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

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  • #16
    FOURTEEN

    Captive Honor
    Witchbreed
    Blood Oath

    A pendulum swung before Pertinax’s eyes, stark and glowing with dull reflections of something the Angel King could not see. Concentric patterns converged on the center of the device, collapsing inward in waves of vibration. The circular moving part rotated just fast enough to create an illusion of hypnotizing motion, while the left-right movement of the pendulum caused Pertinax to involuntarily follow it with his eyes.

    Left. Right. Left. Right.

    He willed himself to greater consciousness as he attempted to pry his eyes away from the device. At an instant, he felt something cut into his exposed arms and legs. Try as hard as he might, he could not move his head, or make even the slightest motion with his appendages.

    Voices drifted around him, language almost, but not quite familiar. He found his thoughts in a daze, as if something was bearing down on them, making it difficult for him to concentrate. Even with years of mental conditioning that formed a part of his Legion training, Pertinax felt disoriented, as though the very essence of his being was somehow compromised.

    The pendulum slowed down, though he could not tell if it was due to actual change in its motion, or if it was due to his mental defenses finally giving way. Pertinax felt frustration boiling within him, corroding the ordered structure of his thoughts and coloring them the pale crimson of anger. Words of a litany tried to worm their way into his consciousness, an oft-repeated mantra that was taught to all Angel Kings recruits as a way to bolster their mental defenses.

    Aaraq de na hydari. Martiq de na hydari.

    Arms of the destroyer. Teeth of the destroyer.

    In the barely remembered legends of the Angel Kings homeworld, a story slithered from times immemorial, told to every scion of a noble family along with other teachings of honor, virtue, and courage. An Imperial scholar once tried to discern the story’s origin, pointing out the similarities with the myths of pre-Unification tribes of the PanPacific, or perhaps tales of Albion, Franks, or even the Nordafrik Conclaves. Pertinax remembered listening to the man babble about the curiosities of shared mythologies, likely points of cultural dissemination, and possibility that the original colonists might have come from one of those societies. At the time, he did not give it much thought, but now, the underlying moral of the story resonated with him more than ever.

    The ancient serpent, the destroyer was broken into the pieces, torn apart by the victorious conqueror who, as fates had it, eventually suffered a reverse of his own. The pieces came back to life, only to birth the warriors who would avenge the conqueror.

    The meaning, as then, was clear to Pertinax. Every bit of suffering and disgrace he suffered would only stiffen his resolve to absolve this stain from his honor. More importantly, every bit would strengthen his desire for vengeance, would make it hotter and more urgent until it is satisfied, fed the blood of the enemies who would then fall before him.

    “Good. He is conscious,” a voice intruded on his thoughts. It was a harsh voice, speaking with an accent that reminded Pertinax of crude, barbarous demeanor and mindless ferocity. The hard edges of consonants sounded grating to him – nowhere near the refined patterned speech of the Angel Kings, every one of them noble-born.

    “Artos Pertinax. Knight-Captain.” Pertinax squeezed out the words, enunciating his name and rank. Name and rank, as the Legion’s standard procedures in case of captivity dictated – he would not let them have anything else.

    “Pleasure to meet you, Knight-Captain Artos Pertinax of the Thirty Sixth Grand Company, Twentieth Legion, Angel Kings,” the voice replied with a mocking undertone. “Why don’t you be a good guest and tell me something I don’t already know?”

    “Artos Pertinax. Knight-Captain,” the Angel King replied stubbornly. He had no intention of dignifying the barbarian with any other response.

    By now, it was becoming clear to Pertinax that the assault on the Heart of Valor must have failed. He did not know how the Warblades defused the bomb, or who else might have survived to be recaptured by the Eleventh Legion, but he could deduce the remaining sequence of events well enough. Even with the Legion’s best assault squads arraigned against them, the Warblades prevailed, most likely due to the presence of their Primarch, and now kept Pertinax and any of his surviving brothers captive.

    The knowledge that at the present, his well-being and continued survival were completely at the mercy of Baelic’s bastards, was as frustrating as it was irksome. Even before the advent of Iskanderos’ rebellion, Pertinax did not think much of the Eleventh. Corwin was always apt to say that a good warrior does not make a good soldier, and even a good soldier was no match for a good knight. The sons of Baelic were warriors, brave but ill-disciplined and prone to emotional decisions in the worst possible moments. Many of the Legiones Astartes bred soldiers – professional, capable, and capable of following orders. The Twentieth Legion was a Legion of knights, who combined the best traits of a soldier with the honor and courage only found in the highest order of the fighting men. To be held captive by Warblades was worse than a setback. It was a dishonor.

    “I suppose they teach you the drill pretty well,” the speaker chuckled, finally coming into Pertinax’s view. “There is no need to go through the motion, Pertinax. I doubt you know anything of value, and even if you do, we have better means to discern that.”

    The barbarian warrior was clearly one of the older Warblades, scarred and covered with bionics. One of the Legionary’s eyes burned an angry red of an augmetic, while the other displayed nothing but predatory certainty of the one who has his quarry fully within his power. He did not wear armor, but his robes of azure and gold were covered with symbols of rank or distinction.

    “Micah Poseidon, Clan Master,” the Warblade said slyly, duplicating Pertinax’s own response. “Clan Turog, Eleventh Legion, Warblades,” he added with a mocking grin. “Equerry to Primarch Baelic, the Stormlord. Also half a dozen of other honorifics and titles, if you care to know.”

    “Just kill me now, barbarian, or it will come back on your head later.” Pertinax squeezed the reply through his teeth. He had no desire to bandy empty words with his captor, let alone give him the satisfaction of mocking his betters.

    Instead of growing aggravated, Poseidon laughed. It was strange to see his mangled face twist into a smile, and even stranger to see the side surrounding the augmetic eye not move at all, as though he suffered some form of nerve damage there.

    “That is a start,” the Warblade replied, interrupted with bouts of laughter. “You Angel Kings were always a stuck-up kind. Noble sir what’s-your-name of ancient and oh-so-glorious-and-pure house who-gives-a-rat’s-ass, whose bloodline goes back to great chief Whack-a-Bone who lived in the most exalted cave of old Terra.”

    “Are you done with insults yet, savage?” Pertinax thought that he might have just enough acid accumulated in his Belcher’s gland to teach the upstart Space Marine a lesson. The anger in the Knight-Commander’s thoughts formed on a single target, just scant meters away. Now, if he could only turn his head…

    “Don’t even think about it,” warned Poseidon, as if reading the Angel King’s intention. The mocking tone left his voice, which was now dispassionate, coldly professional. “Brother Ishimura.”

    “Thank you, Clan-Master.”

    Another voice, this one softer and cultured in comparison to Poseidon’s rough tones. Too low to be human, yet too melodic to be a native of Laodice.

    “What kind of a traitor are you?” Pertinax growled. It took him all his self-control not to waste acid on a likely futile attack, knowing that he had very little chance of doing any real damage to Poseidon with his head restrained.

    The other Space Marine strode into view. Unlike Poseidon, this one was clad in a modified suit of Mark IV power armor, painted the light blue of the Warblades. The pendulum stopped completely, as if it had a way of sensing that its function was done.

    The newcomer’s head was connected to the armor by the means of several barbaric-looking cables that came from under a hood of material that was neither metal nor cloth, but had properties of both. In his hand, the armored Space Marine held a long staff crowned with a sun-like symbol, a circle with six twisted tongues sticking out in all directions. Pertinax felt a sense of foreboding. Even the air around him appeared to take on a viscous feel, as if the particles suddenly turned sluggish and unwilling to move.

    “I have what I need,” the armored warrior continued, giving a nod of thanks to the Warblade Clan-Master. “As to you, my friend of the twentieth,” he now appeared to be enjoying himself as he addressed Pertinax, “your resolve does you credit. Yes, I think you will do just fine.”

    “Witchbreed,” Pertinax hissed, finally understanding the nature of the man in front of him. He felt his skin grow cold as he experienced something very uncharacteristic of a Space Marine – trepidation, quite possibly even fear of the only thing that his kind could be afraid of, failure. What secrets did the enemy Librarian pry from his mind while he was overcome with righteous anger? He finally understood the taunting. It was never designed to insult him – instead, its purpose was to make him lose focus, to give in to his anger and to lose control of his mental defenses.

    The Librarian nodded, now looking Pertinax straight in the eye. “So, you do understand,” he said evenly, not minding the insult hurled his way by the Angel King. “My apologies for being poor hosts, but I am sure you can appreciate the precautionary measures. After all,” he added with a sly wrinkles forming around his eyes, “you did almost blow up the ship, and everyone on it.”

    “I have nothing to say to you, Warblade,” Pertinax squeezed through his teeth, looking the psyker in the eye. “Kill me now, or you will wish you did when I come for you.”

    “As I said, admirable resolve,” Ishimura said, barely acknowledging the Angel King’s sentiment. The Librarian’s eyes drifted off to somewhere beyond Pertinax’s line of sight. The Warblade scratched his chin, as if in contemplation of something known only to him.

    “I say, perhaps it is the time for our friend to learn more of his condition. What say you, Clan-Master?”

    Poseidon, now somewhere to the side of Pertinax, harrumphed. The Angel King could not tell if it was supposed to be assent or denial. He felt more than saw movement behind the motionless pendulum, and focused his eyes to better see who, or what, was in the room with them.

    “Don’t mind the servitors, cousin,” commented Ishimura. Pertinax felt his discomfort grow. Whether the Librarian read his thoughts, or if the psyker was simply very observant, the possibility did not bode well. How could one fight an enemy who knows his every thought before it is voiced, and can adjust counters before strategies are even formulated.

    “What he is trying to say, Angel King,” said Poseidon, with rather less tact, “is that the servitors are necessary to keep you alive.”

    Ishimura shrugged, casting a disapproving glance to somewhere outside of Pertinax’s field of vision. He glanced at the captive Angel King, apologetically.

    “I am afraid the battle has not been kind to you, cousin,” the Librarian intoned softly. “These bonds, and the machines behind you,” he nodded slightly, as if pointing out something Pertinax could not see, “are an unfortunate necessity, at least until proper augmetic replacements could be fashioned.”

    Replacements for what? In that moment, Pertinax could have given anything for a chance to move, to tear out the throat of his captor like a warrior of more savage times.

    As if reading his thoughts – or perhaps doing exactly that – Ishimura continued. “Even a Space Marine cannot survive for long with most of his internal organs shredded. You were fortunate in that Lord Baelic saw some use for you. Many others did not have such luxury.”

    “What happened to my brothers?” asked Pertinax, all thoughts of caution forgotten. Something dull and unpleasant wormed its way through his extremities. Was it fear? Was it sensation pushed out of its way by survival trance, now returning as drugs and pain dampeners began to wear off?

    “Most of them are dead,” said Poseidon bluntly. “Good deaths, too, if that makes you feel any better.”

    “You said most, not all.” Strange hope coursed through Pertinax’s chest. Perhaps, some of his warriors yet lived.

    “The rest are held captive on the Heart of Valor.” The Clan-Master came into view again. Almost nothing of his earlier mocking manner remained. All that was left was cold professionalism, easily the equal of any Pertinax would have expected from one of his own men.

    “Rest assured, cousin, they are treated as honorable prisoners of war,” Ishimura said softly. There was something in his voice that Pertinax could not place, an emphasis on the words that spoke of brotherhood and honor. “Once your injuries are sufficiently healed, you will be allowed to join them, on one condition.”

    “I will not betray my Primarch and my Legion, traitor,” Pertinax spat out.

    “Unfortunate. Most unfortunate that you will refuse this offer before you even know what it is,” the Librarian replied. There was a mischievous glint in his eyes, oddly at odds with the psychic warrior’s composure. “All I ask for is your sworn oath that you will behave in an honorable manner, accordingly to the rules set aside by your own Primarch in case of captivity by honorable enemy. Is that too much to ask?”

    “Every treachery begins with innocent compromise,” the Angel King quoted the teachings of Corwin.

    “But I am not asking you to commit treachery, Knight-Captain. I give you my sworn oath that at no point in time I shall ask of you anything that compromises your honor. Ta larska somties.

    As Pertinax watched with eyes wide from shock, the Librarian took up a small scalpel and made a cut into his exposed cheek. Almost instantly, the Larraman cells in Ishimura’s blood began to coagulate, but the point was made nevertheless.

    “You made the oath of the Homeworld,” said Pertinax, both in awe and in anger. “How…”

    “I am fully aware of what it means, cousin,” answered Ishimura solemnly. “A blood oath is unbreakable, and cannot be called back with honor.” He paused, studying Pertinax intently. “Are you willing to believe me now?”

    “I shall not swear the blood oath, Librarian, for I have doubts about the honor of the Eleventh,” Pertinax retorted. “You turned against Terra and the Emperor. How can I trust the word of the one who already broke his oath?”

    “As always, so direct,” Ishimura smiled. Pertinax could not be sure, but there seemed to be an underscore of sadness to the Librarian’s expression. “Things are… a bit more complicated than that, to say the least.”

    “What is complicated about treachery?” The Angel King’s words were an accusation, a statement of everything that was wrong with this entire conflict, the war that no one wanted to fight.

    “Let me assure you of one thing, cousin,” Poseidon, who previously stood immobile and emotionless, raised his voice. There was steel in it. “The Eleventh Legion had never turned its back on the Emperor.” He walked closer to the bound Angel King, stopping just to the side where Pertinax could not spit acid at him. Anger made the Warblade’s words brusque and abrasive. “We are not traitors, and we will not be named alongside them.”

    “What are you then?” Pertinax yelled back in kind.

    “We are the Warblades, Eleventh of the Legiones Astartes,” hissed Poseidon grimly. “And don’t you forget it.”

    “Enough!” For the first time in the conversation, Ishimura raised his voice. Whether it was due to some psychic trick or for some other reason, it made Pertinax’s ears hurt. For a long, long second, silence reigned, interrupted only by the wheezing of hidden machinery and binary cants of the servitors.

    The Librarian was his usual composed self when he continued. “I understand your reservations, Clan-Master, but let us not get into a verbal battle with our guest. I am afraid he is at a bit of a disadvantage here.”

    “I don’t think he is well enough to continue this conversation,” said Poseidon, all choler subdued.

    “I must dissent,” replied Ishimura. “Our guest is not in rude health, it is true. But harsh times demand equally harsh measures. And time is not on our side.”

    For a moment, the Clan-Master and the Librarian stared each other down, as if in challenge. Something unspoken passed between the two, something that a stranger like Pertinax had no hope of ever understanding.

    Poseidon was the first to relent. “Very well,” he sighed, then reached into a pocket of his robes, extracting a miniature round device barely larger than a fingernail. He attached the machine to the metal part of his cranium, where it seemed to stick as though held by magnetic or other forces. “Poseidon to Slayer Guard. It is time.”

    After imagining some unholy contraption with dubious function, Pertinax was relieved that it was little more than a communication device, albeit of unknown make and model. Still, the fact that Poseidon was calling in reinforcements could not have been anything good. The Angel King felt the effects of medications wear off; a dull, throbbing pain persisted through his insides, pulsing with every beat of his hearts. The Librarian seemed to concentrate on something beyond the comprehension of the mundane minds. As the temperature in the room dropped, Pertinax felt his pain grow worse.

    “He can no longer concentrate on keeping your pain at bay, Angel King,” said Poseidon by the way of explanation. “You have been given a great honor. Do not sully it.”

    “What… are you talking about?” The pain was getting worse by the second. Only now did Pertinax begin to understand the extent of his injuries.

    The sounds dampened, as though Pertinax was transported underwater. The light became dimmer and greyer. The Knight-Captain thought he could see the flickers of individual dust particles float through the air, orbiting each other in slow motion that went contrary to the known laws of physics.

    He felt the doors open more than heard them. An oncoming rush of air brushed against his face, making him momentarily lose focus. With it came scents that had no place in a sterile environment of a medicae bay – sweat, machine oil, ozone and smoke belched from the backpack reactors of power armor. He heard a dozen armored feet march in near-unison against the floor. Poseidon disappeared from his sight, as if the new arrivals banished him to parts unknown by their mere presence.

    “This is him, my lord,” the Clan-Master said. His voice sounded as if it was coming from another planet.

    “Very well, Micah.” The speaker’s words thundered through the room, giving Pertinax an impression of being in a small, confined space with a superheavy tank firing heavy ordnance shells. A dozen feet marched out, their sound growing fainter and fainter as if receding into distance. “Leave us.”

    “Are you sure, my lord?” Poseidon inquired. Every word sounded like a bubble of air under the viscous surface. “We can take no chances.”

    “Trust me.” The thunder returned. The voice was somehow familiar to Pertinax, as though he heard it before. He felt a prickle of multiple needles pierce his skin, applying local anesthetic that instantly returned numbness to his mid-section. “I am sure he will be much more reasonable now.”

    A giant appeared before Pertinax. Even by the standards of post-human Legiones Astartes, he was a towering being, clad in pitted and scratched armor that could not disguise recent battle damage which was not yet fully repaired. Piercing blue eyes burned with the resolute light on a square-jawed face that seemed to be made of unyielding stone.

    Pertinax knew that face. He saw its owner slaughter the battle-brothers of the Twentieth Legion by the dozen, shrugging off injuries and ignoring even the best efforts of the Angel Kings to bring him down. But now, instead of battle rage marring its perfectly wrought features, the face was calm, serene, even thoughtful.

    “You… you killed my brothers.” Pertinax could not manage anything else, a statement of defiance made in the face of the invincible, unkillable enemy.

    “A regrettable necessity, Knight-Captain, but the one that you will surely appreciate, given time,” said Baelic.



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    • #17
      FIFTEEN

      Reversal of Fortune
      Voices and Ambassadors
      What You Cannot See

      Time slowed down to a crawl around Pertinax. The face of the Eleventh Legion’s Primarch loomed in front of him like a giant planet before a lander on a hopeless collision course. The Angel King felt as helpless as a newborn before the demigod, acutely aware of his vulnerability and of scent of battle still clinging on to Baelic.

      Stubborn defiance gnawed at his thoughts, reassuring him that if anything, he would at least deny moral victory to the enemy. He would not bend. He would not break.

      “Brother-diviner?” Baelic turned his head to Ishimura, raising one eyebrow. The Librarian nodded, as if every movement was difficult for him.

      “We are… secure… my lord,” the Warblade squeezed through his teeth laboriously. The words had none of the previous finesse or cultured enunciation left in them. Whatever the Librarian was doing must have taken all of his physical and mental concentration.

      “Good.” Baelic withdrew, but Pertinax held no illusions as to his own safety. He saw the Stormlord move and kill Space Marines as easily as other men would have swatted annoying gnats. Even if he was in full health, armed and armored, the Angel King stood no chance in any confrontation.

      “The Apothecaries say that your injuries will take weeks to fully heal,” the Primarch said contemplatively. “Pity that we don’t have weeks.”

      “What are you talking about?” Pertinax felt the pain return, combined with an onset of nausea.

      Baelic looked to both sides before continuing, almost as if he expected someone or something to jump at him. Pertinax thought such behavior to be strange at the very least. What did a gene-forged demigod have to fear in the safety of his own flagship, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of Warblades?

      When the Primarch resumed speaking, his voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “I have an offer for you, Knight-Captain, that may allow us to end this unfortunate conflict with honor. Pity then, that it may deny you a chance to properly rest and heal.”

      “Your underlings already tried to coerce me,” answered Pertinax defiantly. “I will not betray the honor of my Legion or of my Primarch.”

      Baelic laughed. It was a sad sound, as if made with the knowledge of something the Angel King was not privy to, not a triumphant bellow of a conqueror who has an enemy at his mercy.

      “I wish it was so simple,” the Stormlord shook his head. He crossed his arms, not bothering to hide the battle damage on the vambraces. There were deep cuts carved into the ornately wrought designs, as if lightning claws raked their way through the Primarch’s armor, stopping just short of drawing blood. A plasma burn made the bas-reliefs of Baelic’s right shoulder guard flow like candle wax, now solidified in a disturbingly organic-looking shape.

      “Yes, I fought your brothers and killed a great many of them,” said Baelic with the air of weary resignation. “You are within your rights to hate me for it.” The Primarch shook his head. “And I will likely have to kill many more, if we cannot come to some sort of understanding.”

      Pertinax snarled. “My warriors died with weapons in their hands and pride in their hearts. Every Angel King would do the same to secure the galaxy from the likes of you.”

      Baelic seemed to ignore the fighting words. His lips curved slightly, a despondent smile. “I am trying to stop this insanity,” he said softly, in a manner at odds with his belligerent appearance. There was undeniable sincerity in his facial expression. “Do you understand?”

      The Stormlord’s voice rose into a bellicose growl. “My sons, your brothers – they are all dying here. And for what? The folly of Iskanderos? The lies of the Council?” He wiped sweat from his forehead, leaving stains of ash and soot. “I know one thing. This should never have been our war.”

      “It became your war. All of our war,” the Angel King retorted, feeling brazen in confidence known only to insanely courageous and courageously insane.

      “Yes, it did,” Baelic agreed uncomfortably. “We chased your Legion through seven systems until my brother decided to give battle here. But it is not too late to make things right, before we are all consumed by it.”

      “It is too late now,” said Pertinax defiantly. “Your Legion broke with Terra. You wrote your own fate. If you suffer a reversal in fortune, it is all on your shoulders.”

      I refuse!” screamed Baelic, slamming his hand into the motionless pendulum device. The machine flew somewhere out of Pertinax’s field of vision, impacting the wall with a loud clang! In the strangely muffled room, the sound reverberated as a low-pitched echo, rumbling like a series of descending bass notes.

      “My fate, Angel King, is not yours for judging,” Baelic said with venom in his voice. A vein on his temple started throbbing with alarming frequency. “You would do well to remember that.”

      Pertinax said nothing as the self-preservation instinct took over. An enraged Primarch was a clear and present danger to his continued existence, but the very fact that he was not yet dead indicated that Baelic wanted something from him. This gave the Angel King a bargaining chip in the negotiations, whichever way they went.

      Baelic took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a second that felt very, very long. When he opened his eyes again, his voice was once more even and measured. Only the constant flexing of his arms indicated that he was anything but completely calm.

      “I will ask you once, and only once, Knight-Captain,” the Primarch spoke, staring intently at Pertinax’s eyes. “Do not try my temper. What I will ask of you will remain private.” Baelic glanced sideways, towards the distant Librarian. Pertinax heard some faint groans coming from that direction; whatever Ishimura was doing must not have been easy.

      “I must speak with my brother,” the Stormlord said, firm and resolute. “And you will help me in that.”

      * * *

      The Labyrinth was unnaturally quiet, as if the nervy atmosphere on the Heart of Valor soaked through the great ship’s superstructure to affect its inhabitants. Today, the arcane devices hidden from Severus’ sight depicted icy tundra broken by ruined remains of buildings and machinery. The temperature was dropping in the ship’s conditioned environment, first below the freezing point, then even further. The light of simulated sun was overcast by heavy snow clouds, grey and blue like skin of a drowned corpse.

      Soon, it started snowing. Lashes of cold wind beat against Severus’ skin, as if in penitence for some past transgressions. A snowflake landed on his exposed hand; instead of melting, it vanished as if it had never existed.

      Team Mauve spread across the simulated landscape, clad in training fatigues that were clearly designed for much warmer weather. From his vantage point on top of a ruined grain silo, Severus watched them through the scope of his sniper rifle, scanning the bleak horizon for enemies. There were none.

      The training facility on the Heart of Valor might have operated on similar general principles as the one on the Virtuous Slayer, but the scale was much greater, as befitting the Primarch’s personal vessel and the Legion’s flagship. Through the combination of advanced teleprojections and technology native to Laodice, the Labyrinth felt almost like the real thing, but for few small details that were almost too perfect to fit in.

      The vox-bead in Severus’ ear snapped to life, trading silence for a voice fraught with static. He almost jumped at the sound before mentally berating himself for such un-Astartes-like sentiment. Anxiety was for lesser beings, for mortals – not for the sons of Baelic.

      Aratos’ whisper on the other end of the connection sounded like the other Space Marine was speaking from some deep cave, or the underwater locale. The workings of the Labyrinth played havoc with the comm transmissions in near vicinity, distorting the voices and adding strange, sinister echoes. There was talk amongst the Legion that sometimes, those who dared to use comm-beads inside the archaeotech training grounds heard whispers that could not have originated anywhere on their ship, voices that could not have possibly been human or sane. As much as the Legion’s techmarines scoffed at such sentiments, the rumor had it that ever since Maegara, there were more instances of ghost communications in the Labyrinth than ever before. Even though Severus did not pay much heed to this kind of idle talk, he had to admit that the rumor set him on the edge.

      “What do you think Tajan is trying to do?” Aratos’ words clearly indicated that this was a private channel, open only to the two of them. Severus traced his battle-brother’s location with the scope of his weapon; Aratos was at least three hundred meters away from the rest of the Kill-Team.

      “I have no idea,” Severus replied, never taking his eyes off the snowy landscape. The Kill-Leader chose a scenario that had little relevance to the upcoming battle – the Hunt for Kromarr, a seek-and-destroy mission that forced Team Mauve to hunt for an elusive predator in the ruins of a lost colony. “Maybe he is trying to take our minds off what’s going on?”

      “Maybe,” said Aratos, not sounding very convinced. “Ever since our last mission, I have no idea what is going on. I don’t know if we are even still in Turog. Poseidon certainly seems to treat us different than before.”

      “At least we have not been made Clanless,” remarked Severus. “This is the shame I could never live with.”

