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Reaper's War (Twisthammer - Book Two) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy

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  • Reaper's War (Twisthammer - Book Two) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy

    REAPER'S WAR

    Twisthammer – Book Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But even in this proud hour, the seeds of darkness are sown…


  • #2
    Dramatis Personae

    Primarchs

    Angelus, the Grey Prince, Primarch of the Gargoyles
    Gideon, the Lawgiver, Primarch of the Peacekeepers

    Legio XIV, Gargoyles

    Katon, First Captain
    Merlin, Master of the Librarium
    Goffri, Captain of the Third Company, the “Ghosts”
    Isaiah, Captain of the Sixth Company, the “Reapers”
    Ludwig, Captain of the Nineteenth Company, the “Ogres”
    Etienne, Veteran Sergeant of the Sixth Company
    Mordred, Sergeant of the Sixth Company
    Barca, Sergeant of the Sixth Company
    Cosimo, Sergeant of the Sixth Company
    Valentin, Sergeant of the Nineteenth Company
    Murdok, Battle-brother of the Sixth Company

    Legio X, Peacekeepers

    Avram, First Captain of the Peacekeepers
    Jerson, Peacekeepers Honor Guard
    Liam, Peacekeepers Honor Guard

    Imperial Personnel

    Angela Hesail, remembrancer
    Marat Crassus, remembrancer
    Vlad Kirov, remembrancer
    Salam Galiaf, Lieutenant, 247th Argos Infantry, Reserve
    Ladomir Castan, governor of Taramin
    Que’Che, Navigator, House Kriel
    Guelo Balantir, captain of the Redeemer
    M’rai Harn, Colonel, 247th Argos Infantry
    Briel Serna, Imperial envoy
    Dasai Lo, General, Imperial Army


    Non-Imperial Personnel

    Garnet, Consul of the Tenebri
    Amarant, Proconsul of the Tenebri

    Comment


    • #3
      PART ONE: THE SEER AND THE BUTCHER
      ONE

      The Redeemer
      One Hundred
      The Grey Prince

      We are here.

      Angela Hesail fixed her remembrancer robes for what must have been a hundredth time, focusing on the small flaws only her eyes could notice and pretending she was back home at Terra, readying her grand entrance to a social function to gain a slice of comfort. It did not help very much.

      The transport vessel, an ugly relic of the Unification Wars, felt oppressive, grim in its rusting splendor. Perhaps, Angela thought, someone with little more appreciation for the macabre might have found it inspiring, but as far as she was concerned, the Solar Princess was a piece of junk held together more through blind faith than anything. It was a far cry from the ballrooms and grand receptions of her home planet, thousands of light years away from the comforts she had enjoyed there.

      And what did she abandon them for?

      This.

      The battleship looked deceptively small through the viewscreen, so small that she could fit the entirety of it within her hand. For a second, Angela imagined it, converted into a painting the likes of which even now covered the galleries of civilized worlds. The glory of the Great Crusade, the noble, artistic portrayal of the greatest endeavor in human history was all around her as a testament to the species’ resilience, as a challenge to the Old Night herself.

      She knew the stories, of course. A thousand faultless compliances effected with speed and precision that only the Legiones Astartes could accomplish. The weapons that could level cities and continents from the safety of orbit. The sharp, angular visage of the Redeemer was not only a witness to the savage pace of human expansion away from Terra, but an active participant in it, the home of heroes that even now strode further away from home to bring the light of the Imperium to the isolated cultures hiding in the depths of the Old Night.

      Now that she was here, words escaped her.

      “You are staring like it’s going to bite,” a voice remarked from somewhere behind, and Angela involuntarily twitched, relaxing momentarily as she recognized the speaker.

      “One of these days you will startle a wrong person, Crassus, and then what?” she smiled at the man, playfully turning her head towards him.

      “Come on, girl, you know it as well as I do, I am completely irresistible. Who could possibly bear any ill will towards this?” He pointed to himself, smirking as he spoke.

      Fighting back anticipation, Angela grinned. Only the truly deluded would consider Marat Crassus even remotely handsome.

      The man was short, pot-bellied and seemingly adamant on combing his hair over the very prominent bald spot. His teeth had once been linked to those of an equine, and the chubby fingers, covered in tastelessly wrought rings had clearly been more comfortable reaching out for a helping of food than performing anything remotely masculine.

      “You are right,” Angela said. “They would die from laughing too hard before they do anything to you.”

      “Always such an optimist. Maybe I can enchant them with my amazing talents!” Crassus made a mock bow, and Angela could not help but giggle.

      For all his faults of appearance, Crassus was perhaps one of the finest poets of this generation. His verse adorned the halls of the rich and the powerful, said to be admired even by some of the greatest Imperial heroes and the administrators that followed in their wake. It brought him fame and fortune, and one could be forgiven to think that Crassus would never have to leave Terra or write another line again.

      “You’re nervous,” the poet said in a more serious tone, laying a fatherly hand on Angela’s shoulder and visibly struggling to reach her. There was a somber underline to his words.

      She shrugged, trying to ignore the impending feeling of anxiety, then finally nodded in agreement.

      “It won’t be long now, my girl,” the man said, taking a step closer to the viewscreen to study the battleship in detail. “You must admit, she’s got character. Not as pretty as you, of course…”

      Angela was a perfect contrast to Crassus, a statuesque raven-haired beauty fully a head taller than him. Even the drab remembrance robes could not hide the inherent grace in her movements, the alluring curves of her body that made many a man back on Terra lose their wits. The two of them were the perfect odd couple, united in mission and yet as different as day and night.

      Angela frowned. “Pretty is not the word I would use to describe it. More like… I don’t know… austere?”

      “Nothing austere about this thing,” Crassus smiled. “Looks like a castle or something, lifted up into space.”

      “If you say so.”

      The battleship, growing closer in their viewscreens, was a massive beast covered with gothic spires and ornate carvings depicting monsters of Argos’ rich mythology. Gargoyles, the Fourteenth Legion’s totemic animals perched upon the crenellated battlements where prominent lance batteries and torpedo tubes declared their intentions to the universe. Flights of interceptors and other small craft scurried about like shoals of scavengers around a gigantic predator, hoping to snatch a leftover from the creature’s meal.

      The flagship of a Legion, the conqueror of uncounted worlds, the seat of a demigod.

      The dark lair where He waited.

      Angela shook the thought from her head, not sure where it came from.

      “So,” Crassus approached, sensing her anxiety, “any regrets?”

      She shook her head. “Not really. I did not cross anyone back on Terra, if this is what you are asking.”

      “Yes, yes, pity on poor old Marat,” the older man said with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “All others get sent to, I don’t know, the Red Stars, Illuminators, or, what’s their name…”

      “I am here by choice.”

      “Choice?” Crassus raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never told me that until now.”

      “You didn’t ask,” Angela shrugged, swiping an unruly strand of hair off her face. “We all have our reasons.”

      “I mean, I’m a fat old man,” the poet said, wincing. “It’s a miracle that they picked me in first place instead of some starry-eyed prodigy that lives and breathes fashion. But you? You had all the choice in the galaxy, and you picked the Fourteenth?”

      “They have a certain aesthetic,” said Angela playfully. “Any painter would find that appealing.”

      “You mean, like all these snarling… things?”

      “The ancient Franc used to carve them for decoration. Thought they would ward off evil.” She shook her head. “A silly superstition.”

      “I don’t think I’ll ever understand you artist types,” Crassus said, half-jokingly. “Anyone else would see these things and run.”

      “But you don’t?”

      “I need someone or something to make me feel better about the way I look,” the poet said.

      The ship on the viewscreens got larger, drowning out the black of deep space with its gothic magnificence. Angela felt her heart beat accelerate as her eyes took in the sheer scale of the vessel. Any thought that it could fit in the palm of her hand retreated to be superseded by reality bearing down upon them. For a second, she had an impressing of a gaping maw, an unnatural winged creature perched upon some unseen elevation.

      “Come on,” Crassus urged her, pulling on her sleeve as the motion stopped and the Redeemer’s image once again became fully static. “You’ll have a plenty of chances to get acquainted with her once we’re on board.”

      “Y-y-yes,” the young woman said, shaking off the moment’s illusion and turning away from the viewscreen. “Let’s go.”

      * * *

      The monster flew on the wings of metal and ceramite, leaving a trail of exhaust vapors and smoke. Beneath him, a world shuddered at his passing.

      It was a world where daylight was the harbinger of painful, prolonged death, one side constantly basked in the deadly radiation of a young star, the other side in the grip of endless night and winter lasting a million years. Life, such as it was, clung to precarious existence in a narrow band of twilight, insulated from the worst ravages of its parent star by a thick atmosphere of a world twice the mass of Terra.

      The monster’s clawed talons stretched as he directed his flight towards a concentration of buildings, a small town closer to the night side. The snarling beast of his helmet examined the destination through an array of targeting displays, cycling through the modes until he found the one he desired, the mode its creators called preysight. Almost involuntarily, he grasped for a weapon mag-locked at his side, a savage sword with teeth of a chainsaw decorated with the images of foes its bearer had slain in his century and a half of battle. The sword had a name, earned in hundreds of battles under the indifferent suns as was the custom with the warrior sons of Argos – Excruciator, the bringer of torment.

      Beneath the monster mask, a creature that once was man felt his twin hearts accelerate with savage anticipation.

      His name was Isaiah, and this world was his for reaping.

      “Reapers, manticore formation,” Isaiah subvocalized to his company, three hundred warriors in the armor of dark grey with a few splotches of white, seemingly added only to break the monotony. The vox-clicks from the sergeants acknowledged the message, and the shades began descending through the few wispy clouds, silent but for the sounds of jets and thick atmosphere giving way to the destroyers from above.

      The town was thought to be the center of resistance to the forced compliance, a secretive hideaway where the remaining leaders of the planet Isaiah knew as Twenty Seven-Sixteen, the sixteenth world brought into compliance by the Twenty Seventh Expedition, fled to in some vain hope to organize a campaign to take their world back. He pondered on what might have forced them to do so. On almost any other world, the natives would hide behind their best fortifications and attempt to hold out as long as they could. Here, it seemed, secrecy was far more important than military might.

      Isaiah cut through the last few clouds, falling faster and faster towards the buildings, monotone and grey in the endless twilight. His men were shadows of monsters that inhabited the darkest corners of imaginations since the dawn of time, three hundred savage hunters called in when all other measures have failed, now descending upon the doomed town like gargoyles of legend they were named for. Too small to present effective profile to anti-air defenses, the Reapers had free reign of the dark sky like primordial angels of wrath.

      No angels, Isaiah thought in a moment of contemplation, easily avoiding clumsy flak gunfire from the ground by swerving just slightly to the side. Let the other Legions take the limelight and the glory of being the perfect, beautiful representations of the Imperial expansion. The Gargoyles were the other face of the Imperium, the swift death borne on wings of fire and smoke.

      This was the way of sons of Angelus, as it always was, as it shall ever be.

      The town was almost certainly an illusion designed to fool other planet-bound societies into believing in its irrelevance, but it could not hide its true nature from orbital scans. The strange cylindrical buildings so common in this world’s architecture looked ragged and nearly abandoned from the bird’s eye view, but were in fact bristling with weapons, guarding the entrance to the tunnels beneath where the leaders of resistance cowered in illusionary safety. Now that they were detected, searchlights painted the clouds vivid orange and white as the skyborne assault approached.

      Very soon, none of it would matter.

      The ground was closer by the second. Isaiah saw the frantic fire teams attempt to arrange themselves in defensive positions, officers barking orders to their men despite the approaching death from above. He imagined what it must have been like for the men on the ground, watching their lives now measured in seconds.

      A lucky shot took out one of the Reapers, hitting his jump pack and sending him towards the ground in a cascading crescendo of sound. In response, the Space Marines opened fire.

      The range was still far from optimum for bolt pistols, but it made more than a few defenders lose their nerve. These were the elite of Twenty Seven-Sixteen, thought Isaiah derisively. No wonder the organized militaries of the planet fell so swiftly before the Fourteenth Legion.

      “First one to fifty wins,” Isaiah grinned, revving up the Excruciator as the ground was only scant meters away.

      “Only fifty, Cap’n?” Harsh laughter filled the comm channel, and Isaiah recognized the voice of veteran sergeant Etienne, faster and more clipped accent indicating birth somewhere on far-away Terra.

      “Hundred for you,” Isaiah replied.

      “You aren’t th’ one to make it too easy, eh?” More laughter. “Afraid I’m gonna pass ya?”

      “At this rate you will,” Isaiah said as his clawed feet smashed into the defending trooper, tearing out the man’s ribcage before he even had a chance to react. “In talking, that is. One.”

      “Early bird gets th’ worm!” Etienne replied, felling a heavy weapons trooper with accurate bolt pistol fire. “Tied.”

      “You have spent too much time around the Eleventh,” Isaiah grunted, dispatching of a squad of panicked soldiers firing wildly at the grey-white giants amongst them. “Make it six.”

      “One ahead of you.” Etienne broke through a makeshift sandbag barricade, projectile rounds of the defenders bouncing off his armor with little appreciable effect. The veteran kept on talking even as his chainsword reaped a toll amongst the human soldiers.

      “On the roof!”

      Isaiah turned in time to see a local set up a contraption looking suspiciously like a missile launcher, then fire off a volley into the advancing squad Gargoyles. Two Space Marines fell. The rest lifted up into the air, knocking the rocketeer off his feet before finishing him in a messy, gory manner.

      “So they are finally doing something worthy of a challenge,” Etienne roared, taking in another kill.

      “Eighteen.” Isaiah chased down a fleeting trooper, shooting the man through the back of his head. “Too easy!”

      “I betcha Ludwig’s green with envy right now,” Etienne replied, not skipping a beat. “He’s missin’ out on all th’ fun.”

      Isaiah frowned. The thoughts of his fellow captain made him lose concentration, and a sword-wielding officer charging the Space Marine with a blood-curdling cry almost made him pay for it. In a last second, the Gargoyle parried the man’s blade, sliding the roaring chainsword all the way to the human’s wrist. The cry of rage was replaced by one of paid as the Excruciator shredded the man’s hand at the wrist.

      “Nineteen.”

      “Sir, Mordred is reporting heavy resistance near the warehouses. He thinks the tunnel entrance is close,” the voice of another Marine broke through the comm-traffic. Isaiah identified the glowing rune on his helmet display, focusing on it.

      “I will be there shortly,” Isaiah replied before cutting the link. “I trust you can finish these?” he voxed to Etienne.

      “Twenty one,” the veteran sergeant answered. “I’ll be at a hun’red before you get there.”

      Instead of replying, Isaiah activated jump pack thrusters, lifting himself up above the carnage.

      Everywhere he could see, the Gargoyles were slaughtering their opponents. There was no quarter given. Some died running away, becoming easy prey for the Fourteenth Legion. Some others died with weapons in their hands, hoping vainly to take some of the invaders with them. An occasional pocket of resistance maintained some sort of coherency and discipline only for long enough to be set upon by the rampaging Space Marines.

      This was what victory tasted like.

      “You are in charge, Etienne,” Isaiah said, making a pass over the battlefield before changing direction. “Squads Barca and Cosimo, with me.” He breathed heavily, imagining the killing to come. “The warehouses two clicks to the west. I want them burned.”

      * * *

      “He wasn’t kidding,” said sergeant Cosimo, peeking around the corner to take a look at the fortified position in between the ramshackle warehouses. “This looks like trouble.”

      Isaiah could not help but agree with his subordinate’s assessment. The defenders have cleared out a large area around several heavy gun emplacements with overlapping fields of fire, while ferrocrete walls gave them a modicum of safety. Several flak guns guarded the aerial approach, even now firing tracer rounds at the Gargoyles who took to the air in the vicinity.

      “They got three of mine,” Mordred voxed, impatience and frustration all too evident in his tone. “Cowardly bastards can’t even come out and die like real men.”

      The youngest of the Reapers’ sergeants, Mordred was only promoted to his position fairly recently, a fact Isaiah was not too keen to forget. Even in a Legion that prided itself on its skill in surprise assaults, the young sergeant was known for ferocity that bordered on unhealthy. But Mordred’s men seemed to like him well enough, and it was hard to argue with a tally of victories under his belt – until now.

      “Are you telling me that a simple pillbox holds mighty Mordred hostage?” Barca said mockingly. The only reply was an angry “hrumph”. “It should be no problem for a hero of your caliber.”

      “Cut it out,” Isaiah voxed, annoyed. “I need to think.”

      He evaluated possible approaches, considering advantages and disadvantages of every single one. It was not helping. Whichever way he went about it, there were going to be casualties that he really did not need, not now that Ludwig’s company surpassed his own in numbers. No Captain worth the title would throw the lives of his men away for something as mundane as a glorified pillbox, Isaiah thought darkly. If he was to come out of this with his reputation intact, he could not afford the losses.

      “What about those warehouses, Cap’n?” Barca raised his voice again, pointing at the buildings surrounding the gun emplacement. The warehouses provided little in a way of vantage points, being in various stages of decay, but with luck, they could provide a semblance of cover.

      “Mordred!” Isaiah called angrily. The sergeant perked up from behind a mass of debris, where he and his surviving men were hiding. Almost instantly, a hail of explosive rounds struck perilously close by. Mordred ducked behind cover once again. “Did you try the warehouses?”

      “Booby-trapped,” the sergeant replied. “Althos lost a leg in there already. No way we are going through that, Cap’n.”

      “I mean,” he corrected himself, sensing Isaiah’s disapproval, “my lads will follow through anything. But this just makes no sense, to lose a whole squad for what? You go winged, you get shot. You go around, you get blown up. Either way you lose good men.”

      “The first sensible thing I’ve heard out of him the whole day,” Barca grumbled. “Maybe the boy isn’t a lost cause just yet.”

      We all will be a lost cause if Ludwig gets here before we’re done, Isaiah thought. He had to breach the only strong point of the defenses while his men were engaged in slaughter elsewhere, and the time was running short.

      It would be just like Ludwig to come in and claim credit for something he had little to do with.

      Unless…

      “What is the status of resistance around this area?”

      “The bastards are running like they were born for it,” chuckled Mordred, finally in his element. I’d say there should still be a few pockets here and there, maybe another hundred or so. Why? Do you want us to hunt them down?”

      Isaiah smiled. The plan was just now beginning to take shape.

      The Primarch would be proud.

      “I have a different kind of hunt in mind,” he told his sergeants. “Barca, Cosimo.” Both men nodded. “Got a task for you. Get me as many of these bastards as you can, alive.”

      Mordred shook his head, while Barca and Cosimo simply exchanged looks, not quite understanding. Isaiah sighed. He was going to have to explain himself. The sweet burden of command, he thought.

      “You can get away from here without being seen. I will stay here with Mordred and provide covering fire.” Still no comprehension. “You will drag them here, kicking, screaming, or whatever they do. As long as they are alive. And,” Isaiah turned his head towards Barca, staring his sergeant down, “no mutilations. Is that understood?”

      * * *

      It took the sergeants and their men somewhere around ten minutes to come back with their catch. The soldiers of Twenty-Seven-Sixteen were not a particularly impressive bunch as far as Isaiah was concerned, the one group holding the makeshift pillbox notwithstanding. They were dirty and bruised, stinking of fear and, in some cases, of urine, having lost control of their bladders as they came under assault from the Gargoyles.

      In other words, they were perfect for what Isaiah intended.

      He counted the captives, thirty four in total. None dared to meet his eyes as he examined them closer, probably reminding them of a daemon or two from some barely remembered legend. Isaiah smiled beneath his helmet. The Gargoyles tended to have this effect on people.

      “Barca, Cosimo, through the warehouse,” the captain ordered, pointing to the decrepit building. “Send the wretches ahead. Mordred,” he nodded to the younger sergeant. “Covering fire. When I signal, go winged.”

      Isaiah could almost sense Barca’s smile even through the helmet as realization of the plan sank in. “Good thinking, Cap’n,” the sergeant chuckled, pleased with the outcome. “I was getting tired of messing with Mordred’s head. Not a good sport, that one.”

      “The kid will get us all killed, some day,” grumbled Cosimo. “It’s his fault we are even here.”

      “Cheer up,” Barca laughed, pushing a captive ahead of himself and prodding the man on with the barrel of his bolt pistol. “You will miss all the fun.”

      “On my mark… go!” Isaiah barked, all senses focused on the task at hand. The Reapers walked in single file, forcing the captives to walk ahead of them at just enough of a safe distance not to be caught in any explosions.

      The captives triggered the traps eleven times, falling over one another in blind panic as they were eviscerated, burned to death, or shredded to pieces with red-hot shrapnel sufficient to pierce even the Gargoyles power armor at such close distance. One lost his nerve and tried to run, only to be instantly shot by one of Cosimo’s men. After that, there were no further defections.

      By the time the Reapers navigated their way through the warehouse, thirty four captives became nine. As soon as the column stopped, two fell down in a semi-catatonic state, curling into a fetal position. A Reaper laughed, kicking one of the fallen. The captive yelped in pain, but only clutched himself closer.

      By now, the enemy strongpoint was almost within reach. Isaiah calculated the distance, factoring in the speed of the jetpack and how long it would take for the defenders to take aim. The frontal assault from the Gargoyles’ old position would have been costly, but here, the distance was much smaller, and, he thought, the enemy would not have enough time to get a good shot.

      And if they got lucky, Isaiah reasoned, this was well out of his hands.

      “Ready to do it?” he asked his sergeants to affirmative nods. For the last time he checked ammunition in his bolt pistol, readying the Excruciator for the butchering ahead. He switched to vox. “Three… two… one…”

      The Reapers burst out of the decrepit warehouse like an angry swarm of hornets, lifting into the air just high enough to let gravity assist their fall. Some of the Space Marines held the remaining captives in one hand, letting go as they reached the high point in their trajectories. And then, before the doomed defenders had a chance to even scream, the Gargoyles were amongst them.

      The battle, if it could be called such, lasted for all of ten seconds. It seemed that those who hide behind fortifications have the least stomach for a fight, Isaiah reasoned, putting a wretch out of his misery as he surveyed the carnage.

      The strobe lights that illuminated the space surrounding the strongpoint were now partially covered with blood, giving a sinister hue to the scenery. Men and women, broken and dismembered in a variety of inventive ways lay strewn across the rubble, body parts mixing with each other to where it was nigh impossible to tell who they belonged to. Boxes of ammunition, once adorned with the hieroglyphics used on Twenty-Seven-Sixteen but now unintelligible in the wan light propped up some of the bodies.

      There were no survivors.

      “Five… six… seven…”Isaiah counted.

      “It’s the stupid game, isn’t it?” Barca came up from behind, cleaning the viscera off his blade with a rag that looked like it came from one of the dead soldiers’ uniform. “What are you up to now?”

      “Twenty nine. A lot more if you count the dead bastards in the warehouse.”

      A shadow fell upon the blood-stained ground, darker even than the night side of the blighted planet. The strobe lights flickered, then one by one died, as if something not quite out of this world touched them. A cold breeze followed in the shadow’s wake, just a little colder than the atmospheric conditions should have allowed.

      “I think they should count.”

      The voice, deep and rasping, cut through the battle-ravaged twilight, somehow compensating for the sounds of carnage still taking place elsewhere. The wind blew colder yet with a hint of eternal winter as a thin layer of frost formed on the Reapers’ armor.

      Momentarily, Isaiah, Barca and their men turned to the sandbag and ferrocrete perimeter, now dominated by a single giant silhouette perched on top of the large-caliber anti-air gun like a bird of prey. A single gasp of amazement escaped Mordred’s helmet grille.

      “You have my thanks for clearing the way, Captain,” said Angelus, the lord of the Fourteenth Legion.


      Comment


      • #4
        TWO

        Like Rats
        Prey
        Two Rules

        Isaiah heard that most mortals’ reactions upon seeing Angelus ranged from shock to utter horror, and he could hardly blame them as he beheld the visage of his gene-father presiding over the congress of the dead. The awesome forces employed by the Emperor in the creation of the twenty demigods have granted the Primarchs the presence that was often physically painful for the humans to witness, the majesty of their sovereign’s creation painstakingly forged on the quantum level in a process more linked to mysticism than pure science.

        The same forces have been subverted, rewired, twisted beyond recognition when the capsule bearing the Fourteenth Primarch crash-landed upon the desolate world of Argos, and the legend was born.

        Larger than any of his warriors, Angelus stood over three and a half meters tall when standing straight, and even crouched he exerted a presence no lesser being could match. Long white hair framed a face that could have come straight from some painting of a forgotten age, a face that was paragon of human perfection even while the rest of him was anything but. The magnificently forged armor of cobalt and grey, a gift from the forges of Mars, could not hide the hunched posture that had more in common with some primordial avian than a human being, while the artfully wrought gauntlets ended in claws, each a blade that would tear the unwary before they knew they were even under attack. The exhaust vents on the Primarch’s shoulders let out a thin stream of wispy smoke, as if Angelus was clouded in some kind of an otherworldly shroud.

        But the most striking feature, the most visible one, was Angelus’ wings.

        Out of all the Emperor’s sons, the Fourteenth Primarch was changed by his travels in the Immaterium in the most visible and terrifying way. While few of the other Primarchs spotted minor differences from the norm, Angelus could not be possibly mistaken for a human no matter the amount of light.

        “Sire…” Isaiah could only manage a single word.

        “You didn’t expect me.” It was not a question. A chuckle that a being unfamiliar with the Grey Prince could have mistook for a growl. “An understandable precaution.”

        “How did you make it here, m’lord?” Mordred managed a coherent question.

        “Lord Angelus comes and goes as he pleases, Mordred,” Barca answered.

        “We don’t question the Primarch,” Isaiah followed, this time on private vox-channel. “Is that understood?”

        The young sergeant nodded.

        “Good work, lads,” Angelus spoke. A hint of a smile played upon his face. “And good hunting.”

        The Primarch slid down through the twilight, his feet touching the ground for the first time. He flexed his wings, then turned to wipe something off them, perhaps some blood or chemical. He examined the ground, paying attention to the corpses. As Angelus strode forward, Isaiah felt as if a shadow followed his master, creeping through the blood-soaked ground, covering the dead with the blanket of funereal peace. For a moment, the Sixth Captain imagined that the shadow had a life of its own, moving in a manner that was just slightly off from that of its owner. He shook the thought off his mind.

        “There.” The Primarch pointed at a trio of corpses eviscerated near a gun emplacement. The bodies formed a strange geometric figure through an accident of death, their limbs falling to the ground in a pattern that, to a casual observer, almost looked prearranged.

        Isaiah looked, but could not see anything out of ordinary. “Umm… what?” he managed a question, hoping that it would not make him look incompetent. The last thing he needed now, that the Primarch’s eyes were upon him, was to look like an idiot.

        “It is understandable.” Angelus smiled without kindness, but with some kind of academic interest. “Stand on top of that gun.”

        The Reapers’ captain did as he was told. The warehouses looked as before – empty, booby-trapped, useless. The sandbags that littered the ground inside the strongpoint seemed to be positioned randomly, with no rhyme or reason. Death took over everything, a peaceful arbiter that equated the mighty and the weak, the superhuman and the human.

        “I… don’t see anything, sire,” Isaiah said humbly. Inside, he felt angry. Now, Ludwig would no doubt find a way to play upon this, a weakness in an otherwise perfectly fought campaign.

        “Nor should you,” replied Angelus. The Primarch paused, cocking his head to one side as if listening to something that no one else could see. “Ah yes, I see…” Once again, he grew silent. “Not this gun, captain. That one.” Angelus pointed at a different emplacement. “And you, sergeant…”

        “Mordred, sire,” Isaiah said, even as he climbed the gun his Primarch pointed to.

        “Yes, Mordred. You stand right here, by the sandbags. No, here.” The Primarch almost grabbed the Reaper and placed him there as if Mordred was a child.

        “Now…” Angelus paused, looking into something distant that only he could see. Once again, he moved his head from one side to another, then sniffed the air. “I understand,” he said to no one in particular.

        He jumped high into the air, then hovered about ten meters above the ground like a monstrous apparition. Isaiah saw his gene-father’s talons flex, flicker with the eldritch energies as the Primarch positioned himself almost precisely between the captain and Mordred. And then, before Isaiah could even formulate his thoughts, Angelus fell down.

        The ground cracked, then shattered in a cloud of dust. Sand and grime flew everywhere, momentarily blinding the Marines who took off their helmets to enjoy the victory and revel in their Primarch’s presence. Strobe lights shattered. As Isaiah watched, amazed, Angelus rose from the hole in the ground like a daemonic denizen of Argosian netherworld.

        “Like rats…” the Primarch whispered, looking into the space beneath. An ethereal light emerged from below, yellow and warm. “Hiding in plain sight.” His voice became higher in pitch and melodic, almost as if he was singing a lullaby. “And then,” Angelus hummed, “we will hunt them down, like rats, we will hunt them down.” The Primarch smiled, evidently pleased with the melody. “Oh yes, we will.”

        * * *

        Once underground, Barca whistled in surprise, revving up his chainsword as if the smooth walls of marble-like substance were going to come alive. “And you thought all they could build was the shantytown above.”

        “I have a bad feeling about this,” Cosimo grumbled over a private channel, going only to his captain. “Something’s not right here.”

        “The Primarch is with us,” Isaiah replied, trying to stifle the sentiment before it began, yet having a hard time finding his own inner calm. Even with Cosimo’s habitual gloominess, Isaiah could not deny the sensation that perhaps the perennial doomsayer had a point.

        There was something odd about the smooth, marble-like surface of the tunnel walls, monotone in their simplicity and resorting to nothing as mundane as lighting strips to illuminate the way. The walls themselves seemed to emanate the light, casting a thousand shadows against their glowing surfaces even as Isaiah and his men followed their Primarch into the unknown.

        “Interesting…” Angelus said to no one in particular, apparently oblivious to the presence of his men. The winged demigod crouched down, picking at the material with his clawed hands. He did not appear to be having much luck.

        “These walls…” Mordred touched one, feeling its texture. “I don’t think the people above built them.”

        “You think, genius?” Barca replied gruffly. “Thank you for stating the obvious.”

        “Silence!” Isaiah raised his hand. There was something in the air, not quite like sound, but also more than a simple vibration. With a corner of his eye, he realized that his Primarch also noticed that.

        “What the…” Barca never finished the sentence as the walls of the tunnel seemed to darken with the passage of thousands of vermin.

        Rats, cockroaches and other, less identifiable creatures seemed to swarm in the direction of the Space Marines like a living, foul smelling flood. The vermin paid little heed to the Gargoyles, as if whatever they were fleeing was far more dangerous to their simple existence, and even though the boots of the Reapers managed to stomp the creatures into disgusting paste, the flood did not stop.

        “I think we should take a hint,” said Barca, pointing his bolt pistol at the direction the vermin were coming from. “The prey is this way.”

        Isaiah could almost imagine the grizzled sergeant grinning beneath the helmet. This was what Mordred could someday become, the captain thought with pride.

        “Oh yes, the prey,” hissed Angelus. A predatory smile played upon his statue-perfect features. The energized talons flexed again.

        “All of you, advance pattern Basilisk,” Isaiah called out to his men, indicating a formation designed for tunnel fighting. “Heraz,” he nodded to one of Cosimo’s men, even now brandishing a flamer, “you take point. First sign of anything, you shoot.”

        “Yes sir,” the Marine replied, watching the tunnel intently as the squads formed on him.

        He was the first to die.

        One moment the Gargoyles advanced in a steady, ordered formation, surrounding their Primarch on all sides like bodyguards and warily watching the tunnel walls. Next second, the walls turned red, and Heraz’ body parts fell down to the floor, as if cut with an unseen yet nevertheless deadly force.

        The Gargoyles opened fire before they could even rationalize that they were under attack. While the Legion’s preference for assault resulted in the squads carrying fewer weapons larger than a bolt pistol, they were still Space Marines, and as such they could fill the tunnel with a frightening amount of firepower in a matter of split seconds.

