of mutation, melting and reforming as an insane array of pincers, claws, and other appendages with no coherent form or function.

      Mohktal stood at the center of the storm, discolored lightning forming a cocoon around him that seemed to probe at the Primarch’s defenses, yet unable to penetrate them. The Enlightened One’s face was strained with effort, slick with sweat as the arcane tattoos and wards on his skin lit up golden yellow, the purity of his essence struggling against the unearthly force that struck the Illuminators.

      Ranseng shot a maddened creature that was amalgamated from a trio of crewmen, then ran towards his master. The Disciple felt the psychic onslaught tug at him, though with every step, the intensity had lessened until he felt that he could once again gather his thoughts. Data readouts in his helmet lenses warned him of critical casualties on the advance vessels of the fleet, and severe deviations from the battle plan on the others. The vox traffic was a panicked mess of mortal commanders begging for guidance, shouting their lungs out in sheer terror, or gurgling something unintelligible as if their vocal chords were no longer capable of speech. Here and there, he heard the terse battle-cant of the Illuminators ordering repairs, forcing the terrified crews to regain control of their vessels, or even authorizing the first stages of the planetary assault.

      ++It will not stop us++

      Mohktal’s thoughts were loud and clear, and by the looks Ranseng got from the unaffected members of the expedition, it was clear to him that the Primarch spoke to the entire fleet, not just to him.

      ++The enemy struck us first, and we were unprepared for the severity++

      “Sire!” Ranseng screamed. His fingers frantically sought out his Focus, a piece of metal worked into the shape of a clockwork gear hard-wired into the palm ofhis armored hand. Through it came contentment, but most importantly, the ability to use his psychic powers the way they were intended to.

      ++Do not!!!++

      Mohktal’s psychic message stopped him in his tracks, and Ranseng’s fingers withdrew. The Focus felt strangely warm, even through armor.

      ++The enemy knew what they were facing, my sons! They attacked all with second sight, struck against all whose atma was exploring the Beyond.++

      Hearing that filled Ranseng with hope. Only a small fraction of the Illuminators would have been in meditative trance at any point in time; even in the midst of an orbital assault when Legion-wide coordination was of utmost importance, only the Librarians would ever be expected to commune with others of their kind.

      Most of the Legion’s strength should remain untouched, he thought, running through the numbers in his mind. Even if every single Librarian of the Illuminators was negated with the psychic attack, the Legion still had over ninety five percent of its operating strength.

      ++This is disharmony incarnate, yet to fight it, we must put our trust in our bolters and blades, not in words of power or the Arcane Geometries++

      The lightning around Mohktal had abated, withering away into nothingness. The Primarch looked tired; for a fraction of a second, he almost looked old. He turned his face to Ranseng, his deep-set eyes no longer serene, no longer filled with peace and understanding.

      “My brother…” whispered Mohktal. “He meddles with things no mortal should ever touch.” The Primarch leaned on a nearby equipment console; it groaned and protested under his weight. To Ranseng, the sound was disturbingly organic.

      “What are your orders, sire?” the Disciple asked, shocked at the nature of the assault. “The Legion strength is only barely diminished. We can still take the fight to them.”

      Mohktal nodded. “Then fight we will.” The Primarch lowered his eyes. A holographic projection sprung up to life; even with the losses from the sudden psychic assault, the Illuminators were well on their way to penetrating the outer circle of Apella’s orbital defenses. “I will not risk waiting for any more tricks,” he said, his voice raspy and unwell. “Iskanderos traffics with dangerous things. If he is this far into it…” Mohktal raised his eyes to Ranseng. There was pain there, and, perhaps, fear?

      “We destroy him?” the Disciple dared to ask after several seconds went on in absolute silence.

      “It is worse than I thought,” Mohktal replied, his tattoos still giving off a faint afterglow. “Him, his entire world, his entire Network. We must launch drop assault as soon as we are in range.”

      * * *

      Seven thousand stars fell upon Apella. They raced through the upper atmosphere, overtaking the defense batteries too slow to track them, fooling the ground-based guns with their countermeasures and pre-programmed randomized movements. Each was a marvel of engineering designed to deliver their deadly cargo in one piece, or, failing that, to draw the defensive fire so that other, more fortunate capsules would bring squads of Illuminators, Grim Angels, Lion Guard, Steel Wardens, and Angel Kings to the surface.

      Behind them, thousands of Stormbirds, Thunderhawks, and other, lesser craft poured into the breech. With Apella’s defenses spread across three distinct vectors of approach, Mohktal concentrated his immediate forces on one area, taking full advantage of his numbers and ensuring that for every drop pod or landing craft that died, five more reached the ground.

      Spaceborne fighters raced ahead of the armada, staving off desperate counterassaults by the Imperial Redeemers’ interceptors. These were piloted by the mortal Galasvik, each a student of Mohktal’s teachings committed to seeing the Enlightened One’s battle plan come through, or, more frequently, by servitor pilots who died with little thought for their own preservation, their mission to ensure an opening.

      This was not the initial plan; Mohktal wanted to approach the planet slowly, forcing the Imperial Redeemers to choose between concentrating all of their forces to defend against one attacking fleet, and to fight a delaying action staving off the inevitable as all three Council armadas pounded Apella into dust.

      The psychic attack had changed it all.

      There was urgency to the attack, as the realization of what had happened spread across the Illuminators. This was no longer the matter of following an unseemly if necessary order. This was war against abomination itself, a war as holy as it was justified.

      Inside a vessel speeding through Apella’s trans-orbital space just above the ecliptic, Iskanderos observed the slow dance of the fleets, the moves and the countermoves of the infinite symphony that would bring ruin to his world. Behind him, mag-locked to the metal floor, twenty Diadochi stood in eerie silence, each moving to the rhythm that only the Conqueror himself could recognize as the music of the spheres. From Nihlus’ vessel to the command center hidden behind Apella’s smallest moon; from the command center and into the unknown – everything was going according to the plan.


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      • #33
        THIRTY

        Landing
        Tightening Noose
        Infinite Light

        The Iandus Spaceport sprawled out all around Ishmael, its intricate towers and minarets gleaming in the morning sun like needles before the fire. Many colors reflected in their metallic plating – pink, rose, orange, blue of the night giving way to day, contorted into fantastic reflections by the curving surfaces and artwork made to honor centuries of Apellene history before the coming of the Imperium.

        Only the slight heat haze gave any indication of powerful void shields protecting the spaceport from orbital bombardment, itself a relic of a more advanced age powered by the heat of Apella’s molten core and thus able to withstand even the world-destroying weaponry of the Illuminators warships. The sight of it filled Ishmael with unease.

        What if it had failed? What if they cannot hold the line?

        The newly promoted Captain of the 54th Company had sometimes wished for simpler days – missions to expand the rule of the Imperium to strange worlds, battles where the lines between friend and foe were drawn all so clearly, friendly bickering with Telennios that helped pass the time between and during campaigns. The uncertainty of the present conflict, the lack of clear delineation on who was right and who was wrong, these were the things that bothered him, though he tried not to let it interfere with his duties.

        After all, he had also seen the visions.

        The 54th Company was spread out in cover all around the Iandus Spaceport – one hundred fully equipped Space Marines supported by several platoons of Apellan Home Guard and squads of Legion aspirants yet to undergo the last stages of implantation. Above them, anti-air guns kept on their thundering rumble, each shot scattering pieces of broken metal and mangled flesh across the sky, yet unable to stop the coming tide.

        The Council forces were coming in their numbers, and though the Imperial Redeemers reaped a bloody toll, there were simply too many for their defenses to stop at once.

        This was the kind of war the Legiones Astartes were made for – rapid planetary assault where the application of maximum force at the critical spot would decide campaigns and fates of civilizations. This time, however, their opponents were made using the same arcane processes, trained in the same crucible that weeded out the weak and the unworthy. For the first time in the history of the galaxy, a full-scale Legion planetary assault was about to meet its match.

        The Imperial Redeemers took great care in fortifying their positions. The full Astartes were spread out in fire teams across the entire hundred square kilometer expanse of the spaceport, with elements of seven Companies and their supporting forces hiding under the camo cloaks, manning overwatch guns, or keeping vigil in the network of deep trenches where they could be counted on to act as mobile reserve where they were needed. The bunkers were manned by lesser mortal troops; Iskanderos hoped that they would draw fire from the advancing Council invaders, only to serve as an anvil upon which the Illuminators would be broken. Scout teams roamed across the perimeter, not subject to rigit battle lines, but expected to draw the enemy into ambushes and to force the Illuminators to break their ranks and be destroyed piecemeal.

        Ishmael counted seconds as his auspex kept on displaying the alarming number of enemy craft preparing for landing. It was not hard for him to guess why they chose Iandus as the target; with the spaceport secure, the Council Legions could land most of their forces where their numerical advantage would not be negated by the confines of city fighting. To some commanders, this would have signaled impending doom; to Iskanderos, it was an opportunity.

        The first drop pod slammed into the rockrete foundation with the force enough to deafen any mortals foolish enough to remain in the vicinity. Ishmael, leading a fire team, stayed hidden behind a scuttled pleasure yacht appropriated from some well-off citizen for the common good. The positioning of the landed spacecraft served a purpose; their hulls, designed to withstand the stresses of atmospheric reentry and micrometeorite collisions, made for better bulwark against small weapon fire than most makeshift fortifications, without clearly alerting the enemy to the presence of the defenders.

        As the drop pod opened like a mutant flower of ceramite and advanced alloys still smoking from its violent passage through the atmosphere, Ishmael saw the enemy.

        The first Illuminator to rush through the open hatch was almost a mirror image of Ishmael’s battle brothers, yet imperfect, as if by some strange quirk of fate the colors were ever slightly distorted to produce a flawed portrait of a Legionary. The deep crimson of the invader’s armor shone in the rays of Apella’s sun, and the silver trim on his pauldrons seemed to distort his outline for the crucial fractions of a second.

        The invader toppled over, brought down by an accurate lascannon shot. In an instant, the warriors of Ishmael’s command squad opened up with their plasma guns and bolters, each a marksman of some skill and repute personally recommended by Telennios.

        Only two Illuminators out of squad of ten survived long enough to make a mad dash to nearest cover, and one of them was picked off before he could reach its relative safety. Truly, being the first one to battle was no guarantee of security even against lesser forces, but against another Legion, it was certainly a fatal proposition.

        Another drop pod crashed down in the open, shaking the ground with its landing. This one was equipped with Deathfire missile launcher, which opened fire before the doors could fully come down. A lucky missile hit the side of a scuttled yacht, sending an Imperial Redeemer flying into the air. A squad of Illuminators rushed forward, their speed almost certainly augmented by the inscrutable psychic disciplines of Mohktal’s sons.

        At least they don’t have a Librarian with them, thought Ishmael, though it was a scant consolation as he abandoned his position to get a better firing angle and to escape the target lock of the Deathfire launcher, shooting at the Illuminators as he moved and trying to stay aware of the dark shadows blotting out the young sun.

        In the seconds since the first drop pod landed, three more were cast down into the spaceport like thunderbolts of some vengeful deity. Every landing sent shock waves through the tortured rockrete, slamming into the sides of the scuttled spaceships and forcing the Imperial Redeemers to run for alternate cover. With professional detachment, Ishmael noted that one of the drop pods had colors of the Lion Guard; the other two were of Seventh Legion.

        These, clearly, were much more dangerous.

        All across the spaceport, the scene repeated itself. Though the first wave had suffered large casualties, the sheer weight of numbers made sure that the Council Legions landed in sufficient numbers to finally take to the offensive, darting in and out of cover as the Imperial Redeemers retreated towards designated choke points and kill zones.

        Ishmael vaulted over the edge of mangled metal that was once a decorative fin of an orbital yacht, firing from the hip in the general direction of the Council Legionaries. One of his men became a screaming inferno as the Lion Guard with a flamer let loose, sending burning promethium at the Imperial Redeemers. Another lascannon shot; the Lion Guard went down.

        “You are welcome,” Ishmael heard Telennios’ grumbling voice through the company-wide network. The Strikers took up positions across the spaceport, spreading out to serve as a mobile sniper division rather than as a coherent squad. Mumbling his thanks, Ishmael continued on towards the next piece of cover.

        The sky was streaked through with trails of black smoke and the blossoms of numerous explosions. Somewhere in orbit, the Sixth Legion’s fleet fought a delaying action to keep the Illuminators from completely overwhelming Apella’s defenses. From the ground, it did not look like they were having much success.

        “Captain!”

        A timely warning was the only thing that saved Ishmael. A vortex of nothingness opened next to him, hungrily consuming the rockrete, the dead bodies, the very air. Ishmael felt the pull, struggling with all his mechanically augmented strength to keep moving, to avoid the ravages of the exotic weaponry.

        The air seemed to sizzle, as if the molecules were being disintegrated into component atoms, then turned into brief splashes of energy dancing all across the spectrum. Radiation warnings spiked across Ishmael’s eye lenses as his armor’s systems engaged the seals to keep the poisoned air out. Two icons representing command squad members went amber, then deep red.