      It was certainly true that Team Mauve’s disposition within the Legion changed. They were given quarters on the Primarch’s own flagship, and the normally incessant orders from Clan Turog’s officers stopped. They were bereft of direction, lacking a formal chain of command and yet neither formally charged with transgression nor rewarded. Once again, six Warblades found themselves in a limbo between known disgrace and unknown honor.

      “The Primarch seems to have some plan for us,” Severus ventured, to a dismayed chuckle from his friend.

      “Like Lord Baelic has nothing better to do than to waste his time on a gang of ne’er do wells like us,” said Aratos cynically. “I think that he knows how we performed on Seven-Three, and the only reason we are not yet without a Clan is because he used us to make his point.”

      “Such an optimist you are, brother,” said Severus wryly, then shook his head, not thinking that Aratos could not see him. “Perhaps he has a plan for us. Something that could utilize our talents well.”

      “What talents?” Aratos laughed without much mirth. “We are the lowest-scoring Kill-Team in all of Turog, maybe even in all of the Legion. Our only redeeming quality is that we managed to talk up the Punching Bags and made them slip few things about their true allegiance.”

      “Don’t forget about the dumb luck,” said Severus. “We seem to have that in abundance.”

      The vox-link on the other end of the connection grew still. Severus could not tell if Aratos broke transmission, or if another one of the Labyrinth’s tricks distorted the sound.

      He tried to concentrate on the task at hand. The scope traced a line of stunted trees barely tall enough to be called such, raising their empty, mutilated branches towards the snow-filled sky. The snow started to pick up, reducing visibility even further.

      Severus.” The voice in his ear caught him by surprise, not only because it came out of nowhere, but also because the Warblade was sure it did not belong to any of Team Mauve. The voice was sibilant, almost pleading, yet too high pitched to belong to a Legionary.

      Once again, silence reigned. The Warblade tried to shake off the thoughts of something unbecoming. Glitch in the machine, he thought, attempting not to give the idea too much credence. He wondered if it was coincidental that the wind blew just a little colder.

      The Labyrinth flickered in front of his eyes and disappeared.

      In an instant, the vision of a snowy plain was replaced by a room with no features. Severus felt momentarily disoriented as the building he was positioned on vanished, and tried to reposition himself for the inevitable fall. He hit the soft, almost elastic floor with his feet, material absorbing the impact and mitigating the possible damage. Severus imagined the rest of the Kill-Team similarly disoriented by the interruption.

      At least they did not have to fall, he thought, trying not to reminisce upon the strange voice and what it could have meant. Glitch in the machine. Just a glitch.

      Out of thin air, a figure began to coalesce, a roughly humanoid shape with no identifiable features. Infinitely tiny particles color of the void between the stars drew to it, as if building it from scratch. To Severus’ eyes, they looked uncannily like flies.

      The figure assembled in less time than it took him to raise alarm. Even though it had no eyes or face, the Warblade thought that it could see him. He squeezed the sniper rifle, cursing that it was but a training model, useful only as a club outside of the Labyrinth. In the distance, his augmented eyes saw tiny shapes of his battle brothers, all running towards the figure.

      The empty Labyrinth lit up brightly, forcing him to instinctively close his eyes. A horn sounded, repeating over and over again.

      A welcome sound.

      When Severus opened his eyes, the figure was no longer there, and the Labyrinth was filled with servitors and tech adepts. The sounds of activity rang in his ears. Only now he realized that a moment ago, the Labyrinth was completely silent.

      “What… was that?” he voxed Tajan, breaking into a run to rejoin the rest of Team Mauve.

      “Hell if I know,” replied the Kill-Leader. “But I will have some words with the adept running the simulation. I will…”

      Severus never found out what Tajan was planning to do. The Kill-Leader stopped mid-sentence, as if he saw something unexpected. He was still at least a hundred meters away from Severus, clearly visible only because of the Space Marine’s augmented vision, but Severus could discern an expression of surprise.

      “My sons.”

      There was only one being on the Heart of Valor whose voice could fill even the Labyrinth without effort. As Severus turned around, all he could do was go down on one knee in the presence of Baelic.

      * * *

      The Primarch led Team Mauve through the halls of the flagship, pausing only to briefly shout encouragements to repair teams and Legionaries standing guard. The pristine grandeur of the ship’s corridors and rooms was diminished in the wake of the recent battle, and even now Severus could see signs of damage. Here was a crater in the wall, most likely from a close-range bolt shot; there, mangled weapon or piece of armor lay discarded on the girded metal floor. While the bodies were long removed, the lesser damage remained, and every step through the brightly lit corridors was the reminder of the Angel Kings’ assault on the Heart of Valor.

      For this occasion, Baelic was unarmored. The Stormlord wore a richly embroidered robe with the Legion’s insignia woven into the fabric, golden blades crossing over and over again amidst the azure background. He easily dwarfed the six Space Marines, making them break into a near-run just to keep up with his determined stride.

      Baelic urged Team Mauve into his chambers, waving away a guard of Slayer Terminators with an impatient flick of his hand. On they went through the reception hall, where trophies of a thousand worlds competed against each other and the layers of artwork and sculpture gathered from across the galaxy. On they went through the displays of wealth and power that cowed civilizations into submission without firing a shot. Only when they passed through a non-descript door leading into a room largely devoid of finery did Baelic stop.

      Severus looked around, catching glimpses of the Primarch’s world only revealed to a few within the Legion. He did not know what to expect.

      The Primarchs were figures of legend and myth, giants amongst both men and even amongst the Legiones Astartes. Each was a living demigod, a manifestation of ultimate grandeur made flesh. And yet, other than its size, Baelic’s private quarters seemed little different from the cells occupied by ordinary battle-brothers.

      There were no ostentatious proclamations of wealth or vanity here, no gargantuan paintings or treasures of long-lost xenos races. The only tribute to Baelic’s status was a large throne with well-worn indentations in its arms, and a rack of various weapons next to it. Severus noticed that despite the lack of ornamentation in the Primarch’s quarters, the weapons were all of highest quality and masterful craftsmanship. His eyes automatically leaped to legendary blades Kingsbane and Brightheart, resting on the opposite ends of the weapons rack.

      Severus only became aware of another presence in the room after the doors slammed closed behind them. His hands instantly made fists, although he knew better than to say anything.

      “Brother-diviner,” Tajan squeezed through his teeth, apparently sharing his sentiment at the sight of the psyker.

      “Kill-leader Tajan,” nodded Saradon Ishimura with an inscrutable smile. The Librarian was fully armored, holding a staff inscribed with arcane symbols that seemed all too familiar. Severus avoided his eyes from the witch. An old Laodician superstition surfaced from his nearly-forgotten human past. Evil eye.

      Baelic sat upon his throne, leaning on one elbow in contemplation. “His presence is necessary,” the Primarch said, nodding to the psyker.

      Ishimura set his staff on the floor and began to hum. The air in the chamber grew colder, as if all energy was drawn from it by whatever ritual the Librarian was performing. Involuntarily, Severus shuddered. His eyes sought out Aratos, who seemed just as uncomfortable.

      “What I am about to tell you, my sons, must never leave this room,” said Baelic without much introduction. There was urgency to the Stormlord’s voice, urgency and impatience.

      Severus wanted to say something in a moment of unlikely levity, but decided against it. Even Tajan and Aratos seemed to be unwilling to speak despite their usual demeanors. In this moment, everything was forgotten but for the presence of the Legion’s Primarch, and Baelic demanded full attention of everyone in the room.

      “You have heard me earlier,” the Stormlord said, rushing through the words just to get them out of the way. “From this moment on, we will not bow to Iskanderos and his ambitions.” He nodded to himself with some enthusiasm. “We shall seek an understanding with my brother Corwin and his Legion.”

      Tajan coughed to draw attention to himself, breaking the intensity of the Primarch’s emotional conviction. “So…” he seemed hesitant to speak, “where does Kill-Team Mauve come in? And… why us? Why not…”

      “Because there is no one better suited for this task,” Baelic interrupted, not letting Tajan finish. “You will escort the Angel King captive to Hyrule Secundus, and make sure that he relays my message to Corwin. Is that clear?” There was no humor in the Stormlord’s voice, only cold certainty that he did not expect to be disobeyed. Instantly, Tajan’s eyes went down to the floor, unwilling to meet his gene-father’s gaze.

      “You of Mauve seem to have a rapport with the other Legions, if your dealings with Nihlus’ brood are any indication. I think it will extend to dealing with the Twentieth Legion, too.”

      Severus exhaled. He did not even realize that he was holding his breath until he let the air out of his lungs. He silently chided himself on sentiment that was unbefitting of a Legionary. By his side, Aratos, Velent, and Majorian took in every word of the Primarch as if it were some form of religious scripture. Further away, Brutus scratched his chin with jerky, nervous movements. Tajan was still looking down, perhaps worried that he might have spoken up too soon.

      And further away, the Librarian leaned upon a long staff, his face unreadable. A thin trickle of blood streaked from the corner of his eye down to his cheek. Icy crystals formed around Ishimura’s temples like a halo of transparent thorns, mutating into shapes that made Severus cringe.

      “Ishimura will give you the details after we are done here,” growled Baelic impatiently. It seemed to Severus that the Stormlord had a hard time acknowledging the time it would take for his plans to become reality. “Are you ready to do your duty to the Legion?”

      Severus saluted with a hand clasped against his chest. Instinctively, he knew that the rest of Team Mauve followed suit.

      “Good, my sons,” Baelic said with a hint of a smile, instantly settling into more amiable demeanor. Only slight movement in the corner of his mouth could have given hint to his earlier impatience. “What you do here may save the Legion, or damn it for all time. You have very little room for error,” he paused, then took several steps across the room, taking time to look each Warblade in the eyes. For Tajan, Baelic lifted the Kill-Leader’s chin with his fingers, which elicited a quiet, if somewhat inappropriate sigh-turned-chuckle from Aratos.

      “And for the sake of Laodice and the Eleventh,” the Primarch bellowed like a general giving a rousing speech to his troops on the eve of a decisive battle, “you will not fail!”

      * * *

      In a room where pitch-black darkness kept everything hidden, a giant brooded, alone and seeking no other company.

      Here in the dark, the universe was a perfect point of equilibrium, where nothing would disturb the natural flow of things. Suns burned out. Galaxies died. What was a mortal life before such considerations? How easily can it be snuffed out!

      The giant opened his mind in a way very few beings were capable of, and stared into the abyss. Yes, there were others who could look where he looked, who could walk on the paths left untouched by the passage of time and the vanity of man, but they chose to walk in the light, holding on to the strands of passing emotion or virulent signs of hope.

      He was the only one who sought out the darkness in this way, for in it was true perfection. Not the kind espoused by demagogues of a million worlds, or wrought by the machine-worshippers, who twisted tortured metal until it appealed to their broken sense of aesthetics and their faulty proclamations of ascendancy. Not the kind of perfection that supposedly went into creation of humanity’s greatest works over the species’ long, masochistic existence.

      No, it was the only kind of perfection that mattered – the essence of non, the purity of the void itself. Only when nothing remained of the existence, when even his unnaturally attuned senses could only see the absence, only then he would know peace.

      But it was not time for that, not yet. As he reached his mind’s tendrils to the void beyond, strands of thought and emotion intruded upon the image of perfect serenity. He only briefly glanced at the dying thoughts of men and machines, light minutes away. Once, he would have found a sort of twisted pleasure in the sensation – once, but no more. Now, he was privy to the universe’s higher meaning. Every life snuffed out was one step closer towards true perfection, the absolute beauty of the void. He, who spent so much of his life destroying the works of others for no reason but the sheer satisfaction of it all, or for the fulfillment only found in denying others the achievement he could not claim himself, was now the architect of the perfect, still beauty.

      It was almost a form of art born of understanding the nature of progress, for it only led to one place. Stars and planets died. Galaxies burned out until only the bleakest of cinders served as the reminder of their existence. What were men compared to that?

      His formless sight parsed through time and space, giving only minute consideration to the vessels fighting and dying in the void. Some of them might have been his allies; others were almost certainly enemies to be erased from existence. Every death, every act of destruction increased the absolute entropy of the universe. In this, even the works of his enemies served his purpose. If he could have physically done it, he would have smiled at the thought.

      A strange sensation coursed through him just as he was readying himself to fully rejoin the physical world. He felt a void – so perfect it was almost impossible to occur naturally. His mind’s eye sped towards the location without the limits imposed by laws of conventional physics. A location he knew well. Too well for comfort.

      The void was in the middle of the Heart of Valor, the ship that carried another one of his kind, a brother whose loyalties and commitment were as of yet unproven.

      As he withdrew from the higher state of being into the more mundane realm, he computed the possibilities. The discomfort of leaving the elevated plane, the pain of leaving its purity behind washed over him. He felt irritation that almost, but not quite, brought back his old sense of being, before his illumination. No matter which path of logical reasoning he attempted, the conclusion was the same. Whatever Baelic was doing, it was clearly clandestine, not meant for the eyes of others. That, in itself, was the definition of treason.

      After all, Nihlus thought, it was not always what you could see. Sometimes, it was what you could not see.

      Comment


      • #18
        SIXTEEN

        To Save a Legion
        The Conqueror
        Galaxy Burning

        A cutter coursed through the debris of the void battle, using the inertia of its momentum to propel it forward while avoiding detection from auguries of the rebel battle fleet. Rarely, the engines entered a controlled burn mode at lowest possible power setting, correcting the course, or laboring to avoid collision that would punch through the ship’s meager armor, vulnerable without an active void shield.

        It did not sit easy with Severus that for all intents and purposes, Kill-Team Mauve were utterly helpless in the lightless void. On some rational level, he understood the need for Baelic’s strategy, and could at least comprehend the necessity of avoiding detection, but it still did not give him any comfort.

        The six warriors of Mauve powered down their armor to the bare minimum of life support functions, barely emitting more to the ship-borne sensors than the background radiation of Hyrule’s primary star. The cutter, piloted by a servitor crew, did not have a name, its only official designation a binary code that made no sense to Severus and his brothers. Without the presence of mortals aboard, Baelic could afford to send the ship on a clandestine mission while bypassing most of the safeguards.

        The ship was as featureless on the inside as it was on the outside. The sole passenger hold was a dark, small room barely large enough to fit a full squad of armored Space Marines, where the only features of comfort were bland benches and a stack of Legion-grade emergency provisions. It was almost as cramped as the insides of a Rhino transport, he thought, without the redeeming characteristics of the trusty vehicle.

        In Severus’ opinion, the greatest danger to the ship and the mission lay not with the sensors of the vessels patrolling the Hyrule system, but with its passenger.

        Time and again, the Warblade found himself sneaking a look at the immobile form of the Angel Kings officer seated in between the warriors of Team Mauve. The Legionary of the Twentieth had his armor restored and repainted in its original colors, hiding the battle damage under the veneer of replacement ceramite plates and royal purple coloring. Still, there was no disguising the uncomfortable twist of the torso, the angle of the arms, and the presence of additional automata on the warrior’s backpack. The Angel King was badly wounded, and only a combination of potent drugs administered by the automated medical kit, and the multiple emergency surgeries performed by the Warblades Apothecaries allowed him to remain conscious.

        How ironic, Severus thought, that you, the weakest of us all, can decide all of our fates with your words.

        They did not speak much. The very act of speaking utilized the limited resources in their environment-locked power armor, eventually forcing them to create enough energy emissions to make the cutter easier to detect. Even without it, the nerves were frayed. The presence of the Angel King amongst them set the men of Team Mauve on the edge.

        The very idea that they were tasked with protecting him and delivering him to his destination did not sit easy with any of them. The more Severus thought about it, the more he felt ill-suited for the task. Team Mauve did not play well with others of their own Legion. Their interactions with the Iconoclasts had only been successful in the eyes of their commanders because they managed to get their counterparts to talk – not because of any camaraderie or true shared brotherhood with the sons of Nihlus.

        He wondered if the Primarch saw something in them that no one else had. The eternally inept Kill-Team, the worst of the Legion, if still superior to any mortal soldiery, with luck of the Eleventh flowing through their veins. Was it the defining characteristic that made them best suited to save the Legion? Severus wondered if he would ever know the answer.

        Baelic made use of the tactic employed by the Angel Kings in their raid, but Severus had a feeling that by now, Corwin and his commanders would have already devised a countermeasure. The Twentieth Legion’s attack was a raid – nothing more. Even with all of their losses, they still managed to wreak the carefully planned approach of the Warblades and the Iconoclasts, doing enough damage to smaller vessels to force a change of plans. But most of all, it made Baelic and Nihlus even more careful, more watchful for any threats in the seemingly empty space.

        For all Severus knew, the Angel Kings vessels withdrew only to regroup and attack again, taking a slice of a superior force before it could be brought to bear against them. Some called this tactic a death by a thousand cuts. Other, more pragmatic men, called it the war of attrition and misdirection. If its objective was to bleed the invading rebel fleets and to even the odds upon planetfall, it was succeeding.

        Even then, what were the chances that Corwin did not have another, even more elaborate gambit ready? The Twentieth Primarch, for all his secretiveness and high-born pride, was known as a master of tactics and strategy above all, save for maybe Iskanderos or Dyal Rulf, and he was at least their equal if not their better. There was a good reason why the Angel Kings were one of the more accomplished Legions in the Great Crusade, and the quality of their victories left no doubt of their martial qualities.

        Corwin was not known for his compassion, humility, or charisma. For a culture of aristocratic warriors who drew their lineage from semi-mythical heroes and who held to a strict code of behavior, he was a perfect warrior-king, a true sovereign who never let his more human qualities show when impeccable majesty was needed. For the warriors who fought as much with their hearts and guts as they did with their tactical skill and martial training, he was far less inspirational.

        At least, Severus thought, he was likely to be reasonable. All he could hope for was that Corwin would listen, and that it would not be too late.

        * * *

        The Hegemon was old in the days when Apella herself was a newly settled backwater, forged in an age when man imposed his will on the uncaring galaxy, naïve and careless of the dangers behind the veil. Fully five times the size of a standard Legion battle barge, the flagship bristled with weapons from times consigned to legend, tools of awesome destructive power worked into sleek, curved surfaces that presented a vast contrast against the angular gothic lines of Imperial engineering. The ship was an idealized image of an oversized ocean-going predator, whose graceful body was unblemished by the workings of a cruder age, yet lost none of its lethality.

        Where the architects in the service of Terra and its restored empire sought to emphasize grandeur and magnificence of the new order, the Hegemon had no need for such ostentatious statements. The sheer size of the Imperial Redeemers’ flagship spoke volumes more than any amount of decoration or militaristic bombast often espoused by the other, lesser Legions. The sons of Iskanderos had no doubts about their station, regal and unconquerable no matter the odds.

        Hundreds of levels and compartments made up the insides of the great vessel, each decorated with the images of the Sixth Legion’s innumerable victories. Once, Hegemon led massive armadas across the width and the breadth of the galaxy to push back the Old Night and to reconquer the ancient dominion of humanity from the covetous aliens, self-serving demagogues, and misguided fools who dared to maintain notions of independence in the face of absolute power. Once, it expanded the borders of the Imperium from the heart of the Apellene Network all the way to the distant Halo Stars, bringing thousands of worlds into the rule of distant Terra. Now, the ship had a different purpose.

        The Hegemon lay at rest at the heart of the largest armada ever assembled by the Imperial Redeemers. Hundreds of line vessels covered every angle of approach to the flagship at their heart, while weak light of a dying dwarf star glinted off the armor of thousands lesser ships. Battlecruisers and destroyers jockeyed for attention in the wan crimson glow, surrounded by ravenous swarms of fighters and patrol vessels going over their routes.

        To an outside observer, the scene would have reminded of senseless, frenetic activity of a disturbed anthill, but a careful military mind would have discerned patterns in the seemingly random array of movements. Every feasible vector of attack had a battlegroup assigned to delay the enemy forces until reinforcements could be brought in. Every patrol swept its designated area for signs of ambushes running cold, remote detonation devices, or ships hidden using the most arcane and even alien technologies. But most of all, every ship in the fleet was but an order away from forming into an attacking formation equally effective against a space force or a planetary defense installation.

        The sons of Iskanderos were not the kind to let others bring war to them. The Sixth Legion was on the offensive, as it always was, and as it always shall be.

        * * *

        A golden shape weaved in and out of focus faster than even Tilsit Demetrios’ transhuman implants could see. A crashing of an armored hide against the plasteel floor did little to hinder the perfectly synchronized movements, which wove a pattern comprehensible only to the dedicated students of jond-ha, the art of unarmed combat exclusive to the warriors of Apella and, by extension, to the Sixth of Legiones Astartes. Even then, Demetrios had to admit that no Legionary of Imperial Redeemers could even come close to the display of perfection before him.

        Then again, the warrior before his eyes was no mere Legionary.

        Another armored body hit the floor with deceptive light touch. The combat servitor was top grade, fashioned at massive expense with the best cybernetic implants and combat subroutines available to the Martian priesthood – easily a match for most Space Marines in one-on-one combat. Freed from constraints of free thought and repurposed with a singular mission, the servitor was a killing machine through and through, only activated for blood trials in the absence of worthy champions, or for rare special cases.

        As Demetrios watched, three more servitor bodies were smashed, each in a progressively more thorough manner. The last cyborg was not as much deactivated as it was crushed, disemboweled, and torn into pieces in less time than it would have taken to blink.

        The blurred shape came back into focus, and Demetrios came down on one knee, lowering his head. A golden god stood before him.

        Iskanderos, the Conqueror, Primarch of the Imperial Redeemers was an imposing being even for the post-human gene-forged warriors of Legiones Astartes. A mortal remembrancer once remarked that the Sixth Primarch looked like a perfect statue given life by the breath of miraculous divine, and Demetrios found that description hard to argue with. More than once, Demetrios was reminded of gods and heroes of ancient Apella, whose statues still stood as a reminder of the world’s history made into art through poetic license. Flowing golden locks framed the head of a martial hero, while impeccably proportioned arms and legs gave off an impression of health, strength, and vigor rather than excessive brute power. A hint of a smile at the corner of the mouth suggested that the Primarch was not above a good laugh with his men, a kind of an exchange that would make seasoned warriors follow him into abyss and beyond.

        The Primarch was unarmored, and a wreath of silver leaves wrought by the finest artisans in the Legion’s employ seemed unperturbed by the exertions of his training. Demetrios could not tell if his master was even sweating, or if the glint on Iskanderos’ golden skin was due to the presence of aromatic oils.

        “Rise, my son,” the Primarch said. The Conqueror’s voice was both a rumbling roar of a general used to obedience, and gentle urging of a caring father speaking in good humor.

        “As you wish, my lord,” Demetrios replied carefully. As the Primarch’s Equerry, he knew first-hand how unpredictable Iskanderos’ temper could be. He reflected that over the past year, the Conqueror’s moods seemed to get more and more extreme, especially when the news were not good.

        “Damn machines,” Iskanderos shook his head in feigned disappointment. “The adepts claimed this was going to be a challenge.” The Primarch laughed, a loud bellow of good cheer for one downplaying his accomplishments.

        Demetrios nodded, feigning awe. The Equerry knew that his master liked to bask in the attention of others, no matter the circumstances or the audience.

        “Say, Tilsit, why don’t you mention it the next time the Martian envoy asks what he can do for us?” The Primarch put one giant hand on the Equerry’s shoulder. Even though Demetrios was on the larger side amongst the Legiones Astartes, the Primarch’s hand on the pauldron of his decorated ceremonial armor made him feel like a child coddled by an adult.

        “As you wish, sire,” the Equerry answered, the very picture of humility. A sudden thought surged through his mind – was it always like this? Something dim and barely recalled lingered in his memories – thoughts of brotherhood, of danger and glory under the alien suns, with thousands of gold-and-brown armored warriors standing shoulder-to-shoulder as equals, sons of their godlike father who shared in every discomfort of war.

        “You can stop with this, sire and that, my lord,” Iskanderos growled playfully, as if reading Demetrios’ thoughts. “Have we not fought enough battles together to get over this?”

        The Equerry nodded. This was the Primarch he remembered, the epitome of a leader the Sixth Legion found when it discovered Apella and its vassal empire.

        “I swear, I will beat it into my sons’ stubborn heads if I have to,” the Primarch smiled. “They can leave all of these formalities for Terra. Politeness and etiquette don’t win wars, lest we turn into Maikhaira’s lot.”

        Demetrios nodded at the display of camaraderie, feigning a smile. It seemed that Iskanderos was in a buoyant mood, but the Equerry knew how quickly things could change, given an opportunity. The Primarch could go from a flamboyant leader to a brooding paranoiac in a matter of seconds. Such was the price of true knowledge.

        “But you did not come to exchange pleasantries, my son,” the Conqueror said. The joyful, boastful mask slipped away, leaving the hard core of a seasoned commander who took no nonsense, and who cared only for what concrete facts were placed in front of him. In a fraction of a second, Iskanderos was calm, collected, and intensely focused on his Equerry.

        “That is true, liege,” Demetrios replied. This time, Iskanderos did nothing to stop the use of the honorific. “News from Hyrule system. From your brother, Lord Nihlus.”

        A brief amused sparkle played in the Conqueror’s eyes. It occurred to Demetrios that he could no longer tell what color his Primarch’s irises were. Once they were piercing, glacial blue that could be alternatively warm and judging depending on the Conqueror’s intent. Now, something lurked within, something that existed on the very edge of human perception, something wrong.


        “I take it he is still getting used to the concept of chain of command,” Iskanderos remarked wryly. He chuckled in quiet amusement. “Give him freedom, and he will rampage across the galaxy and burn every world he touches, whether or not it makes an inkling of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Give him just a little structure, and he looks to you for every decision. That is one thing our father never understood about Nihlus. He could have been so much more… useful.”