        “Stop it!” Isaiah commanded, raising his hand. “There is nothing there.”

        The tunnel was empty, Heraz’ dead body the only sign of the encounter. Isaiah cycled through his helmet’s vision modes. He let out a juicy Argosian curse, then ripped his helmet off.

        “These walls are messing with thermal,” he said by the way of explanation, adding a few choice words of his own when some of the Marines were too slow to follow suit. “From here on out, no helmets except for…” he paused, examining his men. “You three,” he pointed to one man in each squad. “Keep yours on and look for trouble, just in case.”

        The three Marines Isaiah selected answered affirmatively, then took positions towards the back of the formation. All held standard issue bolters, eschewing the close combat power of a chainsword for a greater ability to deal death from the distance.

        Was it his imagination, or did Isaiah see an approving smile on his Primarch’s lips?

        “Now… advance!”

        The Reapers walked slowly now, wary of what may lie ahead. In his mind, Isaiah still was not quite sure what happened to Heraz. Was it some kind of a booby trap, or was it something far more sinister? He wished he had the foresight to save some of the prisoners to walk ahead of them.

        This time, there was sound. A savage howl erupted from thin air as one of Cosimo’s Marines, a stout and powerful Terran by the name of Migal was eviscerated. First the Reaper’s abdomen was sliced open, heedless of the protection offered by his battle plate, then his chest, arms and neck were sliced.

        Isaiah shot his pistol at the invisible thing tearing the warrior apart, knowing that it was too late for Migal. The shots passed through the air as if there was nothing to stop them. A cannonade of fire from the remaining Gargoyles followed, with just as little effect.

        Only the Primarch himself remained rigid, unmoving, as if the scene unfolding just a few meters away from him did not concern him.

        “Wait now,” Angelus whispered, raising a finger to his lips. Around him, the Marines exchanged looks. The Primarch was rumored to have second sight, and the Argosians knew to listen to those touched in an extraordinary way, the Yurogi. If he was seeing something they were not privy to, the Gargoyles knew well enough to trust him.

        Angelus closed his eyes, then started to shake as if possessed. His talons began to tremble even as his wings beat an uneven staccato rhythm upon the floor, tic-tic-tac, tic-tic-tic-tac. Then, the Grey Prince growled.

        The sound was loud enough to burst the ear drums of an unprotected human, and even the genetically enhanced Astartes winced at the intensity of it. The tunnel lit up in response, agitated or activated, none could say. And finally, the Gargoyles saw their prey.

        * * *

        As Isaiah stared in disbelief, he saw a creature of many limbs, almost entirely translucent and arranged in a way that suggested either insectoid or most likely mechanical origins, at least twice the size of a power armored Space Marine. The thing hovered in mid-air, suspended in mid-motion and struggling to escape as parts of it flickered in and out of existence, becoming more defined or transparent seemingly at random. A clicking noise emerged from what Isaiah judged to be the creature’s mouth, a threat, or perhaps a plea for help?

        “Kill it,” the Sixth captain commanded, and this time, the Reapers’ bolters did not miss. The construct had practically disintegrated as it was hit with mass-reactive shells from nearly every direction. Shards of crystalline material erupted where the Space Marines struck their assailant, flying in random directions like shrapnel and embedding themselves into the tunnel walls and even the Gargoyles’ armor. Only when the only thing left of the construct was a broken down frame did the Space Marines stop.

        “What… was that?” Isaiah squeezed through his teeth, incredulous that neither his advanced wargear nor his genetically enhanced senses could spot their attacker until it was too late.

        “Old…” Angelus rasped. “Before… Old Night.” The Primarch sounded like the words did not come easy to him. The light near the winged demigod became distorted, and Isaiah saw with amazement that the tunnel floor was covered with solid ice. Angelus’ eyes rolled back in their sockets, displaying only the whites, even as foam of some sort came out of his mouth.

        The Primarch tilted his head back, then howled, as if in despair. Isaiah saw some of the Reapers instinctively hold tighter to their weapons despite all the training and enhancements that made them humanity’s deadliest, most advanced warriors.

        Suddenly, Angelus knelt, closing his eyes. The frost began to spread from him to the adjacent Space Marines, then further and further away. The Primarch nodded to no one in particular, then turned his head, as if listening for something only he could hear. There was an angry expression on his face that turned to serene calm, then became a frustrated grimace that finally resolved into cold, impassive determination.

        Angelus opened his eyes. There was no white anywhere.

        “There are many more ahead,” the Primarch spoke, now evenly and with no emotion. “We must hurry.”

        Hurry for what, thought Isaiah before shrugging it off. His Primarch knew something he did not, and for the moment, this was sufficient.

        “You’ve all heard the Primarch,” Isaiah bellowed out, making a semi-circle with the Excruciator vaguely in the direction of their hunt. “Let’s go.”

        * * *

        If Angela had any expectations for what the Gargoyles’ flagship should be like, she would have been sorely disappointed.

        Some Primarchs made their larger vessels into the places of martial worship, where the warriors of Legiones Astartes held court like kings amongst the mere mortals, receiving deference and near-worship amidst the plunder of countless campaigns. Some others turned to art as a form of expression; their battleships became magnificent and opulent palaces traveling through the void, decorated from within and without by the finest creative minds in the Imperium. There were even some whose vessels were purely utilitarian in nature, resorting to shock and awe only when their masters deemed it absolutely necessary to employ such concepts as diplomatic strategies.

        The Redeemer was, for the lack of a better word, grim.

        It was no celebration of military might, or a paean to the advancement of the human civilization, or even a warship run with a mixture of efficiency and determination. If Angela did not know better, she could have sworn she was walking into a crypt from some long forgotten era, populated by monstrous statues brought to life through some forbidden sorcerous process. As far as she could tell, Crassus was similarly disturbed.

        “Don’t take it for much, dear girl,” the poet said as they walked through a massive docking bay, lit just enough for the mortal attendants to have basic visibility, but not any more than that. “They are warriors, bred to fight the Emperor’s wars and nothing else. They all have their own quirks, mark my words. For example, on Merenga V, the Peacekeepers…”

        “Be quiet!” a voice hissed from the darkness, words made even harsher by a guttural accent. “The masters may tolerate your presence, but they are in no mood for banter.”

        “The…masters?” Angela said quietly, looking around for the speaker.

        “The Legion,” the shadows parted, revealing a man on the early side of middle age, pale in countenance and with long blond hair parted down the middle and braided into several elaborate designs. The man’s tunic did little to hide his overly muscular arms covered with tribal tattoos and savage scars. He stepped closer to the remembrancers, looking them up and down as if they were some kind of exotic animals.

        “I am Lieutenant Galiaf, and I will be your escort,” the man said, looking directly at Angela. “Look what we have here. A Terran?”

        “Umm… yes?” the young woman replied, not sure to the meaning of this. Was this some kind of a savage courting ritual, she wondered? Her eyes drifted down his body, evaluating him for any kind of menace. She had to hold back the gasp as she realized his legs ended just below the knees, the very obvious prosthetics taking over for flesh.Where a denizen of another world might have attempted to hide his disfigurement through augmetics or garments, the man seemed to proudly display his disabilities like some kind of a barbaric mark of honor.

        “When you are here, you will live by the code of Argos,” Galiaf said in a low voice. Despite his tone, Angela did not detect hostility, amusement, perhaps, but no malice. She was surprised to see no lust in his eyes and body language. He smiled, evidently finding her puzzlement humorous. “Rule one. Be quiet. The masters don’t like the noise.”

        “Rule two,” he said, now turning his attention to Crassus. “Never,” he shook his head. The braids shifted. Beneath was a mess of scar tissue. “Never mention the Tenth Legion.”

        As the remembrancers exchanged looks, Galiaf smiled. “Follow me.”


        Comment


        • #5
          THREE

          Beautiful Monster
          Catacombs of the Abominations
          The Desperate Masters

          “Interesting bunch, these Argosians,” Crassus replied as soon as they were out of Galiaf’s sight. “Who would willingly choose to live like that?”

          The remembrancers were led through the dark corridors and endless flights of stairs seemingly designed to confound and discomfort the more frail amongst them, until they finally found themselves on a level that had a semblance of adequate lighting. They met very few Legion serfs, who appeared to shy away from Galiaf in either terror or, perhaps, deference. And still, not a single Astartes crossed their way, as if the Legion had a way of disappearing from their own vessel.

          The snarling images of monsters were everywhere – fighting, hunting, copulating, taking to the sky or feeding upon their unfortunate victims. The small group of remembrancers – eleven in total, seemed completely at odds with the grim decorations, like children in the lair of shadows.

          “It’s as if they are… obsessed?” another remembrancer, a younger fellow by the name of Ambrosian, a sculptor or a musician – Angela could not quite recall which one it was – ventured.

          “You’d think they would obsess about something more pleasing to the eye,” grumbled Crassus. “This menagerie will give me nightmares.”

          “They are totem marks,” Angela said quietly. Quickly, the remembrancers’ chatter ceased. “The Argosians believe that the images of monsters serve a dual purpose. One, they protect against the evil spirits.” There were some chuckles in the group. “Two, they lend some of their strength and vitality to the warriors of Argos.”

          “Look at you,” Crassus smiled, somewhat nervously as he accidentally bumped into a particularly grotesque bas-relief. The image depicted a monstrous wolf-like creature with a multitude of asymmetrically positioned eyes and bat wings howling towards a crescent of a young moon. The monster’s lower extremities were hidden by a what looked like a pile of inhuman bodies, twisted and mangled beyond recognition. Something dripped from the creature’s claws. “Where did you know all that from? Did the creep Gali… whatever his name is try to sweet-talk you while I wasn’t looking?”

          “I’ve read about it,” said Angela noncommittally. “You know, the Argosians are a fascinating culture. To live on a world like theirs and maintain a purity of form, that alone is quite an accomplishment.”

          “Sometimes I wonder if it would have been for the best if they stayed at that mutant-infested rock of theirs,” Crassus said quietly. “I mean,” he was his usual self again, “I can appreciate the different strains of humanity in this great Imperium of ours as much as the next man. But these people,” he grimaced in an expression of disgust, “give me the creeps. Ugh!”

          “You think!” Ambrosian exclaimed, wincing at the images. “This here… it’s not civilization. Savages, one and all! Once I get to talk to their masters…”

          Angela wondered if the man was delusional, or at the very least naïve. The Fourteenth Legion was not known for their grace, humanitarian tendencies or civility. Instead, the Gargoyles were the epitome of brutal warfare that forged the Imperium of Man after thousands of years of the Old Night.

          It was said that where the more prestigious Legions took over worlds, the Fourteenth only left a bloody mess in their wake. Only Jaws of the Deep, the oft-maligned Second Legion, enjoyed the same degree of infamy, and even then, there were some who argued that the Gargoyles were by far worse. Where the Jaws of the Deep were thought to be mere barbarous savages interested in the act of slaughter itself, the Gargoyles had a reputation for enjoying the process of destroying the worlds that did not signal compliance.

          “You should be mindful… of… your… manners…” Galiaf wheezed into the remembrancer’s ear, appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

          Ambrosian turned several degrees of pale as he realized his words were overheard. A puddle of something slowly spread from under his voluminous robes.

          “Next time you insult Argos or her people will be your last.” The crippled Argosian did not even bother to give the remembrancer a second look. “Your quarters are a short distance this way.” He pointed towards a particularly gloomy archway.

          “I can see a value of whispering,” Crassus pointed out, amused. “Think it’s his way of giving us a friendly warning?”

          “On Argos, the wildlife has mutated into many predatory forms,” Angela said, recalling her readings. “Most were large and dangerous even to fully armored Space Marines, let alone hunters and villagers with spears and crossbows. Before the coming of the Primarch, the Argosians survived by hiding.” She tapped on Galiaf’s shoulder. “Is that so, Lieutenant?”

          Angela could tell that the man did not like the words she used, taking a mental note. Apparently, hiding was another taboo. She wondered if it resulted in a degree of overcompensating for it, now that the tables have turned, and the monsters became barely remembered bas-reliefs on the walls of a vessel capable of scouring worlds of all life.

          “There is no honor in hiding,” Galiaf snarled. “Not unless you have a skill to turn it into an ambush.” He seemed to have conquered his anger. “Until Lord Angelus came, it took many to fell a single beast. But now…” He let the words trail off.

          Angela knew the rest of the story. There were no more monsters on Argos – at least, not in a conventional sense. Angelus, the Grey Prince, led a force of champions across all lands of that grey, miserable world to confine the beasts to a single peninsula, where even now the Gargoyles’ initiates tested their mettle against the surviving creatures. Galiaf had probably never seen a monster with his own eyes, let alone fought one.

          She wondered if some part of this crippled man wished for return to the old days, a distant age in which he would not have been a servant to a Legion he could never hope to be a part of.

          “Umm… Lieutenant?” Crassus tried to sound polite, but ended up coming across pleading. “Can you please show us to our quarters?”

          “You should be thankful Lord Angelus was finally persuaded to even allow your kind on the Redeemer,” said Galiaf, wincing as if he had just smelled something unpleasant. “That way.” He pointed again. “You can find your own cabins.”

          “Just like that?” Crassus complained, much more quietly now. “Find your own? Surely there must be some others here who already staked their claim?”

          Galiaf laughed, as if Crassus said something completely hilarious. It was a deep bellow, hoarse but not entirely unkind. The Argosian shook his head. “There are no others. You are the only remembrancers on board. Did they not tell you?”

          “I… I thought… surely…” Crassus tried to form words, without much success. Angela could almost pity him. Where other expeditions were home to hundreds, sometimes even thousands of artists, poets, composers and other creative geniuses tasked with properly recording the greatest endeavor in human history, the Twenty Seventh Expedition had eleven. Only eleven to record its deeds for posterity, to give humanity an idea on what it was like to live in this most glorious age.

          “Lord Angelus only agreed to your group being here,” Galiaf said. “All others were rejected – quite forcefully, might I add.” The Argosian seemed pleased with the thought. “On, to your quarters!” He waved on the remembrancers as if they were cattle or children. “Go , go!”

          Angela paused, heedless of Galiaf’s urging, then traced the reliefs with her hand. They were made out of some material that suggested either stone or something vaguely organic. Some had sharp edges, while dim lights were artfully worked into the others, appearing as images of Argos’ many moons, its primary star, or even fire emerging from some of the monsters’ throats.

          In a strange, twisted way, it was almost beautiful to her painter’s eyes.

          “What are you waiting for, Terran? Think you’re too delicate to follow orders?” she heard Galiaf’s impatient yell.

          She did not move. Her hands traced the images, rising higher and higher as her imagination added new details to them, breathing life into the grotesque scenery. Something nagged on her mind, something important that was just out of reach.

          And then, she understood.

          The reliefs were not as random as they might have appeared to an outside observer. Anyone else would probably have dismissed it, but to a trained painter there was no question about it. There was a pattern to the fantastic monsters, a pattern only visible in this relatively dim light to one paying utmost attention. A slight twist of the angle; a change in position; a variation in the types of creatures depicted – all have pointed at a guiding intelligence behind the design.

          “Terran?” The crippled warrior started walking toward her, striding much faster than his injuries should have allowed.

          All the lines, all the monsters, all the creative arrangements of lights began to converge. Angela took a tentative step, then another, following the pattern.

          “Here,” she spoke, nodding to the Argosian. “Who is this?” Her hand pointed to a faraway image far to the ceiling, almost completely obscured by shadow play. From the distance, it was blurred, concealed in the gloom to where only a glimpse of it was visible, a half of a face, statuesque, completely at odds with the grotesque creatures surrounding it. A god, she wondered? A hero descending into this underworld of abominations?

          Slowly, Galiaf’s eyes followed in the direction of Angela’s fingers. A sense of foreboding gripped her.

          Suddenly, the Argosian came to a full stop. He gave the image a wide-eyed stare, turned to Angela, then to the image again, as if comparing or contrasting the two. He took a step back, almost stumbling on his crude prosthetics, as his hand made a strange gesture, two fingers to the forehead, then to the heart, then a cutting motion away from the chest. She thought she heard him whisper something in a language she did not understand.

          Yurog.

          “You don’t know?” the Argosian whispered. There was something in his voice that Angela could not quite place, reverence and fear combined into something powerful and unsettling. “That’s him.”

          “Him?” Angela wondered if it was some kind of an Argosian legend, a superstition not yet stamped out by the Imperial iterators.

          “That’s him,” Galiaf repeated, breathing heavily. “The hidden face. The Grey Prince.”

          * * *

          For all that the insect-machine constructs could no longer hide in plain sight, they were still far from easy prey. Isaiah cursed as he barely evaded the pincer-blades of one only to bump into another one of his warriors fighting for his life against a particularly vicious thing. Teeth of the Excruciator bit deeply into the construct’s limbs, severing several of them but not stopping its onslaught.

          There were hundreds of things in the tunnels, all built from the same quasi-transparent substance with nary a difference between them. If there was ever any doubt as to the constructs’ mechanical origins, it was gone.

          “Abomination!” Isaiah screamed his hate as he finally managed to separate the construct in two, avoiding the pincer-blades for long enough to deal a death blow. The blades made a sound not unlike a wind chime when they hit the tunnel floor.

          Around him, the battle raged. Twenty four Gargoyles and their Primarch charged the mechanical guardians of the catacombs, slaying all in their berserk fury, heedless of wounds and casualties. Dimly, Isaiah almost regretted not having Ludwig’s company here; his rival’s men were far more adept in ranged than close combat, and their equipment would have been sorely needed.

          But then, they had their Primarch.

          Seeing Angelus in battle was almost rapturous to the Sixth Captain. The winged demigod moved with speed and grace that could never be surmised from his twisted body, smashing the constructs with nary a thought or spare movement. Where the Grey Prince trod, only destruction followed.

          As Isaiah watched, the Primarch grabbed two of the machines, utilizing them as clubs to batter their cohorts to the debris-strewn floor. More of the melodious chimes rang through the stale air as the constructs thrashed in Angelus’ arms.

          These were the worst blasphemies, things created without a soul and yet with a predatory, singular intelligence. Briefly, Isaiah wondered how these came about, and why the fools ruling Twenty Seven-Sixteen even considered consorting with these. There was little doubt that the planet’s society held no means of creating this artificial unlife, and, perhaps, no means to control it.

          The first lesson of humanity’s rule of the galaxy had to do with the extermination of all who would challenge its right to do so. The second lesson was to never create any who could possibly present a challenge. Such was the hubris that brought forth the downfall of more than one civilization throughout humanity’s long, tortured history.

          And then, once again the tunnels were silent.

          Isaiah strode carefully through the debris, pausing only to put a bolt shell through an occasional twitching construct. He took a chance to look around, seeing grim determination on his men’s faces now that the initial bloodlust had receded. There were twenty two left.

          The constructs, for all their close combat prowess, were not a particularly satisfying enemy to destroy. Something within the Sixth Captain wished for more living prey that stunk of sweat and terror, that had blood the Excruciator could drink to the fullest.

          Yet another reason not to create this.

          “These don’t bleed,” Mordred gave voice to his thoughts. “Poor hunting.” There was something very hound-like about the younger sergeant’s face, as if he thought that sniffing the air could reveal more of the constructs. Against his own judgment, Isaiah smiled. The things gave no scent of any kind.

          “Bleed, yes,” a deep voice cut through the aftermath of carnage. “There will be bleeding. Soon.”

          “My lord,” Barca bowed respectfully to his Primarch. “What is happening here?”

          Angelus chuckled, as if he found the question amusing. Psychic frost condensed near the rim of his pauldrons, spreading until much of the Primarch’s armor was covered with it.

          “Old forces,” the Grey Prince said laconically. “Unleashed by those who don’t understand.”

          “Are you saying that they are desperate, my lord?” asked Isaiah, giving Barca an unpleasant look. He was not going to let a mere sergeant upstage him.

          “All life is desperate.” Angelus’ attention seemed to have wandered off as he absent-mindedly stared into a space just above Isaiah’s shoulder. The Sixth Captain cast a quick glance, finding nothing there.

          “Yes, yes,” the Primarch intoned. Isaiah was not sure if Angelus was speaking to him, or to something else. “Very well.”

          “M’lord?” Isaiah asked. “The Reapers are ready for your command.”

          “That can wait,” Angelus smiled, showing his teeth in a monstrous grin. “Let me show you something.” The Primarch walked over to a mostly intact construct, lifting the mechanical nightmare up. “This. Is. Not. Life!” An appearance of anger on his features presaged the Grey Prince breaking the construct upon his knee. More harmonies sounded as splinters flew in all directions.

          His face changed to an almost caring expression, Angelus petted the broken half of the machine still in his hand. “Poor, pitiful things, these are. No light but this. No wind in its face. No brothers but those chained to it by madmen and fools. Oh, what is this coming to!” He cooed to the creature as if it was a child being caressed in his arms.

          “Oh, the reason. Right, the reason,” Angelus looked like he finally remembered something. “If we don’t make it there in time, they will destroy the planet.”

          The words were spoken with such casual disregard that Isaiah could not believe his ears. There was no rush, no sense of urgency in the Primarch’s voice, not even a slightest bit of concern.

          “They… who?” Mordred appeared surprised, clearly unused to being in his liege lord’s presence.

          “The fools, hiding underground, lonely, afraid,” Angelus cooed. “Poor, poor fools.” He sighed. “Maybe I can sing to them of how vain it is. Have the wordsmiths arrived?”

          It took Isaiah a second to adjust to the complete change of subject. “Wordsmiths?”

          “Never mind, Isaiah,” the Primarch seemed to have collected himself again. “All in due time.”

          “The… refugees, sire,” the Sixth Captain said quietly, hoping that whatever strange spell came over Angelus was not going to delay them here for too much longer.

          “Ah, the refugees,” a savage smile, completely at odds with a gentle expression of only a few moments ago, played on Angelus face. “I suppose we can do something about them, yes?”

          The Primarch hissed, an odd contrast to the melodies of the broken constructs. “Let’s hunt.”

          * * *

          They found the refugees hiding in a locked down bunker, protected by thick plasteel and automated gun sentries that lasted precisely one point four seconds – only as long as it took for a coordinated series of shots to take the guns apart, and for Angelus to slam his great bulk into the armored walls, instantly cracking the defenses thought to protect the wayward leaders of Twenty Seven-Sixteen. After that, it was all about killing.

          Isaiah found it a much more satisfying experience this time around. The frail, desperate men and women died in droves, trying to vainly make their last stand at strongpoints, then in the narrowing corridors, then in the rooms where arcane machinery of unknown origin and purpose bore impassive witness to the carnage. There was something almost pleasurable in feeling the Excruciator bite through flesh and bone, splattering red gore upon the grey and white armor of the Sixth Company until it was some indistinct, mushy hue of wet dirt.

          “There,” the Primarch commanded, leading the Reapers down through a set of chambers, each larger than the one before it, and each packed to the brim with soldiers waiting to be slaughtered. No mercy was given to any who tried to surrender, even as the nerves of many defenders gave way and they ran, hoping to find a degree of safety in hiding.

          None would defy the Gargoyles on this day, and the floors of the hidden bunker ran crimson as the warriors of the Fourteenth Legion systematically exterminated all foolish enough to be in their presence. Room by room, strongpoint by strongpoint, none were left alive.

          The defenders’ last stand was where all the tunnels converged into one, narrowing until it was barely wide enough for two Space Marines to walk abreast. The remnants of a once-proud warrior elite of Twenty Seven-Sixteen manned several heavy stubbers, bands of ammunition too hopelessly small to pierce the Gargoyles’ power armor lying on the blood-soaked ground. Nearby, the last platoon of the defending infantry stood their ground, preparing to sell their lives dearly, or at least to try to do so.

          Isaiah paused, predatory grin on his bare face. He had long discarded his helmet, not bothering to use its advanced tracking systems as he hunted the humans down like vermin, taking in the rich aroma of desperation. A degree of hunger he never realized he possessed settled upon him like a crimson veil of exhilaration. He felt the Excruciator sing in violent anticipatory response, flakes of crusted blood falling to the floor like a halo of stillborn flies.

          For a second the Space Marines and their mortal foes looked at each other, perhaps the only moment of total, utter stillness in this battle. The last defenders of Twenty Seven-Sixteen saw grim, armored giants with blades of twirling iron and guns that completely ignored the meager armor of the planet’s soldiery, faces twisted in anticipation of extermination to come. The Gargoyles saw the last of a broken host, men and women far beyond mere physical exhaustion, now too desperate to even consider surrender. Once the pride of this backward culture, now the final victims of its hubris.

          None defied the Fourteenth Legion and lived.

          The Gargoyles charged into the fray with a growl of wordless rage rather than an elaborate battle cries of their cousin Legions, or vainglorious declarations of intent popularized by their myriad predecessors on every battlefield in human history. They were outnumbered by more than ten to one – the odds that did not favor the defenders.

          The Fourteenth Legion glorified in butchery when all else failed. They were the final solution to cultures that did not stop after a show of honorable resistance, or that were so far off the human baseline that they were considered irredeemable.

          This was just how Isaiah liked it.

          Dimly, he remembered shouting at Mordred to control his temper, or catching a glimpse of Angelus tearing the defenders apart with his bare hands, or ripping off limbs and using them as weapons. Somewhere along the line he felt coppery tinge of blood on his tongue, probably splattered from one of his many victims. The world became a charnel house of flailing limbs, screams and scattered gunshots.

          Then, silence. And a number. Eighty three.

          Angelus was the first to stroll past the dead and into the last enclave they protected. The Primarch’s movements were casual, careless of any enemies who might try to perform some kind of a last-gasp attack. The wings dragged upon the floor, sometimes catching on body parts or remnants of the defenders’ wargear. Motioning to his men, Isaiah followed until he could finally see the last hope of Twenty Seven-Sixteen. Mouth agape, he stood in puzzlement, unsure how to process the sight before his eyes.

          A massive cavern opened up to the Reapers, full of crystalline structures whose purpose Isaiah could only guess at. Multicolored lights played inside the crystals, reaching to the cavern ceiling at least two hundred meters above them. The hum of unseen machinery surrounded the Space Marines like a veil of auditory deception, playing havoc with the acoustics of the place and creating phantom noises in the least expected places.

          “I didn’t realize we were this far underground,” Cosimo whispered in some misguided reverence for this place.

          “Where are they?” asked Barca, clearly unnerved. The sergeant moved his bolt pistol in a wide arc, trying to find enemies even as his squad formed around him like harbingers of violence to come.

          For once, Isaiah agreed. They have come too far to be led into a dead end. The Primarch himself led them here, and if there was one thing the Sixth Captain could fully and unequivocally believe, it was that Angelus knew what he was doing.

          The Grey Prince was a Yurog, touched by the worlds beyond, and those wise in the ways of this world knew when to follow the touched.

          “One here, one here,” Isaiah heard his gene-father whisper, curiously arranging the body parts of the mortals the Primarch had slain into strange patterns. To the Sixth Captain, the patterns were meaningless, but Angelus appeared to see something in them, a divination perhaps? A smile crossed the Primarch’s lips, to be replaced by an expression of discontent. “Is that so?” the winged giant whispered, then nodded enthusiastically.

          “The pylons,” the Primarch said, a knowing smile playing on his lips. “Blow them up.”

          “Wait!” a cry emerged from the cavern depths below.

          Angelus laughed. “Oh, the little ones come out to play?” The Primarch flexed his wings, then, without much of a hurry, sat on the floor. Warily, the Reapers formed a defensive semicircle around him, watching for the signs of trouble.

          They appeared from between the crystalline pylons, a small group of men dressed in fineries that made no sense to the Sixth Captain. Signs of office, military uniforms with a multitude of medals for some long-forgotten accomplishments mixed with the flowing silks of terrified concubines and children, hiding behind their menfolk.

          “Please, wait,” the apparent leader, an overweight youthful man limping in front of the group pleaded. “Please…”

          “To make things interesting,” the Primarch said, still smiling in an amused expression. “No boredom, here.” He spread his wings, a beatific image of a monster. “Let’s make it entertaining.” He shook his head, grinning mischievously.

          “Open fire.”

          Comment


          • #6
            FOUR

            The God Machines
            Death of a World
            Forsaken Son

            The ground shook with a force of an earthquake, throwing the Gargoyles to the floor as if they were nothing more than rag dolls. The light from the crystalline constructs dimmed, cycling through the reddish and orange hues that gave off a vague sense of alarm. Semi-transparent stalagmites rose from the ground like permutations of solid matter suddenly free from the laws of physics, free to flow in any form or state of matter it desired.

            The hum of the machinery changed into a high-pitched whine, a screaming afterbirth of something that had no right to exist in the material universe. The dignitaries of Twenty Seven-Sixteen, or at least those who have not yet been blasted apart by the Reapers’ shots began screaming, horrified at what was unleashed in their last hiding place.

            Isaiah climbed back to his feet, still unsteady from the ongoing tremors that even his gene-enhanced physiology was struggling to compensate for. The Sixth Captain felt a momentary sensation of unease, terminal wrongness that he could not quite place as he ejected a spent magazine from his pistol, replacing it with the fresh one to scythe down the remaining mortals.

            From the corner of his eye, he could see that his comrades followed suit. Whatever force the humans unleashed paled in comparison to the wrath of the Fourteenth Legion. Especially, Isaiah thought, risking a cursory glance at the giant figure soaring above the battlefield and destroying the surviving mortals with baleful psi-fire, when the Legion was led by its Primarch.

            The hum suddenly stopped, and uneasy silence permeated the cave. The humans were now all dead, battered and broken under the bolt shells and chainswords of the Reapers. Nothing else remained – only the dead lights of the crystalline pylons, and the whine of the Gargoyles’ power armor. Even the tremors have ceased in a deathly, deceptive calm.

            A gust of wind, powerful enough to force the Gargoyles on the back foot blasted the gore-drenched remains of the dead dignitaries in the direction of the Space Marines. The Reapers reacted instinctively as a hail of bolt pistol fire blasted the remains into ever-smaller pieces.

            “Stop!” Isaiah yelled, throwing all sense of caution to the wind. “Stop it! Now!” Inside he felt a growl of frustration rise up, barely held in check by his self-control. He heard a maddening cackle of a winged Primarch from somewhere above, perhaps amused or even entertained.

            “Winged!” Angelus said in a playful, curiously serene voice. “Winged, high and above! Soar like a bird, winged!”

            Isaiah stood, dumbfounded, not sure what to make of his gene-father’s words. It was times like these that being led by a Yurog seemed more of a curse than a blessing.

            “Winged, soar on fire!” Angelus creaked again, his voice resonating through the cavern due to a trick of acoustics.

            The crystal pylons moved.

            It took Isaiah a precious fraction of a second to process the unthinkable. The structures seemed to writhe with strange designs of artificial life as cracks appeared in their previously solid exteriors. Inhuman forms flexed their crystalline muscles within, like titans of a long-forgotten legend coming to life after aeons of deepest enchanted slumber. Flashes of light, runic patterns forsaken to the dust of ages now reassessing their dominion in this place of crystal and shadows embedded themselves upon Isaiah’s retinas like script telling a story too vast, too ancient, too terrible even for his gene-enhanced mind to comprehend.

            Once again, a tremor shook the foundations of the cavern, sending chunks of rock astray.

            “Up! Up, you bastards!” the Sixth Captain screamed, activating his jet pack to lift above the inhospitable ground. His eyes automatically sought firing solutions, pointing his pistol at the emergent leviathans and knowing that there was little that the mass-reactive ammunition could do against their massive hides.

            Another explosion of light painted the cavern with a kaleidoscopic dance of yellow, blue, red and green. Shards of crystal flew in all directions, embedding themselves in the rocky walls and basalt ground like a forest of stained glass. A scattering of notes played in the now-still underground air, a triumphant if discordant symphony singing an aria of bright and painful dissonance.

