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Broken Blades (Twisthammer - Book Three) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy

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  • Broken Blades (Twisthammer - Book Three) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy

    BROKEN BLADES

    Twisthammer – Book Three

    Flames of war spread through the galaxy as brother turns against brother. Old ties and loyalties are broken, and new, fearful oaths are forged in the furnace of battle. Former comrades and brothers are locked in bitter struggle across million worlds, with the fate of humanity at stake.

    Fully half of twenty Legions of Space Marines turned against the rule of distant Terra, and even now the armies that once expanded the realm of mankind are inexorably marching towards the throne world. All across known space, citizens and warriors of the Imperium are forced to choose a side. As Iskanderos, Primarch of the Sixth Legion, and his allies penetrate ever deeper into the heart of the Emperor's dominion, the loyalists are hard pressed to stem their advance.

    Oaths of blood and honor are tested, and the baleful powers of Chaos make their presence known across a million battlefields. This is the time of trial, for only the strongest and the most resolute will prevail. The future of humanity demands no less.



  • #2
    Dramatis Personae

    Primarchs

    Baelic, the Stormlord, Primarch of the Warblades
    Nihlus, the Destroyer, Primarch of the Iconoclasts
    Corwin, the Sovereign, Primarch of the Angel Kings
    Iskanderos, the Conqueror, the Golden One, Primarch of the Imperial Redeemers

    Warblades

    Micah Poseidon, Clan-Master of Turog, Equerry to the Primarch
    Nereus Farok, Clan-Master of Brear
    Haracles Tajan, Kill-Leader, Kill Team Mauve, Clan Turog
    Morgan Aratos, Clan Turog
    Byro Brutus, Clan Turog
    Santaros Severus, Clan Turog
    Julis Majorian, Clan Turog
    Leonis Velent, Clan Turog
    Astarax Lutaro, Clan Brear
    Vercerix Lutaro, Clan Brear
    Saradon Ishimara, Brother-Diviner

    Iconoclasts

    Devaros Tyr, Warlord of Clan Tyr
    Inta Velanus, Under-master of Clan Tyr
    Karlas Darai, Fifth Captain, Clan Tyr
    Songevi Mors, Fifteenth Captain, Clan Tyr
    Balan Cortes, Sergeant, Clan Tyr
    Haut Targa, Clan Tyr
    Purut DeFell, Clan Tyr
    Mardakai, Elder Shaman, Equerry to the Primarch
    Caillou, Shaman

    Angel Kings

    Baldwin d'Orso, Lord Commander, Equerry to the Primarch
    Roderic Falander, Commander, Thirty Sixth Grand Company
    Artos Pertinax, Knight-Captain, Thirty Sixth Grand Company

    Iron Locusts

    Varuna Singh, Mantis Clave
    Karost Hamar, Mantis Clave
    Tucaro Brukh, Mantis Clave

    Imperial Redeemers

    Tilsit Demetrios, Lord Commander of Ninth Jond, Equerry to the Primarch

    Imperial Personnel

    Karadin Cech, citizen
    Meria Zolphin, citizen


    Comment


    • #3
      ONE

      Kill Team
      Luck of the Eleventh
      Big Guns

      The city was a burning husk left for dead, clawing its way towards smoke-stained sky of Maegara with leprous fingers and rusted skeletal arms of ruined buildings. Grey fog hung low over the heads of the kill team, turning the azure of their armor grey like that of restless ghosts. The roar of gunfire subsided into a cacophonous onslaught on the senses, rattling teeth and armor plating as the warriors spread across the rubble, finding cover and firing positions from which to strike back.

      Severus checked his ammunition count, then risked a pot shot at the gunner’s nest perched in the remains of a high-rise building. A hail of heavy stubber bullets sprayed in response, nearly ricocheting towards him.

      A voice buzzed in his ears, heavily laden with static. “You’d think the Twentieth would do us a courtesy of showing up,” said Morgan Aratos glumly. Severus called up tactical map with a blink of his eye, recognizing his battle-brother’s position just few meters behind a ruined wall, just out of immediate sight. “For all Corwin’s lot talk about honor and valor and all that, they are surely good at letting their thralls do the fighting.”

      “No kidding.” Severus gritted his teeth, bracing himself for another excursion into the open. “But I have to give them this.” He picked a broken piece of ferrocrete from the ground, then tossed it away from his momentary refuge. The distant gunners saturated the place where it hit with fire. “They are pretty good sport… at least from the distance.” He added the last part with a smile.

      “This good sport will take care of you for good if you spend more time talking than fighting,” grumbled Tajan. The Kill-Leader of Team Mauve hunkered down about ten meters away in a small crater partially obscured by a demolished personnel carrier. The red crest upon his helmet swayed lightly in accord with the warrior’s movements, giving an appearance of motion to heraldic crossed swords of the Eleventh Legion, Warblades, upon his pauldron. “Teams Grey and Crimson already hit their frag quotas, and we will be too far behind if we don't do something. Strongpoint encirclement, assault in ten. Brutus and Aratos, you are the pincers. Majorian and Velent, covering fire. And you, Severus,” Tajan shook his head in a gesture that might have been disapproval or mock annoyance, “frontal attack with me. Let’s see if they are still a good sport.”

      Severus grinned. “I am hoping for some real opposition, sarge,” he squeezed the response through his teeth. “Squires of the Twentieth don’t cut it.”

      “Less talk, more action,” Tajan replied. “Assault in five… four…”

      As the countdown continued, Severus tensed his body in preparation for a rapid burst of speed. The fiber-muscles and servo-motors of his armor sensed his readiness, rewarding him with a burst of combat drugs to focus his desire to do violence. He felt the armor’s machine-spirit answer him with its own anticipation.

      “Now.”

      The Warblades moved with coordination that even the best-drilled mortal soldiery could not match. A beam of bright green light from Velent’s lascannon bore a hole through the ruin’s wall even as Majorian’s heavy bolter spew out a torrent of shells, forcing the enemy gunners to keep their heads down for the briefest of moments.

      Even before the shells hit, Severus was on the move. Each step covered a wide swath of open ground, heedless of broken terrain and battle debris scattered throughout. In his tactical overlay, he could see three other icons take their own paths through the battlefield, each weaving a distinct path designed to keep the enemy from locking on. The speed of the Warblades’ movement was their greatest protection from the weight of fire, even more powerful than reinforced ceramite of their armor.

      The defenders took a moment to recommence their firing, but a moment was all Severus needed. He crossed the last few meters of the open ground in large strides, pushing his gene-forged body to its very limit in order to get out of the arc of enemy fire. He heard the tell-tale rattle of a heavy bolter behind him, interrupted by thinner bark of the defenders’ weapons like a small dog yapping at the heels of a snarling wolf. The Warblade scaled the steps covered in rubbish, aiming his bolter into the gaping entrance to the gunners’ lair.

      His first volley silenced the heavy stubber as the bewildered mortals turned in time to be cut down by the bolt shells. Severus heard the thunder of Tajan’s gun adding weight to his own attack, shredding fragile humans into an exploding mess of blood, sinew and bone.

      The enemy were a dirty lot, their once-bright red fatigues now laced with grime and sweat. One, an officer by the looks of him, managed to get a single shot off from his pistol, hitting Severus’ right pauldron and throwing off the Space Marine’s aim just enough. The Warblade rushed the mortal soldier before the warrior could fire again, knocking him into the dirt. Severus reached for his combat knife, feeling the rush of the oncoming kill.

      “No,” Tajan’s hand landed on Severus’ arm. The kill team leader’s gauntlet was firm and steady, forcing the Space Marine to rein in his temper. “He might be useful. And he's still worth a frag point, even like this.”

      Slowly, Severus shook his head, then relented. His eyes took in a scene of carnage. Blood splattered on the burned-out walls, making a mess of a gun nest. Body parts and empty shells lay in a wild smorgasbord of flesh and metal, where the Warblades’ mass-reactive shells did their job. Severus tried to count the bodies, and almost whistled at the realization.

      “There were too many here for a simple pillbox,” Tajan gave voice to his concerns. “I see at least ten.”

      By now, Brutus and Aratos also made their way up the stairs, and were now warily surveying the dead. Aratos knelt down in the corner of the room, counting boxes of ammunition. “There is enough here for a week’s worth of fighting,” he finally said, knocking on the boxes’ metal exterior. “Doesn’t look like rearguard.”

      “What do you know of rearguard, brother?” Severus bit back a gob of phlegm, feeling a sudden urge to spit. “Could be that these ones were told to sell their lives dearly, so that their betters,” the Space Marine put all the contempt he had for the Twentieth Legion into his tone, “could find a better place to die.”

      “Why don’t we just ask?” said Tajan before the other Warblades had a chance to continue, kicking several pebbles in the direction of their prisoner. The Space Marines’ eyes redirected towards the sole survivor, meekly whimpering on the filthy floor.

      The human officer was a tall, lanky man with longish blond hair stained with dirt and dust, his face colored by bruises and blood stains. The unnatural position of his leg suggested that the man’s collision with Severus resulted in a broken limb, and he seemed barely conscious, only gaining a degree of awareness at the sight of four armored giants surrounding him.

      “I will not…” he started saying before a jerk from Brutus lifted him upright, propping him against the soot-stained wall. The movement appeared to send the mortal into a state of shock, as his eyes rolled into the back of his head.

      “Careful!” Tajan cautioned as Brutus lifted his armored gauntlet for a slap. “Don’t kill him yet.” Brutus complied, resorting to a shake that was almost gentle by the Warblade’s standards.

      The man’s eyes opened slowly, as if his predicament defied his meager comprehension. A slow trickle of blood ran down from his nose, his head bobbing up and down weakly. The prisoner’s eyes came into focus, staring at Brutus with undisguised hatred.

      “Where are your masters?” the Warblade bellowed, his voice a menacing promise of torture to come. The gauntleted hands shook the human with just enough strength to keep him aware.

      “Traitor.” The human spit out a word, then jerked in Space Marine’s grip. There was a wet sound, and the man spit blood. The trickle became a burst of liquid running down his chin. The prisoner smiled defiantly, displaying bloodied teeth and spitting out the remains of his tongue.

      With a growl, Brutus flung the human towards the remains of the heavy stubber, as if the enemy officer was a rag doll. The mortal’s head lolled to the side and his eyes rolled back, never to close again.

      “Great,” said Tajan, making his irritation audible. “Someone decided to play hero.”

      “What now?” Aratos took a brief look through the abandoned weapon’s gun sights. “Looks like trouble.” He pointed at the remains of the destroyed city’s skyline.

      “What is it?” Severus crouched near his battle-brother, scanning through helmet modes. The city appeared dead but for explosions in the distance.

      “There. Go thermal.” Aratos’ finger traced a line down to the foundations of a building reduced to little more than two walls still standing. As Severus watched, a blob of something warm appeared on his helmet optics.

      “Shit,” the Warblade cursed. “Engine exhaust. Tank-sized, by the looks of it.”

      “Let’s get out of here before our dead friend’s buddies decide to check up on him,” Tajan gestured to the opening a second before a loud boom shook the building to its foundations. The resultant explosion threw up the debris, rearranging the orphaned body parts into new and macabre configurations.

      Severus broke into a run, desperate to get down the stairs before the tank’s gunners adjusted their aim. Five point six seconds was the number flashing in his mind’s eye, the amount of time it took for a Kozak Rus main battle tank to reload and fire again assuming optimal conditions. He hoped that the conditions were anything but ideal.

      “Move, move, move!” He jumped down the garbage-strewn stairway, letting gravity do its job. Severus thanked his lucky stars that the enemy tank was a Kozak, not one of the more specialized vehicles like a Vindicator or, Primarch be praised, a Fellblade. Had the enemy possessed a proper bombardment machine, he thought, the building would long have been a smoking crater, a graveyard large enough for the entire kill-team.

      The next shell landed with almost mathematical precision, blasting apart the room where the Warblades attempted to interrogate their prisoner just seconds ago. Had it not been for Aratos’ warning, Severus doubted he and his brothers would have had enough time to react.

      “Luck of the Eleventh,” he whispered just loud enough for the embedded vox-bead to pick up and transmit to the rest of Team Mauve. He added an invective at the end, considering a stretch of relatively open ground between the cleared gunner's nest and the tank.

      The Warblades knelt in the courtyard of the building, leaving the bulk of the structure as a measure of protection against the bombardment. Remnants of a sundered civilization surrounded them, mementos from yet another world which refused Iskanderos' ultimatum. Severus looked around, trying to decipher functions of miscellaneous objects – a large picture frame here, a food storage unit there, books ripped to shreds and clothes which would never be worn again. Whoever lived here in times of peace rushed to leave, heedless of leaving any heirlooms behind, and the Space Marine wondered what kind of a place this was before.

      A sharp, scratchy voice interrupted his musings.

      “If we stay here, we're target practice for them,” Aratos voiced what the rest of the kill team were thinking.

      “You have better ideas, oh great and wise one?” Severus answered with a question of his own.

      “Stop it, you two,” said Tajan sternly. “Last I checked, the Clan-Master entrusted me with the well-being of this team. So why don't you two do the fighting, and I will do the thinking. Velent, Majorian,” the warrior barked over the vox, “get your lazy asses over here.”

      Another shell crashed into the building, sending pieces of rubble flying in every direction. “Do you think their augur sweeps can see us here?” asked Majorian as he slid into the meager shelter provided by the building.

      “They can see your shiny blue ass running like you got a mob of Jaws behind you,” said Severus, sneering. “Doesn't take Iskanderos to figure out something's up.”

      “Will you be quiet?” Tajan almost shouted, one hand rubbing the side of his helmet. “I am trying to think here.” The Kill-Leader surveyed the ruins, evaluating the escape routes. He cleared his throat, a habit that survived even his initiation into the Legion. A second's silence calmed his voice down to an even, if still somewhat acerbic tone. “The problem is that our friend over there,” he pointed in the vague direction of the tank, “might have some backup, and we don't have a working auspex on hand. They obviously know we are here, and if I was in charge, I would be crying bloody murder to the Twentieth. How do you fancy being squeezed between them and that damn Kozak?”

      “One hundred twenty meters until that crater,” Severus raised his voice cautiously, pointing at a large depression, probably result of a stray artillery shell. “Fifty more until those statues,” his finger traced the distant outline of disfigured stone monuments depicting power armored warriors raising mutilated hands to the sky. The Warblade wondered what kind of event was commemorated, and if anyone would remember it now that war took Maegara into its suffocating embrace.

      “And then what?” Majorian quipped, cradling his heavy bolter and checking the ammunition feed.

      “The mission, of course,” said Tajan. “That is, if Corwin's stuck-up bastards don't have another surprise by the statues.”

      “The sector won't clear itself, brother,” replied Brutus. “So what if they have surprise or two? This entire city is full of surprises.”

      “Now, about that tank...” Severus looked wishfully at Velent's lascannon.

      “Too far,” the other Warblade said without much need to explain. “At this range I'll be lucky if I peel the paint off him.” Another explosion rocked the ruin.

      “Sorry to break up the party,” Aratos spoke, looking uneasily at the rapidly deteriorating structure, “but this cover won't hold for much longer. Any more waiting, and they'll decide for us.”

      “We go towards the statues,” announced Tajan abruptly. “And if we run into Angel Kings, bad for them.”

      * * *

      “You ever wonder why we fight?” Severus asked on a private channel as Team Mauve spread out across the broken city-scape, trying to give too many targets to the enemy gunner to track. He could now hear the rumble of the tank's engine as a low growl augmented by his helmet's auto-senses, punctured by cough of rubble crushed to dust under the machine's wheels.

      “The Primarch's will is a good enough reason for me,” replied Aratos. “You choose most peculiar time to go all philosophical on me.”

      “If I am to be shot to pieces by these whoresons, I'd like to at least know what for.” Under the helmet, Severus' mouth curved in an approximation of a grimace. The wandering path towards the statues took him through several potential ambush points, and his muscles instinctively tensed at the prospect of violent confrontation.

      The sound over the vox was half-static, half-chuckle. “Our esteemed leader seems to suspect a trap. If I were you, I'd think about not stumbling into it.”

      “You thought about trying to flank that Kozak?” Severus inserted enough seriousness into his voice to make it sound like a realistic option.

      “Crazy?” Aratos laughed in disbelief. “Velent may get a shot off, two at best. That is, presuming their auspex guy is an idiot and does not spot a lascannon before we're in range. I don't mind dying, but not for a stupid reason. Fifteen frag points are not worth it!”

      “You just said the Primarch's will is a good enough reason for all of this!”

      “The Primarch would not order me to charge a main battle tank through open ground without backup,” Aratos retorted. “My point still stands.”

      The kill-team rolled into the crater just in time for another shell to fly over their heads. At this distance, the Kozak's aim was marginal at best, but it was enough to force them to keep their heads down. As far as Severus could tell, the tank commander finally decided to stop bombarding the ruin, and began to slowly move his machine forward.

      The Warblades slid down the muddy slope in complete disarray, with only their armor to protect them against the blocks of stone jutting out from the ground. Someone, probably Tajan, unleashed a stream of profanity that did not stop until the Space Marines' movement came to a complete halt. Severus tried to take in his surroundings.

      The crater was at least five meters deep and perhaps twenty in diameter, suggesting bombardment several levels above the Kozak's grade. Struts of metal intermingled with broken masonry mutilated beyond any recognition. Several body parts protruded from the dirt, covered in mud like mummified corpses of some long-extinct culture. By Severus' observation, the corpses could not have been more than a day old. He got up to his full height, then began to scale the slope, trusting in his armor's machine-spirit to keep his bearings.

      “Think we should call for air support?” said Majorian, aware of the tank getting closer by the moment.

      “This could be a good place for a stand,” retorted Velent, checking his lascannon for damage and grunting in satisfaction when none was found. “I can lay down near the mouth of the crater. As soon as he gets close...” He made a whistling sound imitating discharge of a lascannon.

      “Severus, Majorian,” called Tajan. “Check out the other side. Anything looking odd there?”

      “Coming, sarge,” Severus sounded off, grabbing on to lumps of sandy brown earth and trying to keep his head down. “If I see Corwin, you'll be the first to know.”

      “Joker...” Tajan grumbled, but said nothing else. Severus turned his head, but his comrades seemed content to be left out of the exchange. Out of a corner of his eye, he saw Majorian struggle with moving his oversized weapon uphill. A heavy bolter was mostly useless against armor, but it could give infantry many reasons to pause and reconsider the wisdom of closer encounters. As long as no other armor waited for the Warblades on the other side of the crater, Team Mauve could consider that flank relatively secure.

      “Shit, shit, shit!”

      The second Severus lifted his head above the crater's rim almost became his last. A veritable hail of ammunition bore into the ground, missing him by less than a hand's width. The Warblade jerked back, struggling to keep himself from sliding or rolling down the slope.

      “Contacts, incoming!” he yelled, frantically trying to assess the situation. The explosions were not individually powerful enough to pass for mass-reactive bolt shells, but the sheer weight of fire and the angle of shooting indicated something big, probably mounted on a vehicle designed for anti-infantry work. “A Sentinel, possibly more,” he blurted out, considering what kind of a vehicle would be naturally suited to this type of terrain.

      “There is one good thing to it,” said Aratos, ever thoughtful. “They cannot shoot into the crater.”

      “And we cannot shoot out of it,” Tajan replied. “Great idea, Severus. I'm sure they'll name this maneuver after you. Providing there is enough of you to dig out of this hole.”

      Severus cursed, Aratos' words coming back to him. This was beginning to look worse by the minute. He peeked out few meters to the left, confirming his suspicions at the sight of a wiry walker emerging from behind the statues, accompanied by boxy armored personnel carriers. Another burst of rounds in his general direction was his reward.

      “Correction, a Sentinel and three platoons of Army troops,” he spat out his findings in quick succession. Translation, nothing good can come out of this.

      “The brass tell us a Thunderhawk is coming in six minutes,” said Tajan. The Kill-Leader's voice conveyed audible amounts of frustration. Severus could not blame him. It was one thing to turn an ordinary hunt mission into something little more challenging. It was quite another to bungle it up so badly as to require support and possibly extraction. Any Kill-Leader who allowed his men to become hunted was bound to be ridiculed by his more successful peers. “Maybe the Angel Kings will do us a favor and at least make it look like trouble. To be caught pants down by Army...”

      He did not bother to finish the phrase. This was worse than embarrassing. It was downright humiliating.

      The ground shook. This time, it felt different, as if the force responsible for impact was an order of magnitude greater than anything the enemy had. Severus bit back an invective as he rolled down the incline, riding every bump in the ground on his way. Even the Warblades at the bottom of the crater struggled to keep their balance.

      “What was that?” Majorian growled, picking up his weapon from the ground. “I thought Severus saw nothing heavier than a Sentinel.”

      “Whatever that was, it eats Kozaks and Sentinels for breakfast,” replied Aratos. The Space Marine crawled up the hill, making up meters in suspicious silence. “Severus, you coming?”

      “Yes.” The warrior crawled on his stomach, not daring to raise his head too far lest the next shot obliterated him and everything within a ten meter radius. Severus chose not to think about the futility of self-preservation when faced with firepower of this caliber. As he finally made it over the crater's edge, he whistled in surprise.

      The Sentinel was nowhere to be seen, and one of the armored personnel carriers lay on its side, smoke coming from every hatch. There was another unnatural depression in place of the statues, visible only through the filters of Severus' helmets due to a mushroom cloud of dust. The silence of death hung over the battlefield like a heavy funereal shroud. His vox-receiver clicked into a semblance of life.

      “Eleventh,” an unfamiliar, crude voice hissed and crackled through the static. Severus could not quite place the accent. “You should know better than stick around the big guns. Keep your heads down, and we will take care of the Kozak.”

      Despite himself, the Warblade let out a sigh of relief. This was turning out far less disastrous than he resigned himself to. The vox crackled again. “What, you deaf or something? I said, keep your head down!”

      “On... whose authority?” Tajan's voice over the comm-link full of false bravado. Severus shook his head, knowing that the Kill-Leader was trying to save face.

      “I am brother-sergeant Balan Cortes of Clan Tyr, Eighth Legion,” the voice replied in harsh, grating tone, “and if you have any sense left, you should do as I say before I am done reloading.”

      Comment


      • #4
        TWO

        Iconoclasts
        Art of War
        Frag Count

        In twenty years since his induction into the Legion, Severus saw many things that defied comprehension of a Zantaran spire-dweller. The Primarch's wishes took him and his comrades to face the deadliest perils the galaxy could throw at them, from brutish hordes of alien savages to sleek, impossibly lethal products of inhuman intelligence. He saw god-machines of Legio Taurus lay waste to entire cities with volleys from their oversized weaponry, and he bore witness to orbital platforms crashing into the oceans, devastating entire coasts with the resultant tsunamis.

        None of that could have prepared him for the Eighth Legion's way of war.

        The ground shook for the second time, the roar of explosion so loud that even his helmet filters failed to blunt the impact. Severus kept close to the ground, face down in the dirt, deaf and blind for the moment. A terrifying vision overtook him, image of a massive armored thread bearing down on him, crushing, suffocating, grinding his armor into an impression on the side of the crater.

        He got up, still feeling the ringing in his ears that even his post-human physiology could not fully compensate for. A quick glance at the rest of Team Mauve told him that they were not faring much better. Majorian kept hitting the side of his helmet, as if something was wrong with it, and Aratos still knelt down, probably gathering his bearings. Velent and Brutus made an appearance of combat readiness, but even they did not seem fully cognizant of what was going on, while Tajan was kicking the ground in either anger or frustration.

        “Done chewing snot, Warblades?” the voice of Cortes was devoid of any compassion. “Hurry up and do an area sweep, would you?”

        Too shell-shocked to argue, Severus crawled over the crater's edge and into the open. He took a quick look to survey the area, then knelt down, hoping to present the smallest possible target profile to any enemies still capable of doing him harm. As no one tried to shoot in his direction, he slowly stood up to his full height, bolter at the ready.

        “You could have told us you were in the area,” Tajan said over the comm, tone accusatory. Severus thought that the Kill-Leader was probably still incensed that he had to call for extraction, only to learn that, after all, it was not necessary. That alone was going to cost Team Mauve some frag points.

        “You drew them out,” the Iconoclast replied with a harsh laugh. “We killed them. Do you really need to argue the point?”

        The Iconoclast vehicle finally came into view, rubble falling off its sides to be ground down under its tracks. The tank was massive, large enough to carry an entire squad of Space Marines upon its armored hide and to still have space for a bombardment cannon and throngs of lascannons, heavy bolters and other, lesser weaponry. The unpainted ceramite was covered with dents and scratches as the crew pushed the vehicle forward, heedless of any cosmetic damage.

        “Fellblade, Nihlus pattern,” Majorian whistled on secure channel. “Never thought I'd see one of them up close.”

        “I wonder how they hid this thing in plain sight,” said Severus. “You'd think we would have spotted something.”

        “There's something odd with the Eighth, mark my words,” Tajan replied, shaking his head as he joined his squad-mates in the open ground.

        “You're just bitter they got to the Kozak first,” said Aratos, snickering. “Fifteen points gone to waste.”

        “You'd think!” growled Tajan. “We'll be the laughingstock of entire Turog, and probably Brear too, if one of you opens your mouth to the Lutaro twins.”

        “Again,” Brutus added, kicking up a small cloud of dirt in frustration. “It's bad enough being rescued by the clowns in Team Crimson. “

        “Clan-Master Poseidon will ream our asses for this,” Severus said glumly. “I can already hear him: shame of the Legion, embarrassment in front of our allies the Iconoclasts, persistent headache not fit even for garrison duties. Did I miss anything?”

        “Grox-botherers? Jaws-bait? You know how Clan-Master gets,” replied Aratos.

        Severus knew it all too well. In his two decades of service in the Legion, Team Mauve spent inordinate amount of time on penance duties, in detention, and on duties considered beneath the more accomplished teams. Where other kill-teams remained at peak fighting strength, Mauve found replenishing its ranks difficult. No recruit in his right mind wanted to end up on a team so far below its peers in frag rankings, or so despised by its superiors that the Legion's bureaucrats chose to look the other way rather than force training cadre sergeants to assign their recruits to Mauve. Severus was the last Space Marine to be inducted onto the kill-team, and, coincidentally, remembered the last time they were at full strength, more than ten years ago before the pacification of Garalt.

        “You done wandering around yet?” Cortes yelled over the vox, annoyed. The Fellblade was now close enough for Severus to make out squad markings and iconography of the Eighth Legion. The Warblade winced as he realized that the Eighth Legion's symbol of a skeletal face torn in two was supplanted by paintings or other pieces of artwork broken in that manner. Almost ritualistic, he thought, wondering if perhaps Tajan had a point. There was something odd about the Iconoclasts, and Severus could not escape a feeling of wrongness.

        “Form up on me,” Cortes bellowed again. Severus saw a hatch open on a side of the Fellblade, where a helmeted Marine waved the Warblades on. “We lost our auxilia support over in sector zeta-four,” the Iconoclast said by the way of explanation. “They couldn't keep up.”

        Tajan shook his head in resignation, which was all he could do in face of this further indignity. “Where to?” the Kill-Leader finally asked, visibly deflated.

        “Complete the sector sweep,” said Cortes. “Surely even you boys of the Eleventh can do that.”

        * * *

        The city blurred into a conglomerate of gray and brown, merging into a soup of dust and ruined ferrocrete. The Iconoclast vehicle was a ghost fortress in the filth of war, a leviathan every bit as imposing as the ruins it crushed under its armored thread. Severus felt not a small amount of trepidation at the thought that the firepower sufficient to bring Titans to heel rode by his side. As a Space Marine of the Eleventh Legion, he knew no fear in a sense that a mortal soldier would, but even the likes of him could understand and respect power that could annihilate him at a whim.

        No, he understood what fear was, and was no stranger to pangs of uncertainty and anxiety, but where a lesser being would have found himself paralyzed with terror, a Space Marine would go on fighting even against insurmountable odds. Where another might have found himself lacking in courage or conviction, Severus and his ilk would stand firm and hold the line, no matter the odds.

        Where the Iconoclasts were concerned, even Severus found himself profoundly disturbed.

        The Eighth Legion was an unseen but oppressive presence inside their superheavy tank, not bothering to communicate or to show their faces, but for one warrior manning a storm bolter out of an open hatch. The Iconoclast was unmoving like a gargoyle perched upon the mechanical leviathan, the red of his eye lenses reflecting the dull glint of the Maegaran sun that penetrated the dust. The warrior’s armor was scratched and appeared to be in dire need of attention from a Techmarine, but he did not seem to pay it any heed, seemingly finding no need to decorate it with trophies or purity seals.

        Walking at a brisk pace by the side of the tank, Severus moved closer to the vehicle. His fingers played restlessly upon the grip of the boltgun; inaction was chafing at the Warblade. The rest of Team Mauve appeared sullen, cordoning the Iconoclast war machine like satellites around a mighty star fort. The experience of having to rely on the Eighth Legion to avoid yet another disgraceful failure nipped any conversation in the bud, and the only sounds in his vox-bead were the clipped noises of heavy breathing, perhaps from his comrades, perhaps from the Iconoclasts – he could not tell.

        “We did not know your Legion had forces in this sector, cousin,” Severus finally said to the Iconoclast, unable to bear the silence any longer. He felt an itching sensation on his palm and unsuccessfully tried to rub his gauntlet against the armor, hoping that it would subside.

        The Iconoclast barely acknowledged him with a slight movement, then returned back to manning his gun. Severus bit back the urge to curse, remembering the rumors about the Eighth. They were not known to be talkative types in best of times.

        “Have you found any of Corwin’s brood?” the Warblade tried again, external speakers distorting his voice into a croaking hiss. He chuckled under the helmet, thinking that the speakers made him sound like one of the impassive warriors in unpainted, scratched armor.

        This time, the Iconoclast deigned to fully turn his head towards the Warblade. Severus felt as if the other Space Marine was staring him up and down, taking in his measure. For a second, he wondered if the Iconoclast was seriously considering opening fire with his storm bolter. Finally, the plain-armored warrior cackled.

        “You Warblades like to chat, don’t you?” His voice was like the sound of rusted wheels grinding together. Severus heard hiss of static, as if the Iconoclast’s external speakers were in the same state of disrepair as the rest of his power armor. The warrior of the Eighth Legion breathed heavily, a wet gurgle of something massive and unhealthy. “No sightings of Angel Kings reported,” he coughed up, straightening his hunched posture. “Haut Targa, Clan Tyr,” he finally introduced himself, helmet lenses boring into the Warblade.

        “Santaros Severus, Kill-Team Mauve, Clan Turog,” Severus answered, not taking his eyes off the Iconoclast. “Tactical designation.” The latter bit sounded awkward, as if he was stating the obvious.

        The Iconoclast let out a bellow, and it took a second for Severus to realize it was laughter. “I could have told that from looking at you,” Targa replied, his head shaking from left to right in rhythm with the motion of the Fellblade. “Are you not going to retrieve your casualties?”

        “What casualties?” asked Severus, incredulous. He took a look around, mentally accounting for the rest of the kill-team. Slowly, understanding dawned. “We are operating understrength.”

        “Tsk-tsk, I see,” remarked the Iconoclast. Severus could not tell if the other warrior bothered to draw conclusions, or just dismissed the question altogether. “What was the last you have seen of Angel Kings?”

        The question took Severus by surprise despite his own inquiry few moments ago. He took mental accessory of operation on Maegara, recalling battles that leveled its capital city to its present sorry state.

        “Eight days, give or take few hours,” the Warblade finally stated, remembering the desperate firefight near the ruins of a bridge separating the city from surrounding farmland. “About a squad’s worth near sector gamma-fourteen, a fighting retreat. What of you and your brothers?”

        “Six days,” Targa answered. The Iconoclast’s grip on his weapon seemed to relax, although Severus did not make the mistake of assuming laxity. Despite the lack of visible enemy presence and open conversation, the Legionaries remained alert, trusting in their auspex and auto-senses to detect any threats. “Three of them, each leading a mortal platoon. Since then, nothing but their Squire trash.”

        The silence rung uncomfortably for a moment as Severus considered the implications. He wondered if Targa was trying to insult Team Mauve’s tactical aptitude by insinuating that they got outwitted by mere mortals, then decided it was not worth the argument. The sons of Baelic might have been considered impulsive and rash in battle or in their frag-mazes, but they were not the types to press the issue when there was no glory at stake.

        “You got nothing to say, cousin?” quipped Targa, following his words with another round of cough-laughter. Yes, thought Severus, the Iconoclast’s earlier words were definitely intended as a slight against him. No glory in this, he reminded himself, trying not to make Team Mauve’s situation even more precarious after they returned to their own Legion. If failing to deal with lesser soldiery was bound to incite the Clan-Master’s wrath, Severus did not even want to think of what fighting with a fellow Legionary would do. He tried to think of an appropriate excuse, failing to come up with anything he would admit to a warrior of another Legion.

        “The bastards seemed like they wanted to die,” Severus finally answered. This humiliation was getting worse and worse by the second. “They willingly sacrificed their own to have a shot at us. What kind of mortal troops would die for no reason at all? It’s not like they had anything of value to protect!” The words poured out of him, all of his frustration given voice.

        “Tsk-tsk,” the Iconoclast shook his head. “Some soldiers care little for self-preservation.”

        “Fanatics!” huffed Severus. He noticed that some of his team-mates started giving him looks as the tank rolled on through the devastated cityscape. “Ragged mobs, or those fighting for their homes. Not professional soldiers half-way across the galaxy from their own.”

        “Isn’t that the Legions’ way of war?” Targa asked. The Warblade’s questions seemed to amuse him. “We fight on the worlds whose names we barely know, against the enemies who would rather be left alone. We die when our gene-fathers tell us to. How is it different?”

        “Ours is the art of war as it was meant to be,” Severus answered. “We are made for war, and only for war. We don’t have their weaknesses or their attachments,” he vaguely waved in the direction of the closest ruin.

        “And yet if we didn’t show up, you would still be dug in like rats in a latrine,” said the Iconoclast. “That is a fact.”

        “Be careful what you suggest, cousin.” It took Severus all his mental fortitude to keep calm, as Targa’s quips kept on getting under his skin. “Next time, it might be us saving your ass.”

        “If not for us, there would have been no chance of the next time,” Targa answered, feeding the growing resentment in the Warblade’s chest.

        * * *

        Heroes and notables of the Eleventh Legion stared down at Team Mauve with unseeing eyes from both sides of the mustering hall, the pict-captures of their many conquests and victories a stark reminder of Mauve’s failures. The artwork commissioned from the throng of mortal followers and planet-side artists was impeccable in its design, accentuating the heroic poses and gestures, inspiring generations of the Warblades who passed through the hall’s august breadth to receive commendations, promotions, or – as Severus knew all too well – reprimands.

        Golden light poured down from the stained glass ceiling, creating an illusion of a vibrant cathedral on board Clan Turog’s battle barge, the Virtuous Slayer. The color bled into every corner of the mustering hall, giving an illusion of warmth and majestic grandeur that paid tribute to the honored dead and their still living brethren marked as the Legion’s exemplars for all posterity. Banners taken from thousands of campaigns across the galaxy swayed slightly in the artificial breeze created by the ship’s atmospheric processors. Most were azure and gold, but here and there Severus could spot a touch of white, legacy of the time when the Warblades were the White Death, before the recovery of their gene-sire and long before Severus’ own induction into the Legion.

        Sometimes he wondered what it was like. As a line warrior, Severus was not privy to the council of aged veterans, some of whom recalled the time before the Primarch, but even he could spot certain camaraderie between the old guard, as if their joint experiences created a stronger bond than their shared genetic legacy. He imagined a sense of endless possibility not yet corrupted by certain knowledge of boons and flaws of their gene-father, a brave age when the Legions were molded by the hand of their officers as much as by the Emperor’s gifts that elevated them from the mass of humanity.

        He cast a sidelong glimpse at the pict-capture of a Terminator-clad warrior with the markings of a Clan-Master wading through a gore-splattered battlefield, crushing greenskin skulls under his armored feet even as his lightning claws impaled a large alien, lifting the creature into the air. Briefly, Severus wondered how the picture was taken. The quality of the image was almost too perfect, requiring extreme skill only present in most talented of imagists, yet it was clearly taken in the midst of combat, where no civilians were allowed. He wondered if the Clan-Master used his considerable influence to bring the mortal imagist on board of his transport, all the better to capture his deeds for all to see.

        Clan-Master Zebediah Avixis, Clan Alemann, he read the holographic inscription floating under the picture, straining even his post-human eyesight to see the small font beneath it. Confirmed Frag Count: 284,111. Severus felt something approaching awe. His own frag count was a meager fraction of the esteemed, probably late Clan-Master.