        Ishmael fired blindly in the direction of the attack, not caring if he managed to hit anything as long as it gave him time to gather his response. He dove into a shallow trench, rolling on the ground to extinguish the smoke from where his armor joints were damaged.

        His teeth rattled from the instinctive fight-or-flight reaction against the form of death even his enhanced physiology and armor was no proof from. Proximity warnings and environmental hazard indicators flashed in his helmet lenses, urging him to continue moving if he were to survive.

        Destroyers. They brought the Destroyer squads. Whoresons.

        Ishmael cursed under his breath, subvocalizing commands even as he kept on changing direction in hope of avoiding direct targeting. He could survive a brief passage through a contaminated zone, but not much more. Above and around him, the sounds of shooting intensified, no longer a series of attacks and measured responses, but a frantic cacophony that came from all sides at once, fooling even the autosenses of his armor.

        An explosion shook the ground. For a fraction of a second, Ishmael mistook it for the sound of another drop pod landing, but the brief cessation in battle led him to believe otherwise. He saw sleek shadows race through the smoke-streaked sky, already on to the next sector where their explosive payloads had to be delivered.

        “Thank the Primarch for air support,” he shouted, hoping to inspire however many of his men remained in fighting condition. “Take the fight to the bastards!”

        He finally dared to peek out of his cover; a crater was all that remained in place of the Illuminators’ drop pods. A squad of shell-shocked enemy Legionaries attempted to reform by the side of a freighter used by the defenders as a makeshift bunker; there were warriors from both the Seventh and the Twelfth Legions in it. The runes in Ishmael’s helmet suggested that for the moment, the defending forces in the immediate vicinity had numerical parity if not superiority.

        “Kill the dishonorable curs,” he yelled, his chainsword – a relic of many campaigns lovingly restored to peak fighting condition after every mission – pointed at the enemy even as he charged. “For Iskanderos! For Apella!”

        A roar of no less than a dozen throats answered him as the Imperial Redeemers left their temporary sanctuary to kill those who came to destroy their world.

        * * *

        From the observation chamber of the Breaker, Apella looked pitiful. It was a world marred with the imperfections of explosions, glow of straining void shields attempting to stave off the worst of orbital bombardment, ugly trails of smoke as fighters and capital ships died in its upper atmosphere, destroyed piecemeal by every weapon invented by mankind in its long, tortured history.

        There were no lights in the chamber – not even the smoke censers spraying their constant benediction on any who sought the companionship of the Eighth Primarch. The only illumination came from the light reflected from Apella’s surface, casting Nihlus’ face in an elaborate checkered pattern where his molten flesh seemed like a landscape of a ruined, ravaged world left for too long to the mercies of planetary bombardment.

        For this occasion, the Destroyer did not bother to wear a mask, or to otherwise hide the rictus grin of his face. The lord of the Eighth Legion was still as a statue, observing the flashes of light where each moment saw thousands of lives extinguished, hopes, dreams, and memories relinquished to the hungry tide of predators lurking beyond the thinning veil of reality.

        Another figure stood by his side, though considerably smaller next to the Primarch’s bulk. This one was a warrior clad in the unpainted armor of the Legion, showing every bit of wear and damage from countless campaigns yet maintained just enough to remain operational. He was bald and scarred, his face showing the many discolorations and blotches of scar tissue common to Nihlus’ line, a patchwork of skin colors that looked as if it was drawn from several different individuals and sown together by an uncaring, hasty chirurgeon.

        “Commander Herod,” said Nihlus. The Primarch’s voice, so long an emotionless hiss, sounded full-bodied and whole once again. Though the Destroyer’s throat was still as fire-ravaged as ever, for the first time in centuries since the cataclysm on Kars he sounded like an entire being untouched by the merciless elements. Nihlus turned to the Iconoclast; the dead face seemed to be smiling. “Do you believe in my brother’s strength?”

        The Space Marine saluted his Primarch. His face was severe, uncompromising as he answered. “It is of no doubt. Lord Iskanderos has truly been touched by the Powers.”

        “And yet, I can end him here, for good,” mused Nihlus. “A tempting proposition.” Something in his voice suggested mockery. “Burn a Legion, he said, or burn the galaxy.”

        Herod’s face stiffened. “All life is suffering, sire.”

        Nihlus laughed cruelly. “Is this what you are telling each other in the ranks?” He cracked his knuckles, casting a long glance at his unarmored hands. They, too, were ravaged with burn marks and scars that even his prodigious healing abilities could not cover up.

        “Nevertheless, sire,” Herod answered him. “Burn a Legion, or save the galaxy. Now that is the true choice. The choice of mercy.”

        “Mercy?” Nihlus’ eyes had an amused cast to them. “That is an interesting choice of a word, Commander. Not the one I had expected from you.”

        “The only mercy that we can grant, my lord,” the Iconoclast said. “The mercy we have been unwittingly dealing all along.”

        Nihlus nodded thoughtfully. “I see my brother’s words did not fall on empty ears.” The Primarch turned to look at Apella again, raising his eyes so that he managed to look down at an entire planet.

        “To kill a world, or to save the galaxy,” the Destroyer repeated. “Mercy. Mercy.” One side of his mouth, the one that was not completely shredded by the fire, slowly crept up. It cracked the dead skin; clear-colored pus poured from the wound, mixed with something darker, something far too viscous to be entirely made of blood.

        “I like it.”

        Nihlus’ hands joined behind his back, scar tissue on scar tissue, only slight uncontrollable movements betraying that they belonged to a living being.

        “Iskanderos,” the Primarch said so quietly it might as well have been a whisper. “You know that I can destroy you now. I can do what the Council asked of me, and return to Terra, them none the wiser.”

        His voice grew louder, as if Iskanderos could hear him from here.

        “I can put an end to your little rebellion, and to you, no matter how much you claim to swim in the aether. I can do it all, no matter how many stratagems you pull, or where you keep your reserves, or what allies you profess to have. I. Can. Do. It.

        “And yet, you have not committed our forces, sire,” commented Herod. “One way or… the other.”

        Nihlus did not seem to notice that the Iconoclast said anything. The Eighth Primarch stared at the globe of Apella, as if challenging the planet to some form of combat, some test of willpower. The smoke-streaked globe stared back, heedless of the demigod with the power of life and death in his hand.

        “And I will still be able to do it,” Nihlus continued. “No matter how many Legions you surround yourself with, or how many worlds declare for you. I will still be able to bring you down, brother.”

        The Primarch gave Apella another look, his eyes narrowing in silent hatred. “Always so perfect. Always so brilliant. The Young King, yet never to reign. The Enlightened One, yet so blind. The Hammer, who never left the sheath. The Father who hated the sons he had sired. The monsters. The weapons. The tools.” His thoughts seemed to drift from one place to the next, from one person to another.

        “Sire?”

        “And I will bring you down, Iskanderos,” Nihlus said, lost in thought. “But, not now. Not here. Not yet.”

        The Primarch shook his head, focus and lucidity returning to his eyes. When he looked at Herod, he was once again purposeful, once again the warlord and the leader of men who would kill and die for him.

        “You know what to do, Commander,” he said slowly, each word a testament to the finality of his decision. “Signal the fleet to engage.”

        * * *

        As his beating hearts counted down seconds before the impact, Yusuf al-Malik prayed. Not to the gods introduced into the Sixth Legion by Iskanderos, whose blessings many of the Imperial Redeemers now bore like signs of distinction; not to the shadow of the Emperor as some mortals would have; not even to the Primarch, deified by his sons and their human charges.

        His prayer went to the old gods of Apella whose names he remembered from childhood – Zois, Apol, Aris, the deities who governed thunder, sun, and war and whose memories still thrived despite centuries of enforced Imperial Truth. His words spoke to those segments of his youth that escaped erasure by the psycho-indoctrination accompanying his transformation into a full Legionary, the parts of the young boy who watched the parade on Apella and resolved to become one with the bronze and gold-armored giants, the boy who once saw a god.

        He was the second son of many, neither the one expected to carry the family name, nor the youngest child spoiled and adored by his older siblings, a scrawny youth with no particular talent save for destiny that gave him a chance. On the day before the Legion trials, his parents followed him as far as the gates of the Legion fortress, perhaps expecting him to fail like his brother had before him, or maybe hopeful that one of their own may, against all odds, rise above their middling station and finally make a mark on the face of the universe. He remembered his father’s eyes, grey and intent, as if trying hard not to give in to emotion when the results came back positive; his mother’s tears now that one of her sons was taken from her at a tender age of eleven. He remembered a string of faces, his siblings, friends, playmates, teachers, all of them lined up to gaze in wonder at the boy who was selected for the Legion duty.

        Awe. Pride. Jealousy. But mostly pride.

        In the final seconds before the modified Stormbird wove through the overwhelming fire to crash into the side of the Amitabha, as the old barriers gave way to something deep and primal, as indoctrination retreated to reveal more of who he always was and the memories flooded in, Yusuf al-Malik remembered their pride at what he was about to become.

        * * *

        The Diadochi dropped into a hangar large enough to hold Titans, falling from the ceiling where the Stormbird crashed through the Illuminators’ void shields. They wore no jump packs or grav-chutes, for such crude things were no longer necessary for their twisting, winged forms.

        Yusuf felt his body reform itself, heedless of the armor flowing with the flesh like mercury and mindful only of the excruciating pain. Something bestial screamed from within him, the voice that was with him ever since Molech, but now unleashed in full, taking charge of his mutating shape as hands became talons and power pack extended to form sinister-looking, leathery wings.

        In his new form, he could easily dodge the clumsy shots of the panicked mortal crews, accelerating far faster than gravity alone could have accounted for to find prey.

        The Diadochi were monstrous hunters falling from above, their shadows casting pools of sinuous darkness on the decks below and dragging their assailants into some twisting netherworld before the Imperial Redeemers could even touch them. A squad of Illuminators fanned out in the hangar, attempting to stem the tide with their psychically charged Inferno bolts, but the shots felt hollow, each shell consumed by a host of small, vicious things accompanying the Sixth Legion that promptly turned on their enemy, rending them from limb to limb, consuming flesh and void-hardened ceramite as if it was nothing.

        Iskanderos was a golden comet as he struck the deck before his men, sending shockwaves that reverberated through the flagship’s superstructure. Metal bent. Screams of wounded mortals joined the cacophony of screeching ship as it was dealt a wound from the inside, where all of its vaunted gun batteries and void shields could not protect it from the wrath of a god.

        Yusuf slammed into an Illuminator Legionary just as another squad of the Seventh attempted to repel the boarders. The warrior was clad in heavy Cataphractii-pattern Terminator plate, towering over power-armored Imperial Redeemers, but even that did not protect him from the dervish whirl of Yusuf’s malformed claws tearing through the heaviest form of personal protection known to man as if it was paper. Dark lightning arced through the tips of Yusuf’s talons as his helmet morphed into a monstrous visage with too many insectoid eyes and teeth. He bit into the Illuminator, ripping out chunks of the armor to get at the soft flesh below.

        The world became a kaleidoscope of colors perceived through the eyes that were anything but mammalian, movements and shapes that dwelled in more realities than the one he was familiar with. This was the true synesthesia, the art of blending senses where smell was touch, taste was sight, and the urge to kill was overwhelming. Reality itself seemed to part before Yusuf and the Diadochi, their rampage slaughtering Legionary and mortal serfs with little regard for rank, experience, or mercy.

        Somewhere, an Imperial Redeemer was finally torn apart by lightning claws of a particularly fortunate Illuminator. Elsewhere, another one of the Diadochi lost all semblance of purpose, feasting on a pile of mangled flesh and organs that once belonged to a mortal fire team. And above them all, Iskanderos lead on, a living hurricane of golden force, the sole point of focus in a chaotic universe. Holding on to the last remnants of his sanity, Yusuf followed it even as his body mutated further into fantastic, unreal shape.

        Were there walls? Were there corridors? Were there mortals and post-humans barring his way? Yusuf did not know, and could no longer care. The instincts unleashed by his transformation were murderous, hungry, impossible to control or sate. He could no longer tell if any of the other Diadochi were still with him, or even where he was, or whose blood and sinews were on the monstrous claws that were once his hands. All that mattered was the golden light, the only direction in the whirlwind of perfect, absolute insanity.

        Metal and meat alike were turned to mushed refuse under his teeth and talons. Room after room became abbatoirs of deep red and black, heedless of casualties, heedless of damage to his body reknitted by the otherworldly passenger within, heedless of anything that remained of the warrior Yusuf was before Molech. There was no morality, no anger, no passion in killing; it was simply the natural state of being, and he reveled in it like an oceanic monster released among the helpless prey for the first time in its life.