            Several Gargoyles were too slow in getting into the air, and now found themselves pinned to the ground by the pinions of crystal, as if some malevolent intelligence directed the hailstorm of shards towards the only targets within easy reach. Even the airborne Space Marines had to struggle to avoid the attack, pirouetting between the razor-sharp crystals to save themselves with varying degrees of success.

            The first of the leviathans to emerge from its stasis-tomb had a vaguely humanoid appearance in that it had a pair of thick, jointed legs and two arm-like protrusions from its sides, but this was where the resemblance ended. Sharp, angular edges made the machine’s joints appear mechanical, while in place of head, the leviathan had a trip of horns with lightning playing along their length. Slowly, the arms extended, lighting up with unholy fire as they scanned the cavern, slowly turning towards the airborne Gargoyles and their Primarch.

            There were about twenty of the titanic monstrosities in the cavern as far as the Sixth Captain could see, ranging from about ten meters in height to well over fifty, all bristling with unnatural crystalline life. They reminded of nothing as much as the giant Titan war-engines, walkers of such immense proportions and continent-shattering firepower that the simple-minded amongst the Imperium’s trillions citizens took to calling them the God-Machines, to the silent approval of the Martian Mechanicum. Twenty Titans were a terrifying enough sight on the surface of a planet, but here, their presence seemed to be unnatural, as if nothing this size should be ever hidden underground, waiting to be awoken from its ageless slumber by the petty tinkering of lesser beings.

            Hundreds of smaller creatures the size of unaugmented humans, vaguely similar to the invisible constructs faced by the Space Marines in the tunnels, swarmed over the leviathans’ hides. These were almost obsidian in color, absorbing any light as surely as if they were made out of the living darkness itself. The melodic, harmonic sounds coming out of them were oddly unsettling compared with the creatures’ insectoid appearance.

            Twenty one surviving Space Marines and their Primarch soared high above the waking crystalline god-machines and their lesser minions, weapons at the ready as the constructs arranged themselves in what seemed like a battle formation. The multi-colored lights swirled like vortices of stained glass insanity, decorating the Gargoyles’ grey and white armor in hues of unexpected gaiety, as if an overenthusiastic child decided to throw paints at the warriors of the Fourteenth Legion with neither rhyme nor reason. The harmonies combined into a terrifying crescendo, forcing the roof of the cavern to shake, and for stalactites of sedimentary rock to crash down with the full force of heavy artillery bombardment.

            A hissing, screeching sound threw the carefully arranged cacophonous symphony into disarray. The crystalline titans seemed to shudder for a moment, whatever misbegotten intelligence guiding them apparently not comprehending the challenge as Angelus soared upwards, a hateful snarl on his face. The constructs’ light changed to red, then to blue, then to dark, menacing red again as one of the smaller machines raised its arm, pointing it at Angelus and letting loose a volley of shard-like projectiles. The few that strayed to the side and hit the cavern walls blasted huge boulders from them, gouging deep rents in the stone.

            The Primarch’s body was now wreathed in a soft, gentle light wholly unlike the harsh illumination of the crystalline titans. The shards seemed to disintegrate as they hit him, one by one, the volley expended with no appreciable harm done to the Grey Prince.

            Angelus howled again. This time, there was a smile on his lips – a lucid, wrathful smile that promised much pain to whoever crossed him. Clad in a halo of witchfire, the Fourteenth Primarch descended like a winged daemon, howling a song of triumph to come as he directed his flight towards the largest, most imposing of the titans.

            “What are you waiting for?” Isaiah bellowed at the sight of his lord. “After him!”

            As one, twenty one Gargoyles followed their Primarch on the wings of fire.

            * * *

            Beneath a scattering of sparse, old constellations, the world died.

            It was a planet of dust and rocks, red and brown almost, but not quite like those of Mars, with old craters overgrown with thick vegetation and swallowed in shallow salty oceans. Wispy grey clouds rolled over the surface lovingly reclaimed by the generations of settlers, now witnessing the end of an epoch, the end of all life. The terminator line crept over the ash clouds rising over the sites where once cities and citadels stood proud, daring all spawn of the Old Night to throw themselves against their mighty walls.

            Nothing lived, and yet the world remained, oblivious in its scarred unlife like a revenant brought back to a semblance of normal existence.

            The night fell suddenly now that the atmosphere itself seemed to dissipate into space, sheared off by multiple weapons of terrifying power and arcane function. Thin lines of frost appeared in place of the rivers and irrigation canals, painting a silver spider’s web over the wretched surface.

            At last, there was peace.

            She walked through the ashes, careless of what dangers may still lay beneath the grey shroud of civilization’s remains, feeling thin cold air sting her face like barbed needles probing the resistance of her skin. The ground ached under her bare feet, biting into her skin with a thousand poisoned thorns that once might have been alive, now eternally married to rubble and ruins.

            The wind howled laments of names, places and forlorn dreams that would never come to pass, now that the dreamers were gone, becoming part of the wind, dust, biting drizzle that began to come down from the darkening sky. She saw a moon rise, like an eye of some vast and terrible beholder observing the desolation – a single moon of sickly rust color, stained by the trace particles of ashes in the atmosphere.

            Everything was ashes, and to ashes it shall return.

            She felt a tingling sensation of exhaustion in her legs and stopped near a burned out husk of a house, partially fallen as a consequence of the cataclysm that befell the nameless world. A slab of stone that might once have been a wall offered her a resting place amongst the charred remains the origin of which she preferred not to think about. A second’s glimpse inside the house revealed what looked like a set of skeletal remains frozen in an endless, voiceless scream.

            Her feet were caked with dust and mud, turning grey and pallid in the light of the distant setting sun. Blood from dozens of cuts seeped into the ground like a funereal sacrifice for the dead of this planet. She sighed, feeling the air heavy with incinerated dreams fill her lungs with its acrid taste, permeating her body and soul.

            A single moment of warmth that did not belong here, a touch of skin against skin brushing against her side. She shuddered, feeling the instant freezing cold of dread at the unknown, the unknowable where nothing should have existed. A welcoming embrace of darkness, not hiding the monsters of youthful imagination but providing a sanctuary from the harsh twilight of the dying world.

            Angela opened her eyes, feeling her heart beat thump within her chest as if she just ran a race. Her fingers clenched the bed sheets, white and pristine so unlike the devastated landscapes she just witnessed. Neutral reproductions of familiar paintings hung on the walls of a simple room barely made habitable by her efforts from a day before. At her side, her companion’s quiet snoring was almost drowned out by the sound of her teeth making an arrhythmic clattering sound, click-clack-clack click-click-clack.

            She tried to get her thoughts back into some form of order. This was her first night on board the Redeemer, and for few hours she could almost forget the grotesque images and the shocking simplicity of her finding. For all that the vessel had little in the way of refined refreshments she was used to on Terra, there was plenty of lesser entertainments to be had, and when she spotted Vlad Kirov, a young and rather comely imagist, looking alone and out of place, she did not hesitate.

            What happened then? Why did she have this throbbing headache, as if she spent most of the night drowning her inhibitions in alcohol?

            Angela sat on the edge of the bed, lifting up the sheet to cover herself more out of confusion than anything. Her feet dangled from the edge in tune with the chaotic pattern of her teeth, the mad composer’s symphony of her heart beat and breathing. She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, then tried it again.

            The afterimage of the dead world still hung heavily on her mind.

            She stood up, letting the sheet fall down with nothing left to cover the body many had coveted, and made an uneasy, faltering step. Something was driving her, perhaps the dream, perhaps something more. Angela walked on, heedless of her nakedness or the cool breeze of the ship’s recycled air coming in through the vents, past the bedroom and into her makeshift studio that occupied the rest of the living space assigned to her. Frantically, her fingers found the familiar sensation of rough fabric of the canvas, scuttling through the paints and brushes until she found what she needed.

            There. She began to paint, at first slowly, then faster and faster until her hands found a familiar rhythm. Long brush strokes for the foundation. Shorter ones for detail. Finer and finer brushes for all the minute things that a less experienced artist would have missed or glanced over.

            It was the little things that made a great painting – a wrinkle on the old woman’s face, a glint in the bird’s eyes, sensation of the wind upon the field of alien flowers slowly kneeling down under the twin suns. It was the dust, the grime, the vision of reality as it truly was, violent and beautiful, ugly and serene at the same time.

            The colors became a shapeless pattern of sensations in the low lighting, the movements turned into a blur that made no difference between the living and the dead, the real and the imagined. She could have been painting for hours, or maybe for minutes – it did not matter.

            All that mattered was that the picture in her dream was given life and focus.

            Slowly, the painstakingly crafted image took shape. The dark sky of unseen apocalypse spread its dark wings above the shattered ground, where the ruined remains of dwellings stood like monuments to man’s savagery. A hint of something white peeked from the inside of the closest house, perhaps a desperate attempt for survival, or a plea to some uncaring, now extinct gods. The parched ground was strewn with the veins of unnatural frost, a tapestry of reflective, glittering madness as the light of the desolate moon gave sinister hue to the scene.

            Peace, absolute peace.

            She did not hear the sound of footsteps, consumed with her work. As a hand gently touched her shoulder, Angela let out a surprised, anguished scream, holding on to the brush still in her hand as if it was a weapon.

            “Jumpy much?” Vlad Kirov said in a silky voice doubtlessly practiced in the arts of seduction.

            Angela nodded, slowly, reassuringly. She finally let go of the brush, and it fell down with a dull thud of wood hitting the wooden panels of the flooring. She smiled nervously, brushing an unruly strand of hair from her face without realizing that her hands were still covered with paint. There was now a long smear of crimson on her forehead, looking uncannily like blood.

            “Pretty,” Kirov said, looking at the picture, then at Angela. “I know the feeling. Sometimes you just have to do it. And sometimes,” he smiled, a mischievous glint playing in his eyes, “you wonder what is a better work of art.”

            “I… guess,” the young woman replied, only now noticing her nakedness. Instinctively she attempted to cover herself with her hands, leaving smears of paint upon her skin.

            “You did not seem this shy a little while ago,” said her companion, stepping closer. He put his arms over her shoulders. “Sorry if I startled you.”

            She nodded, still in grip of whatever drove her to the canvas.

            “Let’s go to bed,” he said, gently guiding her back, then giving one last cursory look to the painting. The moon was the color of freshly spilled blood. There were sparkles of light upon the ground, and for a second Vlad could have sworn he saw something move within.

            Just a shadow, he thought to himself even as he felt far colder than he should have been, sudden chill making hair on his arms stand up. He looked down, avoiding the painting.

            “Did you… step in paint?” he finally asked, looking at the floor, wooden panels giving way to some unidentifiable material. There were traces of footsteps, small and feminine, dark stains upon the smooth surface.

            “M…m…maybe,” Angela stuttered. All energy seemed to have left her.

            “Let’s go to bed,” Vlad urged, supporting the young woman step by step. He took another look back, seeing her painter’s studio as if for the first time and struggling to avoid the painting of the destroyed landscape. It was just a bad dream, he thought, trying to convince himself more so than anything and holding on to Angela more for warmth than comfort and holding his unease within. Now that the night light revealed more of the floor, he could see it.

            The tracks did not start in the studio. They began by the edge of the bed.

            * * *

            Ludwig paced impatiently by a burnt out husk of a building, pausing only to adjust the position of a mag-locked bolter at his thigh, a compulsive habit he never saw fit to shake off. The weapon never sat just right, always swaying to one side or the other as if daring him to move it, a few centimeters here, a few centimeters there, close enough to reach no matter where the war would take him.

            The bolter had a name, too, but Ludwig never felt much affinity for the weapon, and sensed the bolter’s machine spirit did not like him very much either. The weapon never felt quite right in his hands, no matter how many enemies of the Emperor fell to its fire, infallible at least in that one respect. The bolter thirsted for blood of those who stood in its master’s way, and Ludwig sensed it served because of that, not because of any notions of loyalty.

            For all that the Imperial iterators taught of folly of such primitive beliefs, Ludwig knew better. This was why he named the weapon the Scorpius, a creature from the depths of Terra’s mythology that was so venomous and malicious it would sting itself when there was no enemy left to attack.

            It was only a matter of time, and Ludwig resolved to himself time and again that he would be ready.

            Though he hated to admit it, he loathed this inaction, this waiting for something to happen. Ludwig patted the weapon on his side, almost reassuring it that there would be blood, sooner rather than later. It’s not time yet, he whispered, so quietly that even the enhanced hearing of the nearby Space Marines could not make it out.

            His company, the Nineteenth, affectionally known as the Ogres within the relatively loose hierarchy of the Fourteenth Legion, was known for its proficiency with ranged firepower, at least compared to the Legion’s penchant for bloody close quarters combat. It was little wonder that it was mostly composed of Terran veterans rather than Argosians, who preferred to fight with their blades even when situation did not call for it. But they were still of the Gargoyles, and bloodlust was embedded into their genetic code, no matter the world of origin, and Ludwig chafed at the thought of controlling his more aggressive impulses.

            He looked forward to the moment when he could finally relinquish control, and do the same thing he did under sixty four different suns over his century-long lifespan. The Scorpius and its master both wanted to kill.

            Ludwig kicked a small wayward rock to the side, watching it bounce off the pebble-strewn ground until it hit something with a loud clanging noise. The Ogres made an encampment in the ruins of a village destroyed during the initial assault on Twenty Seven-Sixteen, and now that the fighting was done, there was preciously little for them to do.

            The Primarch ordered that they wait, and the Ogres waited until further orders, anything to relieve this frustrating boredom.

            The Nineteenth Captain had a face that saw too many wars, and had scars to show for it. Not even a most charitable description could call him handsome, and the metal plate that replaced the left side of his face gave him a positively mechanical appearance. One of his arms was severed at the shoulder by an Eldar blade some years back, replaced with an augmetic that Ludwig did not even bother disguising. Some in the Legion used to joke that perhaps he was intended to join the Fourth Legion, and only a bureaucratic mishap led him here.

            A few encounters in the dueling cages ensured the jokes were very few and far between now.

            A vox-bead embedded in his armor collar beeped, and Ludwig felt his frustration grow into even further desire to do violence. It was an unspoken paradox that despite the message, whatever it was, offering a possibility of something more amusing than this endless patrol of a dead village, Ludwig felt little gratitude, instead choosing to take a perverse form of satisfaction from dwelling upon his misery.

            “Speak,” he growled, struggling to contain his darker emotions. It was hard.

            “Transmission from the Redeemer, Captain,” Ludwig recognized the voice of Valentin, a rare Argosian sergeant in the Ogres almost as old as Ludwig himself. The two men shared an uneasy sense of respect, almost friendship at times, but there was no escaping the differences between them.

            It was times like these that the differences seemed to be most pronounced in the Nineteenth Captain’s mind. Even the Argosian accent, normally fairly mild compared to some of the Terran dialects only served to further irritate him.

            “Put it on,” Ludwig commanded, trying not to let his black mood affect his actions. His voice came across as more of a snarl.

            As he listened, his mood got worse by the second. Once again, his hands reached for the Scorpius, moving the weapon just a little more to the right, then upward, then back. It was never just right.

            “Acknowledged,” he finally said, not even bothering to hide his disappointment as he cut the link.

            A less rational side of his mind would have raged against the injustice, perhaps threatening the messenger or worse, but there was little he could do. These were the Primarch’s orders, and Ludwig felt powerlessness compound the frustration he already felt.

            “Valentin,” he voxed over the sergeant. Ludwig’s fists clenched involuntarily. “Where are you?”

            “About two hundred meters east of your position with the squad, why?”

            “Abort whatever it is you are doing, and bring them over here.” Ludwig shook his head, marveling at the injustice of the universe and walking toward a clearing, where dozens of houses were bulldozed to make space for landing Imperial craft. Few regimental flags of the attached Army units hung limply upon a makeshift pole, a fitting complement to the Nineteenth Captain’s mood.

            “It seems Lord Angelus, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that we should play nanny to…” he did not even attempt to disguise the animosity in his voice as he hurled the word like an insult, “civilians.”

            “What?” The Argosian sergeant sounded positively surprised. “Army, envoys, who?”

            “The worst kind.” Ludwig thought of his younger days, the time he did spend around the other Legions, the ones that always got the spotlight. They were always surrounded with thousands of sycophants, some of whom had pretense of great talent or self-proclaimed importance. As far as he concerned, skilled artificers were the only ones whose presence should have been warranted. All others…

            “Pretentious nothings,” he finally said, breathing heavily as he fought down his rage at this assignment, wondering what he did to blacken himself so in the eyes of his Primarch. “Remembrancers.”

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            • #7
              FIVE

              Devastation Unleashed
              World With No Name
              Beautiful Things

              The Reapers tore into the crystalline leviathans with wordless screams of rage, spraying bolt fire against the smaller constructs daring to challenge them. The things were tough, taking at least several shots to fully put down, and even then some attempted to make their desperate leaps at the charging Space Marines, using their limbs as blades or shooting chains of red lightning at their assailants. Isaiah saw one of Cosimo’s warriors take several hits, then stagger as the constructs focused their attacks against him. The man’s eyes began to boil out of his skull as if he was pierced with an electric current too powerful for his frame to contain.

              They fought through the pathways and catwalks seemingly made for creatures much smaller than humans, and still the horde came on, budding off the titans’ crystalline bodies like cancerous offspring. They fought in the air and upon the unnatural armor of the leviathans, exchanging fire, thrusting, ducking, parrying and, above all, killing.

              For all their numbers, the obsidian constructs were no match for the enraged Gargoyles. Though two more Space Marines fell before their electric weaponry, the Gargoyles had firmly positioned themselves on top of the largest of the titans, fighting their way through hordes of lesser machines and struggling to keep up with their Primarch.

              Angelus swatted the constructs out of his way with seemingly nary a thought, needing nothing but his energized claws to wreak a terrible toll. The Grey Prince appeared determined to reach the summit, the electric crown of the titan despite all resistance.

              The other titans appeared to finally take notice of what was happening, and began to loose volleys of projectiles at the Gargoyles, seemingly careless of the fate of the insectoid machines. Isaiah weaved between the hails of fire and strings of lightning, parrying, blocking, reaping his toll of destruction as his men added to it.

              The creatures did not bleed, and knowing there was not going to be a satisfaction of slaying a living opponent drove the Sixth Captain to new heights of fury.

              “Need… power…” Angelus rasped as Isaiah finally caught up with him. The obsidian swarm thickened as the constructs climbed on top of each other in a vain parody of insects, seeking to block the Gargoyles’ way. The Sixth Captain evaluated the distance. Ten meters before the titan’s electric crown. Ten meters fully covered by clicking, insectoid constructs, parodies of true life.

              For that sin, Isaiah thought, they had to be destroyed.

              The Excruciator ripped chunks of dark material from the constructs’ hide, disfiguring the geometric perfection of their design and molding it into a form more pleasing to Isaiah’s eyes, that of ruin. He could sense the other Gargoyles nearby, converging on Angelus’ position and readying the final push forward, to the destination the Primarch decided to be their objective.

              “Strike pattern four!” In his mind, he counted down the seconds until the coordinated, practiced burst of destruction was sent forth. Three… two… one…

              The Gargoyles charged into the flailing mass of constructs, letting their momentum throw the obsidians from the titan’s hull to ignominious destruction fifty meters below. Nearby, the lightning arced between the spikes of the giant machine’s crown.

              “There!” the Primarch hissed, ripping into the swarm as if they were wheats to be scythed down by a farmer’s thresher. The Reapers instantly redirected their thrust, exploiting a weakness in the constructs’ attempt at formation. In the heat of battle, Angelus seemed almost entirely lucid, capable of logic that his warriors understood and followed.

              Isaiah ducked under a projectile from one of the other titans, thanking his luck that the titans appeared to exercise some caution not to damage the leviathan the Gargoyles were fighting on. Five meters.

              He swatted a construct to the side, crushing delicate-looking limbs with a brutal swing of the Excruciator. Another machine met its end as the Sixth Captain emptied his last magazine into the center of its body. Isaiah roared like a creature of the wild, oblivious to all but the destruction his hands had wrought upon the mechanical abominations.

              Where did they come from, what kind of forbidden science created them? What kind of society would willingly awaken the devices that broke the ultimate taboo, artificial intelligence?

              If he needed any proof that the people of Twenty Seven-Sixteen deserved nothing less than complete extermination, this was it.

              So focused he was in his thoughts that Isaiah almost completely missed the massive shadow that obscured some of the light emanated by the titan’s crystalline innards. When he raised his eyes from the sight of the carnage his relentless assault had created, he could not help but pause with his mouth agape, hard-pressed to believe what he was seeing.

              The shadow was cast by Angelus’ wings as they flapped in the still air of the cavern, wreathed in the light of very different nature from the titan’s own twisted illumination. The Primarch’s hands grabbed on to the electric crown, twisting it, bending it to his will as if it was a trio of small trees yielding to some prehistoric giant, a hero of a dark legend.

              For all the physical impossibility of it, the crystal was pliable in his arms, electric charges racing up and down the Primarch’s body in a seemingly desperate attempt to deter him. The obsidian constructs abandoned their attacks on the Gargoyles, launching themselves towards Angelus only to be easily slaughtered by the Reapers.

              The titan shuddered, as if attempting to shake off the human intruders. Isaiah could almost feel its unnatural distress. The god-machine had survived the inexorable march of uncounted millennia, the neglect of the devolved civilization and who knew which uncounted horrors of the Old Night. But against that, the leviathan had no defense.

              With a titanic roar, Angelus finally bent the horns to where all three were touching at a single point. The lightning stopped, now replaced by a single ball of energy gloating seemingly just above the horns. Isaiah let out a sound of alarm as it began to envelop Angelus.

              The Primarch roared again, but this time his face displayed something very much like satisfaction, perhaps even ecstasy. Now, there was light coming from his eyes, mouth and ears, giving his already pale skin a translucent appearance, as if a new sun was born within his flesh, struggling to get out.

              “Power…” his lips mouthed off a word. “Bright…”

              The world disappeared in a flash of light even Isaiah’s gene-enhanced vision could not filter out. Even blinded, the Sixth Captain could feel a surge of power the nature of which he did not even try to comprehend. A gust of freezing cold wind knocked him off his feet, and he struggled not to fall off the titan. He heard a scream, turning to the source of the sound while frantically attempting to find a grip on something that was not going to separate from the titan’s body. Isaiah briefly wondered if one of his men, similarly disoriented, failed to save himself in time. He fervently hoped that whatever just took place had somehow immobilized or otherwise negated the obsidian constructs. After all this time, it would have been unfitting to succumb to one of those base things, he thought, shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear his vision.

              It was stupid to go without a helmet, a single thought ran through his mind, and he growled in frustration, directing his rage at a dark spot somewhere in front.

              A dark spot?

              Things came into focus slowly as Isaiah’s posthuman physique finally began to compensate for the aftereffects of the flash. He blinked several times, seeing things close to him with greater and greater clarity every time. Slowly, the Sixth Captain rose first to his knees, then to stand upright. A scene of complete devastation greeted him.

              The charred husks of the other titans were slowly falling apart, as if they were made out of sand in the face of a strengthening gale. Here and there, spurious lightning played upon their remains. Of obsidian constructs there was no trace, as they vanished into the dark of the cavern, perhaps never to be seen again.

              The Reapers seemed to have suffered significant casualties, as Isaiah counted only sixteen Marines among the survivors. With a pang of regret he noticed that Mordred was not one of them. It seemed that the young sergeant’s career ended here. Most displayed some damage upon their armor, and none seemed to escape unscathed; bruises and wounds upon their exposed faces were disappearing slowly under the influence of the enhanced healing of their kind. A tenuous opening of dark blue appeared overhead, as if the cataclysm tore a hole through the cavern roof, exposing it to the elements for the first time in millions of years.

              But the one figure that instantly drew Isaiah’s attention was his Primarch.

              Angelus soared above the carnage on wings that seemed to be made as much from flesh as they were from fleeting, incandescent light. Residual lightning played upon his form, occasionally striking the ground as if he was an ancient storm deity resurrected from the grave of the ages to wreak havoc upon all creation. A beatific smile played upon his face, made all the more terrifying by blood gushing from his ears, nose and corners of his eyes.

              Isaiah had never seen anything so beautiful – or so distressing in his entire life.

              The Primarch looked down, finally deigning to notice the lesser warriors below. Slowly, the Gargoyles lifted themselves up, not daring to remain prone under his eyes.

              “Good,” Angelus hissed in apparent satisfaction, addressing his warriors like a deity might proclaim revelations to the worshippers or lesser beings. “It is done.”

              Beneath him, the last of the other crystalline titans crumbled into nothing.

              * * *

              “How did it happen, anyway?” Vlad Kirov asked, looking out the shuttle window at the unwelcoming, ruined landscape still bearing scars of the Gargoyles’ assault. “I thought they detested us!”

              “Your guess is as good as mine, my boy,” Crassus groaned, looking warily to the sides. When he was certain no one but the other remembrancer was watching, he pulled out a small metal flask devoid of any engravings or identifying symbols, then took a short drink out of it. He shuddered after swallowing, then passed it on to Kirov. “You want?”

              “Leave it to you to find a drink anywhere, Crassus,” the younger remembrance replied, then reached for the flask with a smile on his face. “You know I do. Now, how about…”

              “Maybe later,” Angela said absentmindedly, staring blankly into space. Her finger twisted and turned an unruly strand of hair, left, right, left, right again.

              Kirov leaned over to her. “Is… everything all right?” He whispered so that even nearby Crassus could not hear it. “Are you…”

              “Just thinking,” the young woman replied. ”I just have a lot on my mind, that is all.”

              “Anything you want to talk about?”

              “Maybe later.” She smiled, but the expression looked forced and unnatural.

              “If it is about last night…” the other remembrancer said, awkwardly trying to find the words.

              “Don’t worry about it, Vlad,” Angela straightened up, fixing her sleeve. “It’s just… this world… it gives me the creeps.”

              “The feeling’s mutual,” Crassus chimed in, his voice acquiring some fatherly tones now that he indulged his appetite for alcohol. “What?” he added, noticing Kirov’s and Angela’s stares. “I could hear you easily from here. Pfft!” He curled his lips in mock appearance of being insulted. “This shuttle is only so big, you know? And,” he winked, “don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.” He laughed, evidently satisfied with himself.

              “Piss off.” Kirov put on an appearance of a smile. He leaned closer to the window, examining the planet. By now, the shuttle was past the wispy clouds, diffuse sunlight almost a distant memory here. He shuddered, imagining what kind of environment these people could have called home.

              “Who in their right mind would choose to live on a world like this?” Crassus asked, joining him. “To be afraid of the sun… strange!”

              “There are many strange worlds in the Imperium,” Angela said. “This one is far from the worst of them all.”

              “Say,” Crassus put his hand on her shoulder in a fatherly gesture, “what do they call it, anyway?”

              “Twenty Seven-Sixteen is the official designation,” Kirov answered, sounding as if he was reciting something learned in a scholam. “Meaning sixteenth world subdued by…”

              “We already know that,” said Angela. “I think he means, what is the name of this planet?”

              Kirov rubbed his chin, apparently not prepared to answer the question. “I guess…” he said sheepishly, “I have never really wondered. It’s just another world, maybe stranger than others, but…”

              “You!” Crassus pointed to a crewman dressed in the combat fatigues of one of many Army regiments attached to the Twenty Seventh expedition. “What’s this planet called?”

              The crewman shrugged, as if the question was beneath him. “Who cares? Another world for the Primarch and the Emperor.” His words were apathetic, as if he had seen his share of non-compliant planets, and was now just going through the motions.

              “But its inhabitants must surely call it something, right?”

              “They could call it a latrine, for all I care!” the crewman snapped. “Access the databank, or find something useful to do, and stop bothering me.”

              “A friendly bunch,” the older remembrancer muttered under his breath, giving the crewman an unpleasant look. “It’s like… they don’t want us here.”

              “Of course they don’t want us here, you old drunkard!” Kirov’s handsome features were distorted in a snarl, relaxing slightly as he tried to regain some composure. “I mean, you don’t have to be great and observant Marat Crassus to see that.”

              “Humph. No sense of humor.” Crassus smirked at Angela. “Whatever you see in this one, I’d like to know. His tongue’s clearly not it.”

              Kirov’s muscles tensed, as if he was preparing for the fight, then relaxed. “Sarcasm,” the younger man said. “It’s the latest thing on Terra. You should try it someday.”

              Angela shook her head. Ever since they embarked upon the shuttle, the two men were alternately fighting or having rare moments of alcohol-fueled camaraderie. At times she wondered how two such different people ended up attempting to chronicle humanity’s reconquest of the stars, when they could rarely manage each other’s company. She recalled an old saying that genius did not conform by rules of social interaction.

              And still something puzzled her. The stories from the other Legions’ Expeditionary Fleets had remembrancers go through inordinate amounts of bureaucratic hassle just to get to see the planets the Legions have conquered, and even then, it sometimes took years before the remembrancers would be given access to an actual warzone.

              Her experience with the Fourteenth Legion was clearly not usual.

              The more she thought about it, the less it made sense. The Gargoyles were not a friendly group – in fact, in all this time since her arrival on the Redeemer, she had not seen a single one of them in the flesh. Her minders made it clear that the remembrancers were at best tolerated, and expected to stay out of the Legion’s way. She did not think that their request – nay, a petition to join the Legion’s forces on the surface of this planet and observe a compliance being enacted – would even be seriously considered by whoever made the decisions on board the Fourteenth Legion’s flagship.

              And yet, here they were, cleared for landing through the means she did not understand, for reasons that were still oblique, racing towards the world with no name and about to join a battle company of the Legion! The unnamed world lay beneath, a wasteland so like the parts of Terra ravaged by millennia of conflict and willful disregard for the environment by generations of the planet’s inhabitants. Angela felt pangs of anxious anticipation, involuntarily squeezing the sleeves of her robes. And something else, a sensation she could not explain but could always feel in the back of her subconscious.

              This was the same sensation she felt when something pivotal was going to happen – admission to the art school she dreamed of; the first moment of passion with the boy she felt affection for; the appointment to the great order of remembrancers, designed as a medium between the conquering heroes of humanity and the planet-bound masses who would only dream of the many worlds beyond. A primitive yet always potent emotion that served Angela well through her life – a moment that would set her on a collision with destiny. And destiny was always a cruel mistress.

              * * *

              The nameless world was a cold, brutish place, with the sky the color of murky water and the ground like some kind of a cratered, lunar landscape, dry and arid yet obviously populated. As Angela stepped down from the lander’s ramp, she could not help but notice the remnants of buildings still vainly reaching for the indifferent heavens, now shadowed by the Imperial Army tents that sprung up in their vicinity like fungus near a rotting piece of wood.

              Regiment flags flew proudly near the landing site, bearing savage impressions of monsters and heraldry wrought in curving, sinuous lines. An armored personnel carrier was parked nearby, with a driver enjoying a cigarette while telling something to his comrade.

              No one seemed to pay the remembrancers any heed, as if their arrival was at best a minor irritation.

              She saw a single figure moving toward her at a brisk pace, and all of a sudden her apprehension flared up, as if she found herself in hostile territory. A rational, hopeful part of her mind told Angela that her assessment could not possibly be accurate, but still her heart was filled with dread and anxiety as she finally beheld a member of Legiones Astartes in the flesh for the very first time.

              No drawing, sculpture or holographic image could truly relate just how imposing the Legionnaries appeared. Taller than the tallest human yet perfectly proportioned and clad in the armor that presented a cross between the gothic magnificence of Terra’s forgotten primitive cultures and the latest in the Imperial science, the Space Marines were the pinnacle of the Emperor’s program to create the perfect warriors to conquer the galaxy with. Just to be near one was to be in the presence of a post-human creature, a scion of humanity’s immortal liege that was subject to as many legends as fears and superstitions.