        “Stop staring and move,” Tajan hissed in Severus’ direction, voice kept low. For all that Team Mauve were frequent visitors to the mustering hall, the majesty of the place had an effect even on the jaded Kill-Leader. Even Aratos, always quick to speak, was silent and contemplative.

        As the Warblades walked on under the gaze of heroes, Severus found it even more difficult to stay focused. He was used to disappointment. For all that the Legiones Astartes consisted of superhuman warriors whose discipline and training were second to none, it was invariable that some Space Marines would excel more than their brethren. Those who did not perform to exacting standards of the Legions rarely survived long enough to become a persistent problem for their superiors.

        In this, Team Mauve was unique. Low on the frag count boards and with a long history of questionable success, the kill-team survived far longer than anyone could have expected, losing an assortment of body parts but maintaining combat-readiness despite lacking combat performance.

        Luck of the Eleventh, they called it – the Legion’s propensity for triumph against the odds, of surviving the impossible. Whatever strange cosmic forces conspired to guard the Warblades against catastrophe, Team Mauve possessed the Luck in spades, sometimes to the chagrin of their commanding officers.

        As six warriors approached the end of the hall, Severus felt suitably cowed. He briefly saluted to silent, towering Terminators of the Honor Guard at the entrance to the ceremonial chamber, making the sign of the Aquila. Above their heads, war-banners of Clan Turog waved in the constant artificial breeze, light blue and gold bathed in the warm light.

        “Enter,” a voice barked at Severus and his battle-brothers.

        The warriors of Team Mauve stepped forward as one, readying themselves for punishment.

        * * *

        Clan-Master Micah Poseidon wore training robes in lieu of his power armor, but even then his intimidating presence filled the ceremonial chamber. A veteran with over a century of service to his name, Poseidon had features as hard an unflinching as granite floor of the chamber. The Clan-Master’s right eye was a bionic replacement, blazing red like a targeting laser, while his sole remaining natural eye was cold, angry blue of the Eleventh Legion. Severus could see the dull metal sheen of augmetic arm in the folds of the officer’s robe.

        The chamber was a circular room about fifty meters in diameter kept much darker than the mustering hall and lit up only with low-level lumen strips upon the walls. Statues of warriors in full martial garb stood guard opposite to one another, armed with ceremonial weapons of symbolic significance – a halberd from the first world conquered by the Legion after reuniting with its Primarch; a bolter made in the forges of Mars said to belong to the first Clan-Master of Turog, then known as the Second Grand Company; an artificer-made sword taken as bounty from the ruins of Nordafrik Conclaves on Terra during Unification. Vox-speakers embedded into the walls softly chanted barely audible litanies of the Eleventh Legion, some of which predated the Great Crusade itself. The overall atmosphere was that of solemn tradition, a stark contrast to the triumphant majesty of the mustering hall.

        “Kill-team Mauve reporting, sir,” said Tajan formally, stepping forward ahead of his battle-brothers. Even fully armored, the Kill-Leader looked less imposing than the Clan-Master.

        “Mauve,” Poseidon spoke the word as if it was a curse. “You again.” He raised both hands to his temples, rubbing his head in circular motions. “Any explanations for the latest debacle?”

        Tajan gave Severus a poisonous look before shaking his head. “Bad decision, sir. We were operating without a scouting contingent.”

        “And your frag count,” the Clan-Master continued, heedless of Tajan’s words. “Last place in the Clan rankings for fourth straight campaign. Sometimes I wonder if all of you need to be sent back to Scout Auxilia.”

        “With all due respect…” Tajan attempted to mutter before the furious look from the Clan-Master silenced him. Poseidon continued.

        “Low frag count, and now an embarrassment before our… brothers in the Eighth Legion,” the officer said, looking like he was ready to spit on the floor in disgust. “Must I impose on you the importance of cooperation with the Iconoclasts and not looking like damned fools in the process?” The last part was nearly growled.

        “No words?” Poseidon walked close enough to be directly in Tajan’s face. The Clan-Master examined each member of Team Mauve as if judging their worthiness. “Severus. Majorian. Velent. Brutus. Aratos.” He spat each name out, somehow making them all sound monosyllabic. “Perhaps one of you has an explanation.”

        “Sir.” Severus rose his voice barely above a whisper.

        “Severus,” the Clan-Master’s attention was now fully focused on the Marine. “Regret being on Team Mauve yet?”

        “It was my fault, sir,” Severus said quietly. “I suggested a run out of the building cover.”

        “And Tajan listened?” Poseidon laughed, but there was no mirth in it. His face turned to the Kill-Leader. “You are dumber than I thought. Severus might not be officer material, but you are expected to think.” The last words were bellowed out like a battle cry.”

        For a moment, the Clan-Master silently stared at the warriors of Team Mauve. Severus felt his own inadequacy in the face of the veteran officer. He wondered what Poseidon’s own frag-count was. A thought kept on creeping into his mind – was it greater than the combined frag-count of Team Mauve?

        “Luckily for you,” the veteran Marine finally said, “it seems that you managed to make the Iconoclasts talk freely, which is more than your betters could claim.” Severus gave Tajan and Aratos quick, almost imperceptible looks. The other Warblades’ expressions were mixture of curiosity and befuddlement. “Our brother-Legion has been most difficult to work with,” the Clan-Master said, softening his tone just a bit. “Perhaps you can atone for your failures on the battlefield in a different way.” His voice was hard again.

        “The Primarch himself expressed interest in this mission,” Poseidon spoke, measuring out every word and stressing out the importance of the task before them. “You will be our key to understanding the Iconoclasts.”

        Comment


        • #5
          THREE

          Direct Hit
          Hyrule Secundus
          Not Our People

          The orbital space of Maegara swarmed with vessels great and small like locusts converging upon the prized harvest of rare crop. Shoals of lithe fighter craft chased the chemical exhaust trails of their counterparts even as frigates, destroyers and cruisers tore into each other with lance battery and torpedo fire. Every few seconds a flash of light indicated an explosion that left thousands for dead upon the disintegrating hulks. The lucky ones would die quickly before freezing or suffocating inside their adamantium coffins. Those less fortunate would spend their dying hours hoping against all hope that their comrades address their plight before the remaining life support systems give out for good.

          Two leviathans swam through the void like great whales, unperturbed by smaller fish. When their weapons batteries spoke, even mighty cruisers and irreplaceable archaeotech warships paid heed, attempting to steer clear of the Legion flagships and paying the price for their defiance.

          One of the flagships was a sleek, functional beauty, fine-tuned outline betraying little of its murderous intent. One could be forgiven for mistaking it for a work of art, so delicate and fragile it seemed from the distance, its ten kilometer-long surface painstakingly polished to look as pristine as it did leaving the orbital forges of Jupiter. The high prow was an arrowhead worked into a fine point, decorated with symmetrical lines of crenellations and defensive mechanisms, as if displaying the ship’s weaponry openly went against the designer’s aesthetic. Even the occasional flashes of lance batteries seemed more like a light show put on for amusement of high-ranking dignitaries than exercise of power enough to break worlds and subdue civilizations. Upon the side of the vessel, straight lines connected to announce its name and allegiance to the universe – Heart of Valor, the personal vessel of Primarch Baelic of Warblades.

          The other flagship was an image of barbaric, unrestrained power, a crude thing seemingly smashed together from pieces of rock and metal and welded into one cohesive whole with brutish armor plating. Weapons of every description protruded from its misshapen hull with seemingly little rhyme or reason, some familiar, some of designs so esoteric that even a learned scholar would be hard-placed to name them. Old battle scars covered its armored hide, as if the ship’s masters considered those injuries too trivial to address. When its turret banks opened fire at anything foolhardy enough to approach, the vessel shuddered with neither grace nor precision, saturating space with energy blasts and mass-reactive projectiles to drown its victims in its sheer firepower.

          Its name was Breaker, and it was the flagship of the Eighth Legion, the Iconoclasts.

          * * *

          Clan-Master Poseidon stared at the holographic projection for long time. The fingers of his biological hand traced the outlines of ship formations, recognizing stratagems and feints by each battle group, pointing out flaws in execution and identifying mistakes. This was an exercise he was familiar with – a routine review of past encounters with enemy forces, a way to correct any shortcomings for the next time the Warblades’ fleet engaged itself in a full-scale action. His trained mind automatically ran through scenarios, calculating outcomes, devising counters to the strategies employed by the combatants and comparing his observations to tactical projections. No matter how many times he tried to do it, it still did not seem right.

          There. He magnified the image, bringing a swarm of destroyers to flickering life. The still kept on jumping up and down and he frowned, irritated at the ever-unstable technology.

          “Direct hit from a lance battery,” he said, pointing at a bulky ship of the Eighth Legion, a heavy destroyer by the looks of it. “Full power at knife’s point range. Watch.”

          His other hand ran over the device’s control panel, resuming the recording. He saw the vessel’s void shields flash briefly before being overwhelmed by the concentrated energy beams. The ship’s armor plating and structure buckled, outer layers atomized in fractions of a second. He thought he could see tiny figures spilled out into the void, then corrected himself. It must have been his imagination. Not even the most advanced drone recording technology could have visualized that from several light-seconds away.

          Poseidon’s eyes focused on the Iconoclast ship once again. It was badly wounded. Chains of explosions rattled the superstructure, tearing weapons off their moorings. A shroud of vapor and gasses surrounded the vessel like a halo of insects, obscuring some of the fine detail. And yet the destroyer kept on firing, as though the mortal would it had suffered was little more than nuisance. The ship rolled to one side, exposing its hereto untouched armor to the enemy while returning the punishment.

          The Clan-Master shook his head, pausing the hologram in motion. “I don’t care how lucky anyone could get,” he said, drawing out the words in a slow drawl. “No one should be able to fire after sustaining a direct hit like that. And this is not the first one by any means.”

          “Assertions, nothing more,” another voice, silky and cultured, replied. The speaker took a step forward, putting an armored hand on Poseidon’s shoulder.

          Where the Clan-Master of Turog looked equal parts machine and man, the other warrior had the air of barbaric splendor, his exposed skin virtually untouched by enemy blade or bullet. Long braids of jet-black hair framed the tattooed face pierced with dozens of rings, studs, and jewelry. Yet for all his savage appearance, Nereus Farok’s voice belayed the intelligence and the skill expected from one of his exalted rank, and Poseidon could not possibly dismiss the other warrior’s words.

          “I grant you that several of the Iconoclast ships seem to display resilience above and beyond the expectations,” Farok continued, keeping his tone neutral. “I also grant you that our allies seem to be very close-lipped when it comes to disclosing their secrets. But that is not proof. The Primarch will want hard proof before confronting Lord Nihlus.”

          “I am not so sure about that,” replied Poseidon, frown bisecting his ravaged features. “And this is what I am afraid of most.” He shook his head, appearing to be deep in thought. “You know Lord Baelic as well as anyone in the Legion could hope to. Once he gets an idea in his head, he is unstoppable. It is hard enough to keep him from making rash decisions, and knowing him, he is probably reviewing and analyzing the same recording now.”

          “So you want to feed fuel into the fire?” intoned Farok, raising one eyebrow in an expression of amusement. “That is an interesting way of serving as an Equerry to our lord and master.” There was but a hint of jest in the last words, as if the Space Marine found it humorous.

          “On the contrary,” Poseidon answered. His flesh fingers clenched into a fist. “No matter how I look at it, I cannot imagine the Primarch accepting any suggestions to remain level-headed. He sees the same thing me and you do, he will jump to conclusions.”

          Farok smirked, letting out a soft laugh more suited to a high society function than to military council. His words came slowly, drawn out with melodious sing-song notes. “Let’s just hope then that our little pet project keeps his interest for long enough, shall we? The news from Hyrule Secundus should be coming any time now.”

          * * *

          The world was blue and verdant, bathed in the rays of a warm yellow sun just the right size, neither too hot nor too cold. Wispy clouds played chase over jagged lines of continents and blue of rolling oceans, pausing over the green hills and austere mountain peaks. A single moon peeked from behind the planet’s curvature, its cratered surface a stark contrast against the life-bearing world it orbited.

          Yet even here, conflict left its mark. Dozens of heavily armed orbital platforms protected tactical approaches, connected with contrails left by traveling patrol craft and larger, sturdier space vessels. The lifeless moon glowed with waste output of massive industry churning weapons and ammunition for the forces mustering in its vicinity. And hundreds of warships of each type and size plowed through the void in formations reminiscent of parade precision, weapons maintained at full battle readiness even in absence of enemy, heraldry of crowned wings upon their ornate hulls.

          Twentieth Legion of the Emperor’s Adaptus Astartes, the Angel Kings, mustered for war.

          * * *

          It was not the first muster Karadin Cech, Adept Second Grade, witnessed in his forty four years, but the grandeur of the occasion never failed to impress him. From his window office high in the towers of Hyrule Secundus’ capital city, he could see thousands of troops march towards troop landers in precise formations, lining up to be shipped offworld to support the Legion’s campaign against the wayward Primarchs.

          Truth be told, Cech felt little emotion towards the ongoing conflict. Whatever grievances Iskanderos and his brothers had towards the Council of Terra were of minimal interest to him, for no matter who made policy decisions and who stood where in the Imperium’s increasingly more complex hierarchy, certain matters remained the same. Taxes still had to be collected, reports still had to be completed, and ledger books still had to be delivered to Administratum adepts on the distant worlds towards the Imperial Core.

          Cech chewed on the tip of a memo-quill, a bad habit he unsuccessfully tried to break for years, then traced a line from left to right upon a dataslate. He frowned. The requisition request was pushing the limits of what could be accomplished with the cargo lifters already occupied ferrying materials between Hyrule Secundus and the orbiting fleet. Just as he was preparing to write a reprimand, he noticed the name under the request – Artos Pertinax, Knight-Captain of the Angel Kings’ Thirty Sixth Company. Cech bit back the acidic remark, instantly calculating where he could reroute the occupied freighters to accommodate the requisition. Curious, the adept thought, seeing the date on the original request. It seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of time in the queue, and he practically rushed to sign it in all appropriate places.

          The Legion always got what it wanted, even if it meant taking the resources from elsewhere.

          The adept sighed, feeling the weight of a hectic week take its toll. He spent far too much time in the office already, at least accordingly to his wife, who was probably thinking of new ways to complain about it even now. He could already imagine the words coming out of her mouth, made with the same acerbic bite he came to expect. We need you at home. Your papers can wait. Damn the Legion and Iskanderos and all of them. You don’t spend enough time here.

          He lifted up a mug of recaf, moving aside countless papers crowding his desk and stretched, taking another look at the muster. From high above, he could see the troops’ dark blue uniforms in the bright sunlight, identifying them as Castor Regulars. He whistled as a superheavy tank drove slowly into the lander’s hatch, barely fitting on the muster plaza. It seemed as if the entire city was remade into a military camp over the last few days.

          Cech felt the hot liquid scold the inside of his mouth, wincing at the bitter taste. The sight was all too familiar – yet another regiment sent off-world after receiving their standard-issue lasguns and flak armor, expected to fight and die for the distant Emperor, or, as the adept privately suspected, another clique of the Primarchs. Whatever Lord Corwin’s planetary broadcasts said, there was little in them that suggested the Emperor’s direct involvement. Some amongst the adepts already whispered that the Emperor remained curiously silent on the current conflict, as though the issue was beneath him.

          Of course, Cech corrected himself, it was improper to suggest that the word of Lord Corwin was anything but the Emperor’s own word, at least whenever one of the Legion’s lackeys remained within an earshot. Still, he wondered if Iskanderos’ own supporters could claim the same thing. He sighed. It was not as if he, a humble Adept Second Grade, would ever set foot on Terra, let alone be within light years of Master of Mankind. He was but a low-level functionary in a bureaucracy large enough to populate planets, not a warrior or a leader. As far as Karadin Cech was concerned, his place in galactic affairs was to watch on the sidelines and hope that the more calamitous events passed him by.

          Which was exactly why the presence of an army on Hyrule Secundus filled him with dread. Where the armies went, trouble usually followed, and for all that he should have felt secure with the entire Legion mustering on the planet, he could not escape the feeling of impending catastrophe, as if the war was already getting too close and personal with him.

          He paced closer to the window, not pausing to admire his reflection – short, stout, with badly receding hairline and chubby cheeks, a bureaucrat through and through. Tall spires of urban buildings made him feel inadequate, an ant against their monstrous sprawl. From up here, even the Legionaries in their power armor looked tiny and insignificant.

          Cech looked back at the table where a dataslate waited for his input, then back at the muster. The order of promethium blinked in a series of runic symbols demanding his attention, never mind the logistical nightmare of coordinating over two million Imperial Army soldiers and ninety thousand Adeptus Astartes. Gritting his teeth, the adept grudgingly walked back to his chair, lowering his bulk into it and feeling the plastic croak under his weight.

          It was going to be a long day.

          * * *

          “Where are the damn supplies we requested?” The clipped tone of Roderic Falander, Commander of the Thirty Sixth Grand Company of the Twentieth Legion, suggested loss of patience, but Pertinax knew better. For all of his occasionally bombastic manner, Falander reserved most of his rage for the battlefield, and the verbal outburst did little to perturb the Knight-Captain. The same could not be said for the mortal functionary cowed by the presence of two Space Marine officers in a chamber barely large enough for three of them.

          Pertinax could almost pity her. The waifish-looking young woman barely reached his chest, and even that was due to impractically high heels – a peculiar feature of local dress code, he was once told; next to two Angel Kings, she had an appearance of a lost child.

          “Once again, adept Zolphin, what is the status of the supplies?” intoned Falander, staring down at the mortal as if she was a malfunctioning piece of equipment. All in all, the effect was appropriately intimidating.

          “Mmm… Lord…” The girl’s response stuttered. “The s-s-supplies request is… b-b-being processed. I am sure it will b-b-be given priority.”

          “It better be,” the Commander growled, giving her an angry look. “Dismissed.” He waved the adept on impatiently.

          Pertinax waited until the girl’s footsteps no longer echoed down the long hallway before speaking. “Was this really necessary?” he inquired of his superior, a wry curve of his mouth sole indication of amusement. “That mortal was terrified as it was.”

          Falander’s hard-edged face broke into an unhappy grimace. “These are not our people, Knight-Captain,” he said in a voice akin to grinding of rusty gears. “We cannot expect the right kind discipline or commitment from them.” He turned away from Pertinax, hands held behind his armored bulk, eyes pensive and brooding. “I don’t like this campaign,” Falander admitted, casting his eyes down to the metal-plated floor.

          The two Angel Kings stood on a platform overlooking the troop muster, one hundred meters above the massed columns of infantry and vehicles. The platform was connected to the administrative building by the means of an enclosed tunnel descending into the depths of the spire and expanding into hundreds of passages leading to offices and hab-blocks. The warm sun of Hyrule Secundus bore down on them through the open windows large enough to fit even a Terminator-armored warrior, coloring the recruitment posters on bare metal walls.

          Pertinax examined one of the posters. Upon it, a badly painted austere golden figure pointed at the tiny huddled figures, asking them if they were worthy. He frowned. The image looked dangerously close to religious in symbolism.

          “This entire campaign does not sit well with me either,” the Knight-Captain admitted. “Our brothers are fighting a delaying action on Maegara while we do, what? Oversee mortal rabble who can barely march into a troopship?”

          He sulked, taking a step towards the window and spitting at the ground in contempt. Pertinax watched a small round drop of saliva race towards the rockcrete pavement until even his genhanced vision could not discern it amongst the throng of uniformed men and their vehicles.

          “This is dangerous talk, brother,” replied Falander, measuring the other Angel King up and down with his eyes. “A Chaplain would assign you to a week of penance, no less, if he heard you.”

          “Don’t misunderstand me, Roderic,” Pertinax answered, resorting to more familiar tone with no others present. “My faith in Lord Corwin is strong. Wherever he will lead, I will follow without question. But we should be on Maegara. Not here.”

          “Lord Corwin does as Lord Corwin does,” said the senior officer. “And he has a tendency to be right, whether you like it or not.” Falander’s hands clenched into fists. “Whether I like it or not, we wait.”

          * * *

          Once she was out of the Space Marines earshot, Meria Zolphin finally allowed herself a sigh. The Angel Kings were a demanding bunch at best of times, and ever since the Legion descended on Hyrule Secundus, her life turned into a never-ending series of errands, chasing down supply orders and equipment shipping manifestos, tracking down more senior adepts to once again explain the Legion officers that yes, their demands were acknowledged and yes, everything humanly possible was being done to accommodate them… and no, nothing more could be done at that very moment.

          Meria straightened her uniform with a tired motion, knowing that the constant errands made any such motion useless. The plain grey garment was hopelessly wrinkled and in dire need of ironing. She examined the dataslate in her hand, finding nothing new that would explain the delay. She sighed again, mouthing some unflattering words about no one in particular.

          As far as she could tell, there was no apparent reason why the routine shipment of promethium to orbiting battle barge was being delayed. All proper authorizations were in place, if a little outdated. Had it not been for the signature of a higher-ranking adept from only few minutes ago, the requisition order would have probably spent some time wandering between divisions, almost certainly aggravating Commander Falander even more. Meria winced unhappily. It seemed that the Space Marine made it his mission to make her as uncomfortable as possible any time she was summoned into his presence.

          She hated being around the Angel Kings. In most people, the Space Marines elicited the feelings of awe, their ceramite-clad bodies a visible reminder of the Emperor’s many gifts to humanity. Of course, she reminder herself bitterly, this was before the Space Marines turned against their own, with the rest of the nascent Imperium caught in the middle.

          Meria felt that she completely lost her wits every time she was in the presence of the Twentieth Legion, acting like a bumbling idiot. The thought always chafed at her, undermining any feelings of self-worth she might have entertained after being raised on a civilized world where advancement was not only possible but expected.

          The Angel Kings seemed to care for none of that.

          Meria was well aware of effect she tended to have on others during personal interactions. Men found her attractive, and often went out of their way to be polite, while she learned to deal with certain degree of jealousy she encountered at times. As far as she was concerned, her appearance was a useful boon in getting her career on the right track, or at least giving her a viable shot at properly paced, not at all calamitous advancement in due time.

          The war changed all of that. All of a sudden, her world was overtaken by creatures that could only be called human in a loosest sense of all, who were almost as terrifying to work for as they must have been to encounter in battle. Without a warning, the path she envisioned for herself became a naïve fantasy, her ambitions cast to the side by the hand of fate.

          The young woman walked through the metal tunnel, ignoring the menials and lower-level adepts bustling about. The glow-strips embedded into the walls gave off an illusion of perpetual twilight, casting everything into an unhealthy shade of orange. She recalled her one-time overseer joking that the mountains of paperwork generated by the Administratum had to be kept in the dark, lest they drive unprepared readers mad with their sheer volume.

          Her hand clutched the dataslate. The material was warm to touch and quickly becoming slick from perspiration. Meria adjusted her uniform collar. The spire’s internal temperature was just a bit too hot for comfort, and she wondered if the air conditioning units were malfunctioning again. With all of Hyrule Secundus’ resources mobilized in support of the Legion, anything not directly related to the war was duly ignored. Meria wondered if the spire’s maintenance crews were off on errands ordered by the Angel Kings.

          Yet another reason I will be glad when they are all gone, she thought. The planet had little quarrel with either side of the conflict, joining the nascent Imperium over a century ago with minimal coercion and no presence of the fabled Adeptus Astartes. Just like most Hyruleans, Meria did not care who sat on the Council of Terra, or which Primarch was in favor at the human throne world. It irked her that the planet’s allegiance was chosen for it when Corwin, Primarch of the Twentieth Legion, arrived here in force, and she wondered if she would be filling requisition orders for the Imperial Redeemers or one of their allies if Iskanderos got to Hyrule first. Perhaps, she cracked a bitter smile, they would have been more patient masters. Then again, she thought, perhaps not.

          She took another look at the dataslate, scrolling through the rows of data bound to confuse the uninitiated. The runes declared that the shipment was even now being processed for orbital delivery in less than an hour. Had it not been for the earlier delays, she would not have given it a second thought. She wondered if she should go back to inform Commander Falander, then shook her head. The Angel King could wait until he got a confirmation from his battle barge.

          Something kept on bothering her, though, like a nagging feeling that refused to go away. Meria frowned, trying to think of what might have prompted it. She replayed the events of the day in her head.

          No matter what, her thoughts kept returning to the dataslate.

          Meria browsed through the rows of data, feeling stupid for it and telling herself that at least several of her superiors must already have analyzed every little bit. She stopped, concentrating on the numbers.

          And gasped, as it finally made sense.

          Comment


          • #6
            FOUR

            The Labyrinth
            Reflections
            Honor and Brotherhood

            Severus met Aratos near the entrance, where the steel-colored placards proclaimed the virtues of the Legion amongst the live-feed frag boards, intra-squad competitions, and Clan standings. Beeping noises of machinery were accentuated by hissing sound of steam escaping somewhere along the battle-barge’s prodigious length, carried forward by strange acoustics of enclosed space. A rattle of gunfire sounded in the distance, joined by another, then another – a squad taking down a straggler. Weapon racks lined the walls. He looked up, finding comfort in the familiar gargantuan letters sprawling across the ceiling.

            Courage. Strength. Honor.

            The words bore down on the Warblade same as they always had since the day he was first selected from thousands of aspirants to become one of Baelic’s own. They were the judgment of those who came before him, a stark reminder of his own failings. They were all he had known.

            “Still contemplating?” Aratos turned to him from a weapon rack, bolter in hand. The warriot’s fingers ran up and down the weapon as if caressing a lover.

            Severus shook his head, instead focusing on the frag counts. By the last account, Kill-Team Crimson was in the lead, followed closely by Azure and Grey. Mauve was at the bottom, as always.

            “Not much to contemplate, brother,” Severus said, finally giving the other warrior a good look. He chuckled slightly. “I am so used to seeing you in armor, it is hard to believe you are not attached to it.”

            Both Warblades were wearing training chitons that left their arms exposed, dozens of tattoos belying the heritage of their shared homeworld. Aratos was the taller of two, his head shaved but for a topknot dyed bright red, facial features as savage as those of a sand-dragon. A line of studded piercings ran through his lower lip, bisected neatly by an old, partially healed scar. In contrast, Severus was of slighter build with long, braided hair and face that could have belonged to a sophisticated intellectual on another world, as of yet unmarred by injury or modification.

            “Ready for it?” Severus said, nodding in the direction of an entrance. Massive steel doors stared down at him, a reminder of his relative insignificance.

            “Shouldn’t you take a weapon first?” retorted Aratos. The bolter in his hands looked positively small. “Are you going to do line or specialty today?”

            Severus’ eyes scanned the weapon racks, passing over some of the more complicated contraptions until settling on a shape he knew all too well. “Line,” he said, picking up a boltgun from the rack and automatically checking that it was in good working order. Touching the weapon with his bare hands was a sensation he had a hard time adjusting to.

            “Mark III, I see,” Aratos commented. “Solid and reliable. Saved my ass on…”

            “I heard this story a thousand times, brother,” interrupted Severus. “I see you went for Hunter pattern?”

            “Someone has to,” the other warrior responded. “Always a good choice for fire support. Especially with only two of us.”

            “I take it Tajan is working off his frustration in the training cages?”

            “You know him,” Aratos clicked his tongue. “Velent and Majorian are with him, and Brutus, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is trying to crawl up the Clan-Master’s backside. The entire Maegara business does not sit well with anyone.”

            “So, the Labyrinth.”

            “Yes,” said Aratos, filling his pockets with ammunition. “Got it reserved from thirteen hundred to fourteen hundred.”

            “Surprised they allowed us the use?” Severus quipped. “You’d think they would have us hunting sump-rats by the reactors instead.”

            The Warblades walked to within few steps of the doors, securing their weapons. Severus took a black-lined jacket from the wall, then passed another one to Aratos. As both warriors put on their jackets, clicking sounds of the locking mechanisms within indicated readiness. The jacket flaps lit up dull, barely noticeable green of full functionality.

            “Five minutes until the truth, eh?” Aratos bellowed out a lough, slapping Severus on the back. “I have the Chironean Falls level loaded,” he said by the way of explanation. “Elevated difficulty.”

            Severus frowned. “If only it worked that way in the real.”

            “What do you care? Remember the Primarch’s teachings – always assume the highest difficulty.”

            * * *

            The doors opened silently, sliding to each side on their well-oiled tracks. For some reason, Severus always expected some kind of a grinding noise to go with their immensity, and the silence never failed to amuse him. Aratos, for his part, seemed to disregard the dichotomy.

            Around the two Warblades, tropical forest sang. Shrubs and undergrowth wallowed in the shadows of fifty meter-tall trees and overgrown ferns. An illusion of a bright, distant sun peeked through the greenery. The air was wet with moisture and heavy with musky smells. Something long and scaly slithered through the undergrowth, adding to the cacophony of sounds as it moved through a pile of rotting leaves.

            Severus felt his body grow heavier and forced himself through a breathing regimen designed to keep him at peak efficiency in high gravity environments. His eyes scanned the forest, seeking out danger.

            “They make it look more real every time,” Aratos quipped. The Space Marine’s weapon moved in small arcs to better react to potential hostiles. “The cogitators know their stuff.”

            “The Martian boys certainly had a fit and a half when they found out,” Severus replied. Strictly speaking, it happened long before he became a Warblade, but the story was told and retold so many times that he might as well have been there. The Legion utilized enough arcane technology from their homeworld of Laodice to make Mechanicus traditionalists alternately envious and furious. Only the Steel Wardens, Fourth Legion of Adeptus Astartes had worse relations with the lords of Mars.

            “Had it been up to them, we would still be shooting up servitors,” said Aratos with a chuckle. “How stupid do they think we are?”

            The Space Marine looked like he was going to say more, but a sound at odds with the natural ambience of the forest made him perk up in attention. Slowly, he backed towards a trunk of a large tree, cradling the weapon in both hands.

            The first shot broke through the canopy like a ray of light piercing into the gloomy shadows. Severus rolled on the ground, acquiring few minor scratches in the process. He fought back the urge to fire back. Ammunition in the Labyrinth was limited, and without a full team at his back, he had no desire to run out before the time.

            “Incoming!” Aratos yelled at the top of his lungs, rushing to get out of the way of a grenade and into cover behind a tree. The explosion rattled the trunk, sending a cascade of leaves down but otherwise leaving the Space Marine unharmed.

            Severus could see indistinct shapes on top of thick branches, hazy but for the metallic glint on their helmets. He loosed a volley of shots at them and noted with some satisfaction that the fire quieted down. He risked a quick run to Aratos’ position, hoping that the enemy would keep their heads down long enough to allow him passage.

            “How many did you get?” asked Aratos, not taking his eyes off the canopy.

            “Two, I think,” Severus replied. He frowned, realizing that he fired a few times too many; his first magazine was already half-empty. The Warblade evaluated his options. As attractive as the thought of climbing a tree and waging war on the enemy’s own terms seemed, he thought he would leave himself way too vulnerable. “What are these supposed to be?”

            “Army equivalents, jungle fighter specialty,” Aratos answered. “Guerillas.”

            “A different enemy,” said Severus. “Last time it was Orks.”

            “And last time we were caught flat-footed when it came to real fight,” came a reply. “These are supposed to fight smart.”

            “I see.”

            Another cavalcade of fire veered uncomfortably close to two Space Marines’ position. “Time to make a move,” Severus suggested, eyeing possible openings. “There.” He pointed at a small patch of dense foliage in between two gargantuan trees. “Enough ground to dig in, and enough cover to make them miss.”

            “Last time we followed your tactical suggestion, we were caught between Sentinels and a Kozak Rus,” reminded Aratos. He sniffed the air, isolating the scents of the enemy. “No matter how hard the cogitators try, they could never get the smells right,” he said, spitting on the ground and watching acidic saliva burn a hole in the ground.

            “Do you have a better option?” retorted Severus. As far as he could tell, the enemy fighters were massing for a flanking action. “They know where we are, and they have the numbers.”

            “If only it was so easy in a real battle,” Aratos grumbled, then nodded his assent.

            “On my mark…” Severus whispered, quietly enough that only Space Marine’s enhanced hearing could make it out. “Three… two… one…”

            The duo bolted from cover, separating to confuse the pursuers and loosing several barely aimed shots at the canopies. A muffled scream sounded from above, victim of a lucky shot. “That has got to force them to keep their heads down,” Severus whispered to no one in particular. He doubted Aratos was close enough to hear him, and did not want to yell and give away his position.

            The route he chose was circular and indirect, and he hoped to confuse the enemy enough to regain strategic advantage once in a new hiding spot. Severus ran, crawled, slithered, and sneaked past the trees, weaving in and out of cover and covering himself with mud and dirty leaves in the process. The sharp thorns of some bush embedded themselves in his side, causing him much discomfort, yet the inability to stop and scratch was worse by far.

            He practically sidestepped into cover, almost stumbling into similarly dirty Aratos. “Success,” Severus announced quietly, mischievous grin playing on his face.

            “So far,” his battle-brother retorted. “How much ammo do you have?”

            “Three full magazines, plus whatever is left in this one. You?”

            “Four full magazines,” Aratos replied. “Let’s hope we don’t have to resort to blades.” As he spoke, he pulled out his combat knife, monomolecular edge covered with brown earth to dull its glint. “It never feels right with these simulacrums anyway.”

            “You could have forced a program to spawn ammo,” said Severus, raising one eyebrow. “Wouldn’t have been very realistic, but at least it’d be more enjoyable.”

            “And become the laughingstock of the Clan? No thanks!”

            “Sometimes I cannot believe we are doing this,” Severus intoned contemplatively.

            “What?” Aratos shook his head in bafflement. “Everyone uses the Labyrinth. Are you crazy?”

            “No, not that,” continued Severus. “I mean this entire business of fighting this war.”

            “Not again,” Aratos spoke, rolling his eyes. “You always pick the worst possible time for this.”

            “I think there is no better time than now,” Severus said. In the distance, the simulacrums crawled on the branches as thick as a Space Marine’s torso, apparently confused. “You know, I don’t like fighting for no reason.”

            “So you need a big lofty goal,” answered Aratos, slightly annoyed. “Great.” He sighed heavily. “It is not enough for you that the Primarch decided to march against the Council. Since when did you begin to question Lord Baelic?”

            Severus shrugged. “It is not that I question our gene-father, Morgan,” he said, calling Aratos by his rarely used first name. “You know as well as anyone, I will follow him to death a thousand times over. But even you must have thought about it.”

            “We have no quarrel with the Angel Kings, the Lion Guard, the Peacekeepers… hell, even the creeps of the Fourth never did anything to us,” Severus went on. “So what if Lord Baelic does not sit on the Council of Terra? There are others who do not, and they seem to have little issue with that.”

            “And now you presume to know what the Primarchs think,” retorted Aratos. “How could you possibly even imagine what considerations they have?”

            Severus refused to cave. “When we set out on the Crusade, it was to liberate humanity and to push back the Old Night. What are we gaining by rising up against the Council? Who are we liberating by this?”

            “There is a saying amongst the Lion Guard,” Aratos spoke quietly. “Shut up and wait. You heard of it?”

            “Listen, brother, you know you can depend on me in war and peace,” said Severus. “It is not a crime to understand why we are fighting. Who we are. What we are trying to become, and what for.”

            “I am a Warblade. This is enough,” Aratos stated as a matter of fact. “Don’t you remember the Primarch’s words at Laodice?” He scratched his head. The simulacrums still had no clue where the two Warblades hid, the closest of guerillas at least a hundred meters away. “You will be my blades of justice and wrath,” he intoned, attempting – and failing to mimic Baelic’s voice.

            “Precisely,” answered Severus. “Blades of justice and wrath. Is it wrong to try understanding where is justice in what we are doing?”

            “Listen to you,” cackled Aratos. “You presume to know everything about justice. Where was justice when we were denied triumph in the halls of Terra, again and again? Or when we were made to serve under Ashur, before you were even in the Legion? Or…”

            “Petty things!” Severus exclaimed, not caring if the simulacrums discovered them. “Do you really believe them, or have you been listening to the Chaplains way too much?”

            “These are dangerous words, brother,” Aratos said slowly. “You better be careful who you speak them to.”

            “And who can I speak them to, if not you?” replied Severus. “Tajan is too concerned with how he will look in the Clan-Master’s eyes. Brutus would go straight to the nearest Chaplain. Velent…”

            “I get it, I get it,” Aratos interrupted. His eyes focused on some point in the distance. The Space Marine aimed his weapon, then shot once, twice, three times. A scream was cut short somewhere amongst the foliage. “You think I am your personal confessor.” He shook his head either in disappointment or in amusement.

            “Be honest with me, Morgan. You have thought about it too.”

            There was a pregnant pause, interrupted only by the sounds of simulated forest wildlife scattering through the undergrowth. Severus thought he could hear soft steps of the guerillas, barely loud enough for his enhanced hearing to capture.