        “He is having trouble with Baelic,” Iskanderos said as a matter of fact. Demetrios wondered just how much his sovereign actually knew. Was it possible that the Conqueror’s allies kept him more informed than even his closest confidantes knew?

        “You knew?” The Equerry’s voice shook just a little more than intended, a sign of both surprise and concern.

        Iskanderos laughed. Here was the jovial demigod again, the leader that would have inspired men to deeds of such greatness that the best artists of the age would spend lifetimes recording their grandeur. The Primarch’s hand patted Demetrios’ shoulder in a gesture that was at once amiable and a little patronizing.

        “It does not take a prophet to guess that one, Tilsis,” the Conqueror answered, shaking his head in mock amusement. “My brother Baelic is a singular force. Give him a sense of purpose, and he will stop at nothing to accomplish his mission. Problem is, he is very good at completing missions.”

        “I don’t understand.”

        “There is not much to understand,” said Iskanderos. The Primarch smirked. “Baelic’s problem is that he gets bored easily. If he does not have the singular focus that the mission gives him, his mind is prone to wandering. When his mind wanders, he tends to stray from the path. His sons are no better. Our father, to his credit, knew that much. This is why the Eleventh Legion was thrown from one meatgrinder to another for most of its existence.”

        Demetrios nodded. “So, Lord Nihlus accompanies the Warblades not only to provide them with support, but also to keep them… focused?”

        “Exactly, my son!” the Conqueror exclaimed, not unlike a father whose child finally makes an expected leap of logic. Then, Iskanderos’ face darkened, as though some unpleasant thought entered his mind. “And it seems that Nihlus is not doing too well in his intended role.”

        The Primarch took a long, ponderous breath, closing his eyes for a second. Demetrios did not dare to interrupt his gene-sire’s concentration. Who knew what plans and stratagems passed behind those eyelids?

        “Very well,” Iskanderos exhaled. He opened his eyes, looking straight at his Equerry. Now, the eyes were golden, just like the laurels on the Primarch’s head. “If Nihlus cannot keep our brother in line through his own devices, I intend to help him in this task.”

        The Conqueror smiled. There was something unsettling about it, as if the expression on his face was not entirely human. The façade of the benevolent warlord gave way to something entirely different, something Demetrios was not sure he ever wanted to get acquainted with. The Primarch’s next words were a command.

        “Unleash the Locusts.”

        * * *

        The grim procession trod through the halls of the Heart of Valor in a square formation equally useable for honor guard and defense against overwhelming numbers. The menials and mortal officers hurried to get out of the way, lest they fall under the relentless advance of ceramite-clad feet. A few unlucky ratings were not quick enough, and were smashed aside with no regards for protocol or rules of hospitality.

        The Iconoclasts returned to pay visit to their brother Legion, and this time, they were led by their lord and master.

        Nihlus towered over his Terminator-armored brethren like a steel-plated leviathan over malnourished denizens of industrial hab-blocks. Where the Iconoclasts honor guard wore masks of precious metal over their faces, the master of the Eighth Legion exposed his visage for all to see.

        Once, the Primarch of the Iconoclasts was an image of post-human perfection, forged by the Emperor’s own techno-sorcerers in the secret facilities on Luna to exceed every hope of humanity for a delivering hero. The hints of those origins were still there – regal bearing of Nihlus’ shoulders, resolute black steel of his deep-set eyes, the shape of a brow seemingly destined to wear laurels or crowns.

        Once, but not anymore.

        The skin on Nihlus’ exposed head was charred black and pulsating, unhealthy red and white, not from birth, but from horrible burns that disfigured his face and body. One cheek was mostly missing, revealing fragments of teeth and bone, while the other side of his mouth seemed forever locked in a rictus grin. Rare blotches of mangy, patchy hair stood out among the throbbing veins on an otherwise bald head, where the mess of scar tissue meshed with adamantium plating formed random runes and senseless inscriptions.

        The Primarch’s armor was bereft of any decorations but the flayed skins of some unfortunate enemies that hung from his belt like morbid tabards. A collar of rusty-looking iron constantly sprayed perfume into the air to make the reek of Nihlus’ mutilated flesh more palatable to those around him. As the procession went on, the perfume left on a lingering trace of sickly scent, dead roses and fresh vomit, liquefied feces and maggots.

        The procession trod on, unheeding of calls to identify themselves or to present credentials at the behest of numerous mortal dignitaries. At best, they were waved away with a flick of armored hand. The more insistent ones found themselves forcibly moved or violently thrown against the nearest wall.

        On the fourth level beneath Baelic’s reception hall, the Eighth Primarch finally deigned a Slayer captain with a moment of his attention, telling him in no uncertain terms that nothing should stand between brothers in need of a good, honest conversation. From there, the Iconoclasts were accompanied by a growing throng of Warblades, some as spectators, others as guards, as they walked towards the Stormlord’s abode.

        Not all of the Warblades accompanying the Iconoclast escort looked at them with pity or disgust. There were quite a few eyes that looked upon Nihlus with a measure of admiration.

        * * *

        “Well met, brother,” said Baelic as the Iconoclast procession made its way to the Eleventh Primarch’s reception chambers. The Stormlord was surrounded by his own Slayer guard, as well as dozens of officers, retainers, and minor dignitaries who sought to bask in the Primarch’s glory for the lack of their own.

        “We need to speak,” Nihlus growled in response, carefully eyeing the gathering as if evaluating his surroundings for threats. “Alone.”

        “Surely it is not the way to greet…” a Slayer Terminator started to speak before being silenced by Baelic’s furious glance.

        “In due time, brother,” the Eleventh Primarch spread his hands in a gesture of a welcome. “I trust you find my ship to your liking?”

        “It is a ship,” Nihlus retorted sardonically. “I have one of those too.” The Iconoclast’s deformed face distorted into a violent sneer. “We have much to talk about, and not a lot of time.” He looked to the sides meaningfully. “What I have to say is for your ears only, brother.”

        “The war does not require our direct attention for the moment,” replied Baelic. “Hyrule Secundus is still at least two days away. Why the hurry?”

        Nihlus’ lips shuddered as if in anger, although it was difficult to tell if it was a sign of rage, or just a persistent nervous tic. The temperature around him seemed to drop on cue. “I will not waste words while the galaxy burns,” the Eighth Primarch said, each word a thundering repose.

        “Your psychic tricks will not work on me,” Baelic answered, fury in his eyes. “My Legion does not rely on witchery, but we are not ignorant of it.”

        The grandeur of the reception hall seemed to diminish as Nihlus straightened up, hands raised to the tall ceiling. The light from a thousand braziers and glow-globes took on a brownish hue – color of earth in the middle of a dying season, bereft of welcoming embrace of the snow.

        “Warriors of the Eleventh Legion,” Nihlus bellowed, turning his head to face each group present in turn. “It seems that your Primarch would rather bandy words than talk the progress of this war!” The burned demigod spit in contempt. “While the galaxy is in mortal peril, we are wasting time…”

        “Enough!”

        Baelic’s single word echoed through the giant reception chamber as if a thousand grenades went out all at once. Somewhere, glass shattered from the force of the shout.

        “If you would insult me, brother, then this meeting is over,” the Stormlord went on in the ensuing silence. “You are on my ship, and you will respect me.”

        The uncomfortable silence drifted for seconds that felt like crawling hours. The Slayers and the Iconoclasts alike stood at the ready, prepared to deal death should their masters order it.

        “You have changed.” Nihlus broke the silence in a calm and thoughtful voice at odds with his frightening appearance. The Iconoclast’s hand signaled to his men, whose hands moved away from their weapons. Still, the Slayers did not relax their combat stances.

        “Many things changed, Nihlus,” the Stormlord answered solemnly. “Many things that deserve explanation.”

        “Then, brother, let us talk of those things,” said the burned Primarch. “I will even humor you and bring four of my men, if you do the same with yours. Since you would rather have audience, I think.”

        “Very well,” consented Baelic. His hand pointed at his men. “Micah Poseidon, Clan-Master of Turog.” A warrior in ceremonial Terminator armor adorned with facial augmetics saluted. “Nereus Farok, Clan-Master of Brear.” Another figure saluted, hand over heart. “Brother-Diviner Saradon Ishimura.” A Librarian stepped forward and bowed respectfully to the two Primarchs, his power-armored figure slight next to massive Terminators. “That should be enough.”

        “I can respect that,” Nihlus said with a satisfied smile. On his revenant face, it looked like a sign of predatory intent. He motioned to three of his men, who stepped forward out of square formation into the open. “Then, dear brother, let us begin.”

        Comment


        • #19
          SEVENTEEN

          Brotherly Love
          Locusts Unleashed
          Court of the Sovereign

          Nihlus looked up and down the bare walls of Baelic's personal quarters, clicking his tongue in amusement. The burned Primarch crossed his hands and made for a rigid figure of a nightmarish apparition that came to haunt those who wronged it in life, surrounded by animate machinae willing to do its bidding.

          The brothers presented contrasting images. Where Nihlus was a titanic shape of mangled flesh and dirty ceramite, Baelic was a perfect image of a warrior-god clad in azure and gold armor decorated with bas-reliefs and delicate artwork, his body seemingly emanating light while his counterpart devoured it. The Primarch of the Iconoclasts was tall and dark, towering even over Baelic by at least a full head, while the Stormlord was the bulkier of the two, coming across as squat next to his brother.

          The Eighth Primarch introduced his retinue as Mardakai, Caillou, and Devaros Tyr, but did not bother with giving their rank or any other honorific. All three Iconoclasts wore Cataphractii-pattern Terminator armor, scarred and pockmarked from long use and decorated only with what Baelic could only assume to be trophies – disembodied hands, partially rotted heads, or chunks of dried meat still covered in specks of old blood. The cables feeding into the backs of Mardakai's and Caillou's heads looked positively serpentine.

          “That one is a psyker,” Poseidon whispered to Baelic, pointing at Caillou. Despite at least fifteen meters between brothers, Nihlus fixed his eyes on the Clan-Master of Turog, clearly able to make out the Warblade's words.

          “Both Caillou and Mardakai are Shamans of Clan Nihlus,” the Eighth Primarch said by the way of explanation, or perhaps to signify that Poseidon's attempt at subterfuge was futile.

          “So it is true that you routinely consort with witches, brother,” Baelic spat out, giving the two Shamans a look full of derision.

          “And you are, of course, free of the psyker’s taint,” mocked Nihlus. The burned Primarch’s eyes wandered to Ishimura.

          “You brought them to my ship, not the other way around,” growled the Stormlord in response. “It is enough that I tolerate the more useful of their kind.”

          “Useful enough to conceal your comings and goings?”

          “I do not answer to you, Nihlus,” said Baelic. The Stormlord’s hands curled into fists. “Iskanderos asked for my aid in his rebellion against the Council, and he got it, no more and no less. No one made you my lord and master.”

          Nihlus shook his head. His expression was nearly unreadable, partly because of the mangled shape of his face making any sentiment an approximation at best. On a less scarred individual, it might have looked like an expression of humor.

          “I am not here to argue semantics or to bandage your wounded pride,” the Primarch of the Iconoclasts said. “We have a war to fight, and I need to know that I can count on you when we are at Hyrule Secundus. Your little psychic excursions make me question that you are prepared to do what you must.”

          Anger crossed Baelic’s face. “You dare to assume? You dare to keep watch on me like some petulant child?”

          “When one is as gifted as I am,” said Nihlus in a raspy voice that was almost conciliatory, “it is impossible not to notice. We are brothers on the same side. We should have no secrets.”

          “Then perhaps you care to explain a few of your secrets, Nihlus,” Baelic retorted, staring pointedly at his sibling. “Ships that would not die. Warriors that take extreme punishment and walk away on their own. All this talk about the god of mercy.”

          The Iconoclast nodded sagely, spreading his hands in an oratory gesture.

          “So you have been paying attention.” The rictus grin of his mouth melted into a deformed smile. Some foul-smelling liquid seeped through the side of Nihlus’ mouth not covered by skin. The device on the burned warrior’s collar struggled to spray more aromatic mist into the air.

          “Your secrets for mine, brother,” Baelic repeated, looking Nihlus straight in the eye.

          Kar’arash v’ok’enta.

          The words appeared in Baelic’s mind without Nihlus’ mouth moving. The temperature in the room dropped as the hint of hoarfreeze appeared on Nihlus’ armor. The Stormlord’s hands began to reach out for his weapons.

          “The truth, brother,” the Iconoclast said before Baelic could act. “This is the language of truth, and I am about to impart it to you. Are you ready?”

          “What are you talking about?” Baelic growled, not relaxing his grip on the twin swords Kingsbane and Brightheart.

          “This is warpcraft, sire,” Ishimura squeezed through his teeth. The psyker was clearly in much discomfort. A thin streak of blood ran down one of his eyes. “Not to be dabbled with.”

          “Maybe not for the lesser beings who are not ready to accept its potential,” declared Nihlus. “I spent all of my life burning cultures and civilizations to the ground, and in my travels I have seen many things. Many wondrous things. Many things that would have driven lesser minds insane with fear and desire.”

          “What does this have to do with parlor tricks?” demanded Baelic. “I know what a psyker is. I have a few in my Legion too.”

          “The warp is infinite possibility,” Nihlus continued, as if lecturing. “To one who can see beyond the veil, it is no longer an object of fear and trepidation. It is a thing of beauty.”

          “Don’t you see, Baelic, it is the future. It is the infinity taken form and bestowed upon the mortal bodies. It is the meaning given to those who previously lived only for destruction.” There was an impassionate gleam to Nihlus’ eyes as he spoke, at odds with his brutish appearance.

          “It is the end of all things, and a new beginning,” the Eighth Primarch went on. “Iskanderos may think of it as a tool to further his designs, but it is so much more. It is the source of guiding philosophy. It grants power and direction to those who accept its touch.”

          “If you let me teach you the Way, you can be more than you ever were. Don’t turn away from me, brother!” said Nihlus as he saw Baelic involuntarily take a step back. “Look at me. Look at me!” The Iconoclast took a forcible step forward, heedless of the Warblades’ honor guard imposing themselves between him and their Primarch.

          “I am the one they called the Destroyer,” Nihlus enunciated each word quietly, with perfect clarity. “But I have been blessed with the knowledge of true mercy. Every life I take is no longer meaningless. Every soul released from its mortal shell brings forth the state of true harmony. In this way, despair acquires a higher meaning, for to know despair is to know joy. To know joy is to kill without hate, without passion, only with the knowledge that my every action brings forth the final state entropy. This is the mercy that I learned about. Now, everything I do has a meaning.”

          “But perhaps yours is a different path, Baelic. Perhaps you live for the rage of battle itself. Perhaps, you seek fulfillment in different ways. Think, brother! Think of all that could be yours!” The fervor sounded strange coming from Nihlus; the Primarch’s raspy voice had at times almost a machine quality to it.

          Baelic was slow to respond. The anger on his face gave way to something that was neither amusement nor horror, but a mixture of competing emotions.

          “Yes, brother,” pressed Nihlus. “This is the true war being fought here. We stand between the static decay of the universe and the glorious rebirth. We can bring about this rebirth. Iskanderos can say all he wants about the Council, or about his ambition to be what the Emperor cannot. But you and I, the two of us will know the truth. We will destroy the old order to bring about the union of the material and the divine.”

          “You have seen what the blessings of the divine did to my warriors. They are now deadlier, more resilient, better capable of surviving what the galaxy throws at them. They are an unstoppable force. Wouldn’t you want your sons to be invincible, too?” Even though Nihlus did not take his eyes off Baelic, he seemed to be speaking not only to his brother, but also to the attendant Warblades.

          “I thought we were going to have a tactical meeting,” said Baelic warily. “All this warp business…” He paused, locked in contemplation. The Stormlord waved away his warriors and came face to face with his brother. Less than two meters separated them now.

          “I gave my word to Iskanderos,” Baelic said, accentuating every syllable. “I will coordinate the attack on Hyrule Secundus with your Legion, and will fight it to the bitter end.” His demeanor relaxed, and the words coming from his mouth grew softer in tone, if not in meaning. “I sent agents to the planet in a false flag operation. Their job is to convince Corwin that we seek a truce on our own terms. If they are successful…” Baelic let the words trail off.

          “We have a battle to fight, brother,” the Stormlord continued after a momentary pause. “My Legion will fight as it always has, without the forces we do not understand. After this is over,” he looked Nihlus in the eye, sounding sincere, “we can revisit this conversation.”

          Nihlus laughed. It was a bellow that sounded like a thousand rusty machine gears starting up after a millennium of disuse. He put his hand on Baelic’s shoulder, ignoring the involuntary flinching of the Eleventh Primarch. Fetid breath washed over the Stormlord.

          “Then we will fight Corwin’s lot, and we will win together, side by side, as brothers should,” the Iconoclast said. “But, perhaps…” Nihlus’ hand withdrew to scratch the charred skin of his chin. “What do you say to a friendly exchange of officers? I will send some of mine to help with the coordination of efforts. And perhaps you can send some of yours to my side. Surely we can learn a lot from one another?”

          “Farok,” Baelic called the Clan-Master of Turog. “You heard my brother.”

          The Warblade saluted without a word, then strode to the Iconoclasts’ side.

          “I will let you have Caillou,” Nihlus said. “In my Legion, the Shamans are both weapons and leaders. May he serve well under you.”

          The psyker walked over to the Warblades. His Terminator armor made grinding noises, as if the servos were covered with rust and grime. Baelic saw both Poseidon and Ishimura instinctively distance themselves from the Iconoclast.

          “I will find use for your man,” the Stormlord said, tense within his armor. “In two days’ time, our brotherhood will be renewed in the blood of the Twentieth Legion.”

          * * *

          Even when everything else was lost, he still held on to his name. Varuna Singh. Varuna Singh, he mouthed off the syllables one by one, rolling them slowly from his lips as if they were some potent incantation or curse. The words kept him focused. They allowed him to remember. They kept him sane.

          The cell that contained him was bare of decoration, as befitting a place away from home, away from the Host. The only light came from scented candles and braziers spewing incense brought from the mountaintops of Asprsyata. Once, only the cloud kings whose blood ran in Varuna Singh’s veins were privileged enough to obtain the substance for casual use. Everything changed since the Legion came.

          Everything.

          Thought came with difficulty. He repeated his name again, holding on to a thread that was his own. Images and concepts that were strangely familiar and repulsively alien flashed before his wide open eyes, ideas that were not, could not have been his own. He felt more than saw images of distant places, battles raging even at that very moment, wondrous cities and citadels built by inhuman hands. More than once he felt the blackness of finality, the touch of termination that other, lesser creatures called death.

          Death was only a form, never a function. For no Raksaka ever truly died.

          This was one of the rare moments when he felt fully in control, when he was more than a meat puppet going through the motions of a task. He suspected that it was party because of his separation from the main body of the Legion, but then, he had no true way of knowing.

          In times like these, he felt both proud and ashamed of his thoughts – proud because, like his name, they belonged to him and him alone; ashamed because they were not in the true spirit of atma that he shared with his brothers. It was harder and harder to retain his hold on them, to remain more than a fighting automaton, a machine of flesh and ceramite sent to do its master’s bidding.

          Varuna Singh. Varuna Singh.

          The words were a whisper in his mind, summoning barely remembered halls of a sky-city, hundred thousand banners flying in the cool air two kilometers above the surface. A glimpse of a face, wrought with worry or perhaps pride. He could not remember. He would not remember.

          He clenched his fists, looking at them and seeing something that was both here and light years away. Evenly toned dark skin; mass of scar tissue that came from battles he did not recall; mottled chitinous scabs morphing into a scaly pattern; dull glint of an augmetic. All of them were his and yet none were.

          Varuna Singh felt a twitch in his muscles from sitting in one place for too long. He rested uncomfortably on the bare floor, hands on knees, legs crossed like a meditating mystic, but there was no peace.

          A candle was less than a meter away. He could reach out to it, touch it with the reach of his post-human arms, feel the cleansing purity of the flame burn all doubt from his skin. This action, this pain would be undeniably his. It would not belong to the shared atma. It would remain a part of his jnana, knowledge unique to the being that was Varuna Singh.

          Fingers outstretched, a decision was made.

          The pain was but a small glimmer in the collective, but for him it was the point of focus. It was a bright supernova that he allowed in, a flower of sensation spreading through his tissues and leaving a mark that – overlapped with the vision of burning promethium fumes incinerating skin and bone; left a curious blemish on metal surface of artificial limb; was a barely noticeable phantom sensation.

          No. It was all his.

          Varuna Singh. Varuna Singh.

          He roared the words in defiance, fueled by self-inflicted act of mortification. The skin on his hand cracked from the heat, yet still he held on. The pain was purifying. It brought his jnana to the fore. It was liberating.

          He did not let his Legiones Astartes mental conditioning nullify the sensation, make it a minor nuisance or an irrelevance. Varuna Singh held on to the pain like some might hold on to the last breath of air while submerged.

          A clicking noise from the implanted vox-bead broke his concentration. Singh withdrew his hand, almost regretful now that the Larraman cells in his blood accelerated the healing process. He felt the tissue knit back together, saw it restore the damaged skin at the speed no ordinary human could match.

          “Clave leader,” the voice crackled in his ear, deep and resonant yet melodic in an almost musical way. It had the gravitas of a commander used to obedience and charisma of a leader whose followers would die for him without a second thought. In all his life, Singh knew only of one other being that matched these qualities.

          His own Primarch, Maikhaira the Sky-Lord, master of Asprsyata and father of the Iron Locusts. The presence that knit the Nineteenth Legion together, far closer than anyone not of the atma knew.

          “My lord Iskanderos,” Singh replied, instantly resuming the soft-spoken demeanor his Legion was known for. The echo of pain subsided once more. The world took on subdued pastel hues, dream-like and impersonal.

          “Your services are once again needed,” the Primarch said. It occurred to Singh that the master of Imperial Redeemers always seemed to speak in a way that matched his audience. Right now, he had a touch of high society Asprsyata to his inflection.

          “As my lord wishes,” the Iron Locust answered. The pain was gone; he looked at his hand, expecting to see nothing more than a patch of slightly reddened skin. Instead, a newly formed scar spread its white outline over the hand. Something stirred within Singh – a premonition, perhaps, trying to discern the future from the shape of the scar?

          “Then gather your clave-brothers and meet me in the training quarters,” Iskanderos said, terminating the connection before Singh had a chance to respond. It was so like the Conqueror, a thought not his own intruded Singh’s mind, imposed over the warrior’s thought processes with all the subtlety of a cannon shot in the middle of a symphony.

          With a slowness that was in itself a gesture of defiance, Singh stood up, absent-mindedly straightening the folds of his rough-spun robes. His skin seemed almost black against the coarse yellow-brown fabric, and crude designs of a Legion not known for its artistry looked like the extensions of his body, dozens of small protuberances spreading into the material world from the spiritual oneness that encompassed him. He touched the raw, still healing skin where Larraman cells in his blood worked tirelessly to corrext the self-inflicted damage. His nail inadvertently opened up the scab, and he felt the welcome coppery stickiness of enriched blood on his finger.

          Singh’s hand reached for the ceremonial kirpan knife. Working with quick, methodical strokes, he carved an emblem into the skin, using half-remembered runic script of his childhood before even that memory faded.

          Varuna Singh. Varuna Singh.

          He sheathed the curved blade, barely larger than his fist, and joined the scabbard to his belt. Thus attired, the Iron Locust left behind his Spartan cell, where the burning candles continued to weave smoke into half-forgotten memories.

          * * *

          To the eyes of most Imperial Redeemers, the Iron Locusts were little better than a rag-tag mob of barbarians from some backwards world hidden by the Long Night, thought Tilsit Demetrios, not without irony. Standing at the right hand of his Primarch in the Hegemon’s reception hall, the Sixth Legion’s Equerry knew better than to look down at the small gathering of warriors standing before him.

          The sons of Maikhaira cut an unsettling presence amongst the opulence of the Conqueror’s domain. Where the very image of the throne room was designed to evoke grandeur and magnificence of its master, the Locusts were a jarring sight with their long hair and simple, primitive robes crudely decorated with poorly woven patterns and images seemingly made by a child. They were an odd presence amongst the golden statues, priceless works of art scavenged from the many worlds of Apellene Network, and suits of armor bringing to mind many conquests of the Imperial Redeemers. Slight artificial breeze, nearly indistinguishable from a pleasant summer’s day on a pleasure planet, blew leaves of exotic plants into tightly controlled areas, where thousands of menials arranged them into configurations pleasing to the eye. Every fifteen minutes, climate-controlled devices hidden in the cyclopean ceiling forced the room to darken while light, warm rain showered the designated parts where lesser petitioners waited for the Conqueror to recognize their meager existence. In front of the elevated throne, where the Legion’s banners accentuated the glory of its occupant, the Locusts seemed practically puny.

          And yet it was them, not their more pompous or decorated brethren, Demetrios thought, who might ultimately decide the course of this campaign.

          There were five of them, all tall and dark-skinned, facial features partially covered by prodigious beards. Something about them did not sit right with the Equerry – he wondered if it was the way they were standing, almost identical way of shifting their weight onto their right side. Was it an odd, almost vacant stare that gave an impression of the Locusts both being present on the Hegemon, and simultaneously absorbed in their own reality that no outsider could ever lay claim to? Demetrios thought that the way the sons of Maikhaira arranged themselves, one forming the point of an arrow, others standing slightly back as if in rehearsed parade maneuver, recalled readiness to fight at any time, even here amongst the supposed allies.

          Was it a trick of the light, or did he really see five Iron Locusts brandish identical brand of some kind in the palm of their right hands?