              The ballrooms of Merican hives spoke about the warrior prowess one had to exhibit to even be considered for induction into the Legions; the miners of Chthonia whispered to one another about the conquests of the Space Marines reaching into the parts of the galaxy long consigned to myth or poorly remembered rumor. In the forests of Daran, the mothers frightened their children with the retribution of the Imperial Legions, while on the feudal world of Calessin, boys competed in brutal blood games for the honor of being noticed by passing Imperial Expeditions and turned into post-human killing machines.

              There were no other creations of the Emperor save for the Primarchs that elicited as much awe, as much trepidation, and, to some, as much hatred as the Space Marines. And when it came to fear, there were few who inspired it as much as the Gargoyles.

              The warrior marching to greet the remembrancers was even more imposing in person. Over two meters tall, he dwarfed their mortal chaperones in every aspect, while the ceramite plating of his armor, decorated with hand-carved tribal designs upon the otherwise featureless grey was a stark contrast to more utilitarian uniforms worn by the Army troops. The Marine’s face was a ruined mess where flesh and metal fought for dominance, with neither prevailing; his spiked gauntlets flexed in what Angela thought was irritation.

              There was little mistaking of the fact that he did not want to be here.

              “Oh my…” Crassus whispered, grabbing on to Angela’s sleeve for reassurance. “They weren’t kidding.”

              “I am Ludwig,” the warrior barked. Despite the deep basso tone, his accent was almost familiar, although Angela could not place it. The Marine’s one artificial eye glowed dark, malevolent red as he took in the party. His next words were quieter, but no less menacing. “The man upstairs might have taken a liking to you, but make no mistake. If you get under my feet, I will not be held responsible for what happens next.”

              There was something to his tone that suggested he wanted for the remembrancers to try.

              “Not much to see here?” Somehow, Ludwig managed to phrase the words as a question. Angela saw Kirov quickly look away as the Marine’s eyes turned to the young remembrancer. Inwardly, she winced.

              “It’s… beautiful, in its own way,” Angela said, taking in the scenery. There was a sense of destitute, grim grandeur to this, so much like the scene from her dream, and yet different from it. Where the other world was red, this one was grey, blue and dirty, dark green of the bloated, infected sky. Where the other world was once warm and full of life, this one was always cold and unwelcoming, just barely habitable even before the Twenty Seventh expedition set its sights on it. Where the other world suffered a massive cataclysm she could not quite describe, this one was yet to die.

              The Marine strode towards her, slowly yet purposefully. She could feel the musky scent coming from him, so different from human and yet… not entirely repulsive. The mild breeze brushed wispy strands of hair from the Gargoyle’s face, a sight that under any other circumstances would have been pathetic. There was preciously little hair left on Ludwig’s head, and what remained looked unhealthy, as if whatever almost took off half his skull managed to sap the life from him long after he recovered from the worst of his wounds.

              “That building, over there?” the Marine pointed to the remnants of a shed, torn apart in some vicious battle before the remembrancers’ arrival. Two of the walls still stood, covered with something dark - an aftermath of a fire? Blood? “See it?”

              “Yes…” Angela nodded, a sense of foreboding creeping into her head. What was he trying to say, a part of her wondered.

              “A squad of locals barricaded themselves inside with sniper rifles. Took out four Army squads before we could get to them.” Ludwig raised his voice. “That one, there?” He pointed at another, almost completely destroyed. The only hints that something stood there once were the remains of the walls, perhaps knee-high at best, bricks blasted apart by the force of concentrated fire or explosions. “A little woman, even smaller that you, strapped explosives to her chest and blew herself up. Got one of my men even.”

              “That hill you see out there…”

              “Umm… with all due respect, good sir…” Kirov started speaking. A single glance from the Marine was all it took for him to stop.

              “Do you still think it’s beautiful, little woman?” the Marine snarled. He smiled cruelly. “Ready to go back to your comfortable cabin and keep on imagining beautiful little things yet?”

              Angela did not say anything. Another gust of the light breeze blew a strand of hair into her eyes. A thousand smells, some familiar, some thoroughly alien came with it. She felt a sudden chill, drawing her robes closer in vain hope for warmth.

              “I said, ready to go back yet?” Ludwig said, louder this time. His face grimaced in an expression of disgust.

              “No.”

              “No?” the Marine shook his head as if in disbelief, then laughed. Angela could not tell if he genuinely found her response humorous, or if there was something else to it.

              “I will not…” she tried to speak, reassuring the brutish warrior that she and her companions would not become a burden he expected. Another burst of cold wind silenced her.

              Angela waited for a rebuke, some kind of a malicious or sarcastic remark doubtlessly reserved for those of non-military persuasion, but none came. She raised her eyes.

              Ludwig’s face became a mask of amusement, even as the other two remembrancers withdrew from her. Kirov seemed to be particularly incensed, pointing at her without being able to form coherent words.

              “What?” Angela asked, not sure what all this meant.

              “Your… your skin…” Kirov barely managed, taking another step back. This time he could not keep his balance, and fell, unceremoniously landing on his back.

              Slowly, Angela raised her bare hands, looking at them in the pale illumination of the strobe lights. The skin seemed to reflect the light, crystalline and inhuman. Veins of ice formed upon her hands, drawing patterns that she somehow recognized.

              Before she could scream, the world went blank.

              Comment


              • #8
                SIX

                A Warning Delivered
                Dead Terrors
                Questions

                “Witch!” Ludwig hissed through his teeth, pulling out the Scorpius faster than any mortal could have possibly managed and pointing it at Angela’s ice-covered, shivering form. There was malevolence in his voice that he only displayed to the worst of his enemies, to the beings thought unworthy to live.

                As far as he was concerned, the witches definitely fell into that category.

                For all that Ludwig grudgingly accepted the need for astropaths and Navigators, for all that he thought he came to terms with the Legion’s battle-brothers of the Librarium, honed into a psychic weapon of unimaginable power through rigorous and demanding training… For all that he had to adjust to when he found out his own Primarch, his gene-sire had the mark of the witch upon him…

                Ludwig saw with his own eyes what happened when psychic powers were unleashed without the tempering influence of decades of training and sacrifice. On the frozen fields of Galas Prime, his mind was made up as he saw the horrors summoned from the darkest pits of despair, as he saw men turn into nightmarish abominations and sorcerous fire lay waste to the warriors expecting honorable combat. He felt a tingling in his facial skin, a memory of that battle that he now carried for the rest of his existence.

                The girl’s eyes opened.

                White fire lit her from within, as if she suddenly became a vessel for a vast, terrible power far beyond anything a human should have been able to command. A trace-work of veins lit up like a system of burning rivers under the frost-covered skin, each capillary a stream of motion converging into a halo of sensory overload.

                “Captain!” the voice coming out of Angela’s throat was both familiar and alien, as though something had subtly twisted her vocal cords to somehow echo everything she said. “Wait!”

                Ludwig’s weapon was still tracking her, but the Gargoyle did not fire. His finger danced on the trigger, fractions of a millimeter away from unleashing the full wrath of the Scorpius. He felt an urge to shoot now and ask questions later, almost too strong to control.

                “Warning!” the girl, or whatever possessed her form creaked. “I bear a warning!”

                Ludwig heard a thump of a body falling over behind him. It seemed at least one of the remembrancers fainted. A single whiff brought the unmistakable smell, suggesting that a mortal lost control of his bladder.

                “You have five seconds,” the Nineteenth Captain spoke, finger on the trigger. Had it not been for his orders, he thought, fighting this unnatural impasse…

                “Attack is coming from beneath,” Angela said, white light pouring down her form like luminous, viscous liquid. “Hurry before it’s too late!”

                The girl dropped suddenly like a marionette with her strings cut off. The light has vanished as suddenly as it came, and her skin turned ghostly white, but otherwise normal. Ludwig swore, not taking the scope of the Scorpius off her.

                The world was silent but for a slight breeze, this time of purely mundane nature. The Gargoyle spat on the ground, then turned to watch a pathetic sight of two remembrancers barely capable of holding their terror at bay. The older one appeared to be holding up his younger comrade; there was a suspicious wet spot upon the younger remembrancer’s garments. Ludwig grimaced in disgust. He stood in a way that allowed his peripheral vision to see the girl’s prone form, wondering.

                If these men are allowed to write a history of the Great Crusade, he thought, what kind of history will they write? A gloriously exaggerated tale that stirred the blood of the ignorant and the easily amused, or perhaps a fantasy fit only for the children? Would they ever relate the reality of events that, to Space Marines, did not even warrant a second thought? Or would they be too terrified, forcing themselves to isolate their stories to a more comfortable, understandable reality?

                His eyes went back to the girl, and an angry snarl appeared on his lips. He wondered if he should just put an end to it once and for all. The Scorpius rested uneasily in his grip, and Ludwig felt the weapon’s machine-spirit grow restless in an anticipation of death.

                No, he told himself, fighting the urge to press the trigger and release the pent-up anger. Ludwig bit his lower lip, irritating sensation bringing his senses back to normal. He felt combat stims released into his bloodstream as the armor interpreted his trepidation as a call for violence.

                No.

                Such a simple word, yet so many things that it could imply! A simple “no” could spell death of a non-compliant world, or life of an execution victim. A simple word was all that it took to separate a thinking man from a beast.

                I will not. Ludwig whispered the words, forcing the weapon down. He felt his hand shake. This is something Isaiah of the Sixth would do, he thought, gritting his teeth to stave off the violent action. This was not something a proud warrior of the Emperor, a scion of Terra would be driven to, no matter the extreme.

                If he were to kill, it would be for a reason.

                “Valentin,” Ludwig voxed to his second, thinking about the girl’s words and fighting against his inherent distrust of all things to do with witchery. A warning, then? He glanced again at her prone body lying flat against the ground. The old, fat remembrancer tried to cradle her head in his arms, wiping a trickle of blood from her temple. The girl’s breathing seemed to be even, even if she was not displaying any signs of regaining consciousness. The Gargoyle wondered why it was the old man and not the youth who attempted to comfort her, then shrugged. For all that he witnessed of humanity in his century of existence, he still could not hope to comprehend them.

                And now, he had a hard time understanding his own thoughts and impulses.

                Something staved off Ludwig’s fire, something forgotten that now stirred within him. Mercy? No, it was nothing of a kind, for he was a slayer of man and alien, not giving another thought to the cultures and species he and his kind destroyed.

                Foreboding. This is what it was, a primitive belief in fate the Argosian warriors permeated through the Legion, and now even their Terran counterparts began to adopt. A single moment where a man proved himself superior to the beast.

                “Combat alert,” the Nineteenth Captain voxed, knowing that his orders would be followed with precision and accuracy that belied the Ogres’ name. Affirmative clicks in the Legion’s battle-cant followed as the squad sergeants responded, ever-ready to perform their duty in the heart of combat.

                A second later, the ground shook.

                * * *

                They came from the ground, just like the girl said, wiry constructs made of impossible combinations of glass-like thread and dark material that seemed to absorb the faint light. Hundreds of things that had no right to be here dug themselves from the hard soil, attacking with their blade-like appendages in some atavistic attempt to drive the invaders from Twenty Seven-Sixteen.

                Later, Ludwig would hear the Mechanicum representatives argue about the origins of the constructs, most eventually agreeing that they were a relic of man’s last, greater civilization consumed by the Old Night and left to slumber as their once mighty creators turned to barbarism and basic survival. Then, the techno-magi would argue, something – perhaps the Primarch’s expedition into the underground tunnels, perhaps something done by the desperate defenders attempting to turn scraps of ancient lore into a final, ultimate weapon to protect their independence – freed the machines from their slumber. Finally, the senior ranking Magos, a creature more metal than flesh, would sermonize on how the existence of such forbidden devices was further proof of why true artificial intelligence – not, of course, the machine-spirits occupying the more advanced Imperial devices with the full blessing of the Omnissiah Himself – was an abomination that should never be allowed to prosper, its creators forever damned in the eyes of the Machine God. After all, he would say, did humanity not create the Men of Iron, who almost proved to be its doom in the barely remembered age before the Age of Strife?

                For now, Ludwig was fighting for his life.

                He fired the Scorpius with one hand, drawing his combat blade with the other and frantically working to slay the constructs nearest to him. Further away in the distance, the sounds of bolter fire and whirling chainsword teeth indicated the battle was joined.

                As much as he hated to admit it, the warning made sure the Ogres were not caught unaware. Tactical readouts in his artificial eye indicated the constructs were reaping a toll from the mortal troops, but were no match for the Space Marines. Ludwig roared, throwing himself into battle with little thought for anything else.

                Dimly, he recalled the fat remembrancer dragging the girl back towards safety of the lander while the Army troopers lit up the eternal twilight with crimson lasfire. Somewhere, the assault elements of the Nineteenth Company met the constructs head on, while a series of explosions about three hundred meters west of him indicated that someone had sense to use grenades.

                Everywhere, the machines were coming out of the ground, burrowing into the waking world like undead nightmares made into a parody of living beings. The things had neither compassion nor fear, killing as easily as they were slain, their awkward gait belaying the deadly and orchestrated dance of their blade-arms. Ludwig killed and killed again until his blade was shattered from an unlucky parry, shot until he had no more ammunition left, then fought them with all the strength and viciousness that was the hallmark of the Fourteenth Legion. The tactical readout displayed icons representing his warriors going out, first one, then two, three, half-dozen…

                But for all its ferocity, the swarm was doomed to failure. Ludwig recognized the shapes of his assault squads descending near him on the wings of fire and laughed as they tore into the machines, shattering artificial tendons and breaking mechanical limbs into awkward, jagged shapes. He growled something unintelligible, a curse perhaps, or a simple cry of savagery, then threw himself alongside his men, all thoughts of caution forgotten.

                Today, he thought, satisfied, the Scorpius would be sated, if only until the next battle.

                The assault ended as quickly and suddenly as it began. Without warning, the machines simply stopped in whatever positions they were last, seemingly without power or guiding direction. Crushing an inert form of a construct between his gauntlets, Ludwig could finally take an unhurried look around.

                As far as he could see, the Gargoyles were not taking any chances. The Space Marines continued to methodically destroy or dismember the automatons, one by one, switching to chainswords and combat blades to conserve ammunition. Ludwig felt quiet pride at his men’s discipline. Both Terrans and Argosians worked in unison for the same objective, with no needless heroics, little petty bantering and the philosophy of quiet, efficient professionalism the Nineteenth Captain tried to hammer into their heads.

                Not like the Sixth, not at all.

                Last Ludwig checked, Isaiah’s merry band of murderers was being unleashed against some unruly village. The Nineteenth Captain smiled against his own better judgment, feeling vindicated that at least his long-time rival had an assignment worthy of his hubris.

                The two men never truly got along, and while in some other Companies it would have become the basis for a friendly, competitive rivalry, the Ogres and the Reapers were too different, too contemptuous of one another. Ludwig still remembered the Legion when it went by a far less threatening moniker, a simple numerical designation with neither the glory nor the terror that its Primarch granted to it. Isaiah was one of the newer breed of officers, born and bred on the death world of Argos and raised to be a Space Marine after the Primarch’s discovery. But the differences went deeper than their disparate origins.

                The world of monsters bred a different kind of men than the world of civilization and refinement. Where Ludwig’s Company was composed of soldiers and warriors that conquered their most base instincts even in the heart of battle, often through sheer willpower and against their genetic inclination for destruction, the Reapers reveled in the act of destroying their enemies, taking it not as a necessity but as a game where the winner gets to fight another round.

                Maybe, Ludwig thought, a moment’s sentimentality washing over him, it was the involvement of the Eleventh Legion. The Reapers spent much time alongside the Warblades, taking on some of their more reprehensible habits. Whatever the cause, though, Ludwig felt little but anger at even the mention of the Sixth and its brash, violent Captain.

                “All clear,” sergeant Valentin’s voice rang through the cold air. The warrior approached his captain, wiping sweat off his unhelmeted brow. “Reports are coming in from elsewhere too, sir.”

                “What reports?” Ludwig instantly banished the contemplative thoughts, focusing wholly on the warrior before him. An uneasy feeling came over him.

                “The same thing that happened here,” the sergeant said. “Seems that something awoke more of… these things.” He kicked an inert construct over, watching the machine fall down like a strange abstract sculpture. “Sounds like they gave hell to the Fifth and Ninth Companies, and the Army regiments on the other side of the planet were mauled pretty badly.”

                “All in all, we got lucky,” the sergeant concluded, looking around to ensure no constructs remained standing. “Whatever you did, it worked. The others did not have a warning, and got hit before they knew what hit them. Had they not stopped…”

                Ludwig frowned. It was one thing to genuinely foresee danger – it was a completely different thing to owe the relative ease of victory to a warning from a psyker, of all things.

                “Casualties?” the Nineteenth Captain asked, foul mood settling over him once again.

                “Nine battle brothers. Who knows how many Army,” answered Valentin, his contemptuous tone indicating how little he cared about the mortal troops. He cocked his head, amused look in his eyes. “I do wonder though, what happened to make them all stop. Did you… do something?”

                Ludwig shook his head. “Not us here, but I will take what I can. Raise the Redeemer, let them know what just happened. Maybe they can tell us what is going on.”

                “Or maybe, they won’t,” an inhuman, low and rasping voice said, reverberating inside the Nineteenth Captain’s skull. As Ludwig searched vainly for the source, the ground shook again.

                This time, however, it was different. A massive sinkhole appeared, enveloping a nearby building and dragging an idling Army transport down with it. Alarmed, the Ogres sprung to their weapons, circling the opening like hungry predators waiting for the prey to emerge.

                Then, movement.

                A dark figure rose into the twilight world, massive black wings giving it an appearance of something malevolent and otherworldly. Smaller figures followed it on jets of controlled flame, their grey outlines almost black against the nonexistent light. Instantly, Ludwig recognized the squad markings as his night vision made them out.

                Reapers, worst of all, led by the Primarch himself. The Nineteenth Captain bit back a curse, lowering his gaze.

                “You, Captain, have something I want,” Angelus said, looking around himself as though listening to unseen companions. “Definitely something.” He cackled like an enormous crow, brilliant light instantly appearing in his eyes.

                * * *

                The first thing to return was the sound. Somewhere at the edge of consciousness, where waves of long extinct oceans beckoned amidst the visions of wonders and people consigned to the deepest reaches of memory, the waking world reminded her of its existence with the mechanical noises of unknown origin, scattered and hushed conversations the meaning of which she could not understand and the pervasive, hissing sound she could not place.

                Touch was the next to come back, washing over her like a tide of sensations that she experienced for the first time, a blur of synaesthesia becoming reality. First, welcoming warmth of something wrapped around her body, conforming to every feature and making her wish she could remain there forever, lying in the blissful darkness of the mind. Then, the little things that usually remind that there is no such concept as perfect bliss – an odd twist in the bedding that results in an uncomfortable knot, a slight breeze that bites the exposed skin with its cold sterility, an unwelcome tightness around the ankle.

                Next, it was the sight, indistinct shapes moving somewhere beyond her eyelids, patches of light and darkness, static and ever-moving. There was no denying it now – the waking world got a hold of her and refused to let go.

                The last thing to come back was the memory, the visions that were both hers and not. The horrid worlds burned in her mind’s eye, populated by nightmares that were almost too real to be a mere aftereffect of a bad dream. The blades cut and cut again, leaving a patchwork of blood upon the skin of fallow and dark earth. Things that were neither dead nor alive rose from their endless slumber as she watched, horrified, unable to do anything. Light and darkness played a game of hide and seek in front of her, indistinct shapes calling out to her, drawing her back into the material universe.

                Angela Hesail opened her eyes and screamed.

                The light resolved itself into the sterile illumination of a lander, white and featureless against the similarly bland and utilitarian walls. The darkness resolved itself into an all-too real monster.

                The monster was covered with caked grime and filth, hunching over her as though she was a sacrifice. Sharp, curved claws flexed and extended, making sounds that hinted at something metallic. The monster’s breath was heavy, bestial and speaking of danger. A shaggy mane of hair obscured what could have been a face, or, perhaps, some terrifying set of appendages barely visible in the shade of giant, leathery wings.

                Finally, Angela was out of breath. Instinctively she pulled herself up, drawing the blanket covering her body closer as though it could provide a measure of protection against this new horror. Her nails dug deep into the fleeced material even as her teeth beat a chattering rhythm of fear.

                “Is it?” the monster spoke, paying little heed to her terror. His voice was deep and raspy. He cocked his head, brushing hair aside with a casual swipe of a claw and revealing a pair of deep, dark eyes upon a cadaverously pale face. Unlike the rest of him, the face was perfectly proportioned, noble, with aquiline features that should have belonged to a hero, not to a mockery of one. Against her better judgment and despite her apprehension at being here with him, the artist in Angela made her appreciate his face, imagining what it would look like upon a canvas.

                “Maybe?” He seemed to speak to no one in particular, as if his companion was either invisible or imaginary. “I think I should know.” A snarling grimace replaced the heroic perfection of his face. “Yes,” he said to no one in particular with the appearance of finality that broke no further argument.

                “Very well,” the monster hissed, finally deigning to turn his attention to Angela. “So you are the one.”

                “The… one… what?” was all the girl managed to squeeze through her chattering teeth. Through her confusion, she finally recognized the face. It was the same face carved into the elaborate designs aboard the Redeemer, the same one that seemed to spook even the savage Galiaf.

                It was the face from the dreams that came and went ever since she first felt the calling that drew her to the Remembrancer Corps and led her to the Twenty Seventh Expedition.

                “Lord Angelus.” She spoke the name as a statement of the fact, quietly, almost as a whisper.

                “Ah, yes,” the lord of the Gargoyles smiled knowingly, displaying an array of teeth better suited to tearing apart living prey than to complete the picture of an exemplar of humanity. “You are, indeed.” He somehow managed to slide a bit closer, then laid his hand upon her head.

                Angela winced. The Primarch’s hand alone was large enough that her entire head fit within the palm. She imagined the strength behind it, easily capable of crushing her skull as an afterthought if Angelus desired so.

                Angela closed her eyes. It was hard to keep them open in the presence of a being so painstakingly wrought into existence by the best of the Imperium’s flesh-smiths, imbued with a fraction of the Emperor’s own magnificent soul. But where most of the other Primarchs inspired adoration through their mere presence, this one was different.

                The emotion Angelus inspired in the mortals he had encountered was pure, unadulterated dread.

                “You’ve heard the call,” the Primarch whispered, drawing closer to her. “Just like they said.”

                “Who?” the young woman struggled with her base instinct to run away. Old legends came to her mind – a beauty ensnared by a monstrous beast in repayment for some past transgression. She could not remember how the story ended.

                “No matter.” Angelus rose to his full height, easily reaching the metal ceiling. His wings scraped the luminous lighting strips above. “One with talent, a seeker. Oh yes, a seeker!” He laughed softly, the sound completely at odds with his brutish appearance. “A seeker who hath found. Now, is it what you have sought?” He stared her directly in the eyes, moving half-way across the room faster than her eyes could see.

                “I… sought answers,” Angela squeezed out uneasily. Something made her feel cold and exposed before the primordial demigod.

                “Answers, always answers,” the Primarch shrugged. It was an odd gesture from one like him. “No one wants any questions. Right?” The last words were spoken to someone or something only he could see.

                “Right,” he answered himself. “Riddler, riddler…” He hummed something that sounded suspiciously like a tuneful melody, completely out of place here. “Very well, Angela Hesail. Answers, hah!” He drew closer, close enough that she could feel the heat coming off his skin. “You shall have them.”

                Comment


                • #9
                  SEVEN

                  Wayward Brothers
                  The Veil that Hides the Angels
                  Riddles and Destinies

                  “Ludwig.” Isaiah’s exhilaration at the destruction of the crystalline titans had vanished faster than he thought possible at seeing his old rival.

                  The Nineteenth Captain nodded, and Isaiah saw that his counterpart was just a bit too slow in lowering the scope of his bolter. He suppressed a grin, knowing that the appearance of the Primarch’s favor was going to rub in the meaningless routine of the Ogres’ assignment.

                  No sooner had Isaiah formed the thought, he saw the carnage around his emergence site.

                  The remains of eviscerated Army troopers were mixed in with the parts of crystalline constructs similar to those the Reapers had fought underground. A terrified duo of civilians huddled towards the hull of a bulky lander even as Angelus passed them without even looking in their direction.

                  Isaiah frowned. What did just happen here, and why was his Primarch suddenly leaving the Reapers with no warning? He had a sneaking, ugly suspicion that their emergence here was not accidental.

                  “I see you had your share of practice,” the Sixth Captain said, finally descending from his hovering position to stand upon a pile of broken enemy constructs. Around him, the surviving Reapers formed a semi-circle. With pride, Isaiah noted that all kept their close combat weapons at the ready.

                  Ludwig made a wary step forward, as though searching for hints of the Sixth Company turning on him. He reluctantly clasped one hand to his breast, an archaic Unity salute that predated the Imperium itself. “So the golden boy returns.”

                  Isaiah had to put a hand on Barca’s shoulder, stopping his sergeant from charging blindly against Ludwig. With discipline reasserted, the sergeant relaxed his stance, but only slightly. The Reapers’ jump packs gave them an advantage of being able to bring fight to their enemies faster. If Barca was to start trouble, only another Reaper could possibly stop him in time.

                  “The battles you have not seen, the foes you have not slain!” Isaiah mocked with a curved smile on his lips. “Seems like you got in on some action with the things too cowardly to face the real men.”

                  “Get out of my face before we find out who a real man really is,” Ludwig snapped. The mechanical portion of his face seemed to light up with the reflected fire from his bionic eye. His weapon inched ever bit higher, as though he was looking for an excuse to press the trigger.

                  “The Primarch chose us.” Isaiah hissed, ever ready to push Ludwig as far as he could. There was something about the old Terran that the Reapers’ leader found incessantly irritating. Not only were the man’s tactical choices anathema to a warrior of Argos, born to rip his enemies to shreds in the glory of vicious butchery, but the man’s acerbic sense of self-righteousness made Isaiah cringe.

                  But ultimately, after all was said and done, Ludwig was competition.

                  The Reapers warily assembled by the lander, forming somewhat of an unwanted honor guard for their absent Primarch. Isaiah noticed that more and more Ogres seemed to pour into the clearing, first several squads, then more and more.

                  “You better hold your tongue… Isaiah.” Ludwig spat the Sixth Captain’s name as if it was an insult.

                  “Or what?”

                  The snarl on Ludwig’s face told him everything he needed to know. Had circumstances been slightly different, Isaiah mused, the two would have been quite literally at each other’s throats. The Sixth Captain smiled as he saw his counterpart barely reassert control over his emotions.

                  “Training cages, on the Redeemer, as soon as we are both back,” Ludwig hissed. The mechanical parts of his skull gave an odd timbre to his voice.

                  “I can’t wait,” said Isaiah, putting all his derision into the words. “You might want to bring some backup.”

                  The Terran Captain said nothing, spitting on the ground instead while making an obscene gesture. Isaiah almost launched himself at Ludwig, restrained only by Cosimo’s hand on his shoulder.

                  “His time will pass,” the usually dour, pessimistic sergeant whispered. “He’s not worth it.”

                  Slowly, Isaiah shook his head in agreement, not taking his eyes off the other Captain. Ludwig’s attention has now wandered off, and the Nineteenth Captain began to turn away, whether as an attempt to avoid further confrontation or as an invitation to attack. Or, perhaps, thought Isaiah as he sized his rival up and down, as a sign of cowardice.

                  “Them Terrans are not like us, sir,” Cosimo said in a conciliatory tone. “This one, especially. You have nothing to worry about. He is not making the Zarivat.”

                  The Zarivat. The Argosian word rolled on Isaiah’s tongue, ready to be spilled out, the source of his ambition and the ultimate prize.

                  Where the other Legions had their equerries, command councils or strict hierarchies of experienced warriors, the Gargoyles had the Zarivat. It took more than skill to be admitted into the Primarch’s inner circle, to be counted among the advisors and the executors of his will. Sometimes, the appointments mystified the rest of the Legion; other times, they were thought to be well deserved – but at all times, the warriors chosen to ascend experienced a massive boost to their prestige as they finally had the ear of their Primarch, finally were tasked with commanding multiple companies of the Legion on its many missions away from home.

                  There was nowhere higher for a Space Marine of the Gargoyles Legion to advance, and every single one of Angelus’ sons knew it, from the lowliest neophyte to the most experienced, scarred veteran. It was the ultimate prize any Captain worth his rank aspired to – and Isaiah knew that it was not long before he, too, would be amongst the ranks of this most august brotherhood.

                  There was no set number of vacancies in the Zarivat, nothing so mundane as a simple logical selection. At times, the council numbered as few as two Marines; at other times, as many as seven. Right now, only three of the Legion’s luminaries could claim the spot – Katon, the ancient Terran veteran who rose to command the Legion’s dreaded First Company; Merlin, the master of the Gargoyles’ fledgling psychic corps; and Goffri, the grim, moody captain of the Third Company.

                  Isaiah knew that there was place in there for a fourth warrior, and seeing the Primarch join the Reapers in battle elevated his hopes.

                  As long as it is not Ludwig, he thought, trying to banish his black mood.

                  “No one knows what is on the Grey Prince’s mind,” he whispered back to Cosimo, all the while imagining descending on Ludwig’s back on wings of fire and ripping out the man’s throat, cutting his limbs off with the Excruciator and letting life bleed out of him. For all that Angelus chose to go to war alongside the Reapers, the Primarch’s final destination seemed to cast doubts onto what Isaiah thought to be his coming ascendance. The thought was bitter, difficult to swallow.

                  “Indeed, we will see…” he whispered to no one in particular, descending from the pile of construct parts and into the waiting twilight.

                  * * *

                  “What do you know of fate?” the monstrous Primarch asked, leaning close toward her.

                  To be this close to a demigod was a strange experience for Angela. Most mortals would only have a glimpse of a Primarch’s majesty through picts or works of art, and more often than not, those images failed to represent even a slightest glimpse of what it was like to witness a being genetically wrought to be an exemplar of humanity, to possess strange and wonderful powers that none save for the Emperor himself were rumored to have. The Primarchs were leaders of men, their very existence shaping the future of the universe in ways the lesser beings could not comprehend. Angela recalled some of the names upon the lips of the human galaxy – brilliant Iskanderos, meticulous Leto, courageous Corwin, noble Gideon…

                  She knew that some have fainted in the presence of the Primarchs, while some were overcome with emotions that could only be linked to religious experiences. Their very presence seemed to twist reality around them, as if the laws of physics retreated in protest, unable to cope with the Emperor’s challenge that created these physics-defying testaments to the best traits in all of humanity.

                  Angelus was nothing like that. There was something about him that not only defied comprehension, but also played upon the deepest, darkest instinctive terrors in the human psyche, the fear of monsters that hide just outside of one’s immediate reach. Where the other Primarchs were heroes, borne out of either barbaric splendor or civilized perfection, the lord of the Fourteenth Legion was a monster, a mythological antagonistic creature that had no right to exist, yet was forged into a semblance of human form and given sentience to prosecute his distant father’s war.

                  “Anything?” the Primarch asked again. For a second, his voice sounded like it echoed, a sure impossibility.

                  “It’s… what we make of it?” Angela said. The words came out weak and unconvincing.

                  “But it is!” the Primarch cackled. “You always have a… choice. A choice, yes!” He smirked, perhaps at some inside joke that Angela did not understand. “A choice is always yours. Like now.”

                  “I don’t understand…” the girl said, feeling intimidated by the monstrous presence nearby. All thoughts, premonitions, dreams – everything that combined into the choices she made led to this moment, only to be told that there was another choice to make?

                  “What’s there to understand?” said Angelus. “All threads lead here. All vessels come to the source. All the messengers…” He turned his back to her, lost in thought.

                  “Lord Angelus?”

                  “Oh yes, choices,” the Primarch repeated, as if her words reminded him of something. “Follow the white rabbit…” He shook his head. “You don’t know this one, do you? An old story. Very old. Oh…” he met her confused stare with his own. “I see. You don’t know what a rabbit is. I’ll let you in on a little secret.” He reached a massive, gargantuan arm around her shoulders in a conspiratory motion. “Guess what? Neither do I! But it makes for an interesting little something! Right?”