            “I have,” admitted Aratos calmly. “And I came to a conclusion that these decisions were above my station. It is of no use to contemplate something you cannot change.”

            “And have you wondered what will happen next?” Severus took a carefully aimed shot at the guerillas. From this distance and without the magnifying optics of the helmet, he could not tell if he did any damage. “Once we get to Terra, I mean.”

            “I… I don’t know,” Aratos said. “The Emperor…”

            “What about him? Don’t you think that he would have already done something? His sons are fighting each other, and there hasn’t been as much as a word from him.”

            “Only the strong can tame the galaxy,” answered Aratos, still looking through the sights of his bolter. “This campaign is to prove our strength, to stand at his side and to rule the galaxy as it was meant to be ruled. The bureaucrats on the Council can claim their righteousness all they want. They want every Legion to be one and the same, to be tame and safely cordoned. There is not much left to conquer, and what do you think will happen once every world is a part of the Emperor’s dominion?”

            “I am sure Iskanderos asked those very same questions,” commented Severus. “Even you must admit, though, that he has some very strange allies.”

            “Barbarians to be bled dry,” answered Aratos dismissively. “Gargoyles, Iconoclasts… Need I say more? Perhaps this entire war is a way to be rid of the useless fodder, now that they are no longer needed.”

            “Be careful where that line of thinking takes you, brother,” Severus said, frowning. “By the same account, we could become useless fodder too.”

            “We are not butchers, Santaros,” Aratos called the other warrior by his given name, accentuating the point. “We are not savages, psychotics, or reavers. We are the artists of the battlefield, a fine-tuned blade. We are the kind of a Legion that will keep the peace even after the entire known universe is the dominion of mankind.”

            “So you are saying that we will not become useless.” Severus sighed. “I wonder how many other Legions tell themselves the same.”

            “I do not concern myself with the others’ reasons,” replied Aratos, shrugging. “If the Primarch believes we are doing the right thing, then who am I to dispute that?”

            “Do you truly believe the Emperor approves all of this?” asked Severus, incredulous. The guerillas were getting uncomfortably close, and he considered moving. Another shot caused a figure to drop from the branches, disintegrating into a mess of digital interference as it fell.

            “If he didn’t, I would imagine him standing behind the Council,” Aratos shook his head, drawing out the words. “For all we know, the Council might be holding him hostage. We might be his only hope.”

            Severus took another shot at the advancing guerillas, heedless of their haphazard return fire. “I wish we knew. It would certainly make things easier.”

            “Move, move!” Aratos yelled, rolling to the side. Severus followed his example seconds before a bright beam of intense light punctured the ground where the two Warblades made their stand. “Lascannon!” Aratos hissed, somewhat redundantly.

            “I can see that!” Severus shouted back. He ran into the opening, firing wildly. Several guerillas fell, practically disintegrating as they became a mass of digital signatures and static, while others began to advance, rappelling down from the branches onto the forest floor. It seemed that they abandoned all caution, throwing the entirety of their forces against the Legionaries. Solid projectiles and las beams pierced the air around him, few landing in the non-vital areas of the jacket. Severus felt the punch even as he moved on, the advanced device compensating for the expected toughness of Space Marine physiology. The few that hit his unprotected body dissipated harmlessly, finally exposed for the digital fakes they were. Severus spared a brief glance for the jacket flaps. They were still yellow; the damage was considerable but not yet terminal.

            He gunned down the first wave with little thought, each shot disintegrating a simulacrum and sending illusory body parts flying. Severus spun around, trying to present the smallest possible profile to his assailants, only dimly aware that Aratos was on the ground, picking them off with carefully placed shots.

            The bolter clicked empty unexpectedly as Severus tried to take down yet another attacker. Up close, the simulacrum’s artificial nature became very apparent. Its face was a blank mask made in rough approximation of human features, and even its military-style fatigues faithfully rendered by the cogitators appeared to lose some detail. The guerilla’s weapon, however, looked almost real, and as Severus stared down the barrel of a hot-shot lasgun, it felt uncomfortably close to an actual confrontation.

            “Move, damn it!”

            Aratos’ bellow shook Severus from his reverie, and the Space Marine launched himself into the group of enemies, hacking and slashing with his combat blade. Here, the illusion was almost completely shattered; while the simulacra moved and parried like a real adversary, Severus’ blade cut through the air, denying him the satisfying sensation of cutting through armor and flesh. He growled in wordless frustration, utilizing his superior speed to bring down the enemies before they could strike back.

            Tumble!

            He cursed as his jacket flaps turned bright, flaring orange. One of the simulacra managed to slip past the Space Marine’s defenses, striking an unprotected spot just above the kidneys. Severus realized he could not take much more before being taken out of the simulation.

            The Warblade jumped, forcing another of the phantom assailants to miss and allowing distant Aratos a clear shot. The simulacra went down, but not quickly enough; as Severus struggled to avoid the multitude of their attacks, his jacket flared red. Instantly, the phantoms began to ignore him, moving on to Aratos’ position. Frustrated swings of Severus’ combat knife did nothing, passing through the holographic projections with no effect.

            Time.

            Bright red letters lit up in the air, blinking as the hidden loudspeakers blared. One by one, the simulacra vanished just before they could reach Aratos. Severus spared his battle-brother a brief look, noticing yellow jacket flaps. It seemed the other Space Marine took at least several non-terminal hits during combat. Severus threw his weapon down in frustration, kicking it to the side as scenario outcome was displayed for the two warriors to see.

            “Twenty three? That is all?” Severus could barely believe his eyes. “I could have sworn I alone killed more than that.”

            “Not good,” agreed Aratos phlegmatically. “Next time, we should talk less and fight more.”

            By any account, this was not a good score, and Severus could not help but feel frustrated. A fully staffed Kill-Team should have been able to take out no less than five hundred simulacra. Even a duo of warriors should have exceeded fifty kills within the time allotted. This was failure. Again.

            “Shall we redo the scenario?” Severus asked, already knowing what the answer was going to be.

            “What good will it do?” Aratos replied. The warrior’s barbarous visage contorted into a bestial mask as choler overtook him. “You will keep on talking, and I will keep on missing. That charge was ill-advised too.”

            “So what, I will never make a tactician,” said Severus, visibly agitated. “There are other ways I can serve the Legion.”

            “And the first of those ways is not making idiotic decisions that get others killed, brother,” countered Aratos. The barbaric-looking Marine wiped sweat off his forehead. “I know what you were trying to do,” he said in a conciliatory manner, softening his tone. “You wanted to talk without others passing judgment, and for that, I cannot blame you.”

            Severus raised his head to meet his battle-brother’s eyes. “Thank you.” The words were sincere, if quiet. “Thank you for listening.”

            “Don’t worry, I will not run to the nearest Chaplain,” said Aratos with a curiously soft understated laugh. His face grew more austere as he continued. “But it is best that you keep these questions to yourself. Others may not be as understanding.”

            “I will,” nodded Severus as two Marines began a long walk back to the Labyrinth entrance.

            * * *

            Two hours later, Kill-Team Mauve stood at attention in the same chamber where Clan-Master Poseidon related his disappointment only few days ago. All six warriors were fully armored and armed, their ceramite warplate polished to look as if it just came from the forges of Mars. The chamber was lit up in bright incandescent white, leaving no imperfection hidden on the warriors’ light blue armor, and Severus suddenly felt self-conscious.

            He wondered if the summons had anything to do with the cryptic task the Clan-Master spoke of earlier. As it was, Poseidon was fully clad in bulky Terminator armor, towering even over the heads of other Space Marines and making the room look small due to his presence alone. The Clan-Master’s war-ravaged face was unreadable and unmoving, much like a heroic status from the Legion’s annals, yet Severus did not doubt that the officer saw and heard everything that took place in the room, from slightly nervous breathing evident from Majorian’s neck movements to hints of perspiration on Brutus’ forehead, or Tajan’s idiosyncratic finger twitches. It did not require superior insight to tell that no warrior of Kill-Team Mauve was truly comfortable being here.

            “Sir.” Tajan broke heavy silence, looking to his commander for some reason for the summons. Severus saw the Kill-Leader take a deep breath.

            “Ah, Mauve,” said Poseidon in a voice like grating of two poorly oiled gears. The Clan-Master’s armor was covered with trophies and decorations from his many victories, golden insignia marking particularly notable accomplishment worked into the plating as to become a part of its design. Rumor had it that the Clan-Master’s Terminator plate was significantly modified by the Legion’s Techmarines to the point of magnifying its already formidable strength.

            Poseidon took several steps across the chamber, turning away from the other Warblades and taking an antique-looking blade from its storage rack near the wall. “You see this sword?” he asked, swinging it over his head in a slow fencing motion. The glow of the weapon’s power field was barely noticeable in the bright light, but Severus could smell the tell-tale tang of ozone nevertheless. The pommel was worked in a shape of roaring silver lion’s head, ruby fangs bared as if covered in blood, diamond eyes lighting up from the power generator within. The workmanship was exquisite – the crossguard ended in elaborate contraptions of intricate designs inlaid with precious metals and rare stones, while the blade itself was perfectly proportioned and clearly maintained with much care.

            “Its name is the Blood Lion,” continued Poseidon. “Forged by the Primarch’s own hand, and given to me on the day I was elevated into the ranks of Slayers.” He paused, letting the implications sink in. “Lord Baelic’s own elite guard. The warriors trusted to make right decisions for the good of the Legion.”

            If the Clan-Master sought to inspire awe in Kill-Team Mauve, he was certainly succeeding. Severus felt as if he was suddenly reduced to being a mere mortal in the presence of such a decorated hero.

            “Do you know what it means?” Poseidon asked, deactivating the blade’s power field and holding it out for all to see. His eyes moved from one warrior to the next, piercing and unreadable. Severus did not think even one of his brothers would try answering.

            “Good,” stated the Clan-Master. “At least you don’t labor under delusions of self-importance. If you knew the true meaning of this blade, I would not be seeing you here after every assignment you screw up. Any guesses?” He sneered mockingly, shaking his head enough to let his derision for them be known.

            “Success in battle?” ventured Severus meekly, catching angry glares from Tajan and Aratos. Poseidon’s eyes focused on him, narrowing as the Clan-Master stepped forward to within arm’s reach. Almost instantly, Severus regretted he said anything.

            “So simple, so simple,” Poseidon drew out the words, shaking his head. “Success in battle is an outcome, not a cause. By itself,” he suddenly raised his voice, spitting out the last words into Severus’ face, “success means nothing!”

            “Success is nothing without honor and brotherhood,” the Clan-Master continued, now in more even-keeled tone. “What this blade stands for is not the number of foes that fell to me, or the number of worlds I fought on. There are others in the Legion who have higher frag-count, or who fought in more campaigns. No, this blade means something else.”

            “It means that I served the Legion with all I have. It means I have proven myself in the Primarch’s eyes. It means that I earned his trust through my actions, not through my words.” Poseidon’s eyes bore into each warrior of Mauve in turn – Severus to Aratos, Tajan to Majorian, Brutus to Velent. “I want you to remember this, because the Legion’s trust has been placed in you. Each and every one of you.”

            Severus felt terrible trepidation, quite unbecoming of his post-human psyche conditioned by years of training and psycho-indoctrination. Were Space Marines supposed to feel anxiety, he wondered, or was it a remnant trait of their mortal origins not yet exorcised by their ascent to post-humanity?

            “The Legion trusts you, and expects that you do your duty. Do not fail this trust.”

            Poseidon paused, as if evaluating them one last time, then spoke a single word into his comm-bead.

            “Enter.”

            As the chamber doors opened wide, Severus could not help but let out a surprised gasp. Standing in the passage, armored and at the ready, were five Space Marines in plain, unadorned armor of the Eighth Legion.

            Comment


            • #7
              FIVE

              Killers on the Loose
              Belated Hunt
              The Rain Queen

              The killers crawled in single file through the passages too small for their artificially bulked-up frames, contorting to fit around the corners designed for the flow of heavy, thick liquid. Their pace was steady if not hurried, maintaining a degree of synchronicity that comes only with decades of training augmented by shared empathy of their bond. There were four of them, living shadows clad in black bodygloves with skin the color of freshly brewed coffee blending with their clothing so that it was impossible to tell where the bodyglove ended and flesh began.

              Where they came upon any other life, they killed it with haste and efficiency. A mutant sump-rat too stupid to recognize true danger was the first casualty; a maintenance crew on a routine inspection was the second. So far, there was no third, but it was only a matter of time. Nothing in their way could stand against even one of them.

              Pitch-black darkness reigned inside the transport pipes, but the killers paid it no heed. Their world was a rich palette of orange, green and blue, with body heat of their brethren burning brighter than searchlight against the multicolored hues of the rounded walls. Thick metal piping was golden yellow due to its residual warmth, while small pools of remnant liquid glowed bright, almost arterial red. Even inert, it betrayed the explosive power contained within.

              As the tunnel expanded to almost allow a medium-sized man or woman to stand, branching out in three smaller passageways, the leader came to a sudden stop. The other three halted their movements without a word or a sign, each maintaining perfect distance from the one in front.

              The leader turned his head to the left and to the right, sniffing the stale air. Promethium fumes alone would have made an ordinary human delirious or worse, but the killer did not have the same frailties as the first-born sons of Terra. Without a word, he advanced towards the passage on his right, followed by his two silent companions. As he came to seemingly dead end, he unsheathed his Kris-blade.

              “Strike.” A single word, followed by the blade digging it into the wall thick with sedimentary deposits. The other three blades struck at the same time, ripping out chunks of calcified strata in strong, calculated cuts that minimized the risk of sparks. Pungent stench filled the toxic air.

              “Push. Now.” With a grunt, the leader heaved against the wall, followed by his two cohorts. The panel, previously hidden by sediment, bulged just enough to let a sliver of reddish light and to light up the inside of a transport pipe. The killers slammed into the panel again, dislodging it by few more centimeters and letting in more of the crimson illumination.

              “Push.” One more push. The panel dropped with a loud clang, revealing a dilapidated hangar filled with forgotten machinery of obscure origin, lit only by low-power lighting strips worked into the walls. The leader frowned; the sound was unfortunate, if inevitable. It was almost completely dark near the hangar’s center, where partially disassembled agricultural combine gathered dust alongside heavy wooden crates of arms and munitions stacked to the low ceiling. The rustling sound of vermin scattering about was the only greeting for the killers arrival.

              Moving in near-perfect synchronicity, the clave ran towards the welcoming darkness.

              * * *

              Siro Gortan took a long drag of a lho stick, feeling proud for avoiding the overseer’s attention yet again. He spotted the hangar on one of his trips through the ship’s lower decks delivering valuables to engineers, and when the opportunity came, he did not hesitate to sneak out of the muster.

              As far as he was concerned, the throng of laborers performing menial tasks for the great fleet gathering at Hyrule Secundus could do very well without him for the moment. Siro already thought of appropriate excuse or two, just in case his section overseer noticed his absence. He doubted that would happen – the man seemed more interested in his extended lunches than in workers he was supposed to direct – but it never hurt, just to be sure.

              The smoke drifted to the roof of his improvised hideaway, a hollowed-out crate that was broken in transit and left to rot amongst other discarded junk. It was dark, and Siro could barely see his own outline, let alone his surroundings; he cursed himself for not bringing in a flashlight, just in case the storage hangar held something of value he could liberate for his own purposes. For all he knew, the crate could have held precious stones or techno-relics worth thousands, and he doubted that anyone would miss them here.

              He lit up a match for few seconds of illumination it provided. Metal containers with Imperial aquilas and crests of Hyrulean highborn houses lay scattered on the floor, or were stacked high around the walls. In flickering light, Siro saw that several containers broke open, spilling their contents out.

              Lasguns, Army quality.

              He frowned. Smuggling one of these off the ship would not be easy, and definitely would not be worth the effort for how little it would earn on the black market. His eyes scanned the crate contents left and right, hoping for something more valuable.

              There! In the last moments before the match went out, Siro spotted a smaller box, this one decorated with unfamiliar ornaments and symbols. Must be some strange off-world thing, he thought, pulling it from atop the stack of lasguns with all his strength.

              The box was heavier than it looked, he reflected, straining to bring it down without dropping it. Siro huffed and puffed trying to balance the container with one hand still holding on to the lho-stick. Finally, his grip slipped, and the box crashed upon the dirty floor with a loud bang of metal on metal.

              He knelt down, feeling the hinges and the lock under his fingers and trying to pry open the lid. Shit. For all his efforts, the damn thing was locked more securely than the legs of a high-born virgin, he thought.

              He kicked the box in frustration, earning himself a bruised toe. Whatever was inside must be valuable, he thought, certainly worth a lot of money. Siro’s fingers felt around, slowly but surely working their way to open lasgun containers.

              Now, that’s better. The weapon felt unwieldy in his hands and he wondered how the Army troopers made do with those. Siro felt his way around the barrel, pointing the lasgun at where he imagined the lock to be, then pressed the trigger.

              Nothing happened.

              He uttered few profanities, then kicked the box again. In his urge to get it open, he forgot that the gun was almost certainly transported with its power pack out. His fingers dug through the contents of another container, discarding the lasgun therein, until he felt something vaguely cylindrical.

              The man lit another match, painfully aware that he had only few left, and smiled, as he saw a power pack in his hand. Eagerly, Siro snapped it in, hoping that he did it the right way. He aimed and shot.

              The dull red light burned against his retinas now used to darkness. For a second, the lock resisted his attempt at intrusion, but then it started to heat up, glowing red, then bright orange, then running down in a rivulet of molten metal.

              “Yes!” Siro could not help but voice his excitement, rushing to the box heedless of still glowing metal. His hands reached for the sides of the box.

              Shit! He withdrew his burnt fingers just as quickly, blowing air on them with gusto. The sides of the box were still too hot to touch, he thought glumly, hoping that whatever was inside was not damaged.

              He touched the metal with the muzzle of the lasgun, pushing it up bit by bit. Siro contemplated firing again to provide some light, then decided against it. With the amount of ammunition all around him, a stray shot was probably not the best idea. Frowning, he took out and lit another match.

              “What is that?” The words came unbidden as Siro leaned in closer, casting puzzled looks at the arcane device inside. The thing was made of some kind of metal and decorated with runes he could not read. He licked his lips as he realized that the runes were inlaid with something that looked suspiciously like precious stones.

              Whatever it was, the device was clearly expensive, whether as a whole or taken apart. He thought of few dealers down on the surface who would take a chance on this piece of arcane machinery, and of prices they would pay him to get their hands on it. Hell, Siro thought, perhaps even a tech-adept might want to have it in his possession, and, if the rumor was true, the Martian Mechanicus paid exceedingly well. This device here, if he could leave the ship with it, was bound to earn him a fortune.

              Siro smiled, imagining things that much money could buy. He visualized the Red District, practically a small castle separate from the planet’s budding hives. Truth be told, Siro could never even afford an entrance fee, but now, who knew where his path may lead? Wealth was just one trip planetside away. He thought of liquor and women finer than any he could find in the slums, of expensive fineries and pleasures reserved for the high-born.

              Ow!

              In his reverie, Siro did not notice that the lho-stick was almost finished, and the touch of hot ashes was an unpleasant reminder of reality. He threw down the still-smoking filter, not bothering to put it out.

              Clang!

              A sudden loud noise made Siro jump in surprise, instinctually turning around even though he knew there was barely enough space for him in the crate. His heartbeat accelerated to a rapid pace as he lifted his burnt fingers to his lips and grimaced.

              “Damn rats,” he whispered, slowly gaining courage from the sound of his own voice. “That’s right, vermin, run away!” he said much louder. With shaky fingers he stroke a match against the matchbox, lighting up another lho-stick and inhaling thick, bitter smoke. “Cheap crap,” he cursed, wincing at the unpleasant aftertaste. Not for much longer.

              The smoke gave him an illusion of comfort, and he relaxed a little. Whatever the device he appropriated was, it was his ticket out of a work-gang, perhaps even out of the slums altogether. And, he reasoned, if it was truly important to the Legion, it would not have been hidden in a crate full of Army lasguns. Surely no one was going to miss it.

              Siro turned his head to his loot, trying to make out details in the darkness and failing to recognize anything more than the general shape. Perhaps, he thought, his earnings could get him corrective eye surgery or even expensive vat-grown replacements that could see in the dark. He stilled the thought, shaking his head. Why waste money on something like that, he wondered, when there were so many other things he could do with it first?

              He raised his head back to stare into the crammed expanse of the hangar – and came face to face with a giant.

              Before Siro could as much as peep, a hand the size of his head covered his mouth. A face that could have been made of obsidian was centimeters from his own. It took Siro a second to realize that his feet no longer touched the ground, and that something was holding him up with seemingly no effort at all. It took him another second to notice that he was no longer holding the device he liberated from the hangar.

              A voice, silky and cultured, swam insidiously in his ears. “I believe this teleport homer belongs.” Another voice picked up the words seamlessly, “to us. If you would be so kind.”

              The words were the last thing Siro heard before swift movement of the giant’s hand snapped his neck.

              The giant – brother-sergeant Varuna Singh of the Nineteenth Legion, Iron Locusts paid no heed to the man he just killed. The Space Marine nodded to two of his brothers, and the clave coiled in identical, nearly fetal positions inside Siro’s former hideaway, silent and still as statues made out of shadow itself, teleport homer primed to go off as soon as they were in orbit.

              The last Space Marine ripped the cover off another crate hidden behind the lasguns, where Siro’s excavations did not reach. He reached into the container, taking out bulky ceramite and plasteel parts and fitting them on, one by one. In a matter of minutes, he stood fully armored over the nearly catatonic forms of his brothers, a silent silhouette in the darkness. Then, he slipped away into the gloom, low hum of his power pack joining with thousand noises of the ship.

              * * *

              Meria was out of breath by the time she ran back to the observation platform, dataslate clutched tightly in her sweaty hands. Somewhere along the way she took the high-heeled shoes off, and her bare feet felt unpleasantly exposed against the dirty floor. She shrugged off the looks from the few adepts she encountered, hurrying to return before the Angel Kings departed.

              Her realization was too grave, too important to be entrusted to anyone else. And as she thought over the mismatched order details, she was becoming more and more convinced that something big was going to happen, too big for her, too big to rely on other adepts to solve.

              It was a small discrepancy, practically nothing to an adept who spent his time approving hundreds of orders and directing the Legion’s logistical train. So easy to miss, Meria thought as the sensation of dread gave her strength to run faster and faster, as though her life depended on it.

              For all she knew, it might as well have.

              The runes flashed again before her eyes, a series of interconnected shipments that seemed to have nothing at common, all delayed and rerouted. By themselves, the items meant nothing – fuel cells, lasgun power packs, munitions and explosives, armor plating, warheads for orbital bombardment and servitor parts. It was the delayed promethium shipment that tied them all together, creating a pattern. And if there was one thing Meria was great at, it was finding patterns. This time it was all about the ships.

              She remembered a story told to her by her scholam teacher, so many years ago that it might as well have been in another life. Long ago, the teacher said then, pacing back and forth across the sterile-looking classroom, long before Hyrule Secundus’ oceans were given over to kelp farms, ships sailed them – constructs of wood and metal driven by oar and sails. Meria could almost imagine their stately shapes against the setting sun, archaic and impossibly graceful yet fragile against the backdrop of a modern age. They were a fleeting memory of a bygone era, replaced by bulky utilitarian constructs of Imperial design, but they always remained in the back of her mind like a half-remembered dream.

              But even then, those primitive wooden vessels were often tools of both exploration and war. Inside Meria’s imagination, cannon and catapults fired in contests straight out of storybooks. The teacher’s long face became animated as he related tales of thousand-strong fleets sailing to the lands unknown, carefully marshaling provisions and supplies to survive months, often years at sea. In those stories there were noble adventurers, daring pirates and incredulous plots spun by the cunning and the brave souls who managed to cripple far greater forces with only their wits.

              Time and again Meria returned to one story, a historical narrative of a battle at the very dawn of her world’s recorded history. When she was a child, the story captivated her mind, and led her to the occupation that gave her a chance to leave Hyrule Secundus, and to someday sail a different ocean, the infinite void beyond her birth world. In the chronicle now considered a part of scholam curriculum, the precursors of modern-day Hyruleans defeated an armada of a rival city-state by sending an expendable vessel filled with explosives in the middle of the enemy fleet – a cunning solution to a desperate war, a sure sign that intelligence and unconventional thinking could triumph over the brute force, if given a chance.

              If she was right, the shipment pattern she had uncovered indicated that someone was trying to build a fire ship right under the Legion’s nose.

              The other items were merely a cover, an excuse to force the logistics crews to adjust departure schedule of a fuel carrier so that it remained in orbit while the greater part of the Angel Kings’ fleet gathered. It was the aborted and rescheduled shipment that tied them all together, ensuring that at any time now, the ship was in prime position to harm the Legion’s war effort. As she considered its location, her blood ran cold. If the shipping manifest was still correct, the fuel carrier was one rapid burn away from circumventing the planet’s defenses and making a suicide run against the mustering ground.

              The young woman practically fell through the door, collapsing onto the stone floor mere centimeters against the purple armored boot. For a second she breathed heavily, simply trying to take in enough oxygen not to lose consciousness. The run was taxing on her body and mind, and she felt her lungs struggle to keep up with her need to breathe.

              A sudden jerking movement lifted her up, and she meekly attempted to stand on her own. Instead, Meria heaved, almost collapsing again but for the hand holding her upright.

              “What is it, mortal?”

              She struggled for every breath, barely conscious of the dataslate still clutched in her fingers.

              “What is it?”

              She raised her eyes to the towering figure of Angel King warrior, then pointed to the dataslate. Meria tried to form the words.

              “S-s-ship,” she finally squeezed out. Her body shook with the effort. “S-s-shipment. Promethium.” The young woman finally managed a good breath. A degree of composure returned to her.

              “I have found it,” she blurted out as if it was one word, to incredulous and irritated look from the Space Marine. She became dimly aware of another massive shape in the room. That’s right, she thought. There were two of them.

              “Is that what it’s all about?” the Space Marine spoke. There was something threatening about the way he said it. Perhaps it was his posture, or just the way he enunciated the words. He turned from her abruptly as his grip on her slackened. “You were right, brother,” he said to his comrade. “This was not necessary. Now, she is too terrified to be of any use.”

              “No!” Meria shouted, finally finding the strength to stand on her own two feet. Instantly, the eyes of two Adeptus Astartes were on her. She straightened her posture, holding out the dataslate. “Here, here, and here. Your shipment, and then some.” Her finger stabbed against the screen, bringing metrics and projections to display. “If I am right, you need to stop it now, or we all will regret it.”

              * * *

              Pertinax’s hand was on his weapons before the mortal even finished speaking. As he took in the information on the dataslate, he remembered a series of particularly obnoxious invectives he learned from a Doom Reaver once.

              The Angel King felt like slamming his head against the wall. In their haste to fulfill the muster, the Legionaries left their logistical needs to be fulfilled by humans, and now Pertinax was ruing the mistake. The Twentieth Legion were warrior elite, and as far as most of them were concerned, the sons of Corwin could rely on their thralls and squires to keep them battle-ready. Dealing with mundane matters was a source of endless frustration for the Knight-Captain, but now he wished he spent more time examining cargo manifests and tracking down shipments.

              “Fire ship.” He seethed the words out, coming to the same conclusion as Meria. “And it takes a civilian to tell us that.”

              Pertinax let go of the girl and slammed his armored fist into the wall. A propaganda poster floated down. The Space Marine roared his anger against the metal, hitting it again and again in a fit of rage.

              “Brother.”

              The Knight-Captain did not register the words, seething at his inability to see the obvious. The revelation was an insult to his martial pride, to his very ability to wage war. Worse – it was an affront to the very idea of the Twentieth Legion.

              “Brother.” The voice, again, stern and commanding. Pertinax tried to take hold of his frustrations and channel them into focus. He felt his fingers twitch in anger.

              “Control yourself, Knight-Captain,” the words from the other Adeptus Astartes became harsher and more dominant. “It is unbefitting of your station.”

              “You are right, Knight-Commander,” said Pertinax slowly, not completely free of his rage but at least not entirely overtaken by it. “I offer my apologies for the slight on the Legion’s honor.” The words felt like a burning sting under his skin. He knew Falander was right, and the momentary loss of emotional control did not sit well with him. Pertinax felt shamed at his indiscretion.

              “We must raise our brothers in orbit,” Falander spoke curtly. He turned to the mortal. “Our thanks to you, adept. Your prudence might have helped to avoid the catastrophe.” The Knight-Commander activated his vox-bead, all thoughts of Meria Zolphin forgotten.

              “W-w-what now?” Meria asked, heedless of Pertinax’s dismay. Her earlier stutter has returned, and she cursed inwardly. Why could she not speak straight in front of the Legionaries, she wondered, unless she was under extreme duress? Pain in her chest returned as adrenaline wore off, and she felt tempted to kneel or to at least lean against a wall.

              Pertinax regarded her with a look she could not quite place. Meria found reading the Adeptus Astartes emotions difficult at best of times; now that the Knight-Captain was suitably chastened, his face became a sculptured mask of a martial titan cut from harsh, unfeeling stone. She could not tell if the Angel King was grateful, angry, or annoyed.

              When he spoke, the voice was harsh and grating. “The Legion will take care of this. Return to your duties, adept Zolphin.”

              That was it? Meria could barely hide her disappointment. The Space Marine seemed to treat her like an insect, momentarily useful but completely irrelevant after her utility came to an end. She wanted to punch that smug emotionless face then and there, restrained only by the calmer, rational side of her mind. She doubted that the Angel Kings would tolerate anything of a kind, her discovery of a fire ship or not.

              The young woman leaned against the wall, taking a step, then another. Every movement seemed harder than the one before it. She must have pushed herself harder than she originally believed, Meria thought with bitterness. The edges of her vision became blurry, as if someone put a black frame around her eyes. Her feet felt wobbly. She felt blood rush to her head, and slid down the wall into the embrace of welcoming darkness.

              * * *

              “Leave her,” said Falander, not bothering to spare the unconscious adept another look. The Knight-Commander’s vox-channel was filled with comm-traffic as fighter squadrons and rapid response teams mobilized at his word. He could not hide the sting of disappointment at not being there to lead the raid in person, or to at least neutralize the threat.

              He checked the shipment status on a datapad he took from Meria’s fingers. Accordingly to elaborate runic script, the ship – a small cargo hauler out of Gildebaran called the Rain Maiden was currently attempting to reach high orbit. Falander frowned. This did not seem to fit the pattern.

              A fire ship should have only traveled as far as was necessary to reach good speed before ramming its bulk against the planetary muster and spreading its flammable contents against the wide area. Any more distance, and it would be vulnerable to capital ship batteries. Falander wondered if taking the adept at her word was a sensible idea.

              “Do you see what I see, brother?” he asked Pertinax, doubt creeping into his voice.

              The Knight-Captain listened in to the orbital traffic reports, compiling logistical picture in his mind. He shook his head. “The only conclusion is that the ship is aiming for different target. Or,” he seethed through his teeth, unable to control his emotions, “it is a perfectly legitimate freighter with perfectly legitimate cargo.”

              “And if so, we have been played for fools,” Pertinax growled through his teeth, his choler rising. “There’d better be something to it.”

              Falander did not reply. The Knight-Commander’s expression grew still as he listened in to the latest update on his vox-bead. As more information filtered in, he grinned savagely. His words were thunder in the enclosed environment of the observation booth.

              “We shall know soon enough. A strike team has initiated the boarding of the Rain Queen.”

              * * *

              The first casualties of the boarding action were mindless servitor drones, programmed to resist unauthorized incursions with little regard for their own safety. They were shot to pieces with nary a pause as the twenty-strong Angel Kings detachment appeared inside the freighter, flashes of otherworldly unlight still flickering over their power-armored frames.

              The human ratings did not fare any better. Those who still had a presence of mind after the arrival of Space Marines barely had a chance to raise their weapons, while others did not even realize they were under attack until bolt shells ripped their bodies apart.

              The sergeant in charge, a grizzled veteran named Toram Marcos, did not want to take chances. This was not his first taste of boarding action, and he was all too aware of dangers inherent in dealing with mortals of dubious loyalties. For all he knew, the ratings might have been the loyal servants of Terra, but it did not stop him from ordering his men to clear the path to the ship’s bridge with extreme prejudice.

              Time was not on Angel Kings’ side. If the Rain Queen was indeed a clandestine fire ship, she could have sprung into action at any point, and the Space Marines could not afford to spare time for explanations or negotiations. A single misstep could spell disaster for the great fleet gathering above Hyrule Secundus, or even for the planet itself.

              The amount of resistance on the way to the bridge was not worthy of Adeptus Astartes, Marcos thought as he dispatched a poorly armed naval rating with a sweep of his chainsword. If these humans were, indeed, in league with the potential saboteurs, they were far from prepared.

              After another encounter with similar outcome, the Angel Kings’ path was clear, although Marcos did not know if it was because the mortals lost their stomach for fight, or for another, altogether more insidious reason. The squad teleported as close to the bridge as the Legion’s Techmarines could manage without knowing the exact schematics of the freighter, but Marcos had a feeling that even that might have been too far.

              “Move, brothers,” he intoned, increasing his pace through the deserted corridors. His squad, all nineteen of them, ran next to him, abandoning all thoughts of caution. Even if it was a trap, the Angel Kings were prepared to do whatever it took.

              * * *

              The lone warrior stood on the bridge of the Rain Queen, surrounded by the bodies of those he murdered. The last one, pathetic wretch that served as a captain of the freighter, perished to the warrior’s blade mere seconds after giving his final commands to the crew ignorant of the events on the bridge. The warrior looked at the weapon in his hand and frowned. For all its streamlined efficiency, it did not feel right.

              He ran one last check of the panels, verifying the course and speed, then turned to face the blast doors separating the bridge from the rest of the vessel. The device hidden on the inside of his power-armored boot vibrated at ever-decreasing intervals. A thought, an emotion flickered through his mind before being replaced by perfect clarity. He knew what he had to do.

              As the blast doors exploded inward, he lifted his boltgun and started firing.

              * * *

              Marcos’ surprise almost cost him his life. The first shot from inside the bridge flew bare centimeters from his head, exploding against the bulkhead behind the Angel Kings. The second shot struck another Angel King’s arm just below the pauldron, throwing the warrior back.

              In response, twenty boltguns responded, saturating the bridge with gunfire. Chunks of metal were ripped out from their moorings. Slack bodies of servitors at their work stations convulsed into a semblance of life, pumped into red paste by repeated hits of mass-reactive ammunition.

              The enemy Space Marine moved fast, almost too fast for the naked eye, but this time he was faced with equals. The Angel Kings set up overlapping fields of fire, methodically destroying every possible piece of cover in time it would have taken a mortal soldier to lift a weapon. Marcos yelled incoherent battle cries, charging into the fray as his squad tightened the noose around the enemy warrior.

              Silence came suddenly, penetrated only by mechanical whirring of few surviving pieces of machinery on the bridge and tell-tale crackling of sparks from damaged wiring. Marcos found himself staring down at a dead body torn to shreds by massed gunfire, half-pulped from multiple impacts to where it was only vaguely holding together in one piece. The Angel King’s eyes ran up and down the armor, noting the etched carvings upon its dark blue plating. A golden lion’s head snarled from the pauldron, curiously unharmed while the other pauldron was almost completely disintegrated.

              It was not the presence of the enemy warrior that gave Marcos pause; it was the color of his armor, and the symbols announcing his allegiance. Inside his helmet, the sergeant’s lips formed into a snarl.

              “Lion Guard,” he said, pronouncing the name like a curse. He kicked the corpse for good measure. “Rosen,” he said angrily, “man whatever controls survive and get this tug out of the way. Havel, vox the command and tell them what happened.”

              Marcos knelt down by the body of his downed adversary. It was little secret that Angel Kings and Lion Guard had little liking for each other, even though their respective Primarchs shared seats on the Council. Still, the sergeant could not escape the nagging suspicion that something was wrong.

              They are supposed to be our allies, he thought, letting his fingers run through carvings upon the dead Space Marine’s armor. They looked and felt right, every bit the nuanced markings one would expect from the sons of Rogr Hemri. A swell of bitterness rose in his throat, coupled with doubt and disbelief.

              With one swift movement, Marcos ripped the corpse’s helmet off. An unfamiliar face, dark and contorted with rictus, stared at him – nothing like the fair-skinned warriors of the Lion Guard. “Iron…” a word started forming on Angel King’s lips.

              Two things happened next. The teleport homer in a forgotten hangar deep inside the Rain Queen flashed into life as three catatonic figures flashed out of existence, barely disturbing the dusty crates around them. A fraction of a second later, the buzzing device inside the dead Space Marine’s armor accelerated to fever pitch.