        His armor hardened as unnatural carapace grew over the weak joints, turning away blade and shell as he killed, killed again and again. What remained of his war plate was now so covered in gore that nothing was left of its original color, his weapons long discarded somewhere in the frantic combat on the decks of the Amitabha. The metal of his augmetic hand was now fully submerged within alien flesh so that biological and mechanical pieces could not be differentiated from one another.

        And then, the madness stopped.

        It was a shock wave, a blast of cold, icy air washing over him, pushing the kicking and screaming other back into his mortal shell and casting Yusuf down. He found himself on the floor, heaving vomit and blood from the throat that was once again fully human, fingers twitching as they resumed their customary shapes, kaleidoscopic vision retreating as he was once again left with his two eyes, eyes that were almost blinded by the illumination.

        Yusuf tried to lift himself up, dried blood covering his face like an encrusted mask of filth. Shapes swam before his eyes, shadows barely coherent in the light. He rose his eyes further up, finding some comfort in the blackness of space above – anything to keep the light away from him.

        Some of the illumination was the familiar gold – the touch of summer, the shores of Apellan seas manifest as that world’s greatest son. In it, Yusuf saw the same god that his nine-year-old eyes had once witnessed, so many decades ago. Though Iskanderos was clothed in a halo of auric luminosity, facing away from the commander of his pet monsters, Yusuf was sure that his gene-father somehow knew, somehow saw the Legionary’s plight.

        The other light was cold, piercing white of the blizzard. It hurt to look at; it burned away every bit of impurity without mercy, without understanding, without compassion. It was clinical and distilled, serene and utterly terrifying in its absence of emotion, harsh and inimical to life itself.

        It burned away the last layers of insanity, yet Yusuf was not grateful, for the rush he felt was life. It was the essence of existence condensed into one mad race across the flagship of the Seventh Legion, culminating on its bridge where armored plates withdrew to afford the view of Apella and nearby space – fighting, killing, surviving, moving. Always in motion, always at war – such was the nature of existence, the natural and beautiful chaos that dwelled in the faintest of moments between sleep and wakefulness, the very thing that made him human, the very thing that made him alive.

        And now, as Mohktal rose up to his full height in defiance of Iskanderos, as the objective of the mission was finally at hand, Yusuf understood what he was fighting for.


        Comment


        • #34
          THIRTY ONE

          Brothers
          Wings of Black and Grey
          Golden Light

          The black of the sky was riven with explosions as the Illuminators sought to achieve orbital supremacy over Apella. Here and there, the Amitabha’s void shields flickered as a stray shot, or a large piece of space debris hit the flagship, sending shivers through the vessel’s superstructure. Dozens of mindless servitors hard-wired into the panels continued their duties on the bridge, heedless of the living gods standing amongst them, calculating firing solutions and compensating for the minor adjustments in the vessel’s course even as their very remaining existence was possibly measured in minutes.

          An unsettling kind of quiet descended on the bridge, accentuated rather than overwhelmed by the drone of the servitor cyborgs and the noises of machinery. The bridge lights were lowered, as if the very presence of two Primarchs demanded some kind of solemn respect, casting the scene into a shadow-filled twilight where reality and unreality converged into one terrifying, confused whole. Acrid smell of smoke mixed with the tang of freshly spilled blood and the dry, mechanical scent of exhaust from power armor’s in-built reactors.

          “Iskanderos,” said Mohktal, descending from the command pulpit as a vengeful angel of insulted light, faithful Kian Ranseng the only Illuminator by his side. His movements were unhurried, precise, calculated – the stride of a fighter who already predicted his own victory, yet chose to live through its motions rather than celebrate it with wild abandon. There was no animosity in his voice, no anger, not even the mild impression of a dislike; it was even and serene, as if he was patiently addressing a disciple or a servant.

          Though the Enlightened One was clad for war, his armor seemed almost out of place on his ascetic frame. The crimson and silver plate was undecorated save for the patterns drawn from Arcane Geometries, each line a part of the functional whole. His bald, tattooed head was unhelmeted, displaying no sigh of emotion or distress even in the midst of a battle. Mohktal held a large two-handed metal staff in his plain gauntlets; arcane lightning danced over the psychoactive material.

          “We have some unfinished business, brother,” the Conqueror replied by the way of greeting. Unlike Mohktal, Iskanderos was the very image of a conquering warlord in his barbarous splendor, his armor adorned with invaluable artwork made by the finest artisans in the Imperium, his sword a relic of thousand battles decorated with mementos of countless victories. An anxious note crept into the Sixth Primarch’s voice, anticipation and even exhilaration of the hunt becoming one.

          “You should surrender yourself into my custody now,” intoned Mohktal evenly. “Even if you were to press every initiate capable of wearing power armor into service, I still have you outnumbered three to one. Strike your colors, and I will petition the Council to have lenience on your world and followers.”

          Iskanderos laughed. It was an unpleasant sound that promised many kinds of suffering, not all of them entirely natural.

          “I do not believe you are in a position to make demands, Mohktal,” the lord of the Imperial Redeemers told him, getting into a battle stance – one foot forward, one foot back, sword held in both hands at the ready. “But if we are in the business of threats and promises, I will make some of my own.” His face melted into a smug grin. “Surrender, and I will let you live.”

          The Primarch of the Illuminators shook his head slowly, continuing in the same infuriatingly even voice. “Even with the allies you have invoked, this attack on my flagship only prolongs the inevitable. You will not defeat me.” This was not stated as a boast, but as a dry, humorless fact. “Even if you escape the Amitabha alive, the best you may hope for is to bleed my Legion and to make us pay for the lives we take. The end result will be the same. Complete destruction of the Imperial Redeemers. Extermination of all life on Apella. Takeover of the Apellene Network by the Council custodianship until such time as deemed necessary by the Regency.”

          Iskanderos continued to smile, though his eyes grew colder. “Such arrogance, Mohktal. You truly believe yourself invincible, do you not?” As the Conqueror spoke, he inched ever closer to his brother. In an imperceptible instant, the conversation became a slow dance as the two Primarch started to circle each other, weapons at the ready, ignoring their remaining sons.

          Yusuf was finally able to draw his eyes from the two godlike beings soon to be locked in a life-or-death struggle on the flagship’s bridge. A quick scan confirmed what he had already expected. No other Diadochi remained on the bridge; he was the only one to have remained focused, the only one who stayed by the Primarch’s side through the maddened orgy of slaughter that drove them here.

          Kian Ranseng examined Yusuf with deep-set, dark eyes. “I know you,” he hissed, unable to hide his disgust. “I know who you are, and what you are. Tell me, cousin, how does it feel to have fallen this far?”

          Yusuf picked himself up from the floor. Though the passenger inside reknitted his wounds, the attack of silver light pushed the other being down to a barely perceptible whisper. He no longer had his power sword or plasma pistol; the only weapon still mag-locked to his armor was a combat knife.

          The Imperial Redeemer’s war plate was twisted and bent, as if it melted and refroze several times, each one mutating it further from its original form. Somewhere along the way Yusuf lost his helmet, and his gauntlets now closely resembled elongated talons of some predatory bird rather than the pieces of his Mark IV armor. The colors, too, had changed; what was once gold and bronze was now warped, sickly brown of old rust, smooth surfaces bubbled over with rough imperfections and jagged edges of crystalline protrusions.

          The master of the Diadochi, perhaps the only one of the Diadochi still remaining, laughed. “Fallen?” The thoughts of a little boy who wanted to be so much more flowed to the surface as Yusuf answered. “I am more. So much more than you could possibly understand.”

          “I suppose it was too much to ask for an intelligent answer,” Ranseng rebuked him. “Perhaps you should have spent more time with the remembrancers. They could have taught you some better clichés.”

          “Nevertheless,” said Yusuf. “I am what I am. Made for war, and not for delusions of peace thereafter. Can you say the same thing for yourself?”

          Ranseng shook his head. “I have no need to justify myself to the likes of you. The Council was right to order the destruction of Apella.” Before he finished speaking, he was on the run, his sword a blinding flurry of movement.

          Yusuf struggled to keep up with the Illuminator’s speed. The exhaustion from the battles on Amitabha’s decks settled deep within his tortured muscles, and Ranseng’s power sword managed to score a series of small cuts on Yusuf’s arms and chest, only barely deflected by the strengthened metal of the combat blade.

          Even then, the combat blade could not keep Ranseng away for a long time. Power fields were made to cut through even reinforced adamantium; the most Yusuf could hope to do was to take the blows sideways, weakening the metal of his weapon without allowing his opponent to cut through it all.

          They were forgotten in the shadow of the gods, yet their battle was no less desperate. As Mohktal and Iskanderos traded blows and parries, Yusuf and Ranseng did the same, each a trained warrior in his own right, each a veteran of thousands of campaigns.

          Ranseng was fresh, his strength and speed augmented by the psychic disciplines of his Legion, but desperation gave Yusuf enough celerity to stay alive, second after second, movement after movement. Some stubborn will to live kept him going, some repressed anger that was only familiar to those who saw the immortal dance of life and death and witnessed the beauty within chaos, the beauty of life struggling and triumphing in spite of forced trimmings of civilization and reason, the life governed by emotion and desire for change, passion and lust for growth.

          The truth was finally revealed unto him, the truth that underlined his very existence and proved once and for all the futility of order, the meaninglessness of man’s struggles to conform the shapeless universe into the image that rejected most of the possibilities for the cold, emotionless certainty of one and only way. The truth demanded that Yusuf continued to fight. The truth demanded that he won the battle and the war. The truth would keep him on his feet in defiance of his body’s physical limitations.

          The truth grew within him, at first subdued like a seed hiding under the thin cover of fallow earth, then rising up like the first sapling of what would become a mighty tree. It threw off the shackles of the harsh silver light that kept it down, roaring in defiance and finding footholds in the fractures that allowed it to cling to reality. It screamed its rage and hatred like a waterfall breaking down the dam, carrying death and devastation to the arrogant city below.

          The combat knife, already mangled and twisted, fell out of Yusuf’s hand – not a sign of surrender or weakness, but a recognition that it was no longer necessary. Bestial eyes stared down Kian Ranseng as claws forged of blades and madness made manifest parried the power weapon’s strike. Two voices bellowed the cry of impending victory, one human, one daemonic harmonizing in an unsettling whole that was both Yusuf al-Malik and something else.

          * * *

          A monster flew on wings of black and grey, metal and ceramite, laughing at the world shuddering at his passing.

          From the edge of the stratosphere, the battle at Apella seemed almost an afterthought, a blossoming of explosions too faint to attribute to any weapon or target of opportunity, the crawling of ants that, on closer observation, could have been war walkers, superheavy tanks, or other engines many times the size of a man. Above, the blue of the sky faded into the purple with the hints of ebony where the void war sent burning stars to their final, ultimate ends.

          The monster’s name was Isaiah, and he was hungry.

          Around him, three hundred warriors in the black and grey armor of the Fourteenth Legion, the Gargoyles, soared on atmospheric turbulence. The Stormbirds and the Thunderhawks that deposited them here already sped up back into the safe embrace of the void, leaving only trails of smoke as they attempted to avoid the anti-space fire.

          They had little to worry about.

          Isaiah’s helmet display pointed out troop positions, identifying advances and stalemates playing out across the Iandus Spaceport. There, the Illuminators managed to form a salient pushing into the heart of the Imperial Redeemers’ defenses. There, a Steel Wardens unit was pinned down under artillery fire, frantically requesting assistance as the Lion Guard threw more of their Marines into the kill zone, heedless of casualties as long as the objective was accomplished. Knight war walkers advanced ahead of the Angel Kings formations operating aside from the rest of the Council forces, a small detachment compared to the rest of the invading Legions, but an effective one nevertheless.

          Left to their own devices, the Imperial Redeemers had scant hours before they would be forced to retreat, abandoning the landing zone and allowing the invaders to land in their numbers. It was the beginning of the end for the sons of Apella, the end of the Sixth Legion and its proud Primarch.

          Or, Isaiah thought, it would have been the end.

          Something savage, something bestial, something monstrous sought to slither out of the cracks in his mind’s armor. In the decades past, he would have suppressed it like a thing of shame, like something that could not be admitted outside of the Legion’s own.

          Now, things were different. Very, very different.

          He licked his lips, picking out the targets, not out of any tactical prudence, but out of hunger. The hunger was everything. It was life, it was the meaning and the ending all its own. It was the final order of the brilliant, insane, wise Primarch. It was the prime directive that could not, would not be overridden by any lesser notions of honor, pride, or discipline.

          The scent, the taste of the fresh meat, the richness of blood the likes of which no mortal could provide. These were the things that hid the meaning of life.

          The meaning of life was death, but it was also hunger, and hunger demanded to be sated.

          “There… them…” Isaiah squeezed through his teeth, barely able to contain the anticipation at tearing through them, tasting the meat rich in the unspeakable energies, fully giving in to what he always was. A series of animalistic shrieks and grunts answered him as even the faculty of speech was becoming more and more difficult, more and more… unnecessary.