                  “I wanted answers,” Angela said, quietly yet firmly. “What does this have to do with anything?”

                  “Only everything!” the Primarch laughed manically. “Only everything!”

                  She felt a pang of anger, perhaps entirely unbecoming in the face of a creature powerful enough to destroy her without even trying, but anger nonetheless. “Stop speaking in riddles!”

                  Everything stopped for a moment, as though the universe itself took a step back at the insolence of this one little mortal. The specks of dust floated quietly inside the artificial light. The hum of the lander’s idling mechanisms was now felt more acutely than ever, a low rumble that permeated every miniscule bit of reality. Angela felt her heart beat against her rib cage like a fiery engine on a terminal trip into the land of no return.

                  This is how I die, she thought, recalling the stories painting the Gargoyles in the harsh, brutal light. She tensed, struggling with the ever-growing terror.

                  “Riddles, say you?” Angelus looked at her quizzically, pouting his lips in an expression curiously unbecoming of a Primarch. For a second, his eyes drifted somewhere above her shoulder, tracing a slow arc back to her face. “Be blessed with the lack of understanding, child!” He laughed quietly, perhaps amused at himself. “Understanding is the bane of this universe.”

                  “Understanding of what?” the young woman spoke through chattering teeth, on the edge of letting fear take control of her.

                  “Reality,” Angelus said in a calm, lucid baritone. “Everything is connected. You have heard the call, and here you are. You see,” once again, the Primarch somehow moved to be within arm’s reach of her, without her even seeing him move, “you, my girl, are unique. Oh yes, you are!” He cackled, then his eyes went out of focus, once again. “Isn’t she?”

                  “Who… are you talking to?” she dared to ask.

                  For a second, the Primarch did not seem to notice. His fingers rapped a staccato beat upon his vambraces, neither particularly rhythmic nor even reminiscent of any repeatable pattern. He shook his head, turning to her again.

                  “Someday…” He smiled, a blissful, beneficent expression of a leader about to usher some great new revelation upon his followers. “Someday, my angels…” His wings shuddered, perhaps involuntarily. “Angels, angels everywhere…”

                  The Primarch turned away from the young woman. Now, his voice sounded as if it was coming from somewhere very, very far away. “Even that has a meaning. The universe is a great pattern. Your name, my name, intertwined! Destiny, forged through our choices. Call: I speak, you answer.”

                  He held up his hand, forestalling a question. “The gift we share – the true and the reflected. No,” he examined her as a scientist may examine a curious specimen. “You are a reflection. But even you may see glimpses. Beautiful, beautiful glimpses.” He clapped his hands lightly, either in excitement or perhaps as a form of mockery – she could not tell. There was a playful smile on his face.

                  “The hints have been there all along, my little one,” he intoned. From here, she could see his profile, a classically perfect face framed by a mane of long hair in the shadow of the reptilian wings. A curious thought struck the young woman – it was the one face she wished she could paint, if only once.

                  “You see, Angela, we all leave legacies,” the Primarch said, suddenly lucid. “We all have futures, wispy smoke on the burning water, right?”

                  What was he talking about? A legacy? Smoke? Water? She braced herself.

                  “You said our futures are defined through the choices we make,” the young woman said, too far beyond ordinary fear to show any. “Now you talk about futures and legacies. Tell me straight, what it is that you want with me?”

                  He was so close now he could stroke her chin with a long, clawed talon of a finger. Angela could see pores upon his skin, slight hints of veins around the dark eyes, shadows that would soon become stubble.

                  “I need you, Angela,” the Primarch said, calling her by name again. “You are the one my angels led here. The one who heard. The one who can save.”

                  “Save… whom?”

                  The Primarch shook his head. The motion carried to his wings, giving him an appearance of being about to take flight.

                  “Wrong question,” he chuckled with little mirth. “Not whom. From whom.” He gave her a hand, and Angela grasped on to it as if it was the sole means of escaping a raging torrent. “Here. Take a walk with me, and I shall tell you about the veil that hides the angels.”

                  * * *

                  The world was still and silent as the Primarch and the remembrancer walked through the remnants of a devastated settlement to symphonic backdrop of the wind and wary stares from human and post-human alike. Even the battle-hardened warriors of the Fourteenth Legion gave way to the wandering duo, recognizing their gene-father’s need and moving out of earshot.

                  The dust under Angela’s feet was alive, singing stories of what once was and will never be again. Heavy scents of fumes and fuel drifted on the cold air. The few walls still standing looked at her with accusing eyes of projectile holes, embodying the last gasp of those who would die fighting rather than give up their world to invaders from beyond the sky. The unfamiliar constellations were a thread in the celestial tapestry tying the disparate worlds of reality and dream together.

                  The Primarch spoke, and Angela listened.

                  At first, his words were halting, incapable of forming coherent thoughts that made sense to anyone other than him. Angelus stumbled upon phrases, stopping, interrupting himself as if in argument with something unseen. More than once he seemed ready to fly into rage for reasons that the young woman could not possibly hope to comprehend.

                  But she stayed by his side, and eventually, tortured words began to emerge, the lucid words that made only too much sense.

                  “There is a thread connecting us,” the Primarch said, grimacing at something unpleasant. “It called you here.” Angela nodded, still apprehensive. “I have seen it, too,” the giant continued. “The missing pieces in visions. Tell me,” he stopped, facing her; somehow he managed to bring his gaze level with her eyes despite being almost twice her height, “what have you seen?”

                  “A world… of ruin.” Angela closed her eyes, mentally reliving the nightmare of only the night before. She shook her head furiously, trying to banish the memory. She could not.

                  “No need,” the Primarch put his hand on her shoulder in a conciliatory gesture. “I can see now. Always have.”

                  “Is it something you have done?” the young woman asked.

                  The Primarch shook his head in denial. “Not that. Not yet.”

                  “Do you mean it will happen?”

                  “Who’s to say!” This time, Angelus seemed almost completely lucid. “The future is fluid.”

                  “But you know something about it,” she said, sensing a lack of conviction in his words. “You know the world.”

                  “Taramin,” he finally replied after a moment’s silence. Angelus seemed to struggle with the word, as though the syllables themselves were difficult for him to pronounce. “Jewel, sister to the steel.” He closed his eyes, as if in a dream. “But Taramin is safe. In the shadow of Argos.” A blissful smile appeared on his face. “A happy paradise to redress the sorrows. Oh, beautiful Taramin!”

                  A sudden vision flared up in Angela’s mind, a world of green, gold and blue. Thick vegetation formed forests and meadows where crystal-clear springs sang to the tune of flying birds and galloping herbivores. Dark pools of lily-covered water, mirror-still but for the slight breeze gently rocking the tall grasses formed a contrast to the greenery. White clouds rolled upon the sky of deepest blue.

                  She felt like she could lose herself in the cloud formations, forever watching them and finding new, exotic shapes in their measured, stately procession. There, an archaic fortress rising proudly into the sky, joyful flags and towers announcing its triumphant existence to the universe. There, a lazy felid curled up in front of a fireplace; an ancient sailing ship braving the seas of some forgotten world; a starship, a continent with vaguely familiar shapes.

                  She blinked, and the twilight world of Twenty Seven-Sixteen returned. There was a sensation of longing in her breast, as if she left a piece of herself in the dream world, never to get it back. She felt profound, nostalgic sadness.

                  It seemed the Primarch was reminiscing, too. Angelus stood with eyes closed, corners of his mouth curved upward in an approximation of a gentle smile. Only the worried twist of his brow hinted that something might have been wrong in the perfect dream reality.

                  “How… are we connected?” Angela finally asked, a blunt question for the one so far away from such concerns. “Why am I so important?”

                  He laughed softly, opening his eyes. “Such are the questions. What questions, what riddles! A beautiful world, isn’t it?”

                  “No more riddles!” There was a forceful note in Angela’s voice. She stopped, overseeing the streets of the village lit up with strobe lights and makeshift fires. The realization that the dream, the vision was not her own rocked her to the core, and she involuntarily shuddered, as if in a path of cold, biting wind.

                  “No riddle, that.” Angelus stood up to his full height, extending his wings and blocking out much of the meager light. “You are focus. Perfectly attuned to it, yes, you are. No more chatter. Only focus. Clear, light. When you are here, I can see clearly.”

                  “Does it mean I am a… psyker?” The words came out harshly, probably more so than she intended. The revelation put everything on its head in Angela’s mind.

                  The Primarch laughed. “You, a touched one?” His face became serious. “Not like this, no. You hear, not speak to the veil.” He coughed, clearing his throat, then flexed his talons. “You hear the messages. That is more important than speaking. But… you also speak. Yes, Angela. You speak with your hands.”

                  It took her a moment to realize what he was talking about. “Are you saying that… my talent with brush is… not of this world?”

                  “Art, life, death, dream, matter, energy. They are one, caught on the sea of eternal dreamless sleep. To touch upon one is to touch all. Such is the truth.” A maniacal glint played in Angelus’ eyes. His breaths became shorter, as if he was getting excited or anxious. “Father knows. A true yurog sees beyond the veil that blinds us all, and transforms the elements of the universe to see the true face beneath. An artist reaches for those worlds without the Craft. And you,” he paused, then nodded to something invisible. Angela felt a sudden chill in the air. “Oh yes, you are the kind to reach for them.”

                  “Why me?” she asked, feeling more and more discomfort. “Why not Vlad, or Marat, or one of the others? Why, of all the painters in the Imperium, you have chosen me?”

                  “But you understand, now,” the Primarch cackled. “You were chosen. But by whom? Angels, Angela! Angels!” His voice rose in pitch, burning with the fire that only the truly devout could muster. “Every day is a step in understanding, little sister. The visions, those that are not for me, they are yours. The crystal worlds, falling around me, you may guide. My horrid and beautiful angels, they seek you. They choose you, like they guard me.”

                  “This is…”

                  “Not my father’s truth?” the Primarch laughed. “But he does not see the angels! I do!” He hunched, no longer the triumphant creature of the stars, but a low-born monster of the familiar darkness. The wings wrapped around his back like a cloak of leathery hide.

                  “If you listen hard enough,” Angelus said, “you will hear them, too.”

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                  • #10
                    EIGHT

                    Pride
                    Abomination
                    Death Sentence

                    Outside, the nameless world spun silently, one revolution against the star matching one long, lazy day. The shadow zone, once lit up with illumination from cities, towns and manufactoria, was now as black as the uninhabited ice wastes of the night side. No longer a cradle of civilization and society, the planet was now a smoldering ruin left in the Legion’s passage.

                    Even the sight of his handiwork did not make Isaiah feel accomplished as he brooded pensively, strapped into his grav-chair on board the Sixth Company’s Stormbird. The Excruciator hung limply at his side, the weapon’s thirst for destruction no match for its owner’s black mood.

                    “Cap’n, take some pride, eh?” Etienne spoke to him, a conciliatory grin upon the sergeant’s face. “You got me beat by fifteen.”

                    “Yes…” was all Isaiah could muster. White-hot rage resided within him, knowing that all his battles at his Primarch’s side might have been for naught as far as his own changes of advancement were concerned.

                    What if Angelus was less interested in the destruction of the crystalline leviathans than in the girl? What if somehow, Ludwig got credit for this, when all the Nineteenth Captain did was run a glorified supply station? What was so important about the girl, anyway?

                    “It’s them Ogres, ain’t it?” said Etienne plainly.

                    “It is,” Isaiah replied. “And more.”

                    “Lis’n, Cap’n,” the sergeant leaned over from the neighboring grav-chair, whispering. “We’ve fought t’gether for a long time. I know you bet’r than an’one. What is it?”

                    And Isaiah told him. He told Etienne about the battle in the tunnels, where the machines of incomprehensibly strange design turned invisible to take apart the Reapers until the Primarch’s intervention. He told about the tech-heresy of the people desperate enough to awaken the horrors of a rightfully forgotten age in a vain bid to stave off the Imperial conquest. He told about the titans of impossible manufacture, born of crystal and lightning and unleashed only to suffer destruction at Angelus’ hands.

                    But most of all, Isaiah told him about the Reapers’ emergence to the surface, the unwelcome presence of Ludwig and his men – and the girl.

                    “Think she’s som’thin’ special?” Etienne asked once Isaiah was done. The sergeant’s eyes darted through the transport, making sure no one else was within earshot even with the enhanced hearing of the Legiones Astartes.

                    “I don’t know,” Isaiah admitted after a minute’s pause. Thoughts raced through his head, always focusing on Ludwig, Angelus and the girl. The three faces combined into one horrific amalgam beneath his eyelids – bloated, partially mechanized, yet all too human. “I don’t know what the Grey Prince sees in her.” He pounded his fist into his side, wincing at the unpleasant sensation. “She is a mortal!”

                    “So are th’ astropaths, th’ Nav’gators, ships’ cap’ns,” Etienne said. “Mortals can be useful, ol’ friend. What if our master sees somethin’ useful in her?”

                    “What use could a remembrancer be?” Isaiah pondered out loud. “All they do is scribble their pathetic stories or drawings for other mortals to admire. They are not the skomorag.”

                    He thought about the elegant simplicity of the songs and tales related by the skomorag, the wandering minstrels of Argos. That was the proper way to remember the home world’s heroes – deeds retold in a manner that was both hush and respectful, not garish and designed to dazzle and embellish rather than provide a true measure of a man.

                    The warriors of Argos were contrasted against the gothic ornamentation, not glorified by it. This was one of the first mistakes most mortals made when seeing the richly decorated vessels of the Fourteenth Legion, for Argos of old was a world of terrors, and only against such backdrop could the deeds of her sons be fully told.

                    A warrior’s glory was his ambition, and his ambition was what drove him forward. No remembrancer could fully relate the concept as far as Isaiah was concerned.

                    “You Argosians,” Etienne chuckled. “S’metimes I wish I could und’rstand you people.”

                    Coming from anyone else, it would have been an insult Isaiah would only wash away with blood. Coming from Etienne, it was an ill-timed yet all-too-expected phrase. Still, it left a bad taste in Isaiah’s mouth.

                    “What I don’t understand is, what could lord Angelus possibly want with the girl? What would make him leave us to spend an hour talking to her?”

                    “Why don’t’cha ask him?” Etienne said. As much as Isaiah looked at his friend’s face, he could not see any hints of humor. “Why not?”

                    “And… be blacklisted for questioning the Primarch?”

                    “Then…” the sergeant seemed to find the thought amusing, “why don’t’cha ask th’ girl?”

                    The idea was so simple, so brutally to the point in a very Argosian way that Isaiah was almost taken aback by the thought. It had never occurred to him to even consider asking a mortal.

                    As far as he was concerned, mortals were at best a dispensable mass, at worst an inconvenience or even an annoyance. They were not worthy of speaking in the presence of the Gargoyles unless addressed to, with only few useful exceptions that merited at least an attempt at courtesy. The remembrancers definitely did not fall into that category.

                    The low growl that escaped Isaiah’s lips was none-too-subtle in its expression of the Sixth Captain’s feelings on the matter. His lips peeled back, revealing fanged teeth – a byproduct of Angelus’ genetic legacy that affected all his sons. Isaiah closed his eyes, remembering a calming mantra taught to him early upon his induction into the Legion.

                    I am the fear incarnate, and nothing can move me, death cowers before me, for I am the fear incarnate, and nothing can move me, death cowers before me, for I am…

                    The repetition helped. Isaiah opened his eyes, now facing Etienne.

                    “R’member,” the sergeant whispered, “pride of Argos. That, I und’stand.”

                    Pride. Such a beautiful, meaningful word, Isaiah thought. Where pride lived, ambition thrived.

                    He recalled the skomorag tales of the warriors who, when unable to take their prizes by force, resorted to guile. In the end, the only thing that mattered was victory. This was the way Angelus raised his wayward sons, and the way the Legion forged on through the stars in the name of the Emperor and Terra. For this victory, Isaiah had to amass greater degree of control than he could ever imagine – not the kind that stopped him from lashing out at his lesser outside the battle, but the kind that would let him stoop as low as actually considering a mortal relevant to his plans.

                    The Zarivat seat waited for him, and if he had to deal with this… remembrancer, he would do what it took.

                    * * *

                    The Redeemer’s heart beat to a tune that had little to do with the Legion’s frantic activities. Here, the noise of machinery keeping the great vessel alive was drowned out by the sounds of humanity, from the lowest of servants in plain, featureless uniforms to the elaborately dressed generals, admirals and officials who held thousands of lives in their hands while they paraded around with their extensive retinues, concubines engineered in utero to be perfect, and hordes of hangers-on hoping to bask in their masters’ glory. Hundreds of grey-clad ratings and junior officers attended to myriad duties on the bridge, relaying messages, passing along the data slates and orders and attending on the needs of the few senior officers that deemed it necessary to oversee the preparations for themselves. Here and there, the guards in their carapace armor held ceremonial las-carbines, forged in the imitation of the Legion’s bolters, while Legion serfs hurried to and fro in their haste to please their masters.

                    There was little light on the bridge but that coming from countless panels, screens and devices the purpose of which was unknown to all but the most dedicated adepts. In lieu of natural illumination, several braziers had vainly attempted to provide a measure of comfort, although to mortal eyes all they did was cast strange, frightening shadows over the proceedings.

                    All Legions forces had been withdrawn from the planet below, and even now the tidally locked world hung uneasily upon the great battleship’s viewscreens, as If in anticipation of its fate. Now, it would no longer be decided on the ground as the great and the good of the Twenty Seventh expedition gathered upon the Redeemer’s bridge, answering the summons of the Fourteenth Primarch.

                    All were there, the men and women whose names struck terror into countless worlds – Guelo Balantir, a dignified, tall and thin grey-haired captain of the Redeemer, whose soft-spoken manner belied his peerless skill in void warfare; Dasai Lo, the tattooed, savage-looking Argosian whose bravery and ruthlessness made him a General in the Imperial Army, serving – and surviving alongside the Fourteenth Legion for almost half a century; Colonel M’rai Harn of the 247th Argos Infantry, a pale warrior with a pair of ceremonial blades crossed over his back and scars of multiple victorious campaigns upon his face.

                    The Marines of the Fourteenth Legion stood apart from the mortals, towering over them and rendering such a gathering of luminaries into the stuff of dark, forbidding legends. Isaiah of the Sixth; Ludwig of the Nineteenth; Katon of the First and Goffri of the Third; the Legion’s Captains looked like titans of ancient myth, carved from grey stone and painted in barbaric, savage designs, stoic yet ready to spring into action at a second’s notice.

                    Even the non-combatants took on the air of grave seriousness or nervousness. Briel Serna, the Imperial envoy attached to the expedition, sweated under the weight of an elaborate and prohibitively expensive contraption woven into her hair, making her slender frame appear positively inadequate to support the device probably designed for presentation in the ballrooms of Terran high society. The ship’s navitator, an androgynous-looking man named Que’Che was openly staring at Serna’s hairpiece, although none could tell if it was a gesture of admiration of the amazing handiwork, or one of contempt.

                    But, Angela thought as she was escorted to the bridge – this time by far more respectful and attentive Argosian soldiers – the proceedings were fully dominated by the giant figure of Angelus, lord of the Gargoyles.

                    The Primarch towered over all assembled even when seated upon a massive granite throne with the carvings of gargoyles and other fantastic monsters leering hungrily to his sides. The armor he wore was polished to the point of almost being reflective, curiously featureless shades of grey seemingly blending in with the granite as if Angelus himself was an elaborate sculpture, seated to preside amongst the council of the damned.

                    The Grey Prince’s wings shivered in the reprocessed air of the ship’s bridge, moving ever so slightly in the artificial breeze as their monstrous magnificence became easily apparent. Here, Angelus was the monarch of this gathering, the undisputed leader of the Expedition, and even his posture had changed to reflect that. For once, he was regal, his long hair swept to the sides of his perfect face and braided after the custom of the Argosian warriors, his hands perfectly still and back arched like a king waiting in state. Not a single trace of emotion played upon his face as the light of the distant stars gave an unearthly hue to his pale skin.

                    Angela stood close enough to see the minor wrinkles and scratches on the Primarch’s wings, positioned in the shadowed spot only a few meters to his right and just behind the military personnel. She supposed she should have been grateful for this chance to witness the workings of the Expeditionary Fleet first-hand, but the sense of unease remained.

                    For all that Angelus said, she still did not understand what he wanted with her. In truth, she did not think the Primarch himself knew.

                    Strange, the young woman thought, for all that they are supposed to be these nearly mystical creations, easily capable of eliciting worship from those who knew no better, even they knew doubt, uncertainty, and, perhaps, even fear.

                    She knew that there had been at least a few looks cast in her direction, some friendly, some curious, some outright hostile. None could understand what she was doing here, or what right any one of her order had to be present in this most pivotal of all moments. Angela did not doubt that at this very moment there were people making lewd and crude comments about the way she might have gained entrance.

                    She brushed the thoughts from her mind, trying to focus. The flames from the braziers danced, giving life to the shadows of most mundane objects and turning them into stories happening right before her eyes, hidden from those with neither imagination nor vision to understand them.

                    The temperature seemed to drop in an instant.

                    A low cackle emerged from the Primarch’s mouth. He darted Angela a quick glance, one corner of his mouth lifting just enough to make a semblance of a smile. The Grey Prince twisted his neck like a fighter about to enter the arena. All traces of warmth left his face as his hands gripped the arms of his throne with such strength that small pieces of granite crumbled from the massive edifice.

                    “The world of Twenty Seven-Sixteen,” Angelus said, baring his fangs in an expression of anger. “Consorting with the spawn of Old Night.” He breathed heavily, snarling at the viewscreen where the planet reflected the pale, reddish light of its weak sun, indifferent to those who would decide its fate. “For this… sin… I name thee abomination.”

                    * * *

                    “B..b..but sire…” the Imperial envoy protested weakly, clearly uncomfortable now that Angelus’ intentions were revealed. “What you are talking about it the death of a world! I’m sure there is…”

                    “Nothing,” the Primarch cackled. “Unleash living crystal, unleash the sword. No, nothing!” He laughed softly, amused at something no one else could see.

                    Angela could not believe what she was hearing. Throughout her entire stay on the surface of the planet, the Fourteenth Primarch was alternatively moody, cryptic and, sometimes, almost lucid, but this has never even been spoken of. The Grey Prince seemed content upon the blighted world, knowing that even with whatever events had transpired since Angela’s strange, psychic episode, the planet was fully compliant. Was he… condemning it?

                    “But… with all due respect… the Mechanicum…” Briel Serna continued haltingly, her elaborate headpiece swaying back and forth.

                    “The Mechanicum has enough toys, envoy,” the Primarch replied. It seemed that he was physically straining to sound lucid, as if the words themselves came very difficult to him. “This… is… abomination!” He rasped the last words as if he somehow was out of breath despite barely moving.

                    “We can learn so much from it!”

                    “Envoy!” Angelus growled with every bit of menace one could expect from a winged demigod. As he saw Serna take a halting step back, almost tripping over herself in the process, he smiled savagely. “Mind, no beast shall have. Mind, no dead thing shall have. Beauty, defined through humanity.”

                    He stood up in his full bestial magnificence, wings extending so that they almost knocked over the nearby courtiers, who now hurried out of their master’s path. His lips curled, displaying the sharp, pointed fangs.

                    Even without wings, there was no doubt that the creature before the assembly could not have possibly been a mere human.

                    “This… world… shall… die!” Angelus spoke each word with a finality of a royal pronouncement. “Sins of the few or many, matters not. To awaken this is to…”

                    He suddenly stopped, a lost look appearing once again in his eyes. For a moment, the room was silent. Even the braziers stopped rocking, or at least so it seemed to Angela. The Primarch’s face lost all color despite the flickering shades of fire and reflected starlight providing multicolored backdrop. The darkness in his eyes seemed all-pervasive.

                    Angela felt something freezing crawl up her arm. Holding back a scream, she looked, seeing a frost-like substance paint the outlines of her veins. She bit her lip, trying to force the tears of pain and terror down and failing. She tasted hot, coppery tang of her own blood.

                    When she opened her mouth again, the words were not her own, even though the voice sounded every bit the part.

                    She felt as if something vast, incomprehensible yet all too familiar invaded her, relegating her conscious self to an observer in her own body. With horror, she realized that she could neither move nor even blink without this invader’s say-so. Her skin felt as if someone was carving bloody lines into her, a tattoo of a thousand unseen needles of forsaken light.

                    “What Lord Angelus is trying to tell you,” she spoke, finding her lips move against her will, “is that the inhabitants of this world have committed the ultimate heresy, the creation of artificial intelligence to fight their wars. For all that the art of creating artificial intelligence seems to have been lost, enough was retained for them to summon thinking machines to be the Fourteenth Legion’s adversaries. For that, they must die.”

                    Shock and confusion reigned in the vast bridge. It was one thing for a distinguished general or dignitary to speak up out of turn, but a lowly remembrancer? The generals and commanders stared at her with barely disguised hostility, and even the bridge serfs seemed to be taken aback.

                    “Yes, speak, little sister,” the Primarch broke the silence, turning toward her and effortlessly lifting her up, placing the young woman in front of the throne he only recently occupied. “Speak the tongue of men. Tell them of the folly. Tell them.” He rolled his eyes, smiling a beatific smile.

                    Angela felt the compulsive urge that her own willpower was unable to control or stop. A single, barely audible whine escaped her lips as she frantically tried to control them, failing again. A single tear rolled down her cheek, slowly making its way toward her lips.

                    It had the coppery taste that no tear should have ever had.

                    “Those born with sentience but no soul have no right to exist,” Angela heard herself speak with neither recollection nor desire of making sound. “Those who create such monsters and let them loose deserve naught but complete extermination.”

                    She could not believe herself. The words coming from her lips were not her own, speaking terrible, bloody orders that she could not counteract. There was nothing Angela desired more than to scream, to fall down and collapse into a fetal position rather than be a witness to the nightmare unfolding in front of her.

                    “Oh yes,” the Primarch hissed. “You tell them. Can’t hear the music beyond, can they? Can’t see the ravages upon the souls…”

                    She tried to fight it. Angela’s lips withdrew just a bit too far, teeth grinning not in a smile but in a pained grimace. Even this little victory took more strength than she ever thought she had. Was this the connection Angelus was talking about just a few short hours ago, on the world she was about to doom?

                    “The lord of the Fourteenth Legion decrees that the planet designated Twenty Seven-Sixteen is to be relieved of any human life forms via orbital strikes and Legion hunter teams destroying any survivors,” the thing within Angela said, words of extermination passing her lips as if they were unimportant, passing pleasantries spoken during a casual conversation. “No trace of the thinking machines must remain. Is that understood?”

                    “I don’t take orders from a jumped-up civilian,” M’rai Harn growled, oversized muscles tensing as in preparation for violence. “She is not of Argos, my lord,” he faced the Primarch, bowing just deeply enough to satisfy protocol yet slowly, indicating questioning of the order. “I beg of you, lord Angelus…”

                    “Enough!” the Grey Prince growled, his face changing expressions seemingly on a whim. One second he was the fury incarnate, another a serene angel trapped in a monster’s body. “You heard it. We have, yes.” He clapped his hands in an odd gesture of excitement.

                    “Burn it.”

                    It was the last thing Angela had heard before the merciful darkness claimed her as she crumbled down to the floor, uncontrollable twitch of a smile still upon her face.



                    Comment


                    • #11
                      PART TWO: FATE AND JUDGMENT
                      NINE

                      Symbols
                      Clarity
                      Broken

                      The warrior looked at his armor and weapons with a critical eye, adding line after line in rough-looking script to form a concentric, geometric pattern. His breathing was slow and steady as not to force his arm to stray from the design, working with meticulousness that could only be matched by a dedicated artist or craftsman taking great pride in his work.

                      The sharp edges and protruding spikes of the script spoke of victories won and foes destroyed, adding to the growing legend of Isaiah, Captain of the Sixth Company. Here and there he made a sign of a scythe, a tribute to the Sixth Company’s moniker – the Reapers, which was as much a description of their penchant for hand-to-hand assault as it was a totemic symbol.

                      The men of Argos believed in many things from second sight afforded to the select few to the importance of symbols, and Isaiah was not the one to set the age-honored concepts to the side. Another world’s denizen might have seen little but self-glorification in the story the Sixth Captain wrote upon his pauldrons, with an addendum inscribed upon the non-moving parts of his chainsword, but together, the words formed a whole that would only make sense to one born of Isaiah’s homeworld.

                      The sword was the right hand of judgment, the armor was the canvas upon which the enemy would write the story of his pathetic, pointless resistance. Thus, the story written upon the pauldrons and breastplate of Isaiah’s armor was written to be malleable, the precise form of script chosen to represent resilience and focus. Sentences that started in one section of the armor would continue in an unconnected spot; words of divination were randomly interceded throughout, recognizable by the curved line just underneath the letters.

                      While even one word of true divination remained, the warrior’s soul was safe from peril. Such were the teachings of the Primarch in the early days of the Legion.

                      Where the armor was the present, a tale of protection against the maleficent, the indignant and the abominable, the sword was a tale of the future. It was by this sword that Isaiah would carve his destiny, and the symbols upon the sides of the Excruciator spoke of hope, ambition and single-minded conviction of its owner’s righteousness. There was but one word of divination written upon it, but it was the word that, to Isaiah, mattered the most.

                      Zarivat.

                      The Sixth Captain’s quarters, if such a lofty description could have been given to a cabin just large enough to contain him, his armor and his meager personal possessions, were sparsely decorated with the few trophies from the decades of campaigning – a skull of an Ork Warboss he personally slew before being elevated to command the Sixth Company; a broken blade taken from a particularly skilled Eldar warrior, strange and inhuman designs seemingly lighting up from the inside with no known source of power; haft of a combat knife that once belonged to Isaiah’s fellow acolyte before the fortunes of war decided only one of them would live on. The lights were dimmed, replaced by an array of candles of all sizes.

                      Those who wished to invoke the foresight of Argosian divination had to resort to the time-honored methods.

                      A knock on the door of Isaiah’s sanctum did little to disturb the Sixth Captain’s concentration. “Enter,” Isaiah said, not lifting his eyes from his handiwork. The script, normally bright red, seemed almost black in the flickering illumination of the candles.

                      “Thought I’d find ya here,” the loud, boisterous voice of Etienne filled the room. The Terran sergeant examined the room with amusement, shaking his head as he came upon the candles and the script. “Som’times I wonder if I ev’r und’rstand your folk.”

                      Isaiah said nothing, continuing to paint a particularly complex symbol with attention to detail that would shame any calligraphist. This one was the letter that, depending on its exact positioning and height, could indicate either a momentous upturn in fate or a minor injury.

                      “Int’resting stuff, eh?” the Terran waved his arm, a crooked smile upon his lips. “What’s all that?”

                      “It’s an Argos thing,” said Isaiah in a tone that suggested he did not want to be disturbed. “What is it?”

                      “Got a word on our dest’nation,” the sergeant replied with characteristic briskness. “Just passed down from the bridge.”

                      “So the Grey Prince finally made up his mind?” Isaiah asked, without much enthusiasm. “What is it now?”

                      “That’s the int’resting part,” the sergeant cackled. “We’re headin’ back to known space.”

                      “What?” Isaiah barely managed to mitigate his surprise. He squeezed the brush tightly, then set it aside, knowing that he had a hard enough time concentrating on the precise symbols as it was. “Any word on why?”

                      It made little sense to the Sixth Captain, knowing that the Twenty Seventh Expedition was fully supplied with equipment and materiel, all losses suffered during the pacification of the last several planets now fully replaced and integrated into squads and companies. The Redeemer alone could keep on going into the unknown for years, perhaps even decades before attrition forced it to return to Argos to rearm, refit and resupply.

                      “Som’thin’ big,” said Etienne. “What I’ve heard, we’re goin’ to Parias.”