              Before Marcos could even finish his thought, the Rain Queen disappeared in a cloud of fire and debris.

              Comment


              • #8
                SIX

                Joint Operations
                Cold Hearts, Cold Steel
                Cruelty and Devotion

                Severus felt bile rise in his throat as he saw the Iconoclasts. It was not just the vivid remembrance of his shame on Maegara; something about the warriors of the Eighth Legion did not sit quite right with him. They had no place here aboard the Virtuous Slayer, he thought bitterly, contrasting their dull colors with the splendid temple to martial excellence behind them.

                The Iconoclasts were armed and helmeted, but similarity with the Warblades ended there. Where even Team Mauve’s armor was polished to near-perfect sheen and covered with marks of campaigns they took part in, their counterparts in the Eighth Legion seemed to pay little heed to the maintenance of their equipment, or to recording their personal accomplishments. The Iconoclasts’ warplate was unpainted and, Severus noted with shock, none too clean. Scratches and dents all over the ceramite gave the warriors an impression of marching straight out of a war zone, although all fighting on Maegara was long finished. The degree of disrespect for their gear shown by Iconoclasts would have sent any Warblade on penitence duty.

                Perhaps, Severus realized, their presence tugged at something deep and instinctual within him, an animalistic emotion that told him to stay away from those he did not understand.

                “I am Cortes, cousins,” said one of the Iconoclasts, unclasping his helmet to reveal a mask of silver made into an image of a heroic, noble face. A mop of unruly black hair strewn with grey gave the Iconoclast an impression of a rag doll encased in metal. What little skin could be seen around the warrior’s neck was unhealthy shade of pale and blotchy with veins. “These are Targa, DeFell, and Sraton.” Each of the warriors saluted as they were named, one hand clasped across the chest. Severus noticed that the salute was a leftover from pre-Unity times, not an Imperial Aquila. The Warblade took a second to examine the one named Targa, the warrior he chatted with on Maegara. Was it his imagination, or did the Iconoclast seem to study him back?

                “We are of the Fifth Company of Clan Tyr under the command of Captain Darai.” The words coming out of Cortes’ mouth were stiff and formal, but even then they carried some of the harsh, sarcastic undertone Severus recalled from their encounter on Maegara.

                One Iconoclast stood apart from his brothers, though he seemed no different from the rest at a glance. Something about him made Severus uneasy, even though he could not quite place it. He noticed that Cortes did not name the warrior.

                “Who is your final companion, sergeant?” asked Poseidon when it became apparent that Cortes had nothing else to say. The Clan-Master’s face remained impassive as his eyes assessed each of the Iconoclasts one by one. There was something predatory in Poseidon’s stride, as if he evaluated the other Space Marines for their threat potential. Severus reflected that in these uncertain days of conflict between the Legions, it was a prudent consideration.

                The final Space Marine bowed slightly, then unclasped his helmet. Unlike Cortes, this warrior opened his face to the world. Severus did all he could not to show his disgust. The Iconoclast’s skin was a mess of different-hued pigment, from rose-pink to colorless white to tumor-black. The discolorations went on across his entire face and the hairless scalp, where cables and wires connected to metal plugs. Severus could not help but notice that some of the plugs appeared to be rusting, as if the Space Marine did not care to maintain his wargear.

                “I am Caillou, Shaman of Clan Nihlus, and advisor to Captain Darai,” the Iconoclast said. Unlike Cortes, he spoke in mellifluous tone which had almost musical quality to it if not for the somewhat shrill edge to his voice.

                “Psyker,” Poseidon spoke the word almost as a challenge, and not with a little disgust. Severus tensed, almost as if in anticipation of violence. The Clan-Master faced Cortes, staring the Iconoclast down from the bulk of his intimidating Terminator armor. “You dare to bring this filth onto my ship?”

                The Iconoclast’s face was hidden behind the mask, but Severus thought he could see the change in his posture. The masked warrior was not backing down from challenge; no, despite the mismatch between him and the Clan-Master, he was preparing to accept it!

                Caillou raised his hand to intervene. “I assure you, cousin, my gift will not be used while on board the Virtuous Slayer,” he spoke softly. “I mean no disrespect to practices of the Eleventh Legion. After all, are we not brothers? Are we not supposed to learn of one another’s ways?”

                At hearing the psyker speak, Cortes instantly skulked back, no longer indicating a challenge. For all of the Shaman’s soft manner, the brutish Iconoclast sergeant appeared to be unseemly deferent.

                “Will you let us learn of your ways, so that you can learn of ours?” Caillou intoned, looking straight at Poseidon. Severus felt his skin tingle. Was the psyker using some sort of witchery, the Warblade wondered. His hands gripped the handle of his boltgun tightly, ready to bring it into action at the first sign of foul play.

                “Our ways do not allow the… witchbreed amongst our brothers,” Poseidon replied through his teeth. The Clan-Master was visibly agitated, towering over the Iconoclasts like a slavering beast of ceramite and metal. “We…” he seemed to struggle with words, as if they were anathema to him, “shall tolerate your presence, for now. Do not give me a reason to regret it!”

                “I can assure you, cousin, my presence here shall be entirely benign,” said the psyker. “My Primarch has utmost interest in success of our joint operations, and I would never presume to compromise our mission.” The Shaman’s voice was a contrast to his appearance, all silk and honey against the mosaic of colors on his face. “I merely seek to provide spiritual guidance to my brothers,” he nodded slightly in the direction of Cortes and his men.

                Severus could not help but wonder who was really in charge amongst the Iconoclasts. The very thought of letting a psyker amongst their ranks was unseemly to the warriors of the Eleventh Legion. The idea that a psyker could command, if not respect, then at least a form of authority did not sit well with Severus at all.

                My Primarch commanded to ensure that you have our full cooperation,” said Poseidon, with Team Mauve standing at attention. “Which one of you will get it?”

                “Think of me as merely an advisor, Clan-Master,” the Shaman replied. “Operational command of Squad Cortes is, of course, with the sergeant here.” Caillou smiled, revealing gaps between yellowed teeth; what teeth remained were filed into sharp edges. “Is this right, sergeant?”

                “Yes, brother-Shaman,” Cortes answered, perhaps too quickly. A nagging thought captured Severus’ attention and refused to let go – was the Iconoclast scared of the psyker? How was it even possible for a post-human warrior whose fear was bred out of him? “My squad will operate alongside Kill-Team… Mauve?” The last word came out with a quizzical intonation. The combative edge in Cortes’ voice gave it an appearance of mockery.

                “Our team designations are of no concern to you, Iconoclast,” Tajan rasped. Instantly, all eyes were on him – as far as Severus could tell, Cortes and Caillou looked amused, while Poseidon seemed furious at the junior Warblade for speaking out of turn.

                “Tajan!” The Clan-Master’s growl was a clear indicator of his displeasure, and quite possibly a promise of worse things to come. The Kill-Leader lowered his head in shame.

                Almost simultaneously, the Shaman barked something at Cortes in a language none of the Warblades could understand. The harsh, monosyllabic phrase echoed through the reception chamber, at odds with Caillou’s apparently quiet manner. The mask hid the Iconoclast sergeant’s facial expression, but there was no mistaking of him staggering slightly, as if in sudden pain.

                “There will be no witchery on my ship, Shaman, or you will regret it,” Poseidon thundered. The Clan-Master’s sword came to Caillou’s neck in an impossibly swift move, stopping only a centimeter away from the Iconoclast’s skin. “Is that understood?”

                Severus watched the Shaman’s discolored face twitch slightly, as if it took all of psyker’s willpower not to lash out. A vein on Caillou’s neck pulsed with urgency, and his gauntleted fingers moved just enough to indicate agitation. When the Iconoclast spoke again, his voice was even, but it did not take careful observations to notice the amount of restraint he had to exercise.

                “My brother… required discipline,” the Shaman said slowly. “He is shamed for his behavior. I… shall abide.”

                “What you do amongst your own men is your business,” acknowledged Poseidon, “but do not bring any of ours into it.” The Clan-Master gave Caillou another stern look, then withdrew his sword. “My men will fight alongside yours. For now.”

                * * *

                The Warblades gathered in numbers to watch the Iconoclasts work the practice cages. The lighting strips of the practice area were brightened to simulate the conditions found on many habitable worlds, while the combat servitors requisitioned from support vessels were reprogrammed to brandish a variety of close combat weaponry, from flails that struck with several spiked balls to bite deep into the skin to long, jagged swords and curved daggers covered with neurotoxins simulating the effects of multiple poisons.

                Without their armor, the Iconoclasts presented an unnerving sight. While all but the Shaman kept their faces hidden behind masks, their bodies betrayed signs of the same mutation written on Caillou’s face. Patches of discolored flesh made patterns consistent with scars from old wounds upon the Iconoclasts’ skin, giving the Space Marines a motley, sown-together appearance. All in all, they looked less like the Emperor’s own Space Marines and more like monsters of alchemic design mass-produced in some laboratory.

                Aratos and Severus stood in the gantry above the cages, where they could see the combatants from the relative anonymity of the crowd. There must have been over two hundred Warblades in the practice area, and the din of chatter was overpowering, almost loud enough to drown out the sounds of combat below. As the two Space Marines watched, another Iconoclast finished his battle, giving way to next in line. With only three cages, the Space Marines had to take turns, and several Iconoclasts – six masked warriors whose names Severus did not know – cheered their brothers on from the floor.

                “I heard that their Primarch reeks,” whispered Aratos into Severus’ ear. Despite the thronging mass of Warblades around them, the words were quiet enough that they could not be overheard.

                “How so?” Severus replied, not taking his eyes off the central cage. Presently, sergeant Cortes was squaring off against a quartet of battle servitors, spinning and weaving between their blades while attempting to strike with his own, a long falchion stained with what looked like dried blood or rust. Cortes seemed to have a hard time with some of the faster moves, relying instead on power of his strikes and his ability to utilize the servitors’ movements against them. As Severus watched, the Iconoclast used the servitor’s momentum to make the half-human automaton lose its balance for long enough to be sliced in half with a vicious strike of his falchion.

                “These blotches on their skin?” Aratos answered. “Nihlus is supposed to be like that, only worse, like burned all over. I have not seen it myself, but Syros of Clan Burat says Nihlus has synth-skin all over him. Looks fine from the distance, but up close? Syros said that when he attended to the Primarchs’ meeting above Maegara, the smell was so bad that the mortals near him gagged.”

                “Sounds about right,” Severus smiled at the thought. “I wouldn’t want to be a wretch serving this lot.”

                “They are certainly not the friendly kind,” agreed Aratos. “Sometimes I wonder if a month in the penitence brig would have been preferable to dealing with them.”

                “Shh!” Severus cautioned, casting a wary look to the side. Another Iconoclast finished his bout and was now making his way through the crowd to where Severus and Aratos stood.

                “Great,” Aratos whispered. “What does he want with us?”

                “Must be our charming company,” replied Severus quietly. He cast a quick glance in the general direction of the approaching Iconoclast. The warriors’ eyes met each other, and the Iconoclast’s pace sped up. The masked Space Marine pushed through the crowding Warblades, prompting cursing and hostile looks. Severus had little doubt that only the Clan-Master’s orders communicated earlier prevented several duel challenges.

                Definitely coming here, Severus thought. He tried to watch Cortes barely surviving under the servitors’ increased pace, but found he could not fully focus on the spectacle. The humiliation of Maegara hung heavily over his mind, and he wondered if the Iconoclast was coming to mock him. The Warblade’s jawline hardened. If the other Legionary as much as insinuated Team Mauve’s shame, there was going to be a duel, Poseidon be damned.

                “You are Severus,” the Iconoclast said as soon as he was within earshot. “I remember you from Maegara.” Curiously, there was little overt hostility in his voice. Severus wondered if he did not understand the extent of Team Mauve’s failure. “I am Targa,” the warrior spoke. The mask distorted his voice to give it an eerie, inhuman vibrato.

                Up close, Targa seemed a bit less hideous than his brothers, for all that it counted amongst the Iconoclasts. The Space Marine’s shaved head seemed free of discolorations, and only a splattering of multi-colored dots marred the otherwise tan skin of his right arm. The other arm, however, was a mess of sickening bright pink, vivid red, and deathly white, as if it was dipped into a vat of swirling multicolored paints by some mad artist, with no regard for symmetry or sane aesthetics.

                “Acid burn on Carolis Five,” the Iconoclast said, noticing Severus’ stare. “Nearly burned all skin off my bones.” He pointed to dots on the other arm. “Shrapnel on Bilanus. The bastards got lucky, if you ask me.”

                It took Severus a moment to realize that Targa was trying to make a friendly overture. He chuckled. “You people surely rubbed old Poseidon the wrong way,” he said with a grin.

                “You mean, your Legion does not use psykers?” asked the Iconoclast incredulously. “You don’t strike me as the dour lot like the Ninth.”

                “Well,” Severus answered, shaking his head slightly, “there are Diviners, but they are not part of the clans. Truth be told, the Clan-Master likes to pretend they do not exist.”

                Targa laughed. It was a hearty bellow that made several nearby Warblades turn and look at him with curiosity. Finally, the sound died down as the Iconoclast began to run out of breath.

                “What’s so funny, cousin?” asked Severus, acutely feeling the eyes of his battle-brothers on him. Aratos put a hand on his shoulder, perhaps as a gesture of support, perhaps as the means to control his choler.

                “Your psykers,” replied Targa, still shaking with occasional bursts of laughter. “You don’t like them very much, do you?”

                “What made you decide on this astute observation?” Aratos jumped into the conversation, every bit as acerbic as the Iconoclasts were on Maegara. “Because surely, this is a hard thing to uncover.”

                “Please.” Targa gave Aratos the kind of a look one would give to a child, or to a complete idiot. “I envy you.”

                Severus was taken aback by the Iconoclast’s comment. “How so?” he asked, stupefied. “Your psyker seems to have all of you on a tight leash.”

                Targa shrugged, then spoke, noncommittally. “The Primarch likes his pet psykers. Not much more to it.” There was something nervous about the warrior’s manner, as if he did not want to be overheard. Severus wondered how much it would have mattered, had the Iconoclast Shaman decided to listen in through more esoteric means.

                An uncomfortable silence settled in for a second, broken only by the sounds of Iconoclasts in the training cages – loud grunts, ring of metal against metal, and unmistakable sound of dissected bodies hitting the floor.

                “So…” Severus tried to restart the conversation, “what is it with the masks, cousin? Your Shaman does not seem shy to reveal his face.”

                Targa shrugged in response, then replied much more casually. “Some like their scars,” the Iconoclast spoke. “Don’t get me wrong – I am proud of mine. But if yours did this every time you got as much as a scratch,” he pointed to his discolored arm, “you’d want to have a clean-looking face, too.”

                The Iconoclast looked around, scanning the audience for something. Satisfied, he continued, albeit in a conspiratorial, quiet semi-whisper. “The Shamans… they are not like the rest of us. Some say their powers make them… different. Some say that masks put binding on their craft.” He glanced around once again, this time focusing on some distant point by the cages. “A conversation for another time.”

                Severus followed his eyes to trace what Targa was looking at. There, not far from a training cage, stood a solitary figure, wild blotches of color covering his exposed face and skin. Unlike the other Iconoclasts, this one did not wear a mask, and although Shaman Caillou did not wear his psychic hood or other implements of his office, warriors of both Legions gave him a wide berth. As Severus looked, he saw the psyker turn head in his direction. For a second, it seemed as though Caillou was looking straight at him. No, the Warblade tried to tell himself. At this distance, even with the enhanced Adeptus Astartes vision, true eye contact was nigh impossible. Besides, it was not as if they were the only Space Marines in the training hall; surely, the Shaman was just casting a curious, exploratory look in their general direction.

                Severus could not be sure with the commotion going on around him, but he thought he saw Targa shudder. What could the Shaman do to make a Legionary feel fear, the Warblade wondered? And why was he feeling the same trepidation he momentarily ascribed to the Iconoclast?

                Another pause took hold, just as uncomfortable as the first. Aratos cleared his throat, as if getting ready to say something, then apparently decided against it. The other Warblades seemed to lose interest, or at least rediscover a sense of prudence, getting back to their conversations, bets, and idle chatter.

                In the training cages, the Iconoclasts fought on without heed to the happenings above them. Severus saw Cortes just barely avoid a servitor’s bladed arm. Now, the Iconoclast sergeant was faced with three opponents, however, things did not seem to be going particularly well for him. Cortes’ right arm was bleeding where the blade left a deep cut, and his movements seemed to be a bit sluggish. Severus would have bet anything that the brutish warrior was under the influence of a neurotoxin.

                “He’s slow, your sergeant,” Severus remarked to Targa, seeking to restart the conversation. “I bet you anything he will come out of it with at least three more big cuts.”

                The Iconoclast nodded in return. He, too, watched his commander fight the servitors, albeit his masked face betrayed no sign of emotion. “We are not speed fighters, Severus,” he finally said. “Speed alone does not win wars, if there is no power behind it.”

                In the cage, Cortes spun away from the blades of one servitor only to run headlong into another flail-bearing drone. The flail crashed into the Iconoclast’s barrel chest, knocking him back, and it was only with much effort that the sergeant managed to avoid being encircled.

                “That’s one,” said Severus. “I bet that will leave a pretty mark.”

                “His blade work leaves some to be desired,” added Aratos. “He should try to get the servitors in each other’s way, or grab a weapon arm from the one he disabled.”

                Targa crossed his arms, watching his sergeant struggle without saying anything. A coordinated attack from three servitors almost sent Cortes reeling with no more than three meters between his back and the cage wall.

                “You sure he will not call off the bout?” Aratos teased, seeing the Iconoclast’s difficulties. “Any more steps back, and he will be pinned against the wall.

                “No,” replied Targa with full seriousness. “Cortes is too proud to step down, especially in full view of everyone. He will win, or he will be cut to pieces.”

                “My guess is, cut to pieces,” Severus retorted quickly. “At the rate he is going, he will last another minute. Two if he is lucky. See, the toxin from the cut already made him sluggish.” The Warblade cast another look at Cortes, fully expecting to see the Iconoclast nearing defeat. And shook his head in amazement, not believing what he was seeing.

                Cortes worked the falchion with broad, slow strokes that belied immense power behind them. The Iconoclast seemed to throw all caution to the wind, leaving himself open to another hit from the flail that was now buried in his gut. Blood gushed out from a ragged wound made worse by the weapon’s jagged outline and the servitor’s attempt to extract it.

                The sergeant kicked at the servitor, leaving his side open to a stabbing movement from another drone but managing to send his chosen victim off-balance. A slow yet powerful swing of the blade removed the servitor’s head from its shoulders.

                “You would win your bet, at least,” said Aratos, similarly fascinated. “He is soaking up damage like no one’s business.”

                Uh-huh. Severus could not form a coherent phrase, enthralled with the battle in the cage. Though bleeding profusely, Cortes opened his wounded side to one of the surviving two servitors, a towering contraption with six bladed limbs, instead focusing his attacks on the drone armed with several circular saws. The servitor’s blades buried themselves in Iconoclast’s flesh, twisting and turning to score wounds that would have killed a human several times over. In fact, Severus reflected, even Space Marines would have found difficulty fighting on through those wounds without combat drugs administered by their armor.

                “What is he doing?” Severus whispered to Targa, awed at the lengths Cortes deliberately took to win. “This is insane.”

                “Cold hearts, cold steel,” the Iconoclast replied, nodding in apparent approval. “Told you he would do whatever it takes to win.”

                “Little use in winning if you have to be carried out of battle,” grumbled Aratos. “This is pointless.”

                “I think the sergeant is trying to make a point,” said Targa to quizzical looks from the Warblades. Even despite the mask hiding his facial expressions, the Iconoclast looked pleased with his superior’s display. Severus felt something akin to discomfort.

                “No matter how tough he is, the point will be lost if he cannot walk out of the cage on his own power,” answered Aratos. Despite his battle-brother’s apparent bravado, Severus could tell he was also disturbed by what he saw.

                Cortes’ blade stabbed into the saw-armed servitor’s eye socket at the same time the swirling blades bit into the Iconoclast’s stomach, somewhat imitating the whirling teeth of a chainsword. Almost simultaneously, three daggers carried by the other servitor traced a bloody path across Cortes’ exposed side, ripping out chunks of meat.

                Still, at this point the fight’s outcome was all but decided. Heedless of his injuries, Cortes threw himself at the drone. The servitor flailed wildly. A sword pierced the Iconoclast, impaling him along its length. It was not enough.

                With a squeeze of his powerful muscles, Cortes crushed the servitor’s head into a paste, letting its limp body slide down. The Iconoclast slowly extracted the sword from his body, then roared.

                The sound was loud enough to drown out even the din of battles in other cages, and to silence the chatter from observing Warblades. It was hard to tell whether it was a cry of pain or of triumph. Cortes lifted the sword that only moments ago impaled him in one hand, his falchion blade in another, crossing them over his head.

                It was hard to mistake that for anything other than a boast.

                “Cold steel, cold hearts indeed,” Aratos murmured, breaking the quiet. “How… what…” Words escaped him.

                Cortes threw the captive sword down, retaining only his own stained falchion, then started to walk. Amazingly, while his pace was not brisk, he seemed to be unaffected by his multiple injuries. As he exited the cage, he exchanged some words with Caillou; the Shaman seemed satisfied with whatever the other Iconoclast told him.

                “Do you think… he needs an Apothecary?” asked Severus, still incredulous. He could not take his eyes off the badly wounded Iconoclast who seemed to disregard pain as inconsequential.

                “Even if he does, he will not let anyone see it,” Targa said. “And it definitely will not be one of yours, cousin.”

                “Why not?” Severus inquired. This was becoming stranger and stranger, he reflected. “Are our Apothecaries not good enough for him?” Too late, he realized that his words implied a challenge.

                “Pride, cousin,” answered Targa, either not noticing the implied barb, or choosing to ignore it. “Going to your Apothecary is beneath his pride. No more and no less.”

                Aratos chuckled in response. “He is welcome to this unnecessary pain, then. I guess his pride is more important to him than combat readiness.”

                “He’s certainly made an impression,” Severus retorted. He noticed the strange looks sent in Cortes’ general direction, some contemptuous, but some clearly awed at his display of resilience. “That looked… almost unnatural.”

                “Everyone says that,” replied Targa. “I suppose it comes with devotion.”

                The word hit Severus like a heavy brick. For all that he left the matters of spiritual guidance well aside, the very concept of devotion invited comparisons to darker, more superstitious age before the Imperial Truth made gods and demons obsolete. To hear a brother Space Marine speak of it was strange in the least, disturbing in the most. To hear an Iconoclast, warrior of a Legion known for its callous disregard of mortal conventions and for almost perverse pleasure it took in demolishing all works of its enemies, speak of devotion was worse still.

                Outwardly, he tried not to wince. “What kind of devotion are you talking about, cousin?” The very question felt alien to Severus.

                “Why, devotion to excellence of course!” the Iconoclast replied. Something about his tone felt hollow, but neither his masked face nor stiff body language gave any indication to what he was thinking. “Say,” Targa cocked his head, as if examining some curious specimen, “you heard where we are going next?”

                “Only what the tactical briefing gave us,” said Aratos. There was a glint in the Warblade’s eye, making him look like he was on the verge of telling a joke. Severus could tell his brother was equal parts amused and intrigued. “You heard of the place before? Hyrule Secundus, right?”

                “I have been there… before.” The way Targa said the last word was strange, full of emotional undertones the Warblades could not place. “A boring world. Full of paper-pushers and little else.”

                “You seem to have little regard for the paper-pushers,” commented Severus with a slight smile. This was a much more comfortable topic, as far as he was concerned.

                “Did you know that when the Emperor sent remembrancers to Crusade fleets, Lord Nihlus armed his contingent with guns and told them to charge into the barricades on Osium?” The Iconoclast seemed pleased with the recollection as far as Severus could tell. “You know, cousin, I was there. It was quite a sight. Imagine the mortals who never held anything heavier than a quill, running straight into a wall of las-fire. And that was even before we realized that we forgot one minor detail.”

                “What was that?” Severus asked.

                “Power packs,” said Targa in between loud chuckles. “You see, in our haste to be rid of them we did not think to give them ammunition. Imagine their surprise when they tried to shoot back!” He shook his head, laughing. “The looks on their faces!”

                “And then,” he continued in a conspiratorial voice, “the dozen or so that survived? They were given actual working weapons and ordered to join our Army support for diversionary action on one of Osium’s moons, I forget which. I heard those regiments were wiped out to a man.”

                “That is… that is…” Severus tried to find the words, but they just would not come. “Callous.” Somehow, the word came out much weaker than he intended.

                “And why shouldn’t it be?” answered Targa. “We are destroyers, not creators. Our bodies are made for war, and our minds are forged for one purpose. Why bother pandering to mortals if you know they cannot keep up? Don’t tell me you never had the thought.”

                “Perhaps,” admitted Severus. “But…”

                “What my brother is trying to say is that we wouldn’t think twice about doing what has to be done,” Aratos weighed in as he noticed that Severus was lost for words. “But if there is no need to do it, why waste contempt on mortals? What was the point of it all?”

                Aratos cleared his throat, pointing at a display of ornate banners and statuary looking down impassively at the training hall. “All of that? Made by mortal artificers and remembrancers. The Clan-Master’s armor received some attention from Saan Tu’sklah himself, and I heard the Primarch just commissioned another piece from that Terran artist, what’s her name. They can be useful. Why waste them for base amusement?”

                “Well, this was before,” answered Targa, somewhat sheepishly. There, again, the same word. Severus thought that Iconoclast seemed to give it unusual intonation, perhaps indicating special significance to the concept.

                “If it was before,” the Warblade said, catching on to Targa’s words, “then it implies that something changed since.”

                “Of course, cousin,” the Iconoclast rushed to speak, a mocking tone that entered his voice sounding forced. “In case you have not noticed, we are at war with the… Council. That has a way of making things look very different.”

                “Are you telling me that you wouldn’t repeat that thing on Osium again if you had a chance?”

                Targa laughed. “You got me there, cousin. Osium was humorous. At times I almost regret that things have changed.”

                “You got censured?” asked Aratos, following a more comfortable, if less flattering line of thought.

                “Somewhat,” muttered the Iconoclast. The topic seemed uncomfortable to him. “I heard that Gideon of Peacekeepers had a few things to say in the Council. Not that it mattered in the end.”

                “Why?” Severus quizzed. “Everyone knows what happened with the Gargoyles when Gideon decided to make them a target.”

                “I am insulted that you would ever compare us to Angelus’ freaks,” said Targa, raising both hands into the air in mock offense. His voice got more serious in an instant. “Seriously, the Fourteenth might be our allies in all of this, but this might be the only time I would ever agree with the Peacekeepers. That’s one Legion all of us could do without.”

                “Useful idiots,” quipped Aratos. “If they take a few bolt shells meant for us, all the better.”

                “Didn’t make a difference in the end,” added the Iconoclast. “For better or worse, it is what it is.”

                “Let’s just hope it is for the better,” grumbled Aratos. His eyes followed a trail of blood left by Cortes. Amazingly, the Iconoclast sergeant seemed locked in conversation with a Warblade – one of the twin Lutaro brothers from Clan Brear. Aratos saw the maimed Legionary clasp Lutaro’s arm in gesture of brotherhood, then walk on with but a small limp, blood congealing on his torso to give an appearance of massive tumors. Aratos looked at Cortes, then at Targa, then back.

                “Impressive,” the Warblade said. “Let’s hope he is as tough in battle.”

                Targa turned his head in Cortes’ direction, then let out a soft chuckle. “Trust me cousins, you don’t know half of it.”

                Comment


                • #9
                  SEVEN

                  Punching Bags
                  Friends Like These
                  Glory Hounds

                  The ships plowed through the Immaterium with uneasy gait, forces of two Legions combined into one spearhead powerful enough to crush any opposition. In the swirling miasma of the other*-space, the violent contours of the joint fleet were distorted to strange proportions, acquiring an aspect of life. Cruisers and battle barges were sharks upon the waves of an ocean of rolling emotion and thought made flesh, surrounded by shoals of swarming destroyers and frigates like remoras following greater predators in hopes for tasty morsels.

                  The two Legions’ flagships were great leviathans bisecting the waves with their belligerent shapes. The Heart of Valor maintained a semblance of formation with its escorts, dwarfing them with its gothic magnificence and acknowledging their deference with regal indifference. The Breaker was at the very spear-tip of the Iconoclast formation, heedless of tactics or strategy, its bulk shadowed against the strange currents of Immaterium.

                  The Legions went to war again, and the Warp itself parted in their wake.

                  * * *

                  “This transit is worse than usual,” Aratos whispered into Severus’ ear as Kill-Team Mauve lined up in the briefing room. The noise was making it hard to speak quietly as nine hundred armed and armored Space Marines – the entirety of combat strength of Clan Turog and more than a few elements of Clan Brear, gathered the claustrophobic confines of the room barely large enough to fit them all.

                  “I heard we lost four escorts,” replied Severus, relaying a rumor making rounds across the fleet. “The Warp is supposed to be really turbulent.”

                  “You tell me,” grumbled Aratos. “I don’t know what all the haste is about. The Primarch must know something we don’t.”

                  “What do you think, you cretin?” The hand came out of nowhere, smacking Aratos on the back of his helmet. Unlike his subordinate, Tajan’s head was bare, and his face was contorted into a snarl. The Kill-Leader leaned over Aratos and Severus, imposing himself near them. “Or should Lord Baelic hold off making any important tactical decisions until he can consult you and get your obviously superior advise. Hell, maybe you should become a clan master. Clan Aratos, combat strength one! Two, if you get this pathetic excuse for a Space Marine to come with you. Maybe he can become your chief strategist.” Tajan laughed, obviously pleased with himself.

                  “Your wit is as legendary as your combat prowess,” retorted Aratos, not willing to back down. “Kill-Leader.

                  “Enough,” Severus said loudly, so that several other Space Marines took note. From the looks he got, he concluded that the other Warblades must have considered it yet another dysfunction of infamous Team Mauve.

                  That calmed the two would-be combatants down, if only just so. The looks Tajan sent towards Aratos were nothing short of venomous. Severus ventured that the present situation – a singular honor (or, depending on point of view, a peculiar form of disgrace) of serving alongside the Iconoclasts, did not sit well with him.

                  “I am sure we will have a plenty of opportunities to make fools of ourselves,” Severus hissed, this time hoping the words would get lost in the general din of the gathering Clan.

                  “Look on the bright side,” another voice joined in – Velent, by the sound of him. “At least we don’t get to do that in front of the Punching Bags.”

                  Ever since Cortes’ performance in the training cages, some amongst the Warblades took to calling their cousins in the Eighth Legion by another name. For all that the Clan’s senior officers attempted to suppress it, the name stuck. Severus suspected that behind closed doors, many of the very same officers referred to their brother Legion as the Punching Bags.

                  “Shh…” Severus cautioned, taking a wary look around. “You never know who might be listening.”

                  “Truth be told, that psyker of theirs creeps me out,” Velent admitted, now coming closer to the rest of Team Mauve. At the mention of the Iconoclast Shaman, even the ire in Tajan’s eyes seemed to die down, only to be replaced by something very much like disgust.

                  The Kill-Leader coughed softly, then nodded in assent. “The worst part is that they seem to circle around him like flies around a piece of shit,” he added, all traces of animosity towards Aratos replaced by a more fitting target.

                  “Did you see old Poseidon?” Aratos asked, sensing that the moment for confrontation had passed. “I bet his grip could have accidentally slipped, and none would have even thought twice about it.”

                  “You know it, brother,” answered Severus with an amused, wry smile. “What kind of a Legion would willingly let the witches lead it around?”

                  “You tell me,” Tajan grumbled back. “You seem to spend enough time talking to that masked freak, what’s his name? Turka? Turba?”

                  “Targa,” Severus corrected, knowing that there was no way Tajan’s augmented memory would have let him forget the other Space Marine’s name, and that the mispronunciation was clearly intentional. He put one hand on Tajan’s pauldron, rapping a staccato rhythm. “For a Punching Bag, he is not that bad,” Severus said contemplatively.

                  “How so?” asked Velent. Even though the Space Marine had his helmet on, the tone of his voice made his feelings about the Iconoclasts very clear.

                  “For one, his manners are better than yours,” said Severus with a played-up anger, to low rumble of laughter from Aratos. “And he is better looking.”

                  Now, it was Velent’s turn to laugh. “That… was… a… good one!” the Space Marine slapped Severus’ backpack hard enough to make Severus move slightly. “Better looking. You got me, brother!”

                  “I wonder what the rest of them look like behind their masks,” commented Aratos. “If they are anything like that psyker freak, they must be a sight for sore eyes.”

                  “Targa said something about a Larraman defect,” Severus answered almost defensively. “Supposedly it is even worse on those born on Kars.”

                  Tajan made a sound mimicking throwing up, then shook his head. “They must be some ugly bastards, then. Wouldn’t want to see one of them without a helmet on.”

                  “You have,” said Severus. “That psyker freak of theirs.”

                  “Must be a pleasant world,” Tajan remarked coolly. “Who knows, maybe on Kars he would be considered appealing. Hah!” The Kill-Leader laughed, evidently pleased with himself.

                  “In all honesty, he did not say very much about it,” commented Severus. “I got a distinct impression that there weren’t many of them from Kars, mostly from other planets.”

                  “Interesting,” said Aratos. “A Legion that does not recruit much from its homeworld?”

                  “If my homeworld produced specimens like that psyker, I wouldn’t want to recruit there either,” Velent replied to him. “I cannot believe they passed the purity checks when they were discovered.”

                  “You know it as well as I do, Velent.” Tajan shrugged as much as it was possible in his armor. “Legion homeworlds are held to a different standard. Do you really think the Nineteenth Legion’s homeworld, whatever it’s called, would have passed the scrutiny had it not been Maikhaira’s private kingdom? Abhumans, freaks, mutants… you know the type!”

                  “This is why the entire business of fighting side by side with the Locusts doesn’t sit well with me,” admitted Velent. “It is one thing to pick your allies… It is quite another to be so… unscrupulous about it.”

                  “You can relay your doubts to the Clan-Master,” said Tajan with a frown. “I am sure he will bow down to your superior insight and instantly order us to turn around and get back to Laodice.”

                  “Sometimes I wonder if that would have been the best thing.” Aratos spoke softly, but there was no denying the conviction in his tone.

                  “Say what?”

                  “You know what we set out to do,” Aratos explained, keeping close enough to the other warriors of Team Mauve so that he would not be overheard. “Reunite humanity, retake the galaxy, push back the alien and the worse.”

                  “And then, we did exactly that,” said Severus. “I have seen the projections, too. What was it, twenty years, thirty years before the cogitators projected the Crusade will be over?”

                  “Never trusted those cog-boys,” added Velent. “Their projections aren’t worth the data-wafers they are printed on.”

                  “Ahem.” Aratos coughed, more to stop the interruptions than to feign any discomfort. “Yes, the Angel Kings are better opposition than xenos scum or all sorts of wayward cultures we’ve taken over or destroyed. But have you ever considered why we do it?”

                  There it is, again. Severus could hardly help but notice the sentiment expressed by his battle-brother. It must have been on his mind for a long time.

                  “If it is a good enough reason for Lord Baelic, it is a good enough reason for me,” Velent answered him before either Tajan or Severus could speak up. “He must have his reasons.”

                  “Reasons enough to turn on his brothers? I find it hard to believe.”

                  “What you are suggesting is just this much short of treason,” said Tajan slowly, holding two fingers only millimeters apart. “Give me one good reason not to report you to the Chaplains, and it better be good.”

                  The words of their conversation in the Labyrinth came back to haunt Severus. Did something change in his battle-brother’s understanding of recent events to completely alter his view of the war? Why was Severus, previously so accepting of the Primarch’s decision, now talking about his doubts?

                  Severus finally decided to speak. He took a deep breath, feeling a degree of anxiety about raising his voice here and hoping that none of the other Kill-Teams would overhear enough to make sense of it.

                  “Tajan, you don’t hate the Angel Kings. Neither do you, Velent. I don’t think Brutus or Majorian have any enmity towards them.” As he spoke, he tried to gauge the reaction of his battle-brothers. Velent was hard to read due to being fully encased in armor, but the expression on Tajan’s face was that of agreement, not animosity. “For all that Rogr Hemri’s brood are pompous bunch of arrogant assholes, is that enough to destroy what we spent the last two hundred years building?” Was it just Severus’ imagination, or did he see a slight nod from Velent? “And others? The Peacekeepers are a pretty decent bunch by any account, and Doom Reavers acquitted themselves well in the Labyrinth.”

                  “And then, our so-called allies,” Aratos picked up on it almost instantly. “I must admit, I did not think much about it until now.”