          Three hundred warriors fell through the sky as vengeful, raging comets of black and grey, the first spear tip of seventy thousand Gargoyles descending to feed.

          * * *

          “Too many of them,” shouted Ishmael into the vox, signaling the 54th Company’s retreat through the elaborate system of trenches and bunkers. They bled the invaders, making them pay for each step with blood, but there were too many. By Ishmael’s estimation, no less than thirty thousand Illuminators and their allies were storming the Iandus Spaceport, each almost equal to the Imperial Redeemers they sought to destroy, each a scion of a demigod born and bred for war.

          The orbital vox-links were a mess. Even with the command centers frantically rerouting the signals through the few surviving satellites, whole companies and batallions remained without orders for minutes at a time, their very survival unknown in the absence of communications. Frantic calls for reinforcements mixed with orders to advance, retreat, hold ground, or spread out. Occasionally, the networks were overtaken by noospheric interference, blurting out unfamiliar speech and battle cant that clearly belonged to other Legions.

          “Hold the line, brothers,” Demetrios broadcasted from his base, though Ishmael had no idea where the Lord Commander was. For all he knew, the Primarch’s equerry could have been in an underground bunker somewhere, coordinating the defenses of Apella in Iskanderos’ absence, or in orbit on one of the Legion’s capital vessels battling the Illuminators in space. “We must not fold.”

          Easy for you to say. The thought seemed almost heretical, yet it kept troubling Ishmael as he led his man back. Back, always back. Never forward. It sat poorly with him, as it did with most of his men; it was not the Apellan way to ever show their backs to the enemy. After all, they were the elites, the best of the best – the one Legion that brought the most worlds into the fold, the one Legion who had never been defeated on any battlefield.

          He peeked from the trench as one of his men sprayed covering fire to deter any pursuers from getting too close. Rank upon rank of Illuminators advanced through the rubble of the spaceport in well-drilled formations, taking turns as they methodically covered ground. In the distance, several Knight walkers of Angel Kings advanced inexorably towards the Imperial Redeemers’ strongpoints, each war engine just barely small enough to survive rapid descent through the atmosphere where the god-machines of Titan Legions were too large.

          If nothing happens in the next few minutes, we are dead meat here.

          A lucky shot got one of the Illuminators, but more were coming soon, each accelerated beyond the normal abilities of Adeptus Astartes through their arcane disciplines. As much as Ishmael loathed to admit it, they were giving his men a hard time; the Seventh Legion were foes to be reckoned with.

          Black dots came out of the sun, falling in a manner too organized to suggest debris. At first, Ishmael thought they were more drop pods, another wave of assailants seeking to push the Imperial Redeemers from the spaceport. He grit his teeth, fingers searching for another magazine to load into his bolt pistol.

          It took him a moment to realize that these were not drop pods at all. This, this was what he waited for, the miracle the Primarch had promised, the very thing they were holding the line for. A savage smile played on his face as hope swelled within Ishmael’s chest. He took count of his surviving warriors – sixty four Marines still alive, fifty one still relatively intact and in the immediate vicinity to respond to his orders. That was going to be enough; maybe even more than enough.

          “Brothers!” he shouted on the company-wide channel, heedless of the interference or the possibility that the enemy might pick up on it. “Are you ready for your deliverance?”

          As the first airborne Gargoyles tore into the unsuspecting Illuminators from the rear, Ishmael ran towards the Seventh Legion, his sword pointing the way and the survivors of his company at his back.

          * * *

          Good. They are finally trying to fight.

          Kei Phirn kicked a broken piece of rubble out of his way, spraying fire from his bolter on full automatic. Small fires lit up where his shells struck the tortured ground, each burning long after all reason suggested it should have been extinguished.

          The battle-brothers of his squad added to his weight of fire, cutting down several of the charging Imperial Redeemers before the sons of Iskanderos even had a chance to get close. They were a rag-tag bunch, these Apellene defenders, and though the higher teachings of Mohktal stressed the importance of detachment from all emotion, Phirn allowed himself a measure of satisfaction.

          Perhaps I am not ready for advancement through the Orders, he contemplated even as he continued to depress the trigger. He drew almost too much satisfaction from the act of slaughter unbecoming of the Illuminators rank and file, yet so commonplace amongst the other, less enlightened Legions. It was a fault to work on later, but for the moment, the sound of his Inferno bolts rushing through the air, igniting all in their path before instantly reducing power armor to a molten ruin was too satisfying.

          There were no more than sixty Imperial Redeemers running at them, their number reduced by the second. A manic-looking officer was at their head, his helmet long since lost, his scarred face a maddened mask of rage and hysterical exertion.

          This one would make for a good target, thought Phirn, adjusting the angle of fire to envelop the officer and to finally break the enemy’s fighting spirit.

          The shells went wide, inexplicably, impossibly; then, the bolter itself fell to the ground, as did the hand holding it. Kei Phirn watched the separated part of his body in slow motion, not feeling the pain, not feeling anything other than surprise at the sudden intervention.

          His brain barely had a chance to register the attack when the airborne Gargoyle slammed into him, whirling chainsword striking him again in the weak spot where the armor could not adequately protect his neck. The last thing Kei Phirn saw before the blackness claimed him was a throng of shadows descending on trails of black smoke and flame, tearing his unit to shreds before the Imperial Redeemers could even get to them.

          * * *

          Where their lessers had scuttled like carrion-eaters in the shadow of mighty apex predators, the demigods battled. The very air seemed to become saturated with the pent-up energy, each step wreathed in sparks as static electricity discharged with every movement, a halo of lightning following Mohktal and Iskanderos in their duel.

          The Conqueror was the essence of aggressive perfection. His sword moved in quick, economic strokes that betrayed immense discipline; where a lesser warrior might have been tempted to slow down the tempo lest he expended too much of his reserves, Iskanderos was relentless yet not foolhardy, using his speed and strength to keep Mohktal on the defensive without creating an opening for the Seventh Primarch.

          Against any other opponent, Iskanderos would have been triumphant many times over. Against Mohktal, he was barely inflicting damage.

          The Seventh Primarch’s tattooed face displayed neither emotion nor strain as he wielded his staff two-handed, parrying, striking back with lightning speed, then withdrawing to continue the circular dance of the warriors too evenly matched to gain an advantage. The psychic force powering his weapon clashed against the energy field of the Conqueror’s sword, not able to prevail, not willing to give in.

          The edges of the staff moved too fast for the naked eye to see; the movements of Iskanderos’ blade were a blur of silver and blue. Every time the weapons connected, they cast showers of sparks that floated down to the floor, each a miniature sun dying out unremembered and unwanted.

          Alarms blared across the Amitabha; some were intruder alarms, indicating that perhaps, some of the Diadochi still lived and wreaked havoc; others pleaded for repair crews where the great warship started to take hits from the orbital defensive installations. The ship shook several times as macrocannon hits were negated by its void shields; the star field of the bridge flickered as rainbow colors blanketed the view, each an indication of straining generators.

          “You have made a mistake by coming here, brother,” squeezed Iskanderos through his teeth. “This was never your war to fight.”

          If he expected to get any form of a rise out of Mohktal, he was disappointed. The Primarch of the Illuminators took a second to reply even as his force weapon completed an impossibly fast pirouette, testing the Conqueror’s defenses and finding them too formidable for an opening.

          “Dangerous allies you have found, Iskanderos,” the Enlightened One said, each word as even and emotionless as if he was lecturing a dedicated student in the peaceful surroundings of his study. “There are good reasons for why even those of us wise in the ways of the Empyrean choose not to delve too deep.”

          As the Primarchs traded words, the battle continued. Without missing a beat, Iskanderos was on the offensive, spitting out words like venom.

          “My allies are my own business, Mohktal,” the Conqueror rebuked his brother. A parry turned into an attack as Iskanderos’ sword slid down the force staff, almost managing to make it to Mohktal’s fingers before the Seventh Primarch leaped backwards. Iskanderos followed him, never more than a step away. “It is your allies that I am concerned about. Or, shall I call them as what they are – your masters?”

          Once more, Mohktal did not rise to the bait. “Concepts of master and servant are irrelevant constructs created out of a fabric of social interaction. Overcoming such constraints is a sign of growth and development typical of progression from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood.”

          As Iskanderos continued the attack, he laughed. “This is Mohktal I have always known. Always lecturing, always ready to philosophize, even when fighting. I have always liked that about you.”

          “If this is your attempt to distract me,” Mohktal intoned without breaking cadence, “you will find it highly ineffective. This is not a statement of arrogance. Only a fact.”

          “The facts are not favorable for your position, brother,” Iskanderos retorted. A flurry of attacks scored several marks across Mohktal’s armor, but failed to penetrate further. “You are outmatched and outclassed. But it did not have to be this way. If you…”

          “Surrender?” the question in Mohktal’s voice was more academic than quizzical in tone. If anything, the Seventh Primarch moved even faster than before. He jumped on top of an instrument panel where brain-dead servitors continued to voice out their commands and meaningless streams of data, then swung the force staff around, coming to a statuesque stop as he looked at Iskanderos from the higher ground. “Or perhaps join you. It is irrelevant. If you wanted to negotiate, there was a time and a place for that. Then, we could have written a tale of challenges of this time, and how we would have overcome them. Now, you have chosen your story, and I have chosen mine.”

          Iskanderos shook his head, composing himself as he examined his brother on top of the instrument panel, two meters above the floor. Dozens of cuts and scratches adorned the Seventh Primarch’s armor; the tattoos on his skin seemed somehow deeper and more vibrant, as if they had a life of their own outside of the confines of flesh. Mohktal’s eyes had an icy glow to them as thin webs of frost began to form in the air, their crystalline structures remaining afloat against all reason and laws of physics.

          “I have the higher ground, brother,” Mohktal continued, undeterred. “In a matter of minutes, my reserves will be here. Surrender yourself to my custody, and I can promise that those of your Legion who are not… affected,” he nodded in the direction of Yusuf al-Malik, now a towering monstrosity of teeth, talons, and wings bearing down on stoic Kian Ranseng, “will receive a fair trial before the Council. I have the advantage. It is only rational for you to recognize that, and to acknowledge the fact rather than waste your strength in a futile endeavor.”

          The Conqueror laughed. There was something deeply unsettling about it; the sound was coming from everywhere at once, as if the walls themselves joined in on the joke that only he fully understood. The crystalline structures in the air vanished as the air itself grew moist and slick with swamp heat and humidity.

          “You really don’t get it, Mohktal,” he grinned maliciously, rasping the words as if the act of speaking was merely secondary to something else, something taking place in a dimension no mortal could understand and remain sane. “It is I, not you, who should be dictating conditions of surrender.”

          The bridge was now bathed in golden light, though it, too, darkened. It was the yellow of fading light, the color of bronze under the centuries of grime, the brown of the swamp.

          “There is power in the Empyrean,” Iskanderos said, his smile never going away. “You can partake in it, brother. We can remake the Imperium and humanity as it was always intended to be. All you have to do is renounce the Council and join in with me.” He extended one hand toward Mohktal, the other holding a sword. “What say you, brother? There are not many I would rather have by my side as we push humanity’s evolution to the next step. This, too, can be your legacy.”

          “My legacy,” said Mohktal, for the first time showing a semblance of irritation, “is my own.”

          Iskanderos’ lips curved down in a frown of disappointment. “A pity.” His eyes connected with Mohktal’s. For a moment, they held each other’s gaze – one a radiant force of pure emotion and forceful power, the other immovable, stoic, serene and graceful.

          The Conqueror nodded, as if in understanding, or perhaps as a declaration of surrender. The words that came out of his mouth were a whisper, so quiet that they were barely audible.

          “I am sorry.”

          Then, the storm hit.

          Comment


          • #35
            THIRTY TWO

            The Storm
            Fury of the Destroyer
            We are Coming

            The light fractured before their eyes like glass shattered by a sudden gale. Time froze to a standstill, every speck of dust hanging in silent peace as if the gravity was compromised, every sound slowed down to a crawl imperceptible by human ears. Reality itself broke apart like cracked ice, forming a mosaic of dirty gold and faded, age-blackened silver slowly drifting apart in directions not limited by three spatial dimensions.

            The bridge of the Amitabha fell away piece by piece like layers of an exotic doll, each fragment revealing something more twisted than the layer before it, something warped, distorted just enough to hint at what it once was. Everything – instrument panels, cyclopean equipment that issued commands to the great star vessel, the armored forms of Kian Ranseng and Warp-twisted monstrosity that was once Yusuf al-Malik – faded into ghost-like shells, each mutating into something else, a metaphor, a scent of synesthetic emotion made color and taste. The catwalks and the metal railing became gnarled branches of ancient trees; the void of space where the orbital battle raged became cloudy sky streaked with lightning, mere moments before the thunderstorm hit with its full fury. The many monitors and controls became moss-covered stones, their servitor attendants a collection of gargoyles frozen in mute terror or savage warning. The battling warriors became jagged rocks protruding from the uneven ground.