                      “Parias? That makes no sense!” Isaiah thought of the world, one of the many brought into compliance by the Fourteenth Legion. It was also the one planet he hoped he would never set his foot on again, a sentiment shared by much of the Legion.

                      “I’m ‘fraid so,” the Terran replied. “But…” he shook his head fatalistically, “guess all this waitin’ around in deep space’s getting’ borin’. Maybe we get t’ do som’thin’ more us’ful.”

                      Like wipe that rock from the face of the galaxy, Isaiah thought glumly.

                      “The last time we were there,” he said, cold rage in his voice, “things got this close to a shooting war.”

                      “Bad mem’ries, aye.” Etienne took a step closer, examining the symbols on Isaiah’s sword. The Terran’s eyes immediately darted to the one that looked like a stylized palm of a hand, a curved line running through fingers. “What’s that?”

                      “Confrontation,” Isaiah answered.

                      “An appr’priate symbol,” the sergeant agreed. “But… why?” There was a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Hav’n’t you heard the iterators? This sounds like sup’r’stition.”

                      “The iterators know nothing of fate,” Isaiah cut back.

                      “Fate? Are you a prophet now?” Etienne looked like he was about to start laughing.

                      “Fate is what we make of it,” said the Sixth Captain. “Fate is what will be decided if we influence it. How different is it from when you duck from a sword blow? Is it any different?”

                      “So, paintin’ weird symbols will change your fate?” the sergeant’s eyes opened widely as if he was seriously considering if his commander just lost his mind.

                      “Divining the fate and changing it is the same,” Isaiah said. “Those are the Primarch’s teachings. These symbols,” he pointed to his drawings, “indicate the crux points of my personal history yet to be written. As the battle goes on, fate itself alters them, telling the story just one step forward.” He paused, contemplatively. “You know nothing of Argos, Etienne. Maybe you should learn.”

                      “But… why no others do this?” the Terran asked, clearly taken aback by the insinuation. “You’d think the entire Legion would be cov’red in these… letters!”

                      “The stories say there are always consequences,” said the Sixth Captain. “A warrior taking this step surrenders some of his mastery over his own fate. When you forge a future without knowing, any future is open to you. When you limit the futures, you set yourself on a course that cannot be changed.”

                      “Sup’r’stition!”

                      “Superstition or not,” growled Isaiah, “I will be in the Zarivat.” He breathed heavily, a manic, wide-eyed expression upon his face. “The cost does not matter. When this happens, remember what I told you.”

                      * * *

                      The glass beckoned with the promise of untold universes swimming in its depths, only partially distorted by clear, pungent liquid. Dark stars and forgotten galaxies swirled in the reflections of poorly maintained light, revealing and magnifying the imperfections in the cheaply made table. The ever-present machinery made the table vibrate just slightly enough to be noticeable, but not enough to force the heavy glass to move.

                      Marat Crassus imagined waves of some distant ocean in the reflections of his face upon the liquid. He imagined that the reflected light was some moon, sun or other celestial object that would be worthy of adoration, perhaps deserve a poem or two written about it by hopeless romantics. He imagined the gloom of the enginarium compartment to be the veil of endless night that shrouded some distant world in its embrace, forever mystifying to its denizens as the vast divide separating them from the rest of the universe, the protector of ancient mysteries, or even the hiding place of monsters that only existed in people’s imaginations.

                      It was almost working. No matter how much he tried to focus on something, anything else, there was no escaping the truth. The monsters were real, and now, Marat Crassus found himself in their den.

                      He finally found the courage to lift up the glass and consume the contents in one gulp, wincing as the liquid burned his lips, mouth and throat. Fotak, Galiaf called it, a beverage that only a world as barbaric as Argos could possibly concoct. The thing tasted as foul as it smelled, noxious and bitter, fit only for a savage culture that made it, yet strong enough to satisfy his present need.

                      Crassus slammed the now empty glass against the table with an expression of utter frustration upon his face. The glass left a dent in the surface.

                      Damn it, he thought, hoping the glass would break.

                      The room was converted from a forgotten passage in the depths of the Redeemer’s enginarium, resembling nothing as much as a gambling den he recalled from old Terra. It was a place where the Legion serfs would go to drown away their sorrows or gamble away their meager earnings in a vain hope for some reprieve from their dreary lives, and the exterior provided a perfect backdrop for it. As far as Crassus knew, the Gargoyles were probably all too aware of the place’s existence, even if they chose to leave it outside of the strict regulations governing the crew’s life.

                      They called it the Uart, and all the foibles from the outside world were set aside at its doors.

                      In the weeks following the destruction of Twenty Seven-Sixteen, Crassus took to frequenting the Uart. At first, the crewmen and even few wayward soldiers appeared wary and distrustful of his presence, and he suspected that had he looked even remotely threatening, he would have probably ended up in one of the many fights that took place within the Uart’s metal walls.

                      They still did not truly warm up to him, but now, at least the ship’s denizens tolerated him somewhat. Where at first Crassus was met with cold shoulders and hostile stares, by now some of the Argosians actually attempted to hold conversation with him, mostly mundane topics that only drunken minds would elicit, but at least it was something. Even Galiaf’s company became something far more tolerable.

                      The crippled Argosian sat next to the remembrancer, consuming truly prodigious amounts of fotak with seemingly few ill effects. A chewed-upon lho-stick hung from Galiaf’s mouth, releasing noxious fumes as he examined a scantily clad woman twisting to the beat of music coming from some hidden speaker upon one of the tables. The Argosian’s mouth curved up in a greedy smile.

                      “Not bad, eh?” Galiaf chuckled, not taking his eyes off a woman. “A few crowns, maybe a drink…”

                      “Piss off…” Crassus said dismissively. At any other time he would have seriously considered it, but now he seemed content to find flaws with everything in front of him.

                      Galiaf laughed. “If you don’t, then maybe I will.” He clapped excitedly as the dancer caught him looking and smiled, gesturing towards him in a way that left little to imagination. “Your loss, wordsmith.”

                      “How can you… care so little?” the remembrancer asked, wincing as he caught the Argosian’s lho-stick fumes.

                      “It’s war,” the crippled warrior replied absent-mindedly, his eyes still on the dancing woman. “Some people live, some people die. That’s just how things are.” Galiaf downed another drink, gesturing for a waiter to bring him more. “If you spend too much time pondering these things, you can miss out on what’s important.”

                      “Like who you take to bed tonight?”

                      “That too,” the Argosian agreed. “Got a nice stock of them from that other world, what was it? The one before the last.”

                      “I don’t get it,” Crassus said after a minute’s pause. “Life here just goes on as if nothing happened. The… planet you’ve just killed. They probably had millions like this girl. You know?” He felt alcohol slur his speech just enough to make him sound more intoxicated than he actually was.

                      “No use for them, then,” said Galiaf philosophically. It seemed to Crassus that alcohol was finally starting to have an effect on his companion. The Argosian gestured to the woman, making his desires quite obvious.

                      “Enjoy…” said Crassus glumly. He looked once more at an empty glass, now laying on its side, then rose up, unsteadily, holding on to the table to keep himself from falling. He felt a bit of vertigo, realizing he probably drank a bit too much.

                      Galiaf was of no use to him. The cramped, smoky confines of the Uart could not give him any answers to the question plaguing his mind since he learned of what happened to Twenty Seven-Sixteen – why?

                      Extermination was easy to think of when it involved alien species, for they were not human. It was easy enough to consider when it was applied to human cultures that fell so far into depravity that the very act of their existence was abomination. But no matter how hard Crassus tried, he still could not possibly justify what took place.

                      This was the face of the Imperium he was supposed to glorify. This was the future forged in the fires of this… crusade.

                      Crassus felt bitter, tired and angry at himself for even being here. He was just as guilty of it as the actual killers that scoured the planet of all human life after the Primarch’s orders, just as guilty as those who fired payloads of ordnance from the sky to bring ruin to all the works of the wayward civilization. For all that he had never lifted a weapon in his life, he was a murderer simply by association.

                      And he was not the only one.

                      Holding on to the wall to steady himself, Crassus began a long, painful walk back towards the remembrancers’ quarters. There was only one person he could talk to – if she ever could.

                      * * *

                      Marat Crassus used the metal wall to straighten himself up, trying not to tip over and lose the contents of his stomach. The fotak played havoc upon his senses far more than the poet was willing to admit, and his vision was beginning to get blurry. He hoped his legs were strong enough to carry him instead of slumping in an undignified manner somewhere in the corner, another grotesque addition to the ship’s menagerie of monsters.

                      Perhaps, he thought, leaving Galiaf at the Uart was a mistake. While he was with his minder, Crassus was safe from any of the myriad dangers ship this size offered, from malicious crewmen and degenerate dregs of humanity surviving on scraps in the forgotten sections of the vessel’s structure to mutated vermin and worse surviving out of sight, out of mind. Alone, Crassus felt vulnerable and insecure.

                      He cursed himself for leaving the den on a whimsical hunch. What was he trying to accomplish, anyway? He was not a man of action – no, he was good with words, which gave him a relatively comfortable life, recognition, even occasional attention from the women who would have never considered his company for looks alone. Marat Crassus did not try to change the universe, instead being content to live in it and take in the bounties it offered.

                      It seemed that the universe had other ideas.

                      Somehow he made it past the dim lights and slippery passages where the floor was covered with foul-smelling, condensed liquids of unknown origin, jumping at the shadows from psychotic artwork and keeping himself steady enough to stay on course. Adrenaline made him feel his heartbeat pounding through his rib cage, bringing everything into a semblance of focus.

                      Join up, he thought, see the galaxy. He wanted to recreate the earliest ambitions of his life and career, hoping that the elusive inspiration may yet again bless him with its gift, bringing him back into relevance; he hoped that the sights of the universe away from Terra would rekindle the passion he once felt for his art.

                      The stars gave him nothing, but they took away something he never thought he could lose, the ability to put the words together in a way that seemed inspired and meaningful to others. Right now, Crassus doubted he could put two lines together.

                      He stood in front of the door and felt strange trepidation, unable to enter or even just knock. Scenarios raced through his head, making him feel a bit like he did as a youth, trying to get courage to ask a girl on a first date. But Crassus was not a young man anymore, and decades of relative fame and fortune gave him sufficient amounts of cynicism and worldliness to do away with the fears of youth.

                      Even then, his intentions were not even remotely amorous. Why did he hesitate, then? Was it the fear that another was feeling the same guilt as him, but worse?

                      He knocked.

                      At first, there was no answer, and he thought of turning back, his conscience apparently satisfied. No, he thought, forcing himself to face the door again, an unassuming cabin in the quarters he knew all too well. He felt his teeth rap an unsteady rhythm, something he only recalled himself doing in his youth, before fame, fortune and acknowledgment of his talent.

                      He knocked again.

                      “Enter.”

                      The voice coming from the other side of the door sounded ragged and haggard, as if all life was sucked dry from it. If he did not know better, he would have guessed the speaker to be much, much older than him, and about to give up the ghost.

                      As he stepped through the door, he could not help but gasp in surprise. The last time he was here on a social call, the quarters were immaculately clean, well-lit and ordered in a way that left little to clutter. Now, complete chaos reigned.

                      Books and mementos lay strewn across the dirty floor, piling up in small hills that long gave up all pretense of looking like anything organized. Empty glasses and disposable plates poked up from the mess of clothes and random junk with no discernable pattern. Here and there, paint stained the filthy walls, less like paintings and more like something left on accident.

                      “Angela?” he called, making his way through the detritus. He winced as he stepped on something squishy; it gave in under his boot. He preferred not to think of what it might have been.

                      “Angela?” he called again, hearing no response. This time, Crassus almost fell as he tried to scale a particularly large pile of books. He bit back a curse, steadying himself against a table. As he withdrew his hand, he swore; it was covered in an unseemly mixture of paints.

                      “Here…” she said from somewhere in the distance. Crassus squinted his eyes, trying to make out the direction. The lights were mostly obscured by trash and splattered paint, and the few that still seemed to function normally appeared to be on their last legs. It appeared as though the cabin took on a physical manifestation of its occupant’s mood.

                      As Crassus finally crossed the last of the debris, he could not help but be taken aback at the sight of his friend.

                      Angela Hesail was sitting in her bed, dirty sheets and covers held close as though they offered some kind of sanctum from reality. Her long hair was dirty and matted, and her once elaborately done nails were broken, some clearly gnawed upon. The young woman looked emaciated and unhealthy with sunken cheeks, dark circles under her eyes and cracked, dry lips as she stared into space, paying Crassus little heed. Her head kept on moving up and down, nodding with no apparent reason or pattern, even as her hands clenched into fists at his arrival. Only now did Crassus notice that her bare shoulders bore the mark of nails digging into the flesh in a strange act of self-mutilation.

                      “Oh my…” the poet shuddered, suddenly requiring support. What could have possibly happened to reduce a vibrant, talented young woman to this, he wondered?

                      She turned her head, acknowledging him with a halting sigh. Crassus walked closer, taking care not to trip over the trash covering the floor.

                      “What… happened?” he whispered, unwilling to break the strange, insane reverie of this place. As much as he wanted to put his hand on her shoulder to provide a measure of comfort, some instinct told him not to touch her.

                      Angela lifted her eyes at him. They were blood-shot red, dark irises blending in with the smeared mascara and dark circles of fatigue. Her skin was red and wet, as if she was recently crying.

                      “C…C…Crassus?” the girl spoke, apparently recognizing him. Her voice was weak and trembling. The poet felt his alcoholic stupor subside.

                      “It’s me,” he said in his best warm, fatherly voice, trying to sound reassuring. “I just wanted to check on you, and then…” he could not bring himself to finish the sentence. Crassus swallowed hard, finding it impossible to avoid looking at the destroyed cabin.

                      “It’s no use,” Angela said, sobbing quietly. She looked straight at him, her face a mask of such deep, profound grief that Crassus was at complete loss for how he could possibly console her.

                      “I killed them,” said the girl, her voice cracking with emotion. “I killed them all.”



                      Comment


                      • #12
                        TEN

                        Memories
                        The Lawgiver
                        Guilt and Absolution

                        Parias. The world perpetually shrouded in grey, featureless clouds, hiding its unwelcoming terrain and even less pleasant environment from visitors and satellites alike as it slowly rotated on its axis, closer to its young yellow sun than any life-supporting planet had a right to be and yet still populated despite the elements. The planet was settled for its wealth in metals and minerals, and not even the oppressive atmospheric pressure and the temperatures reaching four hundred degrees could stop the colonies from growing, expanding into the world’s bedrock and underneath the surphurous clouds to create massive, planet-spanning industries that even now churned more hazardous pollutants into the scorching, unbreathable atmosphere.

                        It was the world where the wealthy thrived on top of the twenty kilometer tall spires, able to escape the worst of the overcrowded conditions below and to even see natural sunlight where the clouds grew thinner, while the many billion-strong commoners toiled away in the dark, decrepit hive levels powered by the decay of radioactive elements in Parias’ core. On this planet, air, clean water and food were all precious commodities, and the aristocratic Guilds controlled it not through military force but through their ability to isolate the unruly sectors and starve or suffocate them with a flip of a switch.

                        The coming of the Imperium did not as much upset the existing social order as it reshuffled the elite’s relative positions. The Guilds that allied with the Imperial forces found themselves in ascendancy, allowed to rule Parias much as they have before as long as the precious ores and minerals kept on flowing off-world. Those that resisted the new order…

                        Isaiah swore as he looked down at the grey-covered planet through the viewscreen on the Redeemer’s observation desk. The planet brought too many bad memories that he had no desire to relive. It was the site where the Legion was almost pushed to the brink, a reminder of how close the savage tendencies inherent in the Argosian psyche really were.

                        The fact that they were here did not help.

                        The Gargoyles’ fleet had transitioned in system for barely a few minutes before they were hailed by another force, easily equal in size and splendor to their own. Isaiah was attending to his wargear when the word came down – the Peacekeepers, the Tenth Legion was waiting for them in orbit of Parias. Now, as he stared at the gothic crenellations and spires of the Tenth Legion’s flagship, he could not help but almost hope that this time, the encounter would turn violent, like it should have back then…

                        For the moment, Isaiah forgot all his carefully laid out plans. Demands of office prevented him from making a trip down to the remembrancer’s deck, the fact that did not play well with his impatience, but there was little he could do. His ambition was everything, and he could not jeopardize it by abandoning his duties while trying to discover just how the little remembrancer was connected to his own Primarch, hoping that the knowledge would carry the seeds of his own elevation.

                        Now, he was not so sure waiting was the right way. Every warrior of the Fourteenth Legion had sought to right the wrong done to them by the Primarch Gideon and his men. Perhaps, Isaiah thought, biting back frustration and a bit of bitterness, the true way to get the object of his desires was to accompany the Primarch to whatever Angelus intended to do. Did he somehow lose out on it by going on as before instead of seeking out the remembrancer and getting the answers out of her, however that happened?

                        No matter now, he resolved, clenching his fists. His fate was already set, and the only thing he was waiting for was the revelation of how it would play out. If the choice he had made was wrong, he would find out soon enough.

                        His thoughts returned to his first time here. Isaiah remembered the world where even his armor’s advanced cooling systems struggled to keep him alive during airborne assaults against the lower spires of the defiant hives, where the diffuse light made little difference between night and day. He remembered the desperate resistance of hivers armed with anything from second-hand lasguns to shovels and pickaxes as they swarmed the Reapers with the weight of numbers, almost nullifying the Gargoyles’ superior armor, equipment and training.

                        Most of all, Isaiah remembered the satisfaction as the hive core disappeared in a flash of light so bright that the afterimage danced on his retinas long after the deed was done, and the overloaded reactors finally gave way, burying the twenty-million strong population under the weight of rubble, forced to suffocate in the darkness as a punishment for defying the Emperor’s will.

                        His thoughts returned to that triumphant feeling for a brief moment before his mood soured, remembering the aftermath, the confrontation, the misguided idealism that almost started another war. Parias was the first time the Fourteenth Legion fought by the side of the Tenth, and, as far as Isaiah was concerned, it was the last. What could have possibly happened to compel another meeting between the sons of Angelus and the Peacekeepers?

                        Isaiah checked his weapons, just to make sure he was ready for any eventuality. Realistically, he knew that his chances of being a part of his Primarch’s honor guard were slim, but then, none knew how Angelus made his choices, and, as imbalanced as the Grey Prince was lately, Isaiah dared to hope that his exploits on Twenty Seven-Sixteen would at least merit a look in his direction.

                        After all, was he not at Angelus’ side when the crystalline leviathans fell down? Was he not there, swiping away all opposition to allow his lord and master entrance to the tunnels? He had the right to be there, by his gene-father’s side, when the reason for these summons became known.

                        Isaiah examined the symbols painted upon his weaponry and armor. To the uninitiated, they would be nothing but barbaric superstition, but to one with the knowledge of Argosian lore, they marked him as a man of singular purpose. For all that the complex allegories of the script did not fully give away his objective, the very existence of the marks spoke volumes to his fellow Legionnaires.

                        His purpose was to accomplish greater things than this, the Reapers’ Captain thought, clenching and unclenching his fists in an instinctual movement of agitation. A singular core of ambition burned within him, brighter than the nuclear fire within a heart of the sun to any with the craft to see it. He hoped that his liege, too, would see this, and grant him a chance to live out his purpose as he was meant to.

                        With mind thus made up, Isaiah rapidly turned on his heels, and began a long walk toward the strategium where Angelus held his court.

                        * * *

                        The Stormbird fell through the toxic clouds, shields glowing with the heat of reentry. The sound of the thick, heavy atmosphere being separated by the gunship permeated every fibre of the vessel, a dull howling that was unnerving to all who attempted to land on Parias.

                        This world hated life and all its works, making no difference between the small-minded factions of humanity who once dared to think themselves its master. It was a sobering thought, and Avram took a moment to reflect upon it, evaluating the hubris of men and the consequences of such folly. He checked the pressure seals of his armor, knowing that even his enhanced physique could not survive unprotected in the hellish environment outside.

                        He felt an underlying wrongness about coming back here after fifty years, the world where it all began. The parallels were disturbing. Just like then, he led a squad of warriors clad in black and white armor of the Tenth Legion, the Peacekeepers, falling deeper and deeper into the suffocating inferno, racing against time to prevent the needless crime. Just like then, the feeling of failure, knowing that they were too late.

                        But this time, things were different.

                        He was no longer a sergeant seeking acceptance and glory, fresh-faced and idealistic to the point of being naïve. Beneath the helmet, scars inflicted by a greenskin blade criss-crossed the face that bore witness to too many conflicts, acid burns and cauterized wounds from power weapons granting it the appearance of a crater-pocked lunar landscape. Where some other warrior might have adopted a moniker of Moonface due to a benign physical attribute, in Avram’s case it was a description of ruin.

                        His pauldrons were no longer the white of his battle-brothers, now painted black of a Captain, and the laurels and sword symbol of the Legion was cast in gold, signifying his ascendancy to the vaunted First Company. The plasma pistol mag-locked to his belt, a trophy taken on a non-compliant world was a far cry from the standard-issue weaponry, while the augmetic hand holding on to the grav-harness was a stark reminder of battles won in the intervening decades. He caught himself contemplating and shook his head, trying to dispel the melancholic remembrance and the site of his, and his Legion’s greatest failure.

                        The Peacekeepers were coming back to a place where ideals were broken and left for dead.

                        Fifty warriors occupied the Stormbird, each going through their own checks, as if the routine could banish the memories of Parias of fifty years ago. Avram knew the significance of having these specific battle-brothers on board. All were veterans; all were there. The shame and the guilt was shared by them, and them alone. And if it affected the Legion’s warriors so, the First Captain did not even want to think of the turmoil that must have been affecting their leader.

                        Avram could not help but cast brief glances at the massive figure seated in the throne just in front of the Space Marines, clad in an elaborate armor of white gold and platinum. Where the Honor Guard veterans were helmeted, looking impersonal and insect-like to an outside observer, the figure went bareheaded, as if in denial that only thick adamantium hull and a void shield separated it from the inferno outside. His skin was dark brown, almost black, giving him an appearance of a statue carved from obsidian letting neither emotion, word nor sigh escape.

                        Normally, the Peacekeeper would have been overcome with awe in the presence of his Primarch, but this was no time for adoration, as the mood of angry determination seemed to cast a veil over all present. Gideon, lord of the Tenth Legion, was furious, and his men dared not interfere with his righteous rage.

                        They did it again.

                        “What… do you think will happen?” Liam, a veteran who was once in Avram’s squad before both were elevated to the First Company voxed over a private channel. A barely perceptible nod came from his seat on the other side of the Stormbird.

                        “Our position is still precarious,” Avram said, thoughtfully, trying to suppress the trepidation wholly unbecoming of one of the Emperor’s finest. There was a line that could not, should not ever be crossed, and to even contemplate how close the line seemed to be was anathema to everything he was ever taught. Whatever their differences might have been, the Legions did not fight each other.

                        Liam gave voice to his doubts. “There are many who would say the Fourteenth has finally crossed the line. You know as well as I do, this is not the first time they did something of the kind. You were here too!”

                        “There are also many who would look at this… expedition…” Avram put all his bitterness into his voice, “as ultimate folly. There might be a good reason why there had been no official sanction from Terra yet. If one is coming at all, that is.”

                        “We are not politicians, damn it! We are soldiers, and damn good ones at that,” said Liam.

                        “Precisely,” Avram replied, mentally going through the mantras designed to sharpen his mind and focus his thoughts on the mission at hand – even if the mission was something he detested this much. “We go where the Emperor and the Primarch tell us to go, and kill whatever stands in our way.”

                        “But not needlessly,” Liam added. “What use are the dead worlds to the Imperium?”

                        “You have no need to convince me,” said the First Captain, shaking his head in bitter frustration. “You know I adhere to Lord Gideon’s teachings.”

                        “Aye,” the other Marine agreed. “Only through Law and Unity may humanity gain supremacy over the stars. But every neophyte knows that. But,” there was venom in Liam’s voice, “there are those to whom such words are not worth the parchment they are written on.” Avram could see Liam gesture to an oath parchment upon his pauldron, where the lines of angular script announced the Peacekeepers’ intention.

                        Honor and valor.

                        The First Captain knew that what happened on Twenty Seven-Sixteen was inexcusable, and this time, he thought, the honor-less butchers of the Fourteenth Legion would face the justice and the reprimand they so richly deserve – even if it would take years before the Imperium’s developing bureaucratic machinery took action. The time-honored words spun to his mind, not of peace and diplomacy but those of just, righteous war waged to deliver a world from clutches of fear, ignorance and oppression.

                        The Litany of War formed in his thoughts easily, giving him strength, focus and purpose.

                        “Through my blade, I bring order. Through my words, I bring peace,” Avram intoned. This time, it was through the external speakers of his armor, letting all his battle-brothers know his intent.

                        “Through my courage, I establish justice,” Liam continued the mantra, making no conscious effort to curtail the words meant for war rather than parlay.

                        The last line was a chorus of fifty throats joining in, strength of belief and conviction evident as the Peacekeepers’ Primarch turned towards his men, looking at them with fatherly admiration and pride.

                        “Through my deeds, humanity is made whole.”

                        * * *

                        “It… just makes no sense…”

                        The girl wept uncontrollably in Crassus’ arms, her waifish frame shaking like a leaf against him. Up close, Angela smelt as bad she looked, as if she did not bother bathing for days if not weeks; her skin was dry to touch and almost unpleasant. Funny, he reflected; at any other time he would have welcomed an opportunity to hold on to an exquisite young woman like her. Right now, he felt almost guilty for wanting to step away from all this, the darkness, the miasma of guilt and self-deprecation that hung heavily over the cabin.

                        “It’s not your fault, Angela,” said Crassus, fighting revulsion to touch her matted, unkempt hair. He finally settled down on the bed, heedless of the dirt, and tried to do the right thing. “The Legions fight this war in a way none of us would be able to comprehend. You and I, we could not do anything about it.”

                        “Is that what you think?” she pulled back from him, hostility apparent in her gaze. Tears rolled down her face. “I did it.” She paused, then spoke up again accentuating every word.

                        I…did… it.”

                        “Don’t speak nonsense to me, girl,” Crassus tried to pull her closer, wondering if she was well and truly lost. Somewhere in the back of his mind he recalled barely remembered scholam teachings from his youth. What was it, survivor’s guilt? Shock? Hell, he thought, he was no psychologist, but at that moment he dearly wished for one. He desperately searched for the right words to say. “How could you have possibly done something… like that?”

                        Angela gave him a piercing, angry look. “You really don’t understand, do you? I told them his will, and his will was death.”

                        “What are you talking about? You are making no sense!”

                        “They are all dead because of me,” Angela sobbed, leaning towards him again. Not knowing what to do, Crassus chose to trust in his instincts, putting arms around her shoulders and trying to caress her hair, heedless of his earlier misgivings about its sorry state.

                        “He spoke through me, because he has no more voice of his own,” the girl said. “It was my lips that spoke the end of all things.” Crassus felt her fingers dig deep into his chest and winced in pain.

                        “Have you ever imagined what it’s like to have no voice of your own?”

                        The sobbing stopped, replaced by a shuddering motion and a voice that sounded dead, tired and broken. Crassus had a hard time reconciling it with a vibrant if sometimes strange young woman he came to know before their arrival on the Redeemer. Truly, he thought to himself, there was something inherently wrong with this expedition, this ship, this Legion, to make a quivering wreck out of someone like that. He felt something very much like trepidation dance through his flesh and mind.

                        “You are an observer,” Angela said, voice cracking. “You try to fight it, but it’s too much. Too strong. You hear the voices speak to you and through you, but you cannot talk back. You know everything that is taking place around you, but you can do nothing.” She broke down into sobbing again.

                        “We need to get you out of here,” said Crassus, gently trying to get her to stand up. “Maybe get a medicae…”

                        “What do they know of it?” the girl spoke. “Can you imagine what it’s like when something is wearing you like a shell, saying things that are more terrible than anything you could imagine? Can you imagine what it’s like to have no strength to delay it even by a second? Do you really think any medicae could help with that?”

                        “You need to get out of here, girl,” Crassus said, slowly, patiently. “Let me help you.” He paused, seeing neither recognition nor full awareness in her eyes. “Please?”

                        All fight seemed to have come out of her. Angela leaned against him, letting him help her stand up.

                        “You are beyond help, as are we all, but who is to know, who is to tell?” She babbled on, listless and dejected. “I have seen the illumination, and it burned.”

                        “Marat, I am not crazy!” she found some of her previous strength, facing him once again. “Something happened there, and I don’t understand it.”

                        Relieved, Crassus let out an almost inaudible sigh. This, at least, was much closer to a discourse he could relate to. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, trying to look sincere.

                        “What is there to talk about?” said Angela sadly. The girl was breathing heavily, perhaps only now overcoming the urge to weep. “It’s like a … violation. Complete and total violation of everything you are. Not just your body, but… everything.”

                        “Who did this to you? I’m sure the enforcers…”

                        “Damn the enforcers, Marat. Do you not understand?”

                        “Who hurt you?” Crassus was painfully aware that he presented a pitiful sight, clenching his chubby arms into fists that would probably not even deter an unruly child yet feeling anger at whoever was responsible.

                        “You don’t understand,” the girl said. Tears came over her eyes once again. “I was there, at the bridge when… the Primarch announced death of a world. And as none have heard him, he spoke through me.” She backed away from Crassus as though one of them was a dangerous beast.

                        “I am the one who killed two billion people, and I could not do anything to stop it. Do you understand now?” Her voice raised to almost a scream. “This is on my hands, and he let it happen.”

                        Crassus stood motionlessly, taken aback by the revelation. All through this moment he wondered just what might have happened, or, perhaps, if Angela had any insight she could share. Coming here was, in retrospect, his way of dealing with the consequences of being present for genocide, a more thoughtful alternative to alcohol. It was what he had to do to absolve himself of guilt by association.

                        Instead, he found out more than he could have possibly handled at that time.

                        Conflicting emotions battled in his mind. What would happen, he thought, if you find an answer, and realize it is not the one you were hoping for? What if the mysteries become plain for all to see, and you finally realize that you never really wanted to discover the answers?

                        Most importantly, Crassus thought, could he offer any absolution to the one who could not be truly consoled?

                        “You are the only one who stayed long enough to listen, Marat,” said Angela haltingly. She looked frail and vulnerable, a victim of abuses that only her own mind could invent as a punishment for the ultimate transgression. There was something fragile in her manner, a wayward child looking for strength, guidance and comfort from any source available. “Vlad did not come back since… planetfall…” she sobbed. “No one else… no one else…” She hung her head, then wrapped both arms around her shoulders. Crassus could see her shake, as if she was on the verge of freezing to death.

                        “Please, Marat, can you help me?”

                        He looked at her, then at the door, then at her again, taking an involuntary step back. Something sharp jutted out of the floor, scraping his side. He turned to look.

                        A painting, half-covered in grime and dust, emerged from the debris like a protruding speartip. Crassus saw a desolate, ruined landscape, remnants of dwellings blasted by some unknown cataclysm, hints of death in the shade cast by a blasted wall.

                        “Help me!” Angela’s voice was soft, desperate, pleading. “Please!”

                        “I… I… need a drink,” Crassus blurted, not sure if he was more afraid of the young woman or of his own imagined complicity in the crime he bore witness to. There were monsters everywhere he turned. He turned around and hurried for the door, not daring to turn back or even meet Angela’s eyes.

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                        • #13
                          ELEVEN

                          Brotherhood
                          Rules of War
                          Voiceless

                          “This world smells of ashes,” Isaiah grumbled, examining the landing platform. With a practiced eye, he took in every nook and cranny of the hangar, scanning the area for possible ambushes or potential hostiles.