                  “What made you change your mind, brother?” Severus asked as much out of his own curiosity as for the benefit of the others. The answer came without hesitation.

                  “You saw the same things I saw,” replied Aratos. “No one – not even a Punching Bag – should be able to take this much punishment and walk out on his own. There is something seriously wrong with the Iconoclasts. I don’t know what it is, but it is not right.”

                  “You know,” he continued, “if you asked me the same thing two days ago, I would have been right there with you. But the more I saw, the more I began to think. And what came up was not pleasant. Our enemies? Straight-laced, if dour. Our friends,” he feigned a cough to hide a sarcastic sneer, “a collection of freaks, mutant-loving bastards, and punching bags for the servitors. With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

                  “They all have their battlefield roles,” retorted Tajan weakly. “Iskanderos is nothing if not a master tactician to recognize that. Iron Locusts to assault from the sky. Iconoclasts to break through the entrenched defenses. Gargoyles… Well, you got me there. I don’t know what the Gargoyles are good for.” He laughed – as far as Severus could tell, to hide the discomfort.

                  “And we are fighting alongside them to depose the Council of Terra,” Severus added. He thought he was beginning to understand Aratos’ change of heart. “Who are supported by the Legions we have little grievance with, and who may or may not have the Emperor’s backing.”

                  “Now that is dangerous talk, brother,” Tajan said sternly. “The Emperor made no statements in this conflict between the Legions. This leads to only one conclusion – that he is purposely kept ignorant of what is going on.”

                  “Emperor? Ignorant?” Aratos laughed in disbelief. “I would sooner believe you to be a lost Primarch than that. The Emperor must know exactly what is going on, and I doubt he is pleased.”

                  “When this muster is over, we will have a serious talk,” threatened Tajan, his ill humors returned. “I will not have sedition amongst my brothers.”

                  “Is this sedition to speak the things you must be thinking yourself, Kill-Leader?” asked Aratos.

                  “What I am thinking is irrelevant, brother,” Tajan replied. The expression on his face spoke volumes about his emotions.

                  “Shh!” Velent hissed before the two Space Marines could resume their argument. “It is about to start.”

                  * * *

                  The Clan-Master emerged into the briefing hall like a hero of some bygone age, clad in vestments of barbarous splendor atop his Terminator armor. Three similarly armored Slayers flanked him, their ceremonial weapons betraying little of their deadliness. Each movement of the four warriors was measured and deliberate, for even surrounded by their brothers, the Legion’s elite was always ready for violence.

                  Severus felt a slight tremor as the warriors tread on the metal floor, their sheer mass sending vibrations across the hall. Instantly, all chatter had ceased, and the Warblades stood at rapt, disciplined attention. The Legion banners fluttered slightly in the artificial breeze of the Virtuous Slayer’s ventilators.

                  “Brothers!”

                  Poseidon’s voice reverberated through the loudspeakers hidden in the briefing room’s ceiling. The sound sent tremors through the walls and added to the hum of the ship’s systems, veritable thunder resonating through hearts and minds of the gathered Warblades.

                  “I come here bearing news from Lord Baelic himself.” The Clan-Master’s bare head was an emotionless mask of martial virtue, Blood Lion in his hand raised in a warrior’s salute. “Intelligence received from the Iron Locusts suggests that Angel Kings are planning a counterattack from their base on Hyrule Secundus.” He slowly moved his head this way and that, as if measuring the resolve of Legionaries at his command.

                  “It, therefore, falls to us and to our… allies the Iconoclasts to show the Twentieth Legion the futility of such a notion.” Was it Severus’ imagination, or did he notice a distinct note of distaste in Poseidon’s voice as he spoke of the Eighth Legion? Good thing the Punching Bags – he could not help but think of the Iconoclasts’ new moniker with a smirk – were not allowed in this briefing. Then, Severus’ mood darkened as he thought of the psyker the Iconoclasts brought with them. Who knew what manner of witchery he was privy to? It was not impossible he was listening in through some clandestine means.

                  Never trust the psyker.

                  The maxim burned within Severus’ mind with full strength, and even the Clan-Master’s reassuring humbling of the Iconoclast did not entirely still his doubts. There was a good reason only the Primarch himself maintained what scant few psychic warriors remained within the Legion.

                  “The enemy might be confused and isolated,” Poseidon continued, “but he is far from unprepared.” A flick of the Clan-Master’s hand switched on a holographic projection that zoomed into life above the heads of Legionaries.

                  The Hyrule system appeared before them, an assortment of planets, moons, and asteroids. Severus’ trained eye caught reddish outlines of stylized symbols for fortifications, orbital forts, and asteroid fortresses. He almost let out a whistle as he recognized the skill with which the Twentieth Legion designed their defenses.

                  “This will not be easy,” he voxed to Aratos on a private channel. “The place is wound up tighter than Rogr Hemri’s beard.”

                  “You tell me,” the other Space Marine replied. “This will make Maegara, and everything before it, look like a child’s play.”

                  A swarm of blue icons appeared at the system’s edge. “We can expect heavy resistance,” the Clan-Master said, pointing at a collection of Trojan asteroids kept in place by gravitational influence of a giant, ringed planet. “Transition point is guarded by asteroid fortresses near Hyrule Nonus and reinforced by rapid response bases on its moons.” As if to accentuate his words, red lights flashed briefly in locations he pointed at. “Clan Turog was given the honor of neutralizing the asteroid fortress while our allies…”

                  There was that word again, spoken with subtle inflections that would only catch an ear of one augmented to hear them. A slew of white icons emerged near the blue symbols, forming a protective cordon.

                  “The Iconoclasts will lead the fleet action and support our assault teams in action.”

                  “Do you think this will be us?” Severus remarked dryly behind the anonymity of his helmet.

                  “Who are you kidding, brother?” Aratos remained as still as his Mark IV plate would allow, but there was no mistaking the bitter tone in his voice. “It will be one of the glory hounds. Maybe Gold, Black, or even Crimson.”

                  “I can hear you,” Velent voxed. “You are on the squad channel.”

                  Severus muttered something incomprehensible before sighing heavily. He did not envy Tajan’s decision to remain bare-headed. It must have taken much of Kill-Leader’s willpower not to say something in response to Severus’ and Aratos’ words.

                  The holographic projection grew in size, enlarging the asteroids and warships attacking them. Interesting, Severus thought, recognizing a pattern in fleet dispositions. The Iconoclast vessels appeared in front, as if attempting to soak up damage from the defenders. “Punching Bags indeed.” He did not realize he said it out loud until he heard a hiss from one of his squad mates – he was not sure which.

                  “The Primarch has decreed that asteroid bases designated Seven-Three and Seven-Nine must fall before the fleet can advance in-system. Seven-Nine will be covered by Brear.” Poseidon pointed to one of the asteroids with Blood Lion. “That leaves Seven-Three as our responsibility.”

                  “The Kill-Teams selected for the assault are…” Poseidon seemed to enjoy the moment’s silence like any good orator seeking to amplify the meaning of his words to captive audience. “Brown.” A sound of ten gauntlets across armored breastplates answered him as ten warriors of Kill-Team Brown acknowledged the honor given to them. Severus felt not a little envious, knowing that their frag-count was bound to be given a major boost in the standings.

                  “Crimson.”

                  There we go, Severus thought. As nine warriors of Kill-Team Crimson saluted, he felt bitter. The glory hounds.

                  “Grey.”

                  Almost all of Kill-Team Grey went unhelmeted, and their frag-markers, tattooed upon their faces, gave them a savage appearance. Arrogant whoresons, thought Severus, recalling the derision directed at Mauve when Team Grey came across them in the training cages or in the Labyrinth war games.

                  “Gold.”

                  That was not much of a surprise, the Warblade reflected pensively. Team Gold was rarely out of top five in the frag-count rankings. The asteroid mission was almost certain to keep them near the top.

                  “Mauve.”

                  It took Severus a precious half-second to realize that his ears were not deceiving him. Belatedly, he held his hand across the chest in a Unity salute – the only practical acknowledgment when armed. A quick glance at his battle-brothers told him that none of them expected to be called out, as each member of Team Mauve saluted in a hurried manner disconnected from others. Severus felt embarrassed, knowing that neither he nor the others could match the well-drilled precision of better regarded squads.

                  He swore as he felt the eyes of other Kill-Teams on Mauve. It appeared to be as much of a surprise to them as it was to him. Severus felt their silent judgment upon him – the failure, the least of the Legion’s warriors.

                  “Mauve will be reinforced by the elements of the Eighth Legion.”

                  In his surprise, Severus did not realize that Poseidon was still talking. His hearts sank. The Warblade could not tell if this was a position of honor or one of punishment. He could already imagine derisive laughter of other teams. Using Punching Bags to protect your own hide! Too embarrassed to stand with your own brothers? Maybe the Angel Kings will do us all a favor. He knew what would be said, and for a moment he wished for silent anonymity.

                  “Your officers will give you specific instructions,” Poseidon continued, oblivious to the tumult in Severus’ head. “Dismissed.”

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    EIGHT

                    Seven-Three
                    Into Nothing
                    God of Mercy

                    The boarding torpedo slammed into the outer perimeter of the asteroid base with a force of explosive wrath, tempered only by age-honored engineering serving both sides of the conflict. Even with restraints holding him down, Severus was thrown forward with force sufficient to break the bones of a lesser soldier.

                    As soon as his momentum stopped, the Warblade was up, checking the ammunition in his boltgun for the last time. He heard the hiss of atmosphere escaping into vacuum from the breach, as melta burners embedded into the torpedo did their work, disrupting the atmospheric integrity fields and ensuring that its cargo could be delivered into the thick of action.

                    “Go! Go! Go!”

                    Tajan led the charge inside, blasting with his weapon to make any would-be defenders keep their heads down. The rest of Team Mauve followed closely behind in single file, spreading out as soon as they came across any cover worth noting.

                    The first impression Severus had of asteroid base Seven-Three was of dull-colored rooms large enough to fit Titans, where loading crates and industrial machinery were repositioned to form barricades for the Angel Kings and their human squires. For all the pageantry the Twentieth Legion was known for, there were surprisingly few decorations on the walls, as if Seven-Three was intended as a purely utilitarian installation with no redeeming artistic value.

                    Severus shot in the direction of a heavy weapon team dislodged from their strongpoint by the boarding torpedo's entry. A figure tumbled and fell, its carapace armor shredded by a mass-reactive shell. The survivors attempted to return fire, but their shots were undisciplined and went wide.

                    “Is this the Angel Kings' discipline, I wonder?” Severus quipped over the vox, rolling to avoid a stream of heavy bolter fire from behind a loader vehicle. “These seem barely able to shoot in our direction!”

                    “Easy for you to say,” Aratos voxed back. “I will breathe much easier if someone takes out that lascannon.”

                    “On it!” checked in Majorian, letting out a volley of heavy bolter shots while on the move. It seemed the shock of Team Mauve's attack was beginning to wear out, and the defenders were starting to reestablish a semblance of perimeter. “Wish the Punching Bags didn't insist on going separately.”

                    Tajan's voice sounded relieved at the mention of the Iconoclasts' absence. “With our luck, their torpedo will arrive on the other side of this rock. I won't be sad to miss them, for all it's worth.”

                    The schematics indicated that this was an area dedicated to loading mundane provisions and other items necessary to keep an asteroid base running, and it certainly looked the part. The Angel Kings themselves were nowhere to be seen, and the squads of mortals manning the defensive cordon had little to show for it but their numbers. Still, there were enough of them to hold the loading dock against six Warblades, at least for the time being, thanks to liberal supply of heavy weapons capable of punching even through the Space Marines' power armor.

                    “Keep the momentum going,” warned Tajan. The Kill-Leader rushed over a pile of crates faster than the mortal gunners could track him, landing in their midst before the humans could as much as scratch his armor. The whirring noise of his chainsword was soon joined by a cacophony of screams as they began dying.

                    Severus found himself blindly rushing through enemy fire, hoping that the defenders would be too panicked at the thought of a fully armored Space Marine charging to have any measure of accuracy. The loading dock was a scene of chaos, as if the humans had no command cohesion, or perhaps were receiving conflicting orders. Even as he charged, he recognized several opportunities where a better trained unit could have endangered the Warblades' attack.

                    A wayward shot that struck his pauldron almost made him lose his concentration, and Severus let out a stream of invectives even as he jumped over the body of a fallen Angel Kings squire, landing on top of a wounded human attempting to crawl away. The human screamed as the weight of a fully armored Space Marine crushed his bones to a pulp. Severus' next step burst the squire's head like a ripe, rotting fruit, ceasing the screams.

                    It seemed that the Warblades' ongoing attack swung the momentum of the battle their way again. Where the defenders once stood their ground, the Angel Kings' underlings lost much of their will to fight, becoming more concerned with their survival than with doing damage to superior enemy. A fatal mistake, as far as Severus was concerned.

                    “When are they going to send in real warriors?” Brutus said contemptuously over the vox, punctuated by the sounds of bolter fire shredding meager barricades to splinters of wood and broken pieces of metal. Even as he spoke, he casually disemboweled a squire trying to make a stand.

                    “I'm not complaining,” replied Majorian, swinging his heavy bolter like a club against an enemy unit that broke and ran. “Not even worthy of spending ammunition.”

                    The heavy weapons team repositioned itself behind a large plasteel crate, attempting to stall the Warblades' momentum with a cannonade of heavy bolter and lascannon shots that made the Space Marines duck. Velent fired back on the move, and though his shot was far from accurate, it pierced straight through the crate, setting the contents on fire. Still, the defenders continued to shoot, compensating for the lack of accuracy with the sheer volume of fire.

                    “Still not complaining, brother?” Aratos answered Majorian, lowering himself behind a heavy loader and firing blindly overhead. “And you, Brutus, these real enough for you?”

                    “Shut up.” It was hard to tell which of Team Mauve spoke.

                    Severus took a second to get his bearings. His charge brought him into a dead end, cordoned on three sides by stacks of supplies five meters high. The bodies of soldiers he killed were barely recognizable, turned into wet rags filled with still-bleeding meat and ruptured organs ripped from their natural moorings.

                    The rest of Team Mauve were spread out across the loading dock, in cover without exception. While Severus' path was strewn with dead bodies and depopulated of any danger, the fight was still ongoing in the earnest only scant meters from him, separated only by several layers of cargo crates. His trajectory, while adding to his frag-count, managed to separate him from the rest of the Kill-Team.

                    He peeked out from behind the corner of a stack to a scene that would not have been out of place in the Eleventh Legion's Labyrinth. Threads of bright green lascannon shots dueled over the debris, while weaker red needles of lasgun fire answered volleys of mass-reactive shells from Warblades in cover. For all of their losses, the Angel Kings' human soldiers finally managed to blunt the Legionaries' advance, even at the cost of most of their number. The surviving heavy weapons team positioned itself in a choke point leading deeper within Seven-Three, making it difficult to get past them without losses. Severus knew what must be going through Tajan's mind at that moment; already understrength and with little hope of reinforcements, Team Mauve could ill-afford any casualties. If any of them were incapacitated or worse, there was a good chance the Clan-Master would simply disband the squad, sending the survivors to some ignominious assignments beneath the notice of the Legion's luminaries.

                    For all the exchange of fire, Severus' position offered him a unique vantage point. As far as he could tell, the defenders did not know he was there, owing to the complete collapse of their position in the area he assaulted. He checked his frag-count and smiled with satisfaction, seeing double digits. True, all of his kills were unaugmented humans, who did not count for as much for his Kill-Team's score, but it was still a satisfying feeling. Now, he had a chance to increase his frag-count even further, as long as he played it smart.

                    Severus evaluated the distance, the vectors of fire, the overlapping kill-zones. His squad mates were pinned about twenty meters away from him, clearly hesitant to make a break for it and risk their power-armored hides. The makeshift strongpoint manned by the defending humans was another twenty or so meters of open killing ground ahead. He dismissed other human soldiers as inconsequential; none of their armaments seemed sufficient to penetrate Mark IV armor without an unhealthy helping of luck.

                    Luck of the Eleventh, he thought, smiling under his helmet. This time, it was going to be on his side.

                    If he judged the layout correctly, he had an advantage – a blind spot where the heavy weapons team could not see him. Severus wondered if any of the other squires could spot his position, then decided it was irrelevant. If he could move quickly enough, he could be in close quarters range before the humans could effectively communicate the threat their comrades were under. Decision thus made, he sprang into action.

                    Severus ran across the wall, attempting to maintain low target profile as much as it was possible for a two meter tall Space Marine in bulky power armor. The fibre-muscles of his armor sprang into action, augmenting his natural speed and reflexes, ceramite becoming one with flesh in a perfect unity of destruction.

                    He did not bother with taking shots at the humans. That would have taken precious fractions of a second from his mad charge, time he did not have. He felt careless for making this decision without bothering to consult his squad mates or his Kill-Leader, but at the same time it felt liberating. The frustration of so many failures boiled up within him, aiming to be released against the enemy. In this moment, he did not care for righteousness of this war, or for anything else. All that mattered was the target, a jagged line of his path towards the place where he would spill the enemy blood.

                    He felt solid shot impact against his armor harmlessly, brushing away the warnings inside his helmet with a blink of an eye. Severus felt invincible, finally proud to wear the azure of the Eleventh Legion, finally proud of a stratagem that even the Clan-Master would commend. He saw the heavy weapons team take note, changing the arc of fire as fast as their mortal reflexes and frail bodies would allow.

                    Not fast enough.

                    Severus crossed the last ten meters in a blink of an eye, rushing across the wall through the crossfire and hoping that he would not fall victim to one of his own battle-brothers. He ignored questions and curses from Tajan ringing in his ears, answering the call to battle with a roar amplified through his armor's external speakers and firing from the hip. A beam of green pulsating light brushed against his helmet, shearing paint and metal right off but failing to wound, shot going mere centimeters too high. Before Severus had a chance to contemplate on how close he came to death, he was amongst the enemy.

                    The fire team died quickly. There were six of them, frightened men in ill-fitting uniforms who dropped their weapons in a vain attempt to run. One might have even tried to surrender. To Severus, it made no difference, as the Space Marine hacked and slashed with his combat knife, all thought lost to blind, mindless fury. His frag-count monitor clicked into action, crawling up with every attack.

                    Stop. He slashed at the body, heedless of the mortal wounds already inflicted upon it. The blade sliced through skin, monomolecular edge cutting through the bone with little resistance.

                    “Stop!” Four arms grabbed at him, pulling him down. And still Severus attempted to fight, stabbing at the already dead body with vestigial motions. “Stop, brother!”

                    Slowly, world around Severus came into focus again. He felt the pulse of his twin hearts resonate in his temples, augmented by liberal injections of combat drugs. The shots still fired in the distance were but faint echoes as Team Mauve slaughtered all remaining squires, no longer restrained by the choke point.

                    “Good work,” said Aratos, slapping Severus on the shoulder. There was something strange in his voice, an undertone that only someone who knew him well could catch.

                    “Tajan wouldn't be happy,” added Velent, giving face and name to another pair of hands that restrained Severus' rampage. “Good,” he laughed, although the sound came out strained.

                    “Screw Tajan,” Severus answered, making sure that his reply remained on a private channel. “Got himself pinned down by mortals again?”

                    “Can't argue with results,” Aratos commented. There again, a strange note in his voice, something that did not sit quite right.

                    “Form on Severus,” Tajan's voice cut through the chatter. “Full battle readiness.”

                    “I wonder, where are the Angel Kings?” Brutus retorted, moving towards the former chokepoint at a fast pace. “You'd think they would be here by now.”

                    “That's what I am worried about,” growled Tajan, now by Severus' side. “I wouldn't...”

                    A tremor shook the loading bay, throwing crates and equipment around. A box full of Army rations slammed into Velent's side, making him lose his balance momentarily. Lights flickered and went out, replaced by orange-red emergency lighting.

                    “I think this might be your answer, Brutus,” added the Kill-Leader, taking assessment of the situation and motioning Team Mauve forward. “We are about to have company, and I am not sure they will be here for fun and games.”

                    * * *

                    The far wall of the loading bay came down in an explosion that sent shards of stone and metal flying. For a fraction of a second, artificial gravity went out, and only mag-locks on his boots prevented Severus from carelessly drifting into the open. The six warriors of Team Mauve formed a defensive circle facing outwards, not sure where the threat was coming from, if it was indeed a threat.

                    The base’s integrity field held on, but only barely. The destroyed wall gave way to the dark of space, tinged with sickly blue and illustrated by flashing lights of a distant space battle, where joint Iconoclast and Warblade force dueled with the outlying Angel Kings defensive formations. Severus could not tell who was who from this distance, but it seemed that there were many more flashes of light in one area of the sky. He wondered if it was a good thing.

                    One black bloated shape covered the stars, and the Warblades’ eyes were instantly drawn to it. The boarding torpedo slammed into the asteroid base not too far away from the Eleventh Legion’s own, but the manner of its arrival could not have been more different. Where the Warblades’ transport meticulously burrowed through the layers of rock and adamantium to deliver its passengers with a modicum of safety, the other craft smashed through Seven-Three’s armor with little care for collateral damage, let alone comfort or combat readiness of the warriors inside. It looked as if the other boarding torpedo was designed for a one-way trip, damn the consequences, and Severus wondered what kind of men would find this method of transport enticing, other than perhaps the mad butchers of Kthuln. Dark silhouettes, hunched to present minimal target profiles, scuttled across the killing ground of the loading bay in a manner that spoke of different tactical doctrine than the one espoused by the sons of Baelic. Who were they, Severus wondered, bolter and blade at the ready.

                    Then, he saw the dim emergency lighting reflect off the armor of the new arrivals, and he had his answer.

                    “Took mighty long for you to get here,” voxed Tajan, waving at the warriors in plain, undecorated armor approaching from the star-lit darkness.

                    “Next time, we will kindly ask the enemy to keep with your schedule, cousin,” replied Balan Cortes of the Iconoclasts with the same sarcastic wit that Severus came to recognize.

                    * * *

                    Wary silence reigned as the Warblades and the Iconoclasts advanced deeper into the asteroid base. For all his misgivings, Severus had to admit that the Eighth Legion seemed competent enough on foot. The plain white of their ceramite gleamed in dull orange reflections of emergency lighting, giving the Iconoclasts an appearance of some jolly devils of long-forgotten Laodicean myth. He thought he recognized Targa amongst them, but it was hard to tell for sure with all of Nihlus’ sons going fully helmeted.

                    There were five Iconoclasts at the side of Team Mauve, all similarly clad in brutal Mark III warplate, armed with some savage-looking bayonetted bolter variant, and nearly impossible to tell apart. Unlike the warriors of other, more vainglorious Legions, the Iconoclasts did not bother to adorn their warplate with decorations or signs of distinction, save for small badge of rank upon Cortes’ shoulder. Severus could still hardly believe that the sergeant was leading the mission, let alone walking after the injuries he sustained in the training cages. And yet, here he was, apparently unperturbed by his wounds, moving as though nothing had happened.

                    “He doesn’t have enough augmetics to walk like this,” Aratos sounded off over a private channel. “Even if half his body was replaced with grafts and bionics, he shouldn’t be ready to fight.”

                    “You tell me, brother,” answered Severus, himself deep in thought. “I don’t know what the Clan-Master wants to learn of them, but I am not sure I want to know.”

                    “I, for one, will not stand with my back to these whoresons,” said Aratos quietly, as if afraid that he might be overheard.

                    “Their psyker is not here,” said Severus, advancing through a utilitarian passageway seemingly only recently abandoned by the Angel Kings’ squires. He chuckled, adding, “wonder if they think the same about us.”

                    “Why don’t you ask your friend? He seems to be willing to spill his guts to you.” Aratos laughed, amused at his own turn of the phrase. “Guts. Get it?”

                    “Maybe I will ask him. Providing I can point him out.”

                    Brutus, who was at the point, raised his hand, and instantly all activity ceased. Warblades and Iconoclasts alike scattered to the corners of the tunnel, assuming a pattern that to less experienced observer might have hinted at months of joint training. Severus knew better; each Legion seemed to cover its own men. A feeling of creeping unease scratched at him from the inside.

                    “If I were Tajan,” he whispered, still on private channel, “I would expect trouble just… about… now.”

                    The helmet auspex lit up with contacts, and Severus aimed his boltgun, privately plotting his position to remain behind one of the Iconoclasts. The tunnel lacked in natural cover, and he wondered if the Angel Kings would attempt a hit and run raid with lascannons, missile launchers, or worse. It was certainly what he would have done, had it been his command.

                    “Incoming!”

                    Severus could not immediately tell which of his brothers shouted, and in a second it did not matter. The missile streaked across the darkened corridor, lighting it up in a phantasmagoric display of flame. The shot missed the Space Marines by less than a meter, hitting the side of the tunnel far enough to be relatively harmless.

                    “Luck of the Eleventh,” Severus swore, barely believing his eyes. Despite all the turns of fortune that tended to favor the Warblades, such talk was metaphysics, superstitions. Now, he saw it in action once again.

                    “Next time they won’t miss,” screamed Tajan, charging into the tunnel and weaving to his sides in an improvised evasion pattern. With little alternative lest he left his Kill-Leader to the tender mercies of Angel Kings, Severus followed, noticing that the rest of Team Mauve exchanged caution for nearly suicidal bravery. With some surprise, he saw the plodding Iconoclasts run alongside them, keeping up even with the more nimble of the Warblades’ number.

                    “Into nothing!”

                    The battle cry that emerged from the Iconoclasts’ external speakers was as harsh as it was direct, a song of slaughter to come sung with bolter and blade. The thuds of bolter shots answered it on both sides, striking armor and walls and saturating the air with the exchange of mass-reactive death.

                    “At them!” Tajan yelled back, perhaps not willing to be outdone, and the warriors of two Legions rushed at the Angel Kings waiting for them in defensive formation.

                    * * *

                    For the first time in longer than he thought to recall, Severus was faced with worthy opposition. The purple-armored Angel Kings gave as good as they got, fighting with expert skill and discipline that would have shamed all but the best trained of the Legiones Astartes, and making up for their lack of numbers with consummate ferocity.

                    There were only five warriors of the Twentieth Legion facing twice their number of Warblades and Iconoclasts, but the sons of Corwin did not give ground easily, making Team Mauve and its erstwhile allies fight for every centimeter of ground. Somewhere, a wayward bolt shell blew up in a ventilation duct, sending wispy smoke downward and casting a funereal veil over the desperate battle.

                    Severus found himself by the side of an Iconoclast, facing an Angel King in ornate, finely wrought armor that looked very much like parade gear. For all his ostentatious decoration, the purple-armored Space Marine fought like a man possessed, using his boltgun like an improvised baton after expending his ammunition during the Warblades’ charge, and parrying the blows with a combat blade. Even with two opponents, he did not appear concerned with defense, attempting to press on the attacks in spite of overwhelming odds.

                    The charge itself was a blur of confused trajectories, random assault vectors and desperate lunges to the sides in hopes of avoiding the incoming Angel Kings fire. Severus thought he saw one of the Iconoclasts take a hit near the hip joint, but could not be sure if the Eighth Legion’s marine went down. In anyone else, the wound would have been debilitating, but after Cortes’ performance in the training cages, Severus did not know what to expect.

                    “Traitor!” the Angel King hissed through the external speakers, never pausing in his feints and ripostes. Somehow, his voice floated above the din of battle, where the beleaguered sons of Corwin held off twice their number of assailants.

                    Severus’ blade nicked the purple-armored warrior on the forearm after a particularly vicious blow from the Iconoclast sent him reeling. This was not enough to do more than scratch paint, but the Warblade felt the moment changing. It seemed as though the verbal exultation forced the Angel King to expend more energy than necessary – a dangerous mistake when faced even one of the Legiones Astartes, let alone two.

                    Thump!

                    Before Severus could capitalize on the change in momentum, a shape in plain armor crashed into the Angel King, slamming him to the ground at the cost of becoming impaled on his combat sword. Without thinking, the Warblade slid forward for a finishing move, rapidly forcing the tip of his blade into a weak spot near the Angel King’s neck. Arterial blood sprayed forward, liberated from its containment by judicious application of force.

                    Only now did Severus’ eyes turn to his erstwhile companion.

                    The Iconoclast rose with little hesitation, extracting the blade from his gut in a casual movement. Severus winced as he saw the damage. The dead Angel King twisted the weapon, ripping through the compound plate of Mark III armor in a weak spot and smearing the Iconoclast’s entrails over the ceramite. It was a brutal move, quite at odds with the warrior’s finesse in combat but deadly nevertheless – a killing move.

                    The combat seemed to die down as the attackers’ numeric superiority became overwhelming. Two of the Angel Kings lay in crumbled heap, cut to pieces by the fury of the Warblades’ and Iconoclasts’ attack, while one of the survivors seemed to be sustained solely by willpower, bleeding from dozens of grievous wounds. The other, a bare-headed Space Marine with long white hair smeared with blood and grime, backed up against the wall, where the attackers’ numbers made less of an impact. He wielded an elongated chainsword of artificer design two-handed with skill that bespoke of years of extensive training, staving off brutish assaults of Cortes and another Iconoclast with finesse and agility. Still, the outcome was all but certain. As the two Iconoclasts circled around him, encouraged by momentary lull in the fight, Severus could not help but admire the Angel King’s determination.

                    “Surrender, cousin,” Tajan addressed him, joining the dance of Iconoclasts around the warrior. “You have fought well. There is no sense in throwing your life away.”

                    “I will not dishonor myself or my Legion by bowing down to the likes of you, traitor,” the Angel King spat, eyes warily tracking the gathering multitude.

                    “There is no dishonor in this,” said Tajan, almost pleadingly. “You have my word as a Warblade that you will be treated with respect due to honored captive.”

                    The wounded Angel King was already down, his blood spreading in a viscous pool on the metal floor. Warblades and Iconoclasts alike converged on the last survivor of the enemy squad – eleven against one.

                    Eleven, Severus wondered, thinking about the warrior he thought he saw going down to Angel Kings’ fire. Was it a figment of his imagination?

                    Something played on Angel King’s face, an emotion Severus could not place. From what he recalled of the Twentieth Legion, the sons of Corwin were a stubborn lot. It was unthinkable for them even to consider surrender.

                    The Angel King spat acidic saliva in the direction of the Kill-Leader. “I die today,” he intoned in a voice akin to ceremonial dirge, “but know this. I am Ioasaph Briend, Knight-Sergeant of the Angel Kings, and my death shall be…”

                    He never got to finish the sentence. While the Space Marine was distracted, Cortes swept under his guard, skewering his combat knife into the Angel King’s gut. It was a killing move – one thrust to penetrate the armor’s weak spot, an upward motion to slide under the fused rib cage and a sideward sweep to ensure that even enhanced Space Marine physiology could not cope with the damage to vital organs.

                    “Less talk, more fighting,” Cortes laughed, pulling the weapon free from Briend’s flesh. The Angel King stood dumbfounded for a fraction of a second, blind hate in his eyes meeting stupefied expression in Tajan’s. The purple-armored warrior’s body slackened and his head fell down as his neck muscles were loosening.

                    “This was unnecessary,” Tajan growled at Cortes, pushing the other Iconoclast aside to come face to face with the Eighth Legion’s sergeant. “He fought with honor. You should at least have given him a chance to die fighting.” The two squad leaders stood close enough for a brawl, with neither willing to back down from a challenge.

                    “Honor is an empty word, cousin,” the Iconoclast answered mockingly. “My thanks to you for distracting this pompous fop. It made the kill much easier.”

                    Before Tajan could come up with appropriate reprimand or escalate the stand-off, a single motion flashed before Severus’ eyes, a flash of purple lashing out against the Iconoclast with the force of a deathblow. Instantly, the Warblades’ bolters unleashed a deadly payload against the slumped Angel King, mass-reactive ammunition making the ruin of his armor. Still, the damage was done.

                    With what must have been the last gasp of strength left to him, Briend thrust his chainsword against Cortes’ unprotected side. Whirring teeth ripped out meat and entrails, making mockery of protection offered by Mark III warplate. Liquid, too dark to be mere blood, ran down from the Iconoclast’s wound in a thick, pungent stream.

                    Cortes laughed.

                    It was the sound of a man not believing his own mortality, ensnared by the myth of his personal invincibility even in face of the contrary. As he shook – either from laughter, or from blood loss, more vitae pumped out from the deep, rending cut. Severus’ eyes darted between Cortes and the other Iconoclast who was just recently impaled by the Angel King blade. A wordless curse formed on his lips.

                    The Iconoclast sergeant straightened, then knelt down by Briend’s corpse. His hand grasped the Angel King’s still whirring chainsword, prying it out of the dead Space Marine’s fingers and pressing the deactivation rune. All the while, the wounded sergeant continued laughing, every sound throatier and deeper than the one before.

                    “I think…” he said in between the bouts of laughter, “I will keep this thing.”

                    “You need an apothecary,” Tajan exclaimed, all thoughts of earlier confrontation forgotten. “You may yet be saved!” He pointed at the wound. “Let me administer first aid to stem the bleeding, cousin!”

                    “So quaint,” Cortes replied derisively. “Do you really think this bothers me?” He swung the Angel King’s weapon in a demonstrative riposte over his head. The motion seemed completely natural, as if the Iconoclast was still whole.

                    “Your apothecary is not needed,” the bleeding Space Marine hissed, resuming his place in the formation. “All praise to the God of Mercy.”

                    “All praise.”

                    The words coming from the other Iconoclasts’ throats were sonorous yet scratchy, laced with static or deep gurgling undertones – Severus could not tell which. There was a ritualistic certainty in them.

                    This is not Imperial Truth. His mind formed the words even as his mouth refused to speak them. He tried to rationalize it – perhaps some strange custom of Kars? It was not making any sense.

                    “Come on, cousin,” Cortes addressed Tajan, waving him on. “The base will not take over itself.” The warriors in plain ceramite, now covered with blood and smeared guts, formed up on Cortes, with the sergeant as the tip of a formation.

                    “I am not going anywhere until you explain what is going on,” shouted Tajan, stepping back and hunching over in combat stance. The other Warblades lined up around him, ready to spring into action on a second’s notice. Severus jammed another magazine into his weapon, making sure to select hellfire rounds – ammunition designed to stop heavily armored opponents. Next to him, Velent primed his lascannon, while Aratos and Brutus formed the wings of an encirclement pattern with enough space for Majorian to have a wide arc of fire.

                    “Later,” answered Cortes dismissively. He turned his back to the Warblades, ignoring the weapons trailing him and his men. “We are going to clear this place of Corwin’s whelps. Are you coming along?”

                    “Tell me what is going on, cousin, or you will rue the consequences,” Tajan pressed on. “What manner of witchery is this?”

                    Cortes turned halfway towards the Warblades, seemingly unperturbed by his grievous injury. “After this mission is over, I will. Now, are you coming?”

                    “There will be a reckoning,” Tajan hissed over Warblades’ vox channel, eliciting nods from Team Mauve. “I will be watching you,” he growled over general channel, to Iconoclast’s amusement.

                    Cortes laughed derisively. “I bet you will be, cousin. I bet you will be.”

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      NINE

                      Enemy at the Gates
                      Ghosts of Maegara
                      Love Incarnate

                      The more Artos Pertinax looked at the system map, the less sense it made.

                      The outskirts of Hyrule system were awash in sickly red converging on the outer planets and defense posts. Here and there, splashes of blue indicated positions of friendly forces, but even the most optimistic observer could not mistake them for anything more than a show of futile defiance. The traitors’ attack seemed to have taken the Angel Kings by complete surprise.

                      Pertinax shook his head in frustration, peeling his eyes off the map. Around him, the strategium of battle barge Death of Vice buzzed with activity as hundreds of crewmen and servitors went about their tasks. A demi-squad of Angel Kings from Thirty Sixth Grand Company stood at attention near him, part command unit, part honor guard. A look at their emotionless, helmeted visages told him nothing.

                      It was the last figure, surrounded by the honor guard, that drew his attention.

                      The man was imposing, even by the standards of the Legiones Astartes. Where the honor guards were fully encased in protective warplate decorated with ceremonial designs of gold leaves and glorious duels, he went bareheaded, his armor plain purple with checkered trim, accentuated only by the rank insignia. A cloak made of adamantium mesh seemed more utilitarian than decorative, doing little to hide a master-crafted blade at the man’s side.

                      The warrior’s face looked like it was cut from craggy stone, severe and unyielding with its disposition. The mop of hair on his head was almost completely white, merging into sizeable sideburns once fashionable amongst the nobility of Angel Kings’ distant homeworld. Cold blue eyes measured the strategium and everyone in it, as if evaluating them for strength of purpose, determination, and discipline – always discipline. As was the way of the Twentieth Legion then, and as it will always be.