          The Equerry cast a sideward glance at his Primarch. Iskanderos was out of his training fatigues and dressed in ceremonial armor of the sovereign, every bit the imperial demigod his Legion expected. Golden laurels rested amongst the golden curls, reflecting upon the polished warplate adorned with the symbols of Apella and the Legion. An ice-blue sword of ancient manufacture hung at the Conqueror’s side, once designed to be wielded as a two-handed weapon by the strongest of warriors, but now reduced to a side arm. A slight smile curving in the corner of Iskanderos’ mouth gave his patrician features a small measure of humanity – just enough to make the opposing party relax their guard.

          “Greetings, sons of my brother Maikhaira,” said the Primarch, his voice booming like a supersonic aircraft breaking the sound barrier. At his side, Demetrios nodded, almost imperceptibly. It was his idea that Iskanderos give order to the Locusts himself rather than have his underlings do it. The Nineteenth Legion was notoriously difficult to work with even in the best of circumstances. More often than not, they were known to interpret orders as suited their own needs, prompting many Imperial Army commanders to shy away from working with the sons of Asprsyata. Demetrios hoped that even the stubborn, independent Iron Locusts would think twice about disobeying the master of the rebellion.

          “The Nineteenth Legion greets you, lord Iskanderos,” said the foremost warrior. Singh, Demetrios thought. Clave Leader. “Many honors to you and the noble Sixth Legion.”

          The Equerry almost winced at a strange turn of a phrase, as if the speaker did not have full command of the Gothic language. The Locust spoke with a soft accent that evoked melodic and harmonious sounds, not the harsh basso one would have expected from the Asprsyatan’s appearance. Was he mocking the Imperial Redeemers by feigning ignorance?

          If the same thought crossed Iskanderos’ mind, the Primarch did not show any annoyance for it. The Conqueror’s smile grew wider, as if he just heard a private joke that made little sense to anyone else.

          “Many honors indeed, Clave Leader Singh,” Iskanderos laughed. “I trust the Clave is ready for the insertion?”

          This time, it was another one of the Locusts who spoke. “Mantis Clave is ready, lord. What would be…”

          “…the target?” another Locust continued seamlessly. Even the tone of voice remained the same.

          Demetrios could almost hear the whispers amongst the Imperial Redeemers’ honor guard. Many amongst the sons of Iskanderos found the Locusts strange. Even more wondered if they could be trusted.

          One thing none denied was their effectiveness in striking where the enemy least expected, reaping the tally of terror and confusion in their wake.

          Iskanderos smiled. “The target?” He nodded somewhat theatrically, a warrior sage ready to impart the objective upon his lesser. “A very delicate one,” he declared smugly. “Say, what do you think about a real challenge this time around?”

          “We hear and obey, lord,” said five Iron Locusts in unison.

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          • #20
            EIGHTEEN

            The Sovereign
            Swift Lance
            Infiltrators

            Upon their arrival in the orbital space near Hyrule Secundus, Team Mauve was stripped of their armor and weapons, then goaded into a holding pen aboard one of the multiple defense platforms circling the planet like watchful shepherds ready to spring to battle at a moment’s notice. They were scanned and tested for hidden explosives and mutagens, scrubbed clean of anything that could have compromised the security of the Angel Kings compound.

            It was clear that the sons of Corwin were not taking any chances.

            Severus was almost surprised that they were not shot out of the sky upon approach, and he remarked upon that to Aratos in one of the rare moments when they were gathered under the gun-sights of the Angel Kings guards. His brother just snickered, as if the thought was so ridiculous that Severus was a fool for even voicing it.

            The Warblades could not tell how long their ordeals lasted. It could have been hours, days, or perhaps even months in a disorienting maze of flickering unnatural lights, guard changing at seemingly random intervals, and a range of interrogations and scrutiny that they had not been subjected to since their time as neophytes. As far as Severus knew, the battle above Hyrule Secundus might have long been over, with the only way to guess the outcome being the presence of their Angel Kings captors.

            He took to trying to count days by discerning patterns in periods when lights were dimmed. It was not a perfect method, but it helped him to stay focused, to remember the mission he was sent here to do – and was, it seemed, no closer to accomplishing.

            The Angel Kings questioned them relentlessly, always cool, calm, and professional, but never giving away any information. To all inquiries, Severus had only two answers – his name, rank, and allegiance; and that the message they were sent to deliver was for the Angel Kings' Primarch only.

            Pertinax was taken away from them early, no doubt to recuperate amongst his own brothers or to share whatever valuable intelligence he might have possessed. The Angel King said barely a word to Team Mauve during his captivity; now, the tables were turned. At least, Severus thought, the other warrior did not gloat.

            The holding pen was clean – Severus had to give the Angel Kings that much. The Warblades were kept separately, out of each other’s sight, only brought together when squads of power-armored Twentieth Legion Marines made even the thought of escape impossible. Their wardens were detached, civilized, cold, and utterly unreadable in their ornate, knightly helmets and ceremonial yet functional armor.

            On a fourth day by Severus' accounting, the Angel Kings led him down a winding corridor decorated with martial motifs situated between the hanging globe lights, past statues of stylized armored guardians in their primitive feudal world armor brandishing an assortment of swords, shields, and axes, and into an observation deck dominated by a viewport covering the entirety of its ceiling and the far wall opposing the entrance. Neatly trimmed plants were positioned at the regular intervals, forming vague concentric patterns like still impressions of soldiers on parade grounds. Dark metal walls were bare but for simple pattern inlaid in purple and gold at roughly shoulder height for a mortal – barely reaching waistline of armored Adeptus Astartes. The pattern repeated itself meter after meter – small swirl, curve, leaf, large swirl. Soft dimmed orange lights shone from the floor, where each plant was surrounded by a halo of illumination, engaging in an unspoken duel against the reflected light from the globe of Hyrule Secundus ascending through the viewport.

            Outside of his armor, Severus felt strangely vulnerable. Despite all the genetic gifts provided by his ascent from the mortal ranks, there was a degree of comfort and security offered by power armor bonded to his body, acting like a second skin that responded to his every thought and impulse. With it, he could wade into the firestorm of ordnance and emerge unscathed, striding like a primitive god of war amongst the lesser creatures. Without it, flanked by the heavily armed and armored Angel Kings, he was almost... mortal.

            His eyes barely registered a glimmer of surprise as he saw the rest of Kill-Team Mauve, similarly flanked and escorted by the warriors of the Twentieth Legion. Even surrounded by heavy concentration of firepower, Aratos walked with a cocksure gait that almost spoke of brazen challenge without overly stating it. Tajan's head hung low, not in defeat, but in readiness to jump at any threat that may emerge, like that of a crouched predator readying himself for a strike. Velent, Majorian, and Brutus hung further back, moving slowly forward with pent-up nervous energy.

            All looked like they were not subjected to any overt torture, although Severus knew that appearances could have been deceiving. There were ways to make men, even Adeptus Astartes, talk. Some of those ways even left no visible marks.

            He tried to signal to his brothers in the Legion's sign-cant, but found no response but for a knowing wink on Aratos' face. He was seen and observed; that was enough.

            “Is my brother afraid to show his face?”

            The voice came out of nowhere and yet seemed to reverberate from everywhere at once. It was a rich, pleasant-sounding baritone that carried with it notes of authority and command, impressions of self-confidence so complete that he could not, in his eyes, ever do wrong. Severus jerked his head around, trying to discern the source of the sound.

            Where there was nothing only moments ago, a massive figure stood, adorned in the purple and checkered patterns synonymous with the Angel Kings Legion. There was no acrid tang of teleportation or glimmer of the one who just emerged from invisibility cloak; he was just there, dwarfing even fully armored Space Marines and making the entire gathering of the galaxy's deadliest warriors seem inconsequential.

            Corwin, the Sovereign, Primarch of the Twentieth Legion was a majestic statue given life and speech, at once regal and bustling with promise of barely contained violence. An aristocratic face with fine, well-bred features marred only by creases of many sleepless nights spent on campaign sat framed by lengthy ashen-colored sideburns and a crown of hair that, had it not been cropped relatively short, would have been seconds away from descending into total chaos. He looked like he could have been at home on both the debate floor of some ancient philosophical order, and on the battlefield, leading a gallant knightly charge against some unfortunate enemy. Where Baelic was the perfection of a warrior forged for heroic single combat, and Nihlus was a post-apocalyptic nightmare of burned flesh and foul-smelling synth-skin that suffocated light and life from wherever he went, Corwin was something entirely different – general, statesman, leader whose very presence strengthened the men he lead.

            For some reason, Severus could not stop thinking about Iskanderos, the rebel Primarch whom he never met and would probably never meet, but whose image was well known to every warrior in all Legiones Astartes.

            Corwin stood against the rising globe of Hyrule Secundus, his body and face framed in residual starlight and the reflected glow of the system's primary star. He looked wreathed in a halo of illumination, almost like a saint from some half-forgotten religion from humanity's long, tortured history. The Primarch raised his right hand, and Severus could not help but think of it almost like some form of benediction.

            “Knight-Captain Pertinax sends his regards,” Corwin said without changing the tone of voice. The Primarch's eyes danced across the hall, judging, evaluating the six Warblades and their Angel King retinues. “He may fight again before the war is over.”

            The Primarch waved to his men. “Leave us, my sons,” he said, softly but clearly brooking no argument before any Angel King could as much as raise his voice in protest. The purple and checkered-armored warriors filtered out in orderly columns, vacating the observation desk in a matter of seconds.

            “Now,” Corwin continued as the last of his warriors left the vast hall, “what do I owe this pleasure to?” His tone of voice never changed, but Severus could tell an undercurrent of sarcasm to the Primarch's words. “Kill-Team... Mauve, I believe?” Corwin smiled in amusement. “My brother's Legion always had the most peculiar type of organization.” He walked over to the Warblades, slowly but with confident strides of an apex predator not concerned about the challenge presented by the lesser beings. The Primarch stopped in front of Tajan even as the Warblades seemed to be instinctively frozen in place, lest they provoke the master of the Angel Kings into action.

            “Lord Corwin,” said Tajan, visibly struggling with the sense of awe that often overcame even warriors of Adeptus Astartes when faced with the Primarchs. “My liege, Baelic of the Eleventh Legion, sends his greetings and...”

            Something very much like anger flashed on Corwin's stoic face. “Your liege, Baelic of Laodice, has turned his back on the Emperor and Terra,” he growled with menace. “You, and others like you, have killed my gene-sons and their sworn vassals, and ravaged the worlds under my protection. What kind of greetings can Baelic send with messengers like these?”

            The air of promised violence was unmistakable. Severus felt his fists involuntarily clench. Tension was high. Everything depended on what Tajan would say next.

            “Sir,” the Kill-Leader broke the uncomfortable silence, speaking as softly as his typically gruff manner would allow. “We are guilty of all of these things, and some more. We do not deny any of these. All we ask is that you hear us out.”

            “Interesting,” growled Corwin, the very image of a dueling knight holding off the deathblow to hear some startling revelation from his downed opponent. “You have one minute to present your case.” The Primarch backed off somewhat, but his gigantic presence, still looming over the Warblades, still remained poised to strike at a moment's notice. “Start, now, before I decide that my time is better spent preparing a welcome on Hyrule Secundus for your brothers and allies.”

            “Very well,” sighed Tajan, and Severus could almost sense a palatable feeling of relief from the grizzled Kill-Leader. “My liege, lord Baelic, seeks to negotiate an honorable peace with the forces loyal to Terra,” said Tajan somewhat stiffly, as if reading from rehearsed script – which, Severus guessed, he probably was. It was apparent that he was not entirely comfortable with the role of a diplomat. “We came into possession of new information that puts our participation in this conflict in new light.”

            This must have been rehearsed, Severus thought, unable to imagine Tajan ever coming up with these formal phrases on his own. He would have put it in much different terms, if he was the one doing the talking.

            Corwin said nothing, listening intently. The expression on the Primarch's face was unreadable. It was impossible to tell if the words were having any effect.

            An uncomfortable silence settled in. The only sound was the breathing of six post-humans and one demi-god – the Warblades' breath nervous and ragged, Corwin's slow, controlled, ready to pounce like a patient hunter nearing his prey.

            Finally, Corwin spoke up. “Is that it?” There was a sensation of disbelief on his face. “Is this all you have to say, Kill-Leader Tajan?” The Warblade looked as nervous as one of the Legiones Astartes could possibly be without descending into downright panic, kept relatively calm by his psycho-conditioning and genetic enhancements.

            “I... I...”

            “Sire,” said Severus quietly. In an instant, all eyes were on him: Corwin's, amused and questioning; Tajan's, irritated at more junior warrior's usurpation of attention and yet somehow grateful for reprieve from the uncomfortable impasse; Aratos', sparkling darkly with gallows humor. He could not tell the expressions on the faces of other Marines of Team Mauve, but he imagined them to be puzzled, unsure of what the most junior of them all could say to sway the mind of the Primarch.

            In that moment, Severus knew exactly what to say, like a fulcrum that the universe itself centered on. His words would change the bearing of the spheres, pour the molten river of destiny in a different direction like a flow of lava from an erupting volcano, speeding its way towards a doomed metropolis or dissipating harmlessly into the waiting ocean below.

            “We were wrong,” Severus said, echoing Baelic's words from the assembly aboard the Heart of Valor. “Yes,” he continued after a moment's pause, “we are not afraid to admit that we were wrong.” He looked around for support, finding nothing but anxiety and anticipation on the faces of his brothers. Corwin was as impassive as moments before, but Severus could swear that he saw a glimmer of interest pass the Primarch's eyes.

            “We let our pride guide us down the wrong path, and let it entrap us with the likes of witches and monsters,” the Warblade continued, gaining momentum with every word. “We sought an honorable universe where we would be praised for our accomplishments instead of looked down upon. And where did it lead us?” He looked straight at Corwin, holding the Primarch's eyes for long enough to almost make it a challenge. “I was on Maegara, and before that, on Strolus, on Moltke's Hope, and on the moons of Ra. My bolter and blade took lives of your sons, sire, and their weapons cut threads of my brothers. But no matter what, they were honorable.”

            “I fought the Twentieth Legion to the death, but there was no malice in it. We trusted what we were told. We thought the Council of Terra usurped the Emperor, and Iskanderos was the one to set it right. But instead, the Conqueror aligned himself with monsters and worse. We would rather accept toiling in obscurity than taking to the field alongside the honorless bastards with their gods and witchery. Whatever the source of Iskanderos' power, it is tainted, and we cannot align ourselves with it.

            “We are Warblades, Eleventh of Legiones Astartes, sons of Baelic and scions of Laodice. We fought our brothers and killed the loyal servants of Terra. We turned our weapons upon the Emperor's worlds and left them burning. But we are not traitors!” The last words were almost shouted, and Severus realized that the tone of his voice kept on rising as he spoke. He did not care. If his thread was to be cut here and now, he would at least go speaking the truth to the face of a higher power, becoming the ideal of a Warblade that he could never be on the battlefield and standing up proud to the one who would end him.

            “Everything we ever did was done for misguided reasons, and we take the blame for it. If this makes us criminals, then we admit to our crime. But I have fought by the side of the Iconoclasts, and I have seen the face of evil. Whatever our transgressions might be, they pale next to the ultimate betrayal they committed – with the full knowledge of Iskanderos!” Severus breathed heavily, stirred into emotional defense of his Legion. “End me if you will, but consider this, sire. Lord Baelic wants to stand with you against the darkness, and to make amends for the blood of your sons. Will you give him the courtesy of a meeting before we are forced to assault this world under the guns of the Iconoclasts?”

            Corwin shook his head, seemingly amused. It was hard to tell if the Angel Kings Primarch was responding to Severus' offer, or if he was taking in the absurdity of the situation. Severus held his breath without even realizing that he was falling to a basic human reaction, something that even his ascent to Adeptus Astartes failed to completely eradicate.

            “So...” Tajan said to break the silence in an uncertain, wavering voice. “Does it mean you will consider the message, lord Corwin?”

            The Primarch towered over them, an armored giant easily capable of ending all of them with the minimum of effort. His face, as before, was impossibly still like that of an emotional statue, thinking, calculating, imagining the possibilities that mere mortals and even post-humans could not even conceive of.

            “If Baelic is serious about the meeting,” Corwin finally said, humorlessly, “he better hurry. The vanguard elements of your fleet have already engaged my forces at the edges of the defense grid. By my estimates, Baelic and Nihlus will be here in about a day.”

            * * *

            There were many ways to subdue a heavily defended world, refined by the Imperial tacticians over centuries that took humanity back to the stars it once claimed. Warships of the Imperial Navy sought to claim ownership of high orbit, sweeping aside all opposition through the weight of firepower and sheer numbers to bombard the planet into submission. Legiones Astartes had different strengths, and the fleets at their command were designed to deliver a far deadlier payload to worlds requiring subjugation or worse; while orbital control was still crucial in long-term campaign plans, the victories won by the Legions were bought planet-side with the blood of Space Marines and their perfidious opponents.

            Each Legion had its own way of war. Sons of Maikhaira, the Iron Locusts, would blacked the sky with countless assault drop pods and swarms of jump pack-equipped Marines and Kosol-equipped antigrav vehicles before descending like a hungry horde of their insect namesakes. The Consecrators would send armadas of Storm Eagle gunships to take out enemy strongpoints and troop formations with calculated precision, giving an entire new meaning to the brutal calculus of war. The Eighth Legion, brutal and uncompromising scions of Nihlus, would plow through, careless of their own or enemy casualties, breaking through the weak points in orbital defenses until their transports could dislodge thousands upon thousands of Iconoclasts, siege tanks, and towering god-machines of Adeptus Mechanicus to fight the enemy in the trenches and in the streets of enemy's own cities and fortresses.

            As every Legion found its own way to utilize its strengths, the honor rolls spoke of dozens different patterns, strategies, and code words for breaking through the planetary defenses. To the sons of Corwin, Angel Kings, it was the svinfylking, the Swine Head, after the formation of mounted knights on Lodoq Tyr designed to break the enemy lines in one swift, decisive charge. The warriors of the Liberators, still all too eager to impress their more established peers as the newest amongst the Legiones Astartes fraternity, were given to impassionate and even somewhat poetic names; to them, it was Tyranny's Bane, a heroic skyborne assault that sought to exploit any advantage they could discover with little regard for consistency.

            In the tactical manuals of the Eleventh Legion, it was called the Swift Lance – a coordinated attack made up from several columns of warships, each striking on a different vector while the main body of transports held back, ready to unleash a singular burst of Stormbirds, Thunderhawks, Storm Talons, and lesser landing craft through the opening. When such opening presented itself, the Legion's battle barges and ships of the line would unleash drop pods of their own, launching countermeasures and EMP charges in advance of the troops before retreating to safe distance, or continuing the battle in orbit.

            Still several light seconds away from Hyrule Secundus, the Warblades fleet began to arrange itself in several sections. There was a distinct separation between the fleets of the Eighth and the Eleventh Legions, as if by some unspoken agreement the sons of Baelic and the scions of Nihlus decided to keep their distance. Neither Legion trusted the other; neither could afford to turn its back on its purported ally.

            As thousands of warships moved into their designated formations, coordinated by machine-linked savants and countless servitors hard-wired into the logis engines poorly understood even by their Mechanicum makers, a single cutter limped through to the heart of the Eleventh Legion's fleet, bearing insignia of the Angel Kings Legion.

            Under any other circumstances, that alone would have been an instant death sentence for the speedy, if undergunned vessel flying enemy colors. This time, the Warblades sentries accepted the frantic identification code transmitted across the fleet-wide vox network mere seconds before slaved servitor-operated automated defense turrets opened fire, and the cutter sped on towards the center of the Eleventh Legion formation. On and on it flew across the sky bristling with promises of unimaginable violence, strewn through with power enough to crack open entire planets and erase whole civilizations from existence.

            Only when it came within docking distance of the Heart of Valor did the ship slow down its desperate pace, just enough to make its way into the largest of the great ship's docking bays. As the docking clasps extended, each capable of lifting a Stormbird effortlessly, the universe's fate held in balance.

            * * *

            As the cutter made its way through the Warblades fleet, another, similarly sized yet infinitely more sophisticated vessel skulked through the outskirts of Hyrule Secundus' orbital space. Where the cutter was a relatively crude contraption, barely worthy to be called more than an engine mounted to a minimal life support system and a cabin sufficient to barely fit six power-armored bodies, the other ship was filled to the brim with unique devices made with forgotten and proscribed technologies stolen from heretical human and xenos sources. One of such devices kept it hidden from the prying sensors of all three immense fleets readying themselves for battle above Hyrule Secundus. Another made sure that the tight-beam communication channel to Breaker remained secure even in spite of enormous distances between the vessels.

            “Understood,” said Varuna Singh, thought-clicking the vox channel to dissolve into the mess of static that could be mistaken for background radiation of interstellar space by anyone not trained to look in a specific place, at the specific time.

            The Clave Leader did not have to look to know that his four brothers sat motionless next to him. They were of one mind, one movement, one mission, one sardonic sentiment that guided them in all things human and post-human. Their task was clear, and all doubts were long cast to the wind like the ashes of Asprsyata's merchant cities, long consigned to the unforgiving memory of the Nineteenth Legion. They were one and the same, and the scar tissue on their right palms marked them as such. They were branded, now and for all time, and it was time for the spirit of Kali Yuga to claim its due, as was its right.

            A thought came unbidden to him, and he could not recall if it was his own, or if it belonged to that other that at times shared his mind, or perhaps whose mind he shared – he could not tell the difference. It was harder and harder to tell the difference with the passage of time, growing nearly impossible to know what was of him and what was of the other.

            Varuna Singh. Varuna Sin...

            The thought interrupted as quickly as it came, subdued into the joint atma that bound the Iron Locusts together into an unbreakable whole. They were stronger that way, with the unity and discipline that none of the lesser Legions could ever possibly imagine. Alone amongst the Legiones Astartes, they were more than sons to Maikhaira. They were – almost – his brothers.

            And now, they had a job that only one's brother could be counted on to do.


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            • #21
              NINETEEN

              Planetfall
              A Clandestine Meeting
              Weapons of the Enemy

              The battle for Hyrule Secundus began in a coordinated thrust of warships accelerating to assault velocities in tightly orchestrated beams of concentrated malice. Thousands of vessels ranging from barely void-worthy transports to mighty ships of the line moved in unison, no matter the divisions between the leaders of Eighth and Eleventh Legions, filling the void with torrential hails of ordnance and unruly, devastating energies.

              In response, the Angel Kings defenses returned fire, cutting across the black of the eternal night with illumination of their own. Nova cannons, lances, missiles and torpedoes vied for supremacy across the flanks of the attacking fleets, targeting formations of destroyers and their capital ship charges, and dying out in massive conflagrations as the attackers’ fire found their abusers and silenced them.

              In the carnage above the doomed world of Hyrule Secundus, one statistic seemed to go all but unnoticed. The Angel Kings fire targeted the Iconoclast ships far more than those of the Warblades, even as the Eleventh Legion began to make progress towards the heart of the planetary defenses.

              * * *

              The Stormbird was an anonymous straggler amongst thousands of its kind, a single speck of azure metal in the midst of a man-made hurricane. There was nothing remarkable about it – even the name given to it in the orbital forges of Laodice, Swift Wind IV, betrayed singular lack of imagination or special attention. Just like the other assault craft attached to the invasion fleet, the Stormbird performed the same evasive maneuvers designed to throw off planet-bound or defensive platform gunners, releasing fake sensor images to confuse the logis devices and shifting in seemingly random yet perfectly coordinated patterns to maintain an appearance of haphazard combat flying.

              Inside the assault craft, the deception unraveled.

              The interior of Swift Wind IV was dominated by a single figure that dwarfed even the fully armored Legionaries, including the Slayer guards in their Cataphractii-pattern Terminator armor. Even amongst the post-human giants, Baelic was an entity unto himself, untamed and hopeful, bristling with nervous energy that was part anticipation and part exhilaration at the prospect of salvation. The Primarch went unhelmeted, and wild excitement played across his prize-fighter’s features, hands gripping on long sword Kingsbane and its shorter kin Brightheart.

              Severus could hardly believe in his and Team Mauve’s inclusion amongst the luminaries of the Eleventh Legion. The thought of his and his brothers’ once-lamentable record was all but banished to the back of his mind, and for the moment, he basked in recognition the relative success of his diplomacy earned.

              The warriors around him were all Legion’s greatest heroes, from Clan-Master Poseidon to the Slayers hand-picked from the Primarch’s own retinue. Their deeds on the battlefield were examples that Severus and his brothers had to live up to. They were the golden standard that Team Mauve could never quite reach in the simpler days, when the Great Crusade was the entirety of their existence, and when the very thought of fratricidal conflict was anathema to them all.

              And yet, Baelic asked for Team Mauve to don their power armor again scant minutes after returning from their rendezvous with the Angel Kings’ Primarch. The thought filled Severus with pride and not a small amount of gloating.

              Even the ever-cynical Aratos could not deny the emotion their selection brought, while Brutus could not resist giving Severus a brotherly slap on the shoulder at the mission well done. Tajan, far from being upstaged, seemed to have less of a chip on his shoulder than the younger Space Marine would have expected, and the Kill-Leader finally let some of his own enthusiasm for the imminent salvation shine through his gruff exterior.

              Truly, this was the sign of a new beginning. This was to be the chance for the Eleventh Legion to make amends with Terra, to finally fight the good, morally unambiguous fight once again.

              Even the presence of Brother-Diviner Ishimura did not diminish Severus’ good spirits, for all the distrust most of the Warblades felt for the witch-touched. He did not have to like the psyker, but he understood the necessity of including Ishimura into the landing party, as much as Baelic’s clipped explanation allowed.