                          Parias greeted the Gargoyles with the stench that could only come from an entire world wreathed in hot surphurous clouds, where grime of its industries and sweat of its billions of inhabitants were contained into the crowded hives. The void shield did little to hide the diffuse image of inferno outside the hangar, where sickly green cloud cover hid the ugly face of the planet from the universe. It left the platform in a state of bizarre, unchanging twilight, dark enough to be comfortable to the Fourteenth Legion’s warriors, if not to the quivering mortals that fled as soon as they saw the Space Marines disembark from their lander.

                          The memory of the Balakhat Hive ran strong here.

                          They were now alone here but for an assortment of lobotomized servitors performing their mindless tasks, loading heavy crates onto the waiting transports or doing routine maintenance to the vehicles parked here, away from Parias’ corrosive atmosphere. The hangar was truly cyclopean in scale, easily at least a kilometer across and at least three hundred meters high before the flickering void shields suddenly cut it off from the elements. Automated conveyer belts carried the planet’s mineral riches to the waiting cargo haulers, while the dim lighting cast thousands of shadows upon the metal surfaces where the insignia of local noble houses meshed with that of rogue traders, Imperial aquilas and Munitorum markings.

                          “Just like home,” one of the Gargoyles’ remarked wryly. At first glance, Isaiah could not tell which one it was; the Primarch’s selection of the Honor Guard was strange to say the least. The fifty warriors that followed Angelus to the surface of Parias were selected from several different companies, some veterans with long and proud histories of service, some barely out of the scout auxilia.

                          Truth be told, he was almost surprised at the ease with which he could gain admission to the landing party. He expected resistance, perhaps even a reprimand for speaking out of turn, but the Primarch simply waved him on, as if considering him little more than a minor irritant, or a petulant child given a trinket so that he would go away.

                          It seemed to Isaiah that his Primarch had a lot on his mind, and the Sixth Captain did not like it. The Gargoyles were at their best when they were unleashed against the many horrors of the galaxy that would have broken lesser men. Where contemplation took root, threads of fate became meshed, intertwined, lost in a thousand directions.

                          It was certainty that Isaiah had sought, and there was none of it in his gene-sire.

                          Even now, Angelus was a presence unto himself, perched upon a large crate like a motionless sculpture. The Grey Prince’s dark eyes seemed lost in thought, not a single emotion reflecting upon his statuesque face, shaded in the reflections of the diffuse light from beyond the hive. The shadows of his wings gave him a decidedly monstrous appearance, exaggerating the deep wrinkles around the corners of his mouth, contrasting the dark of his eyes with the paleness of his skin. It occurred to Isaiah that Angelus looked like a revenant returned from a particularly unpleasant afterlife to the scene of his greatest failure.

                          Perhaps, the Sixth Captain thought, there was more than an inkling of truth to it.

                          “Here they come!” Isaiah heard Katon’s voice over the vox. A dark shape surfaced in the low clouds, pitiless and violent like its namesake. Suddenly, the Reapers’ Captain felt horribly vulnerable. If the Stormbird were to open fire after passing through the layers of void shields protecting the hangar from the hostile environment outside, there was little he or his men could do.

                          “Hold steady…” Isaiah voxed back, waving the Honor Guard to stand down as some of them began to take aim at the transport. He fought back a sudden urge to hide, find a tactically suitable position and strike against the new arrivals at his first opportunity.

                          No, he told himself. This is a peaceful meeting.

                          For now.

                          The Stormbird hovered over them, a black and white shape with the sword and laurel symbol of the Tenth Legion plainly painted on its side. Isaiah felt the urgent desire to open fire, recalling the events that took place here, fifty years ago yet all too recent in his near-eidetic memory.

                          Calm down, he thought, steadying himself and forcing his hand to stay away from the bolt pistol grip. Involuntarily, his face distorted into an angry snarl, fanged teeth bared for all to see. A low growl emanated from his throat as his muscles tensed, preparing for a fight.

                          The ramp fell down with a hiss of depressurizing air. It took all of Isaiah’s willpower not to target the opening, ready to open fire against anything that would emerge. The lander vented steam as the moisture in the air came into contact with the superheated adamantium plating, the heat of reentry combining with the inferno of Parias.

                          The first figure to step down from the ramp was a giant even amongst the Legiones Astartes, a helmeted warrior bearing a ceremonial sword in one hand, and the banner of the Tenth Legion in the other. Isaiah felt himself seethe with rage at the sight of those familiar symbols, imagining the smug face of the warrior beneath.

                          “The glory-boys,” he heard a whisper in his implanted vox-bead, not taking time to reprimand the speaker.

                          It was true. The Peacekeepers were the Legion always highlighted as one of the Imperium’s poster children, their countenance noble and proud, their victories without count. The Tenth Legion left a trail of ordered, prosperous worlds that reaped full benefits of Imperial law and trade network, while countless xenos, renegades and other, more sinister enemies bemoaned their very existence.

                          Arrogant bastards is what they are, Isaiah thought, born of a pleasant world where the only danger came from other human beings. They were soft, a sin that would be one’s death sentence on Argos. And to think that they were the ones trying to teach the Legion that thrived on the harshest, most horrific conflicts known to humanity!

                          If the first Peacekeeper was a giant, the next one to descend dwarfed him in every respect. From the noble set of features upon the bare head to the ornately wrought armor and weapons, there was no question that this was a man used to command and obedience, a warrior whose mere presence could turn the tide of wars and captivate planets. The Sixth Captain recalled hearing that the Primarchs were painstakingly forged for the glories that no mortal or even post-human Space Marine could possibly accomplish, that every cell in their bodies was the epitome of post-human perfection, inspiring awe and adoration in all who beheld them.

                          To be in the presence of one Primarch, even the one so different from the classical ideal as Angelus, was a blessing rarely granted even to his sons. To be in the presence of two was more than any mortal mind was meant to handle.

                          Isaiah fought back an instinctive urge to kneel at the presence of so magnificent a being, knowing that the emotion was wholly unbecoming of a Gargoyle. He tried to bring back the memories of his Legion’s humiliating discourse with the Peacekeepers, rekindling the feeling of rage and betrayal until all he could see was the hated banner, black and white, sword and laurel.

                          Gideon, the Lawgiver, the Tenth Primarch took a step on the cursed soil of Parias with an expression of tightly controlled fury upon his otherwise perfect face. Around him, the Peacekeepers Honor Guard spread out in a ceremonial formation that, to the one skilled in such matters, appeared to be only a fraction of a second away from turning into a wedge to drive into any enemy that would present itself with roaring chainblades and overlapping fields of bolter fire.

                          “Brother…” Angelus cackled from his makeshift throne. A wry smile played upon the Grey Prince’s lips. “Here. What memory! What irony!”

                          “Don’t you dare to call me your brother, Angelus,” the Tenth Primarch replied, clenching his hands into fists. The Peacekeepers’ Honor Guard appeared to tense just enough in preparation for the possibility of violence. Isaiah’s hand reached for his weapon; this time, the Sixth Captain did nothing to stop it.

                          “How the world, turns it in hot coals, how does it?” said Angelus, stringing the words together. There was an amused, detached quality to his tone, as if the Fourteenth Primarch was not quite sure where he was, or, perhaps, did not care for his physical surroundings. Yurog, Isaiah thought, knowing that such beings rarely obeyed the laws of mortal logic.

                          “You are making even less sense than usual,” Gideon retorted angrily. For a second, he looked as though he was about to attack the winged Primarch before reconsidering. “Walk with me.” He pointed to a section of the hangar that was devoid of crates.

                          How could he, Isaiah wondered, his blood boiling with rage. No one had the right to order a Primarch around, save for, perhaps, the Emperor!

                          Angelus laughed. It was a sound coming from someone not entirely in control of his faculties. Isaiah bit back a curse. What did he just walk into? Was it better to remain on board the Redeemer and not bear witness to whatever was about to transpire? Isaiah had a sinking feeling that he was about to see something he would never be able to forget, or make his peace with.

                          “Amusing, tales, talk… always talk…” Angelus said, quizzically cocking his head to a side. “Like that, like this, ah, delicious!” He stared at some distant point in the swirling clouds beyond the void shield. “Yes, quite delicious!”

                          Gideon cast a strange look at his brother, whispering something that perhaps only Angelus could hear. Slowly, the Fourteenth Primarch came out of his sudden reverie. The light of recognition flashed momentarily in his eyes.

                          “Ah, walk,” Angelus groaned, as though speaking had caused him some discomfort. The winged Primarch shook his head in a way a mortal may try to shake off vertigo. “Yes, we shall walk.”

                          * * *

                          The two demigods walked through the hangar left vacant in their wake. One was radiant, perfect and awe-inspiring in every way, with the bearing that would make kings abase themselves before him and the presence that not even the most headstrong of men could deny. The other was dark, twisted in body and mind, walking with an unsteady gait of one who would rather not be in the open. Where the former could inspire ordinary mortals to great deeds through encouragement and guidance, the latter could only terrify through his presence. Where one was every bit of a hero expected by his mortal charges, the other was a monstrous legend given flesh, a living grotesque embodiment of mankind’s terrors throughout its long and torturous history.

                          There was nothing but silence, penetrated only by the cracking sounds of gale hitting the void shield three hundred meters above them, and the hustle of servitors continuing their mindless work, heedless of the momentous meeting taking place around them.

                          Gideon was the first to speak. “How did it come to this, Angelus?”

                          The Gargoyle said nothing, instead finding something fascinating on the floor. The Grey Prince’s eyes went out of focus, as if he was hearing something only he could perceive.

                          “Answer me!” There was barely constrained anger and violence in the Lawgiver’s voice. “Or have you nothing to say?”

                          “Ah, yes…” Angelus hissed with a terrible, knowing smile. “I have words. That, so is right! Beautiful words. Aren’t they?”

                          “Speak to me!” Gideon grabbed the other Primarch by shoulders, trying to look him straight in the eye. “Tell me what insanity possessed you.”

                          “You speak of sanity…” the winged Primarch’s voice drifted away, melancholic. “So did they. Cold, cold sanity. So cold, so unloving. Can you comprehend? Can you?”

                          “I have no time for your psychotic babble,” said Gideon menacingly. “You and your Legion of rabid dogs have some explaining to do.”

                          “Oh, Parias, how I love thee!” Angelus hummed, delirious smile on his face. “Save from monsters, shall we? Here and there, all the worlds! We, we are the cure, brother.” His voice suddenly shifted in pitch, becoming cold, emotionless, almost machine-like. “We are the cure, Gideon. Just what this galaxy needs. The instrument of blunt destr….” Once again, there was a lost look in Angelus’ eyes. “My beautiful, warm world!”

                          Gideon took a long look at his brother, examining him in exquisite detail. The sunken cheeks, the hollow and haunted look in the Grey Prince’s eyes, the sudden twitching of the lower jaw all became apparent. He looked upon Angelus with an expression that could be counted as either contempt, disgust, or perhaps even pity.

                          “But I have survived,” said Angelus, sudden strength flowing back into his voice as he returned Gideon’s glance. “I have survived and thrived. The winds of inferno, the cold of space, the underdark of the forest and the sickness of the marsh. I. Am. In. Control!” The last words were not as much spoken as yelled, the scream a direct challenge to the raging winds outside the hive. “Do you understand, Gideon? Do you know what it means?”

                          “I should strike you down here and now, brother,” the Lawgiver replied, seething venom through his teeth. “Strike you down now and save you the misery of living like this.” He lowered his voice, anger competing with what sounded like genuine concern. “What happened to you, Angelus? You were once a symbol to all of us, you who overcame all the adversity this universe could throw at you!”

                          “Look at you now, brother,” Gideon said, now in a voice flush with emotion. “A gibbering wreck, leading a Legion of butchers.” The Lawgiver paused, taking stock of their meeting place. “This is where it all began, didn’t it? The first time you have unleashed your hounds to do as they please while you watch.”

                          Angelus looked like he was struggling mightily to keep himself erect. He bared his elongated fangs in a challenge to no one in particular, squeezing his teeth as if struggling through some unbearable pain. “I. Am. Not.” The words came out with much difficulty. He breathed easier, perhaps regaining a degree of control. “You are blind, Gideon. So blind.” The words came out like tortured rasps. “The universe does not care. It is vast. It is brutal. It is ugly. Do you understand?”

                          There was genuine pain on the Grey Prince’s face. Sweat began to condense upon his brow.

                          “What do you know of it, brother?” Angelus demanded, visibly struggling to contain himself and to continue the conversation. “Your precious ordered view! Bah! The rules of war you hold so dear! War! War itself has no rules! Bleed so that there is no more bleeding! Kill so that there are no dead. Crime, who is to judge what crime is? Have you, brother, scoured worlds?”

                          “I did what was necessary, Angelus,” replied Gideon, tensing as though ready for a violent confrontation. “Every world I have slain lies heavily on my conscience, for they were truly irredeemable. Like an executioner, I slay those who have transgressed so far beyond redemption that no such redemption is possible. You are a feral butcher slaughtering the righteous and the innocent alike. We. Are. Nothing. Alike!” The last words were bellowed out in defiance, reverberating for hundreds of meters across the hangar.

                          “You killed Twenth Seven-Sixteen on a whim,” Gideon seethed. “Just like you killed the Balakhat Hive here. And Gharis Prime. And Fratria. And Karrhonis. And…”

                          “Enough!” Angelus roared, striking the Peacekeepers’ Primarch with little warning. The side of Gideon’s mouth was bruised, a trickle of bright red blood coalescing as soon as it made contact with air. Almost instantly, the Peacekeeper’s handgun was in his hand, pointing at Angelus faster than a mortal eye could see. A violent growl emerged from the Grey Prince’s mouth, promising nothing but death.

                          Angelus looked at Gideon’s bloodied face, then at his hand, then at Gideon again, as though he could not believe what had just happened. A look of confusion played upon his face, erasing the marks of anger.

                          “I would end you here and now had it not been for my respect of our father’s law,” Gideon said, pulling back. The ornate gun in his hand wavered, his aim unsteady as conflicting emotions played upon his face. “You are as irredeemable as the worlds you claim to have cleansed.”

                          Angelus said nothing, turning around instead. It seemed that his every step was pained, as though he was struggling against something impeding his every motion. For a second, Gideon’s gun was pointed at his brother’s back, tracing the contours of the Grey Prince’s wings until it settled on what should have been a head shot.

                          The winged Primarch paid no heed to the imminent threat, taking a few more halting, uncertain steps. He finally came to a stop, turning his head just enough to see Gideon’s hate-filled grimace and the gun pointing at his back. A sad, knowing smile came upon Angelus’ face as the winged Primarch shook his head, then leapt into the air, wings extending in all their monstrous glory, heading away from Gideon and back towards the Fourteenth Legion’s lander.

                          * * *

                          Isaiah watched the Peacekeepers warily, fully aware that behind those white helmets, eyes bore into him and his men, evaluating him for his threat potential. A part of him almost longed for a confrontation, a chance to prove himself superior warrior, to settle the long-standing conflict once and for all. Another part rebelled against the thought, considering the sheer wrongness of it – Legiones Astartes fighting one another.

                          For the moment, the latter part was losing the internal debate.

                          He slowly trotted towards the black-and-white clad Marines, knowing that the rest of the Gargoyles have probably recognized the common Legion tactic. If hostilities did emerge, Isaiah would be the bait to force the Peacekeepers out of position, where the other Gargoyles could assault them in close combat and negate the ranged weaponry expertise of sons of Gideon.

                          If anything, the Tenth Legion was not known for its prowess at close quarters.

                          “Halt!” a Peacekeeper clad in a particularly ornate armor put his hand forward. The man’s helmeted head turned towards Isaiah even as his other hand hovered over the plasma pistol holstered at his side.

                          “Are we so distrustful of one another that we have to resort to this, cousin?” Isaiah said mockingly. His lips curled up to reveal teeth, where two prominent fangs, the genetic legacy of Angelus, gave him a nearly bestial appearance.

                          “I will not stoop down to your goading, Gargoyle,” the Peacekeeper replied. The vox-speakers of his armor made his voice sound like a groan of an overworked engine.

                          “Mighty words from someone who wouldn’t even reveal his face,” continued Isaiah. The Reapers’ Captain spat on the hangar floor, the acidic saliva secreted by his Belcher’s Gland implant eating through the metal. He faced the Peacekeeper, looking him straight in the face, as though in challenge. “I am Isaiah of the Carver Peaks, Captain of the Sixth Company of the Gargoyles Legion, son of Angelus the Grey Prince, and I hide neither my face nor my name!”

                          “Very well,” the Peacekeeper said, warily removing his helmet. A round, aged face disfigured by scars earned in decades of combat emerged. Piercing grey eyes stared directly at Isaiah with easily apparent derision. “I am Avram Korvallian, called the Moonface, scion of Gideon the Lawgiver and the Captain of his House Guard.” Avram’s face twitched in disgust. “Your kind… the quicker this is done, the better.”

                          “The feeling’s mutual,” Isaiah snarled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw several Gargoyles move unassumingly through the hangar, seemingly at random but in fact covering approach vectors that would give them an advantage in case things did result in combat. “I did not know Topia produced such an… ugly breed.”

                          “You will not get a rise out of me with your petty insults, Gargoyle,” Avram hissed, hand still hovering over the weapon, ready to draw it at will. “These are some words from a butcher.”

                          Realization hit Isaiah as he glanced over the honor markings on the Peacekeeper’s armor. The other warrior had clearly been through his fair share of campaigns; the oath papers on his pauldrons and greaves spoke of at least that much. A pattern of rounded designs with flowing Gothic script indicated names of campaigns, worlds brought into compliance, empires ground into ashes and left for dead on the dust heap of history. Only one of the designs did not have a name, a mark of solid ash-grey formed into a nearly perfect circle.

                          “You were at Balakhat Hive,” the Gargoyle grinned without mirth. He let out a chuckle. “How does it feel to be back here? What was it, fifty years?”

                          “You and your kind are unworthy to even mention the name of that place, butcher,” Avram spit back out. The Peacekeeper looked at Isaiah, hate glowing in his eyes. “You too, weren’t you? Thank your lucky stars the Primarch ordered restraint.” There was imminent threat in his words.

                          “Or what, he is afraid his precious children will be revealed as cowards they are?” Isaiah laughed mockingly. “The only reason we withdrew is because you outnumbered us three to one, and even then, you were too cowardly to let the real men do what the warriors are supposed to do!”

                          “Since when are the murderers considered real men, Isaiah of the Carver Peaks?”

                          “What do you know of war, Avram Korvallian?” Isaiah mocked the other Marine’s use of his given name. “Your pathetic excuse for a Legion does not even call itself warriors. You are Peacekeepers – the dregs of all the Legions not good enough for the front lines, concerning yourselves with the petty squabbles of mortals. Where is your courage, Peacekeeper?”

                          “Where are the worlds brought into the fold by your kind, Gargoyle?” Avram replied, refusing to be goaded into violence. “Only the Lion Guard and Iskanderos’ lot are even remotely close to us in the number of compliances. What did the Fourteenth accomplish but burned out husks of planets?”

                          “Completeness,” said Isaiah. “Our victories are over the foes that would make your kind run. We do not shy away from seeing the terror in our enemies’ eyes as they fall. Their blood paints our blades crimson, and their deaths serve a purpose.”

                          “You are savages, one and all!” Avram growled, lifting his pistol arm in a halting motion. “If you take another step, I will make you regret it.”

                          Guns,” Isaiah snorted. “How pathetic.” His thoughts were momentarily on Ludwig, the Terran who did prefer guns to honest, fearless simplicity of blades. With a sudden reflection, he wondered if the Nineteenth Captain would have found more to talk to the Peacekeeper about.

                          “You were not there after the hive fell,” said Avram, hints of deep, profound emotion in his voice, compounded by something else – hatred, perhaps, Isaiah thought? “Millions, crying for deliverance as the air ran out, cooked alive when the cooling systems failed. Screaming. Charnel houses. Do you understand what you have done, you bastards?” The Peacekeeper was in Isaiah’s face with ferocity every bit matching the Gargoyle’s.

                          “I thought you were Legiones Astartes,” Isaiah hissed. “Or are you so weak that the mortal concerns actually bother you?”

                          “That campaign had brought dishonor upon me and my Legion, savage. Do you understand what it’s like to fail those you’re honor-bound to protect? Of course you don’t!” Avram bellowed. “You wouldn’t know honor if it hit you in the face!”

                          “Come on, hit me!” goaded the Gargoyle. “You know you want to.” Isaiah flashed a cruel, derisive smile. “Then you will learn a few things about the meaning of honor, and then some.”

                          “Barbarian!”

                          “I suppose I have made a mistake,” said Isaiah with a mocking veneer of calm. “I thought we were supposed to rendezvous with Legiones Astartes. It seems, brothers,” he purposely turned his head toward the other Gargoyles, expecting a blow to come at any moment, “that we were sorely mistaken. The Peacekeepers, apparently, are nothing but jumped up humans dressed in ill-fitting armor. Little wonder they are so fond of their guns and numbers!”

                          “Savages like yourselves make me ashamed for all of us,” retorted Avram. It seemed that the Peacekeeper had to struggle mightily not to lash out.

                          “If all of us were like you, we would have never survived the Old Night,” Isaiah said, facing the other Marine again. “Get out of my face, you pathetic disgrace of an Astartes!”

                          Avram looked like he was about to say something when a shadow fell over the two warriors. A gust of wind brushed against Isaiah’s face, too cold to be anything natural. The Reaper’s Captain looked up.

                          A massive winged shape hovered only a few meters over him, somehow managing to fool even the Space Marine’s enhanced senses until it was close. Dark, leathery wings blocked the swirling chaos of Parias’ toxic atmosphere beyond the void shields. Distant light reflected faintly upon the ceremonial armor, framing Angelus in a halo of hazy colors. Slowly, the Primarch descended, each beat of the wings bringing him down at a measured, stately pace.

                          “Where… where is lord Gideon?” Avram spoke, incensed, angry, and, perhaps, feeling completely out of his depth when faced with a living demigod.

                          Angelus said nothing as his feet touched the ground, paying as much attention to the Peacekeeper as he would to an annoying gnat. The Primarch took an unsteady step towards his warriors, a vacant, lost expression upon his face.

                          “What did you do to him? Answer me!” Avram bellowed, moving quickly to block Angelus’ path. The Peacekeeper’s sword was held in a position allowing him to strike with but one swift motion.

                          And then, in a fraction of a second, Avram was gone.

                          A quick, barely noticeable movement of the Primarch’s wrist sent him flying through the hangar, crashing into the side of the Tenth Legion’s Stormbird with sufficient force to leave a dent. The loud cacophonous sound reverberated through the hangar, as if Angelus rang a massive, strangely shaped bell.

                          As one, the Peacekeepers sprung to their weapons, targeting the Gargoyles and their master with the speed their Legion was famous for. In the distance, the fallen First Captain groaned weakly, attempting to crawl towards his assailant and failing. The Gargoyles held out their own weapons, one motion away from launching an attack.

                          Angelus hissed. It was not a human sound by any stretch of imagination, sibilant, low yet both threatening and bestial. It spoke clearly to any would-be assailants: attack me at your own peril.

                          As one, the Peacekeepers fell back towards their Stormbird, keeping ranks in ordered formation and not letting the Gargoyles out of their gun sights. Isaiah heard the characteristic clicking of vox-communication – perhaps calling for support, or, more likely, trying to reach their missing Primarch. Briefly, he wondered what had happened at the meeting of two demigods.

                          Whatever it was, it must have left a profound impact on Angelus. It was rare for the Grey Prince to be completely silent after anything this momentous. Was his silence a foreboding sign of things to come, Isaiah thought, feeling uneasy at the implications. Did he… do something that would now well and fully damn his sons?

                          The Sixth Captain did not even want to consider the possibility, all thoughts of goading and humiliating the hated Tenth Legion now forgotten. The thought was… too difficult to comprehend, too impossible to ever be real. Isaiah’s eyes followed Angelus across the hangar.

                          Angelus was silent, walking purposely across the floor with a mechanical stride only somnambulists could relate to. One by one, the Gargoyles fell in formation, covering their master’s back from any stray shots. In the distance, Isaiah saw another figure, too massive to be a Space Marine, approach, walking at a pace that would be considered running in even the fittest mortals. The figure held something in an outstretched hand, a device or a weapon pointing in the vague direction of the Gargoyles.

                          Angelus motioned towards his own transport without saying a word, and warriors of the Fourteenth Legion began walking up the ramp, one by one, then in pairs and groups, stepping backwards to still face the Peacekeepers retreating towards their own vehicle. As Isaiah walked on the ramp, he risked one look at the approaching giant.

                          Now, he could see the details – a dark, handsome face twisted in anger; armor every bit as elaborate and decorated as anything Angelus ever wore; a pistol-like weapon that would easily match a standard-issue bolter in size held in one hand. Isaiah’s enhanced vision could barely make out a stain on the man’s face, a trickle of something that could have been blood.

                          As the Stormbird lifted the Gargoyles away from Parias, Isaiah knew with certainty that some things were never going to be the same.

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                          • #14
                            TWELVE

                            The Voice
                            Defiance
                            Grey Prince’s Conscience

                            The Gargoyles fleet departed the system like a massive shoal of parasitic creatures surrounding the magnificent bulk of the Redeemer. It left neither message nor explanation, cruising past the confused vessels of the Peacekeepers and the few System Defense Force monitors and breaking into the Immaterium before anyone else could react.

                            On Parias, millions could breathe easier, knowing that the monsters that brought the Imperial rule to their world were gone. The world went back to its usual business and would continue as though nothing had happened for many more rotations around its primary star, until the universe had caught up with it decades later. By then, the galaxy was a much different place, and many more tears joined those shed by the few survivors of the Balakhat Hive as the grief-stricken Peacekeepers looked on.

                            The ships of the Tenth Legion continued to maintain a defensive cordon over the planet for another two days, perhaps reconsidering their next deployment, perhaps gathering wayward companies and operatives from the system’s many planets and moons. On the eve of the third day, the Peacekeepers had also departed, to great relief of Parias’ Lord Governor, who began to suspect that certain fiscal irregularities of his had been discovered. It would be four more long, torturous years before the governor’s excesses would be exposed, and he would join his equally venal predecessor as a lobotomized, heavily modified servitor.

                            Isaiah would neither know nor care about what happened after his Legion’s departure. As soon as the Redeemer broke into the Warp, the Sixth Captain left his armor inside his Spartan quarters, not saying a word even to the trusty Etienne as he left.

                            He walked purposely through the great vessel’s corridors, paying no heed to the Legion serfs and naval ratings that scurried out of his way, sensing his greater need. He must have presented a terrifying sight to them – a giant of a man dressed in a light grey chiton, arms covered with savage-looking faded tattoos only partially healed by his enhanced post-human physiology, teeth bared in a snarl that promised unpleasant confrontation to any who would bar his way. His eyes, grey and cold, were focused only on the next turn, the next twist of the winding passages that led him to his query.

                            A thousand thoughts raced through Isaiah’s mind. It has been fifty years since the initial confrontation on Parias, and all those memories now came back with a vengeance. He recalled the desperate mission to take out the heart of rebellion, heedless of casualties; battle-brothers dying as the mutinous nobles opened sections of the hive to the planet’s corrosive atmosphere; the resplendence of the enemy uniforms and the weakness of little men and women that wore them, their bodies cleaved in two by casual movements of the Excruciator or blasted apart by shots from his bolt pistol. The surphurous stench assaulted his nostrils, a pallid reminder of the burning hell outside the hive’s adamantium superstructure and protective void shields. Isaiah remembered the Gargoyles’ Techmarines placing the charges at the hive’s reactor core, setting them with just enough time for the Legion’s warriors – he, an aspiring battle-brother just recently promoted to sergeant among them – to escape the coming massacre.

                            Most of all, he remembered the screams.

                            Millions of people, guilty and innocent alike, trying to force their way out of the hive as soon as they realized the warning sirens were no mere drill. Throngs of humanity trampling one another in an endless drive to live for just another moment even when the adamantium walls gave in, and hot, toxic breath of Parias incinerated them in their thousands. Desperate masses throwing themselves in the Space Marines’ way to take their murderers with them if all else failed, all reason gone in the face of the inevitable.

                            In his mind, they died, again and again until the entire universe was nothing but one massive, endless scream of pain and agony rising above all in a climactic crescendo.

                            Isaiah licked his lips, closing his eyes for a moment to reminisce. The screams went away, for now.

                            Now that he was away from the prying eyes of those who knew him, Isaiah could give voice to his thoughts, aspirations and fears. He cherished the few short minutes he had to himself, a moment of privacy so rare for the one of his position. Isaiah cleared his mind using a meditation technique taught by the Legion’s Librarians to all officers, even those whose psychic potential was negligible. It was supposed to let him concentrate on the important matters, leaving all others behind.

                            For a second he almost thought he could not succeed, thoughts of Parias lingering in his conscience. Then, familiar images of a mantra began to take shape.

                            Circles, squares, triangles, octagons, a clockwork mechanism that described the universe of the mind appeared under his closed eyelids. Finally, calm descended upon him, a sense of singular determination that the Legion’s elders attempted to instill in their charges from the moment the initiates first wore the grey and white colors of the Fourteenth. Isaiah let his other senses guide him through the passages, instinctively sensing when to turn, when to avoid meager oncoming traffic, when to duck as the ceiling became too low for a Space Marine to walk straight.

                            He smiled, knowing that he was getting closer to his target. The air acquired a taste of something humid and foul – the stink of humanity.

                            As Isaiah’s eyes opened, he was greeted with a vision of a hallway, long and full of carvings the Argosian menials have left on the walls as a paltry reminder of their distant homeworld. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the sound of water dripping from a rusted-through pipe – drip, drip, drop.

                            It was as silent as he hoped, and the delicious irony of his decision made him smile.

                            He was looking for a voice in the deepest, darkest silent recesses of the Redeemer.

                            The arcane geometries of the mind turned, becoming a face, aligning with a pattern of grotesque Argosian imagery. One by one, each feature came to life. Face of a hero, born of the world full of abominations. Face of the one who could no longer give voice to his own thoughts, apart not only from the universe but even from his own sons.

                            Until now.

                            Isaiah stopped before a nondescript, filthy-looking door, feeling the gravity of the moment. This was the next step to his grand destiny, the step that would both help his gene-sire and, perhaps, elevate the Sixth Captain above his peers.

                            He knocked.

                            * * *

                            There was no answer.

                            Isaiah did not know what to expect. His dealings with mortals were limited at best; Legion serfs were far beneath his notice, and while he had cringingly resigned himself to treating the naval personnel with a modicum of courtesy, he had a hard time reading them.

                            Mortals were either the means to service the Legion’s war machine or the enemies to be slaughtered, eviscerated en masse when the best of their warriors proved no match for the Gargoyles.

                            He knocked again, then impatiently pushed the door in, not waiting for an answer. The metal yielded easily, as if the cabin’s occupant did not bother with locking it.

                            The cabin greeted Isaiah with an appearance of disorganized, haphazard clutter. He winced as he caught the smell of something rotten, not because it offended his enhanced senses, but because he could not believe any human being would voluntarily elect to exist like this. Truly, Isaiah thought, the mortals were wretched, revolting creatures.

                            “Marat?”

                            The voice was weak, devoid of strength or conviction. Isaiah had heard soldiers seconds away from death speaking with more presence.

                            He crossed the heaps of garbage and discarded fragments of life and art, moving in the direction of a voice. On more than one occasion, only his superior sense of balance wrought into his physique by the Legion’s gene-smiths kept him from stumbling. He bit back a juicy Argosian curse that would have compared the cabin to a nest of a particularly loathsome subterranean creature.

                            The remembrancer looked haggard, ragged and listless sitting on a messy bed, wet streaks of tears running down her face. Even with his limited knowledge of mortals, Isaiah could tell that she was clearly malnourished, simply wasting away in her self-imposed confinement. She did not meet his eyes, seemingly displaying little concern for what a giant Space Marine could be doing in her quarters.

                            “You are Angela Hesail,” Isaiah said, not sure how to announce his presence. None of his past experiences have prepared him for this.