                      “The enemy is at the gates, Knight-Captain,” said Baldwin d’Orso, Lord Commander and equerry to the Primarch, in a voice much softer than his severe appearance would have suggested. “The real question is, what do you intend to do about it.”

                      Pertinax frowned. After the fire ship fiasco, tempers in the Angel Kings contingent ran hot, and he had to break off more than a few honor duels before calmer heads prevailed. The paralyzing inaction after the discovery of possible Lion Guard activity did not serve him well, and even the words of Falander could not soothe the bitterness he felt at the lack of activity.

                      “I don’t understand,” the Knight-Captain finally admitted. He motioned to the system map, tracing the outlines of enemy advance. “We were ready weeks ago. Out here, we are targets for the traitors. Why did we not strike first?” His fists clenched time and again as he spoke. “It does not sit well with me. It does not sit well with anyone in my Company.”

                      “Falander was right about you,” d’Orso mused with a light chuckle. It sounded odd coming from him. “Inquisitive, perhaps even a little rash.”

                      “My lord!” The expression on Pertinax’s face was as stoic as ever, but his voice betrayed his disbelief. “I am a son of Corwin, and you can count on me to do my duty as ordered.”

                      “And yet you have questions,” the Lord Commander raised an eyebrow in a quizzical expression. “Legitimate ones, might I say,” he added quickly, seeing flashes of anger in the eyes of the junior Angel King. The Primarch’s equerry took several steps towards Pertinax. Even though they were of similar height, d’Orso’s stature seemed to fill the strategium, making Pertinax feel relatively small next to the elder warrior.

                      “With all due respect,” said Pertinax with some deference, “I am but a Captain. What could the Primarch’s equerry possibly want to do with me?”

                      “Your commander thinks highly about you, Knight-Captain,” d’Orso spoke softly. “He and I, we had a lengthy discussion mere hours ago, did you know that?” The senior Space Marine curled his lips in a hint of a smile, continuing before Pertinax had a chance to respond. “Don’t think you are the only officer in the Legion who wonders what we are doing on Hyrule when there is fighting to be had elsewhere. Yes, yes, much fighting.” The Lord Commander smiled, evidently pleased with himself.

                      “How can I serve the Legion?” Pertinax asked, feeling suitably chastised. He felt regretful of his impatience and inquiries. If the Lord Commander did not seem perturbed by the recent developments, Pertinax resolved to remain suitably clinical about them.

                      “Now that is more like it, my young friend,” the equerry nodded in return. Instantly, his expression became more serious. Pertinax understood the message – time for pleasantries was over. Now, it was going to be strictly business.

                      “You might have guessed by now that we are facing a complicated situation,” explained d’Orso. “There are… rumors.”

                      “Lion Guard?”

                      “As I said, there are rumors,” the Lord Commander said. “These are uncertain times. Some loyalties have been tested, and found wanting already. Others may yet be tested. Whatever the truth, there are going to be rumors and suspicions.”

                      “I saw the pict-feed myself!” exclaimed Pertinax, momentarily forgetting proprieties of Legion etiquette. “The rank and file openly talk about a Lion Guard suicide mission.”

                      “Remember your place, Knight-Captain!” For the first time in their conversation, d’Orso raised his voice to a resolute tone that brood no disobedience or questioning. Eyes the color of blue steel stared Pertinax down.

                      “My apologies, Lord Commander,” Pertinax lowered his head in shame. “My choler got the better of me.”

                      D’Orso continued, as if nothing happened. “One certain truth is that trust is in short supply.” There was a harsher undertone to his words now, perhaps triggered by the Knight-Captain’s earlier outburst. “The fire ship incident left many questions and no answers. It exploded very conveniently before any positive identification could be made.”

                      The equerry moved past Pertinax and pressed several keys on the ship’s console in quick succession. He turned to the junior officer, again taking a measure of him.

                      “Do you trust Lord Corwin’s judgment?” d’Orso asked coldly.

                      Pertinax felt like stammering, just like the adept on Hyrule Secundus only days ago. He cursed himself for a sentiment more fitting of a mortal. “I do, my lord.”

                      “Will you do what the Primarch asks of you, even if it goes against your own instincts, without questioning?” There was stern inquiry in d’Orso’s words, a test of the Knight-Captain’s mettle that sought any chinks in his resolve.

                      “I will,” Pertinax answered, both hands across the chest with thumbs extended in an Imperial aquila salute. He felt the now-familiar surge of adrenaline that came before embarking on a real mission. “On my honor, I will not shame Primarch or the Legion.”

                      “Good,” d’Orso smiled with neither warmth nor contempt. His voice switched to an emotionless command tone as he pressed a general communication button on the console, activating the ceiling speakers. “All hands, leave the strategium.”As the humans trickled away from the compartment, the equerry nodded in satisfaction. “This, Knight-Captain, is how we intend to fight back.”

                      * * *

                      The battle for Seven-Three was a blur in Severus’ eyes, a chaotic entanglement in which the only constant was the sound of ceramite-shod boots rapping a melody of war against the floor. The Angel Kings’ serfs put up only meager resistance, but even that stiffened as Team Mauve penetrated deeper into the asteroid base.

                      Ambush, counter, feint. He lost track of time, remaining only barely cognizant of the constant ticking of the mission chronometer, and the ever-increasing frag-count tally in his helmet visor. At some point, he was sure he might have gone into triple digits; at another, the tally told him a much more sobering story. The screams of the dying mortal soldiers were the ever-present cacophonous din to the symphony of martial excess.

                      They encountered the Angel Kings twice more, each time at demi-squad strength. For all that the purple-armored Space Marines attempted to slow the advance of Warblades and Iconoclasts, Severus saw their efforts as ultimately futile. If the sons of Corwin gathered all their forces in one place, they might have been able to mount a formidable last stand. Scattered as they were, the Angel Kings could do little but delay the inevitable.

                      Severus did not know the status of other Kill-Teams spread across the base. During one particularly prolonged firefight, he thought he saw glimpses of azure armor in the distance, but a second glance returned frustratingly little. At another junction, he saw an overrun barricade, formerly manned by the Twentieth Legion’s serfs and now covered with mangled corpses bearing tell-tale marks of chain weapons.

                      The Iconoclasts advanced in front of Team Mauve, implacable and unstoppable like death itself, soaking up the defenders’ fire and giving back tenfold. Nothing seemed to as much as delay them – not solid-shot weapons, not lasguns and grenades, not even barrage of superheated plasma. Time and again, the warriors in plain ceramite took injuries, lost pieces of armor plating and weaponry, and yet did not slow down their advance.

                      Severus saw one Iconoclast fighting on with a bayonet blade broken off in his side, paying little heed to the injury. Another took a plasma blast at close range, vaporizing most of his chest armor and revealing cooked, charred meat within. Still, the warrior came on as if oblivious to pain, crushing the plasma gunner’s throat with a powerful elbow strike before moving on to his next target, reek of something unwholesome and unhealthy following him.

                      Team Mauve kept in its own formation even without any urging from Tajan, staying behind the Iconoclasts not out of any tactical considerations, but out of growing unease. The Warblades might have called their brother Legion Punching Bags in the company of their own kind, but up close, any humor seemed misplaced, any sentiment dry and unpleasant like the growing feeling of dread experienced by many a mortal.

                      No, Warblades of Team Mauve had their own disputes, their own disagreements and rivalries both within and outside of their squad, but those seemed petty in face of the other, the different breed of creatures that, for now, fought on their side. No matter their arguments, no warrior of Team Mauve wanted to stand with his back to an Iconoclast.

                      One thing, however, was becoming very clear. Asteroid base Seven-Three was not defended as heavily as one would have thought – a stark contrast with Corwin’s rumored strategic brilliance.

                      “I smell a rat,” grumbled Aratos, pirouetting through the broken crates and remnants of a squire defense team torn to pieces by concentrated bolter fire only seconds earlier. The Warblades were now in the hab-blocks area of the base, where its human contingent made their homes. Up until few hours ago, the place seemed pristine, lit by immaculately engineered glowing ceilings and ordered in a utilitarian fashion, with each turn and block clearly labeled.

                      Now, it was a charnel house.

                      The lights took on a sickly yellowish tinged, sprayed with blood and body fluids of the defenders. There was a foul smell in the air, as if the bodies began to rot and decay faster than any natural process allowed. Severus could swear he heard buzzing of flies gathering for their harvest of carrion, an image quite at odds against the orderly – and almost certainly fully conditioned facility unlikely to allow any stray life forms in its perfectly aligned habitats. The air was cool and yet unhealthy, growing more and more humid by the minute. The light breeze carried smells of decomposition and bodily waste.

                      “Couldn’t agree more,” Tajan said in a lowered voice, as if the walls could hear him even on the closed vox-channel. “Corwin wouldn’t have kept an installation like this practically undefended.”

                      Had Severus been a mortal, his mind would have raced towards any of the many unpleasant possibilities – targeted self-destruction of the base, ambush by overwhelming forces, even release of exotic, prohibited weaponry. As a Space Marine, he was mostly immune to the debilitating effects of fear, but he could not avoid considering the tactical implications of the base’s lack of defenses. “A trap, then?” he gave voice to his thoughts as his bolter traced vague outlines of the Iconoclasts less than ten meters away.

                      “It’s got to be,” agreed Tajan. “It makes no sense otherwise.”

                      “Team Mauve, first into the trap, last out,” said Velent stoically. The lascannon-bearing Marine kept to the walls, warily examining every shadow for signs of danger. “Just like the last time.”

                      “Well, at least this time we have some company,” Aratos quipped, eyeing the Iconoclasts ahead. “With luck, the Punching Bags will trip the wire, or whatever it is going to be.”

                      “Small consolation, brother,” replied Severus glumly. “I don’t think I’d want to die next to… them.”

                      “I don’t think I want to die, period,” said Tajan. “I don’t understand these Angel Kings. What are they trying to do?”

                      “Same thing any of us would do if Lord Baelic asked for it,” Brutus raised his voice for the first time. “Don’t tell me that you would tell him no if he asked you to fight a rearguard action.”

                      “I doubt these poor sods even know why they are dying,” added Aratos thoughtfully. “At least Lord Baelic would tell us what we would be fighting for.”

                      One of the Warblades laughed. It was a weak, nervous chuckle that did little to alleviate the tension, impossible to distinguish where it came from.

                      “Not too far apart from our own situation,” Tajan made the connection.

                      “How so?” Severus took advantage of a lull in fighting to move closer to his comrades, all too aware of plain white of Iconoclasts’ armor just few meters ahead.

                      “Risking our asses on a mission that serves little purpose, by the side of some Punching Bags. Is that enough of an explanation, oh wise one?” Tajan sounded irritated, as if the Kill-Leader was only moments away from losing his cool. “Or do you want me to personally contact Lord Baelic and assuage your concerns. Perhaps we can ask him to drop everything he is doing now and grace us with his presence. Would that satisfy your curiosity?”

                      Severus bit back the reply. Tempers were already becoming frayed, and the mission was not even close to being over. He reflected that if this situation were to continue, Team Mauve might yet salvage disgrace out of apparent victory.

                      “Chokepoint ahead,” an unfamiliar voice resounded in Severus’ helmet. It took him a fraction of a second to realize that one of the Iconoclasts was transmitting on a general channel. “Give us some cover, Warblades.”

                      “You heard him,” snarled Tajan as the rest of Team Mauve seemed stupefied. “Spread out, overlapping fields of fire.” The words came out listless, as if the conclusion was foregone. The next thing the Kill-Leader said came over the secure channel. “More squires, probably. Not even worth bothering with.”

                      “Maybe we can use the Punching Bags as boarding shields,” Aratos quipped. “They seem to enjoy getting shot at.”

                      “What do you think we are doing, you cretin?” As Tajan spoke, he moved in a seemingly random pattern designed to confuse enemy gunners while presenting the lowest possible target profile. Severus noticed that unlike the Warblades, the Iconoclasts seemed to pay no heed to tactical considerations, walking out into the open with no regard for safety or common sense.

                      The first shot exploded against the shoulder guard of an Iconoclast whose name Severus never learned. The warrior was taken aback by the power of the explosive but managed to recover his bearings quickly enough to fire a short burst in the direction the shot came from.

                      “Look alive, boys,” growled Tajan. “That looked like a boltgun shot.”

                      As he spoke, the corridor lit up with explosions. From intervals between the shots, Severus guessed that they came from at least several shooters bearing semi-automatic boltguns. Great, he thought, equal parts anticipation and anxiety. It seemed that the Angel Kings finally decided to bring in opposition worthy of a name.

                      “Today, our targets wear purple,” chuckled Velent, firing his lascannon from the hip. The Angel Kings did an admirable job staying in cover behind the low-lying makeshift barricades, and his shot went hopelessly wide.

                      “If you spent more time in target practice, maybe they would be our targets, instead of us being theirs,” growled Brutus as a bolt shell barely missed him, instead carving a small crater in the metal wall behind him.

                      “Save your breath.” Velent fired again, now pulverizing a low-lying crate and scorching the paint off an Angel King backing away. “Stay in one place, damn you,” he blurted out at the enemy Space Marine.

                      Just meters ahead, the battle turned from a short-range firefight to a brutal, no holds barred melee. The first Iconoclasts led by Cortes breached the outer edge of the Angel Kings’ perimeter, forcing defensive fire to drop off as purple-armored warriors struck at their assailants with combat knives and chainblades.

                      Now, Severus could see them clearly. There were seven Angel Kings manning the makeshift barricade, mostly clad in archaic Mark II armor devoid of consistent decoration. His genhanced vision picked out details that did not mesh – parts scavenged from disparate suits, ill-fitting plating, cursive script that interrupted rapidly, or changed into something completely unrelated. Even the Angel Kings’ weaponry was inconsistent, far from standard squad loadout Severus would have expected from them.

                      Sacrificial dregs, he thought, realization coming over him as he sought to get a good shot into the mass of fighting Space Marines. No matter how hard he tried, the risk of hitting one of the Iconoclasts was too great, and he swore in anger. Frustrated, the Warblade mag-locked the weapon to his thigh, reaching for his blade instead to rush into assault.

                      “New recruits, or maybe penitents,” Aratos remarked, letting the Iconoclasts soak the blunt of damage as he attempted to find a flanking approach vector.

                      “Blades of Laodice!” screamed Tajan, waving his own chainblade in a challenge. It seemed that the Kill-Leader decided to forgo his reservations about the Iconoclasts for the moment, substituting his anger for pure fury of battle.

                      “Frag! Frag!”

                      The chant rising from the throats of Team Mauve was almost as barbaric and savage as something screamed by the wilder, less civilized Legions. Still, there was method to their madness. The words conveyed not only the Legion’s battle cry, but also the specific tactic, a way to approach the enemy already engaged in battle and to break the deadlock.

                      Severus found himself swept in the pure joy of battle against a worthwhile opponent – or, at least, worthwhile enough to give him and his team a solid frag-score tally. True, these might have been the sacrificial troops of the Twentieth Legion, but they were still gene-forged sons of Corwin, and the frag-counter in his helmet did not care for their prowess or origin. They were still superior to mere mortal soldiery, and it was all that mattered.

                      He rushed forward, brandishing his combat blade like a butcher’s knife, an ululating scream half rage and half excitement frozen upon his lips. Leaping over the remnants of the barricade, Severus swung wildly at an Angel King fighting with a chainsword in one hand and a bolt pistol in another.

                      “Mauve!” The cry rose from Severus’ throat like an exhortation of anger. It was picked up by some of his battle-brothers, who screamed in the face of danger in a disorganized, mob-like yell. Their intervention was sorely needed.

                      The Iconoclasts were hard pressed to maintain their advantage. While their unnatural toughness allowed the sons of Nihlus to weather more punishing blows than even their posthuman bodies should have survived, the Angel Kings fought like men who were cornered and knew that there was no way out. Severus did not want to think what kind of failings might have led them here, or what kind of a Legion would send its warriors to earn their penance in blood.

                      He saw an Iconoclast get shot in the face with a plasma pistol. The shot sheared off half of the Space Marine’s helmet, exposing the bubbling ruin of an eye, cooked flesh and charred bone beneath. Mere fraction of a second later, another Angel King fighting back to back with his brethren stabbed the Iconoclast’s back in a move that lacked finesse but was nevertheless brutally effective.

                      Unbelievably, the Iconoclast fought on, albeit with reduced speed. The ponderous warrior lashed back at his assailants, suffering a number of deep cuts for his troubles but keeping them occupied long enough for onrushing Brutus to decapitate one of the Angel Kings.

                      “A thank you would be nice,” Brutus quipped, unable to carry his momentum into advantage against surviving enemies.

                      The Iconoclast gurgled something in return. It was nearly impossible to tell what it was; Severus chose to think it was a term of gratitude rather than some form of a curse. The Wabrlade did not have much time to consider it, as his own opponent demanded his immediate attention.

                      It was a red fog, a sigil of battle fought to the point of complete wild abandon. One blow after the next rained down upon the Angel Kings, tirelessly, without remorse or respite. Severus barely had enough presence of mind not to lash out at his allies. Some part of him wondered if any of his battle-brothers experienced the same wild, insane rush, augmented by the sensation of combat drugs coursing through his blood.

                      Only when the motion, the endless dance of red, purple, white, and blue before his eyes finally ceased could he assess the situation.

                      The fight did not last long, like all battles of elite warriors fought to death. Even with the numbers being slightly less one-sided, the Angel Kings were in no shape to resist the Warblades and their erstwhile cousins.

                      As before, the Iconoclasts took most of the punishment. Amazingly, all six of them were still standing, even if only barely. Multiple pieces of Cortes’ armor were missing, mangled or torn apart earlier to expose his sickly patchwork flesh. Two of the Eighth Legion’s men seemed worse for the wear, although still well within combat readiness parameters, losing an odd digit or an eye but otherwise alert. The one who Severus thought to be Targa seemed to be least affected, while two of the remaining Iconoclasts appeared to be so badly mangled that the Warblade could not believe they were still capable of standing.

                      Without warning, one of the Iconoclasts, the same one whose grievous injury seemed to practically burn half of his skull away, fell.

                      It was not a graceful descent, but a rough tumble, as though the Space Marine was a marionette whose strings were suddenly cut to let gravity have its due. The warrior fell on his back, brought off-balance by the weight of his still-humming power pack, his head rolling to the side to come to rest near Tajan’s feet.

                      The Kill-Leader knelt down by the fallen warrior, staring into the rictus grin of death. The Iconoclast’s injuries appeared so severe that it was surprising he could have finished the fight. Thick bone protecting his cranium was partially gone, and parts of liquefied brain seeped through. Parts of a golden mask melded into the skin and tissue.

                      “Your involvement is unnecessary,” gurgled Cortes.

                      “I don’t see a redactor on you, cousin,” Tajan retorted, activating an extraction tool on his wrist. “You have my word of honor that your brother’s gene-seed will be returned to your Legion.”

                      “As I said, your involvement is unnecessary,” the Iconoclast sergeant said, taking a step forward like a menacing revenant.

                      Tajan pointedly ignored the implied threat, reaching his fingers towards the fallen Space Marine’s helmet. A thin metal strip extended from his fingers, another piece of technology unique to the Eleventh Legion, attempting to access the armor’s systems.

                      The Kill-Leader’s hand withdrew with such speed that for a second, Severus thought they were about to be under attack. Instantly, Team Mauve’s bolters were pointed at Cortes and his surviving men.

                      “What is the meaning of this?” growled Tajan, taking a step back from Cortes to put some space between them. Even though the Kill-Leader was fully helmeted, Severus could not mistake his disgust and anger.

                      “Impatient, aren’t we?” Cortes answered. With most of his helmet gone, and his mask lost somewhere in the middle of the fight, the Iconoclast looked like a nightmarish conglomerate of man, machine, and something else.

                      “Your man should have been dead for at least three minutes before he fell,” Tajan said, pointing an accusing finger. “His armor systems say so.” The Kill-Leader’s voice morphed into a furious bellow. “What kind of a sick thing did Nihlus do to you?”

                      Nihlus pointed to his face with an expression that Severus could not read. “This,” an armored finger stabbed at discolored skin, “is the only gift Nihlus gave to me,” Cortes roared back in anger. “Isn’t it pretty?” The Iconoclast moved much quicker than his injury-ravaged bulk should have allowed, now standing face to face with Tajan. “Oh, the glory boys. The beautiful, perfect glory boys of Terra. Of Laodice. Of Topia. Of Apella. Beautiful sons of perfect fathers. How amazing!”

                      “It happened before,” insisted Tajan, now much more weakly. “You and I know it both.”

                      “Lord Nihlus only gave me his scars,” Cortes shouted. “The God of Mercy gave me and my brothers everything else.”

                      “Wait until the Primarch hears about it,” Tajan blurted back in anger, not willing to back down. Awkward silence reigned for a moment.

                      “You did not.” Severus spoke over the closed channel. His fists involuntarily clenched in rage.

                      “Your Primarch does not even know you exist,” Cortes shouted. “Or maybe, just maybe, he will knock some sense into you.” The Iconoclast’s pose relaxed slightly, still martial but no longer as confrontational. “Maybe he will see it for the miracle that it is.”

                      “I want no part in your miracles,” hissed Tajan. “And I want no part of this mission. Not by your side.”

                      “Kill-Leader, the Clan-Master’s orders were very explicit,” Aratos said in a level tone, still on closed link.

                      “And what?” asked Cortes mockingly out loud. “Are you going to run back to the boarding torpedo with your tail between your legs? I thought the Eleventh Legion was made out of sterner stuff.”

                      The Iconoclasts spread out in a seemingly random configuration, ignoring their grievous injuries. To a trained eye, the meaning behind their repositioning was clear – they were expecting trouble.

                      “Drop it, sarge,” Severus urged privately. “We can deal with it back on the ship.”

                      Tajan sneered. “The Warblades Legion fights an honorable battle without stooping to archaeotech. We let worthy enemies die with weapons in their hands. Most of all, we make use of the gifts of our Primarch – and nothing else.”

                      “Look who is talking,” Cortes pointed an accusing finger. “I saw what you did there. If that is not archaeotech, then I am a Custode.”

                      “We leave our bodies as the Emperor and the Primarch made them,” Tajan retorted. “My guts are not hanging out of my skin.”

                      “This?” Cortes laughed, pointing to a deep wound in his torso. “This is nothing. Pain is nothing. Maybe if you were not so afraid of it, you would be a better warrior.”

                      “And if you did not seek it, maybe you would still be in one piece,” said Tajan. “A true warrior does not let his enemies touch him, let alone maul him.”

                      Cortes snorted in derision. “A true warrior wins. It does not matter how, only that he does.”

                      “Don’t taunt him, sarge,” Aratos urged over the vox. “This is what the Clan-Master wanted to see. Let him be.”

                      “Punching Bags talking about how tough they are,” said Brutus. Even over the vox, Severus could imagine his battle-brother grinning.

                      Tajan did not seem interested in listening to his men. The Kill-Leader’s posture indicated that he was only seconds away from violence. Severus bit back a curse, imagining a reprimand from the Clan-Master if things deteriorated further. Hell, he thought, a reprimand was the absolute mildest thing he could hope for, providing none of them ended up as training servitors after this.

                      “What is this God of Mercy you keep on talking about, Iconoclast?” Aratos asked before Tajan could do anything rash. Severus saw his comrade’s body tense, prepared to intercede between Tajan and Cortes.

                      “Oh, that.” Cortes nodded, deliberately not looking at Tajan. Severus was not sure if it was a sign of contempt or a genuine attempt to avoid escalation. “What you see before you, brother, is the future.” The Iconoclast’s voice had a strange undertone to it, almost like that of a zealot rushing to spread his faith to any who would listen.

                      “I have spent almost two centuries fighting the Emperor’s wars, did you know that?” It struck Severus that as Cortes spoke, he looked little like a Space Marine, and more like a corpse stitched together from parts of disparate flesh, metal, and ceramite. “Two long centuries, and one hundred thirty five worlds, not counting asteroids, moons, and boarding actions.” Cortes appeared pleased with himself, almost waxing nostalgic.

                      “Can you imagine it, cousin? Can you imagine the universe full of the unknown, and the unknowable? Can you imagine the pride you feel when you first lay your eyes upon your Primarch, when you follow him into battle through every nightmare you can imagine? Do you know what it feels like to be one of the select few who have a father?”

                      Cortes’ expression grew sullen as he removed the pitiful remnants of his helmet, along with what was left of his mask. A vision only marginally more lively than a burned skull with pieces of mangled skin greeted the Warblades, a sickly parody of a noble ideal.

                      “And then, more were found. Hemri. Gideon. Iskanderos. Corwin. Marvus.” Every name elicited a snarl of loathing from the Iconoclast, as if recalling painful memories. “We were no longer one of the Three, the Emperor’s Hammer just like Nyxos was his Shield, and Kthuln his Sword. Do you know what it feels like, to see everything you are and everything you fought for discarded for the latest glory boy to be found?”

                      “But of course you do not!” Cortes exclaimed accusingly. “Your own master was a perfect son, wasn’t he? Your own brothers, perfectly molded image. Latecomers!” He spit on the ground in disgust.

                      “My gene-father was set aside, left to his own devices as the likes of you took our place. And yet we still fought on. Do you know how many xenos we scoured from the face of the galaxy? Do you have a slightest idea how many worlds we brought into compliance by a sheer mention of our name?” The Iconoclast was growing visibly agitated by the word. “We bled for the Imperium, bled for the Council, bled for the Emperor. And what did we get in return?”

                      Nothing!” The word was a scream loud enough to be deafening. Cortes stomped his foot on the body of dead Iconoclast, shattering cracked ceramite underneath. “Nothing!”

                      Through all of this, Team Mauve stood at attention, fingers hovering over their weapon triggers. Severus was not sure where this was going, but he had a bad feeling, and he was not going to let the Eighth Legion spring one on them.

                      “We are the weapon of destruction, Warblade,” Cortes continued with the same zealous fervor as before. “We are the last resort, for when all other means fail. And for two hundred years, this is what we excelled at. When the likes of you liberated worlds and brought enlightenment to others, the likes of me burned planets to cinders. When the sons of Iskanderos and Gideon built empires, we crushed them, flayed their people, incinerated everything they have created. There are no songs about us, Warblade, and there will never be, for this universe hated us for the gift we brought to it. Can you imagine that?”

                      “What are you talking about?” asked Tajan slowly. It seemed that the Kill-Leader finally acknowledged the need for caution, or, perhaps, he was growing wary of the Iconoclast’s outburst. The air felt tense with anticipation of struggle.

                      “The fundamental nature of our universe, cousin, is entropy,” the mangled Space Marine replied. Had it not been for his deathlike face, one could have almost mistaken his words for lecture coming from a pulpit of some university on Terra or one of other, more civilized worlds. “We served its cause well at the Emperor’s call, but even that was never enough. Destruction for the sake of destruction is an empty cause, did you know that?” Severus saw one of the other Iconoclasts nod. It seemed the Eighth Legion’s warriors were enraptured with their leader’s words.

                      “But we were always apart from it,” Cortes went on. “It was not until we let it become a part of us that we understood. Can you imagine what it is like to know that every little thing in the galaxy hates you for what you are? Can you imagine lashing out against it for the sheer reason of its existence?”

                      “No more, I say!” He banged his armored fist against his chest armor, eliciting a loud sound. “No more!”

                      “If you embrace the entropy made flesh and spirit, you will know more than just hate,” said the Iconoclast. “If you see the universe through the eyes of truth, you will learn to accept it. Acceptance leads to contentment, and contentment leads to love.”

                      “We are love incarnate, for what we bring is peace. We care little for vanity of flesh, or for praise. We will never get any of that, we will never be put on a pedestal like some glory-seeking heroes.”

                      Cortes extended his hand towards Tajan, this time a gesture of reconciliation rather than confrontation. Severus saw the Kill-Leader grow unnaturally still, as if fighting an instinctual impulse to pull away. The Iconoclast smiled. It was a skeletal grin, made all the worse by his patchwork face.

                      “You see all the disquiet in the universe? All the conflict, all the strife – all of it comes from the lack of understanding. Everything dies. Everything decays. In the end, the way of all flesh and the legacy of all spirit is the same. Only through that – not some pretentious drivel of Mokhtal, or whatever lies the iterators spread – only through that can we be truly united. Only through that can there be peace. And we, cousin, are the bringers of that peace.”

                      Severus felt an unfamiliar sensation of skin crawling in disquiet. A part of him wanted to laugh at the mortal superstition, but he could not avoid thinking that there was more than mere words to strange fanatical belief the Iconoclasts stumbled upon in their journeys.

                      “All you have to do is accept the God of Mercy into you,” Cortes said beatifically. “Only through Him will you know the truth, and become part of that truth. Wouldn’t you want to become a part of the final solution for this galaxy’s troubles? Wouldn’t you want to become a part of something greater than this, brothers?”

                      The Iconoclast’s hand remained extended towards Team Mauve.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        TEN

                        The Hunt Begins
                        Quarantine
                        Cross Purposes

                        The fleet skirted the plane of the ecliptic, a hundred vessels with all traces of color and heraldry removed making black silhouettes against the uncaring stars. Not a flicker of light escaped from their matte surfaces as inertia carried the ships on a carefully calculated trajectory guided by the movements of gas giants and lesser planets.

                        Several astronomic units away, the opening stages of battle for Hyrule system played out. A careful observer might have been able to spot the planetary defense fleet near the system’s outer planets engaged in a hopeless delaying action against the assaulting forces of two Legions, or the early warning asteroid bases dying one by one. The same observer might have been able to recognize the main battle fleet of Angel Kings massing near the system’s second planet, prepared to defend it when – not if, but when the war came to it. Further out, fleets of Warblades and Iconoclasts spread out across the ecliptic, dueling with barely staffed defensive forts and system monitors.

                        All the pieces were set. From now on, the Angel Kings’ retaliation was only a matter of time.

                        * * *

                        In the strategium of the Red Lance, the mood was as grim as the pitiful illumination coming from emergency lighting strips. With the ship’s power running on bare minimum in order to hide it against the background cosmic radiation, most activities ground to near-standstill, keeping only the most rudimentary life support systems functioning.

                        It irked Pertinax that he could not communicate with his superiors on the other ships for the fear of revealing the Angel Kings’ presence to the traitors. While he had at least a measure of satisfaction from preparing to strike at the Eighth and the Eleventh Legions when they did not expect it, it was hard tempered with the thoughts of his battle-brothers dying in the outer system to buy time, or to give an impression of a surprised, unprepared defender.

                        As happened many times before, Lord Corwin’s plans were as callous of his gene-sons as they were brilliant.

                        As far as Pertinax could tell, the mood in his company was far from satisfactory, and he could hardly blame his battle-brothers for it. The Knight-Captain knew enough turns of phrase to proclaim their expedition a chance to bring war to their traitorous cousins, but deep down, he did not think many of his men believed it. True, they could be counted upon to do what was asked of them, but the covert nature of their attack did not sit well with many.

                        An Angel King was a knight first, a soldier second. His words and actions were framed by millennia-old codes of honor that could never be compromised, no matter the tactical disadvantage or the momentary gain. When one of the Twentieth Legion’s warriors took an oath of moment, it was binding until it was fulfilled, and even death was no excuse for failing. Pertinax tapped the oath parchments on his shoulder as a reaffirmation, remembering the names of warriors who they once belonged to, then turned his attention to his own oaths, wondering who would be tasked with completing them if he were to fall in battle.

                        He knew that unnecessary movement was a waste of energy and valuable oxygen, and inwardly reprimanded himself, but he was still having a hard time coming to terms with the mission. A strike against the enemy flank, he could live with. An ambush that relied on superior skill was worthy of praise. An attack where he had to obscure his colors was little better than cowardice, an act not of a knight but of a rogue.

                        Worst of all, this was not the first time such tactics were utilized by the Legion.

                        The Knight-Captain felt ashamed for doubting his Primarch’s wisdom, but it did not make the current attack plan any less disgraceful. Perhaps some of the older, wiser Angel Kings like Falander came to terms with these questionable tactics, but to Pertinax, this was not how a war should have been fought. Yes, there were Legions who fought with neither honor nor skill, but the Twentieth were consummate warriors who brought battle to their enemy’s fore, not the backstabbers.

                        The plan relied on precise timing and impeccable accuracy of calculations, along with the hopes that the enemy would be goaded into specific vectors of attack. Had their enemies been ordinary Space Marine or human commanders, Pertinax would not have doubted its ultimate success. Against two Primarchs, he was not so sure.

                        Pertinax chided himself for even considering doubt. He felt an urge to stand up, to release some of the pent-up nervous energy, but had to hold himself still in order to use as little oxygen as possible. A part of him considered it ironic, given the scant movements of human bridge crew wearing breathing masks. Another part found curious satisfaction in comparing their discomfort to his ability to maintain the minimal levels of activity for days, if needed.

                        This was not a fight of legend, not a story for the ages, but it was war nevertheless, and Pertinax tried to find some comfort in the fact. He imagined himself a patient hunter on a low-tech world, goading his dangerous prey into the teeth of formidable defenses, only to spring a trap when the prey was not expecting it. A lesser Legionary might have been satisfied with reframing the idea of dishonorable tactic, but the Knight-Captain found it irksome.

                        Still, there was little merit in arguing the orders.

                        By itself, the strike force was barely capable of making a dent against the fleets of two enemy Legions. In the middle of an ongoing battle, it could have proven a force multiplier. Now, Pertinax pondered melancholically, he had to trust his fate to notions of orbital mechanics and calculations of the Legion’s cogitators, a thought that did not sit well with his military mind.

                        As the Angel King tried to come to terms with the battle he was ordered to fight, the ships sped towards the designated point in deep space, ready to spring the trap for the Warblades and the Iconoclasts.

                        * * *

                        When he closed his eyes, stars danced like specks of electrified dust, forming stranger and more bewildering patterns behind his eyelids until he could no longer distinguish between reality and strange, viscous state of no-sleep. The hum of a Legion warship was a dissonant undertone to turmoil in Severus’ thoughts, overcoming years of neurosurgery and psychological conditioning and feeding into his confusion.

                        He opened his eyes. The stars resolved into the dots of sickly orange, barely capable of penetrating the gloomy hold. The patterns morphed into a logical arrangement, two lights here, two lights there, too far for even a genhanced warrior to reach unaided. The noise of the great ship’s engines was accentuated by the rattle of something just outside the holding cell, just loud enough to be annoying and to make concentration difficult.

                        Severus imagined a long hallway awash in sterile white illumination which left neither shadows nor security, with black eye sockets of armored plexiglass windows the only reminder of unfortunate souls locked within. Somewhere in those cells, the rest of Team Mauve contemplated their own predicaments. He wondered how they were handling their detention.

                        Quarantine. This was the word the Clan-Master used when Severus and his battle-brothers returned from the Angel Kings installation, a term so alien to Legiones Astartes that the full impact did not hit Severus until it was too late. Quarantine implied frailty, weakness, vulnerability to the very things the Space Marines were built to defy. Quarantine implied the bitter stench of failure all too familiar to Team Mauve.

                        They took his weapons and armor, leaving him with little but a training chiton to guard against the discomfort of the cell. While the effect of its sterile, cold environment on Severus’ genetically modified body was negligible, he felt suffocated by the featureless walls, his will and definition blurred by the half-hearted artificial twilight of the room. This was not right. Nothing about it was right.

                        His thoughts kept on returning to the battle on Seven-Three, and its bizarre aftermath. The mangled face of Cortes, extending his armored hand towards them. The accusing eyes of dead Angel King, not given his last change to die in an honorable fight. Most of all, the Space Marine who should have been dead and yet was not.

                        Fear was as alien to Severus as to any of his Legion brothers, from crude Brutus to wily Aratos and bitter Tajan, but his first reaction then was to run. He stared his inner mortal in the eye and found himself wanting.

                        It fell to Tajan to motion the Kill-Team to back away, never taking their eyes off the mockery of a Space Marine standing before them. And while it had all the markings of a by-the-book tactical withdrawal, Severus could not escape the unpleasant truth hammering at the inside of his skull like a piston-driven primitive engine reminding him of his guilt.

                        Even if the mission records would not call it that, even if their superiors may consider tactical sense in Team Mauve’s actions, Severus knew differently. For all intents and purposes, they ran.

                        One moment he wished for someone, anyone to share the burden of shame with; the very next, he hoped to never see another face again. Warblades did not run. It was one of the few truths left to them in a universe turned upside down and twisted into a nigh unrecognizable form. No matter how poorly performing, Team Mauve was still composed of Space Marines, gene-forged post-humans who knew neither fear nor trepidation no matter the odds. A tactical withdrawal was one thing – sanctioned and even suggested when it could serve some tangible advantage. A full retreat was something so incomprehensible that Severus had a hard time coming to terms with the concept.