              The Stormbird locked onto a tight-beam transmission from an unassuming orbital platform in low orbit over Hyrule Secundus, and began a controlled burn that saw it accelerate towards the defensive structure. Such was the skill of Swift Wind IV’s pilots that from the outside, it looked almost as if the assault craft was hit by defensive flak fire, and began to spin uncontrollably on a suicide mission towards the Angel Kings’ strongholds.

              When the ship executed a tight braking pattern to glide safely into the waiting hangar, it was almost invisible to most observers.

              To most, but not to all.

              * * *

              As the Warblades disembarked from the Stormbird’s loading ramp, the atmosphere was tense. The earlier sense of excitement was gone, replaced by wary caution and combat-honed instincts. Severus fell in with the rest of Kill-Team Mauve, forming a protective cordon around Baelic and scanning the area for immediate threats with the aid of his helmet’s auto-senses.

              The inner loading bay of the Angel Kings station was filled to the brim with remote-operated servitor turrets, forgoing any notion of aesthetics in favor of brute firepower. Here and there, Angel Kings fire-teams four- and five-strong held strategic points, presently benign but seemingly ready to jump into action at a second’s notice. Banners of the Twentieth Legion hung limply in the stale atmosphere, not as signs of majestic conqueror but as underscore to the thick, malignant tension.

              “My sons,” gestured Baelic, motioning for his bodyguards to part. “If my brother is to believe in my honesty, it will be unbefitting for me to hide behind you.”

              As the Primarch spoke, the warriors around him parted, now forming a semicircle protecting his blind spots but leaving him to face the Angel Kings. Severus found himself on the far right side of the crescent formation, separated from Aratos, Brutus, Majorian, and Velent by a gulf of empty space. Something inside him did not feel quite right; as he risked a glance, he felt a crawling sensation of oozing discomfort at the presence of Brother-Diviner Ishimura.

              No matter, Severus thought, trying to bite back his reservations. It will be over soon.

              “Take me to my brother,” Baelic announced with neither tremor nor hesitation. Severus could not deny that in this moment, his gene-father looked regal, the perfect warrior of the arena, the golden slayer, the Stormlord himself. A swelling of pride warmed Severus’ chest at the sight of his liege.

              A squad of Angel Kings warily approached, toting heavy lascannons and volkite guns. From the ranks, a single figure in ornate Terminator armor drew into the open, raising one arm in a universally understood salute. Not quite a friendly one, but not a challenge either – perhaps a sign of respect to a worthy adversary, or at least an acknowledgment of the diplomatic status of the mission.

              “I am Baldwin d’Orso, Lord Commander of the Twentieth Legion,” the Angel King recited from behind the brutal-looking helmet fashioned into the likeness of some mythical reptilian beast. “I see that the Eleventh Legion held true to their word.”

              Bile came to Severus’ throat at the implied insult. It took him all his willpower not to bite back with a retort. From Poseidon’s conciliatory gesture, it seemed that Severus was not only one who got that impression.

              “Where is my brother?” asked Baelic, ignoring the Angel King’s words like a giant would brush off the bite of a mosquito.

              “Lord Corwin is waiting for you in the Star Chamber,”d’Orso replied, seemingly unphased at this treatment. The Angel King reached out to the clamps holding his helmet in place, and undid the decorative seals even as several Warblades targeted him through their gunsights, tracking sudden movements. The face behind the mask was severe and weathered with centuries of warfare, creases turning the austere features into a map of long-forgotten campaigns. The Lord Commander eyes held Baelic’s own for a moment, refusing to back down and yet avoiding the impression of a challenge. “Your guard may stay at the entrance.”

              “This is absurd!” Clan-Master Poseidon raised his voice. “Sire,” he turned to Baelic, “we cannot abandon you there.”

              D’Orso’s eyes wandered off, as if he was listening intently to something. A private vox-transmission, Severus guessed. Baelic waved off his equerry, waiting.

              “Very well,” the Lord Commander said, before nodding to the Warblades. “My liege agrees to the presence of three of your men during the negotiations.” The Angel King examined the Warblades one by one, focusing his eyes more on the warriors of Team Mauve. “These are the men you sent to negotiate earlier,” he said, a statement of a fact instead of a question.

              “You speak of Kill-Team Mauve,” answered Baelic softly. Although Severus lacked the deep familiarity with his Primarch typically reserved only for the Legion’s senior officers, even he could tell that the Stormlord was getting impatient.

              “My liege asks that you bring the one named Severus with your party,” d’Orso said, gesturing behind him towards a large set of reinforced double-doors tall enough for a Titan to pass through.

              Severus stepped forward upon hearing his name, momentarily forgetting that he was not ordered to do so. A curt nod from Baelic bid him continue.

              “Clan-Master. Brother-Diviner. Severus of Kill-Team Mauve,” Baelic said in clipped tone, only letting flashes of impatient anger shine through. “You will come with me. Ranas,” the Primarch addressed the Slayer veteran sergeant. “You are in command until I return. Hydra protocol.”

              “Acknowledged,” the sergeant said, leading the Warblades retinue towards the Stormbird, never taking his eyes off the Angel Kings. Something about the term made Severus uneasy. What exactly was the Hydra protocol? Was it a contingency plan for emergency extraction, or something far worse?

              “Lead on,” Baelic spat out to d’Orso, walking ahead of his men in strides befitting his gigantic stature. “It is time that I talk to my brother without intermediaries.”

              * * *

              The Star Chamber was much like Severus remembered it. Geometric pattern still wove across the walls, and the soft illumination provided for an understated palette of warm yellow and brown contrasting against the cold light of Hyrule Secundus. The unblinking stars merged into unfamiliar constellations that occasionally changed when one of the lights revealed itself to be a man-made one, a ship of war with engines going critical or ammunition storages blowing up in miniature supernovas. From here, it was not clear who had the upper hand. If Baelic's plan was to work, it would not matter for much longer.

              Corwin made for an immobile statue standing with his back to the Warblades, facing the rising globe of the planet like an ancient priest making observance of some cryptic ritual. The Twentieth Primarch was clad for war. Even from the distance, the faint hum of power pack attached to the back of his armor added a note of discord to the familiar sound of Severus' own war gear. A long sword that would have been too large even for a Space Marine to wield hung across the Primarch's back, adorned with gothic script and decorative designs inlaid in gold, platinum, and mother-of-pearl. The cloak on Corwin's shoulders was made of rich velvet embroidered with the same geometric design that permeated the walls of the Star Chamber.

              Two Space Marines in purple and checkered white and black armor stood to their liege's sides, clenching artificer-forged guns and blades. Without a word, d'Orso walked over to join them, towering over their Mark IV plate yet still dwarfed by the immense visage of his Primarch.

              For a second that felt all too long, the master of the Angel Kings remained still. Silence hung heavily over the room. Baelic was the first to speak.

              “So, brother, are we just going to stand here while our fleets tear each other to pieces?”

              Corwin turned slowly, as if unwilling to resort to anything as undignified as haste. Severus caught a glimpse of a noble profile locked in an impassive mask – noble, perfect, serene, impossible to read.

              “Baelic.” The Twentieth Primarch barely spared a nod for the three Warblades. His eyes spent a little more time on Severus than on others, as if the Space Marine's presence factored into his calculations in some unfathomable way. “You wanted me, and I am here.”

              The Stormlord took several steps forward, motioning his men to stand back. The Angel Kings opposite him raised their weapons at Baelic in cautionary motion.

              “If I wanted to get through your guards,” Baelic said through gritted teeth, “they would already be history.”

              Corwin nodded, and the Angel Kings lowered their weapons.

              “Now this is more like it,” the Stormlord smiled savagely. Under any other circumstances that smile would have exuded confidence and easy charm. Now, it felt contrived and forced, as if some phantom of former innocence tainted the Primarch's natural manner with the echoes of its demise.

              The Sovereign's expression remained impassive. “By my calculations, the terminal limit of the engagement is two hours and thirteen minutes. After that point, my forces will be fully committed to battle, and will not hold back.”

              “Then we must use this time well,” Baelic retorted. “Come, brother. We can stop it before it gets too late.”

              * * *

              The clave ghosted through the abandoned corridors on the periphery of the station, staying out of sight of prying mortal and post-human eyes with the aid of infiltration cloaks and timely silenced shots. While the Warblades' attempt at subterfuge included hiding in plain sight, the five Iron Locusts used short-range teleportation technology that bypassed even the relatively sophisticated void shield arrays and techno-sorcery wards to deposit them inside the Angel Kings installation. Where Baelic and his men were met by a troop of Corwin's finest, Varuna Singh's squad encountered nothing but vermin, wayward menials, and brainless cyborgs going through the tedious motions of keeping the orbital installation alive.

              This was a one-way mission, and even amongst the Legions there were very few who would knowingly volunteer. But for the sons of Maikhaira, the choice was made a long time ago, long before any of them were even born or had a say in the matter. They truly existed to serve in a manner that none of their cousins could possibly comprehend; in a way, their lives were forfeit the moment they accepted Maikhaira's genetic legacy as their own.

              Such was the price of success. Such was the price of unity.

              The voice that sounded within their collective consciousness grew stronger. It demanded action. It demanded a part in the play that even the grizzled raksaka veterans were not privy to, calling on their joint atma to transcend the boundaries of post-humanity and to become extensions of a god.

              A god who knew far more than his presumed peers thought. A god who was jealous of his brothers, and who sought to bring them to ruin.

              * * *

              Standing next two each other, the two Primarchs cut strikingly different figures. While their broad shapes were somewhat similar – Corwin slightly taller and leaner, Baelic stockier and more bulky – they carried themselves with the heritage of their own respective birth worlds. Two competing philosophies of war and peace stood side by side, one built on brutal spectator combat in the arena, another borne of a feudal world where knightly honor meant life and death intertwined. Where Baelic was barely constrained energy made flesh, Corwin was reserved, as if waiting for his brother to make the first move, or perhaps calculating their conversation several steps ahead.

              With their retinues holding back, the two Primarchs met near the center of the Star Chamber, basked in the twilight glow of Hyrule Secundus and the fireworks of dying starships fighting for orbital supremacy.

              “Two hours and eleven minutes,” said Corwin in lieu of a greeting. The shadow of impending doom hung heavily over them both, the amount of time left before there was no turning back.

              “Then let us get straight to the point, Corwin,” Baelic replied in his typical brash, impatient manner. The Eleventh Primarch's fists clenched and unclenched time and again. He was a caged beast forced into a battleground that was not his own, compelled to fight the kind of war he was never intended to fight. He shook his head bitterly.

              “I am not big on speeches, brother,” said Baelic. “Last I heard, one of my men gave quite an account of his oratory.” The Stormlord smiled sadly, as if he should have found it more amusing than he actually did. “By now you know what allies Iskanderos aligned himself with. Some of our brothers are well under their sway, and others may yet follow.”

              “Nihlus,” Corwin remarked with a sagely nod.

              “Yes, Nihlus,” Baelic agreed. “I have my diviner here with us for that reason. Our burned brother has ways of seeing things that he should have no right of seeing.”

              “I... see,” the Sovereign said slowly. To Baelic, it seemed as though his brother's mind was working at a frantic pace, attempting to evaluate all possibilities this information suggested.

              “I can bleed Nihlus on my own,” continued the Stormlord, “and at least fight him to a standstill, fates be willing. But I will lose most of my Legion in the process. And even if I do, there are still your guns at my back, brother. Your men already tried to stop me, and failed.” A note of anger flashed in his voice, masked quickly by overriding urgency of the conversation.

              “But that is not what this is about,” said Corwin perceptively. “I am sure you can agree that decapitating the enemy leadership is only a sound strategy. Nothing personal, Baelic.” He nodded in acknowledgment, letting out a faint hint of a smile. “I, for one, am glad that it did not succeed, even if I do mourn my men.”

              “Then do not let their deaths be in vain!” Baelic shouted, veins popping in his neck with the strength of emotional exertion. He breathed heavily for a second, composing himself.

              “This is really about the aftermath,” continued Corwin, half-trapped in his own thoughts. “The Eleventh Legion already went against the Council, and we all know how much forgiveness Hemri and his cronies truly have.” Something about the Sovereign’s voice hinted at deeper divisions. Baelic wondered if there were some hidden tensions between the two, something he was not privy about. Was it something he could exploit?

              “No matter,” Corwin cut back to the matter at hand. “You want to have someone intercede with the Council on your behalf, and to make sure that your head does not end up on a platter when it all comes to an end. Is that so?”

              Baelic let a slow, deep breath draw in through his teeth. His face turned a shade of angry red, and the muscles in his bull-like neck tensed, as if in preparation for the fight. The Eleventh Primarch was not used to anyone talking to him like that.

              “I see that there is truth to that,” remarked Corwin without much in a way of inflexion.

              “Yes…” Baelic squeezed out, struggling to control his temper. Slowly, the Stormlord looked away, second after fateful second, fists clenching and unclenching. He turned back to face Corwin in a rapid motion.

              “But this is not just about me, Corwin. I made my mistakes, and I am willing to live up to them.” The Eleventh Primarch looked at the rising globe of Hyrule Secundus. The reflected light gave his face a graven color. “It is about my Legion. It is about Laodice, and the people of my world. I led them to this. I listened to Iskanderos. It was my pride that caused me to believe him.”

              “I am a man enough to admit that I was wrong, brother,” said Baelic. “I do not want those who followed me to pay for my mistakes.” His face was intense and focused, a master gladiator putting all of his being on the line against a worthy challenger under the gaze of the volatile crowd. “And unlike others who plot and conspire on the throne world, I have always known you to be a man of honor. Someone whose word can be trusted.”

              For a time, silence held. Corwin appeared pensive, lost in his own thoughts and calculations like a general exploring alternatives to a chosen course of action before committing to it.

              “Two hours and four minutes,” the Sovereign finally said after what felt like a slow-moving eternity. He looked Baelic straight in the eye, and the Eleventh Primarch did not flinch. “What is your offer, brother?”

              * * *

              As the Locusts moved through the ventilation ducts and hidden maintenance passages, the thralls of the Angel Kings Legion started to die.

              An old man grasping his neck, trying in vain to stem the flow of blood from a mortal wound as he sulked against now useless panel controlling the doors to a generatorium. A young couple attempting to find some solace amongst the battle in each other’s embrace, whose hiding spot had the misfortune of being on the path of Varuna Singh and his men. A wayward initiate, not quite ready to complete all of his implantations, taking time to practice unarmed combat techniques in a dusty hold away from his betters.

              Time was of the essence now. While Baelic’s arrival occupied the Angel Kings’ attention, it would not be long before absences would be noticed by the more attentive station personnel. Even with all the advantages given to them by the Unity, the five raksaka could not hope to stand against the installation full of battle-hardened Space Marines of two Legions.

              If everything went right to the plan, they would not have to.

              Glimpses of briefing flashed before Singh’s eyes. Mighty were the allies wielded by Iskanderos and his hideous, mutilated brother – far mightier than a single psyker or even an entire coven of them could hope to contend with. A sardonic thought crept up in the shared atma.

              Foolish, foolish Baelic.

              Teleport homer, strengthened with arcane runes and designs that hurt to simply look at them, was attached securely to the back of Singh’s armor. Here, the war for Hyrule Secundus would end, and the war for the soul of a Legion would be won.

              * * *

              Baelic did not take long to reply.

              “We will turn on the Iconoclasts and, alongside your own men, will drive them to ruin,” the Stormlord said. “The Eighth Legion walks strange paths these days, but between the two of us, they can be dealt with decisively.”

              “This is not all I meant,” pressed Corwin, softly but insistently.

              “Very well,” Baelic conceded. “After the battle is won, my forces will join yours to secure the nearby sectors, on one condition.” He looked at his brother with intense focus. “I want a full pardon from the Council of Terra for my homeworld, for my men, and for myself.”

              Corwin chuckled in amusement, raising one eyebrow with a curious twinkle in his steel-blue eyes. “You do understand that such pardon is not within my power to grant.”

              “I know that your word matters more on Terra than most,” insisted Baelic. “When you talk, even Hemri and Gideon listen. If we bring home a magnificent victory, and you speak on my behalf, who would deny you?”

              The Sovereign shook his head, not in rejection but in weariness. “Things on the Council are… complicated,” he finally intoned, seemingly oblivious to the tyranny of the countdown. “Not everyone sees things the same way. You know as well as I do that some of our brothers are at each other’s throats even when we don’t have the likes of Iskanderos or Nihlus on the prowl.”

              Baelic slapped his armored hand against his side in a gesture of frustration. “Then perhaps they will be willing to listen when your words are backed by the might of two Legions! Think, Corwin. If we stand together in front of them, who would be in their right mind to deny you the rightful triumph? You will have brought a lost brother back into the fold. You will have won the greatest victory for the Council since long before the Emperor vanished.”

              The Stormlord started pacing like a caged, dangerous animal. “Who will oppose you? Hemri, who has not left Terra in years? Nyxos? Once the full evidence of what Nihlus did comes to light, he will be the first to turn against the Iconoclasts. Rulf will keep quiet, as he always does.”

              Corwin nodded in acknowledgment, recognizing the truth in his brother’s words. “You do understand,” he said slowly, non-commitally, “all I can promise is that I will speak for you. I cannot guarantee that they will listen.”

              “But you are also not without friends,” Baelic pressed. “Echelon. Gideon. Griven Kall. Mohktal. They will listen.”

              A sad smile dawned upon Corwin’s face. “You are learning all too fast, little brother. Wish that it was not this late.” His hand reached Baelic’s pauldron in the first show of fraternal affection since the two Primarchs met. “Sometimes I wonder if the business of Council politics is what finally drove Iskanderos over the edge. There are days when I cannot blame him for that.”

              “Will you let me stand with you, then?” Baelic allowed himself something like an enthusiastic smile, still somewhat timid in fear of rejection, but growing stronger. “Together, we can stop this before it gets even more out of control.”

              * * *

              The passage took five Iron Locusts to a poorly maintained airlock, kept only for minor maintenance access of a tertiary sensor array. The clave moved at a brisk pace, racing against scant time before their likely discovery. Their advanced camouflage blended in with the dark metal, helping them hide within the shadows of machinery, void shield banks, and enormous cannons prowling the sky for any enemy warships that wandered too close.

              They were tiny insects of flesh and ceramite upon the adamantium skin of the space station, unnoticed but not any less deadly for it. The warriors crossed hundreds of meters in minutes, relying on magnetic clamps in the soles of their armored boots to keep a semblance of gravitational attraction. Above their heads, stars lived and died as the void battle raged on.

              There was only one place for them to go to, a sole location divined through the means mortals and even demi-gods themselves were not meant to know. This was it, the fulcrum of fate, the single axle on which the entire wheel of time turned.

              As Varuna Singh spied the reinforced cupola, something inside him, something weak and human… or was it something of his own repressed personality… looked on in awe. A stream of memories came forth, broken into constituent components by the presence of the other. A young child, looking down from the edge of the floating city. A youth, his bones already hardened by the initial stages of his transformation into the warrior of Adeptus Astartes, on his first orbital trip, seeing the discolored orb of Asprsyata for the first time.

              He longed for solitude that those moments gave him, hoping for sensation of almost forgotten bliss associated with having no other thoughts in his head. Words came unbidden to his mouth.

              Varuna Singh. Varuna…

              Another thought intruded, something that he could not consciously place. Something that was not his own.

              You will never be alone.

              The cupola was now dead ahead. The Iron Locust’s training and combat-honed instincts took over, suppressing the shock. Around him, four warriors of the Mantis Clave spread out across the surface of the space installation, performing final checks on their weapons and calculating trajectories for the explosives to open the way for the Locusts ahead of their advance. The camouflage cloaks were to be discarded soon to reveal the armor underneath, not the color of the Nineteenth Legion but an altogether stranger – more interesting one. There was no need for words; the atma provided for a form of communication that even the best drilled Marines of other Legions could not match.

              You will never be alone.

              He felt a shiver, something almost mortal, but nevertheless oddly inhuman. Was it the other’s thought, or was it his own trepidation at the mission he was unlikely to come back from?

              Perhaps, he forced the thought to the fore of his mind, lips mouthing off the syllables of his given name, it was for the best.

              * * *

              Severus was ill at ease in the Star Chamber. Somehow, talking, even thinking in the presence of two demigods felt wrong. He could sense the nervous energy in Clan-Master Poseidon, clearly unused to playing a passive role in such a momentous event. Brother-Diviner Ishimura was an enigma. The psyker’s armor seemed almost white with hoarfrost, and Severus could not tell if it was a byproduct of malfunctioning power pack, or something altogether more sinister. He fought an urge to make a warding sign against witchery.

              On the other side of the room, the Angel Kings watched three Warblades warily, two power-armored warriors fully helmeted, while d’Orso’s eyes darted from the sons of Baelic to their Primarch and back. As the Primarchs continued their own increasingly animated conversation just far enough from their men to be out of earshot, the universe held its breath.

              * * *

              “Third column will have to alter its approach vector once the orders are given,” said Corwin. The Primarch’s superhuman mind already calculated optimal ship trajectories, now accounting for the presence of this unexpected ally. “They can engage the Iconoclast squadron on the flank, while the second column must be ready to move in support. I see the second column includes Raider-class cruisers?” The Sovereign held out a miniature holographic projector, which displayed the engaging fleets in their rapid-fire void dance. As he spoke, several segments of the battle flashed an angry red, then a slightly more subdued orange. The warships approached terminal vectors; in just little over an hour, they would not be able to withdraw without opening themselves to the full brunt of planetary defense fire.

              “Modified for additional maneuverability,” answered Baelic proudly. “Tighter turn radius and acceleration than standard. More missile bays than lances, too.” Here, matters were relatively uncomplicated. While he did not share his brother’s genius for tactics and void warfare, he was created by the same forces that gave him instinctive grasp of command matters, and he could instantly recognize the tactical possibility suggested by Corwin.

              “The Raider battlegroups can create holes for the fighters to approach on attack vectors,” Baelic suggested. “I have three Oberon-class battleships ready to support them, if need be. Here, here, and here.” He extended an armored finger to trace the outlines of the formation, evidently proud of himself for offering a viable solution.

              “Oberon-class,” Corwin mused. “Interesting. It is almost as if you were expecting trouble from that quarter.” He magnified a section of the holograph, where an ugly blob of sickly green spread like a miasmatic amoeba threatening to engulf the Warblades’ rearguard. “Does not look like our dearest brother is willing to take any chances with you.”

              Baelic’s face darkened. “Without the support from your fire zones, I will lose a quarter of my fleet before we can even try to shoot back. The Oberons are there to hold off Nihlus and the Breaker until my ships can fall into formation with yours.”

              “Then it is decided,” declared Corwin, shutting off the projector. He extended his hand to Baelic in something resembling a warrior’s handshake, and the Stormlord grasped it as if it was the sole thing keeping him from collapsing. “I will send orders to my fleet, and expect the same of you.”

              “Understood,” Baelic replied, perhaps regaining some of the easy-going gait of an invincible arena fighter, used only to triumph and none of the tribulations. “I will return to the Heart of Valor and give Nihlus something to think about in person.”

              “May the battle be kind to you, brother,” said Corwin with a dignified smile.

              * * *

              This was how Severus would always remember them. Two demigods, hands clasped in a gesture of mutual respect and understanding. Warriors without peer, committed to the course of action that almost changed the fate of the universe. The genuine fraternal affection in the wrinkles near the corner of their eyes, noble bearing of warlords who would be the paragons of human unity and perfection. The last second of hope before the darker times to come.

              The visage of Hyrule Secundus flashed in an explosion of superheated melta fire, blinding him for a nearly imperceptible fraction of a second. He heard the rush of air escaping into space, followed by cracks in the transparent armored material that sped into the void. Heavy shutters struggled to move against the damaged mechanisms even as the neatly arranged plants froze and died. Soft nascent light streaming from the floor went out in a chain reaction that blew out the hidden lamps, to be replaced by harsh emergency lighting.

              The first shots scythed through the Angel Kings. One of the power-armored warriors fell without even a chance to respond as mass-reactive shells exploded around the vents of his backpack. The resulting explosion created a miniature fireball that sucked out the remaining oxygen in near vicinity, staggering d’Orso and the surviving Legionary. The Lord Commander took a plasma shot to the armored pauldron, bubbling the hardened ceramite in a moment of pure agony and freezing the intricate mechanisms of his Terminator armor in place.

              “What treachery is this, Baelic?” Corwin growled, pulling away from his brother. The roar of the Primarch’s voice was a hurricane over the torrent of escaping air. A bolt shell hit the Sovereign in the back of his unhelmeted head before Baelic had a chance to respond. The surviving power-armored Angel King fired a burst of rounds, but it was not clear if he hit anything.

              “I… I…” Baelic seemed lost for words, gasping for air in surprise.

              “Sire!” d’Orso, wounded but still moving, attempted to shout over the chaos. “You must leave. Now!”

              A flash of actinic light started to coalesce in the center of the ravaged Star Chamber. Something stirred within it, something unwholesome. Something unclean.

              Corwin leapt into the fray, shielding the surviving power-armored Angel King from the attackers with a flurry of sword strokes too fast for even a Space Marine’s eyes to follow. More ordnance impacted against the Twentieth Primarch’s armor to little effect.

              A bolt shell impacted against Severus’ chest armor, stirring him from inaction. The damage was minimal, and the Warblade scanned his surroundings for threats. He could not make much sense of what he was seeing.

              The attackers descending from the ceiling on rapidly unwinding rappel hooks wore the light blue of the Eleventh Legion.

              A burst of weapon fire made him roll to the side for cover. It took him a moment to realize that it was coming from d’Orso’s storm bolter.