                            The girl lifted her head, looking at him with an emotion he could not quite place. Then, it hit him – desperation. He had seen it many times in the eyes of the soldiers he killed, as they realized they stood no chance of defeating the Gargoyles or even of surviving the battle. How quaint, the Sixth Captain thought.

                            “What do you want?” she said in a lifeless, scratchy voice that spoke of indifference.

                            “I want you to come with me,” the Space Marine said. He found himself amused by the notion that this conversation made him more uncomfortable than any foe he had faced in his long, bloody career.

                            “And kill another world?” the girl’s voice acquired a hint of angry defiance. “Go to hell.”

                            Isaiah was momentarily taken aback. He was used to the mortals’ deference and fear, their only defiance coming moments before their threads were cut by the Excruciator. White-hot rage flooded his eyes as he came to terms with the realization that not only this woman was giving him none of the status he expected, but she just told him he was neither welcome nor allowed in here.

                            He bit his lip, trying to regain control. The geometric pattern, gift of the Illuminators to all who would listen, floated before his mind’s eye. It was not working very well.

                            He was now directly by the remembrancer’s side, towering over her even without his armor. The Sixth Captain supposed he presented an intimidating sight.

                            “Do not insult me, mortal,” he hissed, taking every bit of mental fortitude to restrain himself. He felt a powerful urge to rip this insolent, broken human apart with his hands and teeth for such an affront to his person. He cursed the need he had for her – the one he could bring back to his liege as a prize, the one undisputed ticket he had to the Legion’s inner circle. “Our lord needs you.” Somehow, Isaiah realized, this woman was the key to interpreting the strange, otherwise incomprehensible workings of the Fourteenth Primarch’s mind, and he was not going to let this prize slip out of his fingers.

                            “Then he can at least come himself instead of sending a lackey,” the girl replied. It seemed that she was coming to life at the thought of defying the Gargoyle.

                            Isaiah bared his teeth, using every little bit of willpower he had not to take the woman’s life. He felt he was dangerously close to the edge of his patience. Only his ambition kept his murderous tendencies in check; he knew that for the moment, the remembrancer was the most precious commodity aboard the Redeemer, and, for all that she attempted to defy him, she was completely in his power.

                            “I am not here on lord Angelus’ behalf,” the Reaper exhaled. He was still not sure why the remembrancer was not awed or terrified into submission. In fact, he thought, he did not understand why she was even in this condition in the first place. Was it something peculiar to the mortals, Isaiah wondered, trying to shift his thoughts away from the violent solution his instincts promised?

                            “Just go away. Please?” the remembrancer’s eyes staring directly at him were bloodshot, empty of anything but pain.

                            “I think not,” said the Sixth Captain. He might not have understood the mortals very well, but he understood one thing. For all that this petulant girl was unwilling to embrace her place in his schemes, she was as frail and incapable as the rest of her kind.

                            Isaiah grabbed Angela by the shoulders, jolting her upward until he held her small frame fully in the air, completely unperturbed by her attempts to wrestle free. A faint memory surfaced in the Gargoyle’s mind – a big, powerful man holding a small child, displaying him to the world. Was it something from the barely remembered time before he joined the Legion? The details were hazy, and not even the Space Marine’s near-eidetic memory could recall the specifics. He heard a whine, a cry as he realized his grip, unused to handling mortals outside of combat, was too much for the girl.

                            “You are coming with me, remembrancer, whether you like it or not,” the Sixth Captain growled, setting her over his shoulder as if the girl was a sack full of clothes. Her attempts to hit or scratch him went completely unnoticed, not any more than he would notice a gnat. He gave one last look to the wretched cabin, then turned around to leave, still marveling how the fate of one such as him could be connected to such a weak, petulant, unruly creature.

                            Truly, the mortals were beyond his understanding, Isaiah thought, spitting on the floor in disgust. The acidic substance ate through the debris, papers, pieces of blank canvas as though they were ice melting under the heat from a burning coal. The remembrancer on his shoulder wept, all fight gone from her.

                            Good, thought Isaiah. It meant he would have far less trouble getting his prize to the Grey Prince, and, perhaps, claiming the reward he so richly deserved.

                            * * *

                            The Primarch’s private quarters aboard the Redeemer were large, far larger than even the most luxurious cabins afforded to the visiting Terran nobles or dignitaries. It was said that instead of letting others design the space for him, Angelus had transplanted a self-perpetuating sample of Argosian biosphere, complete with the right gravity, atmospheric composition, humidity and other thousand factors that made the vast hall seem like a lost piece of Argos amongst the stars.

                            In any other being, this would have been a symptom of extreme vanity. For the Fourteenth Primarch, this was home.

                            Black water cascaded down a well-worn rock wall and into the shallow pool, giving off no reflection of the dim simulated sunlight. A rustling noise signaled a movement in the heavy native flora; a small critter tried to get a drink of water, risking a moment’s exposure to sate its thirst. Another sound; this time a predatory bird, swooping from its hitherto unseen hideaway to catch its prey. And all was silent again.

                            Isaiah never failed to be amazed by the artisanship that went into the creation of his gene-father’s private retreat, a world within a world. Sometimes he could almost allow his senses to be deceived by an illusion of a faraway home world, thinking back to his vaguely remembered childhood before the Legion took him and made him into a killer of men and monsters alike.

                            He passed by the four sentinels in the pure white battle plate of the Hell Guard, the Primarch’s personal retinue that, as of late, remained behind on other duties. The warriors nodded to him, allowing the Sixth Captain passage, much to his surprise.

                            The girl on his shoulder was no longer struggling. Isaiah heard sobbing sounds, perhaps cries of desperation and, eventually, resignation. He briefly wondered if she expected some kind of torture to be inflicted upon her, then grinned. For all that a warrior of the Legiones Astartes had little interest in pleasures of the flesh, Isaiah had greatly enjoyed sensing the fear in others.

                            Perhaps this was the greatest reward the Legion gave him, he mused as he climbed the crumbling steps on a solitary path through the simulated wilderness. It was not the unnaturally extended lifespan, or the fulfillment of thirst for glory and adventure that many youth of Argos dreamed of. No, it was simple – the ability to inflict terror, the ability to reinforce his superiority over the creatures of the galaxy just like the Grey Prince’s followers have finally destroyed the beasts of their blighted world.

                            “Just like that,” a voice, deep and resonant spoke from the canopy of large, ancient-looking trees. Isaiah held his breath, trying not to show surprise before his sovereign.

                            “Sire?” the Sixth Captain said, more an acknowledgment of the Primarch’s presence than a statement of uncertainty. He heard a strange note in the Grey Prince’s voice, something familiar and yet unlike anything he recalled of recent. Something… almost lucid, a tone Isaiah had not heard from his liege in many years. He set the girl down upon the nearby stone, disregarding the murderous look she gave the towering Space Marine.

                            Angelus descended from the gloom like a shape straight out of legend. Everything about him was black or grey – the wings, the clothes, the long hair were all shades of ebony, while the pallid grey of his face seemed to meld into the shadows of the habitat. As he passed, the creatures of faraway Argos scuttled out of his way, instinctually recognizing a predator greater than themselves.

                            “I… have an offering…” Isaiah stuttered, feeling not a little overwhelmed. As much as the Space Marines were bred to feel no fear as the mortals understood it, the Captain of the Reapers was now as close to it as he thought he could get.

                            “You listened!” Angelus’ face lit up with sudden glee. “Of all my children, you have heard. Say! What have you heard? What music, and of what spheres?”

                            “Umm… sire?”

                            “My talisman,” the Primarch said, somehow managing to move so quickly Isaiah did not even realize the winged giant was on the move until less than a meter separated them. The Grey Prince knelt down, a hunched pose that made him look like the titular Legion totem. His hand reached out.

                            “You,” said Angelus, touching the girl’s face, brushing her dirty hair with surprising tenderness. Isaiah felt almost incensed at the casual disregard his gene-father had shown him. It was his idea, he boiled within, incapable of expressing anger at his Primarch and yet seeking an outlet for his frustration. It took Isaiah all his willpower not to snarl at the pitiful mortal.

                            “My… focus…” the Primarch appeared to struggle with the words. His eyes drifted towards something only he could see, something in the dark water. He turned to Isaiah with a sudden, jerking motion.

                            “Thank you… Captain…” Angelus squeezed out the words. “You are… dismissed.”

                            That was it, Isaiah wondered? His entire journey here, all his ambitions, summed up in a single word?

                            “Tomorrow…” the Primarch crooned, delirious tone setting in again. Angelus shook his head as though he tried to wake up from some long, drawn-out nightmare. There was once again hardness to his face, a tightening of his jaw. “Come to me tomorrow, Isaiah.” He chuckled softly with somewhat of a rebellious, child-like undertone being completely at odds with his inhuman appearance.

                            “You shall see my conscience and guilt, yes you will!” the Primarch raised his eyes to the simulated sky, where the constellations of Argos continued their slow dance across the holographic heavens. “And then,” he gave Isaiah a conspiratory look, “then shall be a new day.”

                            The Sixth Captain saluted, daring to hope that, perhaps, his efforts were not completely in vain, then made his leave. The sound of his feet on the wet stones was quickly subsumed into the cacophony of endless Argosian dusk, where creatures great and small went on about their business, caring little about the fate of the galaxy or all its inhabitants outside their private little microcosm.

                            The Primarch now faced Angela, dark eyes studying every line on her face, the dark circles under her eyes, the lack of sunlight turning her skin almost as pallid as his. The girl turned her eyes to the pond, either too distraught or too terrified to meet his gaze. He held up her chin, meeting little resistance and sensing only a little bit of her old defiance in the curl of her lips.

                            Angelus smiled, an expression almost completely human, warm and welcoming despite the gloom of their surroundings. His other hand went over her shoulders in a gesture that was both protective and even fatherly, at odds with the girl’s uncontrollable shivering.

                            “And here you are,” the Primarch’s voice was honeyed silk, neither violent nor confused. “What was meant to be, all along. Just like they told me.”

                            “Welcome home, Angela,” said the Grey Prince.






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                            • #15
                              THIRTEEN

                              Dreams in Limbo
                              Beginnings
                              Blades

                              The world was a dream, a faintly remembered cascade of memories and concepts that had only a vague connection to reality. It was a dark and cold place, neither in this existence nor in the next but somewhere in a limbo between true life and its shade, unpleasantly humid and filled with the ghostly images of things that should have never existed. Grey light bathed it in ashen magnificence, reflecting from the afterimages imprinted upon the confused retinas; dripping sounds of water were a symphony of ethereal reality that neither calmed nor reassured.

                              Angela did not want to be here, but awakening did not come easily. This private retreat gave no true shelter, the knowledge she tried to escape weighing heavily upon her mind.

                              There were visitors – some familiar and almost helpful, some scornful and destitute, casting blame for all she had done, trying to inflict punishment for her cardinal sin. Some tried to do violence to her, while some others examined her like she was an exotic creature fit only for a freak show. At first she tried to resist, then, eventually, gave up. Angela had no control over where the figments of her imagination took her. The ashen light could not delineate the difference between the incomprehensible dream logic and what reality she tried to cling on to.

                              When she opened her eyes, the dream was still there.

                              The dripping water, the grey illumination did not vanish into her subconscious. Instead, they resolved into focus, becoming more and more real as she looked on, examining the intricate patterns on the mossy stones underneath her feet, the movements of insects hurrying to get out of the open, the glint of light upon the dark pool of water less than a meter away. Involuntarily, she extended her hand towards the water, dipping her fingers in.

                              It was wet, cold and possessed of a thick texture that water should not have had.

                              Angela shook the oily residue off her fingers, wiping them off on the ground. The rock was cold and slimy, even more so than the water.

                              “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

                              It is a dream, she tried telling herself, denying the growing feeling of unease. The voice was simply one more visitor, no more real than the rest, a symptom of a conscience ill at ease.

                              “Go away,” she said with little interest, resuming her examination of her surroundings.

                              “How can I?” the voice said, sounding almost as if it came from just behind her shoulder. “It is my dream, too.”

                              She turned, expecting to see another apparition, maybe someone she could recognize from the waking world. And almost as quickly she was on her feet, taking a step back towards the oily water.

                              “I wouldn’t do that, no, not at all,” said Angelus, the Primarch of the Gargoyles. “There are uger in there.”

                              Angela laughed as recollections flooded back. This must have been a dream. For all the brief time she spent near the Fourteenth Primarch, he had never sounded anything like this. Lucid. Capable of speaking without resorting to obscure metaphors and references that only he could understand.

                              “I see you, little sister,” the giant winged demigod said, mischievous glint in his eyes. “In the end, our strains were after all intertwined.”

                              She wanted to say something, to deny his existence. Instead of words, only a high-pitched whine came out of her mouth.

                              “Hush,” the Primarch said, putting his hand over her shoulder. She had a vague recollection, perhaps another instance where she was this close to him? “Don’t say a word. Not now.”

                              She shook her head, still mute.

                              There was a strange place within a dream where the dreamer realized her true state and yet remained incapable of affecting the strange unreality surrounding her. The tides of emotions and wordless thoughts surrounded Angela.

                              “These uger are not real,” she finally said through cracked, dry lips. “There is no pool.”

                              “Oh, but there is!” Angelus laughed. “You just have not accepted it yet.”

                              She felt a sudden chill that was neither wholly natural nor expected. Angela’s eyes darted to the surface of the pool; now, she could see black, sinuous shapes writing deep inside. One seemed to acquire a curious interest in her, swimming closer to the surface. The young woman saw a hint of scales barely penetrate the murky depths.

                              “Watch,” she faced the pool, making a motion to step into it. “This is not real.”

                              Her feet never touched the water.

                              The Primarch moved faster than she thought possible, intercepting a snake-like horror the length of her arm and squeezing the life out of it with a casual flick of a wrist. Angela smelled something revolting, fish-like yet subtly wrong in its scent, as if it was not of the modified Terran stock. The Grey Prince’s other hand barred her entry, stopping her from entering the pool.

                              “Don’t do that again,” Angelus warned. “The uger bite is poisonous to humans.”

                              “I am having a bad dream,” said the girl, staring at the creature dying in the Primarch’s grip. A creeping suspicion lingered at the back of her mind.

                              “We all have a dream,” Angelus said, letting go of both the girl and the eel-like creature. “We all have consequences.”

                              “I am only thinking of you because of what you’ve made me do,” the young woman said accusingly, her voice rising in pitch and volume until it was almost a scream at the end. “It is all your fault.”

                              “Perhaps.” The Primarch sat down by the pool, his wings hovering over the murky water. “My only fault is the same as yours.” He shook his head, noting the lack of comprehension in Angela’s eyes. “I have listened.”

                              “Are you now saying you have no control over your own actions?” Angela’s voice was cold fury, her fists clenched as though in preparation for a physical confrontation. She turned away from him, facing the overgrown canopy of massive trees obscuring part of the distant, cloud-covered sky. “I should have known better,” she said to herself, bitterness all too apparent in her voice. “Inventing justifications to escape the consequences. Why…” her voice trailed off as she stared at something in the distance.

                              “You think I will not be here when you turn back?” the Primarch asked, half-mockingly. “Try it.”

                              “I will not play your games,” she said, not taking her eyes off a particularly twisted tree. It had occurred to her that the tree almost looked like a man bent and melded into this new, bizarre state.

                              “So you accept that I am not a figment of your imagination, Angela?”

                              “What are you…” she bit her lip. The pain seemed real.

                              “Exactly,” laughed the Grey Prince. “You are holding a conversation with something outside of yourself. This is the first step in understanding. The first lesson.”

                              “The lesson in what? You teach a lesson through death of a world?” Angela felt rage build up inside of her, to be quickly replaced with resignation. “Look at me. I am having an argument with a figment of my own imagination. The real Angelus could not string two words together to make sense.”

                              The Primarch laughed. The sound was loud and boisterous, somehow much louder than it had any right to be.

                              “You still cannot believe it.” With but one stride he was next to her, moving with a fluid grace of an apex predator in his natural habitat, confident and strong. His next words were whispered into her ear. “This is a very special place, you know it? A singular ambition brought you here, and kept you where you are needed.” Again, he moved too fast for human eye, now facing her as he crouched, still much taller than her. “If this is a dream, I challenge you. Wake up.”

                              * * *

                              In the end, it was all about the choices.

                              A faint memory, sunlight falling through a gilded window, becoming more and more alive. A young girl, seven years of age, stood before the assembled examination panel, a stack of pictures drawn with the childish naivete laid out upon a wooden table. The men and women of the panel examined the drawings, quietly conversing among themselves, tracing the lines of her work with fingers gnarled with age.

                              “Tell me, Miss Hesail,” one of them, a shrewish grey-haired woman with a stern scowl seemingly embedded into her features said, “why do you want to enter the Makalanhel Academy?” The girl knew the woman’s appearance was at odds with her status as one of the most accomplished sculptors on Terra; her name, Karanda Wiell, was spoken of with hushed reverence usually reserved only for heroes and geniuses.

                              The woman’s companions were equally accomplished. The girl knew their names – Suren Volstro, the artist whose frescoes adorned the Emperor’s Palace; Micah Foleister, whose symphonies were played on a thousand worlds; Lata Zhein, known as perhaps the most talented painter of the last century. There were others, too, sculptors and poets, painters and composers, the best of the current generation.

                              “I… I…” the girl stuttered, unsure of how to proceed before the gathering of luminaries.

                              “Don’t rush,” said Volstro, a youthful-looking man whose face betrayed few hints of expensive juvenat treatments. “This is not an easy decision.”

                              “I… I want to be the best,” Angela said, feeling anxious with a thousand doubts dancing in her mind. What if her work was not good enough? What if she failed to make the right impression? What if…

                              “An admirable quality,” Volstro smiled, “but it requires dedication. Are you prepared to dedicate your entire life to the pursuit of art, and nothing else, no matter where your life takes you? Do you commit to it, body and mind?”

                              It was an unfair choice to be imposed on a seven year old, Angela wanted to protest. Who at that age could possibly understand the implications of such a complete commitment?

                              But there was not going to be any other chances. The Makalanhel Academy was the elite institution, one of the few of its kind that had the patronage of the Regent of Terra himself. Wealth and birth had no say in who got admitted here; only true talent mattered.

                              “I did not think such a young child could possess this active of an imagination,” said Karanda Wiell. “Look at this.” She lifted up a drawing, an ugly, winged creature that seemed to take flight towards a pallid globe of the sun. “Where did you come up with this?”

                              “I guess…” said Angela, feeling more and more out of her depth, “I just made it up.”

                              The luminaries exchanged looks, whispering things into each other’s ears. A few cast curious glances in the girl’s direction.

                              “I… sometimes I dream about them,” the girl said after a minute’s pause.

                              “Interesting…” said Volstro. “I wonder what kind of experience could have given you those nightmares. On a second thought,” he smiled reassuringly, even if it did look forced, “maybe not. I am not sure I want to know.”

                              “Her history says she was found in down-hive in the former Ursh territories,” said Lata Zhein, a portly matron with a motherly disposition, facing Volstro. “Who knows what things she might have seen there! This,” she painted at the painting, “is unlike anything I’ve ever seen a child her age do. I should know. My youngest is just a year older than her, and is no slouch, and yet he cannot even get close to this. How do you suppose she learned to draw?”

                              “An interesting question,” Volstro replied. “But irrelevant. The girl’s good, I give her that. Miss Hesail,” he gave Angela a hard stare. “I repeat my question again. Are you prepared to make a life’s commitment to art, and only art? Do you have the dedication to learn and excel everything we can teach you, to work harder than you have ever worked, and to reject everything else in the pursuit of perfection?”

                              “Yes,” the girl said with only a moment’s hesitation, cold determination giving her face a hardened appearance at odds with her age. “Yes, I am,” she repeated, this time with the conviction that belongs only to those either too young, too fanatical, or too impaired to know otherwise.

                              Another memory, another choice.

                              “I can give you the galaxy,” a young man said, looking at Angela with the eyes clouded with emotion.

                              They stood upon a parapet high above the monolithic urban sprawl, watching the coming of night as the first stars appeared. Here and there orbital platforms continued their stately movement across the velvet palette of the cloudless sky, their lights glinting oddly amongst the starfield.

                              They both held glasses in their hands, expensive bubbly liquid almost golden in the relative absence of illumination. A faint breeze played with her hair, disturbing the elaborate pattern of curls that took hours to get just right. Angela shuddered from a sudden chill, realizing that her form-fitting gown was better suited for a temperature-conditioned ballroom than for open air.

                              The man was strong and good-looking in a way that could only be obtained through a combination of good breeding and rigorous exercise, dressed in a simple suit that had understated the wealth and the social station he commanded. His ancestors were the rulers of sizable portion of Merica, who, having made an early alliance with the Emperor, have maintained their importance, now as viceroys for their Imperial master. Theodore was everything billions of women of Terra desired, photogenic, wealthy, powerful, yet surprisingly gentle with his attentions and demeanor. There was hardly a better match Angela could have hoped for. And yet…

                              “I cannot,” she said, staring into the distance. The Lemuria platform just now began its slow rise over the horizon, multi-colored lights flashing like a small constellation belaying its massive size. The wind got colder.

                              “There are thousands of artists just waiting to be called up,” Theodore said, giving her a desperate, pained look. “What’s the difference if there is one less?”

                              She felt a single tear drop down her cheek. “I cannot refuse it.”

                              “It’s your dreams, isn’t it?” the man snarled, fists clenched. He curled his lips in distaste. “You keep on painting them. What,” he looked at her intently, “did you think I paid no attention? I knew something was wrong ever since you first painted that thing.”

                              How could she explain, Angela wondered? It was not a fleeting moment of delirium, not a strange quirk of a mind too tired to consider other options. It was the knowledge of what was right, what had to happen, like a guiding light that beckoned too strongly for her to ignore.

                              “I have to,” she said, wiping the tear from her cheek, then quickly downing most of her glass’s contents.

                              “What can it give you that I cannot, Angela?” the young man said, drawing closer to her. “I can have your works displayed in the finest galleries on Terra, where all, high and low, can enjoy them. You can be drawn to decorate the Imperial Palace if you desire so. I have to but speak a word to the Regent, and you could have anything you ever want!”

                              “We can live a long life together, and sample everything this galaxy has to offer,” he continued, an impassioned plea that was to fall upon deaf ears. “If you want inspiration from new places, you have but ask, and we shall go to the end of the universe if we must. All that I have shall be yours to share in.” His face was now so close to her she could smell alcohol on his breath. “All you have to do is say yes, and take what is freely given, my love.”

                              “I am sorry,” she said, drawing away from him. The glass fell out of her hand, priceless crystal dropping hundreds of meters to its demise in the murky darkness.

                              He could never understand, for all that he was willing to give. Some dreams were more than inspiration, more than encouragement or fuel for psychoses. They demanded to be followed, obeyed, listened to.

                              “I am embarking tomorrow,” Angela said, stone-faced and barely holding her emotions in check. “Twenty Seventh Expedition.”

                              “So it’s done,” said Theodore, sounding defeated. “You did it anyway.” There was something dejected about the way he spoke, a combination of emotional distress and hurt ego. Not many dared to reject one such as him.

                              “I will be back,” Angela replied, feeling the insincerity in her words. She felt goosebumps upon the flesh of her exposed arms. She could have made the choice to stay, to enjoy the life Theodore would have given her as one of the planet’s elite, to leave the Great Crusade to those better suited for such endeavors.

                              She could not do it, for the dreams would keep on haunting her.

                              “You won’t,” he said knowingly. “I have shared you with the things inside your dreams for too long not to know better. I guess it was too much to ask,” he added bitterly, grinding his teeth in an admission of defeat.

                              For a second he looked like he was going to grab her and either draw her close or push her over the parapet. Theodore closed his eyes, rocking back and forth and mumbling something under his breath, perhaps a calming mantra or a word of his frustrations. Then, he suddenly turned and began to walk without further words, faster and faster until he, too, disappeared into the darkness, leaving Angela alone with her dreams and decisions.

                              Only then she could give in to tears.

                              Another memory, another choice.

                              She was surrounded by damp, dank vegetation, colorless in the diffuse light of a distant, pale sun. A lake of disgusting-looking sludgy water swarmed with sinuous life just few short steps away. Rustling sounds came from the ground, dead leaves and rotting earth giving it an unpleasant, almost nauseating smell. Small winged creatures waited on the branches of giant, moss-covered trees.

                              “Angela.” The voice belonged to a winged giant of a man with pallid, unhealthy complexion, holding on to her hand. “Will you walk with me?”

                              The choice was here, in front of her.

                              “This is not a dream.”

                              “It is not,” agreed Angelus, the Fourteenth Primarch.

                              * * *

                              Ludwig weaved around the blades, dancing in tune with the motions of the combat servitor, always staying just a half-step ahead of it. Lock, thrust, parry, then reach out again; the Nineteenth Captain was at one with the fluid motion of combat. He disregarded the persistent itching where his flesh met his augmetics, always more prominent when sweat came out and he was no longer on a combat drug high.

                              A single step to the side saw Ludwig deflect the servitor’s swing, sliding the practice blade down to the automaton’s wrist and rapidly reversing its direction to cut the creature’s hand off at the wrist. The servitor’s blade, enmeshed with what remained of its biological hand, fell to the floor with a resonating sound.

                              The warrior stopped for a moment, surveying the carnage. The servitor was now inert, its purpose completed; all three of its arms, two biological and one mechanical, were now neutralized. The dim light of the practice cages painted the lobotomized drone in pallid grey colors, giving it an alien appearance.

                              Only then did Ludwig become aware of another presence nearby.

                              “Good to see you take up the blade, for once.” The voice was mocking, arrogant and cruel, and it did not take long for Ludwig’s eyes to make out the shape of Isaiah in the gloom. “And here I was beginning to think the Nineteenth are too cowardly to meet death like men.”

                              “Come here and find out for yourself, Reaper,” Ludwig snarled, motioning to the other Captain. “I promise it’s nothing like playing games with the mortals you’re so fond of butchering.”

                              “They are easy meat,” Isaiah smiled, opening the cage door. “Not that you would know, brother.”

                              The two Captains were almost equal in size, although even Ludwig’s powerful bulk could not disguise the grey in his stubble, while Isaiah’s face, cleanly shaven, still shone with the impetuous arrogance of youth. The many tattoos upon Isaiah’s flesh made him look like a tribal primitive as he disrobed from his chiton, changing into the training garments that displayed his gene-bred musculature, leaving little to imagination. Ludwig’s flesh was almost completely bare of decoration but for the sigils indicating his Legion and Company affiliation, a strangely civilized custom among the sons of Angelus, renowned for their savagery.

                              “It’s time you face your betters up close and personal,” Isaiah taunted, taking hold of two comparatively short, for a Space Marine, blades, one for each hand. The blades made circular motions as the Sixth Captain evaluated them for their balance and suitability. “These will do.”

                              “Very well,” Ludwig snarled. He saluted Isaiah with his blade, a one-handed long sword, not bothering to grab a second weapon. “You won’t be the first arrogant pup to learn some better manners at my hands.”

                              Before the Captain of the Ogres was finished speaking, Isaiah was on him with a flurry of strikes, quick as only a Space Marine trained in assault techniques could be. He attacked from seemingly every direction, the short swords working in tandem to throw his opponent out of balance and penetrate his guard.

                              Ludwig moved with deceptive slowness, letting Isaiah seize initiative and seemingly content on parrying the younger Marine’s blows. One attack had almost touched the Terran warrior’s biceps, stopped at the last second by a quick twist and a ducking motion; another attack scratched the metal of Ludwig’s augmetic hand. Step by step, the Argosian Marine pushed his opponent back towards the edge of the practice cage.

                              The end came quickly and unexpectedly.

                              One second, Ludwig was reeling, on the verge of losing his balance. Then, in a sudden reversal of positions, the Terran Captain took a blow on his augmetic forearm, letting Isaiah’s attention wander for just enough to pummel the Argosian with the hilt of his blade. In an instant, Ludwig launched himself at the other warrior with a loud bellow, using his body mass to stagger his opponent in a move that had more to do with wrestling than with swordfighting.

                              The two warriors tumbled down amongst the remnants of defunct combat servitors, now covered with grime and filth of thousand combats that took place in the cage over the years. Ludwig’s eyes, bloodshot with rage, turned into points of red light, easily a match for the most bloodthirsty Ork as the Terran’s blade dropped, his hands converging upon Isaiah’s throat. One of Isaiah’s blades fell down as well; the other now pointed at Ludwig’s neck from behind.

                              They were one move away from a lethal resolution to their feud.

                              “Yield!” Ludwig demanded, growling the words through clenched teeth and struggling not to let his battle-rage take the best of him. His augmetic hand, stronger than even the genetically enhanced muscles of the Legiones Astartes, pressed on his opponent’s larynx. “Yield now, Isaiah.”

                              “I can end you before then,” the Sixth Captain hissed, pressing his weapon just a little closer to the Terran’s neck, puncturing the skin there.

                              A part of Ludwig wanted for him to try.

                              “What is it about, anyway?” the Terran said, breathing heavily from his exertions. “How long has it been? Fifty years? Sixty?”

                              “You are from the old Legion,” Isaiah spat out with menace. “Your ways are not like ours.”

                              “And yet your second is of old Legion, too,” Ludwig pointed out.

                              “Etienne understands Argos,” the Sixth Captain said, “even if he is born of a different world. I will never trust a brother who would shoot the enemy rather than face him up close.”

                              “Are you satisfied now that we’ve handled this matter here?” Ludwig’s grip did not relax as he spoke, knowing that he was not going to give Isaiah a satisfaction of victory.

                              “Handled the matter… I like how you say it,” Isaiah chuckled, the sound oddly muffled by the pressure on his throat. “Let me tell you something, Ludwig. You are old guard. That I don’t dispute, and don’t even care about as much as you think. But more than that – you are in my way.”

                              “Not letting the dregs like you turn the entire Legion into a crazed gang of savages, you mean?” Ludwig retorted. The older man felt anger leave him; only disappointment remained. “We’ve had this… rivalry, or whatever you want to call it, for longer than I care to remember. And over what? You think I care for elevation?”

                              The augmetic hand’s grip lessened as Ludwig shook his head. “If this is the cause of your discontent…” he let the words drift away.

                              “Our way has been vindicated time and again,” Isaiah said, withdrawing the blade. He sprung up to his feet, slowly feeling his neck. “And if I seek to turn it into personal ambition – so what! We are not servitors. We are the Emperor’s and the Primarch’s chosen, elevated from the mass of humanity and taught to put fear in the hearts of its enemies.”

                              “Etienne understands the passion that drives everything we Argosians do,” the Sixth Captain continued. “Sometimes you can only win when you let go. Until we recognize that, we shall not have true greatness.”

                              “It is not the greatness I want anything to do with, brother,” Ludwig spit on the ground.

                              “Then you shall not have greatness at all,” said Isaiah. “A warrior that does not aspire to greatness is no warrior at all, but a machine, a servitor, a weakling. Greatness urges us to seek the strands of fate that lead to it, no matter the cost. Without it, we are nothing.”

                              Ludwig said nothing, but lifted his weapon from the ground, examining it, testing the sharpness with his thumb before setting it on the rack.

                              “Without it, we are like the Tenth – creatures too obsessed with their precious sacred texts to ever become anything more, to ever achieve true glory instead of living in reflections of others’ greatness.”

                              “Maybe they are right,” the Terran Captain retorted angrily. “In the end, it will be them who are remembered on Terra, not us. Not the Jaws, or the Iconoclasts, but the Peacekeepers, the Redeemers, and the likes of them.”

                              “Better to remain an unknown hero than a celebrated sycophant,” Isaiah bellowed. “Glory and valor transform us, just like the Primarch’s visions guide us. Power is the consequence of glory.”

                              “Then this is the one kind of glory I want nothing to do with,” said Ludwig, walking out of the practice cage. “It can be all yours.”

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