                        He replayed Cortes’ words in his ears time and again, his eidetic memory ensuring that no gurgled nuance remained obscured. Removed from the battle and back on his own Legion’s warship, Severus wished he could let the battle-rage overtake him, hoped he could allow for the liberating sensation of blood-tinged red to descend upon him and take his mind off dangerous contemplation. For a second, more than anything, he wished he could be back there, face to face with the Iconoclast. This time, he would not heed the order to back down. This time, he would stand up to the unnatural perversion of what a Space Marine was supposed to be, and answer his conniving words in the only way he knew.

                        This time, it would have been different.

                        “Wouldn’t you want to become a part of something greater than this, brothers?”

                        The Iconoclast stood in front of his men, their bodies and armor wrecked by fighting. Something dripped from his side, too thick to be blood, too far from the armor’s vital systems to be anything else. Remnants of a cadaverous face leered at the Warblades in a grin which belonged on the other side of the veil.

                        “We are the same, brothers,” Cortes said, mangling the words with a mouth too badly ruined for coherent speech. “We were all created for the same purpose. You and us both, we were created to kill worlds, to destroy civilizations, to burn the remembrance of their very existence.”

                        “We are not butchers, Iconoclast,” hissed Tajan defiantly, backing away centimeter by centimeter. “We are the greater goal.”

                        Cortes laughed, a fact made even more unnerving by his rictus grin. With every labored laugh, the trickle of liquid from the Iconoclast’s side slowed. Severus caught the sight of flies landing on it, multiplying seemingly by the second without the injured warrior paying attention. The Warblade’s skin crawled. He did not hear the flies buzzing and did not see any trace of them only moments ago.

                        “Consider this, cousin,” the Iconoclast continued, still wracked with spasms of sporadic amusement. “What place is there for the likes of us, once all of this is over? What kind of greater goal do you really think we are supposed to accomplish. Unity? Bah!” Cortes sneered loudly, completely oblivious to the flies.

                        Whatever place the Emperor intended for Space Marines after the war, Severus thought darkly, there was no way anyone would trust them again. The war had lasted too long, and atrocities kept on mounting, one after another. Perhaps, he pondered in a moment of persistent self-pity, his current predicament awaited all of them – locked in tiny, bare rooms, too useful to destroy, too dangerous to be let loose.

                        Every thought was another reason for self-doubt.

                        The vox-bead clicked in his helmet, bringing with it a wash of static. Somehow, the normally clear comm-channel was growing more distorted by the second. “What is he talking about?” Severus could not tell who said it, mesmerized by the flies swarming to Iconoclast’s side. He thought he was beginning to see a pattern, three bulbous congregations forming corners of a triangular shape. Something ancient and primal stirred within him, memory of a sigil that was resigned to dark recesses of Laodice’s history.

                        Danger. Things man was not meant to trifle with. Stores of weaponry so foul that it was locked in vaults beneath the surface of Laodice’s only moon, lest it fell into wrong hands.

                        Severus looked down at his hands, unable to escape the sensation of feeling naked without his armor or weapons. The Melanochrome implant adjusted his normally tan flesh in the absence of bright illumination, turning almost as pale as that of an underhive troglodyte. Was it going to be his fate? Was he going to become an outcast amongst his own Legion, despised for leaving the Iconoclasts to their own devices, shunned for giving in to primal revulsion at something so unnatural?

                        “We already bring death to this galaxy, brother,” preached Cortes as the Warblades slowly backed away. “But it does not have to be an act of terror. Don’t you see?”

                        Severus’ fingers tensed around the trigger. At some point during the standoff, he managed to pop a fresh magazine into his gun – his last. Very soon, he would have to resort to wielding his combat blade. An unwelcome thought occurred to him – if the confrontation were to go violent, he would only have a change to get out one, two shots at the most. Somehow he doubted that it would do much to stop the Iconoclasts – not after the punishment they took during the assault.

                        “Death does not have to be punishment, brother,” Cortes said. It seemed to Severus that the Iconoclast was looking him straight in the eye. “Death can be a mercy. The only true mercy for this chaotic, strife-ridden universe. We are the agents of mercy. How can it not be a greater goal than whatever small, pitiful aspirations we had before?”

                        “Sick.” The words formed on Severus’ lips, spoken against the cold indifference of the quarantine seclusion cell. He felt the burning bite of regret, wishing he could have summoned the same words during that confrontation, damn the consequences. “They are sick!” He shouted to nothing and no one in particular. The walls absorbed the sound, producing no echo.

                        He blinked, casting aside the last remnants of no-sleep. If the act of self-enforced meditation was supposed to bring him rest, it clearly failed at its intended purpose. Severus felt neither rested nor content.

                        It happened quickly. One moment, Team Mauve stood off against the Iconoclasts, warily eyeing their erstwhile cousins; next, there was distance between two sets of Space Marines, slowly growing with every backwards step.

                        Was it a gesture from Tajan that set it off? Was it their collective revulsion at the idea of standing by the side of those… things that Severus could not, would not call brothers? Was it the mocking glint in Cortes’ exposed eye, a grotesque flow of his partially dismantled mask that appeared to ridicule every notion of camaraderie and trust?

                        Kill-Team Mauve backed into an opening, widening the distance between themselves and the Iconoclasts, never taking their boltguns off the warriors they only recently derisively called Punching Bags. Only when the last of the Iconoclasts turned around and continued to march deeper into Seven-Three’s heart, the magnitude of what happened became clear.

                        Quarantine. The word inspired neither confidence nor motivation.

                        Severus wondered if they were kept apart from their brothers in hopes that their cowardice did not spread to the rest of the Legion. He could already imagine the whispers amongst Clan Turog, and even worse things being spoken amongst Clan Brear – and that was before any of the other Clans got to hear of it. The thought of his name being spoken with derision by seventy thousand of his battle brothers made bile rise in Severus’ throat.

                        The light flashed in front of him so brightly that even his implants had a hard time coping. Severus shielded his eyes from the sudden increase of illumination, blinking to let the afterimages fade away.

                        Even before he could rationally evaluate the change, his body took action. Severus sprang forth into a combat stance, arms and legs at the ready to defend himself from any threat. Even without the combat drug injectors of his armor, he felt his pulse quicken.

                        He took a breath to calm himself down, realizing the absurdity of the situation and forcing himself into a less confrontational stance. Aggression would do little here. If he were to face Legion justice, he would do so without demeaning himself any further.

                        The wall panel slid open, revealing a Terminator-armored figure. Severus noticed that the warrior’s helmet seals were fully engaged, as if contact presented a danger of contagion. Did the Legion really despise Team Mauve so, he thought bitterly.

                        “Come, brother.” The words spoken by the Terminator in a tuneless hiss of an external speaker were surprisingly gentle, considering the situation. If anything, Severus thought that he would get no better than the end of a shock baton. The heavily armored Space Marine gestured him to come forth.

                        As Severus’ vision adjusted to bright lights of the corridor, he almost whistled in surprise. The Terminator’s armor decoration bore none of the Clan Turog insignia; his weapons, such as they were, seemed to be of exquisite quality matched only by the weapons of Legion’s honored heroes. Severus’ hearts beat a little faster in anxious anticipation as he realized the identity of the warrior.

                        A Slayer. One of the Primarch’s own elite guard – the Legion’s best, toughest warriors, the future Clan-Masters and Commanders, whose deeds were as legendary as their names.

                        “This way, brother,” the Terminator pointed at the end of the hallway. It surprised Severus to see that five other doors were opened; he thought he saw a silhouette of a massive armored figure in the distance before it, too, disappeared behind a set of double metal doors.

                        “What of my Kill-Team?” Severus managed to ask, walking in front of his companion. He wondered if the open doors were an indicator of their fate.

                        “Everything will be explained,” the Slayer replied. After a pregnant pause, it became clear that he had no intentions of divulging further information.

                        Severus felt the vibration of the ship’s engines beneath his bare feet. At any other time, he would not have noticed it, simply accepting it as another facet of life on board a space-traveling battle barge, but now, it served to remind him of his own relative insignificance. The ship did not care if he lived or died, if he came out of battle as a hero or as a coward. It would simply carry on, as it had for decades before he was born, as it had before the Warblades were even known by that name. He wondered why he never paid attention to it before.

                        Something about the passage felt odd, as if his senses were assaulted by all manner of strange sensations that left him a bit off-balance. Severus tried to discount it on anxiety, but the feelings of unease did not subside.

                        Was he walking his last towards some form of trial, the Warblade wondered? His guide’s demeanor did not suggest it, but could it have been some final mercy the Legion chose to inflict upon its wayward sons?

                        Mercy – such a different concept! After hearing Cortes speak of it, Severus doubted he could ever see the word in the same light again. Mercy was staying the finishing blow against a worthy opponent. Mercy was sparing those too weak to defend themselves. It was not synonymous with oblivion.

                        “Come,” urged the Slayer in a mechanical monotone as Severus found himself in front of the double door. Strange, he thought. He did not remember the door from the beginning of his internment.

                        The thick metal plates moved, sliding slowly to the sides to reveal a small space with only glowing strips of orange material for illumination, barely large enough to fit the Terminator and his charge. Was it the end of the line, an execution chamber to dispose of the Legion’s refuse? Severus felt bitter, angry shame.

                        Dutifully, he walked into the small space, acutely aware of his proximity to the Terminator. If this was truly the end, if he were to defy his shame in one final show of futile resistance, Severus doubted he would be able to do a thing against the fully armored warrior. Was it how the rest of Team Mauve met their fates, too?

                        “Stand still.” The door slid close as soon as both Space Marines stepped into the chamber. The hair on Severus’ neck stood up as the hum of the floor rose in pitch, pulsating with strange energies. He smelled something burning, feeling a tingling sensation all over his skin.

                        He heard a click from the Terminator’s helmet, recognizing the sound of a vox being activated and wondering who the Slayer was talking to. Was he receiving his final orders to dispose of a failed brother?

                        The strange sensation ceased without warning. The chamber walls lit up bright yellow, almost white. Before Severus had a chance to say anything, the wall opposite the entrance began to slide to the side.

                        Airlock, or a decontamination chamber. Severus felt foolish for questioning the purpose of the room, giving form to his darkest suspicions. The Legion took care of its own, he thought, suppressing a smile of relief.

                        “Don’t get too comfortable, brother,” the Terminator warned before the feeling of euphoria could take full effect. Was it Severus’ imagination, or did the other warrior’s voice sound sterner and harsher than before? “Keep your wits about you.”

                        “W-w-what?”

                        Before Severus had a moment to conceptualize what he was planning to say, the sliding door fully opened to an austere, brightly lit room filled with armed and armored Warblades. The Space Marines lined up against the walls, their postures seemingly ceremonial yet clearly capable of immediate violence with little warning. Severus recognized markings of the Slayers, but also of Clans Brear, Turog, Xulu, and at least four others. Almost all were officers or veterans of long-standing; compared to them, Severus was but a neophyte.

                        Near the center, the rest of Team Mauve stood unarmed and unarmored, looking positively dejected compared to their more illustrious peers. Severus tried to make eye contact with his battle-brothers, but none of them seemed willing to acknowledge his presence.

                        “You know where to go,” the Terminator accompanying him said, following with a relatively gentle push. Severus took the hint, trying to maintain at least a semblance of dignity as he strode through the veritable sea of veteran warriors, feeling their eyes and their judgment on him. Perhaps, he reflected, it would have been better if he did walk into an execution chamber.

                        Severus took his place side by side with his brothers. For all that he had no psychic abilities, he could practically sense the shame and the desperation in their figures. Without a single word being spoken, he knew that his earlier relief was misplaced.

                        And yet, the congregation was silent – not the silence of a crowd waiting for a speaker, but that of tension balancing on the edge of a monomolecular blade, as if something of great import was going to happen. Was he to be made an example of, Severus thought, wondering if there was a right thing to say in this gathering of the Legion’s luminaries.

                        The doors slid open again. Was there another latecomer to this trial, as Severus began to call it in his mind? He turned his head slightly, trying to catch a glimpse out of the corner of his eye.

                        And stared, open-mouthed, at Baelic, Primarch of the Eleventh Legion.

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                        • #13
                          ELEVEN

                          The Stormlord
                          Frayed Alliance
                          Decisions

                          It was said that the Primarchs were the Emperor’s great work, culmination of a centuries-long plan to create the exemplars of humanity to lead, inspire, and guide the rest of the species into the new golden age. Looking at his gene-sire, Severus could not help but be awed.

                          Even unarmored, Baelic stood a head taller than Terminator-clad Slayers, his muscular bulk comparable to a Dreadnought yet perfectly defined rather than shapeless – a vision of a warrior-god honed by trials of the arena and proven ascendant in battle. The Primarch’s light hair was shorn in a buzz cut above a forceful, angular face with prominent square jaw and radiant blue eyes, unmarred by scars or blemishes. His entire image exuded strength of arm, determination of unflinching purpose, power of conviction that had no place for doubt of hesitation.

                          Master of the Eleventh Legion was clad in tight-fitting garments that showcased his herculean physique, leaving much of his arms and chest bare. A wreath made of gold and precious gemstones crowned his high forehead, contrasted against the light blue of his shirt emblazoned with blades of white and golden silk. A massive blade, easily as large as a Legionary, hung at the Primarch’s side, covered with ornate carvings depicting scenes of stylized gladiatorial combat with impeccable artistry.

                          Severus saw the images of other Primarchs – statuesque Iskanderos, regal Gideon, stately Rogr Hemri, and menacing Nyxos – but in his mind, none could adequately compare to the display of martial majesty before him. He had to exert every bit of willpower not to stare open-mouthed, knowing that even the Legion’s veterans could never get used to the presence of their father amongst them.

                          “My sons!”

                          Even without amplification, Baelic’s voice resonated through the room, drowning out all thought. It was deep, raspy, yet not without barely noticeable undertone of humor and good cheer, as if the Primarch was about to share some intimate joke with all who gathered in his presence.

                          Severus felt chills up and down his spine. This was the closest he has ever been to one of the Emperor’s own gene-progeny, and the gravity of the moment was not lost on him. Even if the outcome of this gathering was to be the summary execution of Team Mauve, Severus thought he could die satisfied, knowing that the verdict was read by the Stormlord himself.

                          “I present to you Kill-Team Mauve, of Clan Turog,” the Primarch continued, waving his hand towards Severus and his brothers in a theatrical gesture. There were some quiet snickers from the crowd, almost certainly the result of Team Mauve’s reputation.

                          Baelic paused, scanning the crowd with a slight, curved smile. Silence fell almost momentarily.

                          “As you know, we spent much of the last year fighting a war.” Something about the Primarch’s pose told Severus that the Stormlord was more interested in dramatic effect than in relaying information. Baelic’s expression grew more serious in an instant. “But this is a different kind of war. No longer do we go into battle against the slavering alien, or against the misguided children of Long Night. This war is against our own brothers.”

                          There were murmured words and nods of assent from many of the officers. While Severus was attempting to stand perfectly still, he found it very difficult to remain silent, even with his life possibly at the stake.

                          “A war that we should not be fighting.”

                          The words came out of Severus’ mouth unbidden, so quiet that the crowd noise should have hid them. Instead, the Warblade found all eyes on him, as if he had a loudspeaker attached to his mouth.

                          “Who said that?” One of the Slayers, a Terminator-armored veteran remaining bareheaded, glanced left and right with murder in his eyes.

                          “It is not a crime to speak what we are all thinking out loud, Glan,” Baelic replied, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture. The Primarch’s eyes settled on Severus with almost no hesitation.

                          “Santaros Severus.” Baelic spoke the name as if they were old comrades who fought by each other’s side for decades or even centuries. “Having a hard time keeping your thoughts to yourself?” A slight wink in the Primarch’s eye indicated that his words were in jest. The giant approached Team Mauve, putting his hand on Severus’ shoulder in a sign of camaraderie.

                          “M-m-m-my lord…” Severus attempted to speak, but found his composure lacking in the presence of a demigod.

                          “No son of mine should be afraid to speak his mind,” thundered Baelic amicably, looking Severus in the eye. “I am not Hemri, or, fates forbid, Nyxos.”

                          The Primarch turned around, facing each section of the crowd in turn. As he moved, even the grizzled veterans grew silent, expectant of what would come next.

                          “Severus of Clan Turog grasped one fundamental truth,” the demigod said. “Our war against the Council of Terra is ill-timed, poorly judged, and ultimately futile.”

                          The silence was unbearable as the Warblades tried to take in their gene-father’s words. All the trials and tribulations of the Legion’s campaign, all the sacrifices of friends and comrades made over the year of fighting, was all of it for naught?

                          “I know this may come as a shock to some of you,” the Primarch said, “but to others, it may come as vindication. Ever since Iskanderos presented his proof against the Council, we thought we fought on the side of righteousness. We thought we were right!” The repeated words were shouted into the room for emphasis, with overwhelming effect. If any mortals were present amongst this gathering of Legionaries, the Stormlord’s voice was loud enough to burst their eardrums.

                          “We. Were. Wrong!” Every word coming out of Baelic’s mouth was a damning statement of error, an expression of a year’s worth of futility and hard fighting. “We were damn wrong in our choice of sides, and we were wrong in our choice of allies.”

                          “Kill-Team Mauve here,” Baelic nodded in the direction of Severus and his squad-mates, “made a discovery that has profound implications on the nature of this war.” The Primarch’s fists clenched, as if in anticipation of violence, or in a petulant fit of anger. “Our so-called allies traffic with forces left alone for very good reason. I, for one, cannot imagine how such dealings can be for the benefit of mankind, or for the glory of our species. Can you?”

                          A cacophony of sounds answered him, some coming from the throats of the Legionaries, some from the in-built speakers of power armor suits. Over and over, one syllable was repeated – NO.

                          Baelic turned to the warriors of Mauve, sizing each of them in turn. “Haracles Tajan, the Kill-Leader,” the Primarch called out a name, once again smirking in a confidential manner. “You and your men have earned the Legion’s gratitude.” Baelic’s voice rose in both pitch and volume.

                          “These warriors, your brothers, made the right choice in resisting corruption that took hold within the Eighth Legion. It is nothing less than a victory. A victory!” Baelic rose a clenched fist into the air in a gladiatorial salute. “First victory of many!”

                          A veritable forest of armored hands answered him, and Severus felt an uncontrollable urge to join them. Without thinking, he raised his fist into the air, howling the Primarch’s name as a battle cry amongst the chorus of the Legion’s notables repeating the syllables – Ba-e-lic! Ba-e-lic!

                          The Primarch waited for the chant to quiet down, letting the excitement of his sons run its natural course. Baelic’s eyes glinted with satisfaction as he once again addressed the crowd.

                          “Do you, my sons, remember why they call me the Stormlord?” The Primarch was the very image of good cheer, a celebrated orator or a noble hero enjoying the attention of his disciples.

                          “Let me remind you.” Baelic smiled eagerly. His eyes kept on scanning the throng, occasionally making contact with select warriors, sometimes drifting to the room’s sterile surroundings. “We strike like lightning, with the fury of the storm itself – first into the battle, while our slower cousins struggle to keep up. You are the storm, the fury of humanity, untempered and lethal.”

                          “And yet,” he continued, and a note of something very much like bitterness crept into his voice, “for all the glory we have conquered, for all the accomplishments of the Eleventh Legion, there were those who detracted from our strength. Too quick, they said! Too rash!” Severus felt his teeth grit at the familiar accusations, now spoken by his own Primarch.

                          “Iskanderos offered us the glory without the leash. He told us the bureaucrats feared what they did not understand, feared that the sons of Laodice would eclipse their victory tallies all too soon. And is it not true?” The Primarch’s words seemed to resonate well with his sons, who alternately nodded or murmured in assent. “Is it not true that our tally of compliances was getting close to Lion Guard’s, despite them having four times our numbers? Is it not true that many cast their jealous eyes towards the Eleventh?”

                          Baelic’s expression grew somber as he went on. “But there is a price for everything. The glory we sought was nowhere to be found. The war by the side of Nihlus and his lot is anything but honorable. And my brother Iskanderos, for all his words, is not complimented by the company he keeps.”

                          “Have you ever wondered where is the Sixth Legion? Why is it that we are fed into the grinder along with Iconoclasts and Gargoyles, while my brother campaigns elsewhere? There is no glory in this. There is no honor in this.”

                          “And,” the Primarch paused, drawing the audience in before the final verdict, “something foul is unleashed amongst the Iconoclasts.”

                          The murmurs from the gathered Warblades grew louder. Severus thought he could make out some words – freaks, Punching Bags, witch-lovers, amongst far more creative invectives.

                          “I, for one, will have no part in this!” shouted Baelic to his gene-progeny. “I will fight a war for humanity by your side, my sons, and I will fight it with blade and bolter, like it was always meant to be. I will let my skill and armor be my shield, and with this, I shall conquer. With this, we shall conquer!”

                          “But,” the Primarch said slowly, with menace showing through the heroic veneer, “I will not stand for something corrupt. For this is not what we conquered the galaxy for. This is not how it was meant to be.”

                          He paced back and forth in front of the Space Marines, arms behind his back in angry contemplation. “The new information uncovered by Kill-Team Mauve is troubling, because it confirms the worst of my suspicions. Whatever dark methods the Iconoclasts used, they have no place amongst you, my sons. Just thinking about the abominations they inflicted upon themselves makes my blood boil.”

                          “The Iconoclasts are no allies of ours, and the one who directs them is no friend of mine. And today, we will undo the wrongs we unknowingly took part in. Today,” Baelic growled, “we will make it all right!”

                          * * *

                          It was long after the histrionics of Baelic’s performance, long after the last of the Legionaries’ bravado fizzled out in face of difficult reality, that Micah Poseidon finally raised the question.

                          The Clan-Master of Turog joined his Primarch in solitude of the Stormlord’s private retreat, with only exquisitely wrought servitors for company. Where many Primarchs had their personal quarters decorated with majestic frescoes, lavish representations of their victories, and wealth looted from thousands of conquered worlds, Baelic purposely chose simplicity. A hero’s reward is his legend, the Primarch frequently quoted to those who knew him best, and if Poseidon judged his master right, Baelic saw himself as an unassailable hero more than anything else.

                          Several sets of armor and weapons on simple metal stands were the only homage paid to opulence of image Baelic presented to the rest of the universe. The rest of his chambers were bare save for personal training machinery, unsophisticated necessities, and several lecterns crowned with skeletal trophies from the Primarch’s many conquests. The roof of the largest room resolved into a transparent cupola, in which distant flashes were the sole reminder of a void war occurring elsewhere in the system.

                          “What next, sire?”

                          Poseidon’s words were quiet and solemn now that he did not have to uphold the façade of command before his men. Even clad in his Terminator armor, the Clan-Master had to look up to meet his Primarch’s eyes, and Poseidon felt like a child confronted with the unquestionable majesty he could never become.

                          Baelic did not answer. The Primarch’s eyes drifted to the cupola, where celestial illumination belayed the true nature of this conflict. After what Poseidon felt was an appropriately lengthy pause, the Clan-Master spoke again.

                          “Have you considered… speaking with Lord Iskanderos about this? He must know about this filth amongst the Eighth.”

                          The Stormlord chuckled weakly, quite at odds with his imposing figure. There was sadness in his voice, combined with exhaustion. It was as if the Primarch let go of his own need to appear strong in front of his sons, instead bringing his doubts to the fore.

                          “Sire?”

                          “I know my brother, Micah,” said Baelic in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “The perfect one. The golden boy, you know?” He grimaced, as if thinking of something distasteful. “And I know Nihlus, too, as much as anyone not named Kthuln or Nyxos can claim to know him.” Baelic’s face twisted into an expression of bitter amusement.

                          “You know what he promised me?” The Primarch sat down in a heavy throne of plain, unadorned metal, too big even for a fully armored Space Marine. His head hung low, perhaps in admission of shame or even that of defeat. “Nothing as prosaic as the place on a Council, or a large fief, you see. Iskanderos promised a place of honor to our Legion. That was all. Tell me this, my son,” Baelic’s eyes bore into Poseidon. There was something dark there, some kind of a haunting secret or torturous understanding. “Do you think I did the right thing?”

                          “Every Warblade will follow you into the Warp itself,” said Poseidon, his expression unreadable.

                          “I know!” Baelic snapped, hammering his fists into the arms of his throne. Poseidon noticed indentations in thick metal; by the looks of them, they were weeks old. “This is not what I asked of you. Do you, or do you not, think I did the right thing by siding with Iskanderos?”

                          Poseidon chose his next words carefully. “The proof he presented was hard to refute – then. Now… things changed. We did not know then what we learned in the last two months.”

                          “Iskanderos knows,” the Primarch said glumly. “I am certain he was aware of Nihlus’ perfidy. For all that, he might even have encouraged it. I can see him taking allies anywhere he can.” He huffed in disgust. “Angelus. Maikhaira. No one in his right mind would rely on those two and treat them as equal partners. Urgh!” Baelic growled in frustration. His fingers tapped a nervous rhythm over the throne’s arms. “I have been a fool to fall for his honeyed words. And now, what now?”

                          “We can always try to negotiate with Hemri,” Poseidon spoke cautiously. “He is a viper, but at least he is a predictable viper.”

                          “Hemri can go to hell for all I care,” seethed Baelic in a sudden flash of anger. The outburst of emotion left the Primarch looking dejected. He put his palms over his eyes, rubbing them in slow, wide circles.

                          “We have to make a choice, sire,” intoned Poseidon quietly. “After your speech, the officers will start talking to their men. Very soon, even the lowest auxiliary in the Legion will know. You cannot take your words back.”

                          “Some choice this is,” Baelic squeezed out the words. “Suppress the words spoken in anger and fight for Iskanderos, along with his collection of freaks and monsters. That, or go grovel before Hemri and his clique.”

                          Poseidon cocked his head, thinking. Possibilities flashed before his mind. He thought of corruption which took hold amongst the Iconoclasts, recalled his few encounters with the ever more bestial Gargoyles and the inscrutable Iron Locusts. Was this the fate of once-proud Warblades?

                          His thoughts drifted to distant Terra. Iskanderos claimed to stand against the corrupt rule of the Council, but who was the corrupt one here? Poseidon only saw Rogr Hemri of the Lion Guard once and even that was from considerable distance; the only Lion Guard Legionaries he met were hardly remarkable in any way. Could these men usurp the rule of the galaxy while the Emperor was refusing all contact with his charges?

                          How could they not?

                          Anger rose within his chest, hot, virulent emotion quite unlike mortal sentiment. He felt his hearts racing in overdrive, feeling conflicting sensations tear at his sensibilities.

                          “It troubles you too, my son,” said Baelic, noticing the Clan-Master’s discomfort. “And, like you, I see no easy way. Whoever wins this war will give no quarter to those who stood aside.”

                          Baelic shook his head, laughing bitterly. “Two great, glorious choices. Follow Iskanderos to the bitter end, or surrender to Hemri and become target practice for his goons.”

                          “There is a third way.” The thought came to Poseidon unbidden, yet it was nevertheless liberating. The Space Marine’s breath became rapid with elation of hope.

                          The Primarch cast a piercing glance at him. “Speak,” commanded Baelic.

                          “Even in the best of times, the Council was never united, sire,” Poseidon started, returning his gene-father’s look. “Now…” He let the silence hang meaningfully.

                          “We are not diplomats, Micah!” Baelic exclaimed, slamming a hand against his own thigh. “The sons of Laodice are warriors. First in, first out. Remember? The last time we played political games, it ended with this.” He sighed heavily, rolling his eyes. “How could you possibly suggest we play the Council members against each other, when it led to such spectacular results before?”

                          “They do say that Lord Corwin and Lord Hemri don’t see eye to eye on many things,” elaborated Poseidon slowly.

                          “And, unlike Hemri, Corwin is right here,” Baelic finished the Clan-Master’s thought. A glint of something (hope? revelation?) appeared in his eyes. The corners of the Primarch’s mouth lifted in an appearance of a smile.

                          Undeterred, Poseidon continued. “Perhaps Lord Corwin can be much more reasonable than the master of Twelfth.”

                          Baelic rubbed his chin contemplatively, clearly considering the Space Marine’s words. The wreath slid to one side of his head like parody of a crown.

                          “Perhaps…” the Primarch whispered, as if thinking out loud. He hummed something, though it was hard to tell if it was a melody or words mumbled under his breath. His back straightened and the expression on his face regained some of the good cheer he exhibited in front of the Legion’s officers and veterans.

                          “We cannot leave the fleet now,” Baelic said, stating it as a hard truth. “Nihlus has enough forces to bleed us, even with the element of surprise. I don’t want to destroy my Legion while trying to save it.”

                          “We may win,” said Poseidon cautiously. “What better way to prove our loyalty than that?”

                          “I have no fear of losing, my son,” the Primarch retorted thoughtfully. “It is the price of victory that I am concerned with.” He rose up to his full height, towering over the Clan-Master and raising his eyes to the cupola. The void war still raged in the distance, unabated.

                          “Nihlus is not an idiot,” Baelic explained, still looking at the star field. “I don’t think he, or his sons, trust us. Even if we manage to surprise him, it will not take him long to recover. And…” there was something in Baelic’s voice that suggested disgust, “his Legion is larger than ours. He can afford casualties.”

                          “What are you thinking of, sire?” ventured Poseidon, trying to discern what was going to come out of Baelic’s mouth next.

                          “Secrecy,” the Primarch answered. “I made a mistake by speaking of my doubts earlier. This will not happen again. And then,” he licked his lips in nervous anticipation, “we will talk to Corwin.”

                          * * *

                          “I still cannot believe it.”

                          Aratos was the first of Team Mauve to speak after looking warily to the sides, making sure they would not be overheard. There was little risk of that, though – as soon as the Primarch left, the throng of Warblades began to disperse. Just like Team Mauve was the center of attention only minutes ago, they were now forgotten, the moment of their unlikely elevation made irrelevant by the impact of Baelic’s message.

                          They remained in an empty block, seemingly left to their own devices and with neither direction nor purpose. The Clan-Master of Turog barely spared them a single glance, following the Primarch out, while the other officers probably only knew of Kill-Team Mauve from its shameful history of underachievement. The six Warblades were the sole occupants of a space just recently occupied by dozens of armored warriors.

                          “You better,” quipped Tajan. “I thought for sure they were going to make an example of us.”

                          “I am not the one who ordered retreat,” Aratos retorted. The Space Marine’s bare arms tensed with nervous strain.

                          “What’s done is done,” Severus said before Tajan and Aratos had a chance to resume their disagreements. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Velent, Majorian, and Brutus move surreptitiously closer, as if preparing to step in between Aratos and the Kill-Leader in case things escalated.

                          “I don’t even know where we are,” Velent tried to change topic. “Are we on Heart of Valor?”

                          “Your guess is as good as mine, brother,” Majorian continued to sway the conversation away from the looming standoff. “I did not think Virtuous Slayer had anything like this section.”

                          “Well, we got to be heroes for all of five minutes,” chuckled Brutus in a typically rough manner. “Now what?”

                          “No one told us we have to stay here,” Severus said, seeing Aratos raise one eyebrow in a quizzical expression. “I suppose we can go back to Virtuous Slayer, unless we run into Poseidon and he tells us otherwise. Maybe we could seek the Primarch and see if he has something for us.”

                          “Very funny,” sneered Tajan. “Because Lord Baelic will make time for the likes of us. Seventy thousand Warblades, and he will drop everything for Kill-Team Mauve. I should feel honored.” The acidic sarcasm in his voice was a clear indication of what he thought of Severus’ plan.

                          “He has a point.”

                          Instantly, all eyes were on Velent.

                          “The Primarch sent us here. That much is certain,” the Space Marine elaborated. “Or do you think it was the Clan-Master behind our little adventure with the Punching Bags?”

                          Tajan rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then crossed his arms behind his back. The Kill-Leader took several steps towards the wall, then turned around. It took Severus a moment to realize that his commanding officer was pacing.

                          “Suppose what you say is true,” said Tajan slowly, weighing the words. “Suppose it was the Primarch who ordered our mission, and now he has all the answers he needed.”

                          Aratos nodded. “What is the worst that could happen?”

                          There was tension in the air as warriors of Team Mauve readied themselves for whatever was coming next. Tajan stopped in one place, eyeing each of his men with suspicious, conspiratory eyes.

                          “He is right,” the Kill-Leader announced. Severus could feel surprise emanating from his brothers. It took a miracle for Tajan and Aratos to agree on anything.

                          “It is not as if leading you band of screw-ups can be any worse than whatever the Primarch may do to me, if I were to seek him out,” Tajan continued with a crooked smile on his face. “Plus, anything beats whatever mop-up task Poseidon will undoubtedly give us.”

                          * * *

                          Fifteen light seconds away from the invading armada, a black-hulled fleet ran silent. Engines powerful enough to pierce the veil of Immaterium were cold and lifeless in hard vacuum. Nearly impenetrable void shields stood down to remain invisible against the background cosmic radiation. Missile banks and weapon batteries gazed blindly into the interplanetary abyss.

                          Closer to the inner system, the outer elements of Iconoclasts and Warblades forces began a skirmish against the Angel Kings patrols. So far, the perimeter of defenses around Hyrule Secundus held, but it was only a matter of time before the invaders could force a breach.

                          The reserve force continued on unabated. The Twentieth Legion forces protecting approaches to the mustering world had their part to play – the warriors on board the hidden fleet had theirs. Everything was going accordingly to the plan.

                          * * *

                          Pertinax could barely hide the excitement in his voice as he ordered the bridge crew around in preparation for controlled burn. The Red Lance was only few short words away from coming to violent, unstoppable life, a weapon of vengeance against the traitors who dared to defy the Emperor’s order.

                          Very soon, he thought, the traitors would pay.

                          He paid very little heed to oxygen use, now that combat was mere minutes away. The real difficulty was engaging the ship’s drives and weapons at the right time, early enough to come into battle on full power, yet not so early as to give the enemy time to prepare. Low-power tactical readouts spat from the cogitator, printed rather than displayed in an example of typical Mechanicum adherence to ritual. Pertinax grabbed a scrolling band of paper, browsing through the data in hopes of making up for the lack of more advanced targeting devices.

                          The strike cruiser’s trajectory was taking it near the rear of Warblades’ formation. As much as Pertinax would have preferred to have active scanning ability, the Primarch’s orders were explicit in forcing the use of passive sensors. Still, the Knight-Captain could see patterns in a mesh of numbers and equations, giving him a degree of clarity for the battle to come.

                          The invaders spread out across the system’s orbital plane, each Legion’s forces keeping to their own company. They must not be too trusting of one another, Pertinax thought with satisfaction. He was sure that Lord Corwin had some way to explore the apparent disunity of his foes.

                          If it was up to him, he would have concentrated most of the Legion’s forces against the Iconoclasts. From his experience with the Eleventh Legion, the sons of Baelic tended to lack certain clarity of vision, rushing into battle against all good sense. The Iconoclasts, those were a wholly different breed – tenacious enemies who fought with certain detachment, unlikely to make the mistakes of their less disciplined brethren. They, in Pertinax’s mind, were the true threat, not the latecomers of the Eleventh.

                          But then, the Primarch’s orders were clear. The fleet was to fall on both Iconoclasts and Warblades in equal measure, and woe to the officer who did not obey the directive. Pertinax did not know what Corwin was trying to accomplish with that, but if he learned one thing as an Angel King, it was that questioning his gene-father was a waste of time. All he could do was trust Corwin’s judgment and hope for a victory.

                          A victory that could reverse the flagging fortunes of this war.

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                          • #14
                            TWELVE

                            Ambush in the Void
                            Lost Sons
                            Let Them

                            The engines of the Red Lance burned as bright as the heart of an exploding star, seconded by the fleet surrounding the strike cruiser. Sudden acceleration pushed Pertinax back into his command chair while throwing mortal crew to the bridge floor. Somewhere in the background, warning klaxons blared as reports of injuries poured in from around the ship, inertial dampeners struggling to compensate for the ship’s movement.

                            From an external vantage point, the Angel Kings strike force looked like a fast-moving constellation torn from its celestial abode and given life. Battle-barges, strike cruisers, and lesser craft descended upon the invading forces in pincer attack formation precisely directed by the military genius of Corwin, Primarch of the Twentieth Legion. Lance fire and streaks of projectiles from the ships’ missile batteries painted afterimages upon the retinas of any souls privileged enough to view the spectacle, striking true before either the Warblades or the Iconoclasts had a chance to counter.

                            An Iconoclast frigate named Blood of Kars was the first to die under the onslaught, its void shields collapsing in seconds against the might of concentrated energies unleashed by Angel Kings. Many others soon followed, creating havoc amongst the formations of both Eighth and Eleventh Legions.