            Where Mohktal stood his ground, a fortress of silver crystal rose against the stormy heavens like a fist challenging the gods themselves. Minarets and towers, elegant and tall, were the conduits for the dancing lightning. Banners of crimson and white waved in the intermittent wind, sometimes barely moving, at other times straining to stay attached.

            Warriors in conical helmets of woven metal stood guard at the battlements, each a paragon of martial virtue with his tall spear and elongated oval shield. They were still in their well-drilled formations, perfect lines and ranks three deep at equal intervals from each other, identical in every respect from their weapons to their height, their build, the gleaming masks hiding their faces from the storm.

            Against them, an army of burnished gold and bronze advanced in numbers under the banners as diverse and colorful as they were hurtful to the eye. Some of the attackers moved in tight ranks that spoke of years of campaigning together, their flags adorned with skulls and sharp-toothed axes. Others ran in wild abandon with their weapons as deadly as they were elaborate, their clothes and armor garish and oftentimes entirely lacking. A conclave of sorcerers robed from head to toe inched closer to the fortress, chanting solemn incantations in some language not meant for human ears, as a horde of maggot-ridden creatures on bloated, amphibian mounts slithered towards the castle gates dragging pestilential siege engines wreathed in diseased yellow smoke.

            The wheeze of the gale became an accompaniment to the screams, screeches, and shouts of the besieging army. It was a counterpoint harmony to the song of rapacious ecstasy and wanton murder, the battle cry resonating from high heavens to the roots of the earth below, a name as much as a statement of intent.

            Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros. Is-kan-de-ros in the thumping beat of the thunder. Is-kan-de-ros in the sound of a thousand armored arms beating against the shields. Is-kan-de-ros as the harbinger of the castle's final, violent, inevitable demise.

            As one, the horde charged.

            The siege engines let loose with projectiles leaving trails of bilous liquid and flies. The bronze-armored warriors hacked at the gates in unstoppable fury until the very metal of the gates began to give way, climbing on top of each other in unquenchable lust to get to grips with the enemy even if it cost them their own lives. The sorcerers called forth bolts of molten energy that turned lightning-wreathed spires into lakes where metal and stone evaporated, raining down on the defenders below. And the chanting continued, louder and louder until it was the only sound left in the world.

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

            The silver warriors tried to stand and fight, but their valiant effort was for naught. They died one by one, never yielding, never retreating, always reforming their tight ranks even as the casualties mounted. In another time and place, their resistance would have been the stuff of legends, the heroic last stand that inspired the generations to come. Here, it only prolonged the inevitable.

            As the thunder roared, the fortress began to fold upon itself.

            Cracks appeared in its once mighty walls, struck again and again by the pestilential weapons or by the lightning descending from the angry heavens. The last remaining spires fell as if they were liquid suddenly subject to the cruel laws of gravity. The banners of crimson and white immolated, now scorched black and showing the gray of the boiling sky behind them.

            The rain fell, but it was not water coming down from above in sheets of darkness. Blood rained down the battlements where the last of the silver warriors sold their lives dearly, staining their last resting place with the hues of deep, tenebrous red. Blood washed over the murderer and the murdered, the garish killers and the monsters of entropy.

            The blood was all that remained.

            It was a whirlwind taking up the remains of the battered walls and defenders into a swirling vortex that defied the wind and the storm, a living embodiment of wrath that came to the fortress, the essence of destructive, unstoppable conquest. Blood fell in thick waves which batted down the banners and the combatants alike, no matter their allegiance.

            Out of the blood, a shape arose, a titan much taller than the remains of the dissolving spires, a creature beautiful and terrifying in his rage and bellowing the cry of its birth to all who would hear. A mighty hand made a fist, a threat against the heavens, or a celebratory salute. His hair moved slightly in the wind, red and black like drying vitae, framing the face of the tyrant, the general, the king who would no longer be denied his rightful inheritance.

            The titan stood to his full height, towering above his monstrous army, a halo of captive lightning wreathing his noble face in a nimbus of constantly shifting light and shadow. The horde bellowed and shouted, hailing him as their lord and master, their commander and king, their savior.

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

            His foot stomped, shaking the very foundations of the fallow, blood-soaked earth. The remnants of the castle walls crumbled, some falling to pieces as masonry gave way to the forces arraigned against it, others melting as if they were made of ice exposed to incinerating heat of the flame.

            One by one, the walls fell. The spires and towers slid down in a flurry of destruction as the hurricane made flesh manifested in their midst. Banners of crimson and gold waved for the last time before coming down for good.

            The wind became a shriek of inhuman pain, the cry of terror that was somehow worse than the mere loss of a limb or even a mortal wound. It was the sound of a soul being thoroughly extinguished, the plea of the one who had thought himself inviolable until the final fateful moment when even the mightiest walls could not provide safety, and the centuries of training to suppress emotional weakness and unworthy passions proved inadequate to the power unleashed by beings made out of emotion and passion whole. It was the wailing of final death – not just of body, but of mind and spirit, both extinguished as the barriers protecting the mind inside broke and the damage flooded in.

            Not yet, brother.

            Iskanderos still stood up, tall and triumphant, but the warring army and the castle were gone. The sky was once again the star field, where the globe of Apella began its unhurried rise, and the void battle continued to rage. The mindless drone chatter of servitors replaced the rain; the grunts of two Legionaries locked in mortal struggle took place of the roaring thunder.

            Mohktal was no longer on top of the instrument panel. The Seventh Primarch was slumped on the ground in fetal position before Iskanderos’ feet, fingers twitching with the residue of the psychic storm, his force staff abandoned and useless without a will to guide its destructive energies. A thin string of drool came out of the side of his open, lolling mouth; his eyes, once deep and full of calm and thought, were the empty of the idiot’s vegetative stare. The tattoos that once lined his skull in orderly lines were now a mess of blotches and ink stains, their arcane geometries erased and reformed by the powers beyond even his keen.

            The Conqueror looked at his brother intently, trying to find any semblance of thought or reason in Mohktal and seeing none. Small streaks of lightning arced around his head and fingers, reminders of the storm he had unleashed and would unleash again before the war was over. He knelt down, holding Mohktal’s head in his hands, yet not eliciting any reaction, not even an instinctive attempt to withdraw.

            “I am sorry, brother,” Iskanderos whispered, regretfully. “I am… sorry.”

            * * *

            All across the surface of Apella, the war raged. The icons before the eyes of Tilsit Demetrios were mute testament to its fury, easily surpassing even the most brutal conflicts of the Old Night and the early days of Apella’s overthrow of Sussan Hegemony.

            Each rune represented a formation of hundreds, even thousands of men and war machines, from humble transports to continent-destroying Imperator-class Titans. Lines of text running across his visors pleaded for reinforcements, boasted of short-term victories, and claimed kills of particularly notable enemy heroes and commanders.

            So far, everything went accordingly to plan.

            The command bunker erupted in cheers as the Illuminators formation assaulting the Iandus Spaceport was shredded by a surprise airborne assault. The Fourteenth Legion, at least, followed through on its promises, but then, Demetrios had few doubts about the Emperor’s pet monsters. There was no place for them in the Council’s Imperium, especially with the enemies they had made; even the more dim-witted and savage amongst them could see that much. Siding with the lord of Apella was their only chance for survival – and, as a military commander, Demetrios could appreciate the value of their assault formations, augmented by the element of surprise.

            No, the Gargoyles were not the Lord Commander’s worry.

            He tracked orbital reports, each painting the picture of a battle in balance. The Gargoyles opened up on the Illuminators’ fleet, finally negating the sway of numbers under Mohktal’s command, but not yet fully turning the tide of battle. Their attacks, though characteristically poorly coordinated and haphazard, were sufficiently effective in drawing the Illuminators’ fire away from the Sixth Legion’s vessels, which was all Demetrios could ask for.

            You do not control the Gargoyles. You point them at a target and let them be.

            It was another force creeping across the long-distance orbital scanners that gave Demetrios pause. The battleships in the uncertain grey of dubious allegiance scrolled over the representation of orbital battle, making for the breach made by the Illuminators in their assault. They were the Iconoclasts, the sons of Nihlus, and they could mean the difference between an overwhelming victory and a hard fought battle that could doom the rebellion before it had a chance to truly start.

            Both sides gave the Iconoclasts a wide berth; neither side attempted to contact them or to force them into a strategy. The Eighth Legion was a force of nature, its Primarch a strong-willed elder unwilling to cede command – an ally at best, an independent commander at the worst. But if they were on their side…

            “Hail the Primarch,” Demetrios commanded, his underlings readying the tight-beam archaeotech transmitted that could reach Iskanderos in orbit. “Let him know that the battle hangs in balance.”

            * * *

            The Stormbird descended like an airborne predator at the head of a flock of razor-sharp teeth and wings. It was dirty and grime-covered from its entrance into the atmosphere, its armaments ugly yet functional and surprisingly advanced for all their unseemly appearance. Behind it, a thousand other craft, each armed and armored like the one next to it, blackened the sky.

            Krast Herod watched the data feed detailing the situation below. The entry of the Gargoyles changed things; where previously the battle seemed like a foregone conclusion, it now became much more difficult to predict.

            One way or another, we will decide this. The thought stayed with him over the roar of the engines, over the bumps as the dropship hit air pockets and swerved to avoid debris and stray shells. One way or another, this will end here.

            “Lord Nihlus?” he ventured carefully, casting a wary glance at the enthroned form of his Primarch. “We are forty seconds from engagement range.”

            There was a question in his words, implied yet not directly spoken. What now?

            For long seconds, Nihlus did not answer. The Destroyer stared intently at the holographic projection before him, thinking, contemplating, analyzing.

            Herod imagined what it must have been like for a being such as his sovereign. Did every rune represent a thousand possibilities that could be resolved to all too many conclusions? Was this formation indicative of the greater flow of war than even the Iconoclast Legionary could comprehend, or was it merely a snapshot of a process in motion? A small, treacherous thought tugged at him from the inside. Did the Primarch know what he was doing?

            Twenty nine seconds. Twenty eight. Twenty seven.

            Nihlus remained silent. There was a strange gleam in the Primarch’s savaged eyes, the kind that unsettled the mortals even more than the Destroyer’s horribly scarred visage. His face curled into a sneer, forever bitter, forever despising of those who, through a quirk of fate or fortune of upbringing, were not cursed with his path.

            What would have happened had he not been… changed? Herod knew that Nihlus almost certainly knew what his warrior was thinking, and hurriedly pushed the thought down.

            “You think it is a matter of bitterness, don’t you?” the Primarch said, heedless of the time.

            Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.

            Nihlus shook his head. “Even if it is bitterness, what does it matter, my son?”

            Twelve. Eleven. Ten.

            “We can grant victory to one side, or be latecomers for the other.”

            Four. Three. Two.

            “Let this victory be ours,” said Nihlus as the countdown to engagement range entered the fever pitch. “Engage the Council forces.”

            Herod’s affirmative reply was drowned by the sound of the Stormbird’s guns beginning to fire.

            * * *

            There was uncharacteristic panic in Kian Ranseng’s eyes as he saw Yusuf’s transformation. The power sword in his hand moved in broad swiping movements, as if attempting to stave off an assault by a swarm of tiny, biting insects yet failing to keep Yusuf at bay. Armor and genhanced flesh became one, and that one was faster, stronger, tougher than either his body or its ceramite shell.

            Attack, attack, attack.

            All thoughts of exhaustion or pain fled Yusuf’s mind. The daemon inside roared its approval, no longer suppressed by Mohktal’s sorcery. Warp-forged talons met the Illuminator’s power blade, but now the two were equally matched in speed and strength, Yusuf’s passenger more than capable of standing up to Ranseng’s use of psychic disciplines to augment his own body.

            Swipe. Thrust. Rip. Tear.

            Every time the Illuminator scored a hit, the wound was healed almost instantly, leaving barely a scratch that closed ruptures in ceramite as quickly as it did with mangled flesh. The very fury of the fight, so uncharacteristic for one of Mohktal’s sons, gave Yusuf strength, making him stronger, faster, more nimble and infinitely more deadly.

            And yet, Ranseng refused to give up. The Illuminator was now fighting for his life, not merely to slay the abomination his opponent had become, but to survive for another minute, another hour, to last just long enough to see his own Primarch triumph against Iskanderos. The two warriors, nearly forgotten in the shadow of the demigods dueling, continued their battle between instrument panels and catwalks, slicing through the inconveniently placed servitors in their struggle to stay alive.

            Their roles, too, had reversed. Where Ranseng was once on the offensive, Yusuf was now the aggressor, pushing his opponent to the very limits of his physical and psychic progress. Every hit he scored against the Illuminator, every mark on the Disciple’s skin, every ruptured muscle and tendon made Ranseng that much weaker, while the Imperial Redeemer felt his passenger, the daemon, feed on the other’s discomfort, pain, and misery.