              Even wounded, the Lord Commander was a formidable fighter with decades or possibly even centuries of experience, clad in the best wargear available to the Primarch’s chosen. A Space Marine could fight in any environment conceivable, and the lack of air, or the flying debris made for minimal distraction. Now, face contorted with righteous rage, Baldwin d’Orso ran towards Severus as fast as the heavy Cataphractii armor would allow, with murder in his eyes.

              “Stop!” Severus yelled and waited until almost the last second to open fire. The Angel King paid him no heed, a walking tank with all notions of humanity cast aside.

              The first shapes to walk through the spirals of flame were bulky, horned monstrosities with eyes glowing sickly green, their Terminator armor debased to where it was almost unrecognizable. There was something organic to it, a hint of disgusting flesh the color of maggots and rotten earth. Multicolored balefire danced across their distended bellies, and impossible congregations of flies and pus oozed out of the cracks in their armor in defiance of all laws of physics.

              The first Terminator fired a single volley at d’Orso’s back, and the Lord Commander tumbled forward, losing his balance before Severus could as much as fire a shot. The Warblade jumped to the side, not sure what to make of these new arrivals.

              Behind the Terminators, the light coalesced once more. Now, it became an image of an immense figure, horned yet otherwise almost human in proportions if not for the size. It towered over the Terminators, hands raised as if in silent benediction, halo of insects shrouding the features.

              Even with intermittent lighting, even with all the unnatural witchery surrounding the botched gathering, there was only one being who could have walked through the portal.

              Nihlus, the Destroyer, lord of the Eighth Legion and thrall to the powers beyond the ken of human understanding.

              “You have done well, brother,” the burnt Primarch remarked, seemingly unconcerned about the rapidly dwindling air. With shock, Severus realized that the Iconoclast lord’s voice sounded directly in his mind. “A great stratagem, I must admit.” Harsh psychic laughter drowned out Severus’ own thoughts.

              Corwin’s eyes darted between the two Primarchs and the overwhelming numbers arraigned against him. “Traitor,” he squeezed out of his teeth, still back to back with the Angel King Space Marine. His eyes darted to the body of d’Orso. The Lord Commander’s reinforced Terminator armor began to dissolve as if eaten by acid, yet much faster than it had any right to. “There will be reckoning.”

              “Brother, I…”

              Before Baelic could as much as finish a sentence, Corwin was gone. Severus caught a brief impression of something moving so impossibly fast that reality itself seemed to warp around it. The Warblade saw a faint outline of the last Angel King as an afterimage upon his retinas in the wake of Corwin’s departure.

              As far as Severus knew, the Angel Kings Primarch might have been on the other side of the space station now, or perhaps teleported using some strange and proscripted technology. There was no trace of Corwin remaining in the Star Chamber when tense silence reigned again.

              The entire exchange from the moment the explosives went off until Corwin’s departure lasted less than thirty seconds.

              “Well, that went well,” quipped Poseidon over the inter-squad vox. There was nothing in his voice but bitter fatalism. Ishimura remained eerily silent. Was it just Severus’ imagination, or was there an inordinate amount of steam coming from the connections and the joints in the psyker’s armor?

              “Good job, Baelic,” Nihlus spoke again. “I will have to ask you to do it again. With Marvus, maybe?” There was a positive sense of gloating in the words.

              “What… have you done?” As Baelic spoke, the shutters finally closed off the Star Chamber from interplanetary space. A thin layer of frost covered all surfaces, though Severus could not tell how much of it was from temperature and how much of it was from the forbidden means employed by Nihlus.

              “Only the smart thing,” retorted Nihlus, taking several shambling steps. Something seemed odd about the burned Primarch’s movements, as if his feet were half-buried in mud, ooze, and dead vegetation. “I knew you had little stomach for going this far, and made contingency plans.”

              The Destroyer paid a moment’s notice to five warriors in Warblades colors, now falling in line with the Iconoclast Terminators. “Luckily, some in your Legion had more… common sense. And, brother, I am anything if not merciful.” Nihlus smiled, corpse-like. Patches of synth-skin flaked off the side of his face, revealing open jaw beneath. “We can finish what we started here, and sign our pact in the blood of the Twentieth Legion. I may even be inclined to forgive your… ahem… moment of weakness, in due time.”

              “You have used me,” said Baelic in angry accusation. “You used me to get to Corwin.”

              “But of course, brother,” Nihlus sagely nodded. “Corwin is notoriously hard to fathom even in the best of times. I had a feeling that he had something planned. Now, thanks to you, I know what it is. After all, he did tell you enough about his strategy.”

              “How… did this happen?” the Stormlord retorted weakly. There was something desperate about him, a mixture of urge for absolute violence and torporous disbelief at the events unfolding before his eyes.

              “That is the question, right?” Nihlus took few additional steps behind and around the Terminators, each more shambling than the one before. A piece of flesh fell off from his side as if it suddenly rotted away; the Primarch did not seem to notice.

              “One wise in the lore of the Empyrean can find a way,” the Destroyer said. “He may even be able to use the enemy’s own weapons against him.” He laughed, looking not at Baelic, but at the warriors the Eleventh Primarch brought with him. “And you thought you were so clever, brother. Oh, how clever!”

              Against his own better judgment, Severus forced himself to follow Nihlus’ eyes to the still form of Brother-Diviner Saradon Ishimura.

              The steam coming out of the psyker’s armor joints turned snot-yellow, then grey. Respiratory filters in Severus’ armor switched on almost instantly, but not before the Warblade caught a whiff of something dead, something decaying and rotten that had no right to be amongst the living.

              As he watched, the Brother-Diviner’s armor began to corrode before his very eyes. Lesions appeared on the azure ceramite, which seemed to age centuries in a span of seconds. The paint cracked and withered away, one flake by another. Rust seized the psyker’s pauldrons, turning them from pristine white to filthy brown, thinning and decaying like paper in the tender embrace of the flame. The helmet started to file away in single grains, which turned to a waterfall of fine dust, revealing the bone of an age-bleached skull beneath.

              “As I said, weapons of your enemy,” Nihlus added. There was something almost gentle and paternal in how he looked at the remains of Ishimura. “For every force in the universe, there is always something stronger. Trust me,” he said, noticing the look of betrayed disbelief on Baelic’s face, “this was a mercy. The mercy of nothingness. True gift that we were meant to carry.” He drew almost absent-minded.

              Another chunk of flesh fell off Nihlus, then another. The giant’s arms and legs flailed as unmentionable liquids and foul-smelling gases vented from him.

              “Pity I could only spare a few minutes for you, brother,” gurgled the rapidly dissolving apparition that until moments ago looked like Nihlus. “I trust you will make the right decision. Surrender yourself into Mardakai’s and Caillou’s custody,” remnants of the bubbling flesh and bone pointed at two of the Terminators, “and your transgression may be…”

              The words trailed off into some unintelligible gurgle as false Nihlus’ head lost all coherence. Where the apparition stood only moments ago, only a pile of foul, unrecognizable meat remained.

              For a second, Baelic stood immobile, crestfallen, unable to believe that all his plans were laid to ruin in mere seconds. He looked at his two surviving warriors, then at the Iconoclasts, then at the others who wore the colors of the Warblades.

              The first shot hit him straight in the chest before he could even say a word.

              Comment


              • #22
                TWENTY

                Five Against One
                Hydra Protocol
                Red Rage Descends

                The Star Chamber exploded into a whirlwind of fire and movement. A burst of rounds connected with Poseidon's war-plate, failing to penetrate it but ricocheting everywhere, each bolt exploding before it had a chance to penetrate. The Iconoclast Terminators filled the space with the discharge of their own weapons even as five power-armored Marines in the colors of the Eleventh Legion launched themselves at Baelic.

                Severus barely dodged a volley of storm bolter shells, weaving this way and next to stay out of the Iconoclasts' targeting reticules. His own return fire did little against monstrously mutated warriors, blowing off fetishes and disturbingly organic growths from the surface of their armor but failing to penetrate.

                There were seven Terminators bearing the mark of Nihlus and his otherworldly patrons. Something about it tugged at Severus as ominous, even if he could not place what it was.

                Without cover worthy of a name, the Warblade had to rely on his speed and survival instincts, hoping that they would be enough to see him through. He could not afford to spare a glance at his Primarch, concerned as he was with his own survival, but he did see Baelic fight before. Why would anyone think that bringing only seven Terminators and five power-armored Legionaries to fight a Primarch was a good idea?

                Witches.

                A flash of green lightning connected one of Iconoclast Terminators to Poseidon, soon joined by an identical flash from another. As the Clan-Master of Turog attempted to saturate the space with as much storm bolter fire as he could, sickly electrical-looking discharge coarsed through his armor and decorations. Poseidon's movements became labored, as if he was struggling to resist whatever strange force the sons of Nihlus had summoned.

                Severus fired a snap shot from his bolter, careless of his personal safety but hoping that he could somehow get the enemy psyker's attention instead. The mass-reactive shell detonated against an eye lens, absorbed by the energy field but still rocking the enormous mutant warrior. The Iconoclast ceased his psychic assault, turning to Severus instead.

                “We have met before,” the warrior half-hissed, half-gurgled as he made an obscene-looking gesture at Severus. “And I thought that you could have been such a good little recruit.”

                The name Nihlus mentioned sounded familiar. Caillou – the Iconoclast Shaman who accompanied Team Mauve as they watched the Iconoclasts earn their name of Punching Bags. It seemed so long ago that it might as well have happened to a different man, in a different time when not all traces of innocence were lost for good. Who was the punching bag, now, Severus wondered, loosing another volley at the psyker with little apparent effect.

                “Do not fight it, cousin,” Caillou intoned, waving off the other Iconoclasts as he fully concentrated on Severus. Each word was punctuated by raspy pauses, as if the Terminator was catching a wheezing breath in between syllables. He sounded impossibly old, impossibly tired, as if the very act of existence was a chore to him. “Many of your brothers have already felt Grandfather's touch. It will only hurt at first. You will thank me for it later.”

                Severus fired a widely dispersed magazine in the general direction of the Iconoclasts, who resumed their attack on Poseidon. At least, the Warblade thought grimly, it seemed to have given the old Clan-Master a fighting chance. Out of the corner of his eye, Severus saw the senior officer charge into a hopelessly brave, hopelessly suicidal combat with six Iconoclast Terminators, swinging a power sword with one hand and firing off single shots from his storm bolter with the other. Futile as the effort might have been, Severus thought, at least the old man was going to go down fighting.

                “To hell with you,” shouted Severus at Caillou, readying himself for another sidewards lunge. He imagined the Iconoclast's discolored face under the rotting helmet and hoped that he would at least make the bastard work for it.

                * * *

                Five Iron Locusts came at Baelic as five weapons guided by a single, masterful hand. It was impossible to tell where one combat stanza ended and another began; for all that no single Space Marine was a match for a Primarch, the five warriors compensated for the lack of genetic gifts by perfect, impossibly precise coordination and techniques that no Legionary should have been able to replicate.

                There was no more need for deception; their disguise served its purpose and was now discarded, same as every other false identity they took when their mission required it. Their bond was closer than that of brothers, closer than that of identical twins, closer even than of mind-linked cyborgs of the Mechanicum or robots of Legio Cybernetica. For all intents and purposes, they were a single soul in five bodies fine-tuned to murder one of the galaxy's greatest fighters.

                Kingsbane and Brightheart flashed in elaborate patterns, barely keeping up with five assailants. As one concluded his attack, another stepped in before Baelic had a chance to exploit an opening. The speed of their movements was breathtaking, faster than any Space Marine had a right to be. While their strength was no match for the Primarch's own, the Locusts moved deftly out of the way of Baelic's often clumsy swings, forcing the Eleventh Primarch to stay on the defensive.

                “You... don't fight... like any sons... of... mine!” Baelic spoke in a labored fashion, using all of his arena-won skill and toughness to stay alive. There was no response; while Maikhaira himself might have afforded a jest in better, simpler times, the five extensions of his will were too focused on the battle to even consider breaking concentration. They were tools, mechanisms created for the sole purpose and giving up everything that once made them unique – their personalities, their histories, their relationships with each other and the universe at large. When all traces of self were stripped away, only weapons remained.

                And what remarkable weapons were they!

                The weapon that was once Karost Hamar managed to get under Baelic's guard just enough to make a long, curving cut across the Stormlord's chest armor with its powered blade. Another, who in the happier times answered to Tucaro Brukh, used his own body to help one of his compatriots sommersault into the air, weaving a web of short, precise cuts against Baelic's unprotected head while remaining Locusts continued the barrage of attacks.

                A flurry of attacks forced Baelic back, almost making him stumble over the frozen plant. The mistake was rewarded by two Locusts cutting the back of the Primarch's knee in unison too perfect to be rehearsed. Baelic let out a groan of pain colored by shock and disbelief.

                It has been a very long time since anyone managed to actually hurt him.

                Veins tensed on Baelic's neck as his face morphed into a mask of frustration inscribed with the promises of impending violence. He was a Primarch, an undefeated champion of Laodice's arenas and one of the deadliest fighters in humanity's crusade to take back the stars. He was genetically and alchemically crafted to be superior to mere men, even to the post-human warriors that staked their species' claim on galactic dominion – and no five Legionaries, no matter how well drilled or trained, could bring him low.

                He was the Stormlord, and they were the mere mortals. And they would pay.

                He swung Kingsbane and Brightheart in two seemingly independent arcs, each forming a figure of eight that forced the Iron Locusts back. As fast and well-coordinated as they were, the Primarch was faster. One of the Space Marines was carried too far by the inertia of his movements, and Baelic's sword savaged the warrior's arm at the elbow. Unnervingly, the Iron Locust did not make a sound even as his arm barely hung by a tendon; he finished his evasive maneuver as if the wound was little more than a scratch.

                The Locusts bit back. A veritable storm of blades descended upon Baelic. Rune-inscribed power weapons attacked in millisecond intervals, forgoing much notion of defense in favor of pure attacking power. Twice more did their swords penetrate the Stormlord's defenses, each time forcing him to roar in anger. Rapidly coagulating blood started to seep through the cracks opened in Baelic's armor by the cuts.

                For all that, the Primarch did not stand idle. One more Locust spotted a gruesome wound near his chest cavity, armor and body parts intertwined like a hysterical creation of a mad sculptor working in flesh as well as in more solid materials. The helmet of another was almost shorn off on one side by a well-timed cut, and bone surfaced through the ruin of mangled flesh.

                Any other warriors, human or post-human, would have been slowed down by these injuries. The Iron Locusts seemed to be completely unaffected, as if whatever eerie affliction touched the Iconoclasts also sunk its claws into them.

                The six warriors, five almost mortal and one demi-god, danced across the ruined Star Chamber, fully occupied with their duel even as the surviving Warblades struggled to hold off the Iconoclast Terminators. Their speed was almost too much for even the post-human eyes to follow, as if their shapes wove in and out of reality in defiance of all known laws of physics. Light itself seemed to warp around their flesh and weapons, giving them an unearthly glow.

                Baelic had never fought like this. Every fight until now was a test, a way to prove his prodigious martial abilities, a chance to earn wealth, glory, or admiration of others. Even when he led his Legion at the forefront of the Great Crusade, the battles were a series of trials to accentuate his right as a great war-leader, to break the back of the enemy through feats of impossible martial valor, to make a statement that he was the equal of his older, more distinguished brothers.

                He fought to kill, to subjugate, to satisfy the urgent craving of pride that would see him second best to none. He fought to assert dominance and to lay his claim to distinction and respect.

                He never had to fight just to survive.

                Great arcs of lightning connected and separated as power weapons clashed. Parries and feints obfuscated true intention of the combatants until their stratagems played out to inconclusive outcomes. Cuts mounted by the minute on both sides, and tang of genetically modified blood hung in the thin, dry air of the Star Chamber like a gossamer mist that clouded post-human senses.

                The end came swiftly and unexpectedly. A single step, fraction of a centimeter too far, made Baelic's attack extend just a little more than was wise. The powerful stab of the Kingsbane impaled one of the Iron Locusts, rending the warrior's body in two. The momentary triumph made Baelic careless for bare fraction of a second, and he could not spin fast enough to deflect two simultaneous attacks from his flanks.

                Two swords bit into the Primarch, one just under the arm, another making a cut in the side of his neck. Baelic's momentum spun him around, causing his arms to flail. Two more swords bit into him, cutting chunks of meat out of his side. The Primarch's scream of pain war drowned in a gurgle of blood from the wound in his throat.

                Baelic fell forward, pain coursing through his body as his skin struggled to knit itself back together. Above him, four armored warriors loomed, ready to deliver the death blow, holding back as if their guiding intelligence savored the moment.

                * * *

                Micah Poseidon was old even by the standards of the Legiones Astartes. He fought just about every enemy the galaxy threw at him and lived to tell the tale, from the closing battles of Unification wars on distant Terra to the glories of the Great Crusade, first as a Captain in the Eleventh Legion, and then as the right hand of the Primarch.

                He always knew that death for him would come in battle, as was his lot as a Legionary, and accepted the inevitability of it. The likes of him were created to fight humanity's wars, and it was only reasonable to assume that some day, war would end them all.

                Because of this, he held no regrets as he charged into battle against the Iconoclasts, even if he rationally knew that he had little chance of coming out of it alive. Poseidon was no fool; as much as he trusted his combat prowess, he was but one against six, and each of his enemies was similarly armored and skilled. More than that, they had at least one psyker arraigned against him, and Poseidon learned long ago not to disregard the power of the witch. The most he could hope for was to sell his life dearly, giving his Primarch enough time to deal with the five azure-armored Legionaries before Baelic could turn his attention to the Iconoclasts.

                Severus was not even in the Clan-Master's calculations. The younger Space Marine was not a particularly tenacious fighter, or had a record that suggested greatness. At most, he would keep the other Iconoclast psyker occupied for few extra seconds.

                All that mattered was that Baelic had enough time to win his battle.

                Poseidon's sword cut a swathe through the Iconoclasts, far faster than their power fists. Even then, the Clan-Master was hampered by the very armor that made him into a veritable walking tank; while his enemies could not move very fast, he could not do much to avoid their counterattacks. He had to stay close to prevent the psyker from launching another sorcerous attack from the distance, but it left him vulnerable to the greater enemy numbers.

                The Iconoclast bolters fired single shots at him, failing to penetrate the thick war plate but forcing him to adjust for every movement. His frenzied assault bogged down against their armored flanks, forcing them back but not breaking the enemy formation.

                One cut by one cut, he felt his time draw near.

                * * *

                Corwin, Primarch of the Twentieth Legion, was an enigma even to his closest advisors and associates. Over the years, the Sovereign perfected the art of controlling his emotions, masking his thoughts and obfuscating his true intentions. To do anything but was a sign of weakness, and the lord of Lodoq Tir was anything but weak.

                There were, however, times when his carefully maintained self-control slipped, and semblance of the man inside came forth. As the Twentieth Primarch marched through the halls of the orbital platform, carrying the broken body of his gene-son like a war banner, his face exhibited pure, unadulterated rage.

                Of course, he had contingencies; he never fully trusted Baelic even when his brother came forward with an admission of guilt. Once a traitor, always a traitor, thought Corwin, rage giving him purpose and determination to continue. It was disappointing that Baelic's deception took so long to uncover. It was even more damning that the rebels used the most unwholesome of means to get at him. Truly, Iskanderos and his lot were beyond redemption.

                Originally, Corwin planned Hyrule Secundus to bleed his brothers. The battle here was never intended as a glorious last stand; he knew full well that he did not have the strength of numbers to make more than a dent in their forces. No, the true purpose of Hyrule Secundus was to keep the Warblades and the Iconoclasts pinned in one place, long enough for the Eighteenth Legion, the sons of Marvus, to deal the crushing blow after the traitor assault faltered.

                None of Corwin's own sons knew that; none could have suspected it. The Doom Reavers were notoriously difficult to get along with for all but those with the right sort of leverage. Now, Corwin realized that he made a mistake. With the change in troop disposition necessitated by directing the counterattacks only against the Iconoclasts, his current position was becoming less tenable by the minute.

                The Angel Kings and their human allies would fight and die hard, Corwin knew, but his post-human mind could calculate the likely outcome of the conflict, projecting the ship movements and incorporating new information about the traitor capabilities as he could gather from Baelic. In about an hour, the Iconoclasts would force a breach in the orbital defenses, allowing the Warblades to begin landing troops. While forty thousand Angel Kings were a formidable force, the Eighth and the Eleventh Legions could bring nearly four times as many of their own troops.

                Calculations and projections flashed through Corwin's mind, not deterred by the righteous fury at his brother's second betrayal. In a way, he was almost grateful for Baelic's treason; witnessing the Iconoclasts' unholy alliances and their frightening effect on the battlefield made the Sovereign realize that standing his ground at Hyrule Secundus could have had catastrophic consequences.

                Perhaps, somewhere, Baelic might even have been honest. Perhaps he, too, tried to get out of his chosen destiny until the last second. But Corwin did not deal in possibilities. The Twentieth Primarch was the master of facts, and the facts were sobering. Hyrule Secundus was lost.

                But the Twentieth Legion would fight again, and while the mortal serfs took their hopeless toll on the assaulting traitors, the Angel Kings would continue their long march towards their own hidden bases, their own reinforcements, and the allies who would be more trustworthy than Rogr Hemri. And then, when the final victory was won, the Twentieth Legion would join with its allies won through the battles of the civil war, and dictate its own terms to distant, uncaring Council. The terms which would not be rejected or refuted barring the Emperor's reappearance – and as a loyal, dutiful son, Corwin would only welcome that.

                Perhaps, he thought, anger giving way to cold determination and calculated detachment, Hemri might have many things to answer for then. But for now, prudence was the better part of valor, and he would not be caught fighting a futile battle that only benefited his rivals on Terra.

                As the Angel Kings stationed on the installation found their liege and surrounded him as half-bodyguards, half ceremonial entourage, Corwin's orders went out to all Twentieth Legion forces in the system.

                Coordinated fighting retreat; rendezvous at the second lines of defense. Avoid Legion casualties.

                His lips curled as he thought back to his treasonous brother, still at large on board the installation and now joined by Nihlus. Perhaps, Corwin thought, he might yet be able to deal Baelic and Nihlus one final blow even in retreat.

                “Evacuate the station, and kill everything that does not wear the Legion colors,” Corwin growled into the vox-bead, putting him on the command channel that reverberated within the helmets of every Legionary on board. “Ten minute countdown to self-destruction.”

                * * *

                The Angel Kings opened fire without warning. In one instant, the Warblades standing in wary formation by Swift Wind IV scattered, a full third of them scythed down before the rest could manage a coherent reply.

                Aratos rolled to the side, barely avoiding a hail of bolts from the Twentieth Legion's warriors. He saw Majorian and Brutus fall, but could not tell if the injuries were fatal; the squad runes in his helmet blinked on and off.

                We are being jammed, he thought in disbelief. It was not like the Angel Kings to ambush their cousins during negotiations. It went against everything he knew about the Twentieth Legion's rigid code of honor, their knightly traditions, and the culture of their homeworld. But then, what did he really know?

                A more disturbing thought nagged at him. Did something happen during the negotiations? And if so, what did it mean for Baelic, Poseidon, and Severus?

                A hand dragged him out of the way of another salvo, and Aratos gave his curt thanks to Tajan. The Kill-Leader fired one-handed at the Angel Kings, but his shots were haphazard and poorly aimed, doing little to stem the hurricane of their attacks.

                “What is happening?” Aratos shouted, breathing heavily.

                “What do you think, idiot?” retorted Tajan gruffly. “Something went pear-shaped.” A loud booming sound muffled his words; a krak grenade went off somewhere. “Time to get back to the Stormbird.”

                Even in his shell-shocked state, Aratos could not hide his disbelief. “What about the Primarch?” he asked, grabbing his own bolter two-handed and letting out a semi-automatic volley against the Angel Kings.

                “We cannot help him by dying,” Tajan said. “At this rate, we will not last long.”

                A momentary scan of the tactical situation confirmed the Kill-Leader's assessment. The crippling surprise attack laid low most of the Warblades. Those who were not instantly shredded suffered injuries, were incapacitated, or were finished off by the hangar machinery and automated defense turrets coming to life. Even the Slayers in their Cataphractii-pattern Terminator armor could not resist the weight of fire for long; while they took a toll on the Angel Kings, they were in the Twentieth Legion territory, and without their Primarch, their lack of numbers put them at a disadvantage.

                For every Angel King that fell, two more ran into the hangar from the station's barracks and mustering halls. Every Warblade that fell was irreplaceable.

                A brief burst of static on the vox-network betrayed a transmission, though Aratos could not tell who sent it or why. He got up and started to run backwards, firing off shot after shot as he went. Tajan ran by his side, providing some covering fire that seemed puny in comparison to the encroaching enemy attacks.

                Another hiss of static, this time slightly more coherent.

                Hydra protocol.

                “What was that?” Aratos yelled into the vox, raising his voice against the din of battle that even his armor's auto-senses could not fully eliminate. Just a few steps away from him, a Slayer was blown apart by concentrated volkite weapon fire. The austere banners near the hangar ceiling burned from wayward plasma discharge.

                “Hell if I know,” said Tajan in response, grunting as he took a bolt shell near stomach. The resultant explosion knocked the wind out of the Kill-Leader, and he panted like a dog trying to take a deep breath. “I hope it is something good.”