                            For all their lack of numbers, the Angel Kings managed to wound the invaders deep in the beginning stages of battle. Explosions filled the darkness with translucent halos of light, throwing hunks of debris and pieces of destroyed vessels into new orbits around the Hyrule star, there to create new asteroid belts to drift through space for millions, if not billions of years.

                            As the strike force hit the invaders in the rear, the remaining Angel Kings vessels at Hyrule Secundus surged forward to meet the enemy in battle. Where the war seemed to previously devolve into a series of skirmishes between the outlying patrols, full-scale battles now erupted.

                            Cruisers and destroyers stroke at each other, surrounded by shoals of smaller craft. Ponderous battleships engaged in duels against their counterparts, exchanging volumes of fire sufficient to obliterate any stragglers that wandered off-path. Thousands of lives were extinguished with every passing moment, barely noticed amongst the fleet-wide engagement between the Legions as acceptable, even necessary casualties.

                            On the bridge of the Red Lance, Knight-Captain Artos Pertinax watched the events with unbridled anticipation. His mission was of a different nature, and required more than just void war skill. He felt his blood boil in anticipation, waiting for the moment when he could complete the Primarch’s latest order and knowing that this has not yet been attempted. Still, the impossibility of the challenge did nothing to deter him, for if he succeeded, victory was only hours away. Not just any victory, not just recognition of courage, accomplishment, or martial skill. This victory would sway the balance of the entire war so much as to make its conclusion all but foregone.

                            His target was slightly out of enemy formation, adjusting its course to bring its prodigious firepower to bear against the heavier Angel Kings vessels. In the midst of combat, a trio of strike cruisers could slip away from enemy attention, positioning themselves for an attack run designed to deliver their payload of Legionaries into the heart of enemy.

                            The heart of the Warblades Legion – the Heart of Valor, the Legion’s flagship and personal command of Primarch Baelic.

                            * * *

                            Severus lost count of passages and elevators on Team Mauve’s way to the ship’s upper quarters. A Legion serf obviously too jaded to care guided the Warblades to their armor and weapons, leaving them to their own quest for Primarch’s attention.

                            Even clad in his war plate, the Space Marine felt odd as he contemplated the absurdity of the situation. Usually, even the Legion’s ranking officers usually had to wait for the Primarch to come to them; it was unheard of for a Kill-Team of relatively marginal renown to seek audience with their gene-father. While Baelic, unlike some of his brothers, was not known for his adherence to protocol, the very thought of their chosen course of action filled Severus with apprehension. He wondered if the Primarch left them without orders by mistake, then recoiled from the concept. Baelic did not make mistakes.

                            “Still think it is the right thing to do?” quipped Aratos as Team Mauve walked through yet another non-descript corridor, this time near crew quarters. The mortals parted in front of them, giving the Space Marines no more attention than they did to drab, utilitarian designs lining the walls.

                            “Not like Poseidon to leave us without a good talking to,” Tajan answered, scratching his head. “You would think the Clan-Master would at least say something.”

                            Severus chuckled in response. “I think the Clan-Master has more important things to do than tell us how piss-poor of a job we did.”

                            “The rest of them did not seem to think we did that poorly,” remarked the Kill-Leader. “The Primarch himself praised us. Can you imagine it? He actually knew our names!”

                            “Who knows how a Primarch’s mind works?” added Severus skeptically. “For all I know, he could have been briefed on it before he walked in that room.”

                            “Come on brother,” laughed Aratos. “Have some faith! It might have been your only chance to be within few meters of Lord Baelic. Remember the moment!”

                            “You don’t think we will speak with him again?” Previously quiet Velent walked with a little bit of a gait. Strange, Severus thought; he did not remember his battle-brother being injured at any point during the assault on Seven-Three.

                            “I think we should count our blessings that Lord Baelic even deigned to remember our names,” answered Aratos with soft laugh.

                            “What I really wonder is, what happened to the Punching Bags?”

                            “What, Severus?” Tajan looked like his attention drifted for a moment.

                            “I would imagine they were kicked off the ship, wouldn’t you think so?”

                            “The Lutaro twins seemed to like them,” Majorian retorted. “Maybe they found some quarters with Brear?”

                            “Maybe,” Aratos coughed to mask what seemed like a fit of laughter. “Brear’s combat servitors need training, too!”

                            “I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them,” said Brutus for the first time in the conversation. All eyes instantly turned to him even as Team Mauve continued on towards the Primarch’s sanctum.

                            The words came unbidden out of Tajan’s mouth. “Say what?”

                            “It does not matter how well they fight, if it takes three times the effort to put them down,” the Space Marine explained. “Look at how well the Angel Kings did.”

                            “Those were the dregs of the Twentieth,” the Kill-Leader answered weakly. “No sensible tactics, and probably fighting with a death wish.”

                            “Dregs or not,” Severus intoned, “the way the Eighth fights, they should have had more casualties.”

                            Aratos coughed, more to draw attention to himself than out of any genuine affliction. “The Primarch obviously sees something in all of it. Something to remember when we ask him what to do next.”

                            “Do you think we should have gone to Poseidon instead?” As Velent spoke, there was something meek and uncertain about the way his eyes were cast down to the floor.

                            “This is our moment of glory, such as it may be,” replied Tajan. “Besides, chances are the Clan-Master is attending to Lord Baelic. We might be able to speak with both of them at once.”

                            In other words, Severus thought, it was a polite way of saying that the Kill-Leader was ready to risk an all-out gaffe, whether or not the Clan-Master of Turog was there.

                            “The worst that could happen is that we get sent back to the training cages or to the Labyrinth,” Tajan explained. “It is not as if we are not very familiar with both already. What?” He asked as he noticed the stupefied looks. “I doubt we will be turned into servitors for seeking to speak with Lord Baelic. The Eleventh does not do this.”

                            “Easy for you to say,” grumbled Aratos. “The Doom Reavers would do that, and all worse.”

                            “Well, we are not Marvus’ boys. And it’s not like they don’t have enough to do playing hide and seek with Iskanderos.” The thought of the Eighteenth Legion’s travails brought a crooked smile to Tajan’s face.

                            The Kill-Team went up several flights of stairs, traversing catwalks over chasms filled with arcane machinery and avoiding the half-human tech-priests working on the ship’s insides. As far as Severus could tell, they walked for at least three kilometers, indicating that their holding quarters were far away from the Primarch’s sanctum. The irony was not lost on him; the Legion’s officers probably had direct elevators or pneumo-tubes to take them from one end of the ship to the other in no time at all. The grunts of Team Mauve were relegated to walking.

                            “How much longer?” Velent complained as the Space Marines passed what looked like a garishly dressed clique of human dignitaries discussing the fineries of some piece of artwork. “And what are these mortals doing here? Don’t they understand we are at war?”

                            “I never understood the remembrancers, myself,” said Aratos hoarsely. “You’d think them to be the Council’s spies, or some such. The Gargoyles were right to be rid of them.”

                            Severus spit on the ground at the mention of Fourteenth Legion’s name. The acidic bile began to eat through the metal floor, leaving an irregularly shaped crater.

                            “All the more reasons to coddle ours,” answered Tajan. “You’ve heard the Primarch.”

                            “That I did,” Aratos acceded with a thoughtful look to him. “I suppose you have a point.”

                            “Besides, who else is going to do an adequate retelling of your glorious deeds, brother?” said Severus with a grin.

                            “As long as there are any glorious deeds to be retold,” the other Space Marine grumbled. “At this rate, the most glorious thing we did was run away.”

                            “The Primarch does not seem to think of it that way.”

                            “Call me cynical, but perhaps he does not want to lose face in front of the Legion,” retorted Aratos. “How do you think it would look if he admitted that his decision was based on actions of a bunch of cowards.”

                            Instantly, Tajan was in Aratos’ face. “Do. Not. Say. That. Word.” The Kill-Leader enunciated each syllable as if it was filled with venom, a potent weapon in its own right.

                            “Fine.” Somewhat surprisingly, Aratos did not push the matter.

                            “Three more levels, I think,” said Velent, trying to break the unfavorable flow of conversation. The Kill-Team was passing through a section filled with busts of Legion’s heroes, along with the description of their deeds. Holographic projections exalted the triumphs of the Eleventh from the time of its founding to the discovery of Baelic, and many glorious campaigns under the Primarch’s own command. Severus felt small and inadequate under the dead, marble eyes of his storied predecessors.

                            The conversation seemed to die down the closer they got to the Primarch’s sanctum. Perhaps, Severus thought, each of them was only now coming to terms with the brashness of their collective decision. Perhaps they were attempting to justify it to themselves, carefully wrapping their hopes of direction in expectations of disappointment.

                            Perhaps none of it mattered.

                            Severus found himself breathing little heavier than usual. Team Mauve was only few meters away from the armored doors leading to Baelic’s reception chambers, while Terminator-armored Slayers stared them down impassively. Was their foolhardy quest doomed to end here, as the Legion’s elites turned them away?

                            The warriors of Team Mauve exchanged looks. This was going to be the decisive moment. Tajan nodded, as if in assent, or perhaps as an encouragement, then took a step forward to address the Slayer guards.

                            The ship shook.

                            The tremor was barely noticeable to all but gene-forged Legionaries, but it was enough to instantly push any thoughts of an audience with the Primarch to the back of Severus’ mind. In the void of space, it could have meant only one thing. They were under attack.

                            The impassive Terminators instantly tensed, their previously indifferent demeanor changing to a wary stance. The storm bolters embedded into their wrists targeted Team Mauve.

                            Tajan cast his eyes to the ceiling in an instinctual response, ignoring the Terminators and expecting threats to come from elsewhere. Severus had to force himself to refrain from reaching for his weapons; in their present agitated state, the Slayer bodyguards could have interpreted it as an attempt on the Primarch.

                            “What is happening?” Aratos asked no one in particular, looking confused.

                            “We are under attack, you dolt,” replied Tajan angrily. “So much for seeking a moment of Lord Baelic’s time.”

                            “Out of the way!” bellowed one of the Slayers. Before any of Team Mauve had a chance to protest, the Terminator moved forward with unexpected speed, pushing them to the side. Clearly, the bodyguard no longer considered them a viable threat.

                            The doors began to open. Severus thought himself wiser to this new development, and promptly stood to the side. He spared a brief glance for his surroundings, images of the dead Legionaries much like those on the Virtuous Slayer yet grander in their size and opulence. As far as he knew the design of the Legion’s flagship, they were somewhere near the top of the spire protruding from its hull like a fin of some primordial ocean-going predator. An awkward thought entered his mind – why would a Primarch choose to reside in such a relatively open location instead of keeping his quarters behind kilometers of armor plating and non-essential compartments?

                            All his thoughts were swept away as he saw his Primarch for the second time in the day.

                            * * *

                            Their eyes crossed for a second, and Severus was taken aback by the change he observed in Baelic. This was no heroic statue posturing in front of his sons – the demigod in front of him was a killing machine prepared to be unleashed upon any enemy unfortunate enough to cross him. Every movement was a well-measured, perfectly thought out step to bring forth destruction as war demanded. Every breath maximized the rhythm of keeping Baelic in absolute combat readiness, never to turn back or retreat even in face of impossible odds.

                            The Primarch was fully clad in a suit of armor that encompassed his inhuman physique, making battle-hardened Terminators appear like children next to their liege. Baelic’s barrel chest and massive arms were given even greater bulk by the ornate golden warplate, masking the built-in storm bolters and flamers inside the decorative bas-reliefs. A woven tabard depicted abstract iconography that might have meant something in the ages before the Long Night, but now only augmented the majesty of the superhuman warrior. The Primarch’s backpack hissed and vented steam and vapor into the sterile air of the Heart of Valor, condensation gathering around Baelic’s shoulders like a shrouded halo of mist.

                            The Stormlord went bare-headed, not bothering to hide his features from any prospective enemies. The good cheer he displayed only mere hours ago was gone, replaced by total concentration, the art of destruction made flesh and manifested in post-human form. Every muscle moved in perfect unison, every cell a gene-forged miracle of forbidden and forgotten science.

                            One of Baelic’s hands grasped a sword the size of a fully armored Legionary, while the other held a shorter blade – still a massive weapon by human or even Space Marine standards, but looking almost like a dagger in the hands of the Primarch. Lightning danced across the power fields of the weapons as the blades emitted soft, deadly purr of internal machinery. Severus involuntarily held his breath as he recalled the names of the weapons and the deeds ascribed to them. The long blade was the Kingsbane, a gift from Echelon of Steel Wardens made in happier times. The short blade was the Brightheart, a relic from a campaign against an ancient, depraved alien empire that saw Baelic pushed to the very limits of his ability as a warrior and a general.

                            To watch the Stormlord wield even one of his named weapons was a privilege only few of his Slayers could witness. The message was clear – the Primarch of the Eleventh Legion expected the battle to come to finally provide him with worthy adversaries.

                            This was Baelic at war, and now Severus understood what the enemies of the Eleventh Legion must have felt. Even to a hardened Legionary, the sight was unnerving. To a lesser being, it would have been terrifying. There was no mercy, no compassion, no humor in the ice-blue orbs staring at Severus. There was only murder, blood, fire, and most of all, steel.

                            “Mikrath. Sulen. Narton. Form up on me.” The Primarch barked orders with a voice used to being obeyed unquestioningly. As one, the Slayer Terminators fell in line, covering their liege’s flanks. Baelic’s eyes scanned the immediate surroundings for threats before settling upon the warriors of Kill-Team Mauve again.

                            “You. Mauve.” Baelic’s words came out as monosyllabic shouts where every breath was conserved in order to extend his peak fighting condition. Severus was reminded of a Labyrinth scenario where a small group of Warblades was tasked with fighting a desperate defensive action against a swarm of enemies. There, too, time and ammunition were in short supply, and enemies were everywhere, forcing the Space Marines to spare very little attention to heroic speeches or detailed orders.

                            “Form the rearguard,” the Stormlord ordered with no hesitation. If he was surprised by the sudden appearance of Team Mauve, he gave no indication of it.

                            Tajan did not have to give an order as Severus, Aratos, Velent, Brutus, and Majorian formed into a well-drilled defensive pattern. Their weapons – bolters and blades only, as their issued heavier armaments must have remained behind on the Virtuous Slayer – locked in unison with each other and with the Cataphractii Terminators, covering every possible angle of fire.

                            Severus felt himself sweat inside his gauntlets, a nervous reminder that even after his elevation to the ranks of Legiones Astartes, he still had a lot of human frailties about him. He looked around warily, noticing the flickering emergency lighting as the ship’s generators strained to power its void shields at the expense of all non-essential systems. The Legion’s dead heroes stared down, now acquiring a positively daemonic aspect to their impassive visages, enhanced to something more fitting a barbaric collection of gargoyles and monsters. Even their weapons, lovingly carved from priceless stone, seemed less of noble implements of honorable conquest and more of barbed hooks ready to sink into the flesh of the unwary, drinking deep of their victims’ blood.

                            The Space Marine wanted to say something, anything to relieve the mounting tension, but his training would not let him even mouth off the words. He thought of the one time he visited a vessel belonging to the Fourteenth Legion – a frigate with nary any Space Marine complement, crewed almost entirely by savagely tattooed and pierced Argosians. In this light, reddish and orange and visceral, disturbing brown, the statues of Warblade luminaries made him think of the Gargoyles and their repulsive iconography.

                            The battleship shook again, this time with more force. Severus guessed that it was struck by a wayward torpedo before the void shields harmlessly dissipated the lethal energies into the Immaterium. Another tremor followed, then one more.

                            “Dreadclaws!” Baelic seethed, suddenly overcome with righteous fury. “The bastards are trying to board us!” It was hard to tell if he was genuinely enraged that anyone would be so bold as to dare commit such an affront against him, or if some part of him relished the challenge. Looking at his liege, Severus could not help but imagine perfection made flesh, a militant god of violent retribution clad in war paint of night and terror.

                            Baelic smiled, a savage grin that made him look even more like a bloodthirsty berserker. His weapons made circular motions above the heads of his warriors, almost as if he was warming up for a gladiatorial contest. For a second, his cold, blue eyes appeared to emit strange, inhuman light at the very edge of even the genetically enhanced Space Marines’ ability to see.

                            “Then I say let them.” The Primarch growled in something approximating satisfaction and malice all at once. “Baelic to bridge,” he switched to command channel. “Lower the void shields. I want them to come to me.”

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                            • #15
                              THIRTEEN

                              Into the Heart
                              Empty Words
                              Alive

                              The lascannon shot missed Pertinax by mere centimeters, and the Knight-Captain instinctively swerved out of the harm’s way, blindly returning fire with his bolt pistol. Around him, a twenty-strong squad of Angel Kings did the same.

                              Only two minutes passed since the insertion, and already the battle was as intense as anything he had ever known. When the first Dreadclaw boarding pods slid past the Heart of Valor’s void shields, carefully taking every countermeasure known to man to deliver their cargo, Pertinax knew that he was going to have a fight on his hands, but even then he could hardly imagine the ferocity with which the Eleventh Legion defended their flagship.

                              Perhaps, he thought, we underestimated them. Techno-barbarians, some called the Warblades, infantile savages from a world where life was easy, where even the lowest of the low knew few hardships but each other. They were everything the Angel Kings were not – emotional, impulsive, poorly disciplined.

                              And yet they, not the Legions that approached war as science or art, were the glory boys of the Imperium. Not respected, mind that – after all, Baelic would never be given a seat on the Council of Terra, and his warriors would rarely lead campaigns where other, more level-headed Legions were present – but glorified nevertheless. Theirs were the suicidal charges that somehow, against all odds, prevailed with far fewer casualties than they should have taken. Theirs were the battles that legends would be made from. Pertinax thought bitterly that when an average Imperial citizen far from the front lines imagined Legiones Astartes, he would see a warrior in azure armor, brashly charging into combat with nary a thought but conviction of his own invulnerability and glory that waited for him.

                              Fighting his way through the cramped corridors of the Eleventh Legion’s vessel, Pertinax reflected that perhaps the Warblades’ reputation did them a disservice. For all their aggressive demeanor and reckless squad tactics, there seemed to be a guiding hand at work here, protecting key strong points while attempting to exploit weaknesses in the Angel Kings assault formations, taking punishing, withering storm of fire but giving back equally as hard.

                              The Twentieth Legion still enjoyed somewhat of numerical superiority, but Pertinax did not know how long it was going to last. Two thousand of his battle-brothers joined the assault on Heart of Valor, two thousand of the best fighters the Legion had to offer. Against that, the Warblades had perhaps two thirds of that number, and even that was partially made up from new recruits, or walking wounded recuperating from the opening movements of the Hyrule campaign. Still, the Eleventh fought on their home territory, and if anything, they were even more dangerous here. If the Angel Kings were to successfully complete their mission, Pertinax had a strong suspicion that casualties among them would be severe.

                              He forced his mind from the uneasy meanderings and considered the tactical situation. The largest portion of his force penetrated the enemy flagship’s hull on upper decks, not too far from the bridge and the supposed enemy headquarters. Reports were coming in on the comm-network of squads scattered across the great vessel, some meeting resistance, some advancing almost entirely unopposed. Unfortunately, it seemed that the Warblades were quite cognizant of Angel Kings’ locations too, throwing almost their entire strength against the bulk of the Twentieth Legion’s forces.

                              “Grenades!” Pertinax screamed, not bothering with subterfuge. As he and the squad of his honor guard let loose the anti-personnel frag grenades, he charged into the murky corridor where Warblades were trying to mount resistance. A bolt exploded against his pauldron, doing little to slow him down. He screamed a battle cry of his barely remembered mortal family, timing his assault just seconds after the grenades exploded so that shrapnel would not hit him or his men.

                              The azure shapes looked grey in the dim emergency lighting, and Pertinax had to switch through several visual modes before he could find one adequate for close-quarters battle. The fighting was thick here, and screams and war cries from Legionaries on both sides of the conflict made it difficult to concentrate. He slid his power sword under the defenses of a Warblade, disemboweling his opponent before turning to the next.

                              It was too close for proper maneuvering, so Pertinax simply slammed into the enemy Legionary, pressing the enemy’s combat sword flat against his breastplate and denying him the use of the weapon. He headbutted the Warblade, cracking the eye lenses on warrior’s helmet and almost certainly temporarily distorting his opponent’s vision, while taking a quick step forward to bring the enemy out of balance. As he moved against the momentarily disoriented Space Marine, Pertinax put a bolt through the weak spot on his neck.

                              Around him, the melee went on, oblivious to individual victories and setbacks. The Knight-Captain spared a fraction of a second to review the tactical overlay. To his satisfaction, his men were making progress, making use of their numerical superiority and pushing the enemy back. Still, the Warblades did not break. Instead, the azure-armored warriors retreated in disciplined groups, squads providing covering fire for each other even as their comrades bought them time at the cost of their own lives. By Pertinax’s estimate, there were anywhere between sixty and eighty Warblades still alive – at most half of the number that attempted to stem the Angel Kings advance.

                              “All squads, form up on me,” he voxed while firing his pistol on auto in the direction of the retreating Warblades. He consulted known schematics of the Heart of Valor, helpfully displayed by his armor’s machine spirit at a moment’s thought. Curious, he pondered, noting the direction of the enemy retreat. The ship’s bridge, and the likely quarters of Primarch Baelic, lay the other way. What were the Warblades planning?

                              “Do not pursue,” he growled over the secured channel, seeing that some of his more eager sergeants began to break away from the war host. “But secure the flank,” he added as a conciliatory statement. He knew that his men were eager for a chance at glory, just like the warriors led by other Knight-Captains were straining against their discipline and training to have a go at the enemy. If anything, they deserved an explanation. “Our target is Baelic. Secondary is the ship’s bridge. Everything else is of no consequence.”

                              He heard acknowledgments of the company’s sergeants and smiled. They might yet be able to pull it off, he thought to himself, breaking into a run at the head of his men.

                              The Angel Kings were in the midst of a system of corridors leading to main habitation areas of the ship and veering off in each and every direction from its command center to the engine blocks. The walls had clean metallic sheen to them, pristine but for the flickering gloom of emergency lighting and dents from bolt shells. There was little iconography painted on the surface, and what sigils there were seemed to retreat into the semi-darkness. Pertinax wondered if the lack of decorations was deliberate, or if they somehow managed to penetrate into one of the more utilitarian sections of the ship.

                              Whatever it was, he resolved, it was not worth pondering over.

                              For the moment, the Warblades retreated, leaving a messy score of their dead and mortally wounded. Pertinax assessed the state of his own men. Technically, each company was commanded by its own Knight-Captain, every bit equal to Pertinax in rank and accomplishment, but Falander’s recommendation saw him named as temporary mission leader. The implications were clear – victorious return would earn him a promotion. Failure would probably not see him return at all.

                              “Charges ready?” Pertinax voxed to his senior sergeant, a dour fellow by the name of Amal, who grunted in assent. The Knight-Captain could not help but cast a sideward glance at the bulky device deliberately kept in the back of the Angel Kings formation. If the task force’s mission was in danger of being jeopardized, he had authorization to activate the bombs strong enough to cut through several even the reinforced armor of a Primarch’s flagship.

                              He hoped it would not come to that. This was a coward’s way of war, a tactic worthy of Marvus and his Doom Reavers, but too far beneath a Legion of Angel Kings’ aristocratic pedigree. Even though Pertinax knew that his chances of surviving the thermonuclear blast were practically nonexistent, he hoped he would not have to live with such a stain upon his honor, and it galled on him in the extreme that Lord Corwin would even consider this a viable tactic.

                              “Let’s hope we can win it in a fair fight,” he whispered, conscious that no one would be able to hear him with the comm-link closed off.

                              * * *

                              Severus could barely keep up with the punishing pace set by Baelic as the Primarch and his retinue sped to the place of primary breach. The ornate decorations of the Stormlord’s atrium gave way to utilitarian corridors and passages populated by panicking Legion serfs and Legionaries in various states of readiness transferring to the next location dictated by their commanders. Baelic had to angrily wave several Warblades aside as they attempted to join him and his men, and yet the Primarch’s following grew. By the time they were close enough to the boarding party, there were upwards of a hundred Space Marines at Baelic’s side, from grizzled Slayer Terminators in their Cataphractii pattern armor to unbloodied youths barely out of the Legion’s auxilia squads.

                              “Angel Kings,” Baelic growled, perhaps relishing a challenge, perhaps feigning annoyance. For his part, Severus chose wisely not to speak. It was clear that the Primarch’s blood was up, and in the heat of battle, even the Emperor’s sons were occasionally known for making rash decisions.

                              The Primarch continued. “Now, when you see the enemy, I want you to remember one thing. Do you know what it is?” He grunted, as if in preparation for some physical exertion. “I want some of them taken alive. No decapitations. Is that understood?”

                              “Sire!” The Legionaries following their gene-father answered with a loud murmur, acknowledging his order.

                              Baelic smiled. This time, it was almost a fatherly gesture, inspirational even to the martial minds of the men around him.

                              “My sons,” he said in a rough, yet not altogether unpleasant tone. “You heard me speak earlier today. You know what we are up against. The Angel Kings may be the enemy today, but they may not always be opposed to us. Fight them with honor and remember that a day yet may come when we call them brothers again.”

                              As he spoke, he walked at a brisk pace that the rest of the Warblades had a hard time keeping up with even while running. There was a newfound purpose in the Stormlord’s eyes, as if the anticipation of battle to come gave him clarity he so desperately needed.

                              “Our real enemy is not here. Remember that, my sons. Some may die today, but they will die for a good purpose.” Baelic’s voice raised to a deafening bellow overpowering all. “Their sacrifice will be necessary so that the Legion may continue to fight with the honor it is due. It is what must be so that we fight the real enemy of humanity. Have I ever lied to you?”

                              For all that the question was rhetorical in nature, some of the Legionaries nodded while still maintaining full battle readiness. Others grunted or cheered, knowing that their gene-father saw and heard them all.

                              “Then know this, my sons,” continued Baelic, circling Kingsbane over his head in a slightly theatrical gesture. Though they were still outside of visual range of enemy boarders, Severus could not help but feel as if the Primarch pointed at the direction of the Angel Kings. “This is a battle against an honorable enemy, but a battle we must win nevertheless. The fate of the Legion depends on your actions today. Do not fail me.”

                              * * *

                              The first to die was a Legionary named Sedric Valanz, a warrior of the Sixth Brotherhood of Thirty Sixth Grand Company of Angel Kings. Pertinax could barely register a savage swing of a power sword which took the warrior’s helmet straight on, splattering a mass of blood, bone, and brain over his armor.

                              The Warblades’ assault had resumed in a matter of mere minutes, but this time the Eleventh Legion brought reinforcements. Where previously the Angel Kings only fought against the wayward squads employing delaying tactics, the latest counterattack was well-organized, with heavily armored Terminators spread across smaller Warblades units to lend them durability as well as heavier weapon capability.

                              But for all the impressive display of martial might that entailed, it still could not compare to the figure leading the counterattack.

                              Pertinax had a chance to see Lord Corwin fight on two separate occasions – once during the pacification of Margaive, and once at the tail end of the Gorum Cluster campaign. While the towering giant at the head of the Warblades formation had none of Corwin’s subtle grace and cold-blooded swordsmanship, the lethal precision of his movements reminded Pertinax of his own Primarch’s skill. For all that their fighting styles were completely different, the sheer scale of carnage caused by the Warblades’ leader could only compare to that wrought by Corwin all those decades ago. As Pertinax watched, the giant shrugged off the attack of a demi-squad of Angel Kings, disposing of them in less time than it would have taken to shout a warning.

                              So, Pertinax thought, this must be Baelic, the Primarch of the Eleventh Legion, and the target of his assault. The Knight-Commander could not tell if he was feeling a sense of admiration for his eventual opponent, a sensation of creeping dread quite unbefitting a Space Marine, or even awe at seeing such a magnificent being in its natural environment. His thoughts kept on turning to the explosive device carried by his men. Would it be right to just initiate the sequence now, he wondered, seeing Baelic carve through the best of the Thirty Sixth Grand Company with so little effort that he as well might have been fighting children. A sense of unease slithered through his mind, all thoughts and expectations of victory cast into doubt.

                              The Knight-Commander rushed forward, finding himself face-to-face with one of the Cataphractii Terminators bearing a pair of lightning claws. He swore, knowing that the Warblade’s armor offered him an advantage in this battle, but reconciled himself to the thought that at the very least, he was going to be given a true challenge. Only the very best amongst the Legiones Astartes would be clad so.

                              The Terminator’s claws dripped lightning and blue energy as the Warblade swept them in a circular motion, both arms making independent geometric figures in the air before crashing against Pertinax’s power sword. He heard the crackling of competing energy fields as he struggled against the Terminator’s superior strength.

                              It took the Knight-Captain two arms to keep the Warblade from overwhelming him, even as he was painfully aware that the effort left him practically defenseless. He spared a glance for the enemy warrior’s helmet, staring at the other Space Marine with absolute hatred reserved only for those who betrayed their own kin.

                              “Traitorous cur,” Pertinax hissed, finally managing to swerve to the side. The movement made the Terminator momentarily lose his balance, and the Angel King capitalized on that, striking at the exposed cables near the traitor’s midriff. The cut did not penetrate the thick Cataphractii armor, but it was enough to send a shower of sparks down to the ship’s floor. Pertinax hoped that he damaged some crucial system, or at least did enough damage to slow his opponent down.

                              The Terminator backhanded the Knight-Captain in response, knocking him off his feet. Against such raw power, even power armor was little recourse, and Pertinax felt the dents in his war plate press against his skin. He rolled to the side, hoping to recover quickly before the heavily armored Space Marine had a chance to repeat his attack.

                              The Angel King reached for his bolt pistol and let out an ineffectual volley in the general direction of his opponent, failing to even slow him down. From here, the Terminator looked like a charging auroch determined to crush him into a pulp with his sheer bulk. Lightning claws drew strange patterns in the air, movements guided by an unfamiliar fighting style.

                              The warriors were separated by less than two meters when Pertinax struck.

                              The Knight-Captain lunged forward, putting all of his momentum into a single strike with no thought of defense. It was a gamble, but Pertinax judged it worth trying. In a straight-up fight, even discounting the effects of a rampaging Primarch nearby, the Terminator had every advantage, every chance to withstand the Angel King’s blows and parries until the inevitable conclusion. This had to be finished quickly, he decided, before the Warblade could wear him down.

                              “Death to the traitors!” Pertinax screamed, skewering the attacker and quickly twisting the power sword out of the Terminator’s body, cutting through flesh, bone, and sinew as if they were hot butter. As he struck, the Knight-Captain rolled to the side, hoping to the half-forgotten gods of his home world that his enemy would not guess the direction of his escape.

                              As Pertinax rolled, he quickly regained posture, getting on one knee and barely avoiding an opportunistic blow from a different Warblade. Before Pertinax could compose himself, he was struck by several bolt shells, which exploded against his chest plate and pauldrons, knocking him back – and, ironically, out of the way of the Warblade’s follow-up attack. He felt combat drugs circle through his system, suppressing the pain and allowing him to function at greater efficiency before the inevitable post-battle comedown.

                              Multi-colored icons flashed in his HUD display – squads suffering casualties, sergeants calling out for orders, ammunition counts, status runes. Even with decades of training and all of his genetic augmentations, Pertinax could only grasp the most rudimentary feel for the flow of battle. What he did see made him feel uneasy at best.

                              Even with their superior numbers, the Angel Kings were losing.

                              For every Warblade that fell, Twentieth Legion lost several of their own. True, the Space Marines of both Legions were equally matched, and if all other things were equal, the conclusion of the fight would have been foregone. Even the Warblade Terminators were but a distraction, tough opponents but not a match for coordinated, well-drilled Angel Kings. But even with the weight of fire and strength of blade, the Twentieth Legion had no answer for Baelic.

                              The Stormlord was a whirlwind of destruction, shrugging off injuries which would have eviscerated even the stoutest Space Marine while killing, killing, killing with every movement. Where he went, nothing remained save for blood-stained azure figures following in his wake. It seemed that Baelic, single-handedly, was responsible for driving back hundreds of humanity’s most hardened, best-equipped, most disciplined killers.

                              The moment of contemplation almost cost Pertinax his life. A persistent, helmetless Warblade kept on attacking him, combat blade flashing before his eyes with speed and skill. The Angel King caught a glimpse of long, unruly hair and a face covered with tattoos and scars, mouth snarling in battle-rage. The length of the power sword became a disadvantage here at close quarters; the Knight-Captain could not bring his weapon around without leaving himself open for his opponent to strike.

                              He stumbled backwards, driven off-balance by a flurry of attacks from the Warblade. Pertinax cursed as he almost fell over the body of the Terminator he killed. It seemed that even in death, the heavily armored warrior worked against him.

                              “Not so tough now, Angel King?” the Warblade laughed at him, keeping up the tempo of assault after assault. Pertinax could only attempt to block with his vambraces, knowing that if he did not somehow manage to recollect his composure, the enemy warrior was going to find a weak spot. “Always thought the Slayers were a bit too slow!”

                              Pertinax did not deign the other Space Marine with a response as slow, frustrated rage built up inside of him. He was one of the Emperor’s chosen, a commander who rose to lead a company through his skill and ferocity. He was not going to be denied victory by a jumped-up techno-barbarian, Primarch or not!

                              Unable to bring his power sword to bear, Pertinax found an imperceptibly small opening in Wabrlade’s defenses just as the enemy swing almost got the Angel King’s throat. With a scream of wordless hate, the Knight-Captain punched the exposed face, feeling the satisfactory crunch of cartilage from the broken nose.

                              The moment cost him. Even injured, the Warblade managed to turn the momentum of Pertinax’ assault to his own advantage, adding momentum to his own spin and plunging a combat blade straight into the Angel King’s side. Hot, piercing pain shot up Pertinax before his armor had a chance to inject him with pain suppressants.

                              He squeezed his teeth, unwilling to give the enemy the satisfaction of injury, then swung his power sword in a wide arc. It was a slower movement than it should have been, and Pertinax was painfully aware that the Warblade had ample opportunity to seal his victory, but at this point he did not care. All he wanted was to feel the weapon connect, to know that whatever victory the other Space Marine thought to claim was going to be a short one. No matter how fast or skilled the Warblade was, he had nothing to protect against the energized field designed to cut through the hardest substances known to man.

                              The blow never connected.

                              Dumbfounded, Pertinax could only watch as, inexplicably, the power sword shattered. He saw the blade, still crackling with residual energy, separate into several pieces, as if it was made of brittle glass. One of those pieces barely cut the helmetless Warblade on the cheek, while the others jerked into the air, as if possessed of unholy will of their own.

                              The world was moving slowly, too slowly to be fully natural. Pertinax found his reactions slowed to a glacial pace, fully aware of what was happening and yet unable to do anything about it. He tried to let out a scream of rage, but could only summon what felt like a muffled moan. It seemed that time itself froze to a crawl.

                              A blow hit him from behind, faster than it should have been yet strong, so very strong. Warning signals flashed in his HUD like the beat of many mechanical hearts, amber, red, orange sigils foretelling his impending demise.

                              His last thought before the blackness claimed him was about the bomb carried by the Angel Kings on board the enemy flagship. If Pertinax could not taste victory, he would at least be sure that no one else would.

                              * * *

                              Consciousness came to him slowly, one uneven movement at a time. First, there were sounds, dripping of viscous liquids that even his enhanced hearing could not place, hum of machinery that was at once menacing and serene. Is this what afterlife sounds like, he wondered?

                              For this is where he must surely have been. Even if his injuries in battle were not fatal, nothing could have survived the explosion. He drew in short, ragged breaths, reflecting on it, trying to find peace with himself.

                              There were lights and shapes just beyond his closed eyelids, indistinct and yet bright. The moment’s peace demanded that he kept his eyes closed, as if opening them was going to be something he was going to regret.

                              But, he reasoned, if this is the next world, what was the difference? He had all the time in the universe, and then some, to welcome eternity, a counter-argument surfaced. Better spend another moment in peace while he could, it whispered into his mind, sibilant and quiet.

                              Still, it made him wonder. He could recall of no paradise like that from the stories of the home world. Even the cults springing up and claiming that the Emperor, the Master of Mankind was also some sort of a god did not speak of it. Was it paradise, or was it punishment for his past transgressions, then, that he ended up in an afterlife he did not know?

                              But he lived a good life, he thought. Every life he took was in the name of humanity, always with honor, always for the greater good. Every battle he fought brought the species one step further from the chaos of Old Night.

                              He had no regrets, none at all. And whatever strange reality was going to show itself to him, he was not going to shy away from it.

                              After all, he was Artos Pertinax, Knight-Captain in the Thirty Sixth Grand Company of the Twentieth Legion. More so, he was the gene-son of Corwin, the Sovereign, himself a progeny of the immortal Emperor. And most of all, he was an Angel King.

                              Thus resolved, he opened his eyes. And screamed.

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