            Yusuf was still pressing his advantage when Mohktal fell.

            The sound of the Seventh Primarch hitting the floor reverberated through the metal of the Amitabha’s bridge. It made lights flicker and the instrument panels to emit showers of unexpected sparks, forcing even the mindless servitors to momentarily stop their chatter. A filter of silver and gold came over Yusuf’s eyes, disappearing as quickly as it came along.

            Kian Ranseng lost his focus for the briefest of seconds, but it was enough.

            Yusuf’s talon swept the Illuminator’s power sword out of his hand, flicking it across the bridge. The other talon pierced Ranseng’s armor just around the midriff, rupturing cables and protective layering until it finally met the soft, malleable flesh beneath. The Imperial Redeemer pushed his opponent down, looming over Ranseng like a bestial mountain of spikes, teeth, and muscle.

            Through all of it, Kian Ranseng was laughing.

            “This… your new form?” The Illuminator’s sounds were interspaced with coughs and the wet gurgling of blood coming out of his mouth. “You would… do this… rather than… fight like a man? I die like my father… a man of honor and repute. You live… a creature. A beast. A beast.” Ranseng spat out a gob of bloody phlegm in Yusuf’s direction. “Finish me now, creature, and may you live with what you have become.”

            Emotions struggled within Yusuf’s breast. The temptation was there, all too present. His talons flexed, each a sharp blade capable of rending even the hardest man-made material. His weight kept the Illuminator down, defeated in battle yet not in spirit.

            He was all too aware of Iskanderos finally taking note of his victory. Somewhere at the edge of his mind, Yusuf heard his name, a call, an order to prepare for a withdrawal to meet another threat. He looked at Ranseng, defiant until the end, and felt his mouth change again into a far more familiar shape.

            I. Am. Not. A. Beast.” The words came out of Yusuf’s mouth as a hiss, formed by the lips and tongue only barely capable of speech. The golden light – the same light that enveloped him on Apella as a child all those decades ago, the same light that kept him focused through the battle on many decks of the Amitabha – clothed him in warmth and comfort, let him bathe in the feeling of home, the sense of belonging.

            His Primarch, Iskanderos, the Golden One, the Conqueror of a hundred thousand worlds, was there, and he approved of what Yusuf was doing. He approved of Yusuf’s victory in the name of Apella and its master. New confidence filled Yusuf as he gave Ranseng a look of pity.

            “I am not an animal, cousin,” he growled, fully aware of Iskanderos standing less than two meters behind him. “I am in control. I am the power that the likes of you sought to repress, and failed.”

            “The power?” coughed Ranseng. It was clear that the protective healing coma of the Red Dream was not far away; the Illuminator was already beginning to slur his words. “This is abomination. You are…”

            “Return to Terra, cousin,” hissed Yusuf, a being of two worlds with the body of a monster and the mind of a warrior. “Return to Terra, and tell them of what they are missing. Tell them of their failure.” He lowered his face to Ranseng’s, whispering as if in confidence, not afraid of the possibility that the Illuminator would spit acid from his Belcher’s gland. “Tell them, my cousin, tell them this. We are coming.”



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            • #36
              THIRTY THREE

              Victory
              Heretics
              The Path to Terra

              The Stormbird fell through the Apellene clouds like a drop of steel rain, heedless of any countermeasures or safety precautions. Had its crew been mortal, they would have long emptied their stomachs and bladders at the sharp turns, careless maneuvers, and acceleration not meant for human bodies. The two souls on board, however, had little to fear. After all, one of them was a god.

              Iskanderos pulled the craft up in the last moment before impact with the ground. Tortured machinery screamed in protest as systems went into overdrive, trying to overcome the inertia of long descent and even longer engine burn. Lights flickered and died as the artificial gravity, already straining to overcome the effects of Apella’s own nearby mass, altered the g-forces from murderous to merely agonizingly painful.

              The dropship shuddered and went silent as it hit the ground, its purpose served. Ignoring the warnings from the still-functioning systems of his power armor, Yusuf forced himself up from his restraints. Iskanderos was already on his feet, seemingly unaffected by the hurried rush of their descent.

              “Come on, my son,” the Primarch said gently, offering Yusuf a hand to steady himself on. Despite his best efforts, the Legionary found it difficult to regain his footing, even with his gene-father to lean on. “You have done the Legion a great service, Yusuf.”

              The ship’s ramp fell down with a screeching sound of damaged servos doing their final duty, and the Apellene air rushed in. Even injured and exhausted after the rough landing, Yusuf smiled. This was his homeworld; if he were to die, he would rather die here than anywhere else in the entire galaxy, standing by the side of his proud father and knowing that he, too, took part in a victory. The warrior in the best fighting force in the galaxy, the boy who looked up to a god and saw something to aspire to – after all, he was finally home.

              A sea of dirty white and grey greeted them.

              The warriors of the Iconoclasts parted before the Primarch, each a helmeted visage of brute force favoring older, less elaborate armor marks over the newer versions. Superheavy armored vehicles belched smoke into the Apellene sky, some familiar and widespread amongst the Legions, others almost certainly Nihlus’ newest and deadliest creations. In the distance, the sounds of the firefights died down, as if whatever resistance still stood before the Eighth Legion was slowly being eradicated.

              Were they friends? Were they enemies? The questions remained at the forefront of Yusuf’s mind as he steadied himself, drawing strength and determination from the very soil of Apella. Hot, humid wind brushed against his face, tang of smoke and promethium laced with hints of the ocean salt.

              A vision swam before his eyes every moment he blinked.

              Ruined streets. Battle of the giants over the ruins of the homeworld. A kill team of the Eighth Legion hunting down survivors through the rubble. An impassive face, Mark IV helmet targeting him even as Yusuf moved in for a desperate kill. He tried to suppress the thoughts, knowing that he was amongst predators who would pounce at the first sign of fear, but the memory remained, stinging deeply as he walked into what might have been the end of him. Was the vision averted? Was the fate rerouted onto a different track, the one that did not end with the death of all he once cherished?

              As Yusuf followed his Primarch’s lead, the Iconoclasts moved away, guns at the ready yet not firing. It took him a moment to realize that they were not just parting for the Imperial Redeemers.

              “Iskanderos.”

              Nihlus emerged from the sea of filthy white and colorless gray, tall, powerful, unmasked and revealing the horror of his ruined face to all who would look. The Destroyer’s hands were empty, but Yusuf had no doubts that if needed, he could reach for the oversized hammer on his back with little effort. The Eighth Primarch’s eyes were cold, sardonic, mismatched and impossible to read.

              “Brother,” the Conqueror greeted Nihlus. There were no salutes, no handshakes, no exchanges of pleasantries. Neither Iskanderos nor his brother pretended that they were genuinely pleased to be in each other’s company, but their association was never built on companionship or camaraderie even in the best of times. “You came.”

              “That I did,” Nihlus agreed. His voice was no longer the dry rasp but a basso rumble, slow, harsh, grating yet not entirely expressionless. “How does Mohktal fare?”

              Iskanderos paused, as if contemplating before replying, eliciting a spiteful glance from his brother.

              Nihlus snarled. “If you were unable to destroy him even with the gifts of the Four…”

              “He will trouble us no more, brother,” Iskanderos smiled, raising his hand to forestall further angry denunciations.

              “And yet he lives.”

              “After a fashion,” Iskanderos replied, his tone somber. “Trust me, Nihlus, he is more useful to us alive than dead. Especially the way he is… now.”

              For a minute, Nihlus continued to examine the Conqueror’s face for any hints of deception, no doubt probing with his psyker senses when his eyes could not serve the purpose. A sudden flash of understanding came upon him, as if some communication known only to the two of them just passed along.

              “Is that so, Iskanderos?” The Destroyer sounded amused; one corner of his mouth, the one that was not locked in permanent rictus grin, moved ever slightly so to approximate a smile. “I thought you would give Mohktal the courtesy of a clean death.”

              Iskanderos shook his head. “No, brother. There was a better way. A more useful way.”

              “You always liked him,” Nihlus nodded in response. “I wonder… if you would have done the same for Hemri.”

              “Do not go into wishful thinking yet, Nihlus,” Iskanderos smiled viciously, displaying a wolfish grin. “When Hemri’s time comes… he will wish that this was his fate.”

              “Then it is decided.”

              “Decided indeed.”

              Yusuf saw an Iconoclast approach him – a warrior of no small stature, commander’s marks on his Mark IV power armor. A flash of memories – the same mask staring him down in his final moments, the brutal efficiency of murder that saw Apella burn in his visions. A name – a familiar one, for he had seen this warrior before.

              Krast Herod, Yusuf’s eidetic memory helpfully recalled, one of the Council’s ambassadors from the Hunter’s Season and then a messenger relating the Conqueror’s message to his own Primarch rather than to the men of the Council. One of several who left Hegemon as emissaries rather than exiles, despite all appearances to the contrary, indicating that the message was heard and delivered.

              The impassive Mark IV helmet stared at Yusuf, their height equally matched. For a moment, they stood next to each other, an Imperial Redeemer and an Iconoclast, a reflection of their respective Primarchs’ virtues and vices – and clasped each other’s armored vambraces in a warrior’s handshake.

              * * *

              The Reason was a nondescript vessel on the far edge of the invading fleet, a mere heavy destroyer with the hull painted black and no sigils of distinction to indicate that it was of any importance. Greater ships fought on and died by the minute – grand cruisers, carriers, troop ships, vessels of the line that cowed entire systems into submission with no support – yet Reason remained inviolate, too far from the main conflict to be reliably hit by the rebel attacks, too insignificant to be targeted by the Apellan defensive platforms or one of the traitor fleets.

              If one were to step inside the ship’s winding corridors, the appearance would have proven to be deceptive.

              Where an ordinary destroyer would have had decks upon decks of menials loading its long range weapons and frantically working on cooling systems of energy lances, mountains of arcane machinery replaced nearly all living crew. Though the Reason still had guns and missile launchers protrude from her hull, they were not crewed by humans, or even by the cyborg Mechanicum tech-priests. The weapons moved seemingly of their own volition, adding to the weight of Council fire, yet carefully targeting only the smaller vessels, keeping the heavy destroyer as indistinct and forgettable as possible in its many maneuvers.

              Though the ship was almost completely bereft of living crew, it was not entirely empty.

              In the commander’s cockpit, Milegros Atlas, the warrior of the Ninth Legion, frowned from his chair, monitoring the data feed as it grew more frantic, more desperate. No matter which level of tactical simulations he asked the ship’s guiding artificial intelligence to run, the results were inescapable.

              The Council forces were losing, and they were losing badly.

              There were no responses to most of his hails – not from Mohktal, not from high-ranking commanders on the ground, not even from the majority of the admirals guiding the Council forces under Mohktal’s command. Psykers, thought Atlas, cold disgust swelling in his chest. A Legion of psykers.

              Of course, they would be vulnerable, he thought, recalling the indicators of the psychic attack spiking through his equipment displays, though he, of course, was immune to such distasteful means of waging war. Lord Nyxos was right not to trust their kind.

              If his guess was correct, then the Illuminators would have lost most of their officers above the Captain rank. Atlas had already dismissed the possibility that anyone of sufficient rank or authority from the other Council Legions had survived; there was a reason Mohktal was put in overall command. Neither the Lion Guard, the Angel Kings, nor the Steel Wardens sent their top commanders to die in Starfall.

              That left only one option, one choice, one Legion and Primarch with enough foresight to expect failure and to plan accordingly.

              In the absence of Mohktal and the top leaders of the Illuminators, Milegros Atlas of the Grim Angels was now the highest ranking officer of the entire remaining Council force.

              This battle was lost; there was no mistaking it for a vain possibility of victory, and the Bloody Ninth were not given to selling their lives without a chance to truly hurt the enemy. The most he could do was try to limit the damage, and to present his Primarch with something salvageable, something that could, with time and effort, be reforged into an effective fighting force again.

              The Grim Angel keyed in commands, opening a comm-link to all Council vessels and as many ground troops as were still desperately trying to survive on the surface of Apella.

              “This is Milegros Atlas, Grim Angels, Praetor, 90th Company. I speak with the authority of Primarch Nyxos and the Council of Terra.”

              There was not much of a chance that any Legionaries still alive on Apella could escape, but if anything, they would at least serve to keep the traitor forces occupied so that the fraction of the Council armada could escape. Atlas took a deep breath, closing his eyes for the moment before continuing.

              “I am giving a general order to withdraw. Repeat, general order to withdraw.”

              At least, he thought, no one is questioning the orders. They must be shell-shocked.

              Following the example of his Primarch, Milegros Atlas did not trust many outside of his own Legion. Trust was weakness that could be exploited by others; trust was what allowed the Illuminators to be ambushed by their erstwhile allies, the Gargoyles and the Iconoclasts. The Grim Angels would not make the same mistake; though the throwaway formations of new recruits and veterans far past their prime were dying on Apella, the Legion’s true strength lay elsewhere, closer to the Sol System, and was undiminished by this defeat.