                * * *

                As the two Warblades of Kill-Team Mauve fought a desperate back-to-back retreat towards their Stormbird, the word spread across the tight-beam vox network linking the Eleventh Legion fleet together. Every Legion had contingency plans for this exact occasion, where a single burst transmission might need to be sent from hostile territory, boosted by the Stormbird's auxiliary systems to reach relay designation on a capital ship. The frequency was a closely held secret for each Legion, and was usually so esoteric as to avoid jamming or interception. Any extended communication on this channel would eventually be intercepted and the secret would be lost, but a single transmission, short word or phrase would still get through to its intended recipient.

                As the word of Hydra protocol went out, the Warblade fleet sprung into action. Engines on the Heart of Valor burned in unison with several of its sister battleships, suddenly changing course to speed past the planetary defenses and towards the point on the far side of Hyrule Secundus. Squadrons of fighters ignored their marks and raced towards the hangars of carriers and battle barges, withdrawing from dogfights and attack runs. Frigates and destroyers formed protective screens to allow the capital ships to change position and pull back from the planetary assault.

                Heavily armed assault monitors, more weapons platforms slaved to lobotomized servitor brains than true voidships, turned on their Iconoclast allies and blasted a path through the Eighth Legion lines, opening up true escape lanes for the Warblades ships. Troop carriers changed vectors and accelerated towards safer grounds, while Stormbirds and smaller Thunderhawks darted across the sky of Hyrule Secundus, avoiding orbital defenses to use gravitational assist maneuvers in an attempt to get away. In one coordinated fleet action, the ships of the Eleventh Legion left the battle to follow their own path.

                And yet, much fewer ships followed the order than Baelic could have expected. Cruisers and battle-barges continued on their preexisting trajectories, still launching volley after volley of ordnance at the defending Angel Kings. Massive battleships remained in formation with the Iconoclasts, continuing to rain down devastation at the orbital platforms.

                Other vessels turned their lances, nova cannons, and missile batteries against their own brethren attempting to get away. In a flash of light that streaked across the heaven and shook the ether, great battleship Pride of Nordafrik, which was originally gifted to the Eleventh Legion by the Adepts of Mars upon Baelic's discovery, was torn apart by its own escorts as they overloaded its void shields and launched world-destroying cyclonic torpedoes at it. The flagship of Clan Tano, the Indomitable Gladiator, was destroyed by two Clan Brear cruisers as its warp engines went critical, dragging it into the Empyrean before the captain could raise protective Geller fields.

                All across the Hyrule Secundus orbital space, chaos reigned. Any semblance of order of battle was gone, and allegiances frayed into nothingness as the ships of three Legions fought to the death.

                * * *

                Caillou loomed over Severus, distorted by psychic power and obscene mutation. The Warblade barely avoided a burst of psychic lightning which melted the floor where he stood only moments ago. Another burst of warp fire glazed Severus' right greave, making him stumble.

                “I think I will play with you, yes,” gurgled the Iconoclast psyker with visible satisfaction. “Your weak excuse for a Legion disgusts me.”

                Severus did not give his enemy satisfaction of an answer. Instead, he fired off several shots one-handed, then reached for his combat blade. The monomolecular-edged weapon was perhaps not equal to penetrating the Iconoclast's armor, but even the Terminator plate had its share of weak spots, if one knew where to look. It was a better chance, the Warblade reasoned, than to dance with the witch and only prolong the inevitable.

                The Warblade emptied his magazine into the psyker's hulking form as he charged the Iconoclast. Each shot knocked the Terminator back, but not enough to make Caillou break stride. Severus raised his blade, preparing to bring it down in a spot where the Iconoclast's brutal helmet met chest armor.

                Caillou swatted him aside with a single movement of a diseased-looking, clawed hand. The blow felt like a hammer, impossible to argue with. Severus felt ringing in his ears; a trickle of blood ran down the side of his mouth.

                “So pathetically weak,” the psyker intoned with something like pity. He walked ponderously to where Severus lay, each step a wheezing grind of machinery and slop of sloshing organic parts. The Terminator stood over him like a fleshy mountain of diseased, maggot-infested foulness. Discolored pus leaked through what seemed like pustules growing out of the ceramite. Mummified heads and barbaric fetishes hung from his belt on rusty chains.

                Something swelled within Severus, something unnatural. Was it disgust? Was it shame at his easy defeat at the hands of the Iconoclast? Within his armor, the Warblade felt cold sweat break out across his body.

                A massive foot with the beginnings of a cloven hoof growing organically out of the armor rolled Severus over, planting itself on his chest. The weight was crushing; the Warblade's armor protested, then cracked. Severus groaned, struggling frantically to stab upwards with his blade.

                He felt something familiar return, tugging at his memory. A faint afterimage imposed itself over his mind's eye; an asteroid station, a mortal fire team, hands grabbing him and pulling him back when the bodies lost all semblance of shape.

                “You are a poor excuse for a Legionary,” said Caillou. “Like father, like son.” The Iconoclast let out a cruel laugh. “No wonder the other nineteen Primarchs took him for a fool. Look at him.” A clawed hand pointed into the distance. “Look at your father. Watch him die.”

                The silent clawing within him reached a crescendo. Was the Iconoclast always tinged with infernal red like some source of magma heat burned from within? Severus felt the pulse beat a rapid rhythm within his temples – one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four as both hearts went into overdrive.

                “Look at the end of Baelic,” the Iconoclast gurgled, putting more of his weight on Severus' chest. System warnings flashed in Warblade's helmet, warning of critical damage to his armor and body.

                Severus looked. And saw.

                * * *

                As the Iron Locusts raised their blades in unison to execute the Eleventh Primarch, time itself seemed to slow around Severus. He saw every drop of foul moisture on Caillou's mutated armor; felt every desperate movement in Poseidon's struggle against six Iconoclast Terminators; instinctively saw the hand of the other in battle stances of four remaining Iron Locusts and knew that they could never have been of the Eleventh Legion. He felt the bones break and reknit together, sinews morphing in configurations that gave them instant, desperate strength and flexibility at the expense of long-term survivability.

                The combat blade struck Caillou with the speed of thought, impossibly severing the nascent hoof and throwing the Terminator off-balance. The Iconoclast howled in surprise, but before he could regain his balance, Severus was free.

                The Warblade thrust his combat blade up, opening Caillou like a ripe, rotten fruit. Innards spilled out like a tentacled mess of organs in parasitic marriage with a mess of maggots. The weapon seemed to follow the cracks and crevices in befouled Terminator plate, urged forward by the strength that far exceeded even that of a Legionary. Liquified mass of putrid gore ran down to the Star Chamber floor, losing all coherence in the process.

                The Iconoclast dissolved rather than toppled over. It was as though his armor could no longer tolerate the pretense of a physical shape, as if reality itself refused to suffer his existence. A shroud of sickly green mist hovered over the remains, buzzing with flies.

                By then, Severus was already gone.

                He was still good twenty meters away from the Iron Locusts, too far to stop them from executing Baelic. Under any other circumstances, he would have pushed himself forward as fast as he could in a futile effort to at least avenge his sire. This time, the consciousness that was once Santaros Severus of Kill-Team Mauve, Clan Turog, was gone, replaced by a being of pure killing instinct.

                This being had no name beyond a primitive, animalistic concept of self. It had no thoughts or concerns beyond the immediate urge to kill the interlopers, to destroy anything and anyone who stood in its way, its only guiding principle some vague concept of genetic loyalty. It saw the world in shades of arterial red and gore-streaked crimson, and it defined itself through death it could deal, nothing more and nothing less.

                The being threw its combat blade at the nearest Iron Locust. The weapon pierced the warrior's neck, impaling him and throwing him forward with its momentum. The Space Marine was dead before he hit the floor; but the being was not done. With wide, loping strides more suited for an apex predator than for anything human, it raced towards the would-be assassins, covering the distance in seconds.

                The Iron Locusts reacted as one. Three swords descended on Baelic, each falling from a different angle. By then, however, it was too late.

                In one sudden burst of energy, the Primarch shifted his bulk out of the assassins' way, rolling over and forcing the Locusts to move. Even wounded, Baelic was still more than a match for their diminished numbers, and the three assassins fell back – straight into the path of the crazed, homicidal creature that once was Santaros Severus.

                The Warblade fell on them like a force of violent nature. Bereft of weapons, his hands clawed at their armor, turning each digit into a fine point of pressure. This time, his primal fury was not enough.

                Even with their injuries, the Iron Locusts reacted with neither surprise nor trepidation. One of them presented an opening for Severus to attack while two others, still smarting to avoid wounded Baelic, flanked him. Two swords bit into Severus, one from each side, cutting through power armor as if it was hot butter parted by a knife.

                The Warblade let out a bestial scream. Far from being slowed down, he lunged at the nearest Iron Locust, evading the whirlwind of attacks and parries to headbutt the other Space Marine. Somewhere during this time, Severus' helmet came off, whether by design or by some strange happenstance. As he assaulted the Iron Locust, he belched out acidic venom, spraying the other warrior's helmet lenses and momentarily blinding him.

                Even as the flanking Iron Locusts continued to attack and cut pieces of Severus' armor from him, the Warblade used all of his unnatural strength to bring his target down. Frantic, flailing limbs tore plates of reinforced ceramite, struggling to get at the flesh beneath. Teeth bared, his mouth foamed with blind fury as two other enemies he ignored attempted to strike him down, careless of their comrade's impending fate.

                Their blows, aimed to sever the Warblade's head, never connected. With a mighty roar, Baelic smashed his wounded bulk into them, scar tissue forming over the grievous wounds at impossible pace.

                One Locust was smashed to a pulp by the pommel of Kingsbane, bouncing against the Star Chamber floor until coming to rest in an unnatural-looking position, while the other was decapitated by a swing of Brightheart. In an instant, the assassination team was finished.

                The last of the Locusts, struggling against crazed attacks from Severus, finally managed to push the Warblade off with his knee. The warrior was in a bad shape; his armor was dented and partially removed, and his sword was nowhere to be found. Insignia of the Eleventh Legion was covered with blood, both his enemies and his own.

                Without warning, the surviving Locust ran.

                Baelic moved to follow, but something stayed his hand. The Primarch turned around, just in time to witness the Iconoclast Terminators deal the final blow to Clan-Master Poseidon.

                The old warrior gave a good account of himself, holding the psyker and his cohorts for almost full thirty seconds before succumbing. One of the Iconoclasts was now missing an arm, while another was slumped to the ground, skewered by Poseidon's power sword and slowly bleeding out. None of the sons of Nihlus avoided damage, and all of them bore the stigmata of combat.

                This conclusion, however, was already predetermined. Before Baelic could intervene, a burst of witchfire enveloped the Warblade veteran. With his movements slowed by his numerous wounds, Poseidon could do little but watch the mutagenic energies warp his body and armor, turn it into a mesh of technological and organic elements, forcing spontaneous growths to appear and burst into halos of large, fat flies.

                The Iconoclast psyker turned his attention to Baelic before the Clan-Master's ruined body even finished convulsing. Another burst of witchfire streamed from his hands towards the Eleventh Primarch, even as storm bolters of surviving Iconoclasts opened fire. Baelic was forced to evade the overlapping fields of attack, slowed down in the critical moments to allow the corrupted Space Marines freedom to act with impunity.

                The Iconoclasts, however, did not account for Severus.

                Though bleeding from dozens of major wounds, the bestial Warblade launched himself at five remaining Terminators without a second thought. He covered the distance between them in moments, somehow avoiding the worst of their salvos and leaping at the psyker in their midst. As the Iconoclasts attempted to adjust, Baelic took advantage of the moment and attacked.

                Blood and corrupted fluids merged under the purifying swings of Kingsbane and Brightheart. Heads and limbs were separated from bodies, still cooking from the superheated energy fields or randomly jumping warp lightning. Bodies toppled over, spilling the contents of their guts into the miasmic air.

                For all their martial prowess and heavy armaments, the Iconoclasts could not move with the same coordination as the five Iron Locusts. Where the Locusts were five weapons wielded by the same hand, the Iconoclasts, though well drilled and deadly in their own right, were five warriors fighting as a squad, five sets of hands and weapons.

                Against Baelic, they paid for it.

                In less than three seconds, five Iconoclasts became piles of incoherent rot encapsulated in the remains of corroded and violated armor. Pustulent fluids smeared across the Star Chamber floor, mixing into unholy concoctions that boiled and steamed. A pestilential smell rose up into the dry, chilly air.

                Baelic got down on one knee, breathing heavily. The momentary exertion took its toll on him, taking the remainder of his superhuman strength. Now that the assailants were gone, he looked broken, vulnerable, defeated.

                One by one, he looked at his handiwork. Broken bodies that bore little semblance to anything human littered the ground. Remnants of Angel Kings, Warblades, and Iconoclasts meshed together, alongside the bodies of warriors who wore Eleventh Legion's colors, but could not have possibly been his sons.

                Then, his eyes fell on the sole survivor of the massacre, and Baelic felt a surge of fight-or-flight adrenaline remove some of the exhaustion.

                Severus was bleeding, his face a mess of bruises and cuts. The warrior's armor was torn and shredded, smeared with blood and other liquids whose origin he could not guess at. Raw meat glistened through the rents in once azure ceramite, and one arm was severed at the elbow. It was a small miracle that the Warblade still lived; a larger miracle that he was still sniffing around aggressively like a large, armored predator, not willing to give into his wounds but looking for something to kill.

                “Severus,” Baelic called, his voice a faint whisper. There seemed to be no recognition in the warrior's dull, blood-shot eyes. Still, the Warblade did not attack.

                “It is over, my son,” Baelic spoke again. The Primarch struggled to get up, using his swords to help him stand. He sheathed Brightheart and used Kingsbane, the longer of the two swords, to lean on. “Time for us to go.”

                Something flickered on Severus' face – sanity, compassion, perhaps even momentary sentience. The Warblade hunched over like a giant primate, rocking back and forth in a sedate rhythm.

                “The Legion still needs us,” said Baelic. Grief for this betrayal, for the death of his equerry and the frustration of his hopes, would come later. For now, the Primarch was only concerned with survival, which was far from certain.

                Severus looked like he was about to say something. The warrior tried to walk, then fell with a loud clang of ceramite against blood-stained metal. His fingers, previously tensed into claws, flexed and trembled, as if coming down from a combat drug high. For a second, he tried to crawl forward, all of his being directed into a simple act of moving. Then, his eyes rolled in the back of his head, and Santaros Severus, of Kill-Team Mauve and Eleventh Legion, finally, mercifully blacked out.


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                • #23
                  TWENTY ONE

                  Close Escape
                  The Face of Treason
                  Fight Another Day

                  The corridors of the nameless installation greeted Baelic with eerie calm. Sirens blared, speakers recited warnings in a language that he guessed was of Lodoq Tir, but there was conspicuous lack of armed resistance from the Angel Kings.

                  On two occasions, the Eleventh Primarch had to force his way through a makeshift barricade manned by the Twentieth Legion's human serfs, but even in his diminished state, it was of no consequence. Had he been faced with concerned Legion opposition, he would have been hard pressed to get through, but mortals presented little threat to him.

                  The prone body of Severus was slumped over one of Baelic's shoulders, leaving the Primarch one free hand to wield Kingsbane. The Stormlord's eidetic memory guided him through the winding corridors, taking him closer and closer to the hangar where the Stormbird waited. He could only hope that some Warblades yet lived, and that escape was still possible.

                  Baelic did not have to guess very hard to assume that the station was undergoing a self-destruct sequence. After all, this was what he would have done, had the roles been reversed. He focused all of his strength and mental fortitude on getting away, battering down the barricades and cutting open thick bulkhead doors with the power field of his weapon.

                  He could not afford to get distracted, to contemplate on his failure, or to consider the implications of assassination attempt. There would be time for it later, when he could ruminate on what went wrong, when he could mourn his lost sons and formulate the new course of action. It was clear that the Warblades could no longer stand by Iskanderos and his rebels. After the disaster at Hyrule Secundus, the Legion could no longer hope to rejoin the Council of Terra – at least not if that path went through Corwin. And, if Baelic knew anything about his secretive brother, it was that Corwin never forgot anything.

                  The Stormlord felt the beat of Severus' hearts through the warrior's battered armor, and hoped against all hope that the Space Marine would live. Baelic was no fool; he knew that without Severus' interference, he would not have survived an attempt on his life. As much as it hurt the Primarch's pride to admit it, for the first time in his life he was bested by an opponent he thought beneath his notice.

                  He would never make that mistake again.

                  * * *

                  The hail of gunfire died down to a trickle as Aratos and Tajan finally made their way towards the Stormbird's embarkation ramp. Most of the Warblades were dead or incapacitated, and even with the gunship's formidable firepower at their back, the Angel Kings had every advantage. No, it was not a sign of victory – the Twentieth Legion simply seemed to decide that finishing off the surviving Warblades was no longer their highest priority, and the Angel Kings started to file outwards, boarding their own transports or spreading out towards hangar exits.

                  “Running like rats, eh?” said Tajan gruffly, but the humor in his voice was forced. It did not feel right; it was not right.

                  “Unless the whole complex is about to fall apart, and we are the last to know about it,” Aratos replied, giving voice to his thoughts. He fired a speculative series of shots, hitting nothing of value. The ammunition counter on his bolter read zero; he checked his belt and found only one more magazine.

                  “Team Mauve, on me!” Tajan voxed, probably more to see who was still alive.

                  Only Velent's voice answered. “Brutus is down,” the trooper said, breathing heavily. “Majorian is gone.”

                  “Luck of the Eleventh,” hissed Aratos. “Did you frag the bastard?”

                  “The Slayers got him,” replied Velent. “I am out of power cells. If we don't get out of here soon, I will have to club these purple fops to death.”

                  Despite the situation, Aratos could not help but smile. His battle-brother found a moment's defiance even in this hopeless situation.

                  “We wait for the Primarch,” Tajan voxed back. “We leave with the Stormlord, or not at all.”

                  Out of the entire Warblade contingent, perhaps only a dozen or so warriors still lived, and most of them would require long stays in the medicae facilities before they would see battle again. Several Slayer Terminators maintained a defensive strongpoint under the Stormbird's wing, where the ship's automated heavy bolter provided a semblance of covering fire. They looked battered and ready to topple over, a far cry from indomitable warriors Aratos came to expect. He could not blame them; the Warblades did not have the numbers to survive a charge through the open space, and even with the Angel Kings retreating in disciplined, orderly manner, there was no tangible advantage for them to attack.

                  Aratos wished the old Clan-Master was here. He would have known what to do; perhaps, the Warblade thought, Poseidon would have ordered a suicidal expedition into the station's interior, hoping to retrieve Baelic or at least avenge his slaying. This uncertainty was worse than anything the Angel Kings could have done; the Primarch's order to remain in the hangar still stood, and it seemed that no one with sufficient authority to countermand it still lived.

                  The survivors of Team Mauve reconvened as the last of the Angel Kings left the hangar. Velent dragged Brutus' wounded body behind him, while looking barely capable of remaining on his own feet. Aratos and Tajan did not look any better; their armor was rent and cracked open, their power packs vented unhealthy clouds of black smoke that suggested the in-built reactors were struggling to keep up with prodigious energy demands. Their weapons were almost completely spent; even if they were to attempt a mission inside the structure, they would not have lasted very long without first resupplying from the gunship's stores.

                  They were four against the universe, as it has always been – as it shall always be.

                  * * *

                  A single figure crept through the abandoned corridors, hiding in plain sight behind the rampaging Primarch. The warrior's once-azure armor was now nearly unrecognizable, broken and battered so that only luck and sheer willpower held it together. One of his hearts long since gave out, and only his advanced post-human constitution allowed him to move at all. Every step was a universe of pain that he bore stoically, and every breath was a labored endeavor that kept him alive.

                  The sole Iron Locust who once was Varuna Singh did not let his injuries stop him. On some level, he refused to acknowledge the suffering that bound him to this mission, or any of the pained contemplations he once engaged in. The Mantis Clave was gone, but he was still alive. His mission was still incomplete. All else was secondary.

                  He ghosted in the wake of the angry demi-god, able to escape from the debacle of the Star Chamber only to follow his mark. Outright attack was out of question; with his brothers at his side, Singh could have utilized the clave's collective atma to temporarily push the warriors' abilities far beyond their individual skills, entering lara-i-moha, shared battle trance of the raksaka. Alone, and badly wounded, he was no threat to Baelic.

                  He wondered if the Eleventh Legion possessed a similar defect in their gene-seed, and the thought could have belonged to either him or the other inside of him. The single Warblade's rampage stopped the assassination attempt near the moment of its ultimate conclusion; it was not amongst the known abilities of Baelic's sons. The other filed it away for future use, as if the distance between them was inconsequential.

                  You are good, brother, but I am better.

                  Singh was certain the thought did not belong to him. With his clave-brothers gone, he felt clarity of purpose that at once excited and frightened him. It took away much of his pain, making him forget about the crippling injuries. His body was pushed beyond even its genhanced limits, but in his mind, he was almost content.

                  Whether he lived or not, it would soon be over. And then, he would be at peace.

                  * * *

                  Baelic burst through the reinforced hangar doors like a force of bloodied but unbowed nature. The Eleventh Primarch presented a sorry sight to his surviving sons. His armor was partially broken, partially discarded to allow him freedom of movement; one sword was sheathed across his back, while the other served like a crutch instead of a weapon. Bloodied and battered form of Severus hung limply on the Primarch's shoulder, head rocking back and forth with Baelic's movements.

                  Still, a ragged cheer went out from the remaining Warblades. As one, Tajan and Aratos rushed to their liege's help, lending all their remaining strength to support him. Velent, having dragged unconscious Brutus into the Stormbird's bay, now did the same for Severus. Slayers flanked the Stormlord, their weapons aimed carefully at the shadows.

                  Eight minutes and forty three seconds had passed from the moment of Corwin's order.

                  “We move,” said Baelic, voice tinged with exhaustion and despair. There was little of his old self-confidence left, as if the events in the Star Chamber sapped his very vitality. It was the sound of defeat given name and form, the rumble of foundations of one's self-concept crumbling down once and for all.

                  “But, sire...”

                  The Primarch cast a murderous glance at the Slayer who dared to break the silence. “Later,” he hissed through clenched teeth, struggling to stay on his feet even with the help of Aratos and Tajan. “Need to... get away.”

                  There were no further objections. Explanations, grief, and revenge would be matters best left for another day. For now, they had to survive.

                  * * *

                  The warrior who was once Varuna Singh made it to the hangar just in time to see the Warblades board their Stormbird. The gunship looked like it had seen better days, flanks scorched by lascannon and plasma shots, armor pocked and dented from stray bolter shells. Still, it was void-worthy, if only barely so.

                  A frustrated chittering sound came from Singh's lips. He got so close, only to watch his prey escape. The syllables were harsh, clicking, almost insect in nature – nothing human could have made them.

                  Inside his mind, the other smiled, a patient feeling of a hunter who would not be cheated of his prey. The other would not leave this escape to chance in hopes that the Angel Kings' orbital defenses would cut Baelic's thread short, or that any of countless other threats would finish the job.

                  The other, the presence which always whispered things into Singh's mind and gave him superhuman power at the price of his very humanity, wanted to finish the mission. And he knew just the right tool to do it.

                  Slowly at first, Varuna Singh felt something change, defying all known laws of physics and biology. Explosive cell growth spluttered and died, to be replaced by reknitting of muscle and bone into new, inhuman shapes. Bursts of mutation twisted his arms and legs, extensions growing out his ever-evolving skeleton. His hair and beard, matted and covered in sweat and blood, acquired a life of its own, becoming thousands of tiny, razor-sharp tentacled points.

                  The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced, and yet with it came purity. It was purity of purpose that came with the abandonment of self-preservation, of all identity. It was the end of one being and beginning of something finite, but impossibly beautiful.

                  V-var-v-var...

                  No words could describe its transcendent perfection. No more words would be needed.

                  As the Stormbird launched itself from the doomed station with mere seconds to spare, the Locust took flight.

                  * * *

                  Swift Wind IV was, by its very nature, an unremarkable craft, but it was still a Stormbird, the model designed to carry warriors of Legiones Astartes into the most dangerous of all battles and repeat that feat time and again. The first few shots from the station's defense guns barely scratched the paintwork, scoring glancing hits but failing to overcome the rugged systems with built-in redundancies and safeguards.

                  Baelic insisted in piloting the vessel himself instead of relying on the servitor pilot, and no one had the inclination to stop him. Perhaps the Primarch sought to avoid ruminating on the events which led them here; perhaps, he desperately needed something to do to keep his mind focused.

                  Other than the Primarch and unconscious Severus, eleven Warblades still lived. Only three of Kill-Team Mauve were in any sort of battle readiness, while only four of Slayers were not badly wounded and ready to lapse into Sus-an Membrane healing coma. Their armor would require weeks of ministrations by the Legion's Techmarines, and their bodies would take days or even weeks of recuperation in the apothecarion before they would be in any condition to continue the fight.

                  The Warblades were exhausted and demoralized, barely managing to retreat with their lives from where many of their comrades died. Conversation was scarce and stilted, and died altogether as the warriors reloaded their magazines from the gunship's storage, and made whatever emergency repairs they could to their armor and wargear. They were tense and ready for action, even if the enemy was no longer at their throats.

                  The Stormlord set the course for the Heart of Valor, now mid-way through executing a gravity assist maneuver to accelerate its ungainly form and reach the jump point in the outer Hyrule system. Even then, something was clearly wrong.

                  The Toreador and the Virtuous Slayer were firing broadsides at each other, while several cruisers belonging to Clans Arwak and fell in with the Iconoclast formations, assaulting the weak spot in Hyrule Secundus' orbital defenses. All across the orbital space, dead vessels bearing the Warblades' colors crashed into the defense platforms, burned up on atmospheric reentry, or floated like abandoned hulks, crewed by dead men and ghosts until merciless orbital mechanics forced them into deadly collisions.

                  Tajan was the first to give voice to his thoughts.

                  “What... is happening here?”

                  “Get me vox-channel to Farok,” commanded Baelic, mentioning the Clan-Master of Brear by name. “He should be back amongst our own brothers by now.”

                  Tajan did as he was told. Every Warblade had enough training to work the common devices in Legiones Astartes armory, and while he was no dedicated vox-operator, he knew enough to open the channel to the Brear flagship. Something did not feel right about it; he recalled that Nereus Farok was the officer who went with Nihlus and Iconoclasts after the fateful meeting between the two Primarchs.

                  The vox cracked into life, voices distorted by competing jamming equipment and massive energies unleashed in the space battle.

                  “My lord,” said Nereus Farok, voice as silky as always. Was it Tajan's imagination, or did he sound slightly raspier than before?

                  “What is the meaning of this?” demanded Baelic, raising his voice in anger. “Your ships are firing at our own men.”

                  “Sire,” the Clan-Master of Brear replied. “There were complications. We are but rooting out treason. I am sure you can understand the need for it?”

                  Baelic growled. As he scanned the sensors, another Warblade ship, vessel of Clan Tano, was destroyed, reactors going critical. The only ships in the immediate firing range were the battlecruisers of Brear.

                  “Are you blind, or simply an idiot?” the Primarch shouted into the speaker, as if Farok was somehow going to be swayed. “Hydra protocol orders. If you make it out of this one alive...”

                  “I am absolutely certain that I will, sire,” Farok interrupted with a quiet, amused laugh. “You, on the other hand, are fighting an uphill battle. It goes to reason that perhaps you should be more concerned about your own safety than about my decisions.”

                  “When I lay my eyes on you again...” raged Baelic. All color escaped from the Primarch's face as he contemplated the meaning of the officer's insolence.

                  “I don't think this will happen,” interrupted Farok again, still as calm as ever. “All I can hope for is that you die well, and with more honor than you displayed by trying to bargain with Corwin. Why...”

                  “Enough, you bastard whoreson!” Baelic's voice reverberated and echoed in the confined space, booming against the metal walls of the Stormbird. The Primarch's nose bled as some internal injury opened up again.

                  “Or what?” taunted Farok. “You will fly into one of your famous rages?” He made a tsk-tsk sound, as if chastising a misbehaving child. “How do you think it felt to be in your joke of a Legion? We were laughed at, even if none would say it to our faces. Imperium's glory boys!”

                  “Under your leadership, sire, we were weak,” the Clan-Master went on. “And we would never be respected. The rest of them, they all saw us as children with weapons. Impulsive, stupid children!” The sound on the other end of the vox made it seem like Farok spat in disgust. “You only led us into disgrace and shame.”

                  “And Nihlus, hell take him, led you to strength?” said Baelic in disbelief. “What kind of strength is this?”

                  Farok laughed. “More than you or any of the deluded fools by your side know,” he continued, every syllable a statement of arrogance and conceit. “Lord Nihlus has shown us the true powers of this universe. With them at our side, we will finally have respect!” The last word was loud, almost a shout.

                  “Luckily, enough of us saw the Eighth Legion for what it was,” said Farok. “There is strength in that. There is truth in what they preach. And you, my sire, were too weak to see it.”

                  “There, I said it!” Farok laughed in apparent self-satisfaction. “You were too weak to see the strength, and instead chose to fear it. This lack of wisdom was enough to convince many of us that you were no longer worthy of following.”

                  Baelic's face grew ashen as he replied. “Mark my words, Nereus Farok,” said the Primarch, voice trembling with rage. “I will survive this. I will get out of this battle alive, and will save what I can of my Legion. And when I do, I will come for you. I will come for every single one of you treacherous bastards. I will make rope of your intestines and hang you by it. I will poison your gene-seed and implant it in swine, so that it may never shame the human species again. I will tear you apart limb from limb, and...”

                  “Mighty fine words,” interrupted Farok, clicking his tongue in mock disapproval. “Mighty fine...”

                  He never finished the sentence. Something heavy and large slammed into the gunship from the outside, denting thick armored plates and forcing them to buckle inwards. The comm-link suddenly cut out, along with much of the Stormbird's internal lightning. Emergency lights came on just as another impact tore the gunship's flank.

                  Over the hiss of escaping air, another noise, a clicking cacophony of a thousand voices drowned out all competing sounds. And as scything talons size of grown human rent the armor open, revealing the black of space, the vision of nightmare crawled inside the gunship's bay.

                  * * *

                  The thing that pulled back the tortured metal existed in defiance of all known laws of physics and biology, an insectoid horror with too many limbs and eyes, some of which were disturbingly mammalian and others completely alien. Talons akin to those of a praying mantis forced the metal to contort and twist, acting like pincers to open the Stormbird like a tin can. Brutal mandibles chewed through the armor as if feeding.

                  But worst of all were the pieces of mangled metal and ceramite that were interspersed through the bony organic growths. At some point, the thing was a warrior of Adeptus Astartes.

                  One of the Slayers was too slow to get out of the creature's way. The talon moved with lightning speed, cutting the Warblade in half at the waist and completely ignoring the heavy Cataphractii plate. A shout of alarm went out from the survivors, and the Stormbird compartment was drowned in heavy weight of bolter fire, eerily silent in the absence of air.

                  Mass-reactive shells exploded against the monster's chitinous hide, not even pushing it back. The creature flailed, pulling more of its hideous body into the hold and spitting out some kind of slow-moving flame that stuck to every surface like ignited promethium.

                  Warblades who survived the desperate battle against the Angel Kings and lived to greet their Primarch's return died without a chance to fight back. Blades and power fists crashed against the monster, having little effect. Thin mist settled on all surfaces, residue of vaporized blood which coalesced in the interplanetary vacuum.

                  The insectoid abomination shrugged off all attacks, slithering into the hold on hundreds of tiny millipede legs. A talon impaled another Terminator, pulling the Warblade towards the slavering maw. In a matter of seconds, half of the Eleventh Legion survivors was gone.

                  Aratos watched Velent die while attempting to fire off a lascannon shot, consumed by the liquid sorcerous fire that crept through the Stormbird’s hold. It seemed to possess some kind of strange sentience, unaffected by the hard vacuum and extremes of temperature, jumping from bench to bench and from body to body. A lightning claw-armed Terminator was next, struggling in vain against the razor-sharp talon that broke the powered blades, then, in a series of rapid strokes too fast for eye to follow, hollowed out the warrior’s head.

                  Tajan attempted to flank the beast, armed with a plasma pistol and a chainsword. A shot of superheated energy enveloped the monster’s side, burning off tiny legs and making molten chitin run down to the floor. Emboldened by success, the Kill-Leader did not react in time to avoid a sweeping movement of the abomination’s body, which sent him flying against the far wall.

                  The Stormbird’s artificial gravity gave out seconds later.

                  Bodies and objects, no longer held to the floor, shifted with every spluttering burst from the gunship’s tortured engines. Every piece of debris and micrometeorite that hit the ship forced its innards to move. The environment became even more chaotic as the Warblades had to dodge mundane objects in addition to fending off their monstrous attacker, their mobility limited by magnetic clamps in their armored boots.

                  Aratos fired a volley of bolts on full automatic, hoping to hit something vital. A series of explosions against the thick carapace made the abomination take notice of him. The creature withdrew its talons from the corpse of Slayer it rent into pieces. The monster’s bulk coiled like a snake, crushing the dead and the wounded under its mass.

                  Only now did Aratos appreciate the enormity of the thing poised to strike him down.

                  A Legion-pattern Stormbird was designed to carry at least fifty Space Marines into battle, along with supporting equipment, gear, ammunition, and emergency facilities to tend the wounded. The creature which lifted its disgusting head, rearing above Aratos, filled at least half of the gunship’s hold, its mandibles scraping the mangled ceiling. Somehow, the millipede legs pierced the metal floor, holding the monster in place despite the lack of gravity.

                  The head tilted, ready for the final strike to finish him off, but never descended. Backing off in vain attempt to buy himself more space, Aratos gaped in awe at the sight of his savior.

                  Baelic was a warrior-god reborn, leaping on the creature’s back and burying both of his swords in its mutated hide. The Eleventh Primarch’s bare head was covered with frost, and a splattering of powder of frozen moisture and air turned his hair winter-white. Despite himself, Aratos could not help but be amazed at seeing his liege fight in conditions that no living being had any right to thrive in.

                  The Stormlord roared, and on some level, Aratos could hear it resonate despite the lack of air. Two blades carved chunks of the monster’s flesh, making it bleed a stream of miniature insectoid horrors. The creature flailed about, head crashing down in an attempt to dislodge Baelic from its back.

                  With the moment’s reprieve, Aratos could finally assess the situation.

                  Dismembered parts of the Slayer elite floated through the weightlessness, colliding with the walls and floor. A badly wounded Terminator struggled to crawl towards an abandoned sword even as his armor seized, immobilizing him. Comatose Tajan floated in the corner, his movements restricted by the remains of chairs that once held warriors ready to do battle. Behind the sealed wall of the makeshift apothecarion, Aratos imagined prone bodies of Brutus and Severus, restrained by magnetic clamps from the worst of the fighting, unaware of their brothers’ plight.

                  As far as he was concerned, Aratos was the only one standing.

                  Still, he was a Space Marine, and no matter what, he would not let the odds deter him. His Primarch was watching; the enormity of the enemy was no excuse.

                  Bolter blazing and combat blade extended, Morgan Aratos charged into battle in support of his Primarch.

                  * * *

                  As Baelic attempted to turn the tide of battle, his mind was uneasy. The act of fighting through his many injuries kept the worst of his doubts away, but even the life-or-death struggle could not make them completely disappear.

                  He gritted his teeth, struggling to remain on the back of the monster. His superhuman constitution made him brush off hard vacuum and extremes of the void, but even he could not ignore the effects of his wounds – both those inflicted on his body, and the insidious, creeping sensation of self-doubt.

                  The swords cut through a swarm of bugs and beetles that made up the monster’s blood, only to force the creature to convulse. The abomination tried rolling to the side, pressing Baelic against the Stormbird compartment wall. It took the Primarch all his strength to push back with his legs, desperately trying to avoid being crushed.

                  At this close range, Baelic resorted to pummeling the creature with his fists. He put every bit of his rage, every moment of his frustration, every indignity he suffered from the betrayals and the manipulations of others into his attacks. Chitin that could not be penetrated by power fists and bolt shells began to crack.

                  Baelic saw Aratos’ suicidal charge, and felt something of a momentary pride in the defiance of his gene-son. It was tempered with the knowledge that Baelic’s own decisions, his own mistakes led them all to this. Even if he did win the battle at hand, much of the Legion was already lost. How many more would be lost on the bonfire of the Primarch’s vanity and desire for respect?

                  The Stormlord risked a gesture towards the Stormbird’s cabin, hoping that if anything, the surviving Space Marine would understand. This battle was Baelic’s own; he would not see any more of his sons fall because of his own folly.

                  Still, Aratos came at the insectoid monster, blade bouncing off thick hide. A sideward swipe of the creature’s talons almost split the Warblade in two, cutting deep gashes across his abdomen.

                  “Go!” Baelic screamed, not caring that he could not be heard in the absence of air. Droplets of moisture and air instantly froze, settling like thin, gossamer mist across the back of the flailing monster.

                  This time, the Warblade understood. Aratos lunged past the abomination and towards the Stormbird’s cabin, where mindless servitors maintained the gunship’s last course. Without a pilot at controls, they would continue to do so, caring little that it would take the ship into the most dangerous of confines, or that it would carelessly burn up in Hyrule Secundus’ atmosphere. Baelic afforded himself a sad smile. At least, he thought, with a live pilot, the ship had a chance to return to the Heart of Valor, providing the Legion flagship survived the orbital carnage.

                  The monster slammed him against the ceiling, forcing Baelic to exert all of his remaining energy to merely survive. In response, the Primarch forced his blades deeper, hoping that the exquisite craftsmanship of his weapons would do what the other Warblades failed.

                  The creature shrieked. At some level, Baelic was aware that he could not be physically hearing it, but the sensation was impressive nevertheless. The giant insect rolled over, exposing the segmented lower body and forcing Baelic to jump off lest he be crushed by the creature’s bulk. Armor and severed body parts, frozen hard as rock, flew at him, almost knocking him over.

                  He grabbed Kingsbane with both hands, having abandoned Brightheart in the monster’s body, and stood in a disciplined fighter’s stance. The monster reared over him, talons blocking any sword thrusts at the creature’s underbelly. Malign sentience shone through its misshapen eyes, gleaming with satisfaction and – recognition.

                  I know you, thought Baelic, watching his adversary intently and studying it for weaknesses. You are the punishment for my sins. The judgment for making the wrong decision.

                  Hundreds of chitinous feet rapped a beat against the ravaged floor of the Stormbird. Baelic felt the vibrations mix with the uneven roar of the gunship’s engines, like a cascading waterfall, or like a swarm of some hideous, ravenous life forms.

                  The monster lunged without warning. Baelic could barely parry the talons with sideward movement, the sword’s energy field failing to cut through the mutated bone. At the same instant, the creature twisted, bringing one of its sides against the Eleventh Primarch with countless needle-like millipede legs serving as spear points. Baelic felt hot, stinging pain as the sharp points enveloped his legs.

                  He brought down the sword against the insectoid limbs, swinging it with the speed born of desperation. Exoskeleton cracked and parted. Baelic twisted frantically as the monster’s body coiled around him, struggling to bring him into its unmerciful embrace.

                  Like a giant of myth exerting every little bit of his prodigious strength to overcome his monstrous adversary, Baelic forced the coils apart, centimeter by centimeter. Exoskeleton plates ground against each other, and black bile spewed forth from the creature’s wounds along with hundreds of scratching, biting bugs. Veins stood out on the Primarch’s face and neck like thread of minerals beneath the frost-covered marble.

                  A scything talon came down on his shoulder, drawing bright red vitae but unable to push further. Baelic redoubled his efforts, squirming and kicking to free himself even as remaining insectoid legs pierced meat and muscle. Kingsbane glowed brightly, still clenched in Baelic’s fist, as the built-in energy field generator reached a fever pitch.

                  You will not bring me down, thought the Stormlord, every word accentuated by kicks and punches against the creature. The battle became a distraction, an escape from his own thoughts and guilt, for only in war was Baelic truly in his element. Only here he could be what he was intended for – not a politician, not a glory seeker, not a general, but a warrior fighting against the personification of true evil.

                  He tried to be all those other things and failed. And, a sobering thought came even as he almost succeeded in freeing himself from the abomination’s grip, he would have to be those things again if his Legion were to survive.

                  Baelic finally freed up enough space to leap upwards and out of the creature’s coils. Some kind of dull pain coursed through his chest; some bones were probably broken. Evaporated blood left dust-like residue on his skin, boiling into the vacuum. He felt tired and silently gasping for air; even one of his kind could not fight here indefinitely.

                  The giant insect withdrew backwards, readying itself for an all-or-nothing charge, back against the wide open wound in the side of the Stormbird. The creature was battered, with many of its legs gone and massive rents in its exoskeleton revealing foul meat beneath. Two mantis-like talons rose up, almost like an invitation to a fencing match. The chattering of millipede feet rapped a rhythm that almost formed into syllables, words that were felt rather than heard. Words that mocked and insulted through their very existence.

                  I am better, brother.

                  It was all too clear to him now. Baelic thought of five Legionaries who almost brought him low, fighting in a style he did not recognize, fighting in unison that was impossible to achieve through any means he knew. No warriors of Legiones Astartes, no matter how well trained, should have been able to match him – but there were nineteen other beings in the galaxy who could have used them as tools, as weapons to force a contest with no risk to themselves.

                  And there was only one amongst Baelic’s brothers who could have stooped to something this low, a secretive mind who reveled in delivering the final blow with the spite of one who wanted, no, craved to have the last word.

                  Maikhaira.

                  The name came unbidden to Baelic, though he could hardly reconcile his proud, if secretive, brother with the monstrosity before him. What kind of deals did you make for this, brother, Baelic wondered in disgust and rage. What did you sacrifice?

                  Was anything in the universe still worth fighting for, when this was the future?

                  “No!” roared the Eleventh Primarch, a wordless scream that wasted valuable air and energy as he put every remaining bit of his strength and hate into a blind, desperate charge.

                  Before the talons came down, Baelic slammed into the creature’s body with the force of a cannon ball. Curved chitinous blades beat against the Primarch’s back, cutting deep gouges into the armor, but failing to stop him.

                  The force of the attack pushed both combatants out of the hold. Frantically, Baelic grabbed on to a piece of twisted metal, clutching it with all of his inhuman strength. The monster dug its talons deeper into the Primarch’s flesh, cutting through armor, skin, and bone.

                  Doors of the apothecarion rolled open.

                  A single armored Space Marine stood there, clad in barely functioning armor still bearing the Eleventh Legion’s colors. Bolter sights pointed at the insectoid abomination, withdrawing when it became clear that he could not get a clean shot.

                  For a second, his eyes connected with Baelic’s. The warrior made a motion to run towards his liege as fast as his battered body would allow. Mismatched helmet, seemingly made for someone larger, was a grinning death mask that did not hide his identity. Severus, the warrior whose sudden but timely descent into fury saved his Primarch in the Star Chamber.

                  This is what my sons will become, Baelic thought. Those who remained faithful until the end. Battered, broken, clinging on to the last semblance of normality in a galaxy that knows none.

                  The monster flailed wildly in the hard vacuum outside the gunship. Whatever strange energies animated it let it survive the beating that no natural creature should have lived through. Mandibles bit into Baelic’s back as the Primarch twisted, struggling to hold on as metal deformed under his grip.

                  This will never be truly over, thought the Stormlord. The name of Warblades will be cursed along those of our enemies. They will look to me for ideals and guidance, and find that I have none.

                  The talons tensed, ripping out meat and bone. Baelic’s face turned ashen pale under the covering of frozen air. The abomination clinging on to his back dug deeper, now inseparable from the Eleventh Primarch.

                  Is this the galaxy I want to live in?

                  As the wounded Warblade attempted to reach the Primarch in time, Baelic’s fingers slipped.

                  * * *

                  In the ruined passenger hold of the wounded Stormbird, Severus watched his father die.

                  The Red Dream still had its lingering hold on him, pushed back by the residue of his blind rage waking him from temporary coma. Every part of his body hurt as a menagerie of broken bones, bruises, and wounds of various severity conspired to make every step painful. The weapon he borrowed from the gun rack was unfamiliar, struggling to interface with the armor’s internal systems. His helmet, probably a spare kept for warriors who lost theirs in combat, did not fit well, and targeting reticules and readouts before his eyes were a jumbled mess. The vox-network was down, and he did not know who, if anyone, still lived on the Stormbird.

                  But he could still fight. He would still fight – if there was anything to fight.

                  He felt morbid clarity descend over him, as if whatever quirk of fate forced him to wake was also cruel enough to give him the presence of mind to comprehend what he was seeing. As Severus watched, Baelic and the insectoid monstrosity floated away into space, forever frozen in a deadly embrace that soon turned into a dot, a speck, then was gone.

                  Luck of the Eleventh. The phrase now held a different meaning to him.

                  For a long, unblinking minute, Severus stood in silence, holding on to the wall and looking out of the damaged gunship to catch a glimpse of his Primarch. Then, step by torturous step, he made his way across the carnage-strewn floor, avoiding floating debris as he tried to get to the pilot’s cabin.

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                  • #24
                    TWENTY TWO

                    Heart of Valor
                    Strength and Respect
                    Broken Blades

                    If the gunship was in combat-ready shape and still had functioning sensor arrays, if Baelic wore his full combat armor incorporating his locator beacon – there might have been a way to find him, to attempt a rescue even if the remaining Warblades perished in the attempt. If there was a chance, perhaps even a glimmer of one, that they could find a single speck of life across the uncaring stars, they would have given everything for it.

                    But it was not to be. Both Baelic and his monstrous adversary were gone, vanished into the void above Hyrule Secundus, never to be seen again.

                    By the time the ruined Stormbird made it to the similarly devastated Heart of Valor, thousands of kilometers separated it from the last sighting of the Eleventh Primarch. Even desperate attempts to circle the site of Baelic’s last battle yielded no results for Aratos, who had to rely on his sight and instincts in the absence of fully functioning sensor suite.

                    Six Warblades survived the last flight of Swift Wind IV. Only two of them could walk when the Stormbird finally docked with the Legion’s flagship, mere minutes before it reached the Warp transit point and disappeared into another reality.

                    Of Kill-Team Mauve, only Aratos, Severus, Tajan, and Brutus lived, the latter two still in the healing confines of Sus-an Membrane-induced coma. Two more Slayers made it back to the Heart of Valor alive, although even their rugged Legionary physiology could not guarantee long-term survival outside of mechanized Dreadnought chassis.

                    Of Baelic, there was neither word nor sign.

                    * * *

                    Nereus Farok knelt in front of the altar, outwardly calm but barely capable of containing his excitement. Around him, hundreds of his warriors did the same, each anointed with ritual oils and wearing robes of supplication.

                    The moment was almost at hand.

                    They were no longer Warblades, the legacy of their gene-father discarded like a shameful reminder of weakness. They would never be looked down on again, never be mocked behind closed doors as the glory-seeking sons of an immature, foolish father.

                    Iskanderos, through his ally Nihlus, had shown them strength. He gave them a way out, in exchange for their allegiance. He gave them a chance to become weapons they were always meant to be, true blades of vengeance and scions of a far worthier cause. Humanity itself would tremble as they rampage across the stars, Farok thought, suppressing a smug smile. Now, the wayward sons of Baelic would accept their just reward for choosing the right side.

                    He felt unspeakable energies strengthen, becoming more and more intense as psykers hidden in the shadows beyond the altars, brought by the Iconoclast Shamans, started to chant. Even Nihlus was only an emissary of one power of the Empyrean. With this action, Farok and his men would be forever bound to all of them, becoming so much more than mere Legionaries of Adeptus Astartes.

                    No, thought Farok, all thoughts of modesty aside. With the power of the Warp coursing through their very bodies, they would become gods.

                    Strength and respect. Those were things worthy of the divine. Those were things worthy of Nereus Farok and the men who would no longer obey a weak master. Only one was strong enough to command their allegiance, and he would have it.

                    But this transformed warband needed another thing, a symbol, a name. Warblades were a Legion too obsessed with their childish games and dazzling endeavors. They were not soldiers, even if sometimes they made for a good impression of such.

                    The reborn Legion needed a new identity, a new name, the one that would strike fear into the hearts of all who faced them. The reborn Legion would be strong, stronger than any of their brothers, even if it took the sacrifice of their very souls to do it. The reborn Legion would be anointed in the blood of their own brothers, because it did what it had to do, so that none would challenge its pure, undiluted strength.

                    The chanting reached a fever pitch. Lights on the altars went out, replaced by unearthly glow emanating from everywhere and nowhere at once. The hair at the back of Farok’s neck stood upright as static electricity arced around him.

                    As he felt the Empyrean enter his body, changing him, twisting his innards and filling him with unholy, blasphemous, real strength, Nereus Farok knew that the Warblades were no longer. The name that emerged from his mutated throat, howled to the darkness as a testament to his triumph, was the sign of his final commitment, body and soul.

                    From now on, they were the Abyssals.

                    * * *

                    Clad in a set of robes better suited to an apothecarion patient, Aratos sat in the quarters assigned to him by the ship’s quartermaster. There were many empty cells aboard the Heart of Valor in the wake of the battle. There would be many more before the war was over.

                    “Did you know that they put Halar into a Dreadnought?” he finally broke silence, facing the only other person present.

                    Severus was a mess of scar tissue and bandages. One eye was still swollen, while the other blazed angry red of a bionic replacement. The warrior’s hair was shorn close around the cranial plate bolted onto his skull, where he sustained structural bone damage during the battle in the Star Chamber.

                    “So I hear,” he finally replied, shaking his head slowly. Each movement beyond a narrow range of motion was painful, and at times he felt like an infirm mortal rather than a Legionary of the Adeptus Astartes.

                    For a second, two warriors were silent. Conversation did not come easy in the wake of their narrow escape.

                    The last accounting of the Eleventh Legion before their escape to the Warp painted a chilling picture. Over half of the Warblades’ fleet sided with the Iconoclasts. Of those who chose to follow Baelic’s last order, barely tenth of their strength remained, most of whom were wounded in internecine combat or decimated in desperate boarding actions.

                    “Who is in charge now, anyway?” Severus finally broke the silence. With the death of Clan-Master Poseidon, no officers of that rank remained on board the Heart of Valor. In fact, the Warblade would not have been surprised if one of squad leaders attempted to claim the mantle of command.

                    Aratos shrugged. “You know it as well as I do,” he said without much confidence. “For now, we follow the Primarch’s orders. Hopefully when we rendezvous with the rest of the fleet, someone will come forward.”

                    “Unless, we fly straight into an ambush,” suggested Severus. “Farok’s men know where we are going, too.”

                    “Then they know more than we do,” laughed Aratos bitterly. “No one bothered to tell me.”

                    Severus walked closer, putting a reassuring hand on his battle-brother’s shoulder. “Perhaps Lord Baelic knew something we do not. All we can do is trust his judgment.”

                    He closed his eyes for a moment, replaying the events on board the Stormbird. Was it his imagination, or did he see the lack of fight in Baelic’s eyes, desperation and surrender? Was it even possible?

                    Steel crept into Severus’ voice as he banished the thought. “If there is one thing that we can trust, it is our father’s judgment.”

                    THE END

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