              He was about to instruct the heavy destroyer’s artificial intelligence, a system so arcane and rare that its very existence was a secret, a crime against the perfection of man punishable by death, to prepare for the Warp transition, when a rare hail sparked up before him on the holographic display. He magnified the picture, taking note of the source, then almost whistling in surprise. This, indeed, was entirely unexpected.

              The Amitabha, the flagship of the Illuminators, now veering closer towards the decaying orbit over Apella, its void shields down and multiple explosions blanketing its sides.

              Atlas amplified the signal, listening in before replaying with a curt affirmative. He cursed under his breath; the neat, orderly plan of retreat has been once again compromised. The Grim Angel switched to the inter-squad vox frequency, summoning the only other living souls on board of the Reason.

              “Brothers,” he spoke tersely, waiting for affirmation from the ten Grim Angels veterans, his honor guard, his contingency for when desperate times required desperate actions, before continuing. “Teleportation chamber. Two minutes.”

              Grunts of assent followed as Milegros Atlas rose up from his command throne and broke into a run.

              * * *

              The squad of Grim Angels materialized with a cracking sound of displaced air, weapons at the ready, helmets sealed for hostile atmospheric conditions. A scene of utter carnage greeted them.

              Once, this was the bridge of a Gloriana-class vessel, the flagship of a Primarch and one of the crowning accomplishments of mankind. Once, but no longer.

              The walls bled miasmic slime and pungent ichor that looked disturbingly organic. Though the remnants of many instrument panels were still recognizable, they were rapidly becoming overgrown with vegetation that looked to be composed of tentacles and thorns as much as it did of leaves and branches. Corpses were strewn around the bridge, mostly mortals with their entrails hanging out of their torn bellies and eyes popped from terrified faces, but also some armored Illuminators Legionaries, rent from limb to limb and dismembered with bestial, savage abandon.

              “Contacts!” Atlas shouted, trusting in his eyes when his in-built auspex started to go haywire. Several beasts the size of a full-grown Legionary, yet malformed in ways that no natural evolution could have produced, pounced through the vegetative growths, gaining speed even as the Grim Angels’ mass-reactive rounds raced to meet them.

              The Praetor’s eyes registered the many features that should not have belonged together – scales, horns, teeth that were clearly made for ripping flesh, pincers like those of a crustacean next to spikes, haphazardly placed eyes, and many mouths; but it was not the worst part. Inside the mess of mutant flesh that made up the creatures, he could still clearly see the remnants of Legiones Astartes ceramite plate the color of gold and bronze.

              As the first monster neared him, it came to a sudden stop, sniffing the air as if in disbelief. Atlas shot it once, twice, with little effect. The creature roared, backing up in pain.

              “On me, brothers,” Atlas commanded. He was the only one amongst the Grim Angels clad in traditional power armor, yet his unique power was clearly having an effect on the creatures. Somehow, it made him think of what it did to the psykers, the witches, the tainted.

              The Praetor swung his lightning claws in tight arcs, eliciting a screech of pain from the creature. It hissed, trying vainly to counterattack yet clearly slowed down by the aura of otherness emanating from the Grim Angel.

              A scream of pain. An icon on Atlas’ helmet went dark as another one of the creatures managed to penetrate the defenses of a Terminator at his rear. The Praetor sliced through his target, breaking into a run and hoping that his guards would follow.

              There, less than fifty meters ahead, was his objective, the reason for the panicked transmission seeking to salvage some semblance of meaning from this failed mission. Inside the trap of fleshy vines and abominable growths, Atlas could see the unmistakable, still living shape of Mohktal, the Seventh Primarch.

              * * *

              The Terminators died one by one, each in a different yet similarly excruciating way. One was impaled on an errant spike suddenly emerging from the floor where previously only cables and gears lay; another was opened like a can of emergency rations by a clawed fiend that condensed out of thin air before becoming a cloud of mist that drifted away to the upper rafters. Yet another Grim Angel put an entire magazine’s worth of shots into a towering abomination that consumed the bodies of the fallen to repair its own injuries, only to be enveloped by the creature and dissolved by its stomach juices, still fighting until the very end.

              Only Atlas remained inviolate as his men died around him.

              The creatures shied away from him, repelled by his psychic null-field – a gene so rare in general population that even in the Imperium of countless trillions, only a handful of men like him existed. Even fewer were suitable for implantation with the gene-seed, and only a singular number managed to survive tissue rejection produced by an attempt to uplift a blank into a post-human form.

              Milegros Atlas was aware that he was not liked. Very few of his kind ever were, as mortals and transhumans alike found the presence of blanks to be unsettling. Once, on a compliance mission many centuries ago, a captive xenos psyker told the Grim Angel that he could not be seen in the Warp, that he had no soul – an abomination that had no right to exist. Though the witch had perished at Atlas’ hands moments later, the truth of the statement remained with the Praetor for decades to come.

              Now, it was his weapon, the very reason why he was crafted and trusted by his Primarch to oversee Operation Starfall and to ensure that all valuable assets returned to Terra.

              Next to Atlas, the vines withered and died. The thorns immolated, leaving only the black of dessicated husks easily crushed under his power-armored tread. He managed to decapitate a mutant creature that still bore enough hallmarks of a Space Marine to make bile rise in disgust in Atlas’ chest, then rushed forward, hacking at the dying vegetation with his lightning claws and trusting in his men to survive long enough for it to matter.

              In a matter of seconds, he stood over a slumped form of a fallen god.

              Mohktal’s eyes were vacant and unblinking, not cognizant of the horror around him. The Seventh Primarch’s garb was still the militant armor once forged in the foundries of Mars, but its luster was now faded, rusted as if it was left for decades to wither in the unforgiving elements. The tattoos that once covered his face became misshapen ink spots, no longer serving any purpose but left in complete disarray. His mouth was open and slack, his fingers motionless as he lay curled in, unthinking, unfeeling, unmoving. Only long, shallow breaths suggested that he was at all alive.

              Next to him was the corpse of an Illuminator, an officer by the looks of him lying on his stomach with one hand vainly outstretched, as if trying to reach the Primarch in one last desperate motion. A pool of blood gathered near the warrior’s torso, though it had begun to congeal in a belated action of his Larraman cells. The officer’s armor was bent and torn, partially ripped open yet not entirely destroyed.

              Atlas placed an armored hand on the warrior’s bloodied temple, then recoiled as his armor’s sensors suggested faint, barely present pulse.

              This one still lives.

              Behind the Praetor, only two Terminators remained, their lightning claws attempting to stave off the assault of inhuman nightmares. If Atlas’ tactical readouts were any indication, the ship did not have long to live; it was almost certain to reach terminal orbital decay in mere minutes, where it would continue on its long, hopeless trek down to the surface of Apella. Perhaps, the Grim Angel thought wistfully, it would do more damage in death than it did in life.

              No matter, he reminded himself. There is still duty to be done.

              He recalibrated the device on his belt – an archaeotech module as rare and precious as the Reason’s synthetic intelligence. A pity. Atlas calculated the distance. It was just barely enough to envelop him, Mohktal, and the comatose Illuminator. For a moment, he contemplated leaving the officer of the Seventh Legion to his fate, then he reconsidered. He needed a witness, someone who could tell Nyxos just what had happened here.

              “Hansi. Ansalt.”

              The warriors grunted in understanding. Every Grim Angel swore an oath to fight to the bitter end when the greater design was endangered, sacrificing his life when it was necessary. This was the sacrifice Atlas himself was prepared to make; this was what he now had to ask of his men.

              “May purity guide you, and bring justice to the heretics, Grim Lord,” Hansi shouted even as he attempted to fight off a many-limbed, ever-mutating abomination. As the Grim Angel spoke, the creature skewered him through, only to be struck in the back by Ansalt’s lightning claws.

              Heretics. Now, that was an apt word, a term that truly described what he had witnessed, for this witchery was the gravest of heresies against the soul of humanity, the ultimate betrayal of the Emperor’s dream.

              “I will remember, brother,” the Praetor responded in solemn gratitude, watching the warrior’s last dying gasps as the creatures of nightmare closed in.

              Hansi’s death bought Atlas just enough time to depress the rune on the archaeotech module. In a flash of actinic light, Milegros Atlas, Mohktal, and the unconscious Illuminator vanished.

              * * *

              After the last of the invaders were slaughtered in droves or dragged in chains to the work camps where they would spend the rest of their lives rebuilding the destruction caused by their weapons; after the burning wrecks of warships and troop transports were towed towards the decaying orbit leading them into the heart of Apella’s sun; after the forces of three victorious Legions gathered their own dead and reformed into the neat parade columns suitable for marching through the city streets – peace reigned.

              The citizens of Apella assembled in their throngs to give thanks to their lord, their deliverer, their god and his divine (though almost certainly lesser) brothers, their newfound faith reaffirmed by the miracle. Up in the sky, a shadow over twenty kilometers in length hung in suspended motion, pushed back into orbit through means arcane and unknowable before its terminal descent brought it into contact with the planet’s surface. The Amitabha, a new artificial moon forever joined to Apella by the bonds of orbital mechanics, the monument of Iskanderos’ greatest victory and the temple to the powers he now commanded.

              The three Primarchs stood side by side on a platform near the top of the Hegemon’s Tower, itself a legacy of another age, rising an entire kilometer above the city of Avecia. From the ground, they were barely visible, even with the binoculars helpfully distributed to the general population gathered for this momentous event. Iskanderos, Nihlus, Angelus – three masters of mankind, each an imposing and terrifying presence all his own, yet together an unstoppable force that promised to bring the fight to Terra herself.

              Below, a cordon of Legionaries dressed for parade ensured that only the most carefully screened mortals were allowed within range of sniper weaponry. The Imperial Redeemers were most prevalent, making up the majority of their numbers save for an occasional patrol of Iconoclasts and a rare group of Gargoyles making rounds. Further out, millions of Apellans thronged the streets, eager to witness the triumph the likes of which would never be seen again.

              The holographic screens projected the details into every household, from the humblest serf to the wealthy, powerful scions of noble families with lineages going back to the mythical age before the Old Night; on those screens, the noble lords of mankind reigned. Angelus, the winged deliverer with the face of a hero, his hunched body and wild eyes helpfully obscured by the camera angles and judicious amounts of digital editing, the chains binding his feet to the ground invisible behind the parapet. Nihlus, the masked destroyer, one of the first Primarchs to be discovered who, too, chafed at the iniquities of the Council, and who would lead in the war to free the Emperor from his ungrateful, treacherous sons. Iskanderos, truly the Golden One, the general as well as the prophet, invincible in his radiance and splendor.

              Looking at them, how could mere mortals believe the Council’s propaganda? How could they imagine that these gods amongst men would seek to overthrow the Emperor rather than free him from the usurpers? Surely, those stories must have been the Council’s deception, for how could the living embodiment of everything that was good and right in the universe be telling them a lie?

              These were the princes of man in their finest hour, and their time was now.

              * * *

              “Good show, brother,” said Nihlus sardonically once they were away from the adoring crowds, well inside the underground command bunker.

              The Gargoyle handlers have long led Angelus away, sometimes prodding him on as if he was a dangerous wild animal, the rattling sound of his chains a reminder of what became of him. In his stead, a warrior of the Gargoyles named Isaiah remained, a wild-eyed Argosian with teeth filed to sharp points and armor covered in primitive tribal designs. Nihlus treated the Gargoyle as if he was not there, a being so far beneath the Destroyer’s notice that it could not have possibly been an equal member of the war council.

              Iskanderos laughed. “The crowds. They like their little spectacles.”

              “The crowds…” Isaiah hissed.

              “The little worm speaks,” Nihlus intoned evenly. His mask was off again, the synth-skin already peeling from the ruin of his cheek. “If it speaks again without permission, brother, I will skin it and wear its face for the rest of our talk.”

              Though it was clear that the Gargoyle’s temper was incensed, Isaiah must have thought twice about his chances of successfully confronting a Primarch, and kept his peace.

              “Now, where were we again, Iskanderos?”

              The Conqueror nodded, paying little heed to Isaiah as he faced Nihlus. “The same strategy we spoke of should work well against the Council. Your forces can work their way through Corwin’s little pocket empire. Keep him engaged and committed for as long as necessary.”

              “As long as necessary for what?” A synthetic eyebrow plastered to Nihlus’ scars rose in question.

              “Consolidation of forces,” Iskanderos answered. “If you keep him busy, he will not be able to bring his Legion to Terra.”

              Nihlus laughed. “Keep him engaged rather than destroy him. That is an interesting choice of terms.”

              “Only because you know it as well as anyone. Corwin is the best general the Council has,” Iskanderos said. “I am a man enough to admit it. If he remains engaged, he cannot command whatever armies they send against us. He cannot be allowed to stop our path to Terra.”

              “Are you saying that… you are afraid of what Corwin might do?”

              Iskanderos shook his head. “No, Nihlus. You misunderstand me. One on one, my Legion against his, no external factors… he can bleed me, but not win. But there are external factors.” He started counting off on his fingers. “One, the Council is certain to send additional forces against us. If they link up with Corwin, they will be very difficult to dislodge. The Sixth Legion will be needed to prevent them from linking up, and to destroy them piecemeal.”

              “Two, we will be fighting Corwin on his home territory, with long supply lines, and he is smart enough to know that a war of attrition would serve to his advantage. Three,” he bent another finger, “Corwin’s allegiance has always been to his little kingdom more than to the Council. He will not shy away from his duty when the fighting is near his territory – no, he is too inflexible for that – but if the Council relief forces are defeated and the war moves to Segmentum Solar, he would be more willing to protect his own sectors than to send reinforcements to Terra. And, most importantly, four,” Iskanderos smiled viciously, enjoying the moment of the reveal, “you will have numeric superiority.”

              Nihlus’ eyes narrowed, though it was impossible to tell if it was in surprise or in appreciation. “Which one of our brothers is it, then?” the Destroyer’s words were followed by a rough bout of coughing. It took Iskanderos a second to realize that it was deep, harsh laughter.

              “Baelic,” the Conqueror answered him, eliciting a quizzical look.

              “Him?” asked Nihlus, visibly surprised. “The glory boy himself? How did you manage it?”

              “The usual,” Iskanderos shrugged. “He thinks that the Council has been overlooking him and his victories, and that they look down on him and never give him any real respect.”

              “Which is, of course, true,” Nihlus laughed. “So you offered him a glorious campaign… and he accepted. That sounds just like what I would expect from him.”

              Iskanderos’ face grew serious as he continued. “He can be a useful… tool in the right circumstances. But,” he looked Nihlus straight in the eye, “there is also a good reason the Council never trusted him. He is dangerous. Unpredictable. Untrustworthy.”

              “So you need me to keep him focused,” Nihlus concluded, nodding in assent. “Very well. That I shall do. Anything else?”

              Iskanderos turned to Isaiah, finally deigning the Gargoyle worthy of his attention. “The Fourteenth Legion should execute a pincer maneuver from the galactic north. No more restraints. No rules. Scorched earth tactics.”

              “Why?” Nihlus asked, puzzled. “What is there of value?”

              “Not what,” Iskanderos explained. “Who.”

              An understanding dawned on Nihlus’ face. “This will force Hemri to send another one of our brothers there. But who? Let’s see…” The Destroyer nodded, contemplating. “Not Stefan. He will not leave his holdings, especially with my operations against Corwin not far away. Not Gideon, as much as he would have liked to be there – the most of his strength is on the wrong side of the galaxy. Hemri himself will not leave Terra, and he will not trust an underling to do it right. Who else does it leave? Echelon? Ashur? Griven Kall? Maikhaira?”

              “Maikhaira is with us,” said Iskanderos softly, to Nihlus’ surprise. “He… declared his intentions to me through an emissary.”

              “Wonder what made him side with us,” Nihlus mused. “No matter. What of the Gargoyles?”

              “Their – your mission,” Iskanderos made sure Isaiah took note of his words, “is to draw the Council forces out, and to keep them occupied until my own Legion makes a breakthrough. Whoever the Council sends, you must bend but not break. Is that understood?” Cold fires of yellow and orange sunset danced in his eyes.

              “Yes, lord,” replied Isaiah, lowering his eyes in submission.

              “My guess,” Iskanderos said slowly, “it will be Nyxos, or, if Hemri prefers to keep him close to home, the First Born.”

              “Kthuln? Now that would be a battle for the ages,” Nihlus remarked.

              “Whichever of them it ends up being,” added Iskanderos with the air of finality, “the Gargoyles must keep them occupied until either my own Legion penetrates into Segmentum Solar, or we have more reinforcements.”

              “You expect more, Iskanderos?” Nihlus asked him. “You have five Legions on your side already, and have all but destroyed one of theirs. Who else do you expect to join us?

              A cryptic smile came to Iskanderos’ face. “We shall see, brother. Not all of our kind are beholden to Rogr Hemri and his ilk. We shall see.”


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              • #37
                EPILOGUE

                The darkness knew. It slithered around the corners, filling in every crack and crevice, its tendrils present amongst the pits suggesting tables, chairs, or columns. It obscured everything – the faces, the names, the sentiments of beings used to walking in the light. Only the voices remained.

                “He is flawed,” said one, a frail-sounding male voice with the kind of tired tremble given off by advanced age. In this place where all shadows became one, and all manners of technological and sorcerous means were employed to keep the conversation hidden from prying eyes and ears, it was impossible to tell where it was coming from, or even who the speaker was.

                “So he is,” the other voice agreed. This one was difficult to place, at once young and ancient, full of vigorous joy and regretful remorse distorted by the room’s protective wards and machinery. It was hard to guess if it was even the speaker’s natural voice, or if it was forcefully synthesized through a synapse-linked vox-grille. “And yet it is the best chance we have, because he is flawed. Strong enough for them to claim. Flawed enough to be predictable.”

                A sound – cackling, coughing, uncertain clearing of the throat.

                “You have something to add?” the second voice inquired, all the distortive effects making it almost melodious.

                The coughing stopped. “Was all of this… necessary? The killers? The… sacrifice?”

                “Yes,” the machine-twisted voice answered. “The future cannot be fully altered. It can only be controlled, no different from a flood. You can reroute it to where it will do the least damage, but you cannot build a dam high or strong enough to stop it from doing any harm.” The voice paused, perhaps taking a breath, or thinking what it was going to say next. “The rebellion was inevitable after all factors are considered. The very preconditions of reconquest made it impossible to avoid. It was only a question of who would lead it.”

                “And therefore, it had to be controlled,” the old man concluded.

                “Yes, controlled,” replied the other. “For the good of all, it must be controlled.”

                * * *

                The Primarch waited impatiently, pacing across the gilded floor before the gates of the Council chambers. He cast severe glances at the Custodian attendants, though he could not tell if they elicited any reactions beneath their conical helmets, or if they knew anything at all about the summons.

                The summons. The very idea irritated him, though it was not the first time his erstwhile brothers thought so little of him as to summon him into their presence.

                Who do you call when all the noble and bright sons are suddenly needed elsewhere? Who do you call when the rules of war no longer matter?

                It was always like this, he thought bitterly, counting steps to pass the time. One, two. One, two.

                He was tall and relatively thin for his kind, with a disheveled mane of hair so light it was nearly colorless and eyes of such watery blue that it could have been white. His face was pockmarked with small burns and scars that came from working too close to toxic substances few times too many – almost entirely normal and even pleasant from the distance, yet less perfect the closer one got to him. His thin lips were curled in a scowl of perpetual disapproval, the crease by the side of his mouth indicating that he was accustomed to the expression.

                The doors started to open.

                The Primarch stopped, facing the arch leading to the Council chamber and making himself still as a statue. They will not see the effect of this indignity. Not now. Not ever again. A Custodian walked forward, a herald by the looks of him. The Primarch wondered how long it would take him to dispatch the herald before the other guards would even take note; the analytical, cold thought suggested less than three tenth of a second. It was a comforting thought; a pleasant thought.

                “My lord,” the Custodian bowed slightly. “The Council has requested your presence.”

                Requested. Not asked for.

                The Primarch did not bother to acknowledge the herald with a nod or a sound. He walked through the door, his eyes never leaving the far end of the passage where it opened into a chamber, the seat of his brothers.

                In another era, this was the place where the old Imperial Senate made its rulings, an advisory body made obsolete with the rise of the Primarchs. Little by little, it was replaced by the budding Administratum, until it, too, became an arm of the Council with the Emperor’s sudden withdrawal. Now, even the Council itself had changed.

                The faces looking down at him from their elevated seats did not belong to mortals. Rogr Hemri, Nyxos, Echelon, Gideon, Stefan Ignatiyev, Dyal Rulf, Griven Kall. No Mohktal or Corwin, though. The Primarch wondered what it meant.

                “Brother,” Hemri greeted him, a worried smile drowning in his bushy beard.

                “Dispense with pleasantries, Rogr,” the Primarch replied scornfully. “It suits you all too well.” He looked around, noticing many empty seats. “No Malcador. No Mechanicum. No mortals. An interesting gathering you have there, brothers.”

                “A necessary one,” said Nyxos. The words sounded like they slithered out of the Ninth Primarch’s mouth.

                “Dire times require dire measures,” the Primarch cited. “A very familiar refrain. What is the great secret that our friends should not be privy to? Is this why Corwin and… Mohktal are not here?”

                “Mohktal failed,” Nyxos said, not bothering to elaborate.

                Hemri smiled, trying to defuse the mounting tension. “What Nyxos is trying to say is that Mohktal was unsuccessful in defeating our rebel brother at Apella. To make matters worse, it seems that Angelus and Nihlus betrayed us, and were at least partially responsible for Mohktal’s defeat.” The Consul of Terra looked tired yet agitated. “Baelic and Maikhaira, too, declared for Iskanderos. He – can you believe it? – He claims that we have the Emperor captive, and that he is coming to free Him from us. Can you believe the audacity?”

                The Primarch sneered. “These accusations are very easy to disprove. Our father has but to appear to put an end to them.”

                It was Nyxos who answered. “We tried. The Emperor did not grant any of us an audience. Even Malcador – Malcador does not know where he is.”

                “So there is an appearance of truth to Iskanderos’ accusations,” the Primarch concluded. “An appearance… or a truth? You tell me.”

                Though Hemri looked like he was about to lose his temper, Nyxos waved a hand in a conciliatory gesture.

                “You know as much as we do, brother,” Nyxos replied, not raising his voice or letting tension get to him. “I, for one, can vouch for myself and every member of the Council present that we are, and have always been, the loyal sons of the Emperor.”

                Can I trust them? The Primarch looked at his brothers, regal and yet all too smug and self-assured on their thrones. Suddenly he felt exposed standing in the center of the room, unable to face all of them at the same time.

                “Our duty remains the same though,” Hemri said, his temper under control. “We must protect Terra, the Emperor, and the Imperium.”

                An interesting order of priorities, the Primarch thought, saying nothing. His eyes flicked to another one of the empty seats.

                “Corwin. Where is he?”

                Nyxos was the first to answer. “Our brother Corwin has returned to his homeworld at Lodoq Tir. There were reports of the Iconoclasts and the Warblades moving against his domain.”

                So he ran to protect his own hide, contemplated the Primarch bitterly. I wonder why?

                “What of Mohktal? Does he still live?”

                After an uneasy pause, Hemri nodded.

                “Where is he, then?” The Primarch clenched his teeth. Of all his brothers, only Mohktal seemed to treat him with any semblance of dignity in the times before the present crisis. “I want to speak to him.”

                Hemri shook his head. “I am afraid Mohktal is… indisposed.”

                “What do you mean, Rogr?” There was an undertone of fury in the Primarch’s words, a promise of something highly unpleasant if he did not receive a satisfactory answer.

                “You tell him,” Hemri darted a look Nyxos’ way. The Ninth Primarch nodded in consent.

                “Very well,” said Nyxos by the way of an explanation. “Mohktal lives, but only just so. Iskanderos did something to him.”

                “Take me to him, Nyxos,” the Primarch demanded. “Take me to him, or you can stop with this farce.”

                “I am afraid you will not get much of an answer from Mohktal, brother,” Hemri spoke slowly, as if to defuse the situation. “He is… not himself.”

                “What do you mean?” an expression of shock briefly flashed on the Primarch’s pockmarked face, only to be replaced by a stoic mask he had perfected over the centuries.

                “What I am trying to say is that Mohktal… his body is intact, if that is what you are concerned about. His mind…” Hemri spread his hands, “his mind is gone.”

                A sequence of images replaced one another in the Primarch’s mind. Mohktal, always wise, always calm, collected, always reliable. Always trustworthy.

                “I will take you to him myself if this is what it takes,” spoke Hemri. “You can then see it with your own eyes, the crime of Iskanderos.”

                “You speak a mighty game,” the Primarch finally said, slowly, each syllable enunciated. “Why are you not out there with all of your numbers, grinding Iskanderos to nothing? What do you want of me?”

                Hemri raised his hand in a gesture that was both conciliatory and somehow condescending at the same time. “Patience, brother. Patience. We cannot leave Terra undefended. Our mobile reserve is already committed in the galactic south, and as for some of our other brothers… let’s just say that temptation might be too strong.”

                Always called on when honor is no longer a concern. Always called for when the battles had to be won at any cost. Always reliable; never trusted.

                “So you call on me,” the Primarch concluded, his eyes meeting Hemri’s in an unspoken challenge.

                “Yes, brother, I call on you. Will you save the civilization as we know it from the greatest betrayal this galaxy has ever seen? Will you and your Legion serve humanity and succeed where our noble brother had failed? Will you stop Iskanderos once and for all?”

                “Will you, Marvus?”



                THE